There are two elements normally present in a classic film noir. One is a main character, usually male, with decent instincts but a fatal flaw that drives him to do something terrible. That terrible thing is the other element, usually a crime, that sends the unfortunate into a tailspin that, whatever his intentions, is destructive, and usually self-induced. They Won’t Believe Me, a melodrama from 1947 is a noir that arguably doesn’t have a crime. It also has a protagonist who is not decent with a flaw, but a contemptible rat who is only spared committing crimes because fate and coincidence commit them for him.
We open in a courtroom where the cad, Larry Ballentine (Robert Young of Father Knows Best fame, playing against type), is taking the stand to explain why he is not responsible for the murder of his girlfriend, Verna. Or the disappearance of his wife, Greta. And it all starts with the affair he was initiating with his previous girlfriend, Janice.
Larry likes Janice because she’s pretty and adventurous, and not his wife. Greta knows about the affair, and before it has a chance to get serious tells Larry she plans to buy him a partnership in a brokerage house and to rent a house in Los Angeles…as long as he goes with her. Janice is cute, but Greta has money, so Larry bets on that. It’s not long before his eyes are roving again, and that’s where he meets Verna. A self-admitted gold-digger, she likes the prospects of secretly hitching her wagon to Larry, but keeps the door open by openly dating his partner Trenton.
All of this romantic melodrama comes to a head when Greta again finds out about the affair, and again proposes to run away, this time to a ranch in Tulare Valley. Larry can come or not… but if he stays away, he loses all of her money. Of course, he runs, breaking Verna’s heart. But while he and Greta are hiding out on a ranch far from civilization, he begins to hatch a plan that will get him everything he wants.
The details of the plan are what eventually land him in court, but they stack up to a portrait of an almost sociopathically narcissistic man. Larry Ballentine is a liar, who dissembles with women he pretends to love so smoothly, it’s not clear that he’s entirely aware when he’s doing it. It’s just second nature to him, as is the skirt chasing. Played by Robert Young with a blithe confidence, he cheats on his wife without making any particular effort to cover his tracks, and when she wants to find some way to keep him, he refers to her as a “jailer.”
He’s a loathsome character, who doesn’t deserve the women he attracts. Janice and Verna are played Susan Hayward and Jane Greer, respectively, each with a scene stealing charm that makes you immediately sympathize with them, even as they play the “other women.”
They Won’t Believe Me was produced by Joan Harrison, who had earlier been a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. After having been his personal secretary for years, she ended up working on his films. She was a credited screenwriter on five of them, including Rebecca, and would later be a producer on his television shows. But for a period in the ’40s and ’50s she was producing her own films with Universal and RKO, one of only three female film producers working in Hollywood at the time.
While They Won’t Believe Me is not strictly a crime film (though its story is told from the perspective of a criminal trial), it is about transgressive behavior, and its tone and mood place it square within the rather nebulous bounds that surround the film noir genre. It’s told mostly in flashback, with Larry’s self-serving narration bridging the various scenes of his destructive behavior. There’s little in the way of action or violence, but it does have a grim, uncompromising mood, and some of the twists in the film’s last half as surprisingly heartless and dark.
This release is the first time in years the entire film has been available. In the ’50s it was edited down to 80 minutes to fit on a double bill. With this restoration and release, They Won’t Believe Me runs at its full 97 minutes. From what I can recall, having seen the film years before, besides some snips here and there to scenes, there are two major new scenes added in this release. One is a long sequence in the office and at a concert that establishes Larry’s possessiveness over Verna, and a later scene after the film’s first major twist that involves a funeral director and the disposal of ashes.
Since its story is much more related to melodrama and twisted romance than crime per se, there might be aspects of They Won’t Believe Me that don’t scratch the itch of ever film noir fan. I found it engaging, especially in this restored state which gave some of Larry’s emotional betrayals and cowardice more impact. And like the best of film noir, it’s a dark story about the darker corners of the human heart.
They Won’t Believe Me has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. Besides English subtitles, there are no extras on the disc.