Jack Arnold’s The Tattered Dress (1957)
A Woman and a Tattered Dress…that exposed a town’s hidden evil!
The Tattered Dress is a story actually utilizing the Noir canon of misdirection. The film appears like a melodramatic pulp fiction court room drama, yet it’s muted focus on the object as Charleen Reston and the ensuing crime is a ruse. The film wrings out the real underlying quality of it’s psychological thrust which winds up telling a very different story in the end.
This is a soft sleepy noir court drama that takes place in a wealthy Nevada desert town and might be considered quite the departure for Jack Arnold who is beloved for his memorable contributions to some of THE best 50s sci-fi cautionary tales. The imposing gigantism in Tarantula (1955) The vast shots of sand and open expanses left me wondering if the large ghastly spider would come creeping out yet again from behind a bolder in The Tattered Dress. Arnold is actually very well known for his contributions to the western (No Name On The Bullet 1959) as well as several vintage television series such as Peter Gunn, Rawhide, Perry Mason, Mod Squad, and It Takes a Thief.
I particularly love Arnold’s transcendental masterpiece The Incredible Shrinking Man. (1957) And his colonial inspired science fact/fiction, study of the savage jungle reaches with The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).
To his sympathetic alien castaways in It Came From Outer Space.(1953) But consider that Arnold is also responsible for High School Confidential, (1958) The Glass Web (1953), Girls In The Night (1953) , Man In The Shadow (1957) and The Mouse That Roared (1959), you see that he is a very versatile film maker with a vision toward social commentary.
The story is written by George Zuckerman and faithful Hollywood make up artist Bud Westmore is on crew for the make up. Produced by Albert Zugsmith.
The film’s music is sensational. The overall vibe that swings between pulp melodrama orchestra and burlesque jazz is invigorating to the script. The score utilizes a Blues style Burlesque/ Show Tune Jazz using bassoon, oboe , horns , clarinet, piano timpani bass and viola and a brass section.
Frank Skinner does the music and it’s supervised by Joseph Gershenson. With an uncredited musical contribution by Henry Mancini. (Charade 1963) Mancini was a genius known for countless film scores and musical direction for television. He died in 1994
It stars Jeff Chandler (Broken Arrow 1950 Merrill’s Marauders 1960 and Return To Peyton Place 1961) as the ego centric top criminal attorney James Gordon Blane, Jeanne Crain (State Fair 1945, A Letter To Three Wives 1949, Leave Her To Heaven 1945 and Pinky 1949) as his wife Diane, Jack Carson (Arsenic and Old Lace 1944 Mildred Pierce 1945 & Cat On A Hot Tin Roof 1958) as Sheriff Nick Hoak, Elaine Stewart as Charleen Reston, Phillip Reed as Michael Reston, Gail Russell (Night Has A Thousand Eyes 1948 and Angel and The Badman 1947) as Carol Morrow, Edward Platt (the Chief on Get Smart) as Journalist Ralph Adams, George Tobias as Billy Giles, Roger Corman regular Paul Birch as Prosecutor Frank Mitchell, and the familiar, omni present television and film character actor Edward Andrews as Lester Rawlings a seedy, pompous defense attorney.
Jeff Chandler is an interesting actor for me. I don’t particularly like the essence of his acting. He’s stone like, in fact his features are rather chiseled in a way that makes his looks unreal, more like a marble statue spouting lines. Yet there’s something in his face that is equally compelling at times. It’s hard for me to divine it. Having done plenty of war and western films, I’m not as familiar with his work such as Cochise in Broken Arrow 1950 or Away All Boats 1956. I’d like to acquaint myself with his work more as I don’t want to stop on The Tattered Dress and assume Chandler doesn’t possess a range to his acting. It might be a stylistic thing, chemistry is very important, and either the role of Blane turned me off, or this actor just isn’t my cup of tea. I’ll have to study him a little closer from now on. The one fact that popped up in doing this post is that he was suspected of being a cross-dresser.
I think it’s fascinating to take an actor who has worked along side of American masculine icons such as John Wayne the epitome of a certain brand of masculinity and have him secretly playing with the gender continuum. I’m not making a value judgement here, just to be clear. Nor am I confusing being a cross dresser with being gay. There are diverging differentiations between sexual orientation, gender identity and sexuality and projected self image. None of which is an issue with me.
