Tuesday, December 31, 2013

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY 1993

I have had a love/hate relationship with the films of Woody Allen since my teens. The love affair originating in the early-70s, when Allen’s films were largely comic and he was at the height of his popularity as the mainstream darling of the campus arthouse set. Things tilting more towards the hate end of the spectrum come the latter part of the decade, when the pretentiousness that began to seep into his work had me quoting Alvy Singer’s line (Annie Hall), “What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!” 

As a director whose work varies most significantly in quality, not content (it’s not without reason that one can say “I’m going to see a Woody Allen movie” and have no one ask, "What's it about?"), Allen is perhaps one of the most safely reliable directors around. I’ve seen virtually every film Woody Allen has ever made, struggling through his sometimes grueling attempts at significance (Interiors - 1978), but mostly reveling in his deliriously inspired comedies (Love and Death - 1975). Although my admiration for Allen palled considerably after his very public, more-than-I-wanted-to-know, full-tilt-disclosure breakup with Mia Farrow (try as I might, I can’t enjoy the icky May-December “romance” of Manhattan anymore); I find I still can’t help but be impressed by how he has managed, lo these many decades, to remain the last of the true auteur filmmakers of the 70s. An independent director/writer/actor, whose amazingly prolific output has kept me, if not always entertained, most certainly intrigued for over 40 years. 
Murder, She Read
Of course, the problem inherent in absorbing so much of a single director’s work (especially one as fond of covering the same territory, film after film, as Woody Allen) is the gradual over-familiarity one develops with said director’s favored themes and tropes. In Woody Allen’s case, this invariably means: Manhattan as a participating character in the narrative; flimsy philosophical theorizing; rampant psychoanalysis; labored homages to personal idols, Ingmar Bergman and Charlie Chaplin; and stories centered around affluent, neurotic, Jewish/Anglo pseudo-intellectuals occupying a New York curiously underpopulated with people of color, but with an overabundance of “brilliant” men, and “beautiful” women insecure about not being “smart enough” for elfin, elderly, neurotics.

When Allen uses these recurring leitmotifs as fodder for satire, no one can touch him. But when he dons his “Woody Allen: Deep Thinker” cap and tries for wisdom and tortured insight into the human condition (and BOY does the effort show), he can come off as woefully out of his depth (his insights can be shallow) and the results are frequently insufferable.
House Party
Elderly couple, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen,l.) get chummy with their neighbors, the Liptons (Allen & Keaton)
Happily, in what was initially intended as another Allen/Farrow onscreen pairing, Woody Allen followed up the squirmingly autobiographical Husbands and Wives - 1992 (which plays out much better now, thanks to the healing distance of time) with the hilarious Manhattan Murder Mystery; a splendid return to the Woody Allen of the 70s: the funny Woody Allen. But as happy as audiences were for the return of Woody-lite, Farrow’s departure and the ugly reasons behind it might have proved an insurmountable PR roadblock were not for the very engaging Diane Keaton stepping in to take Farrow’s place. Keaton and Allen, last paired in 1987s Manhattan (she had a lovely cameo in Radio Days - 1987), co-starred in just four films (Farrow and Allen appeared in seven films together, but not always as a couple), but to many, they were the beloved Bogart and Bacall of contemporary comedy. The unofficial reuniting of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer engendered so much nostalgic goodwill that the recent damage to Woody Allen’s image was temporarily eclipsed (and softened) by the welcome return of Diane Keaton, the actress with whom Woody Allen arguably shares the best onscreen chemistry.
Woody Allen as Larry Lipton
Diane Keaton as Carol Lipton
The plot of Manhattan Murder Mystery is playfully simple. When the wife of an elderly neighbor dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances, a middle-aged couple worried that their marriage has settled into a comfortable routine (Allen & Keaton) soon find themselves caught in circumstances where life imitates art. That is, if the art in question is Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo. Reluctantly donning the cloak of amateur sleuth, our neurotic Nick & Nora of the 90s embark on a comic investigation into a possible murder that winds up unearthing more than a clue or two about their own marriage.  
Like the best of those old Bob Hope or Abbott and Costello comedies that successfully combined mystery with outlandish slapstick, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a consistently funny comedy– laugh out loud funny, at some points – that still manages to sustain a satisfyingly puzzling and suspenseful (if implausible) murder mystery at its core.
Mystery Incorporated
Looking like the cast from a thinking man's version of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, Carol and Larry enlist the help of friends/rivals Ted and Marcia (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston) in unraveling a mystery.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery when it premiered in Los Angeles in 1993. And although the film opened with a rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” by society supper-club crooner, Bobby Short, that nearly had me running for the nearest exit before the film had even begun; my fortitude was rewarded by being treated to one of the funniest, most entertaining Woody Allen films I'd seen in a long while. This was the kind of silly comedy, following the uneven Alice (1990) and largely terrible Shadows and Fog (1991); I had begun to doubt Allen was still capable of making. 
Manhattan Murder Mystery is a genuine throwback to the Woody Allen of old, and is, at least as far as I’m concerned, his last really funny film to date. What works for me is that it’s one of those comedies wherein a significant part of the humor is derived from seeing characters associated with one kind of film (a Woody Allen neurotic comedy) forced to contend with the plot-driven constraints of a specific genre (the stylized film noir or suspense thriller). Peter Bogdanovich achieved something like this with What’s Up, Doc?, when he dropped laid-back 70s actors into the center of the controlled anarchy of a 30s screwball comedy, but its perhaps Love and Death (my absolute favorite Woody Allen film) that is perhaps the best example of this kind of anachronism-derived humor. 
Manhattan Murder Mystery takes two of cinema’s most famously jittery individuals and posits them within the cool-as-a-cucumber universe of the suspense thriller. Instead of hard-boiled heroes unphased by danger, or fearless femme fatales impervious to menace; we’re given a talky, excitable, slightly dowdy middle-aged couple unable to stop analyzing their lives and emotional insecurities even in the face of possible death. No one does high-strung hysteria like Keaton and Allen, and Manhattan Murder Mystery gets funnier in direct proportion to the degree of jeopardy they face. Comic high points: the malfunctioning elevator scene and the sequence with the synchronized tape recorders.
Woody Allen pays tribute to the classic "hall of mirrors" scene from Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai

