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Sunday, February 3, 2013

PORTRAIT IN BLACK (1960)

Gobsmacked by the huge success of IMITATION OF LIFE/’59, producer Ross Hunter & the Universal execs needed the next Lana Turner vehicle . . . and they needed it yesterday. Or, if not yesterday, why not 14 years ago? Specifically, 1946, with a near clone of Lana's own THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. Of course, this is a Ross Hunter pic, so Lana’s gone upscale: mansions, furs, house servants, and canoodling with the family doc (Anthony Quinn) while egging him on to get rid of her rich, nasty, invalid hubby (Lloyd Nolan). But someone’s on to them. Is it company takeover artist Richard Basehart? Step-daughter Sandra Dee’s boyfriend John Saxon? What about comical chauffeur Ray Walston or squinty-eyed housemaid Anna May Wong? Anna May Wong?!! (And, yes, they really do make her squint her eyes when she comes under suspicion.) The great Douglas Sirk made something of an art directing these melodramas, but he retired after IMITATION, so Michael Gordon, fresh off PILLOW TALK/’59, came onboard. And if it sounds like a bad dream, cinematographer Russell Metty brings such an eye-popping, richly layered look to every camera set-up, it’s unsettling,* while Frank Skinner’s score turns dark-and-stormy-night motifs into musical nightmares. Somehow, all the elements, ridiculous on their own, are so of a piece, the absurd thing comes alive within its own zero-reality bubble. (The acting may not be good, but it sure is consistent.) Still, you can’t get away with this sort of thing too often, and Lana’s second-wind career wound down rapidly hereafter.

DOUBLE-BILL: Lana’s version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE shows how you structure a tight plot for one of these things.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: In 1960, Russell Metty could still put his stamp on the look of his films. Two years on, Lew Wasserman, Hollywood's uber-agent, took over Universal Studios and imposed a crappy standardized look that made everything look like episodic tv.

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