“They turn a spotlight on you when they keep narrowing the circle closing in for the kill…You wonder how it happened and where it really began…”
Though there are plenty of weightier noirs, few have the irresistible, jacked-up urgency of No Questions Asked. It’s the kind of film noir many people want to watch – atmospheric, glamorous, hard-boiled, straightforward, unpretentious. As IMDb pundit Jay MacIntyre says of the picture, “it’s a pulp novel come to life”.
Life began for No Questions Asked with an early screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, who had a busy career in television (creating and writing for I Dream of Jeannie, The Pattie Duke Show and Hart to Hart) before turning to fiction in the 1960’s. Dubbed the “Prince of Potboilers” by the LA Times, Sheldon is still counted among the best-selling authors of all time. Sheldon said of his novels, "I try to write my books so the reader can't put them down” and No Questions Asked is a good example of the kind of film noir you can’t put down.
The movie opens explosively with protagonist and narrator Steve Keiver (Barry Sullivan) on the run from police through the rain-soaked darkness. Suddenly, it flashes back to the story of how he ended up there. Keiver works as a lawyer for an insurance company. One day his boss floats the idea that the firm might be willing to make cash settlements on stolen goods – “no questions asked” – rather than have to pay out the claims. Keiver tests the waters by following up on a robbery, tracking down the thieves and finally, working out a deal. For his efforts, he gets a ‘commission’ of two thousand dollars.
Financially, this is big for Keiver. His high-toned girlfriend, Ellen Sayburn Jessman (Arlene Dahl) has made it plain she wants more than what he’s offering. He’s pleads with her to be patient. She fires back, “You can’t deposit patience in a bank”. With his windfall, Keiver buys Ellen a diamond ring but when he goes to her apartment, he finds out she’s gone. He’s told by a neighbor that Ellen went on a ski trip. Oh, and by the way, she got married while she was there.
Keiver is furious but now wants Ellen more than ever and figures he’s got no choice but to go big or go home – and, if home, he knows won’t it be with Ellen. He decides to broker his own deals with the criminal gangs. But as the number of robberies and heists increases, the police begin to view Keiver as part of the problem, not the solution. The cop-in-charge of the investigation, Matt Duggan (George Murphy) confronts him outright, “Legally, you’re still within your rights. Morally, you stink”.
Others think so, too. Friends and business associates begin to shun Keiver and when the law starts to come down hard on the thieves, he hears from one of his contacts that, “The word’s out. You’re poison”.
The lawyer’s world is falling apart fast but a couple of pals are sticking by him, including an occasional girlfriend, Joan Brenson, played by Jean Hagen. As she did in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Hagen loves a guy who basically could care less. When Keiver asks her why she even bothers, she says, “Maybe I’m sticking around for you because you’re a haunted guy. Maybe I’m just waiting for the ghost to come back” (No Questions Asked is a movie with a steamer trunk of great dialog, much of the best of it going to Hagen).
Unfortunately, Ellen, the phantom lover does come back, whispering “Steve, there’s never been anyone but you”. Unfortunately, he believes her. Not long after, Keiver finds himself framed for murder and on the run.
That makes No Questions Asked the perfect Barry Sullivan movie, of which there were a few. Sullivan was a handsome, imposing actor who never for a moment looked ‘comfortable in his own skin’, making him ideal for film noir. More than any other lead or main supporting actor, Sullivan excelled at playing characters who were doomed to be doomed, as he was in titles like Suspense (1946) , Framed (1947), Cause for Alarm (1951) and The Gangster (1947), the most agonizingly fraught film noir never made in France. In No Questions Asked, Sullivan’s Keiver is a man so blindly and completely obsessed, his fate is a done deal.
But then it’s very hard not to be blinded by Arlene Dahl, whose dauntingly haute attractiveness, like that of some others of the classic period – from Hedy Lamarr to Grace Kelly – borders on the incomprehensible. Dahl’s kind of cool, idealized beauty had all but disappeared from screens by the ‘70’s, with Sharon Tate the last actress seemingly allowed it on screen.
However, Dahl’s part as a duplicitous femme fatale does give her the space to be more than just gorgeous window dressing and overall the actress did well by her appearances in film noir, including Scene of the Crime (1949), Reign of Terror (1949), Slightly Scarlet (1956), as well as two worthy British productions, Wicked as They Come (1956) and She Played with Fire (1957).
That said, it’s still Jean Hagen who tends to steal the show, as she so often did. As John Huston, who’d cast Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle said of her, "She has a wistful, down-to-earth quality that’s so rare in movies. A born actress.” But after having done a trio of dark crime titles including The Asphalt Jungle, No Questions Asked and Side Street (1949), Hagen wanted to be more than just the lovelorn ‘good girl’ who gets pushed around or pistol-whipped. And more came with her role in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Ironically she lost to Gloria Grahame in the noir-stained drama The Bad and Beautiful. Even more ironic, Hagen probably is now best-remembered for those appearances in film noir.
On the other hand, No Questions Asked was a movie beyond the usual for its director Harold Kress, who was foremost an editor. Kress worked on nearly eighty films – including two dozen ‘major motion pictures’ ranging from Teahouse of the August Moon and Silk Stockings to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Along the way, he won two Academy Awards and was nominated for four more. Though he only ever directed five pictures, it’s clear that Kress had a way with mise en scene, bringing both a painterly precision and athletic vigor to the direction of the film.
Also contributing was composer/ musical director Leith Stevens, an amazingly versatile composer/ arranger whose many screen credits included several first-rate B noirs: Private Hell 36 (1954), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Inside Detroit (1956), Miami Expose (1956), Rumble on the Docks (1956), The Garment Jungle (1957), The Line-Up (1958), Screaming Mimi (1958). Steven’s acknowledged gift was his lighter touch and his score for No Questions Asked is both nicely present and never more than need be.
Teeming with incident, No Questions Asked moves along like it’s on a rail. And when the script is as sharp, the production as efficient, and the cast as smart as it is, it’s easy just to sit back and enjoy. No Questions Asked is one of those of those films that works as hard as possible to deliver first-rate entertainment on a B-budget and does a terrific job of it. Score one for the people.