Backfire (1950)

I'm working my way through the collection of "Holiday Noir" Criterion is streaming this year (God, I love that service). Like some of the other movies in this collection, the "noir" label should be taken with a grain of salt. It certainly has elements in common with noir - particularly towards the end - but the tone here is relatively light throughout, and this isn't as stylized as I generally expect from the genre. Or maybe my definition of that term is simply too restrictive - I'll defer to serious noir aficionados so long as they listen to me when I tell them films like Backfire should be recognized as legitimate Christmas movies.

Whatever labels you attach to it, this one's quite a lot of fun. It's not unique or bizarre enough to be a "must watch," but it's a pulpy, energetic mystery that throws a barrage of fun twists at you from start to finish. For a movie with an escalating body count (including at least one character you actually care about) and some pretty heavy themes around the lasting effects war has on those who come back, Backfire makes for an oddly enjoyable experience.

While this falls just short of getting a blanket recommendation from me, it's still a good mystery, so if you'd rather not have the whole thing spoiled... now's the time to hop in the nearest cab and head across town. You've been warned.

The movie opens in a veterans hospital in 1948, and we're quickly introduced to Bob, Steve, and Julie, three of the movie's main characters. Bob is recovering from a spinal injury that threatens to derail plans he and Steve made during the war of buying and operating a ranch together. Steve is really just worried about Bob, even suggesting they rethink their plan, but Bob is adamant about following through on it. Meanwhile, we get some brief references to the fact that Bob and Julie, a nurse at the hospital, have feelings for each other.

We jump ahead to Christmas Eve. Bob is still at the hospital - he'll be stuck there for ten more days. He and Julie are definitely an item (he gives her a gift, and they share a kiss). Julie gives him something to make him sleep and leaves.

While he's alone, a strange woman enters his room and tells him Steve is injured with a broken back and is contemplating suicide. Bob, barely able to stay conscious, tells her to tell Steve he'll be out in ten days. He asks the woman to write the address where Steve is staying on a pad of paper and then passes out. The woman leaves without writing anything.

Ten days later, Bob is finally getting discharged. He's been unable to convince anyone that the woman who saw him was real - even Julie insists he must have hallucinated the event - but he's afraid for his friend. Almost immediately, Bob's picked up by the police, who bring him in for questioning. They inform him that Steve is missing and suspected of being involved in the murder of a gambler.

Against their wishes, Bob begins investigating. Julie helps him and turns out to be something of a natural - she's the one who figures out the two key connections. At each step, Bob finds himself speaking with various individuals who knew Steve, and every time we're shown flashbacks shedding light on what occurred. Naturally, the events are out of order, leaving Bob - and us - to piece the story together.

After visiting Bob in the hospital, Steve ran into Ben, a mutual friend of theirs from the war who now runs a funeral home. He was offered a job but seemingly refused, not believing that kind of work was something he'd take to. Eventually, he starts working for Lou, an unseen criminal, instead - that's how he met the aforementioned gambler. He also soon met Lou's girlfriend (or more accurately the woman Lou considered his girlfriend), Lysa - this is who Bob met on Christmas Eve. Lysa and Steve fell in love with each other, and when Lou found out, he caused an "accident" which seemingly left Steve paralyzed.

The gambler was the first person Lou killed to keep this secret, but he wouldn't be the last. Over the course of Bob and Julie's investigation, Lou kills a former roommate of Lysa's, a servant he employs, and a doctor he'd paid off to tell Steve and Lysa that Steve's injury was more permanent than it was. All of this was to accomplish two goals: the first was to keep Lysa from leaving, and the second was to protect Lou's identity.

The first half stopped being an issue on Christmas Eve. When Lysa returned from speaking to Bob, she realized the accident had been faked and told Lou she was leaving him. Lou strangles her to keep this from happening, then lies to Steve and tells him she ran out on both of them - perversely, Lou likes having someone who he can talk to about Lysa.

That last part is spelled out by Lou himself, who's actually (cue dramatic music) Ben, Bob and Steve's supposed war buddy. Ben's had something of a breakdown and created a dual life for himself: he's been using the funeral home as a front for his criminal activities performed under the name of Lou. And now that Bob knows the truth, he's decided to kill him, too.

