“Vamos a darnos un traguito,” implores a Havana local as she pulls her man inside the club for a night of rum and salsa, an ominous invitation that fugitive couple Chuck Scott and Lorna Roman could never have guessed would lead to the eponymous chase.
Arthur Ripley‘s 1946 film noir The Chase, based on the short story “The Black Path of Fear” by Cornell Woolrich, has all the makings of the typical entry in a crime fiction genre made famous by its tropes. Initially, it is not hard to guess that the film, starring Robert Cummings in the role of Chuck Scott, is a melodrama driven by a criminal element and latent sexuality. Chuck is a World War II veteran hoping, like many others, to catch on in Miami after becoming destitute following his return from combat. Chuck, however, is afflicted by bizarre and often terrifying dreams. By chance, he comes across an employment opportunity provided by Eddie Roman, a Miamian kingpin (Steve Cochran) that long-preceded anyone going by the name Montana, and his right-hand man and now former chauffeur, Gino (Peter Lorre).
Initially, Mr. Roman is pleased with his new hire’s grit after he just makes it over a railroad crossing moments before the deadly locomotive zips by. Accordingly, the kingpin expands his driver’s responsibilities to driving around his own wife, Lorna Roman, played by Michèle Morgan. Very quickly, Chuck notices her uneasy demeanor and senses Lornas’s desire to escape from her failed marriage. Chuck, seemingly big on first impressions, plummets in love with the despondent Mrs. Roman and organizes their elopement to South America by way of nearby Cuba, a proposition to which the ecstatic mistress readily agrees.
However, the newly-escaped couple do not manage to get off that easily. During a brief moment in which Chuck and Mrs. Roman can share a well-earned embrace, Lorna is stabbed and Chuck is immediately suspected by the local police. Realizing that he has been framed, Chuck then leads police to a wild pursuit through the sett brick streets and tin roof homes of 1940s Havana. Edgar Chaput, of SoundandSight.com, characterizes the outcome of this sequences as follows:
As amusing as this portion of the story is, it does not last for the remainder of the running time, for once Chuck, after slipping through the police’s fingers, appears to have stumbled on evidence to prove his innocence…he wakes him in the room where he has been staying since working for Eddie. It was all an intensely vivid dream.
Chuck, having fallen victim to a lack of medication, is roused by an old Army companion and receives from him the perfectly-healthy advice of having a drink in lieu of medication. At the bar, the soldier catches Chuck looking at a clock behind the bar. “My friend’s a clockwatcher,” he grumbles to the bartender in an apologetic tone, as if to excuse his friend’s odd and distant demeanor. Chuck, nothing if not timely, suddenly realizes that waking up from his nightmare means Lorna is still awaiting their departure for Cuba. The unhinged lover steadfastly rescues her from Mr. Roman’s Scarface-esque mansion and they successfully board the ship together on their way to a new life. In the final scenes, Mr. Roman, raging with envy, shows that his mastery of timing is not up to par with that of his former driver when he crosses the rail road tracks a split second too late and his car is pulverized by the incoming train.
In the early part of the film, is is difficult to foresee that the plot had been a dream all along, although in retrospect many of the scenes may come off as dreamy and the action noticeably hurried. This is evidenced by Chuck and Lorna’s alarmingly intimate first encounter against the backdrop of a choppy Atlantic, not the usual scene where a love-at-first-sight scenario is typically portrayed. However, Lorna’s soft and sweet pleads for deliverance are not swallowed by the crashing waves, and a plan for escape is instantaneously hatched by the musing mind of the psychologically unstable Chuck. Only in a dream can such a poorly laid out be expected to succeed.
During the climax of the real escape, Arthur Ripley focuses on the element of time – or better said – how Chuck does not have much of it left. Of course, ultimately the viewers learn that Chuck is seemingly always pressed for time because a large chuck of his hours are spent deeply engrossed within nightmares and hallucinations brought on by post-dramatic stress disorder. Nevertheless, he works around this by creating a routine that snaps him out of his shell-shocked state, at least intermittently. He learns to value every second when he abstains from hitting the brakes as Mr. Roman commandeers the gas pedal, a decision that soon becomes the difference between a sigh a relief and a fiery death by train. He knows he has to meet with Lorna lest they miss the Cuba or be intercepted at the port by a murderous Mr. Roman, and the same is true when he initially resists a sangría at the Havana nightclub in favor of catching the next ship to South America. True to film noir convention, his passion gets the best of him and his dream girl is assassinated during his feeble attempt to woo her further. Finally, the theme of time comes full circle (pun fully intended), when the clock on the bar wall reminds him of the earlier grisly scene at a similar bar set in the depths of his subconscious. Whether it is expressed in his dreams or not, he is tied to reality in a temporal sense. This time, however, he seizes the opportunity to alter a future that, although now clearly enclosed within his previous hallucinations, seemed all too real.
Little-known The Chase became a cult classic of the film noir genre, but is far from the sum of its parts. Although it does not contain groundbreaking acting or a wholly original script, uneasiness and tension are successfully aroused by the plot’s being rendered as unreliable mid-way through the film. As Dan Webster of The Spokane Review concluded, “The Chase is everything a great noir should be: dreamy, elliptical, and tortuous; raw, gorgeous, and horny.” The viewer is left thrilled and entranced by the twists and turns, both psychological and geographic, the lovers are forced to take. As if this pursuit of the distressed lovers were not a task exclusively reserved for Gino and Mr. Roman, we, the audience, are invited to partake in The Chase.