I do how ever enjoy finding out when these male role models of iconic American manhood, secretly like to walk around in lacy bodices and cover their very male lips and cheeks with fuck me red goo whilst balancing on heels that I wouldn’t even punish myself with on a dare. Then again, I like to wear metal tipped men’s boots and I myself prefer girls most of the time, so there it is. But I’m not pretending to be June Cleaver in a dozen gender appropriate films. Without dwelling on it, here is the wiki link that mentions Chandlers shall I say hidden habit.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Chandler_%28actor%29 The wiki bio refers to Esther Williams dating Jeff Chandler then dumping him after she discovers that he is a cross dresser.
Back to the The Tattered Dress!
CHANDLER AND STEWART OFF TO MAKE ILLICIT HAY IN CHARLEEN’S CONVERTIBLE
In short the story starts after a night out where the wealthy wife Charleen Reston comes home to her smarmy husband Michael Reston, with her dress ripped, showing her half naked body. In a controlled bit of rage, he grabs a gun and his wife roughly by the arm and heads out into town, where he proceeds to gun down the popular young man his wife was sleeping with, while he is out walking in the street. Reston Shoots him in the back as he starts to run away. Once lying dead on the street, the couple callously walk over to the lifeless body as if merely to look at a cigarette butt they’ve discarded out their car window. Looking down at the body as if it is nothing more than useless garbage.
A New York Lawyer is chosen to come to a quiet Nevada desert town of Desert View, to defend the wealthy husband for killing this young man who supposedly assaulted his provocatively alluring and cheating wife who is lensed as ‘a bad girl.’
The town is run by an affable man on the surface, yet a very head strong sheriff with a chip on his shoulder, and once Lawyer Blane manages to get a not guilty verdict for rich Mr Reston, the sheriff vindictive nature, concocts a plan to set up Blane on phoney extortion charges out of revenge for not only defending the wealthy playboy who killed his friend, young Larry Bell, but also the humiliation he endures while on the witness stand at the hands of this pompous lawyer from New York. From the beginning Blane is met by a distinctly hostile townsfolk, who not only mistrust him, but despise the Restons and everything they represent. The environment of vast desert wasteland sets the stage for a modern day non conformist flavor, a throw back to the old fashioned western, and the ensuing confrontation between 2 dueling forces.
Tattered Dress is more a story that reaches beyond portrait of an immoral woman, court room drama, ‘was it rape?’, and does it justify vigilantism film, it is a confrontation of the ‘cerebral man vs the primal man’. There is the basic rudimentary posturing of the masculine stereotype in Sheriff Hoak. Jack Carson is perfect with his innately rugged gestures, the positioning of the male body as virile, and even the maverick simplicity of his plain speaking vs Jeff Chandler’s Attorney Blane, whose intellectual use of the Socratic hand movements and line of questioning can be interpreted as effete, demeaning and designated unmanly. There’s a lot of purposeful use of body language that is manifest in the narrative which is as persuasive as the dialogue itself.
This is a story ultimately about the veracity of the male animal and class conflict and less about a scandalously provocative adulteress. Charleen Reston is the temptress Eve in the desert of Eden.
ELAINE STEWART CHEESECAKE PHOTO:
Charleen is merely the catalyst with which to draw out the conflict between to the 2 types of maleness. Remember that It’s women’s fault (this going back to Eve), It’s always women’s fault for men’s bad behavior, the reason that they can’t control themselves is because women embody temptation, they are the object of sex, they are sexy and create the conflict in men. This object of desire becomes the seed of guilt, and transfixes the male’s gaze until it ultimately ends in his ruin.
Beyond the titillating surface story of the ‘tattered dress’ is the use of the quaint small town Americana where tawdry things happen under that cleanly polished veneer. Secrets that come to the surface, and blow the entire illusion of moral equilibrium off kilter. The use of the Nevada desert as a clean open textural visual is an apt milieu for this exploitation to manifest itself. The Tattered Dress does nothing to show how the towns folk are effected by revelations of unsavory behavior by some of their own. They seem to continue their existence, yet it is up to us to be reminded that sin and rampant lawlessness can take place anywhere. Particularly in these sleepy little ‘nice towns.’ U.S.A.
