Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Blonde Ice (1948)

A lot of reviews of this movie will mention its tagline at some point, and it's a pretty good one indeed, so let's get it out of the way, shall we?

ICE in her veins - ICICLES on her heart

Now, if that isn't a film noir tagline, I don't know what is. It is immediately clear this movie has a true 'femme fatale', a fatal woman, and a blonde one as the movie title suggests. The movie is based on a novel by Whitman Chambers and supposedly, but unconfirmed, the screenplay was written by Edgar G. Ulmer ('Strange Illusion', 'Detour') and not Kenneth Gamet as the credits suggest. It stars Leslie Brooks as one of the deadliest femme fatales to grace the 40s film noirs. It would also be one of her final roles before she retired at the age of 26. Leslie Brooks plays Claire Cummings here, a columnist for a newspaper who wants it all, power, money and social standing, and she'll stop at nothing to get what she wants. Even though she's short on writing talent, she's positively bursting with ambition and has managed to work her way up to the position of columnist. But her ambition is not in the area of journalism, but in the area of becoming a wealthy and powerful socialite. And she'll take no shortcuts in getting there, come what may.

The movie starts in a mansion on the outskirts of San Fransisco where Claire's about to get married to Carl Hanneman (John Holland). Two of her co-workers, Les Burns (Robert Paige) and Al Herrick (a slimey James Griffith who looks like a weasel) are also there and it becomes painfully clear they're both former lovers of Claire who got nothing to show for it but having identical cigarette cases with almost identical engravings, save for the first names, that she gave them. There's a nice shot where Claire descends from the stairs and gives them both a smile. She then extends her arm right after the camera shows Les' face, making it seem she's offering Les to walk her down the aisle. But alas, her newspaper chief Hack Doyle (Walter Sande), takes her arm and off they go. Claire gets married to Carl and so far things are looking quite normal. But to show the true nature of Claire, a few minutes after the wedding, right before the newly weds are off on their honeymoon, Claire meets up with Les on the balcony right next to the room where she got married, and after some chit-chat they make out. The groom notices but she manages to make it seem innocent enough. Les know she's not in love with him or with the groom, and is only after material gain, but he is in love with her despite everything, so he puts up with her antics. And as the movie progresses, he puts up with a lot.

On their honeymoon, Carl accidentally sees a letter she's writing to Les, despite Claire even preparing a less steamy letter for Les' secretary. The letter starts with 'My darling Les' and how she can't wait to see him again. Carl realizes she was never in love with him and is only interested in his money and returns to San Fransisco, to file for divorce. But Claire has something else in mind, and buys off a local airplane pilot to fly her to San Fransisco and back again, all within the night. She also has a physician prescribe her some sleeping pills at a local pharmacy to give her an alibi as well as make sure a hotel employee notices her in the morning, to make it seem like she was in her hotel room the entire night. Carl ofcourse never wakes up that morning, or any morning thereafter for that matter. Her devilish character doesn't stop there, as she cleverly manages to implicate Les in Carl's death, because she knows Les will do anything for her. Les is a tough and masculine sports columnist but with Claire he's also a meek little lamb and against better judgement he cannot let Claire out of his heart, even tho he is fully aware Claire will let nothing stand in her way.

The chief of police who is investigating Hanneman's death knows he's dealing with murder and not suicide, which his death was made out to look like, but he can't make a case against either Les or Claire so eventually the case ends up in a desk drawer. Claire then sets her eyes on a local up & coming attorney who's running for senator, Stanley Mason (Michael Whalen), and he falls for her, hard. But things get complicated when the airplane pilot she hired the night of Carl's murder comes back to blackmail her. She eventually manages to get rid of him tho, in the most permanent of ways. After Mason wins the poll to run for senator he announces his upcoming marriage to Claire, but that same evening she goes over to Les' apartment who's distraught over her. She explains she does love him, but that he could never give her what she wants. The senator comes over and catches them as they're about to kiss, and tells her the marriage is off. Les takes off to drown his sorrows in booze and when he returns, Claire's already stabbed the senator to death and he just picked up the penknife she did it with. Claire might love Les, but Claire looks out for only one person, herself. The movie then rushes to its end. The ending of the movie is a complete disaster, one moment yer pretty much glued to the screen and a minute later yer wondering what the hell just happened. I won't spoil it for you, but it definitely came out of nowhere and makes no sense whatsoever. It appears that whoever wrote the ending had a slightly skewed idea about psychoanalysis (and possibly was a bit too concerned about the Hays production code). In any case, it's not the ending I was hoping for, and definitely not the ending this movie deserved.

The movie was directed by Jack Bernhard ('Decoy') and cinematography was done by George Robinson, who mostly worked on horror movies before that, such as 'House Of Frankenstein'. Robinson did a lot of work for Universal, which might explain the very nice look of the movie and the use of tracking shots. It was made for Film Classics however, a short-lived poverty row studio and while the actors weren't exactly A-list actors either, and their acting is not amazing, they do an adequate job. Leslie Brooks won't be mistaken for a Shakespeare actor, but she's pretty and certainly was able to smile and glance in a manner that made her role memorable and convincing. She would marry actor Russ Vincent not too long after making this movie and unlike so many marriages of actors and actresses at the time, they stayed married for the rest of their lives. As an interesting sidenote, Russ Vincent plays Blackie, the blackmailing pilot, in this movie. Robert Paige gave his character enough character to not come off as a complete loser while also not being too soft to be the macho sports buff he was if it hadn't been for Claire. James Griffith is great as Al who cannot say a sentence that isn't implying something or isn't some sort of snide remark.

What I like about this movie is that the typical gender roles have been reversed, at least for the two main roles (which is not exactly uncommon for films noir). Claire is in power, all the time, and she can work everybody in a way that's to her advantage. And if someone isn't willing to do what she wants, well, they'll be sure to regret it. Les on the other hand is like putty in her hands, despite being a man's man when he's not around her. Even when he knows exactly how deadly she is, and how far she'll go for what she wants, he cannot give her up to the police. The female is masculine here and the male feminine. But don't get me wrong, there are plenty of steeotypes left. All the men, at least when they first get to know Claire, like her or even fall for her, while all the women, even those who don't know Claire, instantly see her for what she truly is. Men love women they cannot possess and women hate women who outmatch them in looks and sexuality/sensuality. Then there's also Les' homely secretary who ofcourse has a secret crush on him, and ofcourse Les is too blinded by Claire to notice. There's the psychoanalyst with the slightly foreign accent, to add more gravitas to his words. In fact, pretty much all characters besides Claire and Les are fairly one-dimensional and you can get a pretty good idea of their general actions based on their first appearance in the movie.

There's more to like about this movie tho. It's simply a lot of fun to watch Claire get away with everything and to watch how she plays with Les. You do often wonder why Les puts up with it all and how dumb he must be, but it's fun to watch anyway. Which is all the more reason why the ending is so bad, it really brings down the overall effect of the movie. Not that this movie would have been a classic film noir if the ending had been any different, most of the characters are too obvious for that, but it could have been a more memorable movie anyway. It's not recommended viewing, but don't pass up on it either if you get the chance to watch it.

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