Fri 8 Aug 2014
FOG OVER FRISCO. First National Pictures, 1934. Bette Davis, Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Byron, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Irving Pichel, Douglass Dumbrille, Alan Hale. Based on the novel The Five Fragments by George Dyer. Director: William Dieterle.
Sometimes a film starts off really well, with a promising plot, a stunning female lead, and an atmospheric San Francisco nightspot. There’s also a gangster, a goody two shoes stepsister, and a duped fiancé, all of whom vie for the deeply flawed protagonist’s attention. What’s not to like?
But then all of a sudden, about thirty minutes into the movie, things just quickly fall apart, leaving the movie feeling utterly rudderless. That’s the best way to describe Fog Over Frisco.
Based on a novel by George Dyer and directed by William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola), the movie stars Bette Davis as Arlene Bradford, a scheming socialite and femme fatale. She manipulates her fiancé, Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot), into a scheme involving a criminal lowlife and some stolen government securities. Her father, head of the brokerage firm where Spencer works, thinks Arlene’s rotten to the core. Her stepsister, Val (Margaret Lindsay), however, isn’t willing to give up on her.
Davis is nearly perfect for the part of the scheming Arlene, portraying the doomed protagonist as a liar, schemer, and classic manipulator. You kind of start actually liking her, even though you know she’s up to no good whatsoever. Then she disappears from the film for a few minutes, leaving you wondering where she went and where the film’s headed.
And then you get your answer. She’s been killed, leaving the film without its best character. In contrast to an extremely focused first half, the second half of Fog Over Frisco is one big muddled affair with stock footage of car chases, too many characters, and no Bette Davis. It’s fast moving, but it doesn’t go anywhere.
Who could the murderer be? Her fiancé, her sleazy gangster friend, and even her on-the-side love interest are all possible suspects, but it’s difficult to care. Somewhere along the way, the stepsister Val gets kidnapped, an intrepid newsman gets involved with the case, and it turns out Arlene had a secret husband who used to live in Los Angeles. If it sounds far too complex for a film with a running time of sixty-eight minutes, it’s because it is.
In conclusion, Fog Over Frisco starts off extremely promising, but ends feeling like just another convoluted and mediocre B-film mystery with some ridiculous plot devices thrown in to explain away a clumsy story. As far as the fog alluded to in the title, there’s a bit here and there, but really nothing to justify its usage beyond a marketing device.
All told, it’s an average, if not below average, suspense film with little to recommend it beyond Davis’s great, albeit abbreviated, performance.