Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Vincent Price Blogathon: His Kind of Woman (1951)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Vincent Price Blogathon, underway from October 25-27 and hosted by The Nitrate Diva.  For a complete list of participants and the subjects/films discussed, you’ll find it all right here.

Like his real-life counterpart Lucky Luciano, the fictional mob kingpin in His Kind of Woman (1951), Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), has lost control of his empire in the United States because he’s been deported back to his native Italy.  But Ferraro has a plan to return to the U.S. of A.; with the help of a plastic surgeon named Martin Krafft (John Mylong), Nick’s facial features will be altered so that he can assume the identity of a man described by immigration agent Bill Lusk (Tim Holt) as “a lone wolf without friends or relatives…a man who’s made it his business all his life to keep undercover.”

The lone wolf—or to be really honest, patsy—chosen for this assignment is Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum), a professional gambler who can’t seem to stay out of trouble; he’s just finished thirty days as a guest of the constabulary in Palm Springs (Milner has no idea why), and several goombahs working for a racketeer have shaken him down because he apparently owes the man money bet on a horse—even though he was “digging a road for the law in Coachella Valley” at the time.  Milner is convinced by two men (Paul Frees, Joseph Granby) to lam it out of town on a bus to Nogales…from there, he’ll catch a plane to a swanky resort area known as Morro’s Lodge, where he’s to wait for further instructions.

Paul Frees is everywhere!

Dan stands to make a tax-free $50,000 for taking this vacation…but he also stands to find himself up to his neck in hot water because he doesn’t learn until the film’s halfway through its two-hour running time that he’s Public Pigeon Number One.  In the meantime, he’s introduced to a colorful cast of characters including his fellow passenger on the plane down to Morro’s, Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), and the man she’s set her cap for—Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price).  Cardigan, a hambone whose only real love affair has been with himself, nevertheless proves to be Milner’s ally and salvation when Dan is held hostage aboard Ferraro’s yacht and subjected to sadistic beatings from the men in Ferraro’s employ.

A movie whose spoofing of he-man heroics predates the even more celebrated cult classic Beat the Devil (1954) by a few years, His Kind of Woman differs from Devil in that it actually was commercially successful in its initial release (though it would later acquire the same cult cred due to its lack of distribution in following years).  Woman was a showcase for RKO’s two biggest stars at the time, Big Bad Bob and Full-Figured Jane; their successful teaming led to their casting in Macao, released the following year.

The script for Woman—titled in early stages Smiler with a Gun, Killer with a Smile and The Big Bullet—was written by Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard, with uncredited rewrites contributed by both RKO studio head Howard Hughes and Richard Fleischer—brought in to do re-shoots when Hughes expressed dissatisfaction with the picture (Howie wanted a little more action).  Hughes was also wildly enthusiastic about Price’s character of Mark Cardigan, and insisted the role be beefed up (Woman originally wrapped up its story with a quick fight between Milner and Ferraro)—though it eventually inflated the cost of the picture (by $150,000) with the construction of an actual 150-foot yacht (the Milner-Ferraro fight needed only the bridge of the vessel) and stretch the running time of the film to two hours.  Actor Raymond Burr was also a last minute addition to the movie’s cast—some sources report that Lee van Cleef originally essayed the role of Nick, with the (always reliable) IMDb listing TDOY bad guy fave Robert J. Wilke as the mobster—and that necessitated more re-shoots as well.

Robert Cornthwaite in a small role as the man who helps Mitchum on the next leg of his journey.

His Kind of Woman is considered by many to be an example of the style known as film noir, and it does contain a good many noir elements (low angles, chiaroscuro lighting).  But the tone of the picture is interesting in that it shifts at times to romantic comedy, high-spirited farce and nail-biting suspense.  The presence of icons like Mitchum, Burr, Price and Charles McGraw also gives it some considerable dark film cachet, along with a world-weary cynicism and crackling dialogue that remains endlessly quotable after the final credits have rolled.

Vincent Price’s performance in the film may very well be my favorite of all the movies in which I’ve seen him.  Mark Cardigan is described by one character in the film thusly: “You are not a pig…you are what a pig becomes…it is sometimes eaten with two slices of bread.”  Mark is an over-the-top actor, a bon vivant, an avid hunter and even a gourmet cook (this last aspect of his character will make those familiar with Price’s fondness for the art of fine cuisine giggle).  He’s a bit unlikable at first, possibly because he’s consorting with Lenore despite the fact he’s married (though the Breen office papers over this by suggesting that he dallies only because he thought his wife was getting a Reno divorce).  But by the end of the film, he demonstrates that he has heroic qualities (even though a lot of that is fueled by his iconic silver screen presence) and he steps aside to allow Lenore and Dan get together in typical happy ending style.

Vincent Price was a popular actor and box office favorite whose early film work (The House of the Seven Gables, Laura) is often overshadowed by his later status as a horror movie icon.  Despite a distinguished movie resume (as well as establishing himself on radio and later television), there were critics who were not kind to his work, considering his performances a tad overripe…and in their defense, Vincent could bring the camp when necessary.  But as much as I dearly love his horror movie showcases, I’ve always been in awe of the man’s thespic range.  He had the same appeal as Boris Karloff; a professional who took his work quite seriously…but not so much that he couldn’t have a little fun at the same time.

