Thursday, November 14, 2013


This is a doozy, folks, in the so-bad-it's-almost-good category. Lewis Zarken (Peter Finch) is a retired movie director; years ago, he was known for a sting of films that made a star out of Lylah Clare (Kim Novak), but on their wedding day, Lylah died under mysterious circumstances—she either fell or was pushed from a flight of stairs in Zarken's mansion, and was either running from an assailant or was engaging in an extramarital fling with another woman. Now some twenty years later, press agent Bart Langer (Milton Seltzer) has discovered a young would-be starlet named Elsa (also Kim Novak) who bears a striking resemblance to Lylah. Dying of cancer, he approaches Zarken about making a movie about Lylah that would star Elsa. At first skeptical, Zarken soon decides not only to make the movie, but also to mold Elsa to be another Lylah.

That plot has promise, but the film is tonally all over the place. It can’t decide if it's campy satire, straightforward melodrama, or a ghost story, so it winds up being a bit of all three, to its detriment. The movies it most conjures up are VERTIGO (instability of identity, male re-creating lost female) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (eccentric old movie personalities), and had director Robert Aldrich shot for one or the other as a model, the movie might have worked. Whenever it's dealing with the movie business, which is often, the script feels like the fever dream of an oversexed 14-year-old who has no idea how Hollywood works. When it's trying to be a relationship drama, the characters are maddeningly vague, particularly Zarken who comes off sometimes as villainous and sometimes as just misunderstood. Fairly soon after Elsa enters Zarken's house, she begins to occasionally slip into the deep Germanic accent and over-the-top vampishness of Lylah, to the point where it feels like she's being possessed by a spirit. Yet few other people seem to notice this or comment on it—is this something that’s only observed by Zarken, or is this really a possession story?

As a whole, the movie is a mess, but many of the parts are enjoyable. The backstory of Zarken and Lylah is clearly based on Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and watching the way Zarken's relationship with Elsa plays out has its moments. Novak is sexy, Finch gives it his all—though honestly, it would have been more fun if he had gone over the top more often—and Seltzer provides solid, quiet support, though his character is no more realistic than the others. Rossella Falk plays Finch's assistant, who apparently had a thing for Lylah (I'm thinking on the order of Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA, but dialed down very low). Ernest Borgnine is good as a studio boss who hires Zarken to make the film, and a young Michael Murphy is his son who becomes a protector of sorts to Elsa. The movie is stolen by Coral Browne (pictured at right) as a crippled gossip columnist who can make or break Elsa's reputation before even one frame of film is shot. She's only in two scenes and her presence is missed throughout. Also with Gabriele Tinti as a hunky but sleazy Italian gardener and eventual bedmate of Elsa's. I can only recommend this movie if you have a healthy tolerance and/or love of bad movies. [TCM]

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