Monday, January 26, 2009
Slightly Scarlet (1956)
Slightly Scarlet is a fascinating, grippingly trimmed, splashily Technicolor film noir starring John Payne, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl. The film is a consanguineous addition to the broader canon of American film noir but has the lurid intemperance of a 1950s “kitchen sink” melodrama, and has become quite beloved in France in recent years. Payne plays the humorously named Ben Grace, a slithery, unscrupulous mercurial manipulator of the smoke-filled rooms he traverses, which host the likes of thuggish syndicate master Solly Caspar (Ted de Corsia).Fleming and Dahl play redheaded sisters—Fleming as June Lyons, the secretary/girlfriend of fictitious Bay City mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Ken Taylor), a reform-minded agitator and Dahl as the kleptomaniac and nymphomaniac “bad girl” sister, Dorothy Lyons (often shortened to “Dor”). Directed by Allan Dwan, the film finds its rhythmic surreality by famed cinematographer John Alton, whose work in color enlivens Slightly Scarlet to dimensions that truly, lastingly, distinguish the picture. Alton makes Slightly Scarlet look like a live-action, unspooling 1950s movie poster, with its garish reds, brilliant whites and deliciously, darkly and inky clothes, guns and eyes all converging to create a sumptuous visual experience.
Alton's use of key-lighting is reined in, but he sloshes the frame with opulent oranges, picturesque pinks and gorgeous greens, often sharply contrasting the characters with colors that accentuate whichever complexion and iridescent glow they bring before the camera. Taking an intrinsically black background, befitting noir, Alton shoots in Technicolor with bombastic fervency, creating a palette that is sparkling and alarming in equal measure. The cinematography is an irreplaceable property belonging to Slightly Scarlet—the oneiric chiaroscuro of black-and-white suitably replaced by mid-'50s, bountifully colorful bespattering that is fiery in its luridness.
The performances are all seismically wrought, with Payne playing a character who is never exactly what the audience suspects he is—while occasionally appearing to be far worse. Grace's gangsterism finds itself at the film's epicenter, as he is battered and slapped around by his “boss,” Caspar, only to eventually try to take the mob over himself. Fleming plays her part with a firmness that befits her “straight” character. Her nearly maternal handling of Dahl's “Dor” is at times quite touching without being sentimentalized. Dahl, however, is given the scene- and film-stealing role, and she plays it to the juicy hilt. In the picture's denouement, Dor is depicted as a woman descending into utter madness—perhaps she had been there all along and had been barely able to obscure it from others beforehand—and Dahl makes it believable. Never falling over the precipice of sheer camp, Dahl makes her character firstly a “strong woman,” accursed by a weak mind. Ted de Corsia is brutal and burly as the film's most poisonous malefactor, tossing a dead man out of a building and instructing his underlings, “C'mon, let's see if we can beat him down.”
Dwan and Alton collude to create memorable and sometimes mesmerizing visual spectacles. As Payne's Grace discusses Dor with June, Dahl's Dor is captured by the camera through an open door, laying in the backyard, listening to their conversation. The visualization speaks to the essentially triangular relationship that emerges, with Dor affixing herself between Grace and June whenever she can. As Grace and June continue their dialogue, Dor finally stands upright, and slowly walks through the door, which, it is finally revealed, has been open all along. She introduces herself to Grace by calling herself “Dor”—an “open door,” which carries with it both the sexual innuendo and verbal stroke delineating the space through which she has just listened and finally traveled.Much later, as June and Grace talk, Dor is seen between them once again, descending down stairs, which feature phallic-shaped structures.
The visual components underly the film's deterministic psychopathology, which, rather beautifully, seems to seek to make reason out of varied forms of insanity. This paradoxic dramatic undertaking separates itself in some ways from James M. Cain's novel, Love's Lovely Counterfeiter, from which the film is only nominally based. More daring and breathlessly embroidered than Cain's book, Slightly Scarlet, adapted by screenwriter Robert Blees, is powerfully pulpy. The characters are all motivated by some form of self-interest, even the “good girl,” June, whose efforts to keep her little sister on a leash can be interpreted to be, to one degree or another, driven by her own relationship with the mayoral candidate. Likewise, Grace's romantic pursuing of both June and Dor portrays the desire of a man to have everything the symbiotic siblings have to offer, though when Dor shoots a harpoon near him, he is shaken by the younger woman's instability.
Slightly Scarlet is finally an intriguing melange of noir attributes with more romantic inclinations. The film finally places Grace in the position of the hero, being compelled to save the true love, June, from a fate engineered by his ruthless employer, Solly and the compliantly docile Dor. The climax also brings forth the matter of sacrifice, both literal and figurative, as Grace finally acts in a way that just may make his name rightly descriptive. Alton frames him as he makes his final decision against the blunt, dark background behind him.
Slightly Scarlet's depiction of big-city political corruption is in some ways the picture's “MacGuffin,” which is utilized to propel the bare necessities that drive the narrative early on, leaving the rest of the work of storytelling to be done through the engaging characters. American cinema in the 1950s was becoming increasingly paranoid about the powerful, and took repeated shots at institutions and figures of great clout. Some of this doubtless arose from the Hollywood backlash against McCarthyism, seeing governmental force as a more malevolent force than it had often been interpreted as earlier. Slightly Scarlet is an exemplary case belonging to this vein of 1950s cinema, but, befitting its cotton-candy rainbow bowl of mixed colors, it is a mixture of that, of domestic melodramas and of crime drama noir.