I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes (1948)

I assume this is obvious to everyone subscribed to Criterion right now, but I'm finding a bunch of these thanks to a collection they dropped entitled Holiday Noir, which - to be clear - is pretty high on my list of "things in 2023 to be grateful for." I bring that up mainly because I think this movie's inclusion in that collection is a bit of a stretch, not because of its holiday content (this is very much a Christmas movie) - but rather because I certainly wouldn't classify it as "noir." It's admittedly a fuzzy term (even more so than most movie genres), but I tend to look for movies with pervasively dark tones that typically set out to leave you less optimistic about the world than when you started, movies where even victories feel like defeats and true happy endings are a virtual impossibility.

And that just doesn't describe "I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes," which I'd consider more akin to your run-of-the-mill drama. There's certainly a suspense element, as well, but it's a movie with several hard lines it refuses to cross, the tone is more sentimental than bleak, and (spoiler alert?) the ending is upbeat. 

I just gave away the end, so you can probably guess this isn't going to be a recommendation. That's not to say it's bad - the movie has quite a few merits, particularly as far as its themes and politics are concerned - but it doesn't deliver any of the various sorts of experiences movies that endure from this era offer. From a moral standpoint, this is actually pretty fantastic, but sadly the story isn't as resonant. 

That story centers on husband and wife Tom and Ann, as well as Clint, a police inspector, who... we'll get to that. The movie opens with Tom on death row a few days after Christmas and transitions into a series of flashbacks, which in turn sort of haphazardly follow the various leads. Earlier that year, Tom and Ann were going through financial hardships. They're dancers by trade, and to make ends meet Ann has turned to the sordid profession of teaching men ballroom dancing in a well-lit environment.

No, really. That's her work, and that's basically how it's presented. The fact that men - men who aren't her husband - pay her to dance with them on the pretext of learning is treated as a moral failing on her part. To be clear, the movie explicitly tells us she's not sleeping with them, though I suppose it implies she might be flirting a bit to improve her tips. Scandalous!

To the movie's credit, Ann isn't villainized for any of this. It's treated as a hard decision she's making to survive tough times. Tom isn't happy about it, but he understands and even apologizes after initially giving her a hard time about a particularly generous tip she's received from a repeat customer she's nicknamed Santa Claus. That's Inspector Clint Judd, by the way, who will play a larger role later. First, we need to talk about the cats.

A couple cats outside their window are making noise, so in a fit of frustration, Tom throws his shoes out the window at them. He thinks he's throwing an old pair he no longer needs, but he accidentally tosses his good dancing shoes. He tries to find them in the dark without luck and resolves to track them down the next day, though he doesn't have to look far - some good Samaritan leaves them outside his door the next morning.

However, things aren't quite as rosy as they seem. That night a man was murdered, a large sum of money was taken, and the only clue is a footprint. The police make a cast of the print, reasoning they'll be able to use it to build a profile of the killer. This is hilariously effective - in what feels like an analog version of the "enhance" cliche that would appear in sci-fi movies decades later, they're able to determine virtually everything about the shoe's owner and even match it to Tom through the store where he bought it.

By then, Tom's also stumbled across a wallet containing a few thousand dollars. Barely aware of the murder and completely unaware the police are about to suspect him, he shows this to Ann. He initially plans on turning the cash over to the cops, but Ann convinces him to keep it. They each spend a few hundred dollars - Ann purchases some things for herself, while Tom buys her a comically early Christmas present she'll hold on to until the holidays.

Unfortunately for them, this is what the police were waiting for. Now armed with the added evidence of the cash, they close in and arrest Tom and Ann. The police grill Tom for the whereabouts of the rest of the money - the two thousand recovered is only a fraction of what was taken - but of course, he knows nothing.

Clint and Ann recognize each other, and he even convinces his boss to release her. While he expresses anger at her for never telling him she was married, he likes Ann and asks her to consider starting a serious relationship with him now that Tom's prospects don't look good. Ann rejects him, of course. She feels responsible for what's happened to her husband and does what she can to help, but the evidence is too strong: he's convicted and sentenced to die right after Christmas.

Just before Christmas, Ann contacts Clint and makes him an offer: if he saves Tom's life, she'll leave her husband and marry him. She argues passionately for Tom's innocence, pointing out the evidence was entirely circumstantial. Ann finally kisses Clint, which seems to convince him, and he gets to work, eventually finding a lead that brings him to another suspect. He arrests the man who professes his innocence and brings him in. For a while, it seems like this is the actual killer, but - once again - the evidence is entirely circumstantial. After a closer examination, it turns out the new suspect was recovering from emergency surgery at the time of the murder and is therefore off the hook.