PERFORMANCES
I really adore Mia Farrow, and under Woody Allen’s direction, she gave some of the best screen performances of her career. That being said, outside of the total character transformation she affected in Broadway Danny Rose which unearthed a heretofore-unexplored brassiness in the preternaturally waifish actress that contrasted nicely with Allen’s sweet-natured talent agent; I can’t say I’ve ever much cared for Mia Farrow and Woody Allen’s onscreen chemistry.
In that transference that seems to happen with any actor appearing in an Allen film more than once, Mia Farrow began to adapt Woody Allen’s patterns and rhythms of speech so thoroughly that (compounded by their shared pale and thin countenances) she became more like his female doppelganger than costar. In their scenes together, there was no contrast for either to play off of…it was just Woody Allen whining in stereo.
Diane Keaton, on the other hand, is perfection. While she still strikes me as being too pretty for him (although not in that stomach-turning, Julia Roberts way in 1996s Everyone Say I Love You), Keaton is so innately likeable that she sufficiently softens Allen’s sometimes-annoying persona enough to make him and his overarching self-involvement bearable. They blend together seamlessly and have an easy rapport that radiates from the screen. As good an actress as she is, I have to say that, outside of the unsurpassed work she did in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), I've rarely enjoyed Keaton in any of her films to the degree I've liked her in the ones she has made with Allen. Keaton seems to bring out the best in Allen as no other co-star has before or since.
The ceaselessly stylish Anjelica Huston is always a pleasure to watch. Disregarding the scenes where she's called upon to make blunt overtures to the grandfatherly Allen (they play out like a science fiction movie), I get a real kick out of the way Huston's self-assured cool is contrasted with Keaton's diffidence. Far left, that's 18-yr-old Zach Braff making his film debut.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Murder mysteries aren't easy to pull off under the best of circumstances, a murder mystery-cum-homage to The Greats, that’s also a comedy…even less likely. But in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Allen’s comic detour into Agatha Christie territory manages to be a first-rate mystery of considerable twists and surprises. And, mercifully, none of it is the least bit Scandinavian or Bergmanesque. In fitting with the tone of the genre, Allen keeps the dialog witty and the plotting brisk, most of it serving to support a sweet subplot about growing older and the fear of losing one’s taste for adventure. 
In this, the second of three films he made with Woody Allen (Crimes & Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You), Alan Alda plays a divorced playwright harboring an infatuation for Diane Keaton
No matter what names they go by, the characters Keaton and Allen play in Manhattan Murder Mystery are Annie Hall and Alvy Singer. And that's fine by me. As someone who fell in love with Diane Keaton in his teens and laughed through the "nervous romance" of Annie Hall more times than I can count; seeing these characters 16 years later (albeit in the guise of Larry Lipton, publishing editor, and Carol Lipton, wannabe restaurateur), looking all rumpled and lived-in, yet still relating to one another with the same spark of undeniable affection and magnetism...well, it just takes me down a nostalgic road I can't help but feel is entirely the point.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Of the Woody Allen films I number among my favorites: Annie Hall, Love and Death, Radio DaysThe Purple Rose of Cairo, Bullets Over Broadway, Cassandra’s Dream, Broadway Danny Rose, Everyone Says I Love You September ( I haven't seen Blue Jasmine yet)-- Manhattan Murder Mystery ranks somewhere near the top. I know many of his films are tighter, smarter, and funnier, but this is the closest Allen has come to making a comfort food kind of movie for me. In deference to the plot-driven machinations of the suspense genre, Allen's darker obsessions take a back seat to his lighter anxieties (avoidance of physical pain, losing sleep, etc.), and the entire enterprise just leaves me smiling and satisfied when it's over. It's Woody Allen at his most accessible (meaning tolerable), with Diane Keaton the perfect, sardonic foil. They create a kind of movie magic together, the kind that keeps me returning to rewatch Manhattan Murder Mystery long after the mystery of the murder has been solved.


THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
I got Diane Keaton's autograph back in 1981 when I working at Crown Books on Sunset Blvd. Given how much I adore her, it puzzles me how little I remember of this encounter. All I recall is that I was standing behind the cash register and there was Annie Hall standing in front of me with a pile of books. I have no memory of asking for her autograph or even gushing "Gee, Miss Keaton, I just love all your movies..." or some such nonsense. I must have passed out and woke up with this pinned to my shirt.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, December 19, 2013

BILLIE 1965

A favorite little-known Patty Duke film sandwiched innocuously between her Oscar-winning turn in The Miracle Worker (1962) and the near career-killing ignominy of Valley of the Dolls (1967)—the movie which has become, most assuredly, THE film she’ll be most remembered for—is Billie: a sprightly, featherweight teen musical about a tomboyish track and field dynamo suffering with gender-identity issues. 
Patty Duke as Billie Carol
Jim Backus as Howard G. Carol
Jane Greer as Agnes Carol
Warren Berlinger as Mike Benson
I won't kid you, the above description, as brief as it is, makes Billie sound considerably more substantial than it is. Point in fact, clocking in at brisk 87 minutes, Billie is so lightweight it’s barely there. Entertaining fluff, if you will, kind of like the cinematic equivalent of a schnecken. This teen-culture tidbit (churned out in just 15 days!) really should have been a TV film, but as it was made to capitalize on the considerable TV and record popularity of teen sensation Patty Duke (Billie was filmed before the start of the third and final season her weekly sitcom The Patty Duke Show ), it proved perfect fodder for the lucrative drive-in crowd and Beach Party/rock & roll musical market. But even on the big screen it's clear Billie is less a motion picture and more a bigscreen TV sitcom padded out to feature length, thanks to a few lively musical numbers and what easily has to be 15-minutes worth of reaction-shot cutaways to Clown, the family sheepdog. 
Such a Face!
Billie relies on reaction shots of this adorable Old English Sheepdog (Clown) to provide the visual equivalent of a television laugh track. Tiger,  the sheepdog from The Patty Duke Show, disappeared after the first season...perhaps this is him, and he left to pursue a career in motion pictures.  

As is so often  the case with '60s sitcoms, the plot of Billie hinges on a single, silly gimmick. In this instance, in lieu of talking horses, 
mothers reincarnated as automobiles, or identical twin cousins, we have an average teenager who, thanks to a bit of a mind flip called “the beat”the ability to hear a rhythm in her head and transfer that percussive beat into athletic prowessis able to outrun, out jump, and outperform every male member of her high-school track team.
Billie's got the Beat!
(more accurately, Patty Duke's got a running platform attached to the back of a camera truck) 

If you're scratching your head wondering how, unless the story is set in Downton Abbey, a feature film’s worth of comic/dramatic conflict can be wrung from a non-issue like a female athlete in 1965; it helps to know that Billie is adapted from a wheezy 1952 stage play by Ronald Alexander titled Time Out for Ginger, and, save for the substituting of track & field for the play’s intergender football premise, makes it to the screen with its outmoded sexual politics intact. It also helps to know that as contrived as the plot sounds, athletic programs for girls were a very low priority in many high schools in America before Federal sex discrimination laws were passed in 1972.

