Review: Street of Chance (1942)
Amnesia is one of film noir's well-worn devices. The disorienting notion of lost identity has fueled countless stories, especially during the hard-boiled era of crime fiction and film. The quest for self has arguably never been a stronger metaphor than in the years following World War II, for clear reasons. But Street of Chance was made just before the U.S. joined the war and arrives almost at the very beginning of what we now view as the classic years of film noir, meaning that it straddles the line between eras. Because of this, and because the film uses the amnesia device so well, Street of Chance feels fresh and unique.
The picture begins with our lead (Burgess Meredith) being struck on the head by falling debris while walking down the street. When he awakes, he remembers that he's Frank Thompson, a devoted husband and career man, but when he tries to return home, the residence is empty and a neighbor tells him that his wife (Louise Platt) now lives alone on the other side of town. Even worse, there's a strange, shadowy figure tailing him wherever he goes and a mysterious woman (Claire Trevor) seems to know why. Soon Frank learns that he's been living as an entirely different person and going by a different name for over a year. Why doesn't he remember any of it, and could he really have committed murder?
The plot is adapted from a story by crime writer Cornell Woolrich, a name noir fans likely know well. The screenplay comes from Garrett Fort, who worked on the early Universal Monsters films including Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dracula's Daughter as well as The Devil-Doll at MGM and The Mark of Zorro for Fox. Directing duties are handled by Jack Hively, one of the most-respected filmmakers working at the time. He'd helmed several entries in The Saint film series and had directed over a dozen films in roughly three years.
When we think of Burgess Meredith's most iconic roles, Mickey from Rocky immediately comes to mind, as does The Penguin in the 1966 Batman television series. Die-hards may even trace him back to one of the most loved episodes of The Twilight Zone, "Time Enough At Last." But when that episode hit TV screens in 1959, Meredith had already been working in the pictures for nearly 25 years. By the time of 1942's Street of Chance--which shares its name with an earlier, unrelated Paramount film, he was already an industry veteran...but he was about to become a veteran of another sort.
In 1942, immediately following the production of this film, the U.S. entered World War II. Both Burgess Meredith and the film's director, Jack Hively, enlisted into military service to fight against Hitler and the Axis Powers. Meredith joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of Captain; his contributions were largely in the area of training and educational films, in which he occasionally appeared on camera. Meredith was discharged in 1945. Hively joined the Army Signal Corps and also directed training films for the war effort. He eventually rose to the rank of Major, serving under General MacArthur, and was discharged in 1944.
The Hollywood that both men came back to was dramatically different from the one they'd left behind in 1942. Because of this, and because of the subsequent gaps in the careers of both Burgess Meredith and Jack Hively immediately after this film, noir fans will see Street of Chance as both an ending and a beginning: it's the end of an "old Hollywood" style that had defined so many crime films, but the beginning of something even darker. Street of Chance never quite gives in to the fatalism that films from later in the noir cycle embody. And yet, it has so much of the style and atmosphere that we love.
The film seems to be one of the more obscure entries in the noir cycle. It's well worth seeking out for its unconventional twist on the amnesia plot device as well as some truly unique investigative elements--particularly one concerning an elderly mute and invalid witness (Adeline De Walt Reynolds) who saw the murder, but can't tell anyone who did it. Or can she? There's an awful lot of creativity and fun crammed into 74 minutes, even if the viewer will likely have solved the mystery long before the credits roll.
The film is included in Kino Lorber's Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema VIII. The new 2K scan looks very nice, though some scratches mar the original elements. The disc also includes an informative commentary track from professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney.
Street of Chance comes highly recommended.