Dark Valentine: THE LOVES OF CARMEN (Columbia 1948)


Love takes many strange forms, none more strange than the obsessive love Don Jose has for the Gypsy temptress Carmen in THE LOVES OF CARMEN, Columbia Pictures’ biggest hit of 1948. The film, based on Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella and Georges Bizet’s famous opera, reunites GILDA stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford with director Charles Vidor, and though it’s in glorious Technicolor and set in 1800’s Spain, it’s got a lot of film noir elements going for it: there’s the protagonist caught in a rapidly moving downward spiral, the amoral femme fatale, crime, murder, and a bleak, downbeat ending. Think I’m stretching a bit? Let’s take a look…

Young nobleman Don Jose arrives in Seville with a dragoon squadron, a corporal with political ambitions and a bright future ahead of him… until he meets Carmen, a gorgeous red-haired Gypsy who is an expert manipulator. Jose is enchanted by this free-spirited beauty, even though she steals his watch when first they meet. Carmen gets into a street fight with a “respectable” citizen, slashing her face with a knife, and is arrested. Don Jose is put in charge of bringing her to jail, but allows her to escape.

Punished for his actions by his Colonel, Jose discovers his superior has designs on the Gypsy woman himself. He’s forced to stand sentry duty at a party, looking on forlornly as Carmen dances and clicks her castanets for the Colonel and his guests. She entices Jose into breaking his restriction, and when the Colonel later finds Jose at Carmen’s humble abode, a sword fight breaks out, and Carmen trips up the officer, who falls onto Jose’s sword, dead. The two head for the mountains, Jose now a deserter wanted for murder.

An old Gypsy woman has predicted “one love” who’ll bring death for Carmen, but the unfettered girl refuses to listen. The Gypsies in the camp have raised bribe money to free their leader, the lusty bandit Garcia… who also happens to be Carmen’s husband! Jose is subjected into joining Garcia’s highwaymen, with Carmen teasingly out of reach. She takes up with the bullfighter Lucas while scouting potential victims along the roadside, and after Jose kills Garcia in a knife fight (adding more blood on his conscience),he becomes leader of the bandits, not allowing Carmen to join in on the robberies. She refuses to sit around camp and be a simple esposa, taking off for a few days to dally with Lucas. The film culminates with Jose tracking down Carmen to Lucas’s estate and, finally realizing she’s no good, plunging his knife into her as Lucas shoots him in the back. The cursed lovers fall on the steps in a final death embrace.

Now if that’s not a film noir plot, I don’t know what is! Rita Hayworth, who was born for Technicolor, is stunning as the seductress Carmen, a woman who’s “bad all the way through… a liar, a thief, and a cheat”. Carmen cares about no one but Carmen (“No one tells Carmen’s eyes where to go or how to behave”, she declares), treating men like lace handkerchiefs to be used and discarded. We first meet her eating a juicy piece of fruit, tantalizingly licking her lips while Jose approaches, and there’s no doubt of the symbolism! Rita scorches every scene with her sex appeal; she’s the ultimate CT, and a femme fatale for the ages.

Glenn Ford’s Jose is a well-bred, ramrod straight soldier until he succumbs to his lust for Carmen. Jose is unworldly, in sharp contrast to the been-around-the-block Gypsy, and though some have criticized his performance, I found him to be more than up to the task. Victor Jory gets the plum part of bandit leader Garcia and runs away with it; I think it’s one of his best roles. Others in the cast are Luther Adler, John Baragrey (Lucas), Wally Cassell , Arnold Moss, Ron Randell, Phil Van Zandt , and Margaret Wycherly as the old Gypsy who predicts Carmen’s doom. Rita’s father Eduardo Cansino helped choreograph the Spanish dances for his daughter (whose production company was responsible for the film).

So while THE LOVES OF CARMEN may not fit neatly into anyone’s idea of film noir (which, let’s be honest, is a genre open to interpretation), a case can certainly be made for this dark tale of “delusion, idealism, and love gone wrong”. It’s the perfect anti-Valentine’s Day movie for those who’ve been burned by love, and a film that deserves a little more love itself from classic film fans out there. Now excuse me while I go eat a box of chocolates…

Happy Valentine’s Day from Cracked Rear Viewer

Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!

She Was Never Lovelier: Rita Hayworth in COVER GIRL (Columbia 1944)

Bright, bold, and bouncy, COVER GIRL was a breakthrough film for both Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Sultry, redheaded Rita had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years before Columbia Pictures gave her this star-making vehicle, while Kelly, on loan from MGM, was given free rein to create the memorable dance sequences. Throw in the comedic talents of Phil Silvers   and Eve Arden , plus a bevy of beauties and songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, and you have what very well may be the quintessential 40’s musical.