Mayoral candidate Howard Carol (Backus) resides in a house full of women, yet runs his campaign on a “return to gentility” anti-women’s rights platform. Agnes (Greer), his long-suffering wife, is one of those wisely sardonic housewives typical of '60s sitcoms: she's genuinely smarter than her husband, but regularly defers to his oafishness out of love and an understanding of the fragility of the male ego. Eldest daughter Jean (Susan Seaforth) is the ultra-femme apple of her father's eye and the veritable poster girl for non-threatening '60s womanhood. Not only does she look like exactly like a younger version of her mother, but at age 20 she wants nothing more from life than to quit college, marry, and get down to the business of making babies. Remarkably, goals her character has already achieved by the time she’s introduced.
That Girl's Ted Bessell and Days of Our Lives' Susan Seaforth-Hayes contribute to Billie's cast of recognizable TV faces
This leaves 15-year-old Billie (Duke), a self-professed “lonely little in-between” wrestling with puberty and grappling with anxiety over her gender-identification (not sexually, mind you, she's merely a tomboy who shows little interest in what girls are supposed to be interested in 1965). This is compounded by feeling she is also a disappointment to her father, who clearly favors her pretty and feminine older sister, and, in this painful exchange, accidentally lets slip how he really feels about his youngest offspring:

Father- “From now on, try to remember that you’re a girl!”
Billie- “I wish I was a boy…”
Father- “So do I, but you’re not!”

Ouch! I understand the title for the sequel is: Time Out for Therapy

When Billie is later recruited by the high school track coach (“…to shame the boys into trying harder”), her newfound notoriety as the team’s most valuable player not only threatens to alienate potential suitor Mike Benson (the doughy Warren Berlinger), but derail her reluctantly supportive father’s run for mayor. What's a girl/boy to do?
"I should have been a boy, but here I am a girl!"
Singing the song, "Lonely Little In-Between," Billie decides to throw herself a Pity Party

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Unless, like me, you're a nostalgia-prone boomer who grew up on white-bread, middle-class, suburban family comedies of the '60s and nursed a prepubescent crush on cute-as-a-button Patty Duke, Billie is a movie so dated and obviously aimed at kids, you're apt to find it more trying than entertaining. 
Given what must have been a pretty tight shooting schedule, Billie is pretty straightforward stuff as far as filmmaking goes. There's no art to the cinematography beyond making sure everyone remains within the frame and everything is in focus. The editing is of the ping-pong variety: alternating medium shots of whichever character is talking. There's not even much to say about the performances, as everyone does a professional, workmanlike job with their sketchily written parts. So what, beyond the overall competence of the endeavor, do I enjoy about Billie
The fact that each time I revisit it, its surface simplicity begins to look more complex.

Like a great many family-oriented films that haven’t aged particularly well, Billie has evolved over the years into one of those cult-worthy, meta-movies that, when viewed through the prism of contemporary mores, can't help but operate on several different levels simultaneously. Most of them inadvertent. All of them more interesting than the film as originally conceived.
The gender politics of Billie are either/or. You're either a track star or a girl...you can't be both
There’s Billie the high-school musical and puberty allegory about a confused tomboy teetering on the brink of womanhood; Billie the insincere social-conflict farce that pays lip service to women's equality, yet in its heart really believes that men and women are just happier occupying traditional gender roles; Billie the "very special episode" of the ABC Afterschool Special about a transgender teen struggling with being a boy trapped in a girl's body (the most persuasive layer, if you ask me); and, finally, Billie the "be yourself" Glee episode about the growing pains of a latent lesbian high-school track star (Duke's resemblance to Ellen Degeneres adding yet another layer).
An uncomfortable layer, but one the good-natured actress is more than willing to attest to these days, is the curious fact that, given her real-life battle with bipolarism, she was so often cast in roles that required her to play dueling sides of her own personality. 
Even after a feminizing makeover, Billie proves she still has plenty of butch to spare!

PERFORMANCES
Thanks to the availability of The Patty Duke Show on DVD, I've had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with what a charming and natural comedienne Patty Duke can be. Her Patty Lane may not have been as glamorous as the teens Elinor Donahue and Shelley Fabares played on Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show, respectively, but she was far more likable, relatable, and a real dynamo of energy. (Patty Lane was quite the scrappy little toughie. Episodes highlighting her character’s selfish, bossy side show signs of a budding Neely O’Hara.)
With his man-boobs, Michelin Man ripples, and thorough lack of muscle tone, boyish Warren Berlinger (27-years-old to Duke's 18) makes for an unlikely athletic candidate. The athletic field featured in Billie is John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Ca. Recognizable to fans of Grease as Rydell High. 

The talented Patty Duke is undeniably the glue holding Billie together (the film is credited to Chrislaw/Patty Duke Productions. Chrislaw being the Peter Lawford-headed production company responsible for The Patty Duke Show), but her trademark vitality feels strangely subdued, and the film doesn't really make the most of her talents. Saddled with a character who spends the majority of the film feeling wounded, confused or bewildered, Duke is left shouldering all of the film’s dramatic weight (which she handles capably), a lot of its singing (Duke's real voice gets a healthy assist from Lesley Gore-style overdubbing, but she's no Neely O'Hara), some of its dancing (as with her track scenes, doubles are occasionally used), but very little of  the film's wit or comedy. 