But he didn't count on Julie getting the crucial details in time to call the cops, who arrive in time to shoot Ben/Lou dead. Julie and Bob ride with Steve in an ambulance, in which Steve thanks them and passes out. We then cut to a final short scene showing them picking up Steve at the hospital from earlier and heading out to the ranch.

That last scene is somewhat fascinating. I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but it actually feels a touch ambiguous as to whether or not it's real. You could interpret it as a sad hallucination of Steve as he dies, both because it's unrealistically optimistic and because the concept of that sort of hallucination was established early in the movie.

Regardless of how you interpret the ending, it's a solid movie exploring the difficulties of adapting to post-war life (certainly a timely theme, given World War II had ended just five years beforehand). I also appreciate how Ben/Lou's villainy is tied up in his sense of entitlement. He is, in a sense, a precursor to incels and other modern misogynist movements. He thinks Lysa owes him something and when he's denied, he reacts violently.

In addition, it's nice seeing a war hero whose main assets are his will and compassion, as opposed to physical strength. By virtue of his injury, Bob comes off as fairly fragile. He and Steve (who's even more injured by that point) fight off Ben/Lou for a couple seconds, but it's clear they'd be dead if not for Julie and the police.

Likewise, I really appreciate how effective Julie is as a character. I can't help but wonder if her relationship with Bob might have been in part a callback to The Thin Man (perhaps this also inspired the holiday setting of Backfire).

And speaking of... let's talk Christmas. When the movie jumped to Christmas Eve a few minutes in, I became skeptical this would even count as a holiday film. I shouldn't have doubted: while it's true Bob and Julie's sleuthing takes place in early January (though still technically within the twelve days of Christmas), the flashbacks keep bringing us back to lead up to the holidays. Moreover, the last flashback circles back to Christmas Eve itself, bringing us full circle to the scene that kicked off the mystery. I'm having trouble thinking of another Christmas movie that uses its timeline in a similar way.

I also find it interesting how Backfire contrasts Bob and Steve's dream of owning a ranch against the crime-ridden world of the city around them. The ranch is a symbol of their desire to return to old-fashioned American ideals lost during the war.

What's interesting to me here is how that theme isn't integrated into this movie's portrayal of Christmas. My experience with movies of the early '50s is admittedly somewhat limited outside of those occurring at Christmas, but my impression is this was a very common theme in American films in general. In the case of Christmas movies, this theme became entrenched, to the point we still see echoes to this day (there's a reason so many damn Hallmark movies involve the lead trading in a job in the city for a life in small-town America). I find it fascinating to see a movie set at Christmas, incorporating that theme, but not yet feeling any need to connect the two concepts.

If anything, Christmas here is still used as a sort of symbolic transition from one time to another. We see Bob and Julie's relationship blossoming and we later see Lysa and Steve's attempt at a life together tragically torn away from them the same night. Likewise, Bob's visitation on Christmas Eve - passed off at first as a vision - bears a resemblance to a Dickensian Christmas ghost story (all the more so when we later discover Lysa's fate).

I said at the start this was a good movie but not a great one; I should probably at least mention why it's coming up just short of getting a recommendation. First, the movie includes a minor Chinese character played (very awkwardly, I'll add) by a white actor. Yeah, I know this was common at the time; that doesn't mean it's okay.

In addition, while this is fun, it's not so much fun that you forget how old it is. The experience of watching is one where I was consistently mildly enjoying it, rather than ever being overjoyed or excited by what I was seeing. Lindsay (who's really got more detective story cred than I could ever hope to) also pointed out that the bulk of their deductions were based on information conveniently dropped in their laps, as opposed to information the leads were able to dig up based on their skills or backgrounds (though Julie does utilize her nursing knowledge later to infiltrate a corrupt doctor's practice).

In short, this one is solid and enjoyable, worth checking out if you're a fan of 1950s cinema or old mysteries in general. Otherwise, this is good but not quite exceptional.