The Three Faces of Nora in Strange Impersonation 

August 20, 2014

As I believe I've mentioned before, I'm a sucker for crazy movie storylines and/or titles, and once again, the UCLA Film and Television Archive delivered during their Anthony Mann retrospective "Dark City, Open Country: The Films of Anthony Mann" earlier this year. The director's film noir-ish drama, 1946's Strange Impersonation, played at the Archive on February 21, 2014 and promised a "wacky and frenzied plot," according to UCLA's synopsis.

 

"Wacky and frenzied" may be a bit of an understatement. 

Brenda Marshall, who I seriously didn't recognize under her blonde dye job, stars as Nora Goodrich, a medical researcher who has just invented a new form of anesthesia. After presenting it to a panel of doctors, including her MD fiancée Dr. Stephen Lindstrom (William Gargan), the next step is to test it, but she needs approval from the doctors, which could take a while. Instead, Nora decides to use herself as the guinea pig and enlists her trusty lab assistant Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke) to observe, who just so happens to be a bit jealous of Nora's relationship with Stephen. 

Arline Cole (Hillary Brooke), right, observes as Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall), left, prepares for her experiment.

On her way home to conduct the experiment, Nora accidentally bumps a woman with her car. Conveniently, there happens to be a shady lawyer/insurance man who offers to represent the woman, Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford), if she wants to sue, but she says it's her fault because she's been drinking. Nora shoos the man away and offers to drive Jane home, dropping her at her dumpy apartment and giving her a few dollars as compensation for almost killing her.

 

When she finally arrives home, Nora injects herself with the anesthesia, falling into a deep sleep.  Instead of taking notes, Arline sabotages the experiment, which creates a fire and leaves Nora badly scarred. In the hospital, Arline spares no time at all in driving a stake between Stephen and Nora by making sure Stephen thinks Nora doesn't want to see him and vice versa; consequently, when she is released, Nora finds herself single again and relying on Arline as her only 'friend.' 

Dr. Stephen (William Gargan) visits Nora in the hospital...

...and Arline makes sure that won't happen again.

Back at home, Nora receives a visit from Jane, who now demands money for the accident. Naturally. Nora refuses, and Jane pulls a gun, but before Jane gets a chance to use it, she demands Nora's engagement ring and purse. Nora tries to take her down, which leads to a tussle outside in which Jane is accidently shot and falls over Nora's balcony, conveniently landing on her face on the sidewalk below. Between that and the fact that Nora's stolen purse and ring are found on Jane, the cops casually assume the body is Nora's. Instead of telling the truth, Nora takes advantage of the situation, flees and finds a plastic surgeon who can make her look like Jane. Yes, that's right: like trying to look like a celebrity but in this case, a dead person.

The veil's in the way, but even so, Nora's face didn't fare too well in the aftermath of her experiment.

Jane Karaski (Ruth Ford) is back and with a gun too!

Nora/New Jane doesn't stop there. Oh no. To get back at Arline, who she now knows was behind the botched experiment, Nora/New Jane plots to get her job and man back, which of course isn't as easy as she hoped it would be. Oh, and she's also now posing as a long lost friend of Nora's from childhood to account for her knowing so much about Nora's life when she gets a job in Stephen's lab and pushes Arline out of the picture. Nora/New Jane is closing in on her end goal when she's detained by police...for the murder of Nora! As Nora/New Jane tries to explain the situation, she keeps digging a deeper and deeper hole for herself. The last few minutes sweep the audience into a tornado and we land...well, to prevent any major spoilers I won't go into details here. You'll have to see it for yourself!

 

From start to finish, Strange Impersonation is a whirlwind ride of lies, deceit, and overall insanity. In addition to the unexpected ending, this crazy film surprised me in a few ways. To start off, I read the UCLA synopsis, but apparently I completely forgot what I read and didn't know going into the movie who would be impersonating who. Between the three main women - Nora, Arline, and Jane - Nora is the least, let's say, shady, so I naturally assumed one of the other women would take over Nora's identity, but boy was I wrong! It was a nice twist that wouldn't have been had I not forgotten what I read. My advice: if you plan on showing this movie to anyone, don't let them read the plot summary. It's more fun that way (and sorry I 'spoiled' it for those reading).

