Tag Archives: Lizabeth Scott

Desert Fury: Making Things Perfectly Queer

When Desert Fury was released in the UK , the Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1st 1947 labelled it a Western Drama, praised the colour for adding a ´certain air of  reality to the film´(!) but remarked on the sharply defined but extremely unnatural characters. The film was badly reviewed, made money, and then was largely forgotten for many years. David Ehrenstein, in ‘Desert Fury, Mon Amour’, an important piece for Film Quarterly in 1988, significantly dedicated to Vito Russo and Richard Dyer, wrote: ´You aren´t likely to find Desert Fury listed on a revival or repertory house schedule. It isn´t avaiable on home video. at best you might be able to catch it in some 3.am slot on local television, or unspooled some afternoon when rain cancels a baseball game. And why not? It´s ´just a movie´– produced, consumed, forgotten. Not good. Not bad. Medicore. In fact, one might even go so far as to call it quintessentially mediocre’.  And yet, Ehrenstein argues, the film ´speaks to cinematic desires barely formed and only half-uttered´.

 

What once couldn´t be uttered now seems obvious to all. By 1998 Eddie Muller in Dark City, The Lost World of Film Noir, would write, ‘Desert Fury is the gayest movie ever produced in Hollywood’s golden era. The film is saturated – with incredibly lush color, fast and furious dialogue dripping with innuendo, double entendres, dark secrets, outraged face-slappings, overwrought Miklos Rosza violins. How has this film escaped revival or cult status? It’s Hollywood at its most gloriously berserk’ (p.183)´By 2008, Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of The Screen: Film Noir, was writing ´In a truly subversive move the film jettisons the characters’ criminal activities to concentrate on two homosexual couples: the mannish mother who treats her daughter like a lover, and the gangster and his devoted possessive sidekick'(p.224). By 2014, Ronald Bergan in Film Comment, would argue that´Since Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, we have grown accustomed to reading cryptic messages of homosexuality in pre-Sixties Hollywood movies. But the Eddie-Johnny relationship is too overt to be intentionally gay in the Hollywood of the Forties’. The film offers an interesting critical trajectory: What was unnatural if invisible or unutterable, merely ‘bad’, in 1947, now seems too excessively obvious.

I’ve been trying to practice my video skills, playing with dissolves and titles, still terrible at both, but I have put together clips from the film, edited down but in chronological order, that create such a vivid queer triangle that it does make one wonder what was going on in people’s minds and make one wish someone had interviewed all involved on this issue.  I think you’ll find that the power of this vividly queer narrative will override the evidence of my relative lack of editing skills. There´s another, similar exercise, to be made on lesbianism in the same film.

 

José Arroyo

Coding Lesbianism in Desert Fury

In Desert Fury, Mary Astor is Fritzy, the Vice Queen of Chuckawalla, who runs the Purple Sage gambling joint in town and perhaps a bordello or two. She’s got a housekeeper who can’t stop looking at the mirror, wears slacks and a short do, is the most powerful person in town, with the judges and the cops in her back pocket, and loves *everything* about her daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott), sometimes seeming on the point of incest:

 

 

José Arroyo

I’m on base, you’re doing the pitching

Burt get propositioned again, this time in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). Night-club singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott), Dink Turner’s (Kirk Douglas) main squeeze, has been ordered to be sweet to Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster. But Mrs. Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller), the woman Dink plans to marry, catches Frankie from the corner of her eye and makes a move: ‘I’m on base,’ he tells her ‘you’re doing the pitching’.

José Arroyo

Burt and Lizabeth Scott kid their personas

Variety Girl is one of those all-star productions, usually featuring unknowns, that showcased a particular studio’s stars whilst raising money for a cause. Most of the famous ones — Stage Door CanteenThank Your Lucky Stars — were made during the war and in aid of the war effort. Variety Girl was made post-war, in 1947, in aid of the Variety Clubs of America, which itself had a history worthy of a movie. The Variety Club was initially set up as a show-business social club. However, on Christmas Eve 1928, a baby was left at the Sheridan Square Film Theatre with a note:

‘Please take care of my baby. Her name is Catherine. I can no longer take care of her. I have eight others. My husband is out of work. She was born on Thanksgiving Day. I have always heard of the goodness of show-business people and pray to God that you will look after her. Signed, a heartbroken mother’.

This could have been the basis of a great melodrama but is instead turned into the premise of a musical. In the film Catherine grows up, goes to Hollywood, visits the sights and ends up at Paramount, where we get to see all the stars there at the time: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd, William Holden etc.

