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Friday, 14 October 2016

The Tattered Dress (1957)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writer: George Zuckerman
Stars: Jeff Chandler, Jeanne Crain, Jack Carson and Gail Russell

I’ve been very busy this week getting everything shipshape and Bristol fashion for the first annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival, which is tomorrow night in Phoenix, but I have another deadline to pay attention to. On 14th October, Jack Arnold would have turned a hundred years old, so I have a movie to review to celebrate his life and career. He began that career as an actor, appearing on and off Broadway in the late thirties and early forties, but made the switch to direction during the Second World War, after working under Robert J. Flaherty of Nanook of the North fame. His theatrical feature debut was the obscure Girls in the Night in 1953, but he soon found his niche, making some of the very best of all the fifties sci-fi movies: It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and, above all, The Incredible Shrinking Man. I initially planned to cover the glorious comedy, The Mouse That Roared, for his centennial, but ended up going with this one instead.

It’s a film noir from that golden year of 1957 and it’s a neatly cynical one to sit alongside other cynical films like A Face in the Crowd, Paths of Glory and Sweet Smell of Success. If 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest year, then 1957 was the equivalent for world cinema, with The Seventh Seal, Nights of Cabiria and Wild Strawberries merely the pinnacle and The Bridge on the River Kwai, Throne of Blood and Night of the Demon nipping at their heels. Calling out world cinema doesn’t exclude Hollywood though, as it produced 12 Angry Men, 3:10 to Yuma and Witness for the Prosecution, amongst many other classics. Jack Arnold contributed to that great tally in no uncertain fashion; he began 1957 with The Incredible Shrinking Man, Richard Matheson adapting his own novel to the screen, then continued on with three lesser known but fascinating titles starring Jeff Chandler: The Tattered Dress, Man in the Shadow and The Lady Takes a Flyer. That pictures as good as these appear way down most people’s lists just highlights how strong the competition was in 1957.
Chandler, an underrated actor at the worst of times, is in superb form here and he needed to be. The script by George Zuckerman, best known for Douglas Sirk dramas like Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, gifts him with an incredibly deep character, a challenge and an opportunity for an actor; Chandler seizes the former and proves up to the latter. He’s James Gordon Blane, a very talented New York lawyer who has achieved great success at the cost of his conscience. He wins a lot of cases but that only means that he’s got a lot of guilty clients off and put a lot of innocent people behind bars. He’s become rich off that practice but he’s lost his marriage in the process. We meet him on a train taking him out west to Desert Valley, 150 miles from Las Vegas, and he’s soon getting off briefly to say hi to his estranged wife and kids at a stop on the way; only when he gets back on the train does he realise that he didn’t bring anything for them. Clearly his conscience is alive, but hardly healthy and apparently not being fed.

He’s been summoned to Desert Valley to represent another guilty man, this one called Michael Reston. We know he’s guilty for we watched him murder a man in cold blood during the opening scenes. He’s angry when his trophy wife arrives home in the tattered dress of the title, ripped during a wild dalliance with a local bartender, so he bundles her back into her car, drives her back whence she came and shoots his wife’s lover in the back as he tries to run. None of these folk are prizes. Reston isn’t merely a murderer, he is a rather arrogant one to boot: he isn’t worried about jail because he knows precisely how good a defence his money can buy. The victim obviously knew he was sleeping with a married woman and, of course, she’s an unrepentent adulteress. ‘Are you a faithful wife?’ Blane asks her. ‘In a fashion,’ she replies.’ When he asks whether she wanted him to assault her, she answers, ‘Let me think about that.’ She’s low enough to hit on her husband’s new lawyer, even though he’s defending him for killing her last illicit affair.
As well set up as all that is, it would only make for a relatively routine film noir. This one elevates itself by going much deeper. We have to look at Blane too, the attack dog of a lawyer who defends the worst of the worst, just so long as they can pay him the large fees he commands. In the early scenes, he’s given the opportunity to show a positive side but he can’t seem to manage that. He fails with his family; he fails with Charleen Reston; he even fails with the journalist who built a career off his because, just as he’s asked if he’d consider taking on the case of a wrongfully imprisoned man, he distracts himself over to a random brunette who walks into the dining car on the train. Blane is very sharp in court, as talented as his reputation and his fees suggest, but he’s hardly a hero. If we had to conjure up a hero from these early scenes, it would probably be the Desert Valley sheriff, Nick Hoak, in the neatly jovial form of Jack Carson. He’s just the sort of sheriff a small town might want. Or at least so he appears at this point.

It doesn’t last. Blane destroys Hoak on the witness stand and wins the acquittal of Michael Reston but, as Blane celebrates another victory, Hoak arrests him for bribing a juror. It’s all a set-up, of course, perpetrated for revenge on a number of fronts, but it’s the real beginning of the film because now we have to wonder a great deal about where our sympathies lie. Are they with Blane, who is a good lawyer but a bad man, getting his at last even if it’s for something he didn’t do? Or are they with Hoak, who doesn’t only feel wronged personally for his treatment in court but also on behalf of the murder victim, Larry Bell, who was a protege to him? We come to realise that we feel for the plight of each of these two men but not for them personally. Instead our sympathies are with Lady Justice, whose own dress is tattered here, and we keep watching so we can root for her, hoping that the script can find some way in which she can be fair to each of the characters who wove this tangled web and each of those caught up in it.
If the film belongs to Jeff Chandler, Jack Carson matches him step for step. They’re two thoroughly different characters, one sleazy and vicious but the other quiet and folksy, but they share much because they’ve both sold their souls and don’t struggle too much with the knowledge. The game they play moves in both directions, so each of these two men gain the upper hand and lose it again. Having effectively two leads alternating between being on top and on the ropes gives the story a vast amount of depth and both of the actors plenty of opportunity to delve into their own characters and shine. I’ve talked often at Apocalypse Later of my difficulty appreciating films, from Gone with the Wind on down, in which there is simply nobody to sympathise with. It’s tough to stay focused on the characters in that scenario, rather than shift my appreciation to the actors or another technical aspect, like costumes, score or cinematography. Here, I was absorbed, not because I wanted to see anyone win or lose but to see if justice could be won.