 

Brenda Marshall was the next revelation. Why? The fact that it was her, to begin with. Marshall had a relatively short career in Hollywood; though she worked from 1939-1950, she only made 19 movies during that time, which is odd considering it was the studio system era. I've seen three or four of her films, but I didn't immediately recognize her here, because as the real Nora, Marshall starts off as a blonde with glasses and usually she's a brunette in the pictures and films I've seen her in, which greatly changes the way she appears to me. Even after Nora undergoes plastic surgery to resemble Jane, there's still a different look about her. 

The many faces of Brenda Marshall: as Nora (above left), after the accident (above right) and as Nora/New Jane (below).

Makeup artist Bud Westmore and the hairstylist (who isn't credited - this is a Republic picture, after all) did a great job altering Nora/New Jane's look a smidge here and there to make the Brenda Marshall from the beginning look genuinely different from the Brenda Marshall we see at the end. Yes, the hideous scars in between helped erase the memory of the beautiful Nora from the opening scenes, and the dye job and glasses were easy ways to mask the change in appearance, but even after all those are taken away, Nora/New Jane possesses a different look and feel from Nora. It's quite a transition, both physically and emotionally, and Marshall did a marvelous job tackling three different roles: Nora, Nora as Jane Karaski, and Nora as Jane Karaski as Nora's imaginary childhood friend. Very impressive!

 

I was also awed at how writer Mindret Lord, working off a story from Anne Wigton and Lewis Herman, and director Mann navigated the audience through this topsy turvey plot; despite a terse runtime of 68 minutes, the team opportunely dropped hints that nicely laid the groundwork for most of the questions that arise. In particular, some lines, such as one in which Stephen warns Nora to be careful near her balcony because she could easily fall over, I found rather odd when first delivered; however, they make sense later - in this case, when Jane conveniently falls over said balcony. One of the biggest hidden dialgoue clues comes early on in the movie, but if I were to reveal what it was it would spoil the ending. All I'll say is that in the vein of The Sixth Sense (1999), I looked back to this particular line after the film's finale and it quickly and easily explained everything.

 

Being a B movie, Strange Impersonation naturally features many plot points that come across as rather outrageous to modern audiences (though this undeniably makes for more fun while watching). For instance, the seemingly clever way the filmmakers facilitated the switched identities, by scarring Nora's face and killing Jane, also represented the one gigantic misstep/plot hole for me. Of course Jane would come back as bad news, steal Nora's engagement ring and ID, fall over Nora's balcony, and conveniently land on her face, as one onlooker blatantly pointed out: She "fell right on her face! They won't be able to tell who it is!" Convenient, but not so fast. Another bystander quickly chimes in to identify the body as Nora's based on her engagement ring (luckily, Nora was about to give that back to Stephen, but he insisted she keep it!), and they do find Nora's purse on the dead body.

 

So, ring + purse = case closed? In the world of Republic Pictures, I guess so, because I'm sure the authorities didn't even want to try to confirm the identity with that smashed face of hers. Though the particulars of the ring and landing face down are smart niceties, there's a big issue of hair color: Nora had blonde hair and Jane was a brunette. You'd think that would be contradictory, but no. Even Stephen, Nora's fiancée who happened to arrive at her apartment at that very moment, couldn't tell Nora's hair color from Jane's? Yes, they told him to turn away from the scene, but still...he would just take someone else's word for it that his loved one is dead? Really? After a clever setup, you'd think the filmmakers would hire an actress whose hair is a similar color to Nora's - that should have been the easy part!

 

However, looking back perhaps a brunette Jane was chosen to make Nora's transformation into New Jane all the more visually distinct, though I'm not sure where they got the picture of Jane that Nora bases her surgery on, because it seriously looks like a Brenda Marshall version of Jane. Ironically, the doctor who performed the surgery confesses to Nora/New Jane that he could tell from her facial structure that she didn't look like the picture to begin with; good thing her hair is swept up in a towel afterwards, or else he'd see that she's a blonde too! Red flag much? Could be, but the doctor doesn't want to ask any questions or pry, instead simply imparting some advice: "You can change your face completely but you cannot change yourself." 

 

Was that a challenge? If so, consider it accepted, doc.

