Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Forgotten Film Noir: His Kind of Woman!

His Kind of Woman! (1951, John Farrow)

And so now the marathon gets into the thick of things. Diabolical plots from villains, a protagonist with a dirty past and clever throw away lines for every question and threat tossed in his direction, a beautiful woman who may or may not be trusted, twists and turns every step of the way which increase the prevailing sense of danger enveloping the characters, John Farrow’s His Kind of Woman! has it all, and so, so much more. Sometimes the best entries in a film genre or series are the ones that need to add different ingredients to spice things up a little bit. Certain conventions must be adhered to, but the development of some less expected qualities may prove to be much welcomed additions. With a movie that tries to be so big, brilliant and perfect, it is small wonder that the famous Howard Hughes filled the role of producer. What we end up with is a hybrid between a traditional Film Noir entry and something out of left field. 

The story evolves exactly the kind of way I like in film noir: slowly, with a strong sense of mystery hanging around as to conceal the real objectives until the final lap. Better still, Farrow reveals just enough in the early goings to educate the audience as to what ‘sort of’ might happen, but withholds information that would make the following acts predictable. The opening scenes explain that nefarious gangster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Bur, looking as young as I’ve ever seen him), hiding out in Italy, is in contact with his associates, located at a lush Mexican resort. The latter group is in the preparatory stages of a plan to have their boss enter the United States once more, which involves something of a switch and bait with a sorry sap they have randomly chosen (and who has no idea he is soon to be in big trouble) who shares similar physical attributes. The sucker in question is Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) a quietly confident gambler over his head with debts who sees himself offered, by people unknown to him, a wonderful stay at the same Mexican resort with plenty of cash to spend. He will be expected to do ‘something’ but what exactly is not revealed just yet. Once south of the border, Milner makes the acquaintance of stunning Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), a lounge singer who has an eye for handsome men, but do not take her for a fool. Together they head to this resort where all the rich folk stay, including Lenore’s current lover, American actor superstar Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), who is more absorbed by himself than anything around him. Before Milner can get too comfortable, the gangsters put their plan into motion…

His Kind of Woman! moves at a pace which indicates that the film is quite confident in its own abilities to create interest in the audience, retain said interest and ratchet up the stakes, the suspense, the diabolical nature of the villains and yes, even ratchet up the humour. The film clocks in at about two hours and is populated with a great many characters, all of which the writers and director wish to give significant scenes and moments. Scenes of exposition are in fact far and few between, even when Milner attempts to solve the puzzle of his strangely luxurious abduction, attempts that lead him very little further than he already is until very late. Little tidbits are revealed, but always slowly and in very cool fashion. Farrow and company are wise enough to keep the audience in the dark while continuously wetting our appetites with possible clues and hilarious moments, virtually all of which are courtesy of Vincent Price and his unbelievably well timed delivery. 

The latter point brings me to another of the film’s noticeable qualities, that is, the attractiveness of the characters. Film Noir protagonists and antagonists can be written very well, but often fall into familiar categories, as many of them in His Kind of Woman! do. Do to the stereotypes upon which much of the writing for Film Noir depends on, I for one have often felt that the performances and charisma of the cast members play an even more crucial role than usual in having the viewer want to spend time with them. Even as the film kept the critical keys to the plot for itself until the final segments, the time spent with the cast is more than worth the audience’s patience. The two leads, Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell (who would go on to become good friends) have a chemistry that is rarely matched. Both of their characters are not being entirely truthful with one another, but nor do they ever completely deny the magnetic attraction pulling them together. Lenore may have come to the resort to cuddle with her current beau, but the more time she spends with Milner, the more her feelings sway towards the latter. Their exchanges are witty, funny, decorated with some sexual innuendo, and reveal not just the perfect fit that they are, but the stellar talent of the two actors involved. And that is but the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  The characters themselves are brought to life with some unique quirks. Consider Milner for a moment. Charismatic, handsome, good with the one liners, has a shady past… but he refuses to drink, fearing the consequences of indulging in alcohol. The main villain, Nick Ferraro, has hired a plastic surgeon to use of Milner’s body in some rather over-the-top way, but near the climax, when the pressure mounts, gets into constant arguments about what to do finally. Milner’s main ally, actor Mark Cardigan, is a hero in more ways than one: he has played the part of heroes on the silver screen so many times that the opportunity to fill the role in real life is sufficient motivation to give the best performance of his life…even though real bullets are flying by. In essence, the characters of His Kind of Woman! all possess certain important qualities found in typical Film Noir adventures, but Farrow keeps sweeping the rug from under our feet with little twists and delicate details that keep everything fresh.

And then of course there are the final 35 minutes or so, where the film really decides to up the ante and morph into an unforgettable funny, tension filled action roller coaster ride. From the moment Milner is brought aboard Nick Ferraro’s ship, anchored none too far from the shore, where the mobster plans to inflict our hero with considerable pain for his stubbornness up until that point, His Kind of Woman! never looks back. Were this a spoiler heavy review, I would rejoice in recounting my favourite moments, but as readers know already, I am not one to typically indulge in giving away plot details. I do wish to commend John Farrow and his team for not shying away from making the climax as wild and hysterical as it is. A Film Noir can have clever lines that produce laughter (which this movie does as well), but few straddle the limits of outright comedy and action, which is precisely what His Kind of Woman! does here. The final segment is big, loud, and features enough Vincent Price moments to satisfy even the most bitter movie snob. Watching everything unfold was immensely entertaining, if somewhat bizarre. The film never truly hints that the story shall lead to such an audaciously comical and violent finale, oftentimes with the comedy and the violence mingling together like two lovers in bed. I had to remind myself that this was Film Noir, but by the end I could not care less, it was simply too much fun to bring up any legitimate complaints.

His Kind of Woman! does not provide what one expects from the outset. In fact, rather than losing its way and falling into a messy ditch, it intentionally makes a left turn, caring little if the viewer was ready for it or not. Rarely does a movie watching experience conclude with me drugged with such enthusiasm, and rarely do movies of this particular genre produce genuine smiles across my face, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. A delicious, sweet, sweet cookie.


Laura said...

So, you are on a film noir tear! Very interesting. I'll be starting one myself. A family friend gave me his two film noir box sets and I can't wait to get started.

I haven't seen this one, but great review!

edgarchaput said...

@Laura: Yeah, I'm digging up some old Film Noir. I only have a 5 film boxset, with 3 reviews already posted, so there isn't much left (it might even be done by this weekend). I'm a huge fan of both Noir and your site, so I'll certainly by visiting to read those reviews.