Friday, December 15, 2006


Great-looking Douglas Sirk melodrama, painted as usual in fall colors and highlighted with occasional over-the-top acting. I watched this on TCM with introductory commentary by Robert Osborne and Molly Haskell; Osborne was inclined to dismiss it as "kitsch," but Haskell treated it as high art. I'm somewhere in the middle: it is kitschy but involving, with good performances all around. The memorable opening, set on a blustery fall evening, has Robert Stack, drunk as a lord, peeling up in front of a mansion with a gun, ready to shoot someone. We then see, one by one, the house's occupants (Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Dorothy Malone) as they await Stack's arrival. A gun goes off but before we know the outcome, we flash back one year. Bacall is the new executive secretary at the Manhattan office of Hadley Oil. Hudson, a Hadley geologist and close friend of the founding family, finds her interesting but before he can sweep her off her feet, the headstrong, alcoholic Hadley heir (Stack) does it, and the two are married overnight. (I'm not the world's biggest Rock Hudson fan, but I must admit that the fact that she chooses the shambling weakling Stack over the solid, charming Hudson is, to me, one of the biggest unexplained mysteries of 50's cinema.) Meanwhile, the Hadley sister (Malone) has become a raging slut, hanging around dives, picking up working class men to help assuage the hurt she feels that Hudson, on whom she's had a lifelong crush, thinks of her like a kid sister. Stack and Hudson are used to being called out to the bars to break up her little affairs; at one point, we see them pay off horny pump jockey Grant Williams, whom Malone has tried to drag off to her bedroom.

A year later, Stack has become a good husband to Bacall, but when he finds out that he may be sterile, he sees himself as weak and starts falling off the wagon. Then the Hadley patriarch (Robert Keith), when confronted by evidence of Malone's promiscuity, goes upstairs to her room to confront her while she dances up a sexually frenzied storm, but has a fatal heart attack on the staircase. Then Bacall discovers she's pregnant, and Stack, egged on by Malone, decides that Hudson is the father (he isn't but the two are finding themselves attracted to each other), which leads to the confrontation we saw part of at the beginning of the film. Someone winds up dead, someone else winds up on trial for murder, and a courtroom confession provides the climax of the film. This, along with GIANT (also with Hudson) seems to have provided inspiration for the creators of those 80's TV soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. The lush, sexy, exaggerated hothouse atmosphere is fun, and Malone and Stack strike the right tone, going close to over the top with straight faces. Hudson is a strong anchor, and only Bacall seems a bit at sea, largely because her character is underwritten. The most famous scene, aside from the opening, is the death of Keith on the stairs, intercut with Malone's wild dance. Though she's unaware that he's on his way up (and out), the scene still feels a lot like the one in THE LITTLE FOXES in which Bette Davis lets her husband collapse on the stairs. The musical score is dramatic but absolutely fitting for the beautifully photographed action. Very enjoyable soapy drama. [TCM]

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