Apr 4, 2018
On DVD: Faye Emerson and Zachary Scott in the Twisty Noir Danger Signal (1945)
One of my suspense genre pet peeves is the plot that requires the protagonist to miss obvious red flags and continue to plunge into danger. It’s hard to root for someone who doesn’t have a lot of common sense. Danger Signal, which recently made its DVD debut from Warner Archive, manages for the most part to avoid falling into this trap. Here the predictable and the novel co-exist in an interesting film with a solid cast of players who didn’t often get star treatment.
Faye Emerson is Hilda Fenchurch, a serious-minded stenographer who falls for her mother’s (Mary Servoss) mysterious new boarder Ronnie Mason (Zachary Scott). This much to the dismay of a shy scientist at her office, Dr. Andrew Lang (Bruce Bennett), who has a crush on her, and to the curiosity of the sophisticated Dr. Jane Silla who employees her (Rosemary De Camp). Then her kid sister Anne (Mona Freeman) returns home from a stay in a sanitarium to treat tuberculosis, further complicating the dynamic at home with Ronnie.
The film begins with a mysterious scene, in which a woman is seen collapsed on a bed, while the hands of a man are shown removing her wedding ring and taking a large wad of cash out of her wallet while the landlady pounds at the door. The man is Ronnie and he jumps out the window just in time to escape the repercussions of whatever he has been up to in that room. Given this information up front, it’s easy to assume that Ronnie will keep whoever he meets in the dark until the final climax.
That isn’t the case though, because Hilda is a remarkably intelligent heroine. While she initially gives in to Ronnie’s smooth line, she quickly realizes he’s trouble. What’s refreshing is the way she thoroughly discards her crush, seeing the situation for what it is. This is not a woman to be brought down by passion. Emerson plays this even-handed character with steady elegance, granting her her flaws, but always showing the strength within her. She is a woman with a good foundation.
It’s almost amusing how completely Ronnie misses that he has met his match in Hilda. He’s so accustomed to destroying women that it hasn’t occurred to him that one could beat him at his own game. Every time he starts to lead the plot down a predictably menacing path, she steps in to take the action in a different direction. Bennett and DeCamp are equally intelligent, and that mental acuity gives them the means they need to help Hilda. They are a mighty team against Scott, who plays his role like he just came from doing the same thing in another film and is a bit shocked to see things aren’t playing out as usual.
Basically, this is what a suspense thriller looks like when it is dominated by intelligent, clear-thinking people. Freeman takes on the more traditional role of the easily flattered ingénue and Servoss plays a woman simply too good-hearted to believe in Ronnie’s evil. Otherwise, everyone else seems to know where the bodies are buried, which gives this sharp film and its pleasing cast an extra edge. This is an 'A' quality production, despite its 'B' trappings.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.