Wednesday, 3 December 2014

THE SCARLET HOUR (1956)




In trying to establish an end point for the classic film noir cycle, four films emerge as leading candidates: ‘Touch of Evil’ (1958) for its baroque inflations of character and style; ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’ (1959) for its modernism and progressive tonal shifts; ‘Psycho’ (1960) for its narrative and generic dislocations; ‘Blast of Silence’ (1961) for its sense of moral desolation. Disagreement is inevitable, given that the definition of film noir is so fluid. However, what's clear is that each of these films represents some kind of distinct shift from what had gone before. 

On the other hand, the endpoint of the classic film noir cycle might be a later film which reflected a popular consensus of that which 'had gone before'. Which brings us to The ‘Scarlet Hour’. Despite its release date, ‘The Scarlet Hour’ is a film noir of the 1940’s and early '50's, displaying many of the familiar thematic, narrative and visual motifs of the period: a male protagonist obsessed with a sexually alluring woman; another female, good and dutiful, in love with the man; an urban setting where lives are lived out unhappily by day and by night; a lurid and convoluted plot conveyed with hard-boiled urgency; shadows, low angles and expressive, unsettling shots, etc.

‘The Scarlet Hour’ was produced and directed by none other than Michael Curtiz, with a solid backing by Paramount Studios. However, the cast was mostly new faces including Tom Tryon, Carol Ohmart, James Gregory and Jody Lawrance. When completed the film was released with little fanfare and quickly disappeared from screens. For more than fifty years it languished in obscurity.

Reviews at the time were lukewarm at best. ‘The Scarlet Hour’ also exhibited more in the UK than in the US and the British press, often harsh in its assessment of crime melodramas, was quick to find fault:

“It is a very drab hour and a half, in the company of actors who have not yet established their reputations and are unlikely to achieve them as a result of this movie. The story combines a rather unsavoury triangle with a jewel robbery and the director Mr. Curtiz has achieved a certain amount of suspense but little else.” (UK Times, May 1957)

To present-day eyes ‘The Scarlet Hour’ isn’t drab at all, just dense in its complications and saturated with character types that seem both contemporary and anachronistic at the same time. It’s a familiar tale of dark love, obsession, duplicity and murder.


Tryon is E.V. ‘Marsh’ Marshall, the protégé of land developer Ralph Nevins (Gregory). Marsh also is having an affair with his boss’s wife, Paulie (Ohmart). Paulie wants the life Ralph’s wealth affords her but she doesn’t want him. She seduces Marsh into hijacking a jewelry heist they overhear being planned while parked in a lovers’ lane. However Ralph is aware that Paulie has something going on the side. When he decides to do something about it, the plot both thickens and darkens.

That’s about as much as you should need or want to know going in. A lot of the pleasure to be had from these tales of triangulation and treachery is inevitably in the details. These were supplied by lead screenwriter Frank Tashlin, better known for his comedies including ‘The Lieutenant Wore Skirts’ (1956) and ‘Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?’ (1957). This is Tashlin’s sole association with noir but as noted by Dave Kehr a desperate undercurrent always was palpable in his comedies:

“More than most of his contemporaries, Tashlin was attuned to the ways in which our own desire betrays us.”

Unfortunately some of the potential in ‘The Scarlet Hour’ is compromised by Tom Tryon’s lack of range as a lead actor. Part of it stems from the script which leaves little leeway for his character to connect the dots between virtue and temptation. A more adroit actor might have found the connection but the most Tryon can manage is a hangdog haplessness.


But the rest of the cast pull their weight. Former model and beauty queen Carol Ohmart was a spot-on choice for Paulie who’s far more complex and sympathetic a character than the stereotypical femme fatale. While Paulie uses Marsh and is prepared to betray him, she does so out of jealousy not malice. Her actions and betrayals are never straightforward. 

There's a direct link to the kind of resignation behind the ruthlessness found in ‘Double Indemnity’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Ohmart gives Paulie a similar duality. She's an unusually self-reflexive femme fatale. Like Walter Neff, she goads herself into a criminal act to tap into a strange nether region of self-worth. Paulie is Phyllis and Walter combined, wrapped up in one leggy, complicated package. With her cool, smoky voice, she harkens back to the ‘fire and ice’ sirens of the 40s but does it without seeming derivative.

