Nora Prentiss is less about Nora and more about Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith). When we meet Dr. Talbot, he is a successful, married doctor from San Francisco with two children. However, he has become bored with his life and his marriage. That all changes when nightclub singer Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan) is hit by a car. Dr. Talbot brings her to his office and tends to her. Her injuries are only minor, but the two begin to see each other more and more often. First he comes to see her perform at a nightclub, then they have dinner together, and before we know it, they’re off to his vacation home together. Eventually, Dr. Talbot decides he wants to leave his wife, but can’t bring himself to actually ask for a divorce. When a patient has a heart attack and dies in his office, Dr. Talbot places some of his personal effects on the man, puts him in his car and drives him to a deserted area, where he sets the car on fire and pushes it off a cliff. Since now people would think he was dead, he was free to run off to New York with Nora and marry her.
But of course, faking your own death never really works out in movies. He finds out the death is still being investigated back home, so he has to lay low to avoid possibly running into anybody he knew back home. He didn’t tell Nora what he did and she doesn’t understand why they can never go out and do anything. Nora eventually has to go back to work and gets a job singing in a new nightclub run by her old friend Phil Dinardo (Robert Alda). But Dr. Talbot starts to suspect that Nora and Phil are having an affair. His fears are unfounded, but his possessiveness drives him to confront Phil, which sets off a chain of events that leads to him being put on trial for murdering himself.
What I found most interesting about Nora Prentiss is that while it’s film noir, it’s not quite a typical film noir. Nora meets the definition of a femme fatale in the sense that she’s the woman who leads Dr. Talbot into a downward spiral. But the thing is, she isn’t really that bad of a person. Yes, she had an affair with a married man. But she’s not like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. If she were, she’d be the one suggesting Dr. Talbot fake his own death or she’d be the one pushing that car over the cliff; but no, that was all Dr. Talbot’s doing. In fact, she confesses to feeling responsible for Dr. Talbot’s life taking a downturn after meeting her and tries to get out of it. You certainly wouldn’t hear that from Cora Smith or Phyllis Dietrichson. And she isn’t the possessive femme fatale type like Gene Tierney played in Leave Her to Heaven. Again, Dr. Talbot was the possessive one in the relationship. I was reading some comments for Nora Prentiss over on IMDB, and someone pointed out how they thought it was strange that Nora wasn’t punished for being an adulteress. Since this film was made under the Hayes Code, they were big on making sure that the sinners get what’s coming to them. But does Nora really get off scot free here? She seemed to genuinely love Talbot, but in the end she can’t marry him like she wanted to. The way I see it, that was her punishment.
Nora Prentiss was an excellent movie. I loved Ann Sheridan’s and Kent Smith’s performances, plus there was Vincent Sherman in the director’s chair, Franz Waxman bringing some great music, and some lovely cinematography from the legendary James Wong Howe. I seriously cannot believe that this movie wasn’t available on DVD until Warner started their Warner Archive collection. How was there not enough of a market for this to warrant a proper DVD release? I’d think it’s certainly good enough to release on its own, or it would have made a fantastic addition to a film noir boxed set. If you’ve never seen it, be sure to check it out next time you see it on the TCM schedule.