Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Whole Truth (Valiant/Romulus/Columbia, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 1958 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Whole Truth, a 1958 wanna-be thriller made in England (though set on the French Riviera, in and around Rex Ingram’s old Vittorine Studios in Nice, which remained in use as a filmmaking complex long after Ingram retired in 1933 and died in 1949) starring Stewart Granger — whom we see in the opening as a man on the run, wanted by the police and being chased by them through a series of artfully constructed urban “exteriors” that are clearly sets inside a soundstage. He manages to get away and a shot of an outdoor clock first registers 2:30 a.m. and then starts running backwards — indicating that we’re in for an extended flashback showing how Granger’s character got into this pickle. He’s movie producer Max Poulton (though when the other characters pronounce his name it usually comes out sounding like “Bolton”), and we get to see the inside of a Vittorine soundstage as the star of his movie, Gina Bertini (Gianna Maria Canale), is doing a scene in which she’s supposed to be making out with a bathing-suited man on top of a boat. (The boat is actually suspended on top of a metal frame and isn’t anywhere near anything resembling water — presumably that was going to be added later via process screen.) Needless to say, she has a diva hissy-fit and blows the take, then makes a bee-line for producer Max as soon as the director calls “cut.” It turns out that Max had an affair with Gina while he was separated from his wife Carol (Donna Reed — and yes, as a fan of It’s a Wonderful Life I savored the irony of Reed co-starring with the other James Stewart — it was Granger’s real name but he couldn’t use it in films because another actor had already laid claim to it and become a superstar), only when he and Carol reconciled Max broke off the affair with Gina. Gina first says that she’ll continue to act up on the film and render it unfinishable unless Max starts having sex with her again; then, when he begs off, she says in that case she’ll tell Carol about their prior affair unless Max agrees to resume it.

Max succumbs long enough to drive Gina back to her hotel (which appears to be in neighboring Monte Carlo — at least there are quite a few references to gambling that make it seem like people involved in the film are commuting back and forth between southern France and Monaco, where they can recreate by gambling), and as a result he’s very late to a party Carol is giving at their rented villa that night. Max is confronted by a mysterious Englishman named Carliss (George Sanders, older and seedier than in his glory days, and already showing off the boredom with both life and acting that led him to commit suicide 12 years later, but still by far the best and most authoritative actor in this film), who says he’s a Scotland Yard detective and is investigating Gina’s murder. Max was already wondering about the red stain on his shirt that looked like blood — so he and Carol both said, though at first we just assumed that some of Gina’s lipstick got on it while he was either fending off or yielding to her advances — and he has no trouble believing that Gina is indeed dead … until she turns up at his party, very much alive. Then she gets killed after all when she asks Max for a ride back to her hotel (again?) — and just as she’s got into his car she tumbles out of it again with a knife in her back. The local police are convinced Max is the killer, while he’s convinced it’s Carliss — the film was advertised as a whodunit but with only two possible suspects, one of whom is the star, it’s pretty obvious who the killer is — and the rest of the film consists of Max’s attempt to stay out of police custody and nail Carliss, who it turns out isn’t a Scotland Yard inspector at all but a religious-book publisher who married Gina just before she auditioned for movies and became a star — and responded to the adulation by seeking out every even remotely willing male in the vicinity and having sex with him. Having decided he can’t divorce Gina because the scandal would ruin his career, Carliss determined to murder her but do so in a way that someone else would take the fall — and he decided to make Max the someone else just because he was the latest and, apparently, the most serious of Gina’s alternate amours.

Needless to say, Carol is angry that her husband had an affair with his temperamental star, but she eventually forgives him and decides to trap Carliss into a confession herself — only he gets her alone in his home and seems to have the upper hand (he’s going to push her off his balcony and then set it up so it looks like she was so devastated by the news of her husband’s affair and his being a murderer that she killed herself) when the cops arrive, arrest Carliss (for a moment it looked like he was going to commit suicide to avoid capture, but he didn’t) and all seems well — until Max reacts with a start at the sight of a woman who looks just like Gina. She turns out to be the British actress who’s been made up to look like Gina in order to finish Gina’s scenes in the picture (ya remember the picture?). Charles and I joked that The Whole Truth could be paired with the recent film Nothing But the Truth to form one of our quirky double bills — “The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth” — but on its own The Whole Truth is a sporadically interesting but not especially thrilling attempt at a thriller. Once again one can’t help but imagine what St. Alfred (Hitchcock) would have done with this script — it was actually directed by John Guillermin (whose best-known credit was The Towering Inferno, a movie that between the well-trained macho antics of its stars and the work of the special-effects crew hardly needed a director) and produced by Jack Clayton (director of the monumentally dull 1974 version of The Great Gatsby and a man who got an unearned reputation from his one truly great film, Room at the Top) from a script by Jonathan Latimer (not exactly one of the great names in pulp fiction but a writer with better credits than this) based on a play by Philip Mackie.

Despite the long shots of Max driving about in his Jaguar sports car — which becomes one of the movie’s most appealing characters in itself — and the flight scene we see both at the beginning and the end (in which Stewart Granger finally looks like the actor of the same name who did the Technicolor remakes of silent swashbucklers like Scaramouche and The Prisoner of Zenda that made his reputation in the early 1950’s) — most of The Whole Truth is pretty dull, and it’s hard to guess what we’re less interested in: the machinations of Carliss or the marital politics of Max and Carol Poulton (was their name deliberately picked to evoke poulet, the French word for “chicken”?). About the only innovative aspect of The Whole Truth is the music score, composed in modern-jazz style by Mischa Spoliansky (not exactly the name that first comes to mind when thinking about jazz) and played by John Dankworth and his orchestra (Dankworth was a British saxophonist, bandleader and arranger, and also the musical director for his wife, the haunting-voiced singer Cleo Laine); curiously, there’s a piano-and-strings cue used when Max is driving around in his Jaguar that sounds awfully like Mary Lou Williams’ song “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” and which is the most compelling music in the film. There’s also a nice music cut in which we hear some dire piano chords signaling a melodramatic twist in the plot — and then, without any audible break in the music, the film cuts to a party scene in which the pianist is playing the same song, only in a lounge-jazz version. The Whole Truth also makes one common thriller mistake: the most interesting and multidimensional character — the star Gina Bertini — is the one who gets killed early on and starts the plot proper, and the film simply isn’t as interesting once she departs.