With a title like that, how could I resist? It takes place in England, but Lady Macbeth has nothing to do with it. Burt Lancaster plays an ex-GI who spent time in Nazi POW camps. The trauma of wartime is still with him, and with the post-war London through which he moves: rubble and ruins are everywhere. While at the zoo with a girlfriend, watching the apes and other caged beasts, he has a flashback to his own captivity.
This film veers between romantic melodrama and deep noir as it follows Bill Saunders (Lancaster) from an involuntary manslaughter in the opening sequence, through an atmospheric chase in foggy, dank, decayed London, to his eventual regeneration under the soulful gaze of nurse Jane (Joan Fontaine). The film ends with her being chased through London, menaced by lonely men and errant street cleaning machines. As in The Third Man, the bombed out metropolis and its post-war black market in contraband penicillin is an important element.
What makes this film worth watching is Lancaster’s portrayal of a character doomed by fate: his old man; his lack of education; the way the world works; everyone is always against him. He’s a born loser, but he’s lonely, and he wants to connect with humanity if he can. He’s a bad boy, “everything that’s bad,” Jane tells him, before she totally falls for hm, and she’s a good girl. He goes to prison for assault, and she waits for him on the outside, and when he gets out, he makes her do things she never dreamed she could do, such as stab a man to death with a scissors. It’s quite a clever switch up!
When Bill is sentenced, the judge notes the viciousness of his actions, and gives him eighteen lashes. Turns out, judicial corporal punishment was ended only in 1948! Bill is a martyr to the State endorsed sadism of the courts. The film slows down for the preparation for the flogging – special attention is given to the collar Bill wears during the ordeal. It could be out of an S&M short.
Bill goes to take care of the blackmailing thug stabbed by Jane and ends up finishing him off. It’s one of the most delightful death scenes I’ve ever seen in noir – falling onto the carpet, he knocks over his fish tank, and the fish make a smacking sound as they flap about helplessly next to dying man.
Bill is softened by his love for Jane. He agrees to go with her to face the law for his and her actions. She’ll be cleared: she acted in self-defense, but what about him? At least she will be with him.