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Noir or Not: The Big Bluff (1955)

By Karen Burroughs Hannsberry

The next entry in our Noir or Not series is The Big Bluff, a 1955 feature from a production company known as Planet Filmplays. Starring Martha Vickers and John Bromfield, it was helmed by W. Gene Wilder, whose biggest claim to fame was that he was the older brother of acclaimed director, Billy Wilder.

Vickers plays Valerie Bancroft, a wealthy, beautiful, and terminally ill socialite who travels to California for a rest and winds up falling for – and marrying – the suave Ricardo “Rick” De Villa (Bromfield). What she doesn’t know is that Rick barely has two nickels to rub together and that he’s only biding his time until she kicks the bucket – if he can wait that long.

Sounds pretty noirish, wouldn’t you say? But let’s take a closer look and find out. Is The Big Bluff noir? Or not?

We learn in the film’s opening scenes that Valerie has an unspecified heart condition and isn’t likely to live more than six months. But her doctor and her secretary/companion Marsha (Eve Miller) think it’s best that they keep that little detail a secret from Valerie, instead recommending that she embark on a restful vacation. Valerie and Marsha jet off to California; at their hotel, Marsha is the first to encounter Rick, and in quick succession, several interesting bits of information are tossed our way. First off, Valerie has loaned Marsha her fur coat and expensive earrings, leading Rick to believe that she’s the well-heeled hotel guest he’s heard about; seeing dollar signs in his future, he instantly sets out to woo her. We also learn that irrespective of Rick’s interest in Marsha-who-he-thinks-is-Valerie, he’s already involved in a hot and heavy relationship with Fritzi Darvel (Rosemarie Bowe), a dancer in the hotel lounge. And what’s more, Fritzi is married to the drummer for the house band, Don (Eddie Bee), who has no illusions about his wife’s fidelity – or lack, thereof – and is constantly on her tail, tiptoeing about and peeking around doorways, determined to expose Fritzi’s perfidy. 

Incidentally, in case it wasn’t made clear that Rick plans to romance his way into Valerie’s bank account, we discover this without question when he’s confronted by Fritzi, who accuses him of being a two-timer and a phony. “And I was ready to leave my husband – for what?” she asks. “For a big bluff like you.” But Rick assures Fritzi that she’s the only woman for him and shares his plan to cozy up to the lady with the sizable income: “An opportunity like this knocks only once. And I know when to open the door. Don’t you agree it’d be more profitable for me to get a bit involved with this rich widow? Say, for a couple million? So that you and I can do the things the way we planned? All it’ll take is a little time.”

So far, so noir. But it gets even darker.

Once the mix-up about Valerie’s identity is straightened out, Rick goes into full Casanova mode, taking her to nightclubs, horse races, dining, dancing – in fact, he gives her such a whirlwind experience that Valerie actually collapses after one of their dates, prompting Marsha to tell Rick about Valerie’s condition. But the news doesn’t have the effect Marsha was aiming for; after learning that Valerie is terminally ill, Rick’s interest in her increases significantly, and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” the two are married. That’s when we learn that Rick doesn’t exactly have the patience of a saint: he starts tampering with Valerie’s medication – switching her pills with capsules filled with baking soda – in an effort to hasten her departure from this mortal coil. 

As you may have deduced, character-wise, Rick is clearly the most noirish of the bunch. From the moment he shows his face (which, by the way, is part James Craig, part Clark Gable, and part Gilbert Roland circa 1952), we know that he’s up to no good. He doesn’t even have to speak. And once he does, he certainly removes any possible doubt. Take the scene where he tells Fritzi his plans to marry Valerie. Fritzi balks at the idea, suggesting that she and Rick run away together, like he wanted to earlier in their relationship. “It’s a good thing we didn’t, or I’d have never met her,” Rick responds. “Where’s your business sense?” After he marries Valerie, Rick takes her shopping for artwork for their new home, surreptitiously suggesting to the dealer that he double his asking price: “Two thousand for me, two thousand for you.” Then there’s the scene when Valerie’s doctor tells Rick that Valerie’s health is improving; it’s all Rick can do to keep the disappointment from spreading across his face like an eclipse. “I’m glad you told me,” he says. “Believe me, I’ll take good care of her.” And that’s when his plot to get rid of his wife takes on a whole new level of scheming evil. 

Rick isn’t alone in his noirishness; Fritzi is his perfect partner. When we first see her, she’s blatantly flirting with Rick as she performs a dance, completely indifferent to the fact that her husband is sitting just a few feet away, watching the entire exchange. She’s a smooth liar with a tendency toward jealousy, chastising Rick for “carrying on an affair with another woman right under [her] nose” when she’s doing the same to her husband. And when she finds out Rick’s deadly plans for his wife, she’s with him every step of the way, thinking only of how she will benefit – she never considers trying to talk Rick out of his plot or extricate herself from the relationship. If anything, the newly introduced criminal element only serves to cement her commitment. She’s a classic femme fatale.

There are a few unique camera angles in The Big Bluff and a number of scenes that enhance the film’s tone through shadows and light, courtesy of cinematographer Gordon Avil. There are no voiceover narration or flashbacks; the noir-ness of the film is principally derived from the characters and the story itself; the last 15 minutes or so are especially indicative of the noir era and provide a conclusion to the film’s exploits that is more than satisfactory.

Given these factors, I can say with great confidence – The Big Bluff is definitely film noir.

Other Stuff About the Cast and Crew of The Big Bluff

Rosemarie Bowe began her career as a model in Seattle during her teenage years. She later did modeling in Los Angeles and, under the name Laura Bowe, made her screen debut in an uncredited part in Lovely to Look At (1952), starring Red Skelton and Kathryn Grayson. She was also uncredited as a swimmer in an Esther Williams vehicle, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). One of her biggest roles was in The Peacemaker (1956), a western starring James Mitchell. That same year, she married actor Robert Stack; the two were together until Stack’s death in 2003.

Perhaps best known for her role as the thumb-sucking coquette in The Big Sleep (1946), Martha Vickers was first seen on screen in an uncredited role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. Her last big screen role came less than 20 years later, when she starred with Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield in The Burglar (1957). Married for a little over a year to Paramount producer A.C. Lyles and for three years to actor Mickey Rooney, Vickers died of cancer in 1971 at the age of 46.

Cinematographer Gordon Avil’s career began in the late 1920s with Hallelujah (1929), the first talking picture directed by King Vidor and one of the first Hollywood pictures with an all-Black cast. He would go on to serve as cinematographer on such films as The Champ (1931), the Edmond O’Brien noir, Shield for Murder (1954), and Big House U.S.A. (1955). Avil was also the director of photography on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes; while on vacation from the popular series in 1970, he died of a heart attack in Barbados.


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