I will be on vacation from July 18 to August 1, so I probably will not post much on this blog, if anything. (I will have limited computer access – which I consider a good thing.) But rest assured, I will return to blogging as soon as possible!
As I wind down this series concentrating on a baker’s dozen dames from film noir, my last post – lucky number thirteen – is about one of the great sirens of neo-noir, Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Like the last film I wrote about, The Band Wagon (1953), Blue Velvet is in color, but don’t let that fool you; the story is as mysterious and moody as in any classic noir. In tribute to film noirs of the past, Rossellini’s character, Dorothy Vallens, is a nightclub singer mixed up with a sadistic gangster (Dennis Hopper), yet she is drawn to a clean-cut young man (Kyle MacLachlan) who already has a girlfriend (Laura Dern). In this scene Rossellini sings “Blue Velvet” and “Blue Star,” an act that is underscored by the use of blue light shining on Rossellini as she stands on the club’s stage. This isn’t the film’s only example of musical performance, though, since arguably the more memorable scene is when Dean Stockwell lipsyncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in order to calm down the psychotic and violent Hopper. Blue Velvet is an acquired taste, but it’s worth experiencing. And if you’re in the New York area, you’ll have that chance next month when BAM shows the film on Saturday, August 8 as part of the “Indie 80s” retrospective.
OK, so maybe The Band Wagon isn’t film noir. It’s an MGM musical comedy from director Vincente Minnelli, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, starring Fred Astaire and filmed in vibrant Technicolor by Harry Jackson and an uncredited George J. Folsey. What is definitely noir-inspired, however, is the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” the big extravaganza set piece at the end of the film, part of the musical within the musical. Astaire plays a typical noir detective, “Rod Riley,” solving the kinds of sordid crimes that a person might have read about in a Mickey Spillane novel or a pulp-fiction magazine in the 1950s. The luscious and leggy Cyd Charisse, the noirish definition of a “dish,” is Astaire’s leading lady in the film and she plays dual roles in the ballet: one as a blonde beauty on the run and another as a dark-haired vixen with “more curves than a scenic railway,” both gals wearing gorgeous costumes designed by Mary Ann Nyberg. The sparkling red dress that Charisse wears toward the end of the number is a real showstopper, rivaled only by the sheer, pale blue frock that she wears during the subway scene, which is my other favorite part of the ballet.
Set in that most disreputable American den of vice, Sin City, The Las Vegas Story (1952, dir. Robert Stevenson) is a crime drama starring statuesque beauty Jane Russell as a café singer torn between her true love (Victor Mature) and her no-good husband (Vincent Price, who shows up in more 1940s and 50s noir than you’d think, given how much better he is remembered for his horror films). The Las Vegas Story benefits from the casting of renowned songwriter and pianist Hoagy Carmichael in a supporting role as “Happy,” who accompanies Russell in her club performances. Carmichael contributed three of his original compositions to the picture, the most interesting being “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” which Russell sings in a flashback sequence, wistfully recalling better times with Mature. As in many of the great songs used in film noir, the lyrics reflect the performer’s bittersweet longing for an old flame. Russell also sings “My Resistance Is Low” in a duet with Carmichael at the end of the film, and Carmichael gets a solo when he sings “The Monkey Song.”
Ava Gardner first played a film noir seductress in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), huskily singing “The More I Know of Love” in her first scene. Capitalizing on Gardner’s appeal as a femme fatale, she was cast as more bad girls and “other women” in The Hucksters (1947, dir. Jack Conway), in which she was dubbed while singing “Don’t Tell Me,” Singapore (1947, dir. John Brahm) and then in The Bribe (1949, dir. Robert Z. Leonard), which is the focus of today’s post. In The Bribe, Gardner yet again plays a temptress, balancing her affections and teasing between Robert Taylor, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price and John Hodiak. In the clip posted above, Gardner performs “Situation Wanted,” dubbed by Eileen Wilson (who was interviewed two years ago about her experience with dubbing Gardner’s vocals). The film is kind of like a second-run Gilda, with Gardner as a dissatisfied wife who makes a living as a nightclub singer in a somewhat seedy South American joint while her hubby takes part in shady criminal activities. In another reference to earlier noir hits Gardner wears a black gown with cutouts designed by Irene, an outfit that is similar to the Vera West-designed dress Gardner wore in The Killers. And speaking of “shady,” the cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg, particularly the lighting, adds a very noir-style dimension to the film.
There may be no more heartrending performance in all of film noir history than Claire Trevor’s turn as Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic girlfriend, former singer “Gaye Dawn,” in Key Largo (1948, dir. John Huston). In a lesser actress’s hands, the character might have been a clichéd lush without any redeeming qualities, but Brooklyn-born Trevor imbues her role with a combination of pathos and a tough determination to stay strong even as Robinson repeatedly mocks her and bullies her into submission. Perhaps Trevor’s most notable scene in the film is when she sings the jazz/blues standard “Moanin’ Low,” hoping to receive a drink in return. Trevor isn’t the female lead in the film – that would be Lauren Bacall, who co-stars with husband Humphrey Bogart – but Trevor’s moment in the spotlight, singing lyrics that echo her pitiable situation, is one of the highlights of the film and helped her win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
Ann Sheridan plays the title torch singer in the film noir Nora Prentiss (1947, dir. Vincent Sherman). Wearing a va-va-voom outfit designed by Travilla (who later designed Marilyn Monroe’s famous pink “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” gown for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the similarly iconic white dress for The Seven Year Itch), Sheridan and her plunging neckline together live up to the actress’s pet name as “The Oomph Girl.” (For the record, though, Sheridan hated the moniker, once saying that “just being known by a nickname indicates that you’re not thought of as a true actress… It’s just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that’s all she’ll ever be thought of as.”) She sings “Would You Like a Souvenir?” to an appreciative audience as part of her San Francisco nightclub job. You will notice that “Nora” smiles and seems to enjoy her work, instead of exhibiting the more stereotypically aloof or bitter manners of other noirish dames; in fact Sheridan plays a rather likeable lady in the film, sympathetic even as she causes her man’s (Kent Smith) downfall – which is really more his fault for being obsessed with her to the point of madness.