It’s too bad Zachary Scott’s movie career didn’t last longer than it did. He was tailor-made for film noir. The deceptive cheshire smile, the just-right mustache, his oily presence, his ability to portray utterly amoral characters, he had it all. Whenever you saw his name on the poster, you knew someone was going to get royally fucked. Films like Mildred Pierce (1945), Her Kind Of Man (1946), and Flamingo Road (1949) served as great showcases for his sinister-smooth screen persona.
I could’ve seen him as a film noir staple throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, then sliding into villainous character roles in middle age. Unfortunately, a serious injury resulting from a rafting accident in 1950 sent him reeling into a long, painful recovery period and heavy depression. Although he made occasional movies after that and digressed into TV, his film career never recovered.
Which is why I got excited the other night about watching Danger Signal (1945) for the first time. The synopsis said his character “murders women for their inheritance”. I could just hear the producer bellowing into his intercom, “Get me Zachary Scott!”
The film opens in classic Warner Bros style with Scott in a sleazy apartment at night, a female corpse sprawled on the bed. The landlady is pounding at the door, neighbors gather, and Scott rifles the dead woman’s purse. He grabs a fistful of cash and splits out the window. Next thing you know, he’s on a bus to California.
Soon he meets Faye Emerson and he slides right into his slick-gigolo routine that he carried over from Mildred Pierce. She falls for him and she has a younger sister played by Mona Freeman and well, it gets a lot better from there.
I liked Danger Signal. I liked it a lot. It wasn’t nearly as predictable as it could’ve been, and Scott carried the film well, weaseling his way through a series of women, always looking for the score, the angle. Emerson was the female lead, and she handled it. Her attraction to Scott’s character was believable, as was her slow realization that his intentions were, shall we say, less than honorable. Taut direction by veteran Robert Florey (The Cocoanuts (1929), Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932), King Of Alcatraz (1938)) kept the tension high in all the right spots, while cinematographer James Wong Howe’s brilliant use of shadows and light elevate this film to very respectable film noir levels.
But Scott is really the star of this show. There weren’t too many actors in those days who could play these shameless characters with a straight face and make you buy into them, but he did it time after time. With his unswerving instincts and his solid grip on the material, he made it look so easy.