Regrettably or fortunately, depending on your fondness for the actors in questions, the lion's share of the film's comedy is left to the supporting cast of stock characters populated by a bevy of familiar TV faces. There are no surprises, however, as each character actor has been cast with an eye toward the same schticky, sure-fire comedy takes and delivery they've delivered on sitcom after sitcom for years.
Clockwise from top left: Richard Deacon, Dick Sargent, Charles Lane, and Billy De Wolfe
If you've ever seen any of these actors before, you already know what you're getting in Billie


I must admit that the pleasure of having the great Jane Greer appear in Billie (one of my all-time great film noir femme fatales: Out of the Past and The Big Steal) is mitigated significantly by seeing her lethal brand of smoldering insouciance reduced to playing the sweetly supportive housewife to a blowhard husband. Jim Backus' character is just the kind of male chauvinist sap one of her film noir incarnations would have tossed into the trunk of an automobile and sent hurtling off a cliff without batting an eyelash.
Strong female characters of the sort Jane Greer built her career on in the 1940s were almost nowhere to be found by the 1960s, when Hollywood had a hard time envisioning women outside of the role of housewife or girlfriend.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Should Billie's retro riffs on gender roles grow tiresome, I can always console myself with its dancing. Choreographed by Elvis/Beach Party movie stalwart David Winters (Shindig, Hullabaloo) in that curiously self-mocking, frenetic style that looks like a hybrid of '60s go-go and traditional musical comedy jazz (popularized in Broadway shows like Promises, Promises and Applause), these numbers are lively, silly, and a great deal of fun. 
Making her film debut (and serving as the film's co-choreographer) is A Chorus Line's Donna McKechnie, showing impeccable form in the red-and-white rugby stripes. She, along with director/mentor Michael Bennett, were dancers on the teen variety show, Hullabaloo. Several of the dancers in Billie are recognizable from '60s-era films like West Side Story and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. A triple-bill of Bye Bye BirdieBillie, and The Cool Ones would serve as a terrific primer on the effect pop music had on contemporary movie musical choreography.
The robust and amusing musical number "The Girl is a Girl is a Girl" is one of my favorites. Wittily staged in a high-school locker room, the rousing routine features lots of chorus boys dancing with each other while adopting (none too convincingly) macho attitudes and extolling the virtues of the fairer sex. It doesn't hurt that many are doing this while wearing skimpy and form-fitting shorts.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
While it's hard to imagine that Billie did Patty Duke's reputation as an Oscar-winning actress any good, I think it's fair to say it didn't do it much harm, either. In fact, I was surprised to learn that Billie was a hit when it came out. A fact no doubt helped by Duke's popularity on the record charts (her two debut singles, "Don't Just Stand There" and "Say Something Funny" were each Top 40 hits), and propelled by the cross-promotion provided by Duke singing the film's single, "Funny Little Butterflies," on the variety program, Shindig, as well as on an episode of her own TV show.
The dress...
Patty Duke's managers (about whom much has been written) obviously had a vested interest in milking Duke's teenage appeal for as long as they could, so putting her in a disposable pop confection like this must have appeared, if perhaps a bit short-sighted (Duke was fast approaching adulthood), nevertheless expedient and profitable. Personally, I would love to have seen her take on Inside Daisy Clover (coincidentally, released the same year as Billie), a film not only better suited to her talents, but one which might have eased her into adult roles a little more gracefully than Valley of the Dolls
Billie was directed by Don Weis, who had an extensive career in television, but directed one of my favorite old MGM musicals, I Love Melvin.


BONUS MATERIAL
As much as I enjoy this movie, the enduring popularity of Ronald Alexander's play, Time Out for Ginger, truly baffles me. At various times in its revival history, the play has attracted the talents of Liza Minnelli and Steve McQueen! Go figure. As far as I'm concerned, it's Patty Duke, the '60s music, the dancing, and the time-acquired abstract levels of camp and multiple interpretation that make Billie's thoroughly run-of-the-mill plot even remotely bearable.

By the way, for the benefit of any Rosemary's Baby fans out there, playwright Ronald Alexander is also the author of Nobody Loves an Albatross.

