Editor’s Note: Undercurrent was released on August 22, 2017 on made-on-demand DVD by Warner Archive.
Independent 30-something Ann Hamilton (Katharine Hepburn) still lives at home with her father (Edmund Gwenn), a famous scientist who develops technology for companies expanding during the post-war economic boom. Though persistently wooed by Professor Bangs (Dan Tobin), one of her father’s colleagues, Ann looks as though she may not be the marrying type. That changes when Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), the handsome and wealthy CEO of an airplane manufacturing company, arrives for a conference with her father. He takes one look at the disheveled Ann wearing men’s clothing and falls for her, hard. She’s taken with Alan as well, and within days they’re married and flying back to D.C. and Alan’s fabulous lifestyle.
Immediately, the outgoing Ann becomes meek and insecure, her plain brown dress clashing with the jewels and gowns of Alan’s acquaintances. He’s happy to help transform her into the stylish, successful wife of a wealthy man, but there’s tension in the marriage. It seems the family business was until recently half owned by Alan’s now-missing brother Michael, and Alan still stings from Michael’s betrayals. As Alan’s paranoia over Michael grows, Ann finds herself fascinated with this invisible brother, then frightened when his former girlfriend Sylvia (Jayne Meadows) tells her she believes Alan had Michael murdered.
Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946) is often considered the director’s first real stab at film noir, though cinephiles could argue until the end of time over whether it’s really noir or not. Unlike Mildred Pierce or The Hard Way, Undercurrent only barely touches on key elements that make a movie part of the film noir genre. There’s industrial espionage, a staple of movies late in the noir cycle, but it’s more background filler than anything, and somewhat excused by the fact that Alan’s alleged corporate enemy was a German national in the U.S. during the war. There’s the emotionally broken man — you can’t have a noir without a man at the end of his emotional rope — but in Undercurrent he’s a man who wants to make changes for the better.
Finally, there’s the missing person, Alan’s brother Michael. He’s a lover of music and poetry, a well-traveled and empathetic man with a fabulous, modern home, as Ann discovers when she goes snooping one afternoon. But it’s folly to ever call Michael truly missing, if only because of the process of elimination: by the time we learn of Michael’s existence, there’s only one actor on the movie poster who hasn’t shown up yet.
Undercurrent is more Gothic suspense than noir, resembling classics like Gaslight and Suspicion, though with a lighter bite. Minnelli, not surprisingly, seems far less interested in the thriller he’s been handed than in the characters that populate the story, and from the very beginning he concerns himself with the undercurrents that propel everyone on screen. When we first see Ann, she’s a typical 1940s tomboy, wearing young men’s clothes and chasing her dog Rummy around the house. Though Alan soon changes her into a society maven, when he first falls for her he does so precisely because she’s boyish, because she’s eschewed outward signs of femininity. Later, as she worries over not impressing his rich friends, he tells her that he fell for her because she wasn’t like all the others.
And she isn’t. She indulges in performative femininity after marriage, and seems not only unconvincing but just plain unconvinced. When she’s being fitted for her first gown, she stands staring at herself in the shop mirror, floaty and distracted, disconnected from reality. Weeks later as she follows Sylvia into the powder room for a little amateur sleuthing, she touches up her face with the heavy hand of someone who is inexperienced, stealing glances at Sylvia as though she were looking for makeup tips.
Ann isn’t the only one who isn’t fully convincing in her role in society. Her hometown beau, Professor Bangs, may ask her repeatedly to marry him, but does almost nothing to actually woo her. Played by the terrific Dan Tobin, Dr. Bangs is handsome and intelligent and interested in Ann, yet seems astonished that a man would send this beautiful woman flowers. He never touches her, barely ever gets near her, never even asks her out on a proper date, and when he speaks, as the old “Will & Grace” quote goes, purses fall out of his mouth.
Meanwhile, maid and cook Lucy (Marjorie Main) does nothing to hide her true self: the first words out of her mouth express the frustrations — all of the frustrations — of being a spinster, and her concern that Ann might wind up alone. Ann’s father also does little to hide his own issues, expressed in the implication that he’d be happy to keep his daughter Ann around as an ersatz wife.
What these subtle implications do, especially the benign disinterest of Professor Bangs, is reinforce the fact that, even though she is older than most women when she finally marries, Ann has never had sex. Her initiation into that adult world comes with not only loss of freedom but behavioral changes and a strict limitation on how she is allowed to look. It’s no surprise that paranoia and resentment set in.
If there’s any flaw in Undercurrent, it’s that this loss of freedom isn’t particularly well illustrated. This is often blamed on Katharine Hepburn’s inability to play weak, though in truth, her natural strength works well in the first two acts as her intellectual curiosity and willful behavior explain much of what she does. Later, though, when she just folds and accepts her fate, it strains credulity. The same can be said for Robert Mitchum’s role as a sympathetic, soft-spoken poetry lover; when you have actors with such outsized real world personalities, there’s only so much playing against type can do.
As a calm, collected and stylish suspense tale, Undercurrent surprises with its gentle probes into society and psyche. Hepburn is beautiful and fragile, and Robert Taylor, just back from serving in WWII, puts in a surprisingly nuanced turn. Minnelli is curiously subdued here, but it works to fine effect, making Undercurrent a solid melodrama sure to please fans of both noir films and romantic thrillers.
Warner Archive has just re-released Undercurrent in a made-on-demand DVD with all the same features as their 2007 release.