Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DECOY (1946)

Directed by Jack Bernhard, Decoy (1946) is one of those film noir gems that lacks the glitter of a big budget and A-list stars but nonetheless shines with its own devilish light. Jean Gillie makes her penultimate screen appearance as a femme fatale so fixated on claiming a stolen fortune that she'll literally bring a man back from the dead to get it, with Robert Armstrong, Edward Norris, and Herbert Rudley as the men who will kill and die in service to her schemes. Those who love a twisted tale of murder and greed will relish this dark delight, which begins at the finale and then rewinds to unfold its sordid story. We know from the start that this is going to end badly.

Gillie plays the beautiful but deadly Margot, the girlfriend of death row inmate Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong). Margot knows that Frankie is sitting on a pile of stolen cash, but she doesn't know where it is, so she arranges for Frankie to be resurrected after his date with the gas chamber. Gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) helps her because he wants to recoup the costs he incurred paying for Frankie's defense, while Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley) is seduced into the plot by Margot's charms. Once Lloyd resuscitates Frankie, avarice drives both Margot and Vincent to extremes, while Lloyd is drawn ever deeper into their crimes.

There's no budget or time for fancy flourishes, but Decoy works with the materials at hand, especially Gillie's mesmerizing performance as one of the coldest, most ruthless dames to grace the noir genre. She doesn't love any of the men she uses; she will happily see every one of them dead twice over if it means the bag of cash belongs to her alone. Plotting to resurrect Frankie just to betray him is mean even for a femme fatale, but Gillie does it with a grim determination that never veers into hysteria or camp. She approaches the elimination of the equally faithless Vincent the same way, running him over with their car and then coolly collecting the tools he had been using to fix a flat tire. Lloyd, horrified into a frozen stupor, can only hiss, "I'd like to kill you," as Margot carries on with her single-minded quest. She finally cracks up when she thinks she has the cash at last, laughing maniacally while Lloyd digs up the box in Frankie's hiding spot. Frankie, however, will have the last laugh, and the ending is a gut punch of irony that knocks the viewer flat.

The film is a pitch black study in the ways a man can be ruined by a woman like Margot, a siren so powerful and deadly that she lures even men who don't trust her to a horrible fate. Frankie is a criminal but not a monster; he adores Margot and wants money only to lavish gifts on his girl, but he's smart enough to take steps against an inevitable betrayal. Vincent is a cold-blooded snake; he clearly means to get the upper hand, but he doesn't realize that Margot is a python in comparison until it's too late. Tragic Lloyd is a good man undone by this serpentine beauty; he loses everything because of Margot until all that's left is a dying wish to take her out with him, which is where the picture begins. The only man who survives contact with Margot is Sgt. Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), a cop with a gangster's face who feels an attraction to Margot even though he knows what she is. "People who use pretty faces like you use yours," he tells her, "don't live very long anyway." The film opens and closes with the fulfillment of his prediction.

Jean Gillie made only one additional film, The Macomber Affair (1947), before her premature death in 1949, but she can be found in earlier pictures like The Gentle Sex (1943) and Flight from Folly (1945). She was married to director Jack Bernhard when Decoy was made, but they divorced in 1947, and Bernhard went on to direct Blonde Ice (1948) and Appointment with Murder (1948). Robert Armstrong is best remembered today for King Kong (1933), and you can also see him in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Son of Kong (1933), and Mighty Joe Young (1949). Herbert Rudley found success primarily in television, but he makes appearances in Brewster's Millions (1945) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945), while Sheldon Leonard earned numerous Emmy nominations and two wins for his work behind the camera on Make Room for Daddy (1953-1964). You might also recognize Leonard as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Harry the Horse in Guys and Dolls (1955).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Classic Films in Focus: DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) offers a chance to see the directorial talents of Dorothy Arzner, one of very few women to direct films during the classic sound era. Not surprisingly, the movies Arzner directed were mostly "women's pictures," but quite a few iconic classics fall squarely into that category, and Dance, Girl, Dance has plenty to recommend it besides a nod to women's cinema history. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball star as the two dancing girls, the first an aspiring ballerina and the second an opportunistic burlesque queen, and each gives a compelling performance that mixes humor, drama and musical numbers. Along for the ups and downs are Louis Hayward and Ralph Bellamy as potential romantic leads, with Virginia Field and Maria Ouspenskaya appearing in supporting roles.

O'Hara has the more sympathetic heroine in Judy, who gets by as part of a nightclub dancing troop but longs to join the ranks of serious performers. Her mentor, Madame Basilova (Maria Ouspenskaya), hopes to help by introducing her to ballet producer Steve Adams (Ralph Bellamy), but a tragic twist of fate prevents the meeting. Meanwhile, Bubbles (Lucille Ball) is happy to climb a different kind of ladder, embracing burlesque stardom for the money and comfort it brings. Bubbles sometimes helps her former troop mate and sometimes betrays her, depending on what Bubbles herself can get out of it. That includes poaching unhappy playboy Jimmy (Louis Hayward) and setting Judy up as a stooge in the burlesque show, where leering patrons boo her ballet routine.

It's important to note that, although the movie makes Judy and Bubbles foils for one another, it never really paints Bubbles as the villain of the piece. She can be generous and forgiving, but she is clearly a student of the hard knocks school who has learned to look out for herself. Judy is more naive, but even she is realistic enough to keep the stooge job and endure the humiliation if it means paying the rent. No character is really a bad person; even the drunken Jimmy misbehaves mostly because he misses his ex-wife, Elinor (Virginia Field), whom he really does love. Ironically, the only person Judy shuns turns out to be the one who can help her achieve her dream, and poor Steve spends most of the picture trying to get Judy to realize that he isn't another masher looking for a date. In a movie without actual antagonists, Judy is often her own worst enemy, although she and Bubbles ultimately have to resolve their differences with a spectacular fight that lands Judy in court.

O'Hara is lovely and sweet as Judy, and we feel for her struggle to preserve her dignity, especially during the excruciating stooge performances. She finally triumphs over her tendency to be a human door mat when she tells off the abusive audience in grand style and then flattens Bubbles with a couple of punches. A blonde Lucille Ball is having more fun, though, as saucy, selfish Bubbles, who has the oomph that gets gigs for the troop. The film doesn't deride Bubbles for her professional choices; she's good at burlesque and clearly enjoys it, and the role gives Ball a chance to demonstrate the comedy talent that would eventually make her a television legend. Both actresses play characters who aren't primarily interested in romance but are dedicated to pursuing their careers, and that shifts the focus of the narrative toward a feminist sense of self separate from male protection and domesticity. It leaves Louis Hayward's Jimmy as something of a red herring, to be sure, but Hayward does a fine job balancing the charm and dissolution of his character, and Jimmy's troubled romance with Elinor gives us a different perspective on the choices a woman might make about her life.

Dorothy Arzner's other films include Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Christopher Strong (1933), and The Bride Wore Red (1937). For more of Maureen O'Hara's work from this era, see The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Try noir films like The Dark Corner (1946) and Lured (1947) for a different side of Lucille Ball before Lucy. Catch Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday (1940). Maria Ouspenskaya, a truly great character actress, earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her roles in Dodsworth (1936) and Love Affair (1939), but most people will remember her as Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941).