Now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber are two lush 1960s Universal melodramas produced by Ross Hunter and starring Lana Turner: Michael Gordon’s Portrait in Black (1960) and David Lowell Rich’s Madame X (1966). If you know what this means, we need say no more. If you don’t know, you’re in for a treat if your cinematically decaffeinated nerves can stand an undiluted injection of yesteryear’s hard stuff without resulting in toxic shock. Let’s explain.
Hunter’s Big Game
Ross Hunter produced movies that knew they were movies. They were grand, lavish, melodramatic, colorful and overstated, from the glorious credits to the last swellingly scored fade-out. Remember when credits were a big production and you could actually read them without squinting because everyone seemed proud to trumpet their work on the movie? Ah, some of you don’t remember, and that’s unfortunate.
Hunter made movie-movies, mainly aimed at women audiences. Indeed, they were the last of Hollywood’s “women’s movies”, once a staple of the market. Movies aimed at a masculine audience were no less melodramatic and tended to be even more far-fetched since they were about fantasy lives of catching spies and hunting whales and swinging through the jungle. Movies aimed at women were also glamorous and larger-than-life in terms of style, but their central concerns were the difficulties most women faced: marriage, work, children. Masculine melodramas turned on actions committed by the heroes while feminine melodramas turned on the heroine’s internal choices and their consequences.
With unsurprising irony, women’s films tended to be dismissed by reviewers as “unrealistic” and mocked as tearjerkers, soap operas, and three-hanky pictures. True, the plots were often constructed in a tortured and coincidental manner, thanks to requirements of censorship and social conventions that required punishment for deviations from the norm, and yet the subversive effect of all this suffering was to expose the “stacked deck” and glorify women’s strength and resilience. The emotions at the heart of the grandiose contrivance remained valid and recognizable.
The Wikipedia page on Madame X quotes a 1965 interview in the Los Angeles Times in which Hunter asserts that “tearjerkers are more difficult to make than any other type of movie”, and that “critics would seem to categorize them and look down on them; it is word of mouth that is their best press agent. It’s all very sad in a way; maybe this is why we’re not building great woman stars for audiences today. Audiences need to let their emotions out.”
The Hunter films most celebrated today, deservedly, are those directed by Douglas Sirk, who brings a level of insight and mastery that drives all before it. That said, all of Hunter’s productions are worth watching, not only to discover what he brought to a film vs. what Sirk brought but because Hunter’s tastes as a producer are clearly “auteurist” and because he was conscious and proud of the tradition in which he worked. He frequently remade earlier classics from the 1930s, perceiving that their morality could be updated and production values ramped up within the framework of a still solid emotional story.
For example, he had Sirk direct Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959), two films that been hits in the ’30s when directed by John M. Stahl. A non-Sirk example is Back Street, Fannie Hurst’s story of the life of a married man’s “other woman”. Previous film versions, in 1932 (directed by Stahl) starring Irene Dunne, and 1941 (Robert Stevenson) starring Margaret Sullavan, gave her a martyr’s life of self-sacrifice, the purpose of her existence defined by love. Hunter’s 1961 version, directed by David Miller, gives its heroine (Susan Hayward) her own successful career, thank you very much, and an ending that rewards her with surrogate motherhood. Thus did Hunter perceive that old chestnuts could be revived without having to seem outdated.
Twists and Turner
It’s time to discuss Lana Turner.
The mere casting of Turner during this period was a “meta” element that potentially distracted the audience with her outsized aura, and this element was harnessed into the plots she enacted. That element lay in a notorious scandal and media circus of 1958. Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, fatally stabbed her mother’s abusive mobster-lover, Johnny Stompanato. This led to further coverage of Crane’s “rebellious” and traumatized behavior in various institutions.
Crane’s memoir, Detour: A Hollywood Story (Arbor House, 1988), discusses the killing, which a coroner’s jury declared “justifiable homicide”. She also alleges rape by stepfather Lex Barker, who had departed their lives shortly before and discusses her having already come out as a lesbian to her parents.
Of course, the last two details weren’t public knowledge, but the stabbing led to reams of mystery-novel speculation, including allegations by Stompanato’s son that Crane was covering for her mom, an idea fictionalized in Woody Allen’s 1987 filmSeptember. Harold Robbins’ 1962 novel Where Love Has Gone, filmed in 1964 with Susan Hayward, comes up with the twist that the daughter was trying to kill her mom and accidentally stabbed the boyfriend. Rumors flew, twirled and recombined like mating mockingbirds drunk on nectar.
You can see how such tragic fiascoes are catnip for melodrama, no exaggeration required. Hollywood had reason to wonder if Turner’s career was over, but intentionally or not, her subsequent roles seemed to recognize or mythologize her real-life scandal, especially in terms of fraught mother-daughter relations. Such had been noticeable in Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957), released before the murder but not before the violent and stormy Stompanato relationship was underway.
