The Man in the Net

Sunday morning news programs or the Alan Ladd film, The Man in the Net?  Seemed like a fair toss up to me, so I opted for the more apropos film.  And it is a very good film, despite its improbabilities and painfully weak plot.

Alan Ladd plays John Hamilton, a struggling, misunderstood artist who leaves a successful career in New York and moves to a Connecticut farm to focus on his painting.  Ladd isn’t the beatnik artist, of course…how could he be?…but he’s awkwardly cast as a quiet gentleman.  In fact, he is annoyingly passive and resigned; the kind of guy you want to slap some common sense into.

However, he does have to deal with Linda, his manic depressive alcoholic wife, who is set on ruining him and their marriage.  That can wear on a guy.  She’s set on leaving the Connecticut countryside and returning to New York.  Unlike misplaced Ladd, Carolyn Jones plays Linda quite well.  She is an absolutely conniving and convincing villain.

The rest of the adult cast — check the credits — are more or less extras with predictable scripts flatly read.  We’ll move on.

Linda Hamilton is a terribly envious and insecure woman.  She blames her fate on her timid husband.  John receives a generous offer to return to his work in New York.  Here’s Linda’s chance.  But she is incapable of discussing issues as John’s partner.  Name calling is easier.  John for his part…well, he’s John.

So Linda manipulates her husband’s affairs (while having an affair or two of her own), ridicules his work and prospects, and — worse of all — is a public embarrassment with tricks that include showing up late a friend’s birthday party drunk with an unexplained black eye.  Linda looks awesome in her fine clothes — let’s face it, Carolyn Jones is gorgeous — but despite her view of herself class and character are not Linda’s qualities.

It should surprise no one when philandering Linda turns up dead early in the film.  What is surprising is how the town quickly suspects John and turns on him.  Rather than be grateful, they organize an absurd lynch mob and go hunting for John.  Well, ok, maybe we shouldn’t be “grateful”, but if you would think one or the other had integrity, it would be John, not Linda.  If the film wants us to be sympathetic toward Linda, it doesn’t achieve this.

From the get-go Linda’s disappearance looks like a set up, complete with false and misleading clues, and the film does nothing to make the pieces work.  Most problematic, the timing of the Linda’s disappearance and murder is all loopy.  No one, not even John Hamilton, seems to figure that out.  As far as I can tell, John was in New York — a perfect alibi — when Linda disappeared, but John chooses to go on the run.

Fortunately for John Hamilton, the area children become his allies and help him evade capture and identify the real murderer.  Evidence of John’s innocence is everywhere, it only makes sense that he would hide in caves and use the children to distract the locals while he seeks the identity of Linda’s murderer.

The film entirely lacks suspense, tension, and probability.  It is difficult to rally behind Ladd’s character.  He unnecessarily complicates his situation and mopes around timidly resigned to his fate.  It isn’t easy to care.

The town equally draws little sympathy.  Other than a smattering of people with some sober common sense, the town is misplaced.  Nevertheless, I found the film easy and entertaining to watch.  But it could have been so much better.

Here’s how I would have reworked the story:

Fist, get rid of the lynch mob.  That simply was a shortcut to showing a town outraged about a murder.  It saved film, but hurt the narrative.  Instead drop damning bits of evidence that seem to contradict John’s innocence.  Build up the story so rational, upstanding citizens start to doubt John.  Build some tension.

The children are too easy, too.  Innocence.  But perhaps there could be something cloudy about this innocence.  Ultimately, the father of one of the children is the murderer.  Perhaps that child could be cast in a role where we he is unsure of his father’s innocence and torn between his friendship for John and confronting his father’s possible guilt.

Give John Hamilton some balls.  Alan Ladd spends most of the film gazing at his feet, taking abuse, and delivering flat dialogue.

Ultimately, of course, John presents the evidence he needs to prove his innocence:  A tape recording (can you believe that?) of Linda and her lover that exposes her affairs.  It turns out that blackmail was added to the plot…but I shouldn’t ruin the film for everyone, see how it ends yourself.

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