I love a good first-time-watch. There’s nothing better than stumbling onto a movie and getting that smug sense of self-satisfaction (you know we all do it!) when you can finally give an under-seen gem the credit it deserves. In their yearly execution of the TCM Classic Film Festival, this is where TCM shines. Media preservation is an uphill battle; however, thanks to their work and their connections, TCM so often steps in and with their help, memorable films are finally seeing the restoration efforts they deserve. One of these is the Joan Harrison produced noir, They Won’t Believe Me. Is this a first time discovery for you too? Well, read on!
They Won’t Believe Me drops audiences squarely into a murder trial. Larry Ballentine (Robert Young) is facing a murder conviction and as the defense presents their opening statements, things look pretty grim. As Ballentine takes the stand, we’re dropped squarely into his story. We learn about his unhappy marriage, his ongoing adultery and his struggle to rise above his station; however, does it really lead to… murder? The movie features an impressive co-starring cast, including: Jane Greer, Susan Hayward and Rita Johnson. Irving Pichel directs the film from a screenplay by Gordon McDonnell and Jonathan Latimer. The film comes from the legendary producer Joan Harrison.
They Won’t Believe Me was one of the more anticipated showings to happen over the course of TCMFF. Over the decades following the movie’s initial release, the crime film found itself on the receiving end of a boatload of cuts, trimming the runtime by more than 15 minutes. Luckily, preservation efforts have led to a new restoration finally being made available, bringing They Won’t Believe Me back to its original form.
Watching the film through a contemporary mindset turns They Won’t Believe Me into a fascinating study in star persona thanks the the presence of Robert Young. The well-known actor’s filmography brings big screen credits as far back as the silent era and Young worked prolifically in early talkies. However, contemporary culture largely defines Young’s persona by his prolific television work during the middle of the twentieth century, specifically Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.
Young’s image in these shows is squeaky clean and beyond reproach. He sits on a high throne in the pop culture consciousness as the typical American Dad of the Eisenhower fifties. As I watched this film, I found myself fighting this memory of Robert Young as well. I think of him wearing cardigans, dispensing lots of well meaning advice and smoking the occasional pipe. Without spoiling anything… this image couldn’t be farther from Young’s performance as Ballentine. In fact, it’s far more interesting than what you’re probably envisioning.
Though, I do disagree with some of the initial analysis of Young’s character in They Won’t Believe Me as an ‘homme fatale’, at least when viewed through the typical lens of the ‘femme fatale’ in other works of noir. The character types are certainly close (who are we kidding, Ballentine a cad); however, his character is complicated by the fact he is the clear cut lead in this picture. Ballentine doesn’t exist simply to be ‘fatal’; rather, it is his story the movie’s telling. The women in the story exist as supporting characters.
In fact, the under-utilization of the talented women in the cast is disappointing. This is particularly true in the casting of the always colorful Jane Greer. At least Susan Hayward has a little more to do in the picture. Both of these performers are vivid and shining examples of just how delightful women could be in the film noir movement. Jane Greer’s work in Out of the Past earned the actress the reputation as one of the ultimate femme fatales to ever grace the silver screen. So, while both women are perfectly fine in their roles here, I found myself disappointed they weren’t handed juicer parts.
With all this being said though, the draw of They Won’t Believe Me isn’t the women in the cast, but what can only be described as a bonkers script by McDonnell and Latimer. The movie drops audiences smack dab into the middle of the action and it doesn’t let up throughout the entire hour and thirty minute runtime. In fact, so much happens throughout the taut narrative, I have no idea how anyone could make the cuts the film reportedly underwent. There isn’t a lull anywhere.
Putting all this together, They Won’t Believe Me is a must-see for fans of film noir. The movie isn’t always an easy sit. There’s murder, suicide, adultery and an ending which brings all the dark and biting hopelessness we’ve come to recognize and seek out in film noir. Life kicks you in the teeth and then you die… if you’re lucky, it’s with a fantastic venetian blinds shade over your face (that isn’t a spoiler). If you missed it at TCMFF, make sure you make time to check out They Won’t Believe Me.
They Won’t Believe Me is currently streaming on WatchTCM.
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Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!