The Tattered Dress of the title might seem to take to task the moral aptitude of the wife Charleen Reston but it really is just good cinematic Pulp Fiction bravado. It lays the simplistic groundwork for the question, was it rape, or was it just rough play, by Charleen’s overzealous lover, the younger Larry Bell. And even if she was a sexually ‘free’ woman, if she had said NO, doesn’t it make it an assault? And of course, did this give her husband, the right to go and hunt the boy down in cold blood, shooting him down in the street and in the back?
By exposing a town’s evil, The Tattered Dress works to illustrate that there is a binary between small town’s being the beacon of wholesome American morality and the invasion of Big City corruption and the procuring of original sin.
As the credits open and said dress is seen being ripped from the back, by the masculine hands, of the soon to be shot dead in the street, boyfriend, Charleen is smiling coquettishly.
THIS IS HOW THE OPENING CREDITS PLAY OUT UNDERSCORED BY THE HORN SECTION OF A BURLESQUE JAZZ PIECE AS CHARLEEN RESTON DISPLAYS HER PHYSICALITY.
Charleen doesn’t seem to be in distress at all by the act of having her dress torn. She seems a willing participant in the activities that are going on in the hotel room. Later asked by Defense Lawyer Blane, “Did Larry Bell assault you?, she claims while being very nonchalant YES. So is Charleen Reston playing it coy or does she truly believe in her own casually unemotional way, that Larry Bell (Floyd Simmons) did have his way with her, and because she was merely “tired” and ‘bored’ with him, as she later puts it, in her mind, it was an assault because she wasn’t completely into the encounter?
This is left ambiguous, which is yet another sign that the film is less about the question of Charleen’s morality and more about what ensues after her husband’s retaliation murder.
Oddly, I never get the sense that Reston is as much jealous as he is quite aware that his wife holds her body as eminently her own to do what she wishes with, beyond the marriage vows, and he seems not in any rush to divorce her, abuse her or change the dynamic of their relationship. She is his object, something he owns, and it is merely the idea that someone else has put their hands on what is his is that ultimately riles him.
I think it gave him a certain thrill to kill the young man, and it’s a game to him to have his wife play around so he can then have other people clean up his mess, after he has a tantrum in the moment. The Reston’s marriage is very pathological, and something the plot could have developed and augmented within the story line to make it a darker more authentic Neo film Noir piece.
The question is ambiguously laid bare, the script not treating it with a closer lens or as fleshed out with as much significance as in Otto Preminger’s tautly executed court drama Anatomy of A Murder (1959) with James Stewart defending a similar case where Lee Remick a provocatively beautiful wife claims she is raped only to have husband Ben Gazzara commit a vengeful murder of the suspect. Which truly does try to deal with the question of rape and it’s attempted connection with female sexual promiscuity?
In Tattered Dress the question is lightly dusted over the story like a sprinkle of sugar on a cookie. It is not the meat and bones of the story. I refer to Charleen as sexually free, as there is a double standard that it is clear throughout the film that both the main character Blane who is sexually promiscuous to the point of the estrangement and near ruination of his marriage, as is Sheriff Hoak, who obviously has had his share of ‘relations’ with women. These mens’ sexual moral characters are not in question in this film, yet Charleen’s reputation pivots on trial. The only time we get a hint at Blane’s indiscriminate exploits is when traveling companion journalist Ralph Adams (Ed Platt) gives a non approving look at his flirtations with the young woman on the train, then afterwards again, making a similar displeasing facial expression once we subtly get the idea that Blane has in fact slept with the young woman.
Edward Platt plays journalist Adams who is sort of the traveling ethical conscience of the film while he is following Blane around during the trial, always pointing out Blane’s darker leanings. The angel on Blane’s shoulder.
Then again, the night before the trial when Blane gets into Charleen Reston’s car right before they head off to have sex, he tells her that his wife had a ‘problem’ because he was ‘desirable to other women’. Once again deferring the blame to women creating temptation thus laying the trap for men to fall into.
The double standard is blaring. But it is not developed. The real gristle and bone to chew on is the conflict between the 2 men Blane and Hoak. Charleen is merely the catalyst to expose the vast dichotomy of class warfare and the quiet hostility of male primacy.
