“She’s the kind of woman for whom a man might even kill.”
“We’re both selfish, dishonest, and rotten.”
Janis Paige, the veteran Hollywood trouper with over 150 screen credits to her name is alive and well in Beverly Hills. Though the 93 year old actress lost her Academy Awards voting rights this year, she still cherishes the Oscar statuette awarded to her late husband, Ray Gilbert, for the lyrics to ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ from Song of the South, a Disney title no longer in release because of its depiction of African-Americans. However, the song can still be heard and every time it is, Paige collects $350, a nice little annuity – should she ever need it.
Paige broke in films after being spotted by a Warner Studio’s talent scout who saw her perform in the Hollywood Canteen during the war. She was soon to feature in a series of musical comedies starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, Warner’s response to Paramount Studios’ hugely popular duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But after too many smaller assignments in lesser productions, Paige headed for Broadway where her out-sized personality and joyous scene-stealing in plays such as The Pajama Game won her raves.
During this time Paige also went on the road with a ritzy cabaret act which confirmed her gift for musical comedy and which brought her back to Hollywood to feature in films such as Silk Stockings (1957) and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). In the mid-fifties, Paige then tapped into television where she worked steadily on recurrent series such as General Hospital and Santa Barbara up until her retirement in 2001.
But buried among her other credits was a rare leading performance in La Strada Buie aka Fugitive Lady (1950), a handsome classic film noir shot on location in Italy and in the Italian language (Paige later would be dubbed). Paige headlines as a pathologically self-seeking femme fatale and the role today stands among her most dramatically memorable, along with her part as an institutionalized prostitute in The Caretakers (1963).
Though attractive, Paige was big-boned and large-featured and not a typical Hollywood beauty of the period. However, she had a large presence and an impressive look that today would be viewed as more contemporary i.e. more Greta Gerwig than Gloria Grahame. That said, Paige was at her most interesting when portraying a woman who was sexually charged and aggressive – even in musicals like Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946) and The Time, the Place, and the Girl (1946) in which she up-stages the kittenishly provocative Martha Vickers.
In La Strada Buie Paige brings both glamour and sex to bear on wealthy industrialist, Raoul Clementi (Eduardo Ciannelli), who after seeing her perform on several evenings at a night club, woos and marries her, much to the displeasure of his step-sister, Esther (British actress Binnie Barnes). We learn this in flashback after Raoul, in the film’s opening sequence, drunkenly sends his car off a cliff into Lake Nemi, 30 kms south of Rome, and is killed. As it turns out, Clementi had taken out a life insurance policy for £100,000 and Barbara (Paige), his young widow, now wants to cash out as soon as possible.
However, the circumstances of his death arouse the suspicions of the insurance company and its investigating agent, Jack Di Marco (Antonio Centa). Di Marco is hesitant to jump to any obvious conclusions, determining that both Barbara and Esther might have had their reasons for wanting to see Raoul dead. Di Marco discovers that the Clementi’s marriage had broken down and that Barbara has a lover, Gene West (Massimo Serato), with whom she’d been involved for years. For her part, Esther has long been in love with Raoul and feels as much anger and resentment toward her step-brother for betraying her by marrying as she does for Barbara, whom she despises. All of this unspools in successive and lengthy flashbacks until the film’s end, a finish with a dramatic and profoundly ironic twist à la Postman Always Rings Twice.
A fast-moving and savory film noir, La Strada Buie was based on a book, Dark Road, by popular U.S. mystery writer, Doris Miles Disney. The novel, published in 1946 and featuring investigator Jefferson DiMarco, was one of series of eight including Family Skeleton, later filmed as Stella (1950), a noir-hued and diverting black comedy. The film features Victor Mature as DiMarco and a smartly acerbic Ann Sheridan as a woman caught in the middle of a calamitous family plot, the doing of Sheridan’s two hapless brothers-in-law played by David Wayne and Frank Fontaine. Several other of Disney’s quintessentially American stories were adapted successfully for movies and television including: Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1971), starring Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy and Vince Edwards; Betrayal (1974), featuring Amanda Blake, Tish Stering, and Dick Haymes; and Yestherday’s Child (1977), with Shirley Jones, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Claude Akins.
La Strada Buie was a co-production of Mike Frankovich, future Columbia Studios chief, and Italy’s Scalera Films. Frankovich was also the husband of Binnie Barnes, the couple living in Italy at the time. Scalera Films had come into existence in 1938 under the aegis of Benito Mussolini who had encouraged the Scalera brothers to invest in film production to support the regime and counteract the increasing importation of foreign films into Italy. The company undertook to try and replicate the Hollywood studio system with film-makers and actors signed to exclusive contract. However, after the war the studio suffered crippling operating losses and the brothers tried to leverage their productions by featuring American film stars such as Paige, similar to what had been done by British B-studios. However, in 1952, following the financing of Orson Wells’ Othello, Scalera Films defaulted and fell into bankruptcy.
Though done on a tight budget, La Strada Buie does not at all appear to be made on the cheap. Directed by American director Sidney Salkow, the film is very much in the Hollywood style, with the Italian settings and locations adding to the richness of atmosphere. Much of it is shot at night amid rain-soaked and heavily-shadowed exteriors and the camerawork throughout is expressive, giving no ground to post-war neo-realism. Behind the camera was Tonino Delli Colli , a cinematographer whose flamboyant lensing featured prominently in the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, and Jean-Jacques Arnaud. Delli Colli sat on the Cannes Film Festival jury in 1986, one of the first cinematographers to do so.
However, La Strada Buie’s centerpiece is Janis Paige whose normally vivacious and breezy persona was transformed into that of a flesh-creeping femme fatale. But as Paige herself has said, she could be anything she was asked or told to be because that’s what you did if you wanted to survive in the business. In a 2015 interview she stated that she never saw her studio tenure as “indentured servitude”. She was forever grateful for the watchful eye and “pampering” that was afforded contract players during the studio system’s heyday. You paid attention, you worked hard, and you learned. “Today, most stars can’t overcome a bad script. The old stars could. There was so much we couldn’t do because of the code, we had to use our imaginations. Everyone had a work ethic. We didn’t bitch or complain. You just worked and appreciated being part of this fabulous industry.”
Today, thanks to the hard work of volunteer subtitling crews on various torrent sites, English-speakers now have access to films such as this largely unknown and unseen classic film noir, a singular US/ international hybrid that takes a backseat to none when it comes to ladling out requisite helpings of greed, lust, and betrayal. It may be ‘a bitter little world’ as Joan Bennett pronounces in Hollow Triumph (1948), but it’s a world of film noir increasingly much bigger than one might have ever imagined.
Thanks to Garnet Barlow for his translation of the Italian resource material.