One of Price’s favorite movies was 1973’s Theatre of Blood, in which he plays a demented thespian who takes revenge on his critics by recreating deaths from Shakespearean plays; it’s been suggested by more than a few individuals that the reason why he relished this particular role was that it allowed him a little revenge of his own after being savaged by those same ink-stained wretches all those years he was in the business.  Cardigan in Woman is very similar to Blood’s Edward Lionheart (though without the homicidal tendencies, natch); when told by Lenore of Dan’s plight, he lapses into Hamlet: “Now might I drink hot blood and do such bitter business the earth would quake to look upon!”  Later, when his wife Helen (Marjorie Reynolds) notices that he’s been wounded in the arm, back he goes to the Immortal Bard: “’Tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door.”  Much of Cardigan’s dialogue during his hilarious rescue of Dan (he gathers up a “posse” of resort guests and murales, assuring them that “survivors will receive parts in my next picture”) vacillates between real and faux Shakespeare (“My kingdom for a ship!”).  His heroics are played for farce (he’s wearing a cape during the rescue scenes) and yet there’s a gallantry to the man that makes one admire him (concerned for Lenore’s safety, he locks her in a closet to keep her from following him and tells Helen “If I’m not here by Wednesday—chop that door down!”).

My favorite scene with Price in the film is a sequence in which he’s showing one of his films—an Errol Flynn-like swashbuckler—to a captive audience at the Lodge, and as the faux Flynn engages in his swordplay onscreen the real Cardigan looks around at the audience to see if they’re enjoying it as much as he…almost like a child anxious to please his parents.  When his onscreen character has vanquished his foe Mark starts applauding himself, and then sheepishly notices that he’s the only person doing so.  Finally, the credits roll and the Lodge guests applaud enthusiastically, pleasing Cardigan once again.  Vincent Price’s turn as Mark Cardigan in Woman is a comic wonder (though the actor was very adept at lighter fare, as borne out by the wonderful Champagne for Caesar) and he has a marvelous scene toward the end where he’s boasting of his exploits to a pair of reporters.  Asked by one, “What did you use to kill Ferraro?” Cardigan hesitates after getting a sideways glance from wife Helen and nobly replies: “A man named Milner.”

Price pretty much walks away with His Kind of Woman in his back pocket—but he’s not the only actor who does first-rate work in the movie.  Mitchum contributes a great deal merely with his standard sleepy-eyed anti-hero presence; he’s got some choice lines including one he tosses off to a bartender (Joel Fluellen) that is one of my all-time favorites: “I’ll see you all of a sudden, Sammy.”  His romantic repartee with Russell is also a highlight:

LENORE (noticing that Dan is ironing his folding money): Don’t you dampen it first?
DAN: Nope…it’s an old habit…whenever I have nothing to do and I can’t think, I always iron my money…
LENORE: What do you do when you’re broke?
DAN: When I’m broke…I press my pants

The gentleman wearing the tux is actor Philip Van Zandt, whom Three Stooges fans will no doubt recognize (he often played a heavy in their two-reel comedies).

The always underrated Russell sings two memorable ditties, You’ll Know and Five Little Miles from San Berdoo, and has plenty of bite to her dialogue as well (asked by Cardigan her opinion of the picture, she cracks: “Oh, it was fine…it was just a little long—about an hour and a half”).  TDOY fave Charles McGraw makes a memorable henchman (his character also narrates the film) and Tim Holt has a small bit pivotal role as a federal cop who tries to warn Mitchum’s character that he’s in deep doo-doo (Holt pretends to be drunk, and even sings a few bars of the Georgia Tech fight song).  Future Thurston Howell III Jim Backus is also on hand as a lecherous investment broker who tries to make a move on a young newlywed (Leslie Banning); the sequence where Mitchum’s Milner steps in and helps her husband win a poker hand he’s playing with Backus is similar to the scene in Casablanca where Bogart’s Rick lends a hand to a young couple at the roulette table so that the wife doesn’t have to sleep with Claude Rains.

And finally...OTR veteran Stacy Harris (of This is Your FBI fame) as a guitar player who knows that Lenore Brent is really "Liz Brady."

His Kind of Woman’s offbeat blend of tongue-in-cheek humor and brutally sadistic violence makes it an oddity among its noir brethren and sistren; I first saw it when TBS still showed old movies and it’s been firmly ensconced among my favorites ever since.  It’s available on DVD; it was released in the third volume of Warner Home Video’s Film Noir Classic Collection…but the presentation on disc isn’t particularly praiseworthy (the audio is too low and there is a noticeable bit of wear and tear on the print).  I’m willing to overlook it only because I’m such a fan of the film (I’ve never seen a truly great print of Woman, to be honest) that features my favorite Vincent Price performance.  “This place is dangerous…the time right deadly…the drinks are on me, my bucko!”


Philip Schweier said...

Yes, Vincent Price was quite the foodie. His favorite meal was scenery.

portraitsbyjenni said...

Love this movie! I have viewed it 3 times and the first time I saw it, I was delighted and surprised by Price's part-he did steal this picture. I also love that scene you mentioned, where he is showing his latest film to fellow resort guests.


What a great essay, Ivan! This is a film I have yet to see and, may I say, I'm now very curious to do it!
Vincent may be great in his horror films, but it's always a pleasure to see him in non-horror flicks.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

nitratediva said...

I'm so glad that you wrote about this film. You do a fantastic job of conjuring the kind of hilarity that Price could create in a pretty straight comedic performance (rather than the equally amusing camp parodies of his later career), and I particularly appreciate how you bring to life so many charming examples of gags and bits of business that Price gets—and wrings for all their worth. I was also fascinated by your account of the somewhat troubled production, which I didn't know about.

You've reminded me that I need watch this again soon! Thanks for contributing to the blogathon!