Other talent on display: James Gregory as the vengeful husband; David Lewis as the jewel heist mastermind (who makes a memorable reappearance via the film’s bravura plot twist); and E. G. Marshall and Ed Binns as the investigating police officers. All had established their bona fides in television, and all would become fixtures on the small screen in the 60s.

Jody Lawrance, Nevins’ secretary Kathy Stevens (Lawrance) is the ‘good girl’ a la Virginia Huston in ‘Out of the Past’ who pines for Marsh. Lawrence was on the rebound from an aborted launch at Columbia earlier in the decade. She does what she can with her role but in her bottle-blonde incarnation she’s too reminiscent of the edgier and more distinctive Jan Sterling. Lawrance might have stood out more as a brunette but she faded from Hollywood in 1961.

Standing out with style is Elaine Stritch as Phyllis Rycker, friend and confidante to Paulie. Phyllis is a retired-but-not-quite-reformed B-girl who’s found true love in the arms of a blue-collar hedonist. She and Paulie have a long history and it’s through their intimate exchanges that we learn something more of who Paulie is and what motivates her. While she’s cunning and dressed to kill, we’re also allowed to know her as a woman damaged by life and sad with regret. When Phyllis toasts her ever solicitous and slightly sozzled husband, “Here’s to happy marriages made in heaven,” Paulie replies, “Here’s to happy marriages made anywhere.”

Stritch, always a brash scene-stealer challenges Ohmart to stand up to her. Ohmart manages to do so and then some and their scenes together really juice the film. Stritch would later dismiss her role in the film as little more than a walk-on but she creates one of the great bit parts in all of noir and barely breaks a sweat.


Clearly ‘The Scarlet Hour’ doesn’t shy away from its indebtedness to ‘Double Indemnity'. Curtiz pays further respect explicitly in a scene where Marsh and Paulie furtively meet up across the aisle in a record store. Their troubled tryst could easily have taken place just down the street at Jerry’s Market on Melrose.

The script also has its share of well-turned one-liners, most of them handed to Paulie. Many of the lines function in the film the way Walter Neff’s voiceover frames ‘Double Indemnity’. They are not only memorably hard-boiled, they add character resonance:

“Don’t try to brush me off, Marsh—when I stick, I stick hard.” and “I never thought about the things I wanted, only the things I didn’t want.”


Despite these flourishes, the film suffers from an odd flatness. All the elements of a topnotch 40s noir are present, but the combination of a weaker lead actor (Tryon), overly glossy production values, and a lack of velocity in the final reel make things seem a bit stale. Even with such a kinetic script, the film is just not as emphatic in style and pacing as it needs to be. Too many shots and sequences aren’t as composed as one would expected in a Curtiz film and camera movement is less fluid.

Curtiz’ attempt to return to the more ornate noir style - one that he’d virtually invented in ‘Mildred Pierce’, embroidered in ‘The Unsuspected’ (a textbook example of Foster Hirsch’s notion of 'italicized visual moments') and finally synthesized in ‘The Breaking Point’- was derailed by a combination of factors he couldn't overcome. In those earlier films, the complicated choreography of plot, visuals, and actorly presence meshed into something greater than the sum of its many parts. In 'The Scarlet Hour', it doesn’t quite happen.

But what we do have is a case study on celluloid for how classic noir was supposed to operate: we can see that framework for a great and satisfying noir is there but also how the component parts manage to not quite fit.

But ‘The Scarlet Hour’ truly is the last honorable attempt to build a noir from the classic recipe. The icy sexual cunning of Carol Ohmart brings the arc of the noir cycle to a close - an arc that wouldn’t be reopened until ‘Body Heat’ (1981) a quarter-century later. 

The film also can be seen as a look into the ‘what if’ career of Carol Ohmart, a beautiful actress made for a style of film on the verge of extinction - just as she was offered the chance to be the very embodment of it.

(A version of this article appeared in 'Noir City' Magazine)

1 comment:

  1. You nailed it my good fellow. This one is a keeper!

    ReplyDelete

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