Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tip on a Dead Jockey (MGM, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie I’d recorded from TCM earlier that day which I’d long been curious about: Tip on a Dead Jockey, a 1957 thriller (at least in genre convention) directed by Richard Thorpe from a script by Charles Lederer and Irwin Shaw based on a story Shaw had previously published in Cosmopolitan magazine (though identifies the story source as a novel). I’d been curious about this because I’d first read about it in John Russell Taylor’s biography of Alfred Hitchcock, which mentioned that he had originally optioned the film rights to the story but ultimately decided not to film it and to make The Wrong Man and Vertigo instead. The film opens in Reno — the first shot is the iconic “Biggest Little City in the World” sign — where Phyllis Tredman (Dorothy Malone) has gone with her father (Hayden Rorke) to get herself divorced from her husband Lloyd Tredman (Robert Taylor). Only her rather unctuous divorce lawyer says she can’t have the divorce unless she can come up with something bad he did to her — mental cruelty, infidelity, spousal abuse or desertion — instead Lloyd just cabled her from his current redoubt in Madrid and told her he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. So Phyllis decides to go to Madrid, find him and get him to tell her to her face why he doesn’t want to be married to her anymore. Her thought is that there is another woman, only she has no idea who she is, and given the presence of Gia Scala as third-billed in the cast list we’re sure there’s another woman and that she’ll end up playing her. Instead, when director Thorpe cuts to Madrid we see Lloyd in the same bedroom as another woman, though since the Production Code was still in effect they’re sleeping in twin beds and there’s no evidence that they did anything with each other besides getting drunk at a succession of parties and passing out in adjoining beds.

The woman is Sue Fan Finley (Joyce Jameson), a blonde with a bimbo manner and one of the most atrociously phony “Southern” accents ever heard on screen. Lloyd ushers her out of his bedroom — once he’s convinced her that it is his bedroom, not hers — and we never see her again. Gia Scala turns out to be playing Paquita Heldon, Spanish wife of American flyer Jimmy Heldon (Jack Lord, later the star of the Hawai’i Five-0 TV series), on whom Lloyd has a crush but he’s too respectful of his friend and his friend’s marriage to do anything about it. Also, Paquita has a child, which puts her even farther on the “respectable” side of the Madonna/whore divide and therefore makes her that much less acceptable as a potential partner for adultery. For most of its running time Tip on a Dead Jockey is a psychological drama, exploring the inner state of mind of Lloyd Tredman — who served honorably and courageously in both World War II and the Korean War (he was called up for the latter just weeks after marrying Phyllis), and it was his experiences in Korea that led to his alienation and his desire to return neither to their marriage nor his inter-war career as an airline pilot. Indeed, he’s sworn to himself that he’ll never fly again. Lloyd is also broke, and yet his phobias keep him from accepting any gainful employment that’s offered him because all the offers seem to involve getting into the cockpit of a plane again — including flying a stunt for a film being shot in the area, for which he’d signed on as technical advisor, only he turns down the stunt job and walks out as tech advisor as well because the producer has broken his word to him that he wouldn’t be required actually to fly. The “tip on a dead jockey” comes in because about the only thing Lloyd has going for him financially is a one-third interest in a horse, which he plans to sell and use to place a big bet on the horse to win his upcoming race — only a bad guy who’s involved with one of the other horses has his jockey foul Lloyd’s jockey in the middle of a steeplechase jump during the race, with the result that Lloyd’s horse goes down and his jockey is killed.

The person who arranged this is a sinister operator who goes by the name Bert Smith and is played by Martin Gabel — though Gabel’s horrible attempt at a Spanish accent is supposed to indicate to us that he’s a local boy — and the reason is he’s desperate to hire Lloyd as a smuggling pilot and wanted to make sure Lloyd would have no other source of income and therefore would be unable to say no. Instead Bert Smith hires Jimmy — and when Jimmy is three days’ late returning from the flight Lloyd decides to go on Smith’s next run instead to make sure Jimmy survives instead of leaving Paquita a widow and their baby son an orphan. The flight takes off about two-thirds of the way through the film and from then on the movie finally looks like a suspense thriller; Lloyd takes along his comic-relief character friend Toto del Aro (Marcel Dalio, a star in pre-war French films — including classics like Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game — before he fled the Occupation and ended up in Hollywood as a character actor, best known as the croupier in Casablanca) and the two have to dodge the minions of Interpol, who catch on to the fact that they’re smugglers. (I joked that today Interpol wouldn’t bother them because they’d be too busy trying to catch the makers of pirated DVD’s.) Ultimately Lloyd and Toto realize that the cover story they were given — that they were flying British currency out of Egypt (Shaw set his story during the turmoil in Egypt when King Farouk was deposed in a military coup led by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser — plus ça change, plus ça même chose!) — was just that, a cover; concealed in the box of money bundles was a large bag of white powder, obviously drugs (“Heroin, cocaine — who cares?” Lloyd thunders in Robert Taylor’s most self-righteous tones), which leads Lloyd to the conclusion that his only way out is to report Bert Smith to the Guardia Civil. When Smith is duly busted Lloyd is told that if he claims the reward for him Lloyd will be prosecuted, but if he doesn’t they’ll let him go — and go he does, into the waiting arms of Phyllis, who didn’t divorce him after all and therefore is willing to take him back.
Tip on a Dead Jockey is an oddly soap-opera-ish movie for much of its running time, but it’s also a psychological study of Robert Taylor’s character — Taylor was one of those matinee idols who actually got better as an actor once he got to be middle-aged, he lost his pretty-boy looks and therefore had to work harder as an actor to create a character audiences would be interested in seeing. Also this performance leaves a distinct sense that even though his two-decade marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was beginning to unravel when this film was made, he’d learned something from her example; much of Taylor’s acting here shows the quiet intensity that was her hallmark. Taylor’s performance and the easy chemistry between him and Malone (at one point they even get together behind a piano and sing an old song, “You Found Me and I Found You” by Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse, and his voice is strictly amateur but hers is surprisingly good) are the best things about a film that, as Charles pointed out, seems to be from a decade or so later than it was actually made. Certainly it was unusual in the 1950’s for the male protagonist of a film to be a dropout and a slacker! Aside from that, it’s a pretty dull movie through a lot of its running time, and it suffers from the casting of Jack Lord, who was great in his TV role as a super-cop but didn’t have the depth for the morally mixed character he’s playing here — though the film overall, with George Folsey’s chiaroscuro camerawork (despite having to deal with the Band-Aid shape of the CinemaScope screen) and the marvelous world-weariness of Taylor’s performance, almost qualifies as noir. It’s interesting to ponder what Alfred Hitchcock might have made of this story — it hardly seems up his alley until you remember that the movies he did make instead of Tip on a Dead Jockey, The Wrong Man and Vertigo, were themselves two of the most obsessive psychological studies of his career, so maybe that’s where his head was at in the late 1950’s before The Wrong Man and Vertigo both flopped and he went back to the action-thriller style of North by Northwest and then unforgettably dabbled in horror with Psycho.