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Sunday, June 1, 2014

THE LADY GAMBLES (1949)

Barbara Stanwyck never quite lost the harsh edge she acquired on Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY/’44. Something about that nasty blonde wig never came off. But she certainly found a-hundred-and-one uses for this new, tougher personality. Here, it’s addiction. Not the ever popular struggles with drugs and/or alcohol, but gambling. And, daringly so, legal gambling as much as off-the-books stuff, played out in the shiny new attraction that was Las Vegas in the late ‘40s. Babs is there with writer husband Robert Preston. But while he’s working articles on the Hoover Dam, she gets drawn into the gambling racket by darkly compelling floor manager Stephen McNally. And she’d probably have kept her incipient addiction under control if only she weren’t so good at the game. Playing out largely in flashback after Stanwyck takes a particularly nasty back-alley pummeling, the typically hot-and-cold direction of Michael Gordon runs the gamut from routine to self-consciously clever right up to an unconvincing epilogue which wraps things up with a speedy all-in-one psychological explanation. But what keeps the film in your head is personal chemistry, or a lack thereof: Stanwyck’s near aversion from good guy Preston and her natural bond with McNally’s bad guy. Gordon seems aware of the problem, but is unable to follow up on its possibilities. Meantime, look fast for an early bit from bellhop ‘Anthony’ Curtis.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: Betting fever was hot in ‘49 with Robert Siodmak adapting Dostoevsky’s THE GAMBLER as THE GREAT SINNER. It’s no success, but has its moments; especially in a tiny unforgettable bit from Ethel Barrymore. Or, to see Babs & Preston working in harmony, try C. B. DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC/’39.

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