The film is not good but it does have many treasurable bits. I wanted to share the clip above, where you can already see Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott kidding their personas, because it’s surprising to think that this is only a year after Burt Lancaster became a star with his very first film, The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). He’d also had a success with Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1946). Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947), with Lizabeth Scott had already been released, and the two had teamed up again for I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). The bit above fulfills the function of giving audiences what they’d liked but also providing publicity for  one attraction that was still playing in parts of the country (Desert Fury) and the forthcoming I Walk Alone, another hit.

Burt Lancaster waited a long time to get into the movies. He was already 32 in The Killers. But his success was extraordinary and immediate. As Cosmpolitan said, “a star with a meteroic rise “faster than Gable’s, Garbo’s or Lana Turner.’ Thomas Pryor in The New York Times wrote that “even in a place where spectacular ascents are now more or less commonplace, the rise of Burt Lancaster is regarded as something extraordinary”. His name ona theatre marquee was now said to be good for at least 1 million in ticket sales (Kate Burford, loc 1625, Kindle).

In Variety Girl, he’s ‘Buffalo Burt Lancaster’ who puts a cigarette on the side of Lizabeth Scott’s mouth and will light it with just one bullet. Of course, he misses: it’s a spoof. One year into his movie career and Lancaster already has a persona to kid, a powerful one, aspects of which would cling to his stardom throughout the rest of his life.

 

José Arroyo

Bibliography: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, London: Aurum, 2013)

Dark City (William Dieterle, USA, 1950)

Dark City

Danny Haley (Charlton Heston) is a vet suffering the after-effects of his wartime experiences. But it wasn’t the fighting that got to him. He had a good war. What caused his fall was a woman, a woman whom he married and whom he caught in bed with a fellow soldier from his own squadron, his best friend. He killed the friend, was court-marshalled for it, and let off lightly due to his wartime record. His life is like a ride on the Styx, on his way to the underworld, and he’s never been able to trust a woman since. He’s going out with Fran (Lizabeth Scott) and she’s crazy about him but he can’t commit. The past is a darkness he carries throughout the film.

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Danny has fallen low. His father was a West Point man. He graduated from Cornell. As the film begins he’s lucky to escape a police raid on a gambling joint he’s got a share in. Danny and his friends hustle  Arthur Winant (Don DeFore) out of a 5000 check and Arthur commits suicide as a result. But it turns out the mark has a psycho brother, recently in from Montreal, who’s discovered the cause of his brother’s death and is out to kill each of the people involved in the hustle, one by one.

The story is rather hackneyed and the device of showing the murderer only by a ringed hand  (see above) until the end is worse than that. But this is a film that vibrates with longing and disappointment. It’s Charlton Heston’s first Hollywood film. He gets an ‘Introducing’ credit. But his is the leading part and he comes off as a star from the first: the handsome face, the deep voice, the huge height softened by an endearing duck waddle of a walk. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther declared him a new star: ‘tall, tweedy, rough-hewn sort of chap who looks like a triple-threat halfback on a midwestern college football team…He has a quiet but assertive magnetism, a youthful dignity and a plainly potential sense of timing that is the good actor’s sine qua non. (p.47).

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Heston is very good, an indication of the actor he could have been had he not seen himself as an exceptional person destined to tower over ‘great’ roles, by which he usually meant merely historical personages. He’s down and out here, anguished and troubled. Young still with a potential future ahead of him; and though he’s burdened by the past, he´s not yet been done in by it. Heston is all brooding intensity here, always present in relation to other actors, and capable of exciting bursts of action.

In his biography of Charlton Marc Eliot writes that Heston himself didn’t really like the film: ´Dieterle was a good director and I gave him a good performance, if no more than that…’ With the passage of time, however, Heston grew less kind about his first film outing: ‘I don’t think Dark City is a good film…It’s like The Movie of the Week, strictly a television movie….after you’ve done six or seven films, you can survive a mediocre one. But when a mediocre one is your first film, it’s a little dicey (p.48).’

To call this a television movie is indeed to disparage just how much Dieterle does for the film. The opening sequence (see stills above) is rendered dynamic by the moving camera, the canted angles, the close-ups of things like microphones when the police barge in. Look at how beautifully Dieterle deploys film form in the clip below: the close-up on the mark, the camera moving backward to encompass everyone around the table; the choice of dissolve to edit with to convey the passage of time; the interesting choice of angles, often keeping the cards within the frame, and so on.

