A Touch of Orson, Almost: 'Tip on a Dead Jockey'

While the celebrated George J. Folsey could offer a master class in expressive use of Cinemascope when working with a director like Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli, here he's only required to offer a restrained level of engagement.

Tip on a Dead Jockey

Director: Richard Thorpe
Cast: Robert Taylor, Dorothy Malone
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1957
Release date: 2013-01-22

"When a guy like that can't fly anymore, well, there are a lot of other things he can't do, either." That's how a buddy (Jack Lord) explains to a beautiful woman (Dorothy Malone) why her husband isn't interested in her anymore and just spends his postwar days drifting through an empty life in Madrid. If that sounds like a cousin to Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, it's probably no coincidence, but we're talking about Tip on a Dead Jockey, from a short story by Irwin Shaw.

Hemingway's novel was lavishly filmed in 1957, with aging Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn; this more modest item from the same year, in black and white but also in Cinemascope, casts aging Robert Taylor as Lloyd Tredman, the impotent husband who lost his nerve to fly after serving in WWII and Korea. The pilot angle also conjures up the ghost of John Monk Saunders' novel and screenplay The Last Flight, another "Lost Generation" cousin to Hemingway. As long as we're drawing connections, it also feels similar to Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels of the following year, another black and white widescreen melodrama with Malone as a pilot's wife, and the best movie of the bunch.

Meanwhile, this one's not bad at all. Ace screenwriter Charles Lederer (best known for comedy) cooks up intelligent dialogue that throws in lots of that there psychology, complete with wry self-conscious remarks about it like "If I needed a psychiatrist...." The structure pulls us along, and the supporting characters are interesting, with lovable sponger Marcel Dalio dropping lots of Lederer drolleries. He's a candid little charmer who lives off other characters and goes prowling for good times, and he shows himself a shrewd judge of character as well as a brave and loyal friend.

Prolific director Richard Thorpe, who did many latter-day Taylor vehicles, stages his widescreen scenes with smooth if uninspired professionalism, courtesy of George J. Folsey's photography. While the celebrated Folsey could offer a master class in expressive use of Cinemascope when working with a director like Stanely Donen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) or Vincente Minnelli (The Cobweb), here he's only required to offer Thorpe's more restrained level of engagement. Nor does Miklos Rozsa's music overpower things, for this clearly isn't pushed as far as Sirk territory. It comes across as a solid effort that just misses being better.

Observe the cleverness of an early teasing scene. Malone, who spends lots of time acting Malone-esque (campy overdone facial tics and shoulder-straightening), asserts that she's sure her husband wants a divorce because he's seeing another woman. The next scene opens with Taylor in bed with an apparently naked blonde (Joyce Jameson). They're both stretched across the white expanse of the widescreen image, with the woman across the top and Taylor, face in pillow, unconscious to the southeast. It's quite a daring moment until it's eventually made clear that they slept platonically and that Jameson is wearing a low-cut evening gown. Somehow this underlines the pathos of Taylor's situation.

When they finally appear together, Malone and Taylor have chemistry, even singing an oldie by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse, but they'll never have sex until after the fade-out, when Taylor has proved he can still "fly". In the meantime, much of the film has a nice atmosphere of camaraderie among people who feel warmly and look out for each other. Most of the characters are friends, even if they sometimes misunderstand each other. The only spider in the ointment is a shady dealer (Martin Gabel) who proposes a lucrative smuggling scheme.

The notes on this made-on-demand Warner Archive package indicate that Lederer's good friend Orson Welles (whose ex-wife was now Lederer's wife) was in negotations to direct this movie at one point. The mind boggles at what he might have done with the suspenseful last act, which involves flying on a smuggling mission to Egypt.

Instead, Welles worked on Jack Arnold's western Man in the Shadow, which he extensively rewrote with producer Albert Zugsmith, before continuing with Zugsmith on Touch of Evil. The Arnold film is a kind of stealth Welles movie, while Dead Jockey isn't even that, but it sure is fascinating to consider. According to the biographies, Welles sometimes sponged off Lederer's household in a manner perhaps not entirely unlike Dalio's character, and he definitely had a feeling for Spain -- where this MGM backlot film emphatically was not shot. We'd sure like to have seen Welles' version.

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