Backfire (1950)

I chose this film for my last review of 2011 because of an impulse that made me type “Christmas” and “noir” into google, and one of the films that popped up was Backfire. I didn’t know anything else about the movie before I started watching and tried to keep it that way, because I occasionally like to be surprised (most recently, Hangover Square was a pleasure to watch unfold with no idea what to expect). I’m glad I didn’t take a look at the original release poster beforehand, because it’s utter nonsense, suggesting a femme fatale where there is none to be found.

The two soldiers Steve (Edmond O’Brien) and Bob (Gordon MacRae) become friends during World War 2. Because of a complicated spinal injury, Bob spends several years in a veteran’s hospital, leaving Steve to draw up plans and gather money to fulfill their dream: buy and operate a ranch. Shortly before Bob’s final operation, Steve disappears without a trace. A lady with a foreign accent visits Bob in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, 1948, telling him that Steve has been injured; however, nobody believes him, since his doctors explain the visit away as a drug-enhanced vision. The day Bob is released from the hospital, the police intercept him. Apparently Steve is wanted for murder, and the police advise him not to look for his friend. Naturally, Bob does not believe his buddy to be a killer and starts looking for clues about Steve’s whereabouts, thus reversing the character dynamic from the brief prologue. That’s neat, but it’s unfortunately also the only clever bit of thematic structuring in the script.
That is pretty much it for the christmas connection, incidentally. Nothing is made of the timing; the plot could have been set at any time of the year.

The motif of the returning soldier trying to find out what happened to a buddy of theirs is very common to film noir, also seen in Dead Reckoning (1947) and one of my personal favourites, Somewhere in the Night (1946). Unlike those films, the bulk of Backfire‘s narrative is taken up by testimonies by people who saw Steve shortly before his disappearance. Once the film establishes the structure of “Bob finds a clue” followed by “Bob has a witness recount a memory”, it doesn’t stray from it until the very end. Following such a formula so rigidly is only really a good idea when one’s story is tightly plotted, which is not the case here.

Despite his absence in the present, Backfire is Steve’s story. That kind of approach can work when the central character is interesting (think Citizen Kane, 1941), but Steve isn’t. I was never invested in him as a character nor in the mystery of why he’s gone missing. Particularly since it’s not all that much of a mystery; the movie would like to pretend its plot has many clever turns, but it’s pretty straightforward both in hindsight and while watching the film. The one exception is a fairly ludicrous out-of-the-blue twist that neither the script nor the actors can properly sell.
The stories the witnesses tell are never called into question either overtly and indirectly, despite the fact that pretty much all of them are extremely forthcoming and have no problem at all divulging information to Bob that they didn’t tell the police. That would certainly make me suspicious in a modern movie, but this one, pre-Rashomon, plays it straight and treats all of the memories as reliable. Plus, rather than unfolding organically, they feel like expository infodumps that are there only because the plot inelegantly requires their presence. That feeling is reinforced by the fact that Bob doesn’t have to work for any of these testimonials; they are all handed to him on a platter. One of the more ridiculous of these instances is a statement given by a somniloquacious coma patient with a kinda racist Chinese accent that is probably designed to distract the viewer from a glaring plothole concerning the timeline.

Because of the film’s focus on flashbacks, the ostensible protagonist, Bob, doesn’t get a whole lot to do except walk around Los Angeles and wait for a series of coincidences to shove another witness his way. Until practically the very end, the only major scene of action (as in, “one character does something (pro)active for a change”) in the present timeline is reserved for Julie (Virginia Mayo), Bob’s girlfriend, who is otherwise completely superfluous. For the same reason, the film’s ending cannot satisfy from a dramatic standpoint and is also quite un-noirish.

There’s a kernel of an intriguing psychological thriller in Backfire, but the execution doesn’t allow the film to ever rise to that level. Bob is a boring lead character, Julie is a boring leading lady who barely qualifies as such based on screen time (and whose one potentially interesting contribution to the case at hand is undercut by never being mentioned again), many of the other characters are stereotypes. Steve and another of his army buddies (also a “witness”) could have been developed and given a psychologically convincing arc, but weren’t. Rather crucial plot elements are dropped left and right. The best I can say about Backfire is that it’s a watchable, but fairly mediocre crime film with some noir trappings (returning veterans, past misdeeds threatening to catch up with a character, flashbacks, ambiguous dream sequences) that have been more competently utilised in other, better movies.

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