By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
The next entry in our Noir or Not series is Lighthouse, a 1947 Sunset Productions feature distributed by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). The film stars Don Castle, John Litel, and June Lang as the three sides of a dysfunctional and potentially deadly triangle.
Litel is Hank Armitage, the lighthouse keeper, and Castle is his young assistant, Sam Wells, who’s more interested in chasing the ladies than guiding lost boats to shore. One such lady is Lang’s character, Connie, but when Sam promises that he’s going to marry her, he’s just stringing her along — he already has a wife. (An estranged wife, but a wife nonetheless.) When Connie learns the truth, she gets her revenge by pursuing and marrying Hank, and moving into the lighthouse with the two men — which suddenly increases her value in Sam’s eyes. (“You don’t belong to him,” Sam tells Connie. “You never will.”) The question is, how far is he willing to go to get Connie back?
And another question is — is Lighthouse noir? Or not?
The film opens with a written narrative that defines a lighthouse and informs the viewer about the lonely life of the “always watchful, vigilant” man who tends the property. “It’s a small world,” we’re told, ”but things happen in it.” That last bit is ominous and noir-like, but the music is upbeat and hopeful — cheery, even. If darker things are to come, we are misled by the score.
Let’s take a look at the characters. Hank is a straight shooter, committed to his job and so driven to maintain the constancy of the lighthouse beacon that he has regular nightmares about the light burning out. Sam, conversely, has more of a noirish bent to his persona; he’s a liar and a trickster, who uses every excuse he can think of to arrange his frequent absences from his job — one day, he stuffs cotton in his jaw and claims that he has an emergency dental visit, the next, he complains that he has to visit his wife, who “keeps hitting me up for more dough.” And Hank’s not the only recipient of Sam’s deception — he not only tells Connie that he’s the head guy in charge at the lighthouse, but he also spends his shore leave wooing the new girl at the local fish cannery where Connie used to work.
As for Connie, she’s sweet but naïve, telling Sam that she misses him so much it makes her ill. But we see her shadowy side when she marries Hank and returns with him to the lighthouse, a side that’s vindictive and petty and duplicitous; she initially treats Sam with barely veiled contempt, like he’s the hired help (“Doesn’t your assistant make nice speeches to the girls,” she says to Hank. “I’ll bet he’s had a lot of practice.”) Behind Hank’s back, Sam convinces Connie that he loves her and that he’s close to getting a divorce, and then she can’t stay out of Sam’s arms — “I’ve wrecked everything,” she moans. She only wises up when the film’s fourth character — Connie’s pal JoJo (Marian Martin) — gives her the lowdown about the other dame Sam’s been seeing. A perfect fit for a noirish milieu, the worldly wise Jojo is not one to bite her tongue and was the first to suggest to her friend that Sam was no sterling character: “He’s been giving you this spiel about getting married for the last six months,” JoJo tells her friend in an early scene. “I don’t believe it.” And when Connie talks about leaving Hank, JoJo convinces her to make her marriage work, pointing out the reality of the alternative: “So you don’t love [Hank]. So what? It ain’t no fun puttin’ little fish in cans.”
The action in the film is kicked into a darker gear after Connie spends a few days visiting JoJo and returns to her husband and her new home, clear-eyed about the true nature of her ex-lover and displaying a renewed commitment to Hank — which doesn’t sit well with Sam. During a “housewarming” dinner with the newlyweds and JoJo, Sam continually references Connie’s checkered past with the opposite sex and encourages the more-than-tipsy JoJo to spill Connie’s secrets: “Hank’s a lucky man,” Sam concludes, “being able to wade through all those guys and come out with Connie.” But later, an eavesdropping Sam is furious to learn that his boss is more forgiving and understanding than he’d anticipated and that his ploy to come between Hank and Connie was a flop. But Sam’s no quitter — a few nights later, as Sam furtively watches him from behind a corner, Hank is seriously injured when he slips off the pier during a stroll. Was this just an accident? Or is something more nefarious afoot?
We’re not really sure what to think. Connie, certainly, appears to be concerned about her husband’s well-being, but Sam? Did he do something that caused Hank to fall? After Hank returns home, walking on a cane, the mystery deepens and the noirishness ratchets up; Connie and Hank receive a visit from an insurance company representative by the name of Quimby (Charles Wagenheim) — and it’s not exactly a pleasure call. Quimby asks that Connie leave the room, and then remarks on the couple’s “unusual situation — an older man marries a pretty young girl and brings her out here to live on a little lighthouse island. On this island, there’s a young fella — a tall, good looking fellow. Don’t you think it’s a bit queer . . .” Quimby further notes that Hank made Connie the beneficiary of his life insurance policy only a few weeks before. “It’s just that we don’t want you to keep on having accidents, that’s all.” A short time later, when Connie shows Quimby the spot where the accident happened, she spots Sam lurking and listening.
By introducing the notion that Connie and Sam could have teamed up to try to kill Hank, the scene with the insurance agent is the closest the film comes to being noir. And if the two had actually been scheming to plot Hank’s demise so they could be together and collect his insurance money, the film would almost undoubtedly fall into the noir category — but it wasn’t. Connie briefly flirted with the femme fatale label when she set out to exact revenge on Sam by marrying his boss, but that’s the extent of her bad-girl pedigree. As for Sam, he was a scoundrel and a womanizer and a liar — but despite his habit of sneaking around and eavesdropping, I’m not convinced that he was an attempted murderer. And the film never tells us, for sure, one way or the other. Furthermore, such common noir characteristics as flashbacks, voiceover narration, unique camera angles, and use of shadows and light are noticeably absent.
Because Lighthouse approaches but stops short of depicting the tone, mood, and characteristics that are typically found in film noirs, I’m calling this one: it’s not noir.
Other Stuff About the Lighthouse Cast
Lighthouse was helmed by German director and screenwriter Frank Wisbar, who created the popular television anthology series Fireside Theatre, which ran on NBC from 1949 to 1958.
June Lang, who played Connie, is perhaps best known for her roles in two Shirley Temple vehicles, Captain January (1936) and Wee Willie Winkle (1937). Her once-promising career was irrevocably damaged with her 1939 marriage to Chicago mobster Johnny Roselli. Lighthouse was her last feature film.
One of the most experienced cast members was Marian Martin (Jojo) – her first notable film was the 1938 feature Sinners in Paradise, directed by James Whale. She would go on to appear in such well-known features as His Girl Friday (1940) Boom Town (1940), The Big Street (1942), and Lady of Burlesque (1943), and co-star in three “Mexican Spitfire” features with Lupe Velez. Her contributions to film landed her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
John Litel (Hank) is one of those actors with a face you recognize and a name you may have never heard. In the 1930s, he was part of the “Warner Bros. Stock Company” and played alongside such popular character actors as Joan Blondell, Ward, Bond, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, and George Tobias. His many credits include Jezebel (1938), Dodge City (1939), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), and Key Largo (1948).
The Film Masters' Restored Version of Lighthouse is now available for purchase for DVD here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. She is also the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, founded in 2004. She can be found on Twitter at @thedarkpages.