Love this shot - the first time the audience sees Nora/New Jane's face after surgery.

The dark hair completes the look!

For reference, here's the real Jane before her untimely demise over Nora's balcony.

While still in bandages after the surgery, Nora/New Jane reads of Stephen and Arline's marriage in Chemical Views (conveniently, a copy is at the hospital), which prompts her to flip out, because she uncovers for the first time one of Arline's lies; clearly, Arline was NOT mad at Stephen for the way he treated Nora, as she purported to be (though Arline cleverly set all that up to work in her favor). Well, now it's time for Nora/New Jane to take a page from Arline's book, visiting Stephen at work and introducing herself as Jane's childhood friend, sitting down to dinner with Stephen and Arline at their home, and worming her way into a job in the chem lab with Stephen (and a work trip to France that Nora declined to go on earlier).

I guess there's a Society section in Chemical Views.

Arline: "Stephen, doesn't Jane remind you of someone?" Nora/New Jane: "Oh you mean Nora. We were always taken for sisters."  

It's interesting to watch Nora devolve from a bright young scientist dedicated to her career into a Jane-esque, slightly deranged woman using Arline's tactics as she slowly pulls back the layers of Arline's many untruths. There are a lot of them that come out; in the span of about 20 minutes early on when Nora is in the hospital, Arline spews no fewer than four major lies to hospital staff, Nora, and Stephen. Slowly but surely, Nora/New Jane realizes Arline is not her friend, and during a scene in which Nora/New Jane confronts Arline, exposes her lies, and confesses her real identity, Nora/New Jane pulls a gun and threatens Arline, just as Jane did to Nora. This sufficiently scares Arline into leaving Stephen, giving Nora/New Jane the chance to cozy up to him again and righting her previous relationship wrong, namely, that she didn't appreciate what she had (Stephen) when she had it (when Stephen kisses Nora in the lab in the beginning, she protests: "Stephen, remember science!").

Now Nora/New Jane finds herself in the same position with Arline as she was when Jane confronted her.

The film drives deliciously deeper into crazyville during the third act, in which Stephen confesses his love to Nora/New Jane by telling her she reminds him so much of Nora - "like Nora never left" - but he loves her! (A girl usually doesn't want to hear that she reminds you of someone else that you loved...but don't worry, he loves you. For real). Stephen and Nora/New Jane are about to leave for France when she's detained at the airport...on suspicion of Nora's murder!

 

Nora/New Jane's story unravels in the interrogation room, as the identity she stole starts to backfire on her (note for next time: it's probably not a good idea to take a drunken, unstable woman's name and face). As it's revealed that Nora/New Jane was actually not a childhood friend of Nora's, people are brought in to confirm her identity as Jane and pin Jane to the scene of the crime. By the time Stephen walks in, Nora/New Jane realizes she's being accused of her own murder but proclaims: "I couldn't have killed Nora Goodrich: I am Nora!" This is soap opera worthy drama here! By now, Nora/New Jane's spun herself into too many lies, and the one person she confessed to previously, Arline, is the only one who can pull her free from the web she's created. Any guesses as to how that turns out? Hint: It's not good.   

Interrogations are tiring, aren't they? Especially when you've been accused of your own murder.

Things aren't going well for Nora/New Jane at the end.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the maelstrom that is Strange Impersonation, the film was exceptionally fun to watch with an audience. Aside from modern day viewers laughing in spots that most likely weren't intended to be funny (that's how you know it's a good B movie by today's standards), I feel like I was surrounded by people who had some sort of connection to the picture: two older women and a man in front of me seemed to know someone who acted in the movie, and one of the men sitting behind me had already seen the film in a theater. As the final scene unfolded, I heard a mutter over my shoulder, "It always gets them!" the man exclaimed in reference to the ending. He was right; the conclusion genuinely seemed to surprise most everyone in attendance, myself included - quite remarkable for a B movie, where you should generally expect anything to happen (and in this flick, it pretty much does)!

 

 

How to observe Nora's experiment:

Strange Impersonation is available both as a DVD and digital download from Amazon. However, if you ever get the chance to watch it in a theater, I highly recommend it. It's great fun to ride the roller coaster with others!

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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