Monday, January 30, 2012

Noir City X #4: Rita Hayworth and San Fran Redemption

by Odienator

Today’s post focuses on a trifecta of female names, all ending in –a and enmeshed in some sort of trouble.

Nothing Bonnie About Bedelia

First up, 1946’s British import, Bedelia, based on Vera Caspary’s novel. I must disclose that I arrived 30 minutes late for Bedelia, but had I arrived on time, I doubt it would have helped. Bedelia tells a Black Widow-esque story of a woman who murders men for money. She uses a little vial of poison to kill ‘em, but the actress who plays Bedelia, Margaret Lockwood, could have used her acting. It’s as if Susan Hayward’s worst bouts of onscreen mania grew a British accent and swam across the pond. Maybe I missed something with my late arrival, so please apply a grain of salt to this paragraph. This was a festival favorite of several people.

“They Sent Me the Script, Not the Score”

Caspary’s more famous novel, Laura, fares better in the hands of director Otto Preminger and composer David Raksin, though Caspary is on record as disliking the script. Czar of Noir Eddie Muller and Dana Andrews’ daughter, Susan, introduced the screening to us eager fans of Otto’s warped perversions. Preminger’s mischievous fingerprints are all over this one, with a salaciousness so thinly veiled it approaches neon sign brightness. His middle finger to the Production Code starts with our introduction to columnist Waldo Lydecker. His  middle aged visage greets the viewer, and lead actor Dana Andrews, from his bathtub. Lydecker’s naughty bits are covered by the source of his venom, his typewriter. “Hand me that towel,” he asks the detective, and as Andrews hands one offscreen, watch his eyes and his reaction. Preminger is clearly fucking with Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck here, for when Preminger cast well-known homosexual stage actor Clifton Webb, Zanuck told Otto “the audience is going to think this guy’s gay!” Preminger replied “Duh!”

There’s a lot of sexual weirdness in Laura, and I wonder how much of it hit audiences in 1944. For starters, Andrews’ Detective MacPherson falls in love with Laura (Gene Tierney), whose murder he is investigating. From “beyond the grave” Laura holds court over her apartment via a gorgeous, large painting over the mantle, seducing MacPherson as he tries to uncover her mysterious death. In flashback, Lydecker tells the copper how he crafted Laura’s personality and image for the masses (and for himself). He helps Laura get a job and spends as much time as possible with her, which just seems weird. Through his column, he obsessively destroys any man who gets too close to Laura, yet she appears to have no sexual interest in him and, to be honest, I think the feeling is mutual. In his mind and his loins, Lydecker can’t have her, so nobody else will.

Vincent Price’s unfaithful Shelby Carpenter did have Laura, and despite Lydecker’s attempts, it appeared Laura was going to marry Carpenter before her murder. Laura had competition from cougar Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), who made her rivalry for Carpenter blatantly, publicly clear. Laura’s murder paves the way for Treadwell to go after Carpenter, the number one suspect in Laura’s murder.

MacPherson also wants Laura, death be damned, and his quiet investigation of the apartment is a subtle piece of erotica created by Andrews. Andrews is silent, letting his face and body language communicate with us. Of this scene, Andrews’ daughter said it was her favorite piece of acting by her father. “He’s sniffing her lingerie drawer,” she said. And he looks great doing it; Muller correctly pointed out that “nobody wore a trenchcoat and hat better than Dana Andrews.”

I should stop describing the plot, as it has a big reveal I won’t spoil, and focus on the mood Laura evokes with its acting, atmosphere and score. Webb’s Lydecker is an incredible bitch. Snarky, snooty and vindictive, Webb treats his great one-liners like daggers, stabbing his way to a well-deserved Oscar nomination. He’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to spend 5 minutes with Waldo Lydecker in real life. Andrews allows vulnerability to peer through his macho detective’s tough exterior. Tierney is radiant, mysterious, and less a victim than the murder mystery plotline might indicate. Preminger's direction evokes a moody, haunted sense of loss and mystery.

