Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Slightly Scarlet (1956) Pulp Cover Noir

WOW! It's Pulp Cover Noir, it's one of those films designed to be in direct competition with TV, an RKO film shot in Color in "Superscope" a 2:1 aspect ratio. Something to get 'em out of their easy chairs and La-Z-Boys and down to the theater.

The Color Film Noirs that were produced between the 1940-1967-68 time frame ('67 was the last year for Major Studio Black & White Film production, I throw 68 in there to cover a few Exploitation films post '67) were actually the first Neo Noirs (let's call these first phase neos or proto neos) so that the two sub genres/styles  Classic Film Noir and Neo Noir actually overlap. But until the Motion Picture Production Code weakened in the mid to late 1950s the only significant difference between Noir and Neo Noir was basically the use of color film.

Post say 1955 the Neo Noirs (second phase neos) both Color and Black & White began to drift away from the Code and away from predominantly crime centric stories into more previously taboo "dark" subject matter and employing various salacious visual depictions not possible before.

Slightly Scarlet is an interesting film. First, the film is based on James M. Cain's "Love's Lovely Counterfeit." Cain had a penchant for writing about criminals, lost souls, disenfranchised individuals who will take any chances. When he was eighteen, he worked six months for a gas company in Baltimore. After work he used to hang around the whorehouses in the red light district on Josephine Street. He used to lounge around in the parlor, joke around with the girls, and he he used to listen a lot. I'm sure he got an ear full and developed a flair for the hard boiled lingo, and the hard luck, desperate, convoluted sleazy situations. He was described by his ex wives as being morose, sarcastic, insulting, moody, melancholy and grim, and yet he portrayed his losers with compassion, and believability.

"I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort."

James M. Cain's Preface to Double Indemnity

Shadows And Colors

Second, the film has a weird juxtaposition of color, light & shadow. Its this Lynchesque look that is sort of indescribable, unless you've seen it, the the set designer, flamingly went overboard, (even in the extremely noirish segments) and filled the screen with a pallet of colors, it's like "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" meets "Blue Velvet, except where Blue Velvet and Niagara used color, the colors were somewhat muted, in this film they basically run riot. It's as if somebody asked, "hey can we get another shade of blue between that prussian blue and teal shadow?" There's a shot in a mansion with a number of suits crowded around a TV set, in a Black & White film they'd all all look gray, in Slightly Scarlet none of them are wearing the same shade of color. It's pretty impressive Cinematographer John Alton created some movie magic. The film even recalls somewhat the bold primary color pallet of Warren Beatty's comic book film "Dick Tracy."

June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming)

Dorothy Lyons (Arlene Dahl)
Third, it has Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl playing two gorgeous, smoldering, redhead sisters one "good" the other BAAAAAAAD. I say "good" in quotations because Fleming plays June, she's hinted at as obviously the mistress/secretary of the reformer mayoral candidate. She's living quite lavishly for a secretary (even having a maid) in a perfect "Leave It To Beaver" suburbia with kept woman undertones.

A pretty revealing nightgown there Rhonda 

Dahl plays over the top kid sister Dorothy just of of prison for a kleptomania relapse, she's also a bit of a nymphomaniac but one excusable flaw in the screenplay is that this is not hinted at sooner. It's supposedly a big improvement over Cain's novel where the Dorothy character arrives much later. For the film I can understand that for the fifties the revelation of her tendencies must have been quite extraordinary, but looking back through the prism of time, realistically she should have been shown more open about it, as it is, its hinted at symbolically, i.e. in one scene Dahl flicks a lighter flame under the palm of Payne's hand, in another she playfully brandishes a speargun in a third she's using a back scratcher but not on her back.

Regardless both actresses are stunning in their beauty and provide quite a bit of eye candy throughout the film and you wonder how each will upstage the other next. Another plus, their costumes, their body language, and the backdrops provide a living pulp fiction magazine/paperback book cover shot extravaganza.

notice the phallic banister behind June

June: I gave you everything I could.
Dorothy: Because you felt guilty, you had a bad conscience, you know how it started. That charm bracelet, the one moma gave to you. I had to have it. So I stole it. I liked taking it. I liked the sensation It was fun. So it was you June, you!  And all the things you bought me they pay off  a lot of years don't they.
June: A lot of years, what do you think I've been through a lot of years. Holding my breath every time I saw a cop pass by the house. Trying to fix things, and square things, and pay things off all because my sister didn't have any more morals than an alley cat. Oh you're a fine one to tell me how I should live my life. If I didn't earn money who'd get you out of trouble. And who would pay off those wonderful friends of yours that you seem to attract like garbage does flies.

Fourth, Payne and De Corsia wonderfully reprise (for me anyway, since I've seen their other outings first) some of their roles in other Noir films so they bring that cinematic memory factor into their characters, some of De Corsia's lines recall William Conrad's in "The Killers", all in all giving that slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes feel to the film which adds to the mix making Slightly Scarlet what it is.

Ben Grace (John Payne)

Solly Casper (Ted De Corsia)  center
The story line is that crime boss Solly Casper does not want the reformer Jansen winning the upcoming election against his man Robbins for mayor. He sends his operative Ben Grace out to get dirt on Jansen, Ben concentrates on Jansen's secretary June Lyons, figuring eventually he'll snap some compromising photos of the two.

