The rap on director Michael Curtiz holds that the dynamic Warner Bros. workhorse (90 films over twenty-five years) lost his creative mojo when he left the studio in the mid-‘50s. What’s left out of the consideration is that Curtiz ankled just as WideScreen pics ambled in. The pageant-like staging stratagems used in THE EGYPTIAN/’54 (20th/Fox-CinemaScope) or to introduce VistaVision on Paramount’s WHITE CHRISTMAS/’54 were to some extent dictated by nervous studio execs Curtiz catered to as ‘new boy on the block.’ (After four decades of megging!) Add in the tiny selection of lenses available (especially in ‘Scope), plus the huge commercial success of CHRISTMAS (the year’s top grosser), and you can see why the normally combative Curtiz would go along with the bland style.* Not here. Working on an independent production, he comes close to his old form, revving up this whodunnit with a generous smear of childhood poetic realism and a big assist from lenser John Seitz, also in a notable return to form after B-pics & tv gigs. Alan Ladd (with a bloated face & looking past his age) is an ex-commercial artist trying to make a go as a fine arts painter. A loner, he pals with some of the local kids who come to watch him sketch, but is barely social at all, unlike his high-strung, alcoholic wife (Carolyn Jones, trying to go full Bette Davis, but coming up short). When the neurotic dear suddenly goes missing, presumed dead, circumstantial evidence points to Ladd and the nice rural town suddenly turns vicious. Ladd goes on the lam, hiding out/helped by the local kids he’s befriended. Reginald Rose’s script is too blunt to pull us in properly, but there’s just enough to give Curtiz & Co. something special to work with. And while it's no NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/’55 or WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND/’61** in the lyrical mortal fable department, it does work up a special tone worth attending to.
DOUBLE-BILL: **NIGHT or WHISTLE would pair nicely with this, but keep a look out for THE PROUD REBEL/’58, an even better Ladd/Curtiz collaboration with Olivia de Havilland & Ladd’s own kid as his deaf son. It too is beautifully shot, with an unusual yellowish palette, by another never-Oscar’d great, Ted McCord.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Rejecting that bland early CinemaScope style, one of the treats in the Judy Garland/’54 version of A STAR IS BORN, especially in its first two reels, is watching director George Cukor shred the standard, stolid, ‘Scope stylistics of the day. He almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten away with such daring at his home studio (M-G-M), but as an expensive hired-hand helmer on the Warners lot, working with his own non-house visual crew, he’s positively fearless, even experimental. (Of course, this being Hollywood, the worm turned, the production lost money, and a grinning Jack Warner chopped the negative down to size, making sure to destroy all the discards.)