The actors are first rate, but the real star of Laura is its music. David Raksin’s famous theme is haunting shorthand for unattainable love. Johnny Mercer’s lyrical additions made the theme even more famous and beloved. Laura is worth seeing for the score alone; its effect fueled many an actresses’ regret over turning down the part. When asked for her response after seeing Laura, Hedy Lamarr famously said “they sent me the script, not the score.”

Putting the Blame on Mame

I must confess I’ve never been able to make heads nor tails of Gilda’s plot. I also cop to finding the film a tad too long, with one too many acts of cruelty leveled at its titular character. These sins are always forgiven as soon as Rita Hayworth makes her entrance. I shudder every time she, to quote Red In The Shawshank Redemption, “does that shit with her hair.” “Gilda, are you decent?” asks her husband. “Who, me?” asks Hayworth, and a hundred thousand men’s hearts—gay and straight—skipped a few beats.  Despite the current cinema’s ability to show more than just some hottie tossing her hair, Gilda’s entrance remains one of the sexiest moments onscreen. It must have fueled a lot of post-war teenagers’ erotic dreams in 1946.

Columbia head Harry Cohn wanted a vehicle to make Rita Hayworth a sex symbol, and director Charles Vidor delivers. Hayworth’s passionate, tumultuous chemistry with co-star Glenn Ford keeps the temperature at a near boil. Vidor cranks up the gas burner by turning everything visual into a sexual motif. Had the censor been even remotely privy to what Vidor was slipping under the radar, he would have burned the negative. Some of the dialogue is also so thinly coded I wonder if people really were more innocent back then.

Sneaky sex stuff or no, Gilda has enough above the surface steam heat to get the juices flowing. When Hayworth sings her signature number, Put the Blame on Mame, her gyrations bring credence to the lyrics: Mame caused all manner of disasters, including the Great Chicago Fire, just by being so damn hot. I say that Hayworth sings the number, but after this viewing, I learned that Hayworth was dubbed by Anita Ellis. Learning this took a little bloom off the rose, but Hayworth sells it so well I can easily forgive all.

Corinthian Leather and Swedish Bombshells

Gilda appeared on a double bill with 1965’s The Money Trap. Reteaming a much older Ford and Hayworth, The Money Trap tries to rekindle some of the nostalgia and romance of seeing the former Gilda stars together onscreen. I was more taken by Hayworth’s performance than any moments she has with Ford. Her role is smaller than advertised, but she brings such pathos to it. I loved her working class accent, her drunk scenes, and her ability to still be sexy without trying to appear younger than she is. There’s more than a shade of Thelma Ritter to the role, which is certainly not an insult.

Hayworth emerges unscathed from The Money Trap’s problems. Her Gilda costar is not so lucky. Ford is teamed with Elke Sommer, a much younger actress whose marriage to Ford seems more than just a little icky. Not that an older Ford is unattractive, it’s just the relationship’s logistics are too much of a stretch for me. Sommer’s character, however, is the catalyst for The Money Trap’s heist plot. Ford’s a cop who, while investigating the self-defense murder of a safecracker by Joseph Cotten, figures out that Cotten’s hiding some serious Mob money. Ford’s partner, Ricardo Montalban, wants in on the heist, which Ford pulls in order to bring home the bacon for his high-maintenance wife.

Since this is a Noir festival, you can predict that this heist isn’t going to end happily. Cotten is a lot smarter than he appears—after all, he WAS Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt—and that whole “honor amongst thieves” thing clouds judgment yet again. I was underwhelmed by The Money Trap, but it’s worth seeing for both Hayworth’s performance and a gun battle between two 1940’s icons. Oh, and a pre-Khan Montalban doesn’t hurt either, even if parts of his performance feel as fake as Corinthian Leather.

Next time, some of the more obscure pictures at Noir City X, including Alan Ladd’s turn in The Great Gatsby and a reteaming of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and another troublesome idol. Slowly but surely, I’m catching up!

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