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Monday, 23 March 2009

Lured (1947)

Director: Douglas Sirk
Stars: George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn and Boris Karloff

Consolidating information from various sources, this was made as Lured but changed partway through its theatrical run to Personal Column, only to become known to film fans and historians under its original title. It's an American film set in London but based on a 1939 French film called Pi├Ęges, Robert Siodmak's last film in France before heading to Hollywood. More than anything else it's has a bizarre and intriguing cast: George Sanders, Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff, to name just three.

It's a murder mystery in which the killer preys on beautiful young girls he meets through classified ads in the personal columns. He's a strange one too who sends poems to the police prior to each murder, speaking to the beauty of death. He's doing pretty well at what he does with him meeting his seventh victim off the bus at the beginning of the film, with the police running round in circles failing to find a lead. These aren't Keystone Kops either, the investigation is led by capable Insp Harley Temple, played by capable Charles Coburn, and we get thrown straight into the forensic investigation, always refreshing and unfairly surprising to see done well in old movies. They pay attention to the type, the watermark, the ribbon, the postmarks, the works. They even put cryptographers and psychologists, on the tasks, even literary experts.

Unfortunately it doesn't get them anywhere at all and the killer picks up victim number eight, a taxi dancer at the Broadway Palladium called Lucy Barnard. Lucky for the police, Lucy has a friend and colleague who comes to them when she hits the headlines. She's Sandra Carpenter, an American in London for a show, which closed after four days leaving her working as a taxi dancer. Now she gets to be the bait in the trap for a killer, as Insp Temple realises she's young and beautiful enough to be a viable target but sharp enough to help catch him. As you might expect she's Lucille Ball, and while she gets a couple of well timed comedic lines, it's far more of a serious role and she does a solid job.

And you'll be wondering where George Sanders and Boris Karloff come in. Well Sanders is his usual suave and sophisticated self as a rich nightclub owner, though he's even more of a womaniser than he generally tended to be. It doesn't take him long to latch onto young Miss Carpenter, leading his previous girlfriend to tell him, 'You're incorrigible.' His response is: 'Of course I am, I'm an unmitigated cad,' and if you've seen a single George Sanders film you can hear that line in your head. He's excellent and there isn't enough of him, both attributes also applicable to Cedric Hardwicke, Joseph Calleia and George Zucco in a rare role as a good guy, the cop assigned to protect our heroine.

And to Karloff. Karloff only gets about five minutes to strut his stuff but he utterly steals the show. He's a dress designer who she meets when answering personal ads, but he's a complete lunatic, his mind almost entirely lost in his past, and in his hands those five minutes are a delightful and surreal experience. The actors, as much as the characters they play, shift absolutely to supporting mode while in his company. The part precluded more screen time but luckily he was a prolific man and there are more than 150 films out there for me to track down and work through.

As to the story itself, it's a good one. It's cleverly put together with a few red herrings here and there and it does keep us guessing though it's not difficult for anyone paying attention to work out whodunit. Even when we know who the killer is, there's still enough tension involved in working out how he's going to be caught to keep us busy with the details. Given that it's not available on DVD and I caught it on its TCM debut no less than 62 years after its original release, it falls comfortably into the category of lost gem. Now I need to find the French original.

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