Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty

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#40 — His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, 1951)
There’s so much messiness to sort through with His Kind of Woman that it makes the inclusion on any sort of best list a bit of a marvel. And of course I’m expressing that assessment on a list of my own devising. Working for Howard Hughes’s RKO Pictures, John Farrow was the director on the project, but what he turned in displeased the big boss. Indeed, it was decried problematic to such a degree that Farrow was removed from it altogether, with Richard Fleischer brought in to rework it, including shooting a batch of completely new scenes. Hughes also pulled together a bunch of the studio scribes to bang away at revised script pages, carrying the film who knows how far from the original, unpublished Gerald Drayson story on which it was based. Capping off the confusion, the film has a title that has practically nothing to do with the actual storyline, instead calling attention to the presence of Hughes’s prized studio asset, Jane Russell, a tactic employed in the same year’s comedy Double Dynamite (anyone familiar with the famed story about Hughes leveling his considerable engineering acumen on development of a special bra for Russell can probably glean exactly what feature of the actress he was trying to highlight with that title). All of this added up to a muddled affair that has been aptly described (by, as best as I can tell, an IMDb commenter) “Six Noir Characters in Search of a Plot.”

And it is exactly that wooliness I respond to, especially the unlikely convergence of all the disparate elements into a film that is unpredictable, and therefore disarming. I tend to think of film noir offerings, probably my most-loved cinematic subgenre, as characterized by Swiss watch plot construction. When I really consider it, though, that’s often not the case. For example, cornerstone Hollywood noir picture The Big Sleep is well known for a plot so convoluted even the filmmakers had to admit they were bamboozled by it. His Kind of Woman basically confirms the paradoxical insignificance of plot architecture in a subgenre so seemingly dependent of the soundness of plot, and compounds its proven theory by operating with a largely lackadaisical approach. Even the characters, led by the indispensable Robert Mitchum’s Dan Milner, proceed as if they’re bored by trying to figure out what’s going on. Instead, the wallow in the splendor of mood, florid emotion, and verbal exchanges that resound like the tolling of some grand clock. There are double-crosses, duplicity, vast sums of money tossed around like battered baseballs, and sexy individuals smoldering for the sheer pleasure of it. What it all sums up to is far less interesting than the pleasure of surveying the multitude of addends.

As noted, Mitchum is fantastic. He owned film noir the way John Wayne owned westerns. They may be no other performers in Hollywood history besides the two of them who can make such definitive claims. The very best performance in the film, however, belongs to Vincent Price, playing hammy movie actor Mark Cardigan. As he becomes more and more engaged in the sort of rough and tumble heroism that’s usually the province of fiction for him, Price takes to scenes with thrilling gusto. He’s a man cracked open to the possibilities of the world, living what he’s previously pantomimed. There’s an according freedom to his emotions, like a kid breathing the summertime air after a winter so long he’d forgotten how the sun baked the oxygen to a different flavor. It exemplifies the whole film, which strikes out with a charming what-the-hell bravado. How much of that is owned by Farrow or Fleischer of any number of Hughes’s cadre of demolitionists and rebuilders is beside the point. Authorship is less important that the elusive alchemy, the surprising movie magic, that can make something like His Kind of Woman come together, against all odds.

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