When it comes to crime films, powerful, impactful titles are essential. Think Kiss Me Deadly, Chinatown, Touch of Evil, Criss-Cross. A bland, misleading, or just plain cheesy, movie title can confuse or alienate potential viewers and relegate otherwise solid thrillers to virtual obscurity.
Imagine how different history might have been had RKO Radio Pictures released a 1949 couple-on-the-run thriller from Nicholas Ray called Your Red Wagon – instead of changing the title to the infinitely superior They Live by Night. Then imagine how Ray’s flashy 1958 Jazz Age thriller Party Girl might have benefitted from a grittier title that made it appear less like an Allied Artists “C” entry toplining Mamie Van Doren.
Sometimes a thriller with a mediocre title has the misfortune on being based on a best-selling novel. This was certainly the case with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945), which sounds like a Red Skelton/June Allyson comedy rather than a dark film noir adapted from a James M. Cain novel about an adulterous couple (John Garfield and Lana Turner) plotting the murder of the woman’s husband.
Another hit novel filmed the same year, Leave Her to Heaven, could also have used a title change. Uninformed viewers can be forgiven for suspecting this Technicolor 20th Century-Fox movie to be a Bette Grable/Don Ameche musical rather than a color noir about a female psychopath (Gene Tierney) going to murderous lengths to control her husband (Cornel Wilde).
Director Robert Montgomery and producer Joan Harrison’s 1947 film noir Ride the Pink Horse (based on a less popular novel) has a title better suited to an Abbott and Costello comedy rather than a thriller about a blackmailer (Montgomery) loose in Mexico. Similarly, Fritz Lang’s third Hollywood film You and Me (1938) sounds like a gooey romance instead of a crime comedy-drama about two ex-convicts (George Raft and Sylvia Sidney) on parole.
International crime thrillers have also suffered from lackluster titles, sometimes due to loyalty to their literary sources. Upon encountering the 1948 British release No Orchids for Miss Blandish one expects a comedy of manners starring Alistair Sim and Joan Greenwood, not a tough, seedy gangster potboiler. (Robert Aldrich must have had the same concerns since he retitled his 1971 remake The Grissom Gang.)
Although I had been aware of Bryan Forbes’s acclaimed 1964 British film Séance on a Wet Afternoon for ages, it was not until a belated recent viewing that I realized it was a taut psychological thriller about married kidnappers (Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley). Unfortunately, the title – again retained from the source novel – evokes images of people discussing reincarnation and the meaning of love over tea and scones.
Sometimes the literary sources have better titles than their film adaptations. In 1969, François Truffaut suffered a rare box-office failure with Mississippi Mermaid starring the otherwise bankable Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Can one blame the public? Who in their right mind would pay to see something called Mississippi Mermaid, a title that in no way suggests a Hitchcockian thriller about a couple on the run? Would the film have fared better had Truffaut retained the original title of pulp author Cornell Woolrich/William Irish’s Waltz Into Darkness?
John Sayles’s 2013 independent film Go for Sisters is a recent example of a poor title camouflaging a high-quality crime drama deserving wider viewing. The title is based solely on a fleeting line of dialogue from co-star Yolanda Ross: “We always say we could go for sisters.” This is not exactly the most compelling title for a soulful thriller about a drug addict (Ross) accompanying her parole officer (LisaGay Hamilton) to Mexico in search of a murder suspect.