By now, we're back where we started, with the clock approaching midnight, when Tom is scheduled to die. Clint goes to see Ann, arguing that she shouldn't be alone. He points out he did his best to get Tom released, and that she should consider following through on her offer to marry him. He also reveals that he's rented and furnished an apartment for her.

Ann initially tells him off but reverses her stance after he tips her with a $20 bill matching the type that had been stolen. She agrees to come see the apartment right after she grabs her coat. From the coat room. Over by the phone.

At the apartment, we learn Clint has been stalking Ann longer than she even realized he existed. He admits to committing the murder and framing Tom, explaining he did this for her. But of course, Ann phoned the police while getting her coat, so Clint's boss is in the next room, along with another officer. Clint goes for his gun, but he gets shot in the process. There's still just enough time for a last-minute call to stop Tom's execution, so the movie ends with the reunited couple happily on their way to start a new life in California together.

Again, there's a great deal to respect in terms of the concept and themes, including several aspects I'm a little surprised made it past studio censors. Rules regarding the portrayal of police in movies were fairly strict, but this got away with having the villain be a cop. More than that, the movie was fairly critical of law enforcement in general - at one point, Ann accuses an officer of being motivated solely by a desire to kill someone. This accusation is never really refuted, despite the movie being careful to establish the "good cops" want justice. Even so, it's notable that the movie ends with the man she accused being one of the two officers who gun down Clint (though technically it's his subordinate who gets to his gun in time). You could interpret this as implying the reason Tom is permitted to live is that the system's bloodlust was sated.

While the criticism of police is admittedly ambiguous, the movie feels much clearer in its condemnation of the death penalty. In addition to Tom, the other inmates are presented sympathetically, and it'd be hard to miss the subtext surrounding people getting sentenced to die due to circumstantial evidence. When the alternate suspect is exonerated despite a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence, Ann points out the hypocrisy, and it certainly seems as though she's laying out the movie's central message in the process.

I also appreciate how the movie calls attention to stalking and male entitlement. Coupled with the power dynamics at play, this certainly feels ahead of its time. The villain is quite literally a powerful white man abusing his authority in an attempt to control a woman. I'm struggling to think of another movie I've seen from the 1940s that fits that description.

While some of the writing around Ann echoes troubling trends from the time (really I'm referring to her husband being largely virtuous, while her profession and fighting to keep the money are effectively the causes of their problems), these are largely mitigated by the fact she's really much more the protagonist than Tom is. The movie's POV drifts around a lot, but I'm fairly certain she gets more screen time and she's certainly the one to solve the crime. Some of her flaws come off as dated, but she's a good enough character I can overlook it.

The reason I'm not rating this higher mainly comes down to it all being just a little too overly sentimental to work as suspense and the story not being serious enough to work as a drama. I kept chuckling at various twists or details that weren't supposed to be funny, which isn't a great sign. It doesn't work as a mystery, either, because the solution is fairly obvious from the start.

I do want to stress this complaint is intended to apply to the context of watching the movie now. My guess is at the time the emotion hit harder, and audiences likely weren't as conditioned to suspect a cop of being the bad guy. The movie drops in quite a few red herrings in that respect and is fairly clever about concealing hints inside misdirection... just not quite clever enough for audiences today, who aren't likely to be surprised by the ending.

The holiday elements are mainly present to contrast Tom's predicament with the ostensibly happy season. A Christmas in which the leads contend with loss, depression, and separation, was a common theme in the aftermath of World War Two.

What's almost more interesting are the running details used to anchor the narrative to the holidays even during scenes set in the summer. Ann and Tom discuss Christmas a few times early on, and of course the odd detail of her nicknaming Clint "Santa Claus" serves the same purpose. This goes out of its way to tell and remind the viewer that it's a Christmas movie - that's not really common for movies from the era, even ones with more direct holiday associations. Perhaps they were encouraged by the success of Miracle on 34th Street a year earlier.

This is an interesting movie and - from certain perspectives at least - a pretty good one. The messages here have merit and are certainly still relevant. It's also worth noting the film features diverse characters in supporting roles without defaulting to stereotypes or jokes. This is, for lack of a better word, an admirable film.

I'm just not convinced it delivers what most people want from any of the genres it's straddling, least of all noir. Under a magnifying glass, there's a great deal to appreciate, but that doesn't elevate the experience of watching above average.