Combustible Celluloid
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With: Angela Lansbury, Keith Andes, Douglass Dumbrille, Claudia Barrett, Jane Darwell, Gavin Gordon, Charles Maxwell, William Henry, Kathleen Mulqueen, Dan Sturkie, Jeane Wood, Robert Haver
Written by: Russ Bender, based on a story by Hank McCune
Directed by: Paul Guilfoyle
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 78
Date: 03/18/1955

A Life at Stake (1955)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Suspect Architect

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This forgotten "B" film, which had been distributed by Ida Lupino's company The Filmmakers, has been recently rediscovered and restored by the good folks at The Film Detective, and it gets a Blu-ray release September 7, 2021. It's certainly not a major movie, but it has a certain lascivious quality that most American films of the 1950s scrubbed clean, and it's good to have any movie brought back from the brink of extinction.

Angela Lansbury is the recognizable star, but the main character is played by Keith Andes, arguably more for what he looked like without his shirt than for his acting ability. He's architect Edward Shaw, deeply in debt thanks to an untrustworthy former partner. He keeps a framed $1000 bill as a kind of token; as long as he doesn't spend it, he still has hope. (Jane Darwell, Oscar-winner for The Grapes of Wrath, plays Shaw's landlady.)

He's approached with an offer and meets with Doris Hillman (Lansbury), who is, of course, in a wet bikini by the poolside. She flirts with him and proposes a partnership, wherein a bonus will be the repayment of Shaw's debts. He doesn't trust anyone, but follows up. Things get even more suspicious when Doris's flirty, talkative younger sister Madge (Claudia Barrett) tells him about a former husband of Doris's that died in an accident, and when Doris demands that he, Shaw, take out a $250,000 life insurance policy.

Directed by Paul Guilfoyle — a former actor with mainly TV directing experience — A Life at Stake manages to keep all this stuff bubbling and steaming thanks to Shaw's extreme paranoia. Even if it sounds inevitable on paper, each scene only has the suggestion that something could possibly go wrong. The tense unknowing drives the 78-minute film to its satisfying conclusion.

The Blu-ray is not exactly flawless; the image has a sort of fluctuating, pulsing quality from time to time, but it's more than watchable. It comes with a commentary track by professor/film scholar Jason A. Ney, who also provides a liner notes essay. (The liner notes booklet is 12 pages, with lots of photos.) The other extra is an interesting featurette about Lupino and The Filmmakers. It also includes optional English and Spanish subtitles. Recommended.

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