Note: In this essay, some points will indicate plot development, but the head-spinning twist at the end will not be divulged.
While browsing on Open Culture’s Free Film Noir page, I came across The Big Bluff (1955). The movie is out of copyright and can be found easily on YouTube. Sometimes what enhances enjoyment of a film is complete ignorance of the main players. They aren’t carrying the baggage of their past roles, and they don’t need to fulfill some expectation of the viewer.
Martha Vickers plays Valerie Bancroft, a young widow of means. Eva Miller assumed the role of her nurse-companion, Marsha Jordan. Neither actress rates a bio in the IMDB. The male lead is John Bromfield as Ricardo De Ville. Bromfield, who may ring a bell for science fiction or Western devotees, retired from acting in 1960 and became a commercial fisherman. The supporting male was Robert Hutton as Dr. Peter Kirk. Mr. Hutton similarly does not rate a bio in the IMDB.
The plot is that our young, wealthy, pretty widow Bancroft has been diagnosed with terminal heart trouble. The exact condition is not specified, but she is prescribed a regime of pills that have to taken every four hours. Her primary doctor is of the opinion that it is better that she not know that she will likely die in a matter of months; and, for the moment, this information is kept from her.
In addition, in her course of treatment, she is to avoid alcohol, refrain from staying out late and hanging out with her old crew. Thus bored with her perceived prison, the good doctor agrees that she travel from New York City to California for a change of pace. He puts her in the care of his protegee, Dr. Kirk.
The widow Bancroft and Marsha Jordan are lodged in nice hotel, and there is a chance encounter with Ricardo De Ville. De Ville is down on his luck. He is running out of money. He cannot (allegedly) contact his South American business partners for reimbursement of expenses. He has a girlfriend who is a nightclub songstress in a bad marriage. After a case of mistaken identity is sorted out, Mr. De Ville starts to pursue Bancroft.
He does everything that is supposed to be bad for her. He encourages her drinking. He takes her out after midnight. She is given new life with this new man.
After wining and dining Mrs Bancroft into the night, De Ville is confronted by Dr. Kirk and Marsha who tell him about Valerie’s condition—that she has already received the invitation from the Grim Reaper, but the date is not yet set.
After hearing this, De Ville redoubles his efforts to charm the wealthy Mrs. Bancroft. The couple marry, and Ricardo puts himself in charge of her medication. He has two matching pill boxes that he uses to swap out the real pills with fake. He shakes out the contents of the real pills and refills them with sodium bicarbonate.
Dr. Kirk, not knowing about the swap, examines Mrs. De Ville after this, and is surprised how she has improved. He doesn’t know she is no longer taking the pharma poison, and she is enjoying her life with the new husband. However, Marsha Jordan suspects that something is up the pills. She refilled the box herself and later finds that there are fewer pills than expected, and notices the dust from the sodium bicarbonate. She steals a pill and gives it to Dr. Kirk for analysis, where, lo and behold, the sodium bicarbonate is discovered.
Marsha gets the idea that Ricardo has murder on the mind, and the police are enlisted, but they say they can do nothing.
By now, the medication is sorted out, and Mrs. De Ville is again being administered the real deal at regular intervals and—you can see this coming—experiencing some of the old symptoms.
After a gun fired in the wee hours, waking the house, and Mrs. De Ville is found dead. It is thought she was murdered. The coroner comes to investigate, and concludes the “rather curious” development that Mrs. De Ville died of “a pulmonary embolism due to a heart attack”—and was not killed by a firearm.
The unintended lesson is that it is better to keep away from big pharma and that a placebo (and love) can have life-giving effects.
In the end, the gunshot is explained, the denouement breaks outside the standard story line, and the last three or four minutes of the piece are shocking. If one is looking for a way to spend a little more than an hour on a cozy afternoon, the film is warmly recommended.
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