| Run Time: 99 min. | Colour
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Arlene Dahl
Genres: Drama | Film-noir
Ambitious and fast-talking publicity man Payne contrives a smear campaign on a “reform” mayoral candidate by using said candidate’s girlfriend (Fleming). However, he becomes much too involved with the girlfriend and her man-hungry, kleptomaniac sister (Dahl) in an outrageous performance.
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James M. Cain’s first Hollywood fusillade went off in the mid-1940s, with Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, all adapted from his books, helping to set the tone and the parameters for the noir cycle just getting up steam. In the mid-50s, he had a second wind, with Serenade and, from Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, Allen Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet. While not one of Cain’s better works or one of the better movies made from them, it has its ample fascinations. Legendary noir director of photography John Alton works in color here, and startlingly enlivens his customary dark trapezoids with bursts of lime green, flame orange and orchid. (The rare films noirs done in color seem even more decadent: see Leave Her to Heaven and Desert Fury). John Payne reprises his solid, sullen self as a fence-straddling minor mobster who sees his chance to take control of the machine in a mid-sized midwestern city. His twin carrot-topped temptations are sisters Rhonda Fleming, as the mayor’s gal Friday, and Arlene Dahl, who has just been released from prison — she’s a loony, man-devouring klepto (and Dahl does her proud. There’s even a scene when Fleming finds the message "Goodbye Sister" scrawled in lipstick on her bedroom mirror). Too bad there was a lot of (unnecessary) rewriting of Cain’s story; the ending is sourly ambiguous. But this is late noir in garish overdrive, and movies aren’t much more fun than that.
"You’re not good; you’re not bad. You’re a chiseler, out for anything you can get."
So, says Solly Kaspar, crime boss of Bay City, of Ben Grace, the anti-hero of this story, adapted from James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit. What holds our interest in this story is we’re never quite sure what to make of Grace.
There’s an upcoming election and crime boss Kasper does not want the reform candidate to win, so Kasper strongarms the newspaper publisher backing him, and in the process kills him.
Grace exposes Kasper, forcing Solly to flee to Mexico, and insuring the election of Frank Jansen, the reform candidate. He uses his influence with Jansen to get an honest police lieutenant friend of his appointed Chief of Police.
Good guy, right?
Then later in this movie he’s seen giving orders to Solly’s men, going over Solly’s books, and positioning himself as Solly’s successor. He calls his friend,the chief of police, and demands that his girlfriend’s sister who was recently arrested be released without being charged, and so we begin to believe we’ve misjudged ol’ Ben. He’s just a hood, a little brighter than most, a little smoother than most, but in the end, no different from Solly Kasper.
Bad guy, right?
Well, we’re not sure, because Grace isn’t sure. Reform mayoral candidate, soon to be mayor, Frank Jansen has an assistant, June Lyons. On a 1 to 10 scale, Ms. Lyons, with her flaming red hair, and blazing headlights (think Good Girl art) is an 11. Rhonda Fleming never looked better, and Arlene Dahl as her sister, Dorothy Lyons, was equally stunning. But, back to Grace. He is falling for June, and June is a thoroughly decent girl, whose better nature seems to affect him.
In the end, however, Grace’s schemes come to naught. Jansen who really is a reform candidate orders Dorothy be tried for her crimes. Solly Kasper returns wanting to take over as rackets boss, and Ben Grace is forced to run. Here’s where we see his true character, when he scrounges as much of Solly’s money as he can and invites his girlfriend to go on the run with him (she declines).
Solly Kasper was right all along. He really is just a chiseler, out for whatever he can get. Major disappointment, as in the end, Ben Grace disappoints not just his girlfriend, but the audience as well.
This is a beautifully photographed movie in full technicolor. The sets are a wonderful amalgam of art deco – rococo excess. Others here have pointed out how garish everything looked. I didn’t find it so. I thought it was beautiful. Certainly, the eye candy was stunning. There aren’t any two actresses today who could team as good girl – bad girl siblings the way Fleming and Dahl did. Maybe Julianne Moore and Debra Messing, but they wouldn’t look as good. The movie’s high marks for visual style are undermined by its low marks for aimless, meandering story. 6 out of 10.
With the same title. You might think Slightly Scarlet is about Ben Grace: did he change or not? Then again you might think the movie is about June Lyons: did SHE change or not?
If the movie’s about June Lyons, the ending isn’t ambiguous, and Ben Grace is a hero in more ways than one. And yes, she changed, and definitely for the better.
June’s been in what we now lovingly call a co-dependent relationship –with her sister. Crazy Dorothy needs professional help, and June’s been trying all her adult life to help her, successful only in being manipulated by Dorothy’s psychotic reasoning. June keeps trying to do the impossible: make Dorothy’s life better. Dorothy’s a prop (a McGuffin, except we know a lot about her) She moves the plot. She’s the agent of Ben’s meeting and falling in love with June, and the cause of his becoming a hero. She’s always at the wrong place at the right time. Dorothy shows us Ben’s true attraction to the good sister through his rejection of her, even at her most seductive in a bathing suit. Dorothy claims she and Ben are alike. Ben shows they’re not by his attraction to June. Even when Arlene Dahl steals a scene, as she sometimes does, her Dorothy reminds us of June’s worries, June’s hopes. We see Ben sinking into villainy, except in his relationship to June and Dorothy, which remains consistent and sincere throughout.
June’s unable to have a relationship with a man because of Dorothy. June, so loyal, so caring, so worried, doesn’t have time even for the man she loves, although that man needs her more than Dorothy does. Dorothy, remember, needs a psychiatrist, not a worried sister.
And so, as gorgeous June moves closer and closer toward a hideous spinsterhood devoted to the care of semi-conscious Dorothy, events take a turn for the worse AND for the better. Ben undergoes horrible torture to save June and Dorothy. He’s still alive at the end, but we don’t know certainly that he’ll survive. We do know, in that last glance June gives Janson who’s patting Dorothy reassuringly, that June’s chosen her man over her sister. June smiles back at Janson and Dorothy (and Janson smiles knowingly at June), as June walks away behind the stretcher. There’s someone who needs her and can benefit from her care, someone with a legitimate claim on her love and attention, and June follows him. June has been steadfast in her ethics, although her attention was misguided. We know if Ben lives, she’ll help him. If he doesn’t live, she’s freed herself from her bondage to Dorothy.
This engrossing film has a lot of action, both physical and psychological. It’s easy to watch but not simple. Oooh, that magnetic energy (great direction) between Ben and June. They can barely keep their faces apart in any interaction. Ben tries to be bad, but isn’t making it. In the end he succumbs fully to love. A hero because he not only saves the women’s lives, but also because he’s rescued June from Dorothy. Could there be such a thing as a noir, chick flick? I think so.
Any story by James M. Cain should automatically command one’s attention. Though probably not as famous as his other stories, this one manages to hold the viewer’s interest. A curious thing to me is that, once again, the male lead is playing a far from sympathetic character (Ben). John Payne does a good good job, though sometimes it is not easy to figure out what Ben is up to or why. The success of the film rests upon the performance of the two female leads, Rhonda Fleiming and Arlene Dahl, especially the latter, whose acting was way beyond what I expected and almost carries the film, the ending of which might be a bit surprising. A tad slow in spots, ‘Slightly Scarlet’ nevertheless is a pretty entertaining film.
[…] housewife–but I still enjoyed the film quite a bit. I also mentioned to her that Toronto Film Society will be screening SLIGHTLY SCARLET at our Sunday, April 2nd programme and wondered if she had any […]