Thursday, 16 January 2020

Vicki (1953)


Director: Harry Horner
Writer: Dwight Taylor, based on the novel I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Stars: Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Elliott Reid, Richard Boone, Casey Adams, Alex D’Arcy, Carl Betz and Aaron Spelling


Vicki Lynn is everywhere in New York City, it seems. The billboards highlight that she drinks Royal Tea, smokes Crowns and uses Caress facial creme by Daniele. When we get a glimpse of the real Vicki, she’s being taken out of a building on a stretcher with a tag already on her toe because she’s been murdered before the opening credits. This film noir is a look back at how she got there, both the skyline and the morgue, and why in what’s half a detective story and half a look into how stars are made. And, in keeping with the traditional Hollywood success story, we soon meet her in the real world, slinging coffee and waiting tables at Weber’s Cafeteria. She’s played by Jean Peters and, for all the glamour that’s soon visited onto her as she’s elevated to stardom, she looks her best here as a gorgous girl next door at Weber’s. Ironically, for someone so magnetic on the big screen, this came close to the end of her film career, as a different role was calling: that of being the second wife to billionaire Howard Hughes, whose seclusion she also adopted.

Hughes met Peters before she became a film star and they were in a highly publicised relationship when she made her first picture, playing the female lead opposite Tyrone Power in 1947’s Captain for Castile. They didn’t marry until 1957, though, after she had wed and divorced a Texan oilman, Stuart Cramer, in a matter of mere months. The character that she plays here appears to be as flighty and starstruck as Peters might seem from those details (but apparently wasn’t, remaining surprisingly grounded during a fourteen year run as a billionaire’s wife). Vicki is swept up by the interest of a number of men, most obviously Steve Christopher, PR agent to the stars. While this film is Vicki’s story, it’s told by Christopher, mostly in flashback, as he tries to convince the cops that he didn’t murder her. He found her, he made her name and he may even have loved her, but he professes that he had nothing to do with her death, even when badgered by policemen who grill him without mercy in a dark room under a strong light. Hey, it’s film noir.

If Christopher was devoted to Vicki, Lt. Ed Cornell is devoted to his job, perhaps overly so, and to his conviction that Christopher is the guilty man. We meet him first, in Elizabeth, NJ, where he almost gets to enjoy some enforced leave. He arrives at a motel where he wants to sleep for a week, but before he even gets to a room, the papers arrive with Vicki’s murder sprawled over the headlines. He promptly calls the Chief of New York Homicide and shouts loudly enough at him that he gets to come back and take the case. So to the interrogation and so to the flashback. Cornell is a quintessential film noir character, a cop who’s good at his job but who’s in need of a break; a cop who’s capable at investigation but relies on his gut; and a cop who’s played by Richard Boone, a regular name on the credits of westerns but also Capt. Hamilton to Jack Webb’s Joe Friday in the 1954 feature version of Dragnet, made during the show’s original run. It’s obvious how driven and committed Cornell is and that adds an even darker edge to this film noir.

I’m watching for Elliott Reed, though, who plays Steve Christopher, as he would have been a hundred years old on 16th January. He does a great job here in a pivotal role, believable both as the rattled and pressured potential killer under the police spotlight and as a suave and sophisticated gentleman in the flashback scenes. None of that should be suprising, given that he had a solid career that lasted for sixty years, starting out on radio, finding fame on film and becoming highly recognisable on television. Born Edgeworth Blair Reed in Manhattan and nicknamed Elliott, he debuted on radio at only fifteen, which led to much work during the Golden Age of Radio, taking his nickname as his stage name and performing for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air and a host of others. In 1940, he debuted on film, in a wartime propaganda drama, The Ramparts We Watch. Never prolific on the big screen, his biggest role came six films and thirteen years later, as the private dick spying on Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes.
After that came this but he was too busy in other media to cement a big screen career. He did play the prosecutor in Inherit the Wind in 1960, then a rival professor to Fred MacMurray in both The Absent-Minded Professor and its sequel Son of Flubber by 1963, but that was an anomalous busy period on the big screen. Instead, he was busy on radio; on stage, where he was a life member of the Actors Studio; on television, where he guested on almost every show there was; and even in the world of impressions where he proved so effective at impersonating John F. Kennedy that he did so in front of the then president to a positive reception. His last feature film was Young Einstein in 1988 and his final television role was an episode of Maybe This Time in 1995. He wasn’t necessarily a household name but he was both a very recognisable face and a very recognisable voice, to perhaps three or four generations of Americans, a comedic span alone running from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld. It isn’t every actor who can claim that.