Elaine Stewart (The Bad and The Beautiful 1952, Night Passage 1957) does an adequate job of being the scandalous blonde bombshell whose prowess is to devour men somewhat like a shark who must keep moving lest it dies. She’s stingingly pretty. And because her role wasn’t supposed to be developed she was good enough as a set piece as was her torn dress at the opening credits. Gloria Grahame she is not. But the role did not call for someone with dimension.
Elaine Stewart was fabulous as a brunette!
The vast Nevada desert is more compelling, more alienating as it was meant to be. It sets up the landscape and environment for the outsider Blane to come in and help continue to stir things up with his ‘otherness’. One gets the feeling that Sheriff Hoak would have arranged an accident for the Restons, if the national media hadn’t brought attention to the case and sent a big city lawyer in to defend Michael Reston.
So essentially what this story is, is a story about class, entitlement and quite honestly masculinity. In reality we don’t or at least I don’t like the character of Charleen Reston whether she is a misunderstood bored millionaire’s wife, chaste or an insatiable amoral sex addict. I just don’t care.
I and perhaps we, do however find the Restons repulsive because THEY feel that they can perpetrate any crime and are above the law. Also interesting, in contrast to the affluence and influence the Restons maintain, is the sheriff who flaunts his own brand of political power in the town as law maker, thinking HE is entitled to pass judgement and revenge because he holds a position of power in the community, has resentments toward the rich folk because he is of lesser means and thinks of himself as the head honcho of his little domain, the town itself and it’s working class people. Still the football hero, the warrior, the brute.
Hoak imbues his job with his own code of law, to enact his own supremacy. Sheriff Hoak is the most interesting character in the film. He has a god complex.He’s vindictive, a sadistic egomaniac who must be in control at all times otherwise he can be ruthless, as I’ve said, even brutal.
Hoaks brutish strength and power as a police officer in control of the law in Desert Valley and his macho air is his stake in mediating his masculinity. Mr Reston’s claim to masculine power is his having lots of money. Hoak and Larry Bell are painted as heroic athletic manly men who ‘score’ or ‘make time’ with women. Either naive girls or promiscuous women who don’t have any worth other than to be utilized by these men.
UNDERNEATH THE AMIABLE SMILE IS THE STING OF A SCORPION TAIL
And perhaps beyond the obvious strain of misogyny that he displays as the film unfolds, Hoak might also be a closet homosexual who’s hero worship of Larry Bell is a little odd and over the top to me.
Then there is Defender Blane who is arrogant, cocky, and from the East Coast. New York specifically which is a strike against him that is made evident in the narrative. He is educated and intellectually superior in his own mind, brings his own type of entitlement, as if he can always win a not guilty plea, this gives him authoritative knowledge over others, whether the person he defends is a murderer or not. The binaries are clearly defined in the film, more than the tattered dress of the title. The film could have been called ‘Who loved Larry Bell?’ or ‘Blane Came From New York’
What makes this lesser intricate film work for me is it’s sense of a tawdry story reminiscent of the mass market pulp fiction paper backs. With the ‘bad girl’, naughty buxom women in ripped clothes, in revealing poses, it reminds of titles like She’s Destined For Hell and Don’t Tell Daddy the Milkman Did It. The Devil In Red High Heels. It’s a very very thin slice of late 50s morality sneaking into a gritty court room drama, with a pulpy glean to it.
A curious aspect to the film, is Reston’s relationship with his wife which is extremely dysfunctional in not only a self destructive anti social way but there’s an aspect to voyeurism and of course being tinged with elements of noir the utilization of fetish. Mr Reston almost needs someone else to pleasure his wife in order to provoke his own primal urge to become enraged. In essence to tap into his own manhood. The gun, as his phallus. There is a sense that he is very well aware of his wife’s constant infidelities, and that he is not only tolerating them, but they are both using them as a game to feed their marriage it’s vital stimulation. They feed off each other and create situations where they leave victims in their wake. They play games with each other that are fueled by sexual violence. It’s pathological and dangerous combo.
So aside from their status as upper class and sense of entitlement due to their extreme wealth, at the core of their unattractive, unwholesome and unconventional behavior is the thriving frenzy that inevitably will create a destructive environment.
Reston knows his wife is sexually promiscuous, and yet he allows her to feed off young men, only so that he might assert his power by taking back control. In this way, he is still a coward, Even the act of shooting the boy in the back signifies that he can not confront a male suitor straight on like an emotionally reactive husband might have. I would have liked to see this dynamic further developed in the plot. However, it is Sheriff Hoak that is also compelling and most intriguing to me.
