Misleading as I find its advertisements (“Loving her once is once too often!” its poster warns), 1947’s Nora Prentiss is a “women’s noir” to be favorably compared to The Letter (1940) or Mildred Pierce (1945), vehicles after which it was clearly molded. The film stars Ann Sheridan as the titular “deadly” female, who is, of course, a torch singer and who is, of course, beautiful in ways that can only spell trouble for the most exasperated of a man.
But in a twist that cements why I find that aforementioned tagline so deceitful, Prentiss isn’t actually the poor man’s Gilda. She’s not a man-eater nor a black widow on the prowl but a deeply vulnerable 30-something increasingly bothered by how long domesticity has slipped from her grasp. She wants nothing more than to be happy and to be loved, but because of her face and her occupation, she’s more often attracted douchebags than she has winners who want to do more than just get inside her pants.
Unfortunately, the film finds her making a romantic mistake that she’s likely made before: she falls in love with family man and physician Richard Talbot (Kent Smith). He’s been married for years, has two stereotypically square kids, has undoubtedly stuck to the same boring routine for decades, and thinks he’s content.
But when Talbot meets Prentiss (after she gets hit by a car, marking for a memorably operatic entrance), all goes downhill. What starts as a friendship hindered by Talbot’s obvious attraction turns into a passionate romance so ardent that Talbot, against his better judgment, contemplates leaving his comfortable life behind for the alluring woman who broke him free from the chains of suburban life. Prentiss, against her better judgment, allows for it to happen. And Talbot, stupidly, takes drastic measures to ensure their being together.
In an unprecedented slant from the norm usually worn by a women’s noir, though – typically a leading lady is more Jean Gillie than Sudden Fear (1952) era Joan Crawford – Nora Prentiss is clothed in terrific writing that decides early on that we’re watching a character study fit with multifaceted characters and not noir archetypes.
Talbot is hardly a typically cynical, morally corrupted loon with a weakness for attractive women who give him attention (I’m looking at you, Walter Neff) but a classic good guy who finds himself just as surprised as us that he’s transformed from a dependable, kind breadwinner to a philandering husband within a matter of months. His love for Prentiss simply stems from his self-hatred: as soon as he meets her, he comes to realize just how monotonous his life has become and how little he can do to spice up his life. His adoration of the singer is almost accidental.
But Prentiss is the film’s most compelling character, though not in the ways we’d expect in the pre-stages of viewing. She’s not a femme fatale but rather a susceptible woman hyperaware of the scrutiny that comes when you’re over 30 and have never married. When we first meet her, we get a glimpse of the lady she readily presents herself as – tough-talking, sardonic, flirtatious (“Did I leave anything on the street? An arm or a leg?” she purrs just moments after her accident).
But the more she lets Talbot into her heart, the more we begin to notice how much she’s hurting. This romance is one she’d like to keep. But per usual in the landscape of her romantic excursions, it’s doomed and she knows it. Since Sheridan was 32, having a harder time finding work at the time the film was released, and nearing the end of her tenure as a major box-office draw for Warner Bros. (though Nora Prentiss, along with The Unfaithful, which was also released that year, gave her a huge hit), autobiographical shades unavoidably seep into her portrayal.
Bent with sad eyes and a thinly-veiled sensitive disposition, we want nothing more than for her life to finally be illuminated by even the smallest of a glimmer of hope. The warning that “loving her once is once too often” stings by the time we’re done with the film – that’s what a jilted lover would want us to think. All Prentiss desires is to be loved, to have a life cloaked in something other than disappointment. Sheridan is effective, but much of her performative brilliance is incidental. In no doubt would Prentiss not be as much a moving creation if Sheridan’s real life weren’t also underlined in fear of lost relevance.
The feature is definitively too long – too much time is spent in the aftermath of Talbot’s misguided decision to leave everything behind for the lounge singer who stole his heart – but Nora Prentiss is otherwise a shimmering exemplification of the wonders that come with competently made studio fodder. N. Richard Nash’s screenplay tugs as many heartstrings as it does provide its characters with three-dimensionality, and Vincent Sherman’s direction is profoundly nightmarish. James Wong Howe’s innovative cinematography is as rich as it is distinctly claustrophobic. And Sheridan and Smith make for an uneven coupling that oddly complements the story Nora Prentiss is trying to tell. It’s something of a forgotten classic. Let’s call it a find for now. B+