Watch Jack Benny in a 60-minute TV adaptation of Time Out for Ginger from 1955 HERE 

Watch the unsold pilot for a 1960 TV series based on Time Out for Ginger  HERE 

If you're unfamiliar with actress Jane Greer, you owe it to yourself to check out this brief TCM clip on Out of the Past (1947) HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PORTRAIT IN BLACK 1960

Although I like to think of my taste in movies as being somewhat broad and varied, the sad truth is that I’m an oddly finicky film fan who only rarely steps outside of his comfort zone of favored tropes, themes, and genres. Case in point: as a rule, I don’t like war movies, westerns, sports films, or sci-fi; thus, there are a great many classic and perhaps marvelous motion pictures made in these genres which I have never seen...nor is it likely I ever will. That’s a hell of a lot of movies to cut out of one’s life. Of course, some of this boils down to plain old discernment (at age fifty-plus, I've seen enough western, war, sci-fi, and sports films to know that, by and large, they’re just not  my cup of tea); but there's no denying that some of it is simply kneejerk prejudice and inflexibility.

Back in my film school days, before my opinions and preferences began to fully take shape (read: calcify), I was one of those guys who considered it time well-spent to sit and watch ANY kind of movie; for I was then of the mind that it was possible to learn as much from bad films as from good. Not anymore. When one reaches the age of 50 and beyond, the once-illusory concept of time becomes such a concrete concept, the idea of passing time suddenly morphs into wasting time, and with it, the dawning that the odds are not in your favor.

I've reached the stage where I don’t welcome spending my dwindling hours on this earth slogging through movies my cinephile Spidey-senses signal to me I’m not going to enjoy. These days, it’s my partner who takes the broadminded, democratic approach to movies, while I largely content myself with watching films I’ve already seen or films which I'm instinctively drawn to for whatever reason. I take my chances on the unfamiliar and uncharted only after they've been thoroughly dusted for signs of Tarantino; Sandler; auto racing; handguns held sideways; Katherine Heigl; or anyone wearing a cape and body armor.
Knuckle Sandwich 
Anthony Quinn & Lana Turner engage in a little oral sex
The only time my resolve weakens as to what films I positively, absolutely, will not watch, are on the occasions of my body weakening. Which is to say, when I’m confined to my bed and so sick with a cold or the flu that I’ll literally watch anything to keep my mind off of how miserable I’m feeling.
Occasionally this leads to my being subjected to unfortunate “entertainments” like Gene Kelly’s old coot comedy-western, The Cheyenne Social Club (1970); a film that, 15 minutes in, had me praying for a high-grade fever. But what I like best is when my incapacitated state brings about my exposure to (and enjoyment of) a film I might not otherwise have been inclined to sit through. Such is the case with Ross Hunter’s overdressed opus of melodramatic camp, Portrait in Black; a film I consciously avoided (rather surprisingly, given its reputation for overheated hysterics and histrionics) until it screened on TCM a few years backwhen i was laid up with the fluand has thereafter remained a lasting favorite. For all the wrong reasons. 
as Sheila Cabot
as Dr. David Rivera
as Cathy Cabot
as Blake Richards
Portrait in Black is an old-fashioned reminder that people once paid good money to see the kind of overwrought hand-wringers and melodramas which became standard fodder for TV movies, miniseries, primetime soaps, and the Lifetime Network. All plot, no character, Portrait in Black exists solely as a parade of lacquered hairstyles, overelaborate sets (or San Francisco locations so overlit that they LOOK like sets), and most importantlysmart fashions for the well-dressed middle-age socialite. Sixties variety.
Propping up all this material display is a workaday murder/suspense plot involving a cantankerous shipping magnate (Lloyd Nolan); his sexually frustrated wife, Lana Turner (“Too bad they can’t find a shot for your condition…a vitamin shot for ‘Love’ deficiency!”); and his morally conflicted physician, Anthony Quinn. Also thrown into the mix as sundry red herrings and narrative speed bumps of varying annoyance are Sandra Dee as the snippy stepdaughter; her scrappy, poor-but-honest suitor, John Saxon; and the dull-to-the-point-of-genius Richard Basehart as Nolan’s legal advisor.
 Yes, Portrait in Black is one of those movies where even the phones are color coordinated to the leading lady's wardrobe.

There’s nothing going on here that you haven’t seen about a million times before (and better), no plot point or suspense twist that isn't telegraphed ages before it occurs. But thanks to dated acting styles which result in theatrically stilted performances worthy of a Carol Burnett Show spoof; the uniquely kitschy look of early '60s high style (gold vein mirrors, Chinese Modern knickknacks, quilted headboards, gilt filigree); and producer Ross Hunter’s unparalleled gift for making every one of his films look as though it were made at least ten years earlier; Portrait in Black fails as legitimate drama in direct proportion to the heights it hits (and believe me, this movie soars!) as derisible, highly-entertaining camp.

