Home Video Hovel: The Man Who Cheated Himself, by David Bax
It’s kind of surprising that Felix E. Feist’s The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950) has gone neglected for so long before its recent restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and subsequent Blu-ray release by Flicker Alley. I don’t say that just because it’s a great movie, which it is, but also because of its onscreen pedigree. Lee J. Cobb is a gruff detective (of course he is) but also a romantic sap. Jane Wyatt plays slightly against type as this noir’s version of a femme fatale, though she still brings plenty of that Father Knows Best domestic wholesomeness. And John Dall channels Jimmy Stewart with his boyish but intelligent lanky physicality.
Like Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends–released the same year–The Man Who Cheated Himself is a story about a murder cover-up. Lt. Ed Cullen (Cobb) is a good detective but he’s been seeing a wealthy, married woman named Lois Frazer (Wyatt). Lois plans to divorce her husband (Harlan Warde) to be with Ed but, before she gets a chance, an argument between the married couple leaves the husband dead, with two slugs in his chest and a third in the bookcase. Ed decides to attempt a cover-up but his younger brother Andy (Dall) has just made detective himself and–wouldn’t you know it–Mr. Frazer’s murder happens to be his first case.
So The Man Who Cheated Himself is a sort of cat-and-cat game, with one detective using his knowledge of crime and police work to throw the other off of his scent. A major reason the movie works so well is that the screenplay (by Seton I. Miller and Philip MacDonald) is a finely tuned machine that keeps shifting the power back and forth with each new turn, reveling in the mechanics of police work (and even giving us some proto-CSI forensics).
But Feist is doing more than simply translating the script to the screen. His direction is at once handmade and astonishingly graceful. The location shooting throughout San Francisco gives the film a gritty, boots-on-the-ground feel. And that’s exactly why the finale, a breathless chase through an abandoned factory, is so stunning in its quiet, scoreless beauty. We’ve only cheated ourselves by not giving The Man Who Cheated Himself the acclaim it deserves.
The new 4K restoration is a success. While some fluctuations in density and focus occur sporadically, the color timing and image stability are solid and there is surprisingly little sign of dirt. The mono audio also deserves applause for its clarity. Quiet moments like the one I mentioned above would make hiss conspicuous but there’s none to be found here.
Special features include a making-of featurette, a look at the San Francisco locations in the film as they were then and as they are now and a booklet highlighting production and promotional materials.