I am less interested in the conversion of Blane toward the end as he transforms ever so slightly, from the cold man turned around by the events, who is redeemed for the sin of his snobbery, callousness. and his need to succeed at the expense of the truth and what’s right.
How ultimately not only are the rich corruptible but so are the beaten down common folk who can’t bare to be persecuted and can be driven to commit acts of violence and deceit. The lesson here is also that no town is clean. The story is almost an inverted telling of The Naked Kiss, where on the surface the villains are the wealthy figures who prevail in the town, yet it is the common well loved people who are also capable of falling from grace. In particular Gail Russell who plays Carol Morrow who is strong armed by her abusive lover Sheriff Hoak, into pretending to have taken a bribe from Blane, as a juror to give the not guilty verdict for Mr Reston. While Carol Morrow is obviously a victim of Hoak’s brutal persuasion, she knowingly goes along with the ruse in order to help ruin Blane’s reputation and put him in jail for 20 years if found guilty based on her testimony.
Edward Platt as Journalist Adams.
The only redeeming character in the film is Journalist Adams and Blane’s ever loyal ex-wife wife Diane played by the elegant Jeanne Crain who stands by her womanizing, Huberistic husband, who would defend a known murderer if it meant it would make bring him notoriety and a pay off of a lot of money.
I did like the rugged simplicity of The Tattered Dress. If Arnold did throw a giant tarantula into the desert scene when George Tobias who plays Blane’s friend and former client whom he got off for shooting his wife and her lover, is being chased down by car in the desert by the neanderthal Sheriff Hoak it would have been a great mash up of genres. They could have done an infusion of Neo Noir meets Giant Killer Insect in the Desert. A morality tale of Spider as devouring woman, the vast wasteland of the desert as the perfect Noir environment to work out the alienation and sense of no where to run theme. The whole sleepy desert communities can be deadly theme.
The opening title credits are drenched in the pulp fiction melodrama of the 50s as the male hands reach up and rip the back of Stewart’s dress as she spins and smiles seductively enjoying the rough play. We know at the outset she is not a “good girl.” The music is burlesque, then it turns more sensational as a car comes riding onto the screen in the darkness. The headlights breaking through the darkness as the music becomes urgent.
Charleen Reston (Elaine Stewart) is driving through the darkened night time desert with the top down of her convertible sports car. The wind is blowing her blond hair frivolously to and fro. She’s a wild one, and her expression relates to us that she’s on a sensual rampage.Gripping the steering wheel and heading home from her last sexual exploit. Charleen Reston is an adulterous and the film will tells us that she’s an amoral slut who has no shame and lives for her own pleasure, and seeks to fulfill her desires when ever the mood strikes.
She walks with self possession across the backyard, by the pool, the crickets cheeping, she’s got no qualms about showcasing her dress hanging off her shoulder, her breasts showing. She slides the glass door panel open and slips inside the sparse desert elegant house. We hear her husband call “Charleen” we don’t hear her reply to him, but her mime shows us that she is displaying with prowess her ‘Tattered Dress’ as she runs her hands along her body proudly.
Michael Reston, her husband grabs her by the arm, and shakes her. She pushes him away. All we hear are crickets. As he starts raising his voice a little more, he goes to his desk to get a gun from the desk drawer. Now a fractured piano chord breaks in as he grabs her again, and drags her along with him to the car. The horns wail, and he is now on a mission of revenge. Charleen almost automated, lazily follows along with him as if dangling by wires, being dragged behind him without much care as they both get into the car.
First we see the Restons driving, then we cut to a young man walking down the street who stops to strike a match on a lamp post to light his cigarette. He’s got a self satisfied smile on his face as we know he just had sex with Charleen. As he continues to walk he sees Michael Reston and as he starts to run he’s shot in the back. Charleen just looks a little downward, as her husband looks at her. The boy lies still on the ground. The couple walk over to the still body of Larry Bell and just leave him there on the ground.
Larry Bell’s masculinity was by his very nature, expected from his youth and dynamic sexual prowess. While Blane uses his intellect to win, he is still portrayed as a sissy, an East Coast elitist, not a virile man and is also seen as an interloper. Blane as a big city lawyer who in using his intellect and talks with his hands, is seen as the weaker male.