Rusty Parker (Rita) is a hoofer at Danny McGuire’s (Kelly) joint in Brooklyn (where else?). She enters a contest sponsored by Vanity Magazine to find a new cover girl for their 50th anniversary issue. Editor John Coudair ( Otto Kruger ) spots her and is reminded of the girl he once loved and lost (who turns out to have been Rusty’s grandmother, as flashbacks tell us), and immediately signs her up, despite protests from his Gal Friday “Stonewall” Jackson (Arden). Romantic complications ensue when Broadway impresario Noah Wheaton ( Lee Bowman ) falls for her and wants to take her away from Danny. After speaking with Coudair, Danny doesn’t want to stand in her way, and concocts a rift between them so Rusty will quit his nightclub. Wheaton is about to marry Rusty, but Danny’s loyal pal Genius (Silvers) finds a means to put a stop to it. Rusty realizes she belongs with Danny, and our two lovers are reunited.

Yes, it’s your standard “boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy regains girl” plotline, used as a framework to hang the musical numbers on, but done with buckets full of style and glamour. At long last, Rita Hayworth became a superstar after being groomed in films like THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, BLOOD & SAND, and two with Fred Astaire (YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER) that showcased her dancing skills. Her beauty and charms were put front and center in COVER GIRL (though her singing voice was dubbed by Martha Mears), in numbers like “Put Me to the Test”, an energetic, athletic tap duet with Kelly; “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, the Oscar-nominated song featuring a romantic dance by the duo; and the showstopping “Cover Girl”, with a host of cover girls from famous mags from the 40’s (Cosmo, McCall’s, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Redbook, Liberty, Look, et al) followed by gorgeous Rita outshining them all, dancing with a male chorus up a winding staircase as glitter rains down on them all. It’s sheer 40’s movie magic!

Gene Kelly had only made three pictures prior to COVER GIRL, but he was already an established Broadway star. Columbia promised him a free hand in the film’s choreography, and Kelly didn’t disappoint. He, Rita, and Silvers have a habit (in the movie) of going to Joe’s Place every Friday and ordering plates of oysters (or “ersters” as proprietor Ed Brophy calls them, laying on the Brooklynese thick), looking for an elusive pearl that will symbolize a big breaks a’comin’. The trio then break into “Make Way for Tomorrow”, a happy number that has them dancing their way down the streets of Brooklyn, until meeting up with a questioning cop (foreshadowing Kelly’s signature SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN dance). The song is reprised by Kelly and Silvers as a jazzy comic number, but Kelly has a big solo spot in the “Alter-Ego Dance”, a trick-photography enhanced production that finds Kelly, beside himself over Rita, dancing with his superimposed self! It was this athletic dance that made his home studio MGM sit up and take notice, leading to Kelly doing all the choreography in his films, beginning with ANCHORS AWEIGH .

If Rita Hayworth was never lovelier here, then Eve Arden was never funnier as the sarcastic, wisecracking Jackson. Her reactions to Rita’s first “animated” audition are priceless, as are her later responses backstage at Danny’s. Phil Silvers is given plenty of comic material as Genius, including a satirical solo song “Who’s Complaining”, spoofing wartime rationing. Phil’s manic comedy brightens the film, and he gets to show off his song-and-dance skills too, with more than a little help from Kelly and Hayworth.

The stylish and terribly underrated director Charles Vidor directs a witty script  (laced with some sly sexual innuendos) by Virginia Van Upp. Vidor would later go on to direct Rita in two of her best, GILDA and THE LOVES OF CARMEN. And you want Familiar Faces, COVER GIRL has ’em by the score! Besides those already mentioned, you’ve got Jess Barker (as the young Kruger during the flashback scenes), Billy Benedict Curt Bois , Leslie Brooks, Stanley Clements, Anita Colby , Jinx Falkenburg (as herself), Thurston Hall , Milton Kibbee, perennial drunk Jack Norton Barbara Pepper , Jack Rice, John Tyrrell, a very young Shelley Winters , and Constance Worth.

COVER GIRL exudes the kind of  Hollywood glitz and glamour you rarely find anymore, made stars out of Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, and is one of the best musicals made in the Fabulous 40’s. Loaded with talent at every position, it’s a must-see for lovers of classic movies.