After the scandal, Hunter and Sirk took a chance with Turner in Imitation of Life (1959), a huge hit. It’s the apotheosis of the Hunter/Sirk films, and Turner’s role involves strife with a daughter (Sandra Dee) who’s in love with mom’s boyfriend, although that’s the minor half of the plot. Portrait in Black was the follow-up reuniting Hunter with Turner and Dee, again in a strained mother-daughter relationship, this time with murder.
Portrait in Black
The script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on their play, takes part of its cue from one of Turner’s most famous movies, the Tay Garnett version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). In that noir classic derived from a James M. Cain novel, Turner plays an adulterous strumpet who cajoles her lover into polishing off the nice-guy husband, to nobody’s good fortune except the audience and studio.
Portrait in Black isn’t a remake but certain elements could be confused in a dark alley. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the film, Goff and Roberts’ play premiered in the fall of 1946 — hmm, the same year The Postman Always Rings Twice came out, surely by random coincidence. They’d tried for years to get a film made, and there was even a radio version in 1952 with Barbara Stanwyck, who’d starred in a similar Cain adaptation, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
Cain’s grimy working-class setting is here replaced by a San Francisco of the rich and famous, as we’re introduced (after spectacular opening credits) to harsh, unpleasant shipping magnate Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan), who treats wife Sheila (Turner) abusively. “You’re hurting me,” she says when he twists her wrist. “Just learn to take it, like I did,” he snarls. Stranded to an electric bed with some crippling muscle condition that leaves him “half a man”, he taunts her that he’s unable to meet her needs and suspects that she’s meeting them elsewhere.
The doctor who gives him daily injections is David Rivera, the son of fruit-pickers. This Mexican-American character is played by one of Hollywood’s busiest all-purpose ethnic stars, Anthony Quinn, in this case adopting an ethnicity he can really claim, though he seems to have a tan sprayed on. We soon find out that, in fact, Sheila and Rivera have been having it on for a while, and we don’t mean the tan. It’s clear that Sheila’s husband isn’t the only one receiving regular injections.
In between stolen clinches, the illicit couple enact an overwrought and fraught conversation, now and then turning their backs on each other and facing the fabulous art on the walls — the Martin Lowitz Gallery duly noted in the credits for viewers with disposable income–on the practicalities and advisability of helping along Cabot’s lingering burden.
In this scene and others, Russell Metty’s Eastmancolor photography often takes the opportunity to cast one or both of them in shadow, not unlike the use of negative photography in the opening credits, thus introducing plenty of noir expressionism into this richly colored film. And that’s nothing–a later suspenseful sequence will go overboard with flashing red streetlights all over their faces. Truly, this is cinema! Sometimes a movie needs to overpower you, or why bother?
When a movie twists your arm, it never really hurts, or maybe we can learn to take it. One of this film’s most curious evolutions is that the more we learn about what Cabot knew and “where the bodies are buried”, the more we come to understand this devil wasn’t as black as he’s painted. One of the tricks of melodrama is to present us with appearances that conform to what we wish to believe, only sometimes to pull the rug out.
Naturally, the murder plot seems to be pulled off for about five minutes before things go to hell in a handbasket, beginning with the lovers’ relationship. Their sense of guilt and mistrust on this dangerous path to which they’re committed leads to Rivera’s disintegration and transformation into the kind of manipulative bully that Sheila thought she was getting rid of, and it’s not great for her mental health either. We know this kind of plot well enough, and this variation is rife with supporting characters who complicate everything and perform a fair job of keeping us guessing and goggling.
There’s the suspicious and snippy stepdaughter (Dee), her working-class tough boyfriend (John Saxon) who might take the rap, the truly vile lawyer (Richard Basehart) with his own designs on the wealthy widow, the shady chauffeur (Ray Walston) who may be up to any number of monkey shines, the sighing secretary (Virginia Grey) who carried a torch for her mean boss, the curiously hostile and “inscrutable” housekeeper (Anna May Wong in her final film) upon whom everyone projects their fears and prejudices and who just seems fed up with the whole crew, and Sheila’s coddled mama’s boy (Dennis Kohler), the only innocent among the bunch and therefore an unknowing pawn in the unraveling. Oh yes, there’s a brooding Siamese cat named Rajah who knows more than he’s telling.
It’s possible that some aspects of the story might have been better handled, but modulated plausibilities are unnecessary to this type of film. Credibility is a matter of bold strokes and emotional underpinnings. If the presentation is vivid and voluptuous, the emotions blunt and stark, the story diabolical and teasing, the settings and people sleek and pretty, and the music sometimes unapologetically overstated, that’s quite enough.
