The Company She Keeps (1951)

 “Save it for the jail, sister. Better acoustics and more time.”

In The Company She Keeps from director John Cromwell, gravelly-voiced Lizabeth Scott plays sunny, sweet parole officer, Joan Wilburn opposite Jane Greer as ex-con Mildred Lynch. In the film’s first scene, a parole board gathers to determine whether or not to grant parole to Mildred. From a 21st century perspective, the board members appear to be a fairly sanctimonious lot, poker faced, middle aged, middle class women who sit around a table passing judgment on Mildred.

company-she-keepsBefore Mildred enters the room, the women on the board–and a sole male–discuss her behavior and her past. Abandoned at age 11, Mildred has had a tough life, and she landed in jail for a bad check, shoplifting and receiving stolen goods. It seems that hoping for parole, Mildred is given to obsequious behavior that hasn’t really fooled anyone, and so the board members are about to try and ascertain just how sincere Mildred is in her declarations of rehabilitation. But the parole board decides to show some mercy and Mildred is granted her parole–along with a new name, Diane Stuart. Traveling to LA, Mildred–now Diane–meets her dedicated new parole officer, Joan Wilburn.

It’s when Diane meets Joan for the first time, that the veneer of obsequiousness slides off, and underneath Diane is revealed as a hard-edged and tough talking dame. To her, Joan is an enemy, a snoop, and while Diane realizes she has to play the game, she’s not going to make it easy for Joan. Diane complains about her room in a boarding house, her job as a nurse’s aide in a hospital working the night shift, and also about her clothes. The efforts that Joan has made to find Diane a nice clean, safe room are ignored.

Joan takes Diane out for dinner one night, and here Joan runs into her long-time beau, newspaper reporter, Larry Collins (Dennis O’Keefe). Joan has made it clear that her career preempts her love life, and Larry has to wait in the wings for Joan to make time for their relationship. And then Diane runs into Larry one night at the hospital….

The Company She Keeps raises some complex issues but then never deals with them, instead veering into a fairly straightforward love triangle. The tastier issues–Diane’s motives in setting out to seduce Larry, and Joan’s flare of jealousy and power are raised–but dropped. The film hints that Larry is the sort of man that Diane isn’t ‘allowed’ to have–that he’s considered too good for the likes of an ex-con, but there’s also an element of rivalry here. Diane and Joan are similar age and build, and Joan has all the things in life that Diane would like and to some degree feels entitled to. One scene shows Diane contemplating shoplifting a coat for a night out on the town. While she hesitates and overcomes the urge to steal the coat, Diane really does shoplift–or steal–Larry from Joan, and her motives remain questionable.

Diane’s giant chip on her shoulder is evident in the scenes with Joan, but Diane manages to hide her bitterness whenever she feels it’s to her advantage to do so–with Larry for example, and with the parole board (particularly the sole male on the board), Diane only shows the sweet side of her nature. For Lizabeth Scott fans, The Company She Keeps is worth catching (even if Scott’s role is too saintly for my tastes). Unfortunately the plot veers away from the more interesting, calculating aspects of Diane’s dual nature, and instead keeps the story fairly simple. Some of the best scenes occur when Diane is forced to take part in the humiliation of line up. Here, treated like cattle, the women are subjected to cracks by the detectives who round up suspects and ex-cons alike, and this scene underscores the idea that these women, in spite of ‘serving their time’ never completely leave their pasts behind.

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