Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into the Vortex with Barbara Stanwyck & Linda Darnell

I watched parts of three programs at PFA in July & August.

I caught six films from Into the Vortex - Female Voice in Film. Some of the films were particularly entertaining. I especially enjoyed A Letter to Three Wives and No Man of Her Own.

Into the Vortex

The Locket with Robert Mitchum; (1946)
A Letter to Three Wives with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern & Kirk Douglas; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; (1949)
Humoresque starring Joan Crawford & John Garfield; (1947)
Cat People with Simone Simon; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1942)
I Walked with a Zombie directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1943)
No Man of Her Own starring Barbara Stanwyck; (1950)

I would have liked to have caught a few more films from Secrets Beyond the Door - Treasures from the UCLA Festival of Preservation and Eccentric Cinema - Overlooked Oddities and Ecstasies, 1963-82 but work and a mild case of cinema fatigue limited me to one film from each series.

Secrets Beyond the Door

In the Land of the Head Hunters silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1914)

Eccentric Cinema

Dirty Little Billy with Michael J. Pollard; (1972)


No Man of Her Own was the standout of the group. The plot is a doozy. Stanwyck is pregnant and unwed. While on a cross-country train trip, she meets a couple. The wife is pregnant and they form a quick friendship. Sadly, there is a train crash and a case of mistaken identity. The couple dies in the crash and Stanwyck lapses into a coma. When she awakes, she learns she has been mistakenly identified as the wife of the dead man. The dead women had no family and had never met her in-laws (who just happen to be wealthy). Stanwyck is faced with a difficult choice. She is broke and about to bring a bastard child into the world when that was still a stigma. For her child's sake, she assumes the dead woman's identity.

Things are going well as Stanwyck settles into a routine. She has a healthy baby, welcoming parents-in-laws and a blossoming "friendship" with her "brother-in-law." Then her sleazy baby-daddy comes to town threatens to expose her true identity. He has his eyes on the in-laws money. Stanwyck is initially conflicted but ultimately decides to settle things in classic noir fashion - she decides to kill him.

The final portion of the film deals with the cover-up although there is a "surprise" happy ending that was disappointing. The first 90 minutes of the film were great; Stanwyck delivers a standout performance as the vulnerable woman. We see the pain of rejection, her sense of desperation, her inner conflict in perpetrating the fraud, the growing ease of maintaining the lie and ultimately the discovery of courage when she refuses to allow her scumbag ex to manipulate her anymore.


A Letter to Three Wives was another standout film from the series. Let me start by saying Linda Darnell was stunningly beautiful. The eponymous three sives are manipulated by the unseen Celeste Holm as the film's narrator. Each of the women (Darnell, Jeanne Crain & Ann Sothern) have received a letter from Addie Ross (voice of Holm). Ross informs them that she has left town...with one of their husbands. With impeccable timing, the letter arrives as the three women are boarding a boat to chaperone some underprivileged kids on a day-long trip to a island that can only be accessed by the ferry. So the three women are left to contemplate their strained marriages all day long. That can only mean one thing - flashbacks. Before I forget, the director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) entertainingly uses a voice synthesizer to voice the women's inner fears. The sound of the boat motor morphs into a synthesized voice, etc.

Ross has a hold on all three husbands. She is the compassionate friend to all three men and it's stated or implied that they are all in love with her. Darnell married her husband for his money although she doesn't appreciate being treated like a gold digger. Crain is the country girl that never loses her insecurity among her husband's country club friends. Sothern is the workaholic radio show writer that belittles her schoolteacher husband (Kirk Douglas).

Through the flashbacks, we see the mistakes and bad choices that have dysfuncionalized each wife's marriage. Addie Ross is the classic MacGuffin - she motivates each woman to re-examine their marriage, own up to their culpability in pushing their husbands to Ross and ultimately take action to save their marriage. It's great fun to wonder which husband is leaving with Addie as Mankiewicz serves up clues that suggest all three.

Mankiewicz blends in some wicked humor. My favorite gag is Darnell's ramshackle house down by the railroad tracks. We know it's close to the tracks because when a train goes by it shakes the house and produces a deafening roar. Darnell and her family have lived their so long that when a train drives by they just pause their conversation and hold onto any unsecured objects.

Another amusing scene is the look on Crain's face when she has to wear a horrendous dress to the country club on her first day in town. Having to wear that dress in public drives her to drunkeness.

Jeanne Crain in A Letter to Three Wives

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