I resent Heston´s statement because he´s incapable of noticing or appreciating just how much the filmmakers are doing for him personally, that he comes across as a star in his first Hollywood outing is not entirely due to him. See in the clip above how the light favours Heston in almost every instance. Even when it´s sidelight it´s to show him to advantage (see how the light hits his lips below and not his friend on the left)

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Even the narrative is designed to favour him. Lizabeth Scott is given some great songs to sing: ‘I Don´t Want to Walk Without You’, ‘A Letter From a Lady in Love’, ‘That Old Black Magic’. ‘I Wish I Didn´t Love You So’, ‘If I Didn´t Have You’.  Whilst she constantly demeans her own skill in singing, she´s actually not bad. She sings her feelings for him in the nightclubs, and it´s all unrequited. He doesn´t want her to crowd him, fence him in: for him, it´s a casual affair. But note that in their conversations, she´s given the job of recounting plot that usually befalls supporting or even bit players whilst he´s given the star´s job of reacting, feeling. The narrative favours him in lighting and even in the shadowiest of composition.

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I´m sure the filmmakers didn´t intend to do in Scott but her June Allyson haircut is definitely not to her advantage. Also, for all her fame, Edith Head isn´t doing her any favours here. That ridiculous thing glued to her chest in the third picture below, the way the top falls over the skirt in the second, the bunched up stuff on her right shoulder in the first. Mind you Scott is playing a simpering masochist of a part, and the songs are great. But she´s not filmed with half the attention Heston is.

The movie has many pleasures, including a brilliant bit with a cat (see below):

 

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Dark City has a great supporting cast, including Viveca Lindors playing the part of the mark’s ex-wife, and a metaphor for what might have been for Danny. It also has a great noir look executed by cinematographer Victor Millner (see below):

Dark City is not a great film but it’s a very enjoyable noir with an intense performance from Heston made more brilliant by its setting: achieved by creating an underworld he can travel through, positioning him amongst two pulls (Scott and Linfors), enveloping him in a cloud of torch songs sung to and for him, and shining a light on him throughout. Ingrate.

José Arroyo

Further image/notes:

 

Too Late for Tears (Byron Haskin, 1949)

 

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A film noir I hadn´t seen before. Cheap, pulpy, lurid, hard-boiled, and rotten to its core. Just the way I like ’em. A bag of cash is thrown into the wrong car and the rest of the film is about everyone it doesn´t belong to trying to get their hands on it. Lizabeth Scott makes a bid to be the most fatal of femmes in the whole of film noir. She lies, and lies and lies. She cons and schemes and scams and is also able to come up with a new story every time she´s cornered. She´s so cool and collected she drives even Dan Duryea to drink. ´Don´t ever change,’ he tells her, ‘I wouldn´t like to see what you´re like with a heart’. Good thing because her heart is nowhere evident. Men fall like flies. Scott is totally inexpressive and completely great. She only livens up when her eyes focus on cash, diamonds or furs. Her heart beats only to the good life and she positively glistens to a kill. As to the saps…I mean the men… Oy, vey! The film is nothing special visually. Except for Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, the cast is second-rate. But it´s got real narrative propulsion and completely basks in the seamy underside of life like great pulp is meant to. I loved it.

 

The Arrow Academy transfer is a pleasure to watch with very fine extras by Alex K Rode and a documentary on the film´s restoration. A must have for noir aficionados.

 

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott’s intro in Dead Reckoning

I found it interesting that Dead Reckoning affords Lizabeth Scott a magnificent star entrance that begins with her voice. That gravelly huskyness is what rendered her unique amongst forties femme fatales. Here we hear her before we see her, and before we hear her, she’s already framed for us by Bogart’s troubled thoughts, by his dislike of the big lug calling him a friend. Then we hear her referred to as Mrs. Chandler by the barman, implicitly casting questions about why a married woman is a regular at the bar. We then see her through Bogart’s point-of-view: first the shapely gams, then a close-up on the cigarette, the jewelled evening gown, the neckline plunging into the dark fabric of the dress, then that beautiful face in profile, with cigarette as Bogart lights her up and she gives him that looks that seems a challenge born of a hurt. ‘Cinderella with a husky voice’ is how Bogart describes her to us. ‘Where have we met?’ ‘In another guy’s dreams’. A great star entrance, a great mise-en-scene of noir: darkness, desire and the unconscious beautifully twisted together to set the scene for the drama that will come.

José Arroyo

Lizabeth Scott on Film Noir

Lizabeth Scott, the beautiful blonde with the gravelly voice that graced so many forties noirs, gives her take on film noir. 

From a series of great interviews conducted by Carole Langer in Janet Leigh’s home in 1996. They can be seen in their entirety on you tube here.

José Arroyo