Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blonde Ice (Martin Mooney Productions/Film Classics, 1948)

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

The film was Blonde Ice, a 1948 film noir from Martin Mooney Productions released through Film Classics after Mooney apparently lost his berth at PRC when it was absorbed by J. Arthur Rank and became a semi-respectable company called Eagle-Lion (the name symbolizing the union of the U.S. and Britain by including both countries’ national animals). Film Classics was mostly a reissue label (they acquired a lot of the Hal Roach catalog and made most of their money by selling the Laurel and Hardy films to TV) but they occasionally distributed new productions as well, and Blonde Ice turned out to be a quite good femme fatale story. It began as a novel called Once Too Often by Whitman Chambers (quite a few of whose stories had been filmed in the 1930’s, mostly by independents, including the excellent Sensation Hunters and the competent mystery Murder on the Campus) and was scripted by Kenneth Gamet, a former Warners contractee who had done the Nancy Drew movies in the late 1930’s, with uncredited contributions by Dick Irving Hyland (whom I hadn’t otherwise heard of) and Raymond L. Schrock (whom I had).

Directed by Jack Bernhard — competently, but without the demented inspiration Edgar G. Ulmer might have brought to it given his work on the Mooney-produced DetourBlonde Ice has a pretty wild plot: it opens with the wedding of San Francisco Sentinel society columnist Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) to wealthy industrialist (or something) Carl Hanneman (John Holland), only at the wedding reception she goes out on the terrace with the paper’s sports columnist, Les Burns (Robert Paige, top-billed), and gives him a long, lingering kiss that indicates where her romantic — or at least sexual — interests still lay. There’s also a third one of Claire’s boyfriends, Al Herrick (James Griffith), who also works at the Sentinel and in fact got Claire her job there, whom she’s long since abandoned but is looking on at her continued shenanigans with a bemused interest that indicates a lingering attraction coupled with a sense of relief that at least he’s not mixed up with her anymore. Les also has a secretary, June Taylor (Mildred Coles), who’s got a crush on him, and of course we’re rooting for him to dump the icy blonde golddigger and take up with the warm-hearted brunette who’s really a decent person and clearly would be far better for him.

On her honeymoon with Carl, Claire writes Les a letter calling her husband “stupid” and making it clear she only married him for his money, and when he discovers the letter and announces he’s going to leave her immediately, she kills him, then bribes a pilot, Blackie Talon (Russ Vincent, in a performance that’s one of the most convincing evocations of Humphrey Bogart I’ve seen without shading over into outright imitation), to fly her out of there and forget she was ever there, so she can pass off her husband’s death as a suicide. When Blackie comes around asking for more money and signaling his intent to blackmail her long-term, she shoots him. Later on she gets her hooks into an affluent Congressional candidate, Stanley Mason (Michael Herrick), and gets him to fall in love with her; he announces their engagement on election night and then catches her — guess what? — making out with Les on a balcony, tells her he’s going to dump her immediately, and she responds by stabbing him with a letter opener and then handing it to Les so the police will assume he killed Mason in a fit of jealousy. Only the cops and their consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Geoffrey Kippinger (David Leonard), figure out that she’s a psychopath and trick her into a confession, so she gets what’s been coming to her all along.

Blonde Ice could have been a better movie than it is with a director with more of a sense of pace and a stronger leading man than Robert Paige — one gets the impression the actor couldn’t convince us that this man would be obsessed with that no-good woman because he never figured out why himself — but it’s photographed by George Robinson (a veteran of Universal’s horror movies in the 1930’s and early 1940’s) with the appropriate noir atmosphere and it’s highlighted by an excellent femme fatale performance by Leslie Brooks. Yes, Blonde Ice might have been even better if Mooney had had the budget to get Barbara Stanwyck for the part — or if he’d hired Ann Savage, the even nastier femme fatale from Detour — but Brooks is quite good in the role, capturing the character’s descent from rational amorality to total psychopathology and giving the movie the spine it needs to work.

By 1948 independent companies had access to top-quality equipment and Blonde Ice is refreshingly free from some of the technical glitches that made some PRC’s almost unwatchable even if they were decently written, directed, edited and acted — the music is an original score by Irving Gertz that’s uninspired but at least competent, though set designer George Van Marter faithfully follows one bad PRC tradition: every interior wall in this movie is covered with the most hideous wallpaper patterns Van Marter could find. (There’s one set in which different walls have different wallpapers, all of them awful.) Though one could imagine ways in which Blonde Ice (the title comes from a speech Les gives her after he finally figures out her true character) could have been better, it’s quite nice as it is and reflects the cool competence major-studio filmmakers achieved in the 1930’s but which had finally filtered down to the indie level.