The aesthetic form generates its own species of Brechtian alienation that calls attention to what it’s doing, but that’s not the same as retreating into a “so bad it’s good” excuse that removes us from engagement with what we’re watching; on its melodramatic terms, this stuff is so good it’s good. We might be sure that Sirk could have pulled it off better, but what’s here remains satisfying.
Kudos to art director Richard H. Riedel, who’d worked several times with Hunter and died in a car accident that year. That factoid feels a bit uncanny considering the excruciating Hitchcockian suspense of the “driving” sequence, which involves pouring rain, a train, a corpse, the police, a character who doesn’t know how to drive, and a dashboard that looks like an airplane cockpit. More kudos belong to the gowns designed by Jean Louis with jewels from David Webb.
Director Michael Gordon’s early stint in B crime films and noirs led to higher-profile jobs, most notably the superb Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), before blacklisting derailed his Hollywood career. Hunter deserves credit for luring him back to Hollywood with, of all things, the first Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy, Pillow Talk (1959). That led Gordon to a string of similar comedies (none as good), amid which Portrait in Black feels anomalous; this was a project Gordon had expressed interest in years earlier, so he must have taken advantage of his new success to revive it with Hunter.
The mildly fluctuating color values on Universal’s print make me think the film is due for a restoration that it won’t get. The only significant bonus is the commentary by historians Emma Westwood and Lee Gambin, who call attention to the pervasive Chinese and Eastern motifs in design throughout the film, from the presence of Wong and the cat to countless knick-knacks and color textures.
This reminds Gambin that Hunter produced the important Flower Drum Song (1961) and that Chinese kitsch and parody were elements in his later Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). By the time we arrive at the faux-Asian elements in his daffy Lost Horizon (1973), clearly, his handling of Asian cultures had devolved. When Hunter had to choose between hard-hitting authenticity and fabulous artifice, we know where his heart lay.
This one’s better than satisfying. The last act is a perfect example of how women’s melodramas “told the truth” by combining sheer irrationality with overwhelming emotionalism. After all, emotions aren’t rational and movies often aren’t either. The plot, which turns on testimony of a murder charge, echoes Turner’s scandal more uncomfortably than her previous Hunter productions. If she’d been a method actress, she certainly had all the raw material she needed.
Madame X began her cultural life as a 1908 French play by Alexandre Bisson, from which Wikipedia documents at least ten films and IMDB digs up a few more. The original skinny is that the heroine’s cruel husband banished her from home for having an affair. Years later, a sensational development occurs that we don’t wish to spoil, and that means we really can’t say much about the plot after all. The existential crux of the matter is that the woman winds up in court being defended by a young attorney who feels a strange affinity for her plight–because he has no clue that she’s his own mother!
Will he learn the truth? Will she succeed in sparing him the shame and scandal? What will become of her? Tune in tomorrow–no, just keep watching, and that’s easy because it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen in all available film versions.
Viewers who have no patience for such incredible theatrics are people who don’t understand movies or life. The more absurd the circumstances, the more glaring are the truths at its center, in this case, that women are trapped by the emotional logic of “shame” and “scandal” invented by a society that means to keep them in their place. The most convoluted stories expose the inherent absurdity of these social realities, much like Mark Twain applied the “logic” of racial laws to their most ridiculous extremes for satirical purposes in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).
Women’s melodramas don’t have that satirical intent but they tend to wreak the same havoc on proper social codes because the audience is thoroughly on the heroine’s side as the film’s tortured logic finds its only solace in pleas for love and understanding. These subversive observations are cleverly enfolded within a safely traditional praise of woman’s capacity for self-sacrifice. If she’s martyred within the ideals and constraints of womanhood, she’s not the one who created them or the world that’s punished her, to which she’s simply had to respond.
To modernize this warhorse, Hunter hired Jean Holloway, an established radio and TV writer. One of her first crucial choices was to change the story so that the heroine is no longer banished by her husband but by her manipulative mother-in-law so that the whole drama becomes decided by women whose men are unimportant and ignorant of what’s going on.
The story opens with Clayton Anderson (John Forsythe) bringing home the bride he eloped with, Holly Parker (Turner), as they travel up the longest driveway in America. He’s the latest in a long line of Clayton Andersons, and the script makes a direct comment on patriarchy when he shows off the dark row of glowering ancestral portraits in the front hall. “Were your ancestors all men?” asks Holly with a twinkle, and he replies, “I’ve always had a sneaking feeling they drowned the girls at birth.” It’s a joke, haha, but another “joke” of “drowning the girl” will prove a major plot point.
