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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.