Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Scarlet Hour/A Kiss Before Dying

Monday was day four for Seattle’s Noir City 2019 film festival.  Kissing was the day’s theme, at least in the titles.  I was unable to attend the afternoon’s films - Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955) - but I caught up with the evening’s double bill.

The Scarlet Hour (1956)
Pauline Nevins (Carol Ohmart) is having an affair with E.V. Marshall (Tom Tryon), a young man who works for her brutal husband, real-estate baron Ralph Nivens (James Gregory).  One evening while the lovers are parked in a deserted area of Los Angeles they overhear a trio of thieves discuss robbing a nearby mansion.  The take: $350,000 in jewels.  The lovers decide to rob the thieves themselves, take the money, and run off together.  But everything - brace yourself - goes wrong. 

According to Noir City host Eddie Muller, this is the most precious of all the rarities in this year’s festival.  Showing this film has been a project years in the making.  I wish I could say that The Scarlet Hour is an astonishingly good film, that it’s a hidden masterpiece come to light, a precious jewel from the archives.  Sadly, I can’t.  It’s not that this is a bad film, it’s just not a good one.  And the fault for that can be laid squarely on the two leads.  Tom Tryon is not much on screen.  He has no presence, no “it”, nothing.  In real life, he ultimately wound up working as a successful novelist, and I’m glad to see that he landed on his feet, just as long as those feet are not in front of the camera.  Carol Ohmart is a different matter.  She obviously photographs well (below), but if the picture is a moving one her magic begins to disappear.  The pretty face starts to look strange, the flaws in the features start to emerge (the mouth too small, the nose too thin in the middle).  Her eyes are her weakest facial feature, and for a would-be movie star, that’s fatal.  She tries her best but she just hasn’t got it.

Carol Ohmart

Who does have “it”, though, and has it in abundance, has it till she’s practically painting the whole screen with it, is Elaine Stritch, who plays Pauline’s best friend.  This was Stritch’s first movie and she steals every scene she’s in.  In fact, The Scarlet Hour is worth seeing for many of its lesser roles.  James Gregory is suitably loathsome as Pauline’s husband.  And E. G. Marshall is very funny and droll as one of the police officers handling the case.  Hollywood stalwart Michael Curtiz directed and his acute visual style manages to keep this film engaging.  This film also features a cameo of Nat "King" Cole singing "Never Let Me Go." 

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)
When college boy Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) discovers that his girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) is pregnant he chooses to kill her rather than marry her.  That done, he soon sets his sights on marrying her sister (Virginia Leith).

If the weakness of the leading actors was the main problem with The Scarlet Hour, the strength of A Kiss Before Dying lies primarily in the magnificent performance by Robert Wagner as the murderous Corliss.  The young and handsome Wagner was playing wholesome, clean-cut roles in his career at that time and he leapt at the opportunity to muss things up a bit by playing a flaming psychopath.  Sixty years later his reptilian malignancy is still chilling.  The other performances by Woodward, Leith, and George Macready, as the girls’ father, are also outstanding.  Jeffrey Hunter, as the student who manages to uncover the murder, is also good.   A Kiss Before Dying is about as flawless as a crime film could be.  Director Gerd Oswald, working with a script by Lawrence Roman from the Ira Levin novel of the same name, has delivered a terse and compact masterpiece.  Once set in motion, the plot unfolds inexorably to its end.  Lucian Ballard’s cinematography, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is breathtaking, especially when the characters go out into the open.  You can feel the power and majesty of landscape which would later become a trademark of the work he did with Sam Peckinpah.  

Jeffrey Hunter, Joanne Woodward, and Robert Wagner

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