Hays Code dominated Hollywood, basically making sure that anything shown on-screen was censored within an inch of its life. Its effect lessened over the years, but in the 1940s especially you got a sense of that censorship. The good guys always won, and even if those decent characters did something bad, they were going to pay for it and often enough with their lives. You more or less train yourself to pick out the ending before it happens because studios just didn't get away with those things.
I'm sure there are other examples -- Gone With the Wind comes to mind as a not-so happy ending -- but I can't think of many. Somewhere in a murky, middle ground is an early film noirish movie that pushes the limit, but only to a certain point, 1941's Out of the Fog. Directed by Anatole Litvak, the story hovers for awhile, not quite sure where to go but ends up righting itself nicely in the end, and even with a bit of a twist.
In a quiet, little fishing village on the East coast, a small-time racketeer, Harold Goff (John Garfield), moves in when he sees a chance to make some money. He starts intimidating all the local business owners and residents, demanding they pay him "protection money." Two old friends and fishing buddies, Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen), are two of Goff's clients, and even though they object, they don't know what else to do to stop Goff from taking everything they own. Meekly, they decide to go along with the demands, but just about everybody has a limit, and Jonah meets his when Goff starts dating his daughter, Stella (Ida Lupino). Pushed too far, how far then will Jonah and Olaf go to right the situation?
For a movie released in 1941, 'Fog' felt like it got away with a lot of things that a censor should have caught. Directors, actors and studios found ways to be very subtle and sneak things past censors, but this is pushing the limits. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Jonah and Olaf decide to off Goff by drowning him out at sea. Long story short, their plan doesn't work but Goff drowns in the process. So technically, they never committed murder even if they did put a plan into action. At this point, I'm expecting them to get caught and sent to jail. Joke was on me, the movie ends as happy as can be with everything wrapped up nicely. It certainly caught me off guard because even when "good" characters commit a transgression, they typically have to pay for it. Not so here, but the ending works. END OF SPOILERS
In a career that was cut tragically short when he died at the age of 49, Garfield made a living for doing characters like his Harold Goff. For being an all around son of a bitch, he's the most amiable racketeer you'll ever meet. Garfield had this way about him that drew you in as a viewer even when his actions are pretty despicable. His Goff is a guy you'd love to punch just once in the face, but he's so charming, so friendly in his intimidation techniques you don't even mind. Of course he does have a mean streak right up his back which comes out in a few creepy scenes so you know things aren't going to end well for his character. Still, it's a great villainous part, and one of many strong parts in Garfield's cut-short career.
Garfield is easily the best thing 'Fog' has going for it, but I loved the rest of the cast. Lupino wasn't a classically pretty woman, but there's just something about her in all the movies I've seen with her. She has this innocence about her but also a hard edge, and you end up seeing why her Stella is so caught up with this new bad boy in town. Mitchell is one of my all-time favorite character actors even if he did always play a variation on the same character. He's so likable in his parts that it is refreshing to see a little harder mindset as his Jonah prepares to do some bad, bad things. Qualen usually drives me nuts in most of his parts (especially his pairings with John Ford), but he's neutral enough here not to be a problem. Eddie Albert plays George, Stella's thrown aside boyfriend, and George Tobias has an odd very out of place part as a local businessman that doesn't justify the high billing he got.
One other thing beside some cool, mood setting use of a constant fogginess/smokiness permeating the set (a good choice) is something else that possibly slipped by the censors. I got a very distinct gay vibe between the Mitchell and Qualen characters. This could be me overanalzying the situation, but they acted like more than just longtime friends. Who knows for sure, but to prove me wrong you'll have to check it out.
Out of the Fog <---trailer (1941): ***/****