Those in support receive less opportunities but they do precisely what’s needed in their more restrictive roles. Most are relatively familiar faces: Jeanne Crain and Gail Russell, Edward Platt and George Tobias. Russell is surely the best known of these, though her career was shorter than we might expect and she would be dead in four years at only 37, of a heart attack surely brought on by an abiding alcoholism. Ironically, given that she drank to combat stage fright, it’s her fear that shines brightest here. She’s one of the characters caught up in the grand game between Blane and Hoak and she’s very believably frightened for much of it. Crain, on the other hand, is quietly composed even when times are toughest. She loves her husband, even with what he’s become, and she’s the rock on which he gets to stand. I was especially struck by her eyes, which are limpid pools to dive into, but she’s worth more than that. She’s sharp too and she gets better and better as the film runs on, as her part becomes more substantial.
Platt is the film’s conscience as journalist Ralph Adams, which means he’s the quietest character in the entire film. However moral he is, he’s still benefitted from the travesties of justice that litter Blane’s trail, to the tune of a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on him. We can’t help but wonder how insightful he must be if he hasn’t yet twigged to the true impact of this lawyer’s career thus far. He either wears blinkers, in which case he’s not a good journalist, or he sees what’s going on, in which case he’s not the moral centre we think he is. Tobias is the film’s comic relief, as a professional comedian in Las Vegas who owes Blane big time because he saved him from both conviction and death row for killing his wife a decade earlier. He’s never particularly funny, but he carries a lighter touch to the material than anyone else in the cast and that’s more than welcome. Even Phillip Reed is spot on as Reston, but he’s a minor character, even if most films would have focused on his story and made him the chief support.

My discovery here was Elaine Stewart, the lady who plays his wife, Charleen. She smoulders her way through this picture with a knowing sensuality. She’s the shallowest character in the film, the beauty of the femme fatale without any of the bite. She’s good looking enough to hook any man she wants, and she’s clearly been doing that for a long time, but she has nothing beyond that at all. I’ve seen her before without realising it, stealing moments in films as varied as Singin’ in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful, but I’ll have to find something in which she was given more substance to play with and see if she was able to live up to that. She’s obviously a scene-stealer but she had scenes stolen from her here, initially by a great little gimmick rather than another actor. It’s the scene where she swaggers home in her tattered dress to be confronted by her husband. What’s neat is that this happens on the other side of a sliding glass door, so that we’re kept in the dark as to what specific words are hurled but voyeuristically in on what they mean. She goes in sassy, backed by a stereotypical sexy score, and comes out cowed; it’s a superbly set up scene.
I could easily see some viewers believing that the film lessens as it goes on. The later scenes could certainly be seen as being more predictable, more stereotypical or more emotionally manipulative, but I’m fine with them all. I see this script as taking a lot of the traditional elements of the film noir, the legal thriller and the small town drama, then throwing them all into a mixer to churn up a fresh story that digs deep into what role justice plays in each. Films of the era that looked at justice each tended to focus on one aspect, whether that be the jury in 12 Angry Men, the lynch mob in The Ox-Bow Incident or courage in High Noon. This one looks at a whole slew of aspects and that’s what makes it special. Maybe Blane explicitly calling out the double meaning of the title in court was a bit too blatant but I can forgive that. This isn’t as deep or as wild as Touch of Evil, released a year later by the same producer, Albert Zugsmith, but it perhaps digs deeper than Anatomy of a Murder, released two years later with some notable similarities.

There were downsides for me, though I have to add a caveat to one. The cinematography felt very weak but, as this is still a rather obscure title never made available on home release, I had to make do with a VHS rip taped off the TV that was clearly re-formatted using pan and scan techniques that shatter the vision of the cinematographer, Carl E. Guthrie, who had learned on pictures as big as The Adventures of Robin Hood, working the first assistant camera, and became responsible for shooting others as gorgeous, if low budget, as House on Haunted Hill. Less explainable is the score, by Frank Skinner, which is much more stereotypical than the rest of the film. I won’t complain too much because it did a capable job, just a capably clichéd job. Perhaps that’s not Skinner’s fault or at least not entirely his fault, as the stock libraries were certainly plumbed to pad out the score and it may be that otherwise decent snippets by Henry Mancini are really the clichéd bits, spliced into Skinner’s score. I didn’t delve that far.
Like Guthrie, Jack Arnold moved on to wrap up his career mostly in television. He’d already dabbled in the medium, making four episodes of Science Fiction Theatre in 1955 and 1956, but it would become more frequent as the years went by. It somehow seems to be odd that a massively talented director who had elevated otherwise cheap material like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and High School Confidential! would become better known as the director of 26 episodes of Gilligan’s Island, 15 of The Brady Bunch and 8 more of The Love Boat. I don’t want to demean classic American television but to go from directing some of the best genre movies of the fifties to episodes of The Mod Squad or The Fall Guy, let alone shows I haven’t even heard of like Make Room for Granddaddy, The San Pedro Beach Bums or Holmes and Yo-Yo, feels like a really bad call on the part of American culture. Maybe he elevated those too, but I’m not particularly interested in finding out. I’ll keep tracking down his more obscure movies of the fifties instead.

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