Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Las Vegas Story (RKO, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Las Vegas Story, a 1952 RKO/Howard Hughes production starring Jane Russell and Victor Mature in a movie with noir pretensions that was really much more noir thematically than visually. It starts out on a train barreling through the Southwest (while I’m in the middle of reading Richard White’s Railroaded it was fascinating to watch a movie that opens on a train!) and discovers the unhappily married couple Lloyd and Linda Rollins (Vincent Price and Jane Russell) as the train approaches what’s billed in the station as “Las Vegas, the Streamlined City.” (It’s hard to remember, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s the word “streamlined” had the same sort of futuristic cachet as “high-tech” did in the 1980’s and 1990’s.) As the streamlined train approaches the streamlined city Lloyd and Linda are in the middle of an argument; she wants to stay on the train until its final destination in Los Angeles, while he wants to get off in Las Vegas. She has bad memories of the place, which are kept ambiguous at first but which we eventually learn are due to her having once romanced a servicemember there during World War II while she was a singer at the Last Chance saloon and casino (a remnant of the unpretentious gambling joints that were mostly put out of business by the Flamingo and the other glittering casino/hotels that were put up on the Strip in the wake of its success — one could watch the 1941 Las Vegas Nights, this movie and the 1960 Ocean’s Eleven in chronological order and have a pretty good idea of the growth and change in Vegas over those years) with Hoagy Carmichael (playing himself under the guise of a character named “Happy” — ironic, since he goes through the whole movie with a hang-dog look on his face and world-weary pessimistic dialogue to match) as her accompanist.

Lloyd pretends to be a well-heeled stockbroker, so loaded that he can walk into a casino, ask for $100,000 credit and get it without the casino management batting an eye, but it turns out he’s actually broke — we learn that from a telegram sent him by a mysterious “Will” back in Boston well before the other characters do — and the $10,000 he actually got in casino credit came from pledging a fabulously elaborate necklace he had bought for his wife in more flush times. (The opening credits included an acknowledgment to “Cartier, Inc.” for supplying the necklace, and at first I ridiculed that credit, not realizing how crucial a plot function That Necklace would serve.) Linda didn’t want to go back to Vegas because when she worked there before she’d been the girlfriend of Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), who then was a servicemember and is now a lieutenant for the Clark County Sheriff’s office with a “beat” on the Las Vegas Strip. Dave senses Linda’s unhappiness and wants to resume their relationship — there’s the little detail that she’s still married to someone else but, since Nevada was then still famous for easy divorces as well as legal gambling, he doesn’t think that’s going to be much of a problem.

The Rollinses are staying at the Hotel Fabulous (it and the Last Chance are fictional establishments but all the rest of the Las Vegas hostelries we glimpse, including the Flamingo, the Desert Inn and the Golden Nugget, are for real) and they and Dave all find themselves under the watchful eye of a mystery man (with a nice hairy chest which, since he’s doing a lot of his surveilling at the Hotel Fabulous’s pool, we get to see a lot of) who turns out to be a private investigator, Tom Hubler (Brad Dexter), who’s been hired by the insurance company that has the policy on Linda’s necklace. Eventually it turns out that Lloyd Rollins is not only broke but an embezzler to boot — he insisted on stopping in Vegas in the hopes that he could hit a winning streak that would enable him to replace the money he embezzled — and the Las Vegas Sheriff gets a warrant for his arrest, which not surprisingly Dave Andrews is all too glad to serve personally — but not before Hubler turns out to be a crook interested in stealing the necklace and smuggling it out of the country. He rents a Mercury and takes Linda along as a hostage, and Dave charters a helicopter and gives chase — well, it’s a Howard Hughes production set in contemporary times, so aircraft had to figure in it somewhere! — and the sight of Dave and his pilot deftly flying their helicopter just inches off the ground as it pursues Hubler through open airplane hangars is exciting and a lot of fun. Eventually Hubler is killed — the necklace falls out of his suit as he expires in the desert — Lloyd is arrested and extradited back to Massachusetts, and Linda announces her intention to spend the next six weeks establishing legal residence in Nevada so she can sue for divorce and she and Dave can get together.

The Las Vegas Story, directed by Robert Stevenson (who had a weird career trajectory — in the 1930’s he worked in his native England and was considered one of only two British directors good enough for an international career; Alfred Hitchcock was the other; later he followed Hitchcock to the U.S. and directed the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles Jane Eyre, got on Howard Hughes’ good side by taking on his pet project I Married a Communist — though by the time Stevenson finished it, it had been retitled The Woman on Pier 13 — and ended up at Walt Disney Studios, of all places, directing Mary Poppins and most of Disney’s other big live-action/animation fusion movies in the 1960’s) from a script by Earl Fenton, Harry Essex and an uncredited Paul Jarrico (whom Hughes removed from the credits after he was blacklisted; Jarrico went to court to challenge the blacklist and, alas, lost) based on a story by Jay Dratler, is the sort of movie more interesting in its parts than as a whole. There’s a quite remarkable scene in which Jane Russell’s character visits the Last Chance and sees it for the first time since she worked there — and the sequence dissolves back and forth from footage of her now, hearing the song “I Get Along Without You Very Well” in an echoey voice, and her several years previously without any echo on her voice — and one gets the impression that if Marcel Proust had directed a movie, this is what it would have looked like.

The helicopter/car chase is also noteworthy, as is a subplot in which Dave busts an underage couple who were trying to get married at one of the quickie chapels Vegas then abounded in (still does, as far as I know); Dave feels guilty because the boy had just been drafted and was worried that if they didn’t get hitched immediately he’d never see his girlfriend again, especially since their parents were determined to break them up, but at the end his dad relents and gives the needed parental consent for the wedding and even offers to host it in a more inspiring location than a Las Vegas Strip joint. Hoagy Carmichael’s performance of “The Monkey Song” — like “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” one song he wrote completely himself, words and music (usually he, like Elton John, just wrote the music) — is also one of the highlights, filled with ironic comments about bop and a passing reference to Bix that reminds us that Carmichael actually knew Bix (which must have made the historical inaccuracies of the film Young Man with a Horn, made two years earlier and also featuring Carmichael, all that much more galling to him!). The Las Vegas Story is a good movie that might have been great, though it’s probably as good as it could have been under Hughes’ all-controlling auspices, and director Stevenson deserves credit for turning both Mature’s and Russell’s limitations as actors to his and the movie’s advantage: his tendency to bluster even on the most trivial lines becomes a legitimate depiction of hot-headedness (as it had under an even weaker director, H. Bruce Humberstone, in I Wake Up Screaming 11 years earlier!) and her monotonous delivery comes off as believable world-weariness and traumatization.