Impact (1949)

Impact. Arthur Lubin. Feminist film critics have pointed to Impact as a commentary on the male anxiety, the fear/attraction of the modern woman, of the post-war period. There’s the well-to-do wife who turns out to be a two-timing black widow; there’s the ingénue who starts out as a tomboy but eventually proves her innocence, honesty, dedication, and looks sweet in a dress. But what interests me are the odd ways the film anticipates Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958). Both are set in San Francisco and the same locations appear in both films, especially the neo-gothic front gates of the Brocklebank Apartments on Mason Street. The films share similar themes of amnesia and loss; each explores how self-identity shifts in relation to shifting circumstances. In each film, as the lead male character under goes these changes, the actors (Brian Donlevy, and, famously, Jimmy Stewart) are required to create different men, a protean feat. Each film is broken into separate compartments that match the changing identity of the main character; it’s like watching three or four different movies. Vertigo uses a precise color scheme to maintain coherence but lacking that technical extension, the b&w Impact shifts physical locations in improbable jumps signaled by paper-thin set changes (SF to Highway 1; a roadhouse to Idaho; Idaho to a courtroom). The gumshoes are gormless; the main character is too caught up in the action to investigate his own case, even when he is implicated (all these narrative elements show up in Vertigo, at least until the third act). In the end, it is the Chinese maid (played by silent film star Anna May Wong) who saves the day. Much like Vertigo, Impact is superficially exciting on first viewing; its sensibilities only become apparent on a second. By the third, you start to understand how the magic vibrates into genius.

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