Mr. Soft Touch (1949)

This one's going to be weird because I'm still trying to figure out what kind of movie I just watched. Wikipedia describes it as a noir crime, IMDB has it tagged drama and romance (in addition to crime), and until the end, I was certain I was watching a comedy (still not entirely convinced I wasn't, despite... well... we'll get to that).

I don't necessarily consider it a bad thing that this is difficult to identify, though I'm torn on whether it's a case of a complex premise or just a disjointed tone. Normally, this is where I'd go read some articles on the movie, but those don't seem to exist. So... I guess I'm just going to do my best here.

First, a word of warning. This movie contains a couple details that haven't aged well. First, there's sort of a running plot thread about spousal abuse that at times feels like it's being played for laughs. To be fair, it takes a turn and gets serious later - the movie is making a pointed argument against abuse. But in hindsight, it feels far too generous and forgiving towards abusers. The other thing I want to warn you about is that there's an extended sequence centered around the male lead telling his female costar to smile. Relatively innocent in 1949, but today it's cringe-inducing. 

Setting all that aside, the movie's pretty good. Honestly, if it had stuck the landing, I'd be calling it great. But I'm getting ahead of myself - let's talk premise and plot.

The movie opens with a car chase - and a damn good one considering when this came out - right before Christmas. Once we're caught up, we learn the movie's protagonist, Joe Miracle (played by Glenn Ford), returned from World War II to find his business partner had been murdered by mobsters and the club they owned together had been taken over. Just before the movie started, he stole a hundred thousand dollars from the club and is now on the run.

He impersonates an old friend and winds up getting taken to a settlement house (a place where volunteers help people struggling with poverty, addiction, and other problems) run by Jenny Jones (played by Evelyn Keyes). He plans on hiding out at the settlement house for a couple days, then fleeing the country. But of course he's got to hide the $100,000 and avoid the mobsters after him.

The second act is mainly Joe and Jenny bouncing off each other and eventually falling in love. We get to see Joe in action, conning various people and organizations into making donations to the settlement house. Over time, Jenny pieces together who he really is. Unfortunately, the mobsters do as well.

Eventually the mobsters get the money, and the settlement house gets destroyed in a fire. By this time Joe and Jenny are in love, but she (rightly) blames the fire on Joe's refusal to consider to think about the consequences of his actions. To make things right, he breaks back into his old club, steals the money yet again, then dresses as Santa Claus to sneak it into a Christmas Eve charity drive to rebuild. He attempts to keep his identity hidden, but Jenny realizes it's him and calls out his name, which results in him being shot in the back by waiting mobsters who run off before the police arrive. Jenny runs to Joe, who holds him. The two have an awkward conversation wrapping up a few character threads, then the movie then ends ambiguously without confirming whether he lives or dies, let alone if there will be legal consequences for any of this.

It's a baffling third act. A lighter ending would have cemented this as a comedy: aside from that moment and a few minor choices, this comes across as a pretty light-hearted affair. There are numerous comedic side characters, Joe's tricks and cons are a joy to watch, and the fact Jenny keeps inadvertently sabotaging his plans simply by virtue of not adhering to Joe's cynical philosophy for how the world works is delightful.

That's not to say the ending comes entirely out of left field. There are several scenes between the two of them that add some weight to their clashing ideologies and imply thematic significance to the whole thing. Both characters' backstories are complicated, and their desperate outlooks seem to drive both their conflict and attraction. Their relationship is intriguing.

Intriguing doesn't necessarily imply the movie works, however. There's still a missing component in the form of a meaningful point of reference. I like the characters and the way they clash, but I'm not sure it means enough to justify the lack of a satisfying resolution. This feels like a metaphor that's missing the actual metaphor. Or perhaps I'm simply failing to connect a few dots, or I'm missing some context from the era. Are they standing in for political theories that are no longer apparent? Is Joe's ambiguous death a reference to myth theory? I think I could force an interpretation tying it back to The Golden Bough, but I'm pretty sure I'd be reading too much into it.

That said, I do think there's something to the movie's holiday setting along those lines. Aside from Joe getting gunned down in a Santa suit, there wasn't much in the way of juxtaposition, which would be the other obvious reason to set a crime story during the holidays. I suppose that moment may have been shocking enough an idea at the time to warrant the filmmakers setting the whole thing at Christmas, but my guess is they had other motives. The movie is largely interested in these clashing two ideologies. The timing may have been reinforcing the idea that Joe's outlook is dying; the end of an era for that sort of self-serving mentality and the coming of an age of charity. If you want to force it into political terms, Joe is basically a libertarian who comes to realize that his outlook causes unintended harm.

But I'm not sure I buy all that. If they were really selling an "end of eras" narrative, I think the movie would have closed on New Year's Eve, rather than Christmas Eve. I think there's a kernel of an idea like that in this, but it's not entirely developed. It's very possible the confusion may relate to the fact the movie has two directors, Gordon Douglas and Henry Levin. I can't find any information about the production, but this certainly feels like a movie where the artistic vision changed halfway through filming.

Regardless, it's a solid movie, despite its limitations. The stuff that works really works: the chase at the beginning feels two decades ahead of its time, the relationship between the leads is well written and acted, and the comedy lands: this isn't at all a bad movie. But I can't quite declare it an unmitigated success due to the awkward ending.

This might be a case where a few years down the road it'll click for me, or maybe I'll just find an article or interview that fills in the missing pieces. But until then I'm going to consider this a decent enough movie that stops just short of working.