Chinese-American silent screen icon Anna May Wong was coaxed out of an 11-year retirement  for this, her last film role, to appear (along with everybody's favorite Martian, Ray Walston) as an appropriately mysterious member of the Cabot mansion "help." 

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog would think Lana Turner and Sandra Dee co-starring in a film produced by the man who gave us Lost Horizon, Tammy Tell Me True, AND the camptastic Doris Day classic Midnight Lace, would be a no-brainer of a must-see for a man of my particular “tastes.” But the truth is, I’m no great fan of Lana Turner (although I’ve always got a kick out of her very “movie star” name, for me she peaked, both in beauty and talent, in The Postman Always Rings Twice); and in spite of Ross Hunter’s reputation for being one of Hollywood’s foremost purveyors of inadvertent camp, I tend to find his static, studio-bound melodramas to be a little hard going.
Trouble in Paradise
The mortality rate of Lana Turner's movie husbands is never all that great to begin with, but start man-handling her and you're pretty much looking at a cameo. Curious side note: it's been said that Truman Capote harbored a lifelong crush on actor Lloyd Nolan, often speaking of him as the "ideal man"(!) 

Having previously endured his backpedaling remake of Imitation of Life and the arid romance of Magnificent Obsession, I wasn't exactly inclined to give Ross Hunter benefit of a “three strikes” vote when Portrait in Black was recommended to me: hours of my life irretrievably lost to two Ross Hunter productions was more than enough, thank you. Of course, now I see the only thing wasted were all the years of laughter I deprived myself of by waiting so long to see this howler. Thank god for that miserable, debilitating, 6-day bout of influenza, huh?
Try not to look suspicious!

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Where to start? There’s something sublimely liberating about watching a potboiler so superficial and devoid of subtext that after it’s over, you needn’t waste a second mulling over what it all signifies. It’s a pleasurable time-killer, pure and simple. And beyond being a tale of illicit lovers implicated in the suspicious death of a despised industrialist, and the thin mystery surrounding the identity of a blackmailer, Portrait in Black is true to Hunter’s oft-stated objective to “…(give) the public what they wanted. A chance to dream, to live vicariously, to see beautiful women, jewels, gorgeous clothes, melodrama.”  Note that at no point does he mention credible storylines, good acting, or simple character development. 
Dr. Rivera: "Look at this. It's more deadly than a gun...a thousand times less detectable!"
A puncture from a hypodermic needle is less detectable than a big ol' gunshot wound? Imagine that

You gotta love the creaky screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (based on their 1945 play) wherein all the characters find it necessary to say each other’s names even when speaking face to face. It’s never“You mustn't!” when it can be, “David, you mustn’t!” Never, “Would you like fries with that?” when you can say, “Sheila, would you like fries with that?” This practice lends an air of comically mannered artificiality to all human interaction, which fortunately is right in step with the old-fashioned, histrionic performances director Michael Gordon (Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling) elicits from his cast. Even the reliably naturalistic (and, for my taste, tiresomely lusty) Anthony Quinn seems peculiarly hamstrung and stiff. 
A real comic highlight is the hilarious rain-slicked drive along curvy coastal roads scene which has Turner more or less recreating her scream scene from The Postman Always Rings Twice
Because the film's simple “Who’s blackmailing us and why?” plotline has to strain to build suspense and pad out its running time, the script has our star-crossed lovers making one boneheaded misstep after another. Their actions only serving to compound the many sizable obstacles they already face in trying to navigate (and failing spectacularly at it) the film's choppy sea of red herrings. A veritable rogues gallery of malcontents and secret-keepers which comprise their circle of friends, employees, and family members. In short order, events intended to provide dramatic conflict quickly play out like a farcical comedy of errors.


PERFORMANCES
As members of Ross Hunter’s unofficial film repertory company, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, and the ever-regal Virginia Grey had each, by the time they made Portrait in Black, developed a firm grasp on the overly-sincere, purple dramatizing required of this kind of melodrama. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say any of them actually make fools of themselves, in certain scenes (the tormented curtain-pulling episode in particular), Lana Turner comes awfully close.
Indeed, Lana Turner takes all the prizes for making Portrait in Black so watchable for me because hers is one of those truly awful performances that only the committed can give. She's marvelous to look at, oozes star quality out of every pore, but I honestly haven't a clue as to what she's trying for in her scenes. Whatever it is, natural human behavior doesn't factor into it. She gives one of those Master Thespian "Movie Star" performances that torpedoes realism, but makes for a hell of an entertaining evening at the movies.
Although he seems a tad out of his element, I have to say it's nice to see Anthony Quinn all gussied up for a change. Usually covered in stubble, sweat stains, and acting all earthy and robust, I welcomed this buttoned-down, Brooks Bros Zorba. Meanwhile, Lana here doesn't seem to be too pleased with her "Minnie Mouse in Mink" look.