When we first see June, Ben and Dorothy, Dorothy is just getting a medical release out of prison. Ben is there taking photos. He follows up with a visit to a cop he knows Detective Lt. Dave Dietz, to get Dorothy's criminal record. He then heads over to Solly's place to make his report.

Detective Lt. Dave Dietz (Frank Gerstle)

What kind of secretary is she?

Solly Casper: You must have a file this thick on Jansen and his girlfriend.
Ben Grace: I got a file Solly.
Solly Casper: Heh, heh, and I'll knock the boyfriend right out of the box. I told you there was a way to get to anybody. And the way to get to a reformer is to prove that he is not a lily white angel himself.
Ben Grace: That figures.
Solly Casper: Well what do we use genius, pictures of 'em, tapes, checks he wrote?
Ben Grace: I got a file on Jansen's girlfriend, all it proves is that she's clean as a whistle.
Solly Casper: You've been working on 'em a week.
Ben Grace: She's clean, she's clean, I can't help it if Jansen's too smart to leave any tracks.
Solly Casper: Oh, this is great... this is fine news to get Tuesday night a week before election. You know what happens to bright boys, like you, and us if Jensen gets in? You can take all your fancy gimmicks and your camera rifle and st.... A dame's a dame, there's bound to be something you can nail her on.
Ben Grace: I couldn't get one picture on June Lyon.
Solly Casper: You mean you didn't even get a picture of her coming out of his house at two in the morning... what kind of secretary is she?

When the newspaper editor Marlowe makes an endorsement on TV for Jansen, Solly decides on a plan to pay him a visit, and try an get him to retract it. Ben tells him he's not going along. Ben tells Solly that a smart operator doesn't have to get rough. Solly calls in his crew and smacks Ben in front of them.

Ben then decides to play both ends against the middle. Ben schemes out in advance of the confrontation, and plants a tape recorder in the room they are going to brace Marlowe in. Ben records Solly inadvertently, killing Marlowe by giving him a heart attack. Solly slightly pissed that Marlowe got out so easy, tells his muscle bound henchman Lenhardt (Buddy Baer) to "give him some air." They open the window and sit Marlowe on the sill. Solly then says "give him a lot of air" and flings him out the window. Then turning to his henchmen says "come on let's see if we can beat him down."

"give him a lot of air"
When they leave Ben retrieves the recorder microphone. He pays a visit to June, tells her that he can help Jansen and plays the tape. She at first doesn't know how to handle the dirt, she thinks it's a trick. Ben brings up Dorothy's incarceration, She tells him to leave, he pulls out a picture of Dorothy, indicating that that information could hurt Jansen. June slaps his face and tells him that she doesn't like blackmail, and that she and her sister want him out. Dorothy who has been listening on the patio enters the room.

 "Oh please call me Dor, won't you, a frank and open door."

Sisterly competition for Ben Grace

Dorothy: Somebody talking about me? I'd much rather do the talking for myself.
June: Good-bye Mr. Grace.
Dorothy: Hello Mr. Grace meet June's little sister Dorothy.
Ben Grace: Hello Miss Lyons.
Dorothy: Oh please call me Dor, won't you, a frank and open door.

He gets the tape to Jensen, and Solly is forced to leave for Mexico. Ben takes over Sollys operations, and Jansen's girlfriend June.

June finds herself attracted to bad boy Ben rather than Frank Jensen, and the two become an item. Ben tells her that now that Jansen's elected mayor to tell him to make Dietz Chief of Police as a sort of thank-you.  With Dietz chief Ben tells him to go after the grifters and prostitution, all be wants are 30 nice clean gambling locations around the city where suckers can bet.

John Alton's color Noirsville

Leave It To Beaverville

Buddy Baer lt., was the younger brother of world heavyweight champion Max Baer

Dorothy's got a big itch

Later when June is lured to the beach house instead Ben she meets Solly and Dorothy.

June: Leave her alone Casper can't you see she's sick.
Solly: Sick that's a terrible way to talk about a cute kid. Come here honey. Sick I think she nothing but laughs.
Dorothy: He doesn't think I'm sick.
Solly: So you're that smart girl Jenson always had on the side. I got a real good reason to kill you. I got you to thank for Mexico, you and Ben. Back up smart girl.
Dorothy: Are you really going to give it to her?
June: Run Dorothy run.
Dorothy: Why should I honey bunch?
Solly: Yea why should she? The boys will be here about nine and we'll have ourselves a barrel of laughs. Then I'm taking little Dorothy and flying down to Mexico with her. We'll be flying like bats, upside down and every which way.

"We'll be flying like bats, upside down and every which way.".
The director was Allan Dwan, Cinematographer John Alton  Writers: James M. Cain (novel "Loves Lovely Counterfeit"), Robert Blees (screenplay), Stars: John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Arlene Dahl and Ted De Corsia. Again here a an unexpected diamond in the rough, a color Noir that slightly surpasses "Niagara,"  that has got a Lynchesque feel to it.

If this film has one major weakness it's the score which is a bit too bland, it needed something a bit over the top to compliment everything else. The DVD has some nice special features, a good commentary by writer and James M. Cain enthusiast Max Collins, a James M. Cain bio, a collection of stills from the film, and trailers from other James M. Cain based films. 8/10

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