Although Clayton’s mother (Constance Bennett), the mansion’s matriarch, is all smiles to Holly’s face, she regards Holly as an “embarrassment” and a “shopgirl” who “should have stayed on the other side of the counter”, or so we learn after five years pass with a whirl of newspaper headlines and the birth of a son. Mother Anderson’s attitude toward her son, who constantly escorts her on his arm, has a touch of incestuous possessiveness that will be reflected in Holly’s situation, for Holly will be identified in a Christmas scene as a child and a toy in the household and will end up clinging to an ideal of her son as her defining love. Is there something about the Anderson line that does this to their women?
The Andersons are a blue-blooded Connecticut family of political movers and shakers with “Washington fever”, and Clayton is busy establishing his reputation in far-flung places like North Africa, which he perceives as stepping stones for “his reputation” and future career rather than for any intrinsic value. In other words, he’s willing to use North Africa for his own devices and to become America’s tool for using it. As a result, he leaves his wife alone for long periods of time, and the movie strongly implies that–as in Portrait in Black–the wife has sexual needs that aren’t being met.
Lonely and restless, she succumbs to the charms of some society lizard (Ricardo Montalban) who, like the characters in that movie, has plenty of Asian bric-a-brac in his split-level bachelor pad, and some of it might be the same bric-a-brac. That’s not the end of it, because Holly will later meet a suave pianist who calls himself “a very Oriental Dane”, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In the first of Holloway’s innovations, something dramatic happens with the lizard, and Holly ends up being emotionally blackmailed by her mother-in-law into faking her own death for the good of the family. If you can swallow this, the rest is Easy Street, and the story eventually winds up in the back alleys of previous versions where our heroine, now dubbed Madame X, is on trial for her life. As in the opening scene of the family portraits, a long parade of stuffy professional men look down in judgment from high angles–police, doctors, the legal community.
Yes, we’ve acknowledged that it’s far-fetched, and that’s part of what throws its basic emotions into stark relief. Anyone not wiped out by the last reel doesn’t deserve to watch movies. Also, we trust we’ve given some indication of how the scenario is filled with social and political observations that, while not foregrounded as “the point”, add up to a vision and critique of the context within which the melodrama occurs.
Turner’s performance is outstanding. Her early scenes of blushing bridehood show she’s no longer a spring chicken in the close-ups, but her swift transition to alcoholic slattern amid increasingly garish Technicolor light schemes show her completely in charge of the character, and her handling of the trial’s whirlwind of emotions is pitch perfect. No wonder the actors around her have no trouble turning on the waterworks. The whole film may be overstated, but there’s no “camp” in her performance; she’s almost minimalist.
One reason the trial works so brilliantly, aside from these emotions, is the facility with which it conveys two levels of reality. There’s what seems to be happening on the level of public plot, and then what’s really happening on a level of emotional secrecy shared between the viewer and the heroine. We’re at once complicit and torn, and we wish for mutually exclusive things simultaneously. We and she are in impossible situations, and we can only ride it out with apprehension, feeling every development like a blow. Holly can only triumph to the extent that she makes decisions and seizes what control she can over this rollercoaster.
The other actors include Keir Dullea as the wide-eyed, fresh-faced attorney who doesn’t understand why he feels so drawn to his mysterious client; Burgess Meredith as the sleazy friend she meets in Mexico who says he doesn’t have much acquaintance with angels; John van Dreelen as the gratuitous Danish pianist with the Virgin Mary on the ceiling of his guest room; Virginia Grey as a big-mouthed society matron; Warren Stevens as the prosecutor; Carl Benton Reid as the judge; and Teddy Quinn as little Clayton.
Once again, Russell Metty’s photography is a triumph from “noir” moments to gaudy expressionism, and once again Turner is gowned by Jean Louis with jewels by David Webb and furs by Ben Kahn, for this is the sort of movie where it’s appropriate to give major credits to the star’s wardrobe. Once again, Frank Skinner’s score works overtime. Alexander Golitzen and George Webb are responsible for the lavish art direction. The frequent use of transitional flips and folds between scenes is a particular aesthetic quirk of the film that screams “Sixties”. The use of superimpositions during montage sequences, an extremely difficult thing to pull off in Technicolor because of overlapping clashes of color, is nothing short of delirious.
As is always the case when Sirk isn’t directing, Hunter feels like the guiding auteur, and his name is trumpeted in the trailer. The director is David Lowell Rich, a TV guy mainly associated during this decade with Naked City and Route 66. While those series are considered “realistic”, they’re full of artificially articulate characters and require directors who can stage such arias without a heavy hand. Perhaps this is why Madame X feels sufficiently grounded amid the gloss.
Historians Lee Gambin and Dr. Eloise Ross provide a discussion touching on the symbolism of cinematic staircases, Mexico as symbolic space in Hollywood films, Lana Turner as icon, and similar women’s melodramas. This and the trailer are the only relevant extras.