I've always found the troubled Sandra Dee to be a very appealing presence in movies, but here her innate charm is undermined a bit by the scornful, worrywart character she's saddled with. And by the efforts of Hunter and Universal Studios to glamorize and update the 17-year-old's teenybopper screen image. Personally, I kept hoping for Dee to break into her Tammy Tyree Mississippi twang and start lecturing these corrupt city folk on how much simpler life was down on the river with her grandpappy; all the while peppering her homey, colloquial diatribe with cute phrases like, "It's a puzzlement!" 
It would be a few more years before Mary Quant, Vidal Sassoon, and the youth movement at large encouraged young women to actually look like young women. Judging by Sandra Dee's glam makeover in Portrait in Black, the goal of sophisticated 17-year-olds in 1960 was to look like their mothers. Dee looks fabulous here, but honestly, she could pass for a woman in her 30s.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There are many categories of camp: there’s pretentious (Showgirls), clueless (Can’t Stop the Music), and my favorite--inadvertent. The enjoyment of pretentious camp is rooted in a kind of mean-spirited schadenfreude wherein you find yourself reveling in each failed attempt at legitimacy a film strives for. Clueless camp makes you shake your head over how out-of-touch the filmmakers can be, but can also make you feel a bit sorry for them (i.e. Mae West's Sextette). But inadvertent camp is guilt free and the most enjoyable of the lot because the laughs come less at the expense of the individuals involved and more at how the passage time and the fickle finger of fate can turn what was once solemn into something that is now side-splitting.
The passage of time brings with it changing tastes and attitudes about everything from acting styles to fashion. So if a once-serious film falls victim to cultural shifts which render its content and themes outmoded (The Bad Seed), it’s nothing anyone could have foreseen, and laughing at it feels, well...just a little bit kinder. 


A few of my favorite things:
Richard Basehart as family friend Howard Mason, making a play for "grieving" widow Sheila Cabot a day after the funeral 
Turner's mink-clad stroll through San Francisco's I. Magnin department store (complete with doorman!)
Anthony Quinn going mano-a-mano with the Hippocratic Oath

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As fun as a movie like Portrait in Black can be for the occasional mindless diversion, reminding oneself that there was once a time when movies of this sort represented a sizable percentage of Hollywood's output always makes me grateful for the revolution in film that brought about the New Hollywood of the late '60s and '70s. Things really needed shaking up.
As Hollywood began to respond to the realist influence of European New Wave cinema and the naturalism of East Coast "Method" acting, old-school producers like Ross Hunter prided themselves on their efforts to bring "glamour" and old-fashioned family entertainment back to Hollywood movies. Hunter in particular made films that existed within a bubble of willful irrelevance so out of touch with the real world, they bordered on the surreal.
Portrait in Black marked the third and final screen pairing of John Saxon and Sandra Dee

Although he was gay, Hunter made films promoting staunchly status-quo heteronormative values which featured men and women occupying traditional gender roles, and people of color depicted, if perhaps more plentifully than many of his peers, always as occupying positions of a non-threatening, subordinate status. And, as befitting the times and Hunter's own closeted always-appear-in-public-with-a-beard-on-your-arm inclinations; gays were invisible or non-existent except as humorous reference points in his sex comedies.
Ross Hunter's films understandably struck a chord with those of an older demographic. Those moviegoers left bewildered by cinema's new permissiveness (or the term cinema, for that matter) and still enamored of the perhaps apocryphal Samuel Goldwyn quote, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union!" So while college kids in 1960 were lining up to see Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Ross Hunter was getting rich (and very little in the way of respect) releasing Portrait in Black, a movie so timely it was once considered as a vehicle for Joan Crawford.
Ross Hunter good luck charm Virginia Grey as Miss Lee- the proverbial secretary in love with her boss.
Fans of George Cuckor's The Women will remember Grey as Pat, Joan Crawford's wisecracking shopgirl friend

I'm not familiar enough with Ross Hunter's work (and too much the devotee of '70s movies) to appreciate his contribution to film. But as a connoisseur of camp and good/bad movies, the outmoded, overdressed, overemotional charm of Portrait in Black places him high on my list of those who have made the most significant contributions to guilty-pleasure cinema.

BONUS MATERIAL
If you're a fan of Ross Hunter or late-career Lana Turner, check out these sites:
A terrific review of Imitation of Life can be found at Angelman's Place
Read all about Lana in Madame X at Poseidon's Underworld


Copyright © Ken Anderson