Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Greenstreet/Lorre: The Verdict (1946)

We’ve come to the end of June, with five films starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s this – the whole of the Greenstreet/Lorre partnership is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Aside from The Maltese Falcon (and excepting Casablanca, in which they share no scenes), it’s safe to say that Lorre and Greenstreet cement their reputations in spite of, not because of, the films they headlined together. When you think of these two, you’ll sooner think of the net effect of their personae than of any one film of theirs. Case in point: The Verdict, which is neither very engaging nor is it generous toward its stars, who more often than not seem bored with the whole affair.

Sydney Greenstreet stars as George Edward Grodman, late of Scotland Yard but dismissed when an innocent man is hanged after his alibi arrives too late for the courts. Grodman slinks into ignominious retirement across the street from his best friend, the artist Victor Emmric (Peter Lorre). But when a locked-door murder mystery confounds Grodman’s replacement (George Coulouris), Grodman and Emmric find the opportunity to clear the former superintendent’s name while putting the new inspector in his place.


Locked-door mysteries are always a treat, and I will say that the solution in The Verdict is ingenious – inherently unsolvable, yes, but a clever trick. It’s a bit of a cheat on the audience (who may or may not predict the ending simply by random supposition among the suspects), but without spoiling I’ll say that The Verdict did keep me guessing until the mystery was solved, as Aristotle would want it, in a manner that was both surprising and inevitable. But it’s that surprise element that nags at me, leading me to believe that the film’s relative disinterest in follow-along sleuthing might better position The Verdict as Victorian noir rather than as a Victorian detective story. Poirot, this ain’t.


Greenstreet’s Grodman is the quintessential down-on-his-luck gumshoe, aiming to clear his name by solving One Last Case. The Verdict is very nearly worth the price of admission for Greenstreet’s sideburns, which are almost as large as he is. But something in Greenstreet’s performance seems lackadaisical, not quite sleepwalking but certainly drowsy and a bit disinterested. There’s something of that attitude intrinsic to the character, who is worn out and loathing retirement; like some aspiring writers, he dreads the prospect of composing and of finishing his book. However, that ennui doesn’t quite connect with the audience in the way of, say, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. More often than not, Greensteet seems only to need a nap.


Lorre, too, plays a bit more droopy-eyed than usual. Compared to his more dynamic writer in The Mask of Dimitrios, this artist seems disaffected, animated only by the prospect of helping his friend get revenge of a sort on the man who edged him out of Scotland Yard. Though he is an artist by trade, he too spends little time on his craft, apparently welcoming the distraction. Lorre’s best scene is one of the last in the film, in which it appears he’s about to confess to the film’s central murder. He doesn’t, alas, one of the film’s many red herrings, but Lorre sells the very intimation of a confession with his guilty behavior and stooped posture. When he tells Grodman how tired he is, you don’t just believe him – you feel it. 


What I didn’t feel during the film, however, was captivated. I found myself wishing I were watching The Maltese Falcon instead, reminding myself of just how fully good Lorre and Greenstreet could be. Often the still images of the pair are fodder for my wild imagination, while the films themselves never quite live up to the productions in my own head. I suppose that’s partially my fault, especially since Peter Lorre is my all-time favorite actor; having seen how good he can be, I tend to imagine that his vehicles are always as engaging as, say, Arsenic and Old Lace or Mad Love. Similarly, Greenstreet can make a meal of a monologue, but it seems that the five films this month were content simply to rest on his reputation without giving him much opportunity to spread his ample wings and do something astonishing.


Theirs was an archetypal camaraderie, a Laurel & Hardy for the graveyard crowd. It’s sublimely grotesque when Greenstreet supervises the exhumation of a corpse in The Verdict, with Lorre peering over his shoulder to declare, “I have always had a suppressed desire to see a grave opened... especially at night.” It’s a line so creepy that you might expect it to have come from a Lorre impersonator, but to their credit Lorre and Greenstreet always knew their lanes, never afraid to play to their strengths and embrace the risk of caricature. Indeed, their cameo in Hollywood Canteen, a brief sequence in which they play themselves, is unmissable for its laser-focused blend of menace and mischief. Sometimes, just the idea of them is enough.


It’s certainly been enough to get me through this month. Even though the films themselves may not be classics, it’s impossible to imagine any fan of either actor not seeking these flicks out at one point or another. At an impressionable age, I pored over The Films of Peter Lorre with obsessive devotion, repeatedly renting it from the library to the point that I’m surprised the librarians didn’t just give me the book. I knew these two actors were capable of greatness, and we’ve proven as much over the past five weeks. But I also imagined what it would be like to see more great films with Lorre and Greenstreet. After this month, I suppose I’m still imagining.


The Verdict is not rated. Directed by Don Siegel. Written by Peter Milne. Based on the novel The Big Bow Mystery by Israel Zangwill. Starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Joan Lorring, George Coulouris, and Rosalind Ivan.

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