Thursday, April 3, 2014

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

Only a handful of color noirs were made during the classic noir cycle, which lasted from the early 40s till the late 50s (some would argue there is no such thing as color noir). The most well-known color noirs are 1945's 'Leave Her To Heaven' starring Gene Tierney and 1953's 'Niagara' starring Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe. In 1956, James M. Cain's 1941 novel 'Love's Lovely Counterfeit' became a color noir under the title 'Slightly Scarlet'. Cain of course wrote many novels which became source material for classic noirs, like 'Double Indemnity', 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Midlred Pierce'. This novel was turned upside down and adapted into a screenplay by Robert Blees. The movie was directed by legendary director Allan Dwan, who had directed close to 400 movies and shorts before this movie, having started his directing career in 1911! Some of his most well-known and remembered movies include 1922's 'Robin Hood' starring Douglas Fairbanks and 1949's 'Sands Of Iwo Jima' starring John Wayne. There's a nice biography on Allan Dwan here with more information on this fascinating director. The cinematography was handled by the noir master himself, John Alton ('The Big Combo', 'The Amazing Mr. X'). The, fairly unremarkable, music was scored by Louis Forbes ('The Crooked Way', 'The Man Who Cheated Himself').
All I can do is give you a gun, if you haven't got guts enough to pull the trigger, I can't help it.
The movie is set in the fictional city of Bay City, where Solly Caspar (Ted de Corsia) is the head of a local mob outfit, but working for a larger syndicate. Ben Grace (John Payne) works for him, and his latest job is to find dirt on rich businessman Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor), who's running for mayor with promises to clean up the city and drive all criminals out of town. He finds it in Dorothy Lyons (Arlene Dahl), the kleptomaniac sister of June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming), Jansen's secretary. However, after Solly humiliates him in front of his men, Grace has had enough and double-crosses Solly. He rats on Solly after Solly kills a large backer in Jansen's campaign, a local newspaper editor, and Solly's ordered by his bosses in the syndicate to skip town. After Jansen wins the election Grace uses his knowledge about Dorothy's kleptomaniac behavior to get June to work on Jansen, so his friend in the police department, Dave Dietz (Frank Gerstle), is promoted to Chief of Police. This way he is able to take over Solly's operations, and through Dietz make sure his new gambling outfit can run untouched by the police. He also makes a play for June, who also falls for him. But Dorothy is not just a kleptomaniac, she's a nymphomaniac as well. And Solly isn't going to stay away forever. Something's gotta give...

The plot revolves around corruption and sexual tension, 2 themes very common to film noir. The movie does not shy away from showing as much of either as it possibly could without running into problem with the production code. There's a scene where Dorothy is lying on a couch, legs wide open, scratching her leg with a back scratcher, when Solly, whom she's never met before, walks in on her unexpectedly. She doesn't flinch or pulls her legs together, but immediately starts to flirt with him. It is so blatantly sexual, it's a surprise it got past the censors. The movie also addresses corruption in a very direct manner through Grace's manipulation of both June to get Dietz into the Chief of Police's chair and then of Dietz to drop charges and look the other way. In some ways, especially in the way sex is used in this movie, the movie could not have been made in the 40s, the sexual tension is far more visual here, even if not acted upon, than in 40s noirs where it is implied more through innuendo. In general I prefer the innuendo approach, with its double-entedres and suggestive dialogue, but it's hard to deny that both Rhonda Fleming and especially Arlene Dahl ooze sex-appeal in this movie.

Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are at the center of this movie in many ways, and femmes fatales in distinct ways. Almost everybody gravitates towards them in one way or another, intentional or not, but most of all, they are the visual focal points. Both have bright red hair, they were both redheads in real life, and both ooze sex appeal. June/Rhonda in a more sophisticated way, Dorothy/Arlene in a sleazier and more carnal way. June is the older and more moral-appearing sister, but the movie also makes clear she's Jansen's lover. There's no way a secretary like June could afford a large house and a flashy convertible like she does. Dorothy is clearly a nymphomaniac, even if it's never mentioned or even alluded to, besides also being a kleptomaniac. When Caspar gives her a bundle of money, she throws it at his feet because, as she tells him, getting money that way is no fun. Both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl give great performances here, especially Dahl who could have just let go and be over-the-top and campy but she doesn't. She's definitely out there but not in an outrageous way. Nice piece of trivia: Arlene Dahl is the mother of 80s/90s heart-throb Lorenzo Lamas.
I don't like killing people, I never did. But you're not people, I don't think I'd mind a bit.
In a typical noir storyline, Grace sets himself up to get screwed over one way or another. He thinks he can screw over Solly, take over his outfit and get away with it, but he doesn't realize that the top is where the predators reside. John Payne is good here as Ben Grace, in a typical noir role. Payne had plenty of experience in noir land with movies like 'Kansas City Confidential' and '99 River Street' and he gives a good and gritty performance here, but he lacks the tough guy charisma of someone like, say, Lawrence Tierney. His opponent, Solly Caspar, is played by Ted de Corsia, who also had plenty of experience in noirs ('The Naked City', 'Crime Wave'), typically as the heavy. De Corsia excelled at these kinds of roles, and even tho this is not really his best performance, he's his usual solid self here especially in the second half of the movie.

Aside from Fleming and Dahl, John Alton's cinematography is the stand-out aspect of this movie. Visually, this movie is not just pure eye-candy with its lush and lavish use of bright colors and almost kitsch interiors, it is also pure noir with the way Alton handles shadows. Alton was a master at noir chiaroscuro cinematography and 'painting with light' as he called it (which was also the title of a highly influential book on cinematography that he wrote), and here he also shows how to apply it to a technicolor movie. His shadows are deep and rich and almost characters in themselves, as in all his black & white noirs. He lights June's living room and Solly's beach house in a bright manner, but Solly's mansion has rooms that are ominously dark even with the lights on. People move from bright spot to bright spot in it, disappearing almost in the shadows inbetween. Combine this with the brightly colored carpets and furniture, in all interior sets, it makes for a very unique viewing experience. Apparently the movie was also released in a black & white print, but I have to say, I can't see how it would improve the movie, a large part of the movie's appeal is the almost crazy color palette mixed with Alton's shadows.

The movie is not without its flaws however. There's an unintentional comedic element in Grace's car, which is missing its windshield for most of the movie. Also the doors in Solly's beachhouse that lead to the balcony, clearly have no glass panels. I imagine budget costs, and an accidentally smashed windshield might have something to do with this, but it does look a bit silly. I also found the Frank Jansen character too flat in this movie, and underused. His part almost disappears in the second half of the movie. And the soft, soap opera like, soundtrack doesn't help much either, it doesn't really create a sense of urgency and dread. Thankfully the soundtrack is pretty minimal.

The movie is based on a James M. Cain novel but Robert Blees's screenplay restructures it. For instance Dorothy doesn't make an appearance in the novel until the final quarter, whereas here she's introduced as the very first character and plays a more important part. I haven't read the novel, so I can't say whether this screenplay/movie is better or worse than the novel. But I will say that 'Slightly Scarlet' is a pure noir to me, bright colors and all. I wouldn't say it's a great noir, but it's good and entertaining and definitely delivers.


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