Tuesday, November 07, 2006


If you're only going to watch one "tropical melodrama" in your life, it should probably be THE LETTER, but if you decide to watch a second one, make it this one. I have a weakness for this kind of movie in which Americans, stuck in the Equatorial climes working at a rubber plantation (as in this film) or searching for riches or cruising on a ship, come to some kind of grief, usually involving romance or guns or both. This one, based on a 20's play, is a lot of fun; it's not quite campy, like the the Jon Hall/Maria Montez jungle films, because its humor is usually deliberate and the acting is restrained. Set in 1910 Africa, the film begins with Walter Pidgeon, the local magistrate, waiting to welcome the new plantation manager, young and energetic Richard Carlson, who is replacing Bramwell Fletcher, a burned out alcoholic. The cynical, tightly wound Pidgeon predicts that Carlson will soon wind up just like Fletcher, destroyed by "damp rot." (There is a running gag involving Pidgeon's violent reaction to Fletcher constantly saying "Blasted hot today," and later Carlson irritates him in the same way saying, "When I get acclimated...") Carlson is warned about the notorious exotic half-breed Tondelayo (Hedy Lamarr), but when she comes slinking into his shack, he goes slack-jawed with lust. Eventually, Carlson marries Lamarr (there appear to be virtually no other women in the area), but she soon gets restless and starts flirting with Pidgeon. When nothing comes of that, she sets about slowly poisoning Carlson. Some reviewers claim that there is a love triangle among the three leads, but I didn't see much evidence that Pidgeon actually wanted Lamarr, though he may be jealous that Carlson has a wife in their godforsaken corner of the world, and it seems clear that Lamarr has no real affection for either of the men, above and beyond any money and trinkets she can get. The film is rather stagy, with most of the action taking place in just a few interior rooms, but it all does feel effectively hot and grungy, especially with all the sweating flesh (mostly Carlson's). The role of Tondelayo is usually cited as the one that Lamarr is best known for, and she certainly looks striking with her dusky makeup (she's supposed to be half-Arabian, raised by African natives); it also helps that she is always shot in shadow or with a shadow across her face, making her look mysterious. Her acting talents, such as they were, don't get much of a workout. The youthful and sexy Carlson is fine, as is Frank Morgan as a well-meaning but frequently drunken doctor, Henry O'Neill as the local Reverend, and Reginald Owen as a skipper. Pidgeon is the weak link as far as I'm concerned; he is wooden and unappealing, and substitutes volume of voice for expression of emotion. But the movie is still great fun, though not for a second to be taken seriously. [TCM]

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