Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Her Kind of Man (Warners, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Her Kind of Man, not to be confused with His Kind of Woman and actually made five years earlier than that quirky cult film. This is the sort of movie I thought I was getting when I screened Lady Luck: a dark thriller about a gambler and the woman who regards him — much to her grief — as her kind of man. The gambler is Steve Maddux (Zachary Scott), and at the beginning of the movie newspaper columnist Don Corwin (Dane Clark, top-billed) walks into a police station with a woman introduced as Maddux’s girlfriend, singer Georgia King (Janis Paige), after he’s told us via voiceover that what we’re watching takes place on the night the repeal of Prohibition took effect, and it was a really big night for Steve Maddux — even bigger than the 1932-33 New Year’s Eve, which we’re immediately flashed back to. When we hear all that and see the chiaroscuro visuals that illustrate it, we know in front that whatever happened to Maddux, it has to have been bad — either he got arrested or he got killed — and the flashback takes us to Detroit, where Maddux cheats another gambler, Bender (Sheldon Leonard), out of several hundred dollars.

Bender comes to Maddux’s room with a gun but Maddux takes it away from him and uses it to kill him, then he and his accomplice/bodyguard/factotum Candy (a marvelously chilling performance by Harry Lewis) take the body out of the hotel where this took place — only a hotel guest named Fitzroy (Milton Kibbee) sees them, though we don’t find out there was a witness to this crime until many reels later. Georgia decides to pursue her career in New York, and Steve offers to accompany her both because he doesn’t want to separate from her and because he needs to get out of town, pronto. Georgia lands a role in a Broadway show produced by a man named Fordham (Joseph Crehan) and columnist Corwin sees a rehearsal and starts pushing her big-time in his column. He also starts dating her, though she’s reluctant because she’s still Steve’s kind of woman and doesn’t want Don to get in trouble via Steve’s jealousy. Meanwhile, the owner of the casino back in Detroit where Steve was working — and gambling — back when all this started, Joe Marino (George Tobias) — whose wife Ruby (Faye Emerson) is also Steve’s sister — has got an offer to set up a nightclub and casino near the racetrack at Saratoga, and he wants Steve to put in $50,000 for a one-quarter interest.

They rendezvous in Miami — where Steve has detoured en route from Detroit to New York — and Steve makes the $50,000, only to lose almost all of it in a poker game; but it turns out that Marino set up the game and rigged it against Steve, so he still has the $50,000 to invest in the spot. When Steve finally arrives in New York, Georgia is about to make her debut in Fordham’s show, but Steve forces Fordham to sell him Georgia’s contract so she can open in his club in Saratoga instead. He also seduces her back from Don and gets her to marry him. The club at Saratoga is a big success — but Steve cashes out his share and uses it to open yet another club, this one in New York City, to showcase Georgia in the Big Apple and make her a star on Don’s home turf. Meanwhile Don, still in love with Georgia even though she’s married the bad guy, has continued to plug her in his column, so both Steve and the screenwriting committee — Charles Hoffman and James V. Kern, “original” (quotes definitely intended) story; Gordon Kahn and Leopold Atlas, screenplay — regard her success as assured.

Through all of this the other characters have been bird-dogged by New York police detective Bill Fellows (Howard Smith), who’s convinced Steve killed Bender and has made it his personal mission to nail him for it. Georgia’s nightclub contains a secret room where for $100 one can buy a key that opens the door and reveals a fully functioning, and blatantly illegal, casino. The police secretly buy one of the keys and have it duplicated, so Fellows can stage a raid on opening night. Meanwhile, Fitzroy, the witness to Bender’s killing (or at least to Steve’s and Candy’s disposal of the body afterwards), turns up in New York and tells Don what he knows. Don offers him $100 not to tell the story to anyone else and, thinking the revelation will destroy Georgia’s career, refuses to print it.

Unbeknownst to him, Fitzroy has also told Detective Fellows, giving him the evidence he needs not only to raid Steve’s illegal casino but arrest him for Bender’s murder. On the night of the opening Don learns about the raid and tries to warn Steve, but Candy won’t let him into the casino room without a key; when Candy tells Steve that Don tried to crash the casino without a key, giving a cock-and-bull story about how the police were about to raid it, Steve says that as much as he hates Don — and vice versa -— Don has never lied to him, so if Don says there’s going to be a raid, there’s going to be a raid. Naturally, Steve realizes this too late to stop it, and there’s a big shoot-out in which Steve kills Ruby Marino — and Joe, incensed at the murder of his wife by her brother, decides to go after Steve himself and kills him just before the police, who are interested in Steve alive rather than dead, get to the scene.

Her Kind of Man is a virtual compendium of Warners clichés — the gangster movie, the romantic triangle, the gambling story, even a few musical numbers (Janis Paige’s foghorn-like voice is well showcased in “Something to Remember You By,” less so in “Body and Soul,” and the background score is itself a virtual greatest-hits collection of all the standards by Gershwin, Porter and others Warners’ music-publishing division owned) — and though the writing committee managed a few fresh spins on the old clichés, and director Frederick de Cordova staged it with the typical relentless Warners’ pace and some surprisingly atmospheric visuals (helped in the latter department by cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie), Her Kind of Man would be pretty forgettable except for one element: the superb performance of Zachary Scott. He’d already established this sort of character — the slimy villain with a thin veneer of class and romantic appeal — as his “type” in films like The Mask of Dimitrios and Mildred Pierce, but here he’s playing it to the nines, compulsively watchable and entertaining as a man so detached from normal standards of behavior — while at the same time so good at appearing normal and even likable — that we end up with the same sort of love-hate relationship with the character that Georgia has in the film. It’s the sort of movie Warners could still (in 1946) churn out with a cool professionalism that makes it entertaining, if rather predictable, but it’s Scott’s performance that makes it special.