Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Manhandled (Pine-Thomas/Paramount, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Manhandled, a 1949 film noir wanna-be (film gris, as I like to call such things) from Paramount whose title makes no sense in terms of its plot — it seems that Paramount just had the title lying around from a 1924 silent with Gloria Swanson as a department-store clerk (she actually took a job clerking at a department store to prepare for the role; she intended to stay there three weeks but just after lunch break on her first day, word went out across the shop floor, “Gloria Swanson’s in the store!,” and she was “outed” all too quickly) and stuck it on this movie on the theory that it would bring more customers into the theatres than The Man Who Stole a Dream (the working title, and the name of the novel by L. S. Goldsmith on which it was based) or Betrayal (which would actually have made more sense than Manhandled — no one actually gets manhandled during the course of this movie — but would still have left audiences wondering who betrayed whom), the other titles they considered sticking on it.

Directed by Lewis R. Foster (not exactly one of the names to conjure with in the history of Hollywood’s auteurs) from a script by himself and Whitman Chambers (author of the source stories for the 1930’s independent thrillers Murder on the Campus and the awesome Sensation Hunters), Manhandled is a movie pieced together, Frankenstein-style, from bits and pieces of other, better movies. The “star” is Sterling Hayden, playing an insurance investigator and playing him in a relentlessly overbearing manner (frankly, Hayden was not to the hero manner born; his best films — The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove — cast him as villains), but the reason I put “star” in quotes is that he doesn’t appear at all until half an hour into a 97-minute movie.

The film opens with what turns out to be a best scene: a figure of ambiguous gender (it’s obviously a person, wearing either a fancy dress or a dressing gown) crouches under a piece of furniture in a lavishly appointed apartment and watches a woman and a man enter the apartment together; the other man leaves and the hiding figure emerges and turns out to be the woman’s husband, renowned novelist Alton Bennet (Alan Napier, just coming off of his best-ever film role as the Holy Father in the Orson Welles Macbeth and having little idea that The Mole People lay just seven years in his future!), who proceeds to corner her in their bedroom and club her to death with a perfume bottle. Then the scene dissolves to the office of psychiatrist Dr. Redman (Harold Vermilyea), and it turns out that Bennet is in therapy with Dr. Redman and the previous sequence was a recurring dream he has been having and which he just narrated to the therapist.

Sitting in on the session was Dr. Redman’s secretary, Merl Kramer (a 35-year-old and definitely past-her-prime Dorothy Lamour), whom Redman told Bennet had been working there for four years when it’s really only been four weeks. Merl is dating Karl Benson (Dan Duryea), a private detective (the sign on his window says “KARL BENSON — COLLECTIONS — INVESTIGATIONS”) who has a live-work office just one floor down from Merl’s own apartment. Redman decides that Mrs. Bennet (Irene Hervey) is in genuine danger of being murdered by her husband, and he calls her up to set up a meeting and explain the danger — only right after the two meet she is in fact killed, clubbed to death with her perfume bottle just as her husband did in his dream, and $100,000 worth of jewelry is stolen from her room by her killer. The husband manages to convince the usual shitload of dumb police officers that he didn’t do it — he persuades them he was under the influence of sleeping pills at the time of the murder — and instead they decide that Merl must be the killer, since supposedly the only people who knew of Bennet’s revelations in therapy were Redman and her.

What we know, though the rest of the characters don’t, is that she’s been breaking patient confidences right and left by blabbing to her boyfriend Karl about what the patients are telling the therapist — and later we find out that they were in a plot together and Karl forged phony references so she could get the job in the first place, with the idea that with the information she was getting from the therapy sessions and feeding to him, he’d be able to target anyone on the psychiatrist’s list of patients who had something worth stealing or was otherwise an appropriate target for criminal activity. Foster and Chambers clearly intended audiences to be shocked at the end of the movie when Benson was revealed as the killer — he followed the script of Bennet’s dream in hopes of framing him for his wife’s murder, then when that didn’t work he planted one of Mrs. Bennet’s jewels on Merl to make her the fall person.

The problem with Manhandled is that it’s a mad jumble of plot lines and situations that had already been done better in previous movies, some of them made the same producers (William Pine and William Thomas, who had risen from the “B” ranks to a berth at a major studio): the gimmick of having the murder prefigured by a dream had been done better in the Pine-Thomas-Paramount Fear in the Night from 1947 (in which DeForest Kelley, later Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, played a man who’s hypnotized into actually committing a murder and then recalling it later only as a dream — based on a Cornell Woolrich story, this film was utterly preposterous plot-wise but also much more powerful drama than Manhandled), Sterling Hayden’s role as the avenging insurance agent had been done better by Burt Lancaster (in his first film!) in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Dan Duryea had played this sort of part considerably better in his films The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946), both with a considerably better director (Fritz Lang) and a stronger, more powerful actress, Joan Bennett, as the woman he lured into helping out with his criminal schemes — and it doesn’t help that Foster and Chambers somehow got the Production Code office to let them suggest a romantic interest between the Hayden and Lamour characters at the end even though she was a co-conspirator in the villain’s crimes.

Lamour is one of the problems with this movie; the part desperately calls for a salty noir woman like Lauren Bacall or Paramount’s own Veronica Lake, she’s not a good enough actress to pull off the crisis of conscience the script hints at, and she was 35 and her figure was no longer as willowy as it had been in her “sarong” movies — before the movie TCM host Robert Osborne said she’d made “the fatal mistake of getting older,” and while I pointed out that old age isn’t usually “fatal” until it actually leads to death, it’s clear that at all stages of Hollywood history the mid-30’s have been a dangerous career shoal for stars, especially for women. (Most of the big male names at the end of the silent era — Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, William Powell, John Barrymore, etc.) made the transition to sound quite easily; most of the women — Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, Vilma Banky, Corinne Griffith, Colleen Moore and Constance and Norma Talmadge — didn’t because sound came in right when they were hitting that awkward mid-30’s age that would have caused them career problems anyway.)

But the main problem with this movie is that it’s incredibly uneven; amazing noir scenes by cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (even though so many of them take place after it’s just rained that it reminded me of the Mad magazine joke about the TV series The Fugitive: in the last panel of their spoof, in a scene that looked like it had just rained, there was a man in a white work coat whose back said, “Making Streets Look Like It Just Rained Co.”) alternate with plainly photographed setups of people talking to each other in rooms; for a supposed thriller it doesn’t have very many thrills; and even the genuinely talented actors, like Duryea, seem way off — Duryea seems so hyper one wonders if he was snorting helium before every take and one misses the chilling restraint with which he enacted similar villains for the great Fritz Lang instead of the mediocre Lewis R. Foster!