He is a bank clerk patriarch with a loyal, if plain, wife (Dorothy Peterson) and a college-aged daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) who wants to continue her stenography education. He is set upon for money at every turn in the first reel, from his wife, from his daughter, from the bills piling up on the kitchen table, and from the shop owners who have given him goods and services on credit. The situation is so bad that the creditors have approached his employer to garnish his wages, a situation that normally calls for immediate dismissal. His long tenure at the bank buys him three days to raise 125 pounds to pay the bills, or else he'll lose his job. And if he loses his job, he'll lose the family home, moving everyone into the poorhouse.
Then, out of nowhere, a long-lost nephew (Ray Milland) shows up flush with cash. Laughton has some inside information about manipulation of the franc and wants the nephew to go in on a purchase with him, but the nephew refuses. Laughton, his back to the wall, spies the glass-front cabinet in the hallway, and the bottle inside that is necessary for his photo development: cyanide.
It's played as a straight drama, but it shares a lot, thematically, with Noir. Laughton is tempted to let his darker side take over, and he is rewarded for this. But it eats at him throughout the rest of the film, providing the film with that singular Noir fatalism. There is even a femme fatale of sorts (Verree Teasdale) that blackmails Laughton for some of the money he's earned.
There is none of the later Noir style that would emerge, save for one shot where Laughton laughs maniacally as he sits in his chair. The shot irises down until it's just his head, laughing away against the blackness.I was tempted to call this film a proto-Noir, until I was absolutely positive I had no idea what was Noir and what wasn't. Thus, the Challenge.
Next time: The 10-Day Film Noir Challenge