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Prof. Andrew Gentling, in Los Angeles to help found a new college, is inveigled by old flame Catherine Sykes into a midnight drive. Next day Catherine is missing, believed killed; friend Martha convinces Andrew that he's a prime suspect and should investigate before he's arrested. But this only puts Andrew in a more deadly kind of danger. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Sloppy suspense vehicle can't even make up its mind whether to be ominous or cute
Take One False Step takes too many of them. The jokey titles, of the coy sort that director Charles Erskine whisked into The Egg and I two years earlier, do not bode well; but they prove to be merely the first of the movie's faux pas. All the way through, the slovenly narrative and grating shifts of tone subvert what might have been a halfway decent suspense story.
Distinguished professor William Powell travels to Los Angeles to secure funding for a new college. The false step he takes is into a cocktail lounge, where he meets up with an old wartime flame, now unhappily married (Shelley Winters). They order martinis for old time's sake, a single for him, a double for her. But either the bartender or Erskine isn't paying close attention, because when the drinks arrive, in close-up, they're exactly the same size.
Later, in her cups, Winters causes a scene clinging to Powell, so he deserts her. Next morning, he reads the headlines that she's missing, presumed murdered, and that he's the prime suspect. And here the plot melts down into a hopeless muddle. Powell, with the help of Marsha Hunt (whose place in the mess goes unexplained) tries to solve Winters' disappearance. He finds that the boyfriend she kept on the side was involved, along with her husband, in some shady `syndicate' business which Erskine keeps so deep in the background that it's just a red herring. In the course of his snooping, Powell gets bitten by a dog that may be rabid and, the clock now ticking, heads to San Francisco for the final unraveling.
Along the way, Erskine jumbles together sequences which look and play like noir with others that are the worst kind of late-40s cutsey (absent-minded professors, a dithery doctor). And a good cast gets brusque treatment. The debonair but slightly raffish charm that made Powell such a hit in the Thin Man series looks a little shopworn (though the role of the lurching, drunken vixen works for Winters, a notoriously imprecise actress, and suits this very imprecise vehicle). James Gleason and Sheldon Leonard prove reliable as the pair of cops on Powell's tail, but they're still doing shtik. At the end, the coy comedy of the titles returns to trump the suspense. Take One False Step teems with gaffes and implausibilities; nobody even bothered to decide what kind of movie it was supposed to be. Small wonder it ended up being a lousy one.
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