As Steve Christopher in this film, he’s walking the streets one night, he tells the cops, with his columnist friend, Larry Evans, after a Robin Ray show. They stop for coffee at Weber’s for no better reason than that they see a beautiful girl through the window. That’s Vicki, of course, working her shift, and he gives her his card. Surprisingly, she shows up to see him and so he starts to show her off to society at the Club Capri. Vicki’s shift from waitress to socialite, posing for a picture with Robin Ray, is done with a single cut to highlight the sheer speed at which she’s whisked up into the stars. Naturally, she’s a huge success, even though she hasn’t actually done anything at this point (well, OK, she sang a song), because it isn’t what you do but who you’re seen with and what charisma you show while you’re being seen. Steve Christopher has clearly fallen for her charisma. So has Larry Evans. And so, it seems, has Robin Ray. She’s working her magic very well indeed and, in the lovely form of Jean Peters, we can believe it.
I should point out here that the other actors involved aren’t nobodies either and these other gentleman also appeared in big films with Marilyn Monroe. Max Showalter, who plays Larry Evans, had already played Peters’s screen husband earlier the same year in Niagara, as the couple who find their reserved cabin in Niagara Falls occupied by Monroe and Joseph Cotten, and his career would take him all the way to Sixteen Candles in 1984. Robin Ray is Alexander D’Arcy, who had performed for Alfred Hitchcock as far back as 1928 in Champagne. He would woo Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire and, while his star soon faded, continued to appear for a set of cult directors like Roger Corman, Russ Meyer and Sam Fuller. He was also the lead in the thoroughly awful The Horrors of Spider Island, which has somehow become one of my most popular reviews ever. We haven’t met top billed Jeanne Crain yet, who plays Vicki’s sister, Jill, as we’re still in the formative stages of the film and she’s the last key piece to fall into place.

However, we’re about to meet a real superstar, one whom I don’t believe I’ve ever seen on film before, partly because this was his first of only eleven roles as an actor and mostly because that job isn’t what made him famous. He’s Aaron Spelling and, long before his then wife, Carolyn Jones of Morticia Addams fame, talked him into becoming one of the most prolific and successful writers and producers in television history, he played Harry the night clerk in Vicki’s apartment building. I’m surprised that only five of those eleven roles were credited because he does a pretty decent job here in what becomes an interesting role. He’s no leading man but I find myself drawn much more towards character actors and I enjoyed his performance from his first scene, with his feet up on the counter, smoking a cigarette and reading a paper, too lazy to even give Vicki her room key. He often reminded me of a young Harry Dean Stanton and that’s not a bad thing in my book, especially on a debut performance.
There’s a lot to be found here in under an hour and a half of screen time. As a detective story, it’s surprisingly hard to figure out. It really is clear that a number of people were definitely involved in Vicki’s death, because that angle is overdone, but there are a few different possibilities to how and why and it kept me guessing. That it’s a film noir helped, because characters who might otherwise have been ruled out as suspects aren’t, because everyone here is made up of shades of grey. As a cautionary tale, it’s not quite what we might expect. Vicki is launched into the heady halls of fame far too quickly and there are people to blame for that, but she does cause herself a few problems along the way, agreeing to things without telling her publicity agent who promptly has to cancel gigs. Naturally, that’s a great way to generate suspects in the murder investigation. The film even becomes a women’s picture at points, when Jill Lynn comes to town from Harrisburg, PA to live with her sister and serve as a sympathetic voice of reason.

The characters are interesting too, mostly because few are as black and white as classic Hollywood can often make them, such are the benefits of being a film noir. Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters are the names above the title and they’re a capable pair, both of their characters grounded but susceptible to persuasion, lovely ladies who get into trouble, talented but perhaps out of their depth in the big city and the high life. As is often the case, I was drawn more to some of the supporting actors. Elliot Reid does a great job as the kingmaker, caring and devoted but also a little prone to anger. Alexander D’Arcy tries to steal every scene he’s in because that’s the sort of thing his character would do. Richard Boone is intense and ruthless and he gets pretty creepy; there’s a scene in which Steve Christopher wakes up to find Lt. Cornell sitting in a chair waiting for him without a warrant, smoking a cigarette and preparing to threaten him before leaving. And Aaron Spelling finds surprising depth too, aided by his big eyes and small mouth.
Looking back from 2020, this is a decent film noir with a host of aspects that elevate it to worthy status. In 1953, however, it was a late entry into the genre and a remake of the 1941 picture, I Wake Up Screaming, with Carole Landis as Vicky Lynn and Betty Grable as her sister Jill. Victor Mature played Frankie Christopher, the Elliot Reed role here. Laird Cregar was Lt. Cornell and Elisha Cook, Jr. is the obvious source for Aaron Spelling’s part here. I should add that the earlier title was also the name of the source novel by Steve Fisher, from which both movies were adapted. He was a pulp writer who was also prolific in the movies, writing screenplays for Lady in the Lake, Dead Reckoning and I Mobster and the source stories for Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant, and Tokyo Joe, with Humphrey Bogart, among others. It’s also great to find Aaron Spelling at the beginning of his career and Jean Peters towards the end of hers, all while celebrating the life and career of Elliott Reed, who would have been one hundred today and made it to 93.

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