Angela Lansbury’s Cunning Femme Fatale

A man finds himself in a dangerous romantic entanglement in the forgotten film noir A Life at Stake. Starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes, the lost Paul Guilfoyle gem fuels a crafty mystery around a seductive femme fatale in the spirit of Double Indemnity. The independent production saw a limited theatrical release in 1955 and was quickly lost in the regular deluge of cheap noir films. It’s a first-rate b-movie from the era with a recognizable cast and smooth direction.

Edward Shaw (Keith Andes) is a struggling architect down on his luck when he’s given an offer that sounds too good to be true for a man that has lost his business and living in a boarding house. A wealthy developer in L.A. will fund Edward’s project if the architect will partner in the deal with the developer’s young trophy wife, Doris (Angela Lansbury).

A Life at Stake grabs you with romantic possibilities before Lansbury works her magic as a charming femme fatale scheming

The prospective deal includes a huge life insurance policy on Edward’s life, supposedly to protect their investment. The arrangement is intended by her husband to keep Doris busy. However, Edward and the bored housewife soon develop feelings for each other while working together. The architect increasingly becomes suspicious of his new lover, paranoid someone is out to kill him for the life insurance payoff.

Already a star of some renown with two Oscar nominations under her belt, Lansbury’s career floundered for a time in the 1950s. That’s how she ended up starring in a decent, but eminently disposable, film noir made purely with b-movie aspirations. Andes was known for his rugged good looks and not so much for his acting chops. His performance isn’t spellbinding but Lansbury picks up whatever slack is left remaining.

Running a fairly slim 75 minutes, A Life at Stake grabs you with romantic possibilities before Lansbury works her magic as a charming femme fatale scheming behind the back of her wealthy and much older husband. The screenplay is heavy with innuendo and contains smart dialogue for its era. There’s an edge to the noir often found lacking in the 1950s. Once you get past the convoluted business proposal which opens the film, the plot becomes a dangerous game of intrigue and suspense with Edward fearing for his life.

A solid screenplay, excellent chemistry between the cast, and a few surprises work for the noir’s immense benefit. A Life at Stake isn’t a lost classic but it certainly deserves a wider audience. The movie is a fine example of taut storytelling and professional craftsmanship from Hollywood’s golden age.

Video

The Film Detective rescues A Life at Stake from obscurity with a new 4K transfer from archival film elements. The black-and-white film appears at its intended 1.37:1 aspect ratio in serviceable 1080p resolution. The main feature runs 75 minutes on a BD-25. The biggest question mark here beyond scattered evidence of film wear is the use of MPEG-2 for the video encode. It averages a healthy 28 Mbps but has minor issues with heavier grain and resolved detail.

The film elements are in modest condition with hints of missing frames, limited debris, and a softer focus in select reels. Definition is better than DVD provides but lacks the tack-sharp detail and fine grain replication often found in new 4K scans of vintage camera negatives. The scan is likely sourced from a third or fourth generation element, possibly even a print which circulated for distribution.

The positive attributes include an unfiltered presentation with minimal processing. The organic, film-like transfer has a slight touch of ringing. The stable contrast and perky black levels help maintain a solid clarity throughout the movie. This is not an overwhelming restoration by the standards of more important studio fare from the 1950s. The video quality is definitely presentable and delivers an uncut version of the noir in complete form.

Audio

The mono 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio holds up with adequate fidelity despite the minimal presence of background hiss. There are no major issues in the pedestrian cinematic recording. The lushly excellent score from Les Baxter is a highlight. Dialogue reproduction is heard in fine clarity.

Some limitations of the dated recording are apparent – the thin top-end and absent bottom-end are rather noticeable in certain scenes. The low-budget production doesn’t offer impressive sound design but fares decently enough by b-movie standards.

Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles play in a white font.

Extras

The Film Detective as a label has only issued 36 films on Blu-ray. This special edition for A Life At Stake does come on a pressed BD like most commercial releases. Their early releases such as The Bat were mostly on BD-R. The niche label has come a long way from those days and this may be their best release yet. The disc is region-free for those wondering.

The disc arrives packaged in a striking black case with a handsome 10-page booklet. The illustrated booklet features an essay by film noir scholar and critic Jason Ney on Angela Lansbury’s early career and the film’s scattered distribution history.

Audio Commentary – Professor and film scholar Jason Ney who specializes in film noir gives a lucid accounting of the movie, delving into its key players’ backgrounds. Rarely dry and dull, Ney shows experience and command of the era’s filmmaking. It’s a fine listen for those interested in noir history.

Hollywood Hitch-hikers: Inside the Filmmakers (10:59 in HD) – An original Ballyhoo Motion Pictures documentary guided by C. Courtney Joyner. Mostly covers the career of actress and independent filmmaker Ida Lupino, the driving force behind independent label The Filmmakers who funded A Life At Stake. The subject is tangentially related to the movie but there’s not a lot of direct coverage for the noir itself.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

A Life at Stake
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Lost and forgotten for decades, this underrated b-movie noir from the 1950s stars Angela Lansbury as a seductive femme fatale playing a dangerous game of deception with the man who loves her.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 42 full resolution, uncompressed HD screen shots grabbed directly from the Blu-ray: