Sunday, January 18, 2015

Noir City XIII #2: When She Was Bad, She Was Horrid

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XIII pieces, go here)

Saturday's crop of poison pen letters to matrimony could have been titled "Good Joan, Bad Joan." The Joan in question is Joan Fontaine, whose early career penchant for playing the dutiful wife gave way to two of the most searingly evil, self-serving heffas in noir: Christabel Caine and Ivy Lexton. Saturday's final tally stood at "Good Joan: 2, Evil Joan: 1," though one could cheat and call it a tie if we include Friday night's Born to Be Bad

Let's start with Bad Joan.

1950 was a damn good year for memorable women in film. In addition to Sunset Blvd.'s Norma, Born Yesterday's Billie and All About Eve's Margo, noir blessed us with Linda Darnell's Edie Biddle in No Way Out, Ann Sheridan's Eleanor in Woman on the Run and Fontaine's Christabel Caine in Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad. At the Castro's sold-out screening, I thought back to the woman who sat in front of me the first time I bore witness to the evils of Christabel Caine. "Oh, Curtis, WHY?!" she yelled at the screen as Fontaine wrapped clueless Zachary Scott's Curtis around her little finger. Ray is hilariously explicit in providing an answer: Ms. Caine is dropping the ill na na on the hapless men in her path. Not even Robert Ryan emerges unscathed, and this is the guy who once crawled for miles on a broken leg through the desert in Inferno.

Caine's manipulation is more than sexual: She's also a master psychological manipulator who somehow manages to cast herself as a harmless advocate for the well-being of others. Curtis is worried that his fiance, Donna (an excellent Joan Leslie) loves him solely for his money. Of course, Donna wants him for love, but Christabel, the true covetor of his dinero, starts pimping the notion of gold-digger insurance on Curtis. Donna fails the Christabel-inspired acid test, and Leslie gets to bare the claws we didn't think her character had. In the great Showdown of the Joans, screenwriter Edith R. Sommer gives Donna a boffo takedown line aimed at Christabel:

"You're helpless alright, about as helpless as a wildcat!"

Trust me, I'm harmless! 

Speaking of deceptively helpless creatures, Miguel Ferrer's Gabriel Broome (Gobby to his friends) threatens to upstage Fontaine every time he's on screen. Playing 1950's version of the gay BFF, Gobby can't wait to revel in (and profit from) the spectacle of scandal Christabel threatens to unleash on high society. His painting of Christabel will only go up in value the badder she is. Said painting is the subject of Born to Be Bad's original, unreleased ending, which ran after the film here at Noir City. Deemed "morally unfit" by the censors, the original ending evokes memories of Stanwyck's Baby Face and makes for a better ending than the one Ray was forced to tack on. Regardless of which ending you see, Fontaine's full-court bitch performance remains a high point in the stables of noir.

Three years prior, Fontaine reached an even higher noir point in Sam Wood's Ivy. "Pity the men in her life!" the poster screams. If that weren't enough warning, Ivy begins with a creepy title card featuring ivy growing through a skull. It's appropriate, because Ivy Lexton makes Christabel Caine look like Mother Teresa. For money, Christabel wasn't willing to kill anything but true love. Ivy isn't above using poison to extract herself from a penniless Edwardian era marriage.

Ivy opens with our femme fatale visiting Mrs. Thrawn, a psychic played by Stingaree's bootylicious maid, Una O'Connor. Mrs. Thrawn gives a very accurate reading, cut short by an awful vision of "misfortune." Ivy doesn't press for details on the misfortune part, despite it scaring Mrs. Thrawn so forcefully she abruptly ends the reading. Instead, Ivy focuses on the part about getting rid of the man she's having an affair with, so that another, richer man can take his place.

As the poorest of the three men Ivy juggles, hubby Jervis Lexton (Richard Ney) is so sweet and hopeful that he should have the word "DOOMED" tattooed on his forehead. Their marriage has been one of unwise spending, and now that the money is gone, Ivy looks elsewhere for thrills. While carrying on a barely concealed affair with the needy, dangerous surgeon Roger (Patric Knowles), Ivy meets uber-rich Miles (Herbert Marshall, who knows a thing or two about tangoing with evil women--see The Little Foxes). Miles is rumored to be attached to another society dame, a detail easily fixed by Ivy's scheming.

Miles finds himself drawn to Ivy, to the point of kissing her and feeling intense guilt over it because she's a married woman. "The worst thing a man can do is make love to another man's wife," Miles sadly states after pushing Ivy out of his embrace. No problem! Ivy will simply poison her husband. No hubby, no guilt!

There's another problem preventing Ivy from following Mrs. Thrawn's advice: Dr. Roger will NOT end their relationship. He's obsessed enough to threaten to go public with his love in order to force Ivy's hand. When Jervis takes ill courtesy of poison Ivy, his friend Dr. Roger is the last person to see him alive. Couple that with the fact that Jervis' method of death came from Dr. Roger's medicine cabinet, and Ivy just may get a two-for-one sale on lover disposal.

Sniffing around Ivy's door is the great Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Scotland Yard Insp. Orpington. Orpington knows Ivy is guilty as hell but can't prove it. As the pieces fall comfortably into place for Ivy's evil plans, Orpington tries to find the cracks that will lead to the "misfortune" Mrs. Thrawn foresaw in the first reel. 

Shot in gorgeous, atmospheric black and white by Russell Metty, and designed by veteran production designer William Cameron Menzies, Ivy is a lot more fun than many period pieces are allowed to be. Shenanigans with a gaudy, poison-filled purse, a grandfather clock and an elevator provide the perfect amount of WTF to go with Fontaine's breathtakingly evil English bitch. Her comeuppance, or should I say "go-down-ance," ranks among the best of noir's deserved demises.

Next time: After all that Bad Joan, can Good Joan redeem herself?

By the way, if my calling Una O'Connor "bootylicious" struck you as odd, you haven't seen Stingaree. Rectify that. It's one of the weirdest movies ever made.

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