Fade into a train pulling into the station, blasting it’s horn.
On the train, journalist Adams asks JG Blane “Sport of Kings?” Blane answers, “My book maker lives like one” so we know a little bit about this man Blane, he likes to gamble. He likes to take risks. Adams says, ” I’ll bet”. Blane in turn asks Adams as he takes a drink, “You admiring your polished prose?” Adams shows him the newspaper and bends it toward Blane, “No…your picture” The newspaper headline in the New York Bulletin says Blane To Defend Restons Blane replies snidely.
“Charleen Reston’s much prettier. Adams smiles folds the paper and tells him that this will be the 27th case of his that he’s covered. Blane says, “Maybe you’re my good luck charm.” Then Adams responds, “If I thought so I’d consider jumping off the train.” Blane defends himself, “I make good copy don’t I?” Adams answers, “Sure…I got a Pulitzer Prize to prove it”
Blane says “Quit trying to reform me.” Adams comes back at him, ” I don’t give a hoot about you.” Sanctimoniously Blane replies, “Save your lecture about the majesty of the law I’ll throw you off the train.” They both laugh. Then Adams says
“You don’t scare me except when you’re in a court room”
The Pullman car creaks to it’s stop from lack of oiling. Outside on the station platform, Blane’s 2 young boys are looking for their daddy, suddenly he hops off the train and they jump into his arms. The exchange between Diane and Jim is civil. He tells them they’ve grown.
Here the question of the masculinity of fatherhood, and the participation of parenting as seen through the lens of the 50s working male, and the absence there of:
Apparently they’ve been separated for a while now. They are now in Springfield anywhere USA. He looks up at her. The boys still smiling at their daddy. They beg to go along, Jim asks Diane, but she tells him no. He gets back on the train as it pulls away leaving us to see from a distance the woman, the wife, and the two little boys as Blane leaves his family. Slowing the train pulls away. His family grows smaller.
Jeannie Crain’s character of the estranged wife Diane, looks more like she’s dressed in mourning attire, as her womanhood has died since she no longer has a husband to participate in her sexuality.
She is also made the ‘bad guy’ who is disallowing the boys father to spend time with them, rather than having them go along to Nevada and be near the sensational trial that he is about to defend. Women are always getting in the way of pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
Adams comments, “Nice family” Blane says , ” It was before the case” Then Adams tells him, “Just making mental notes on a book I’ll probably never write.” Blane realizes, “I didn’t even bring anything for the kids…I forgot.” He looks disappointed in himself. A moment of clarity in a very driven man.
The train whistle and lights cut through the darkness, rattling on the tracks. The 2 men are inside the dining compartment eating. Ralph Adams hands him something” Like to read something interesting” Who’s it from?” “Convict no. 6730066 namely Benson Powell.” Now Blane looks up. “What’s the point?” Adams tells him, ” the point is it’s a miscarriage of justice… I think he’s innocent.”
Just then an attractive brunette enters the car. Blane looks up distracted. Adams gets annoyed. “Read the letter please.” While he’s still ogling the young woman, he says, “ah… one case at a time.”Earnestly Adams says, “You’re the only one who can get a new trial for Powell.” Totally ignoring Adams, he flirts with the woman about dinner. When he recommends the sole and she says she’s decided on the steak. he asks, “rare?” and she smiles as if she’s really said I’m naked raw and ready for you to mount me.
Now we fade into the next morning the train has pulled into Desert View Station. The train is surrounded by the locals. Blane comments, ” friendly natives” Adams says, ” don’t throw pennies” A man smoking a pipe passes thru the crowd of townspeople and comes up to introduce himself, ” Hello I’m Paul Brennen.” Blane introduces his reported friend ” Ralph Adams New York Bulletin” Brennen asks “Pleasant trip?” Blane says with the thought of his sexual conquest the night before, ” unusually” Ralph Adams looks over at Blane. By the expression on Adams face it is clear that Blane did sleep with the young woman who dined with them the night before.
The Noir train pulls into the sleepy American town.
A collection of anonymity: American faces: The mistrustful crowd.
As Blane looks around a little uncomfortable. he adds, “Nice welcoming committee.” Brennen takes the pipe out of his mouth. “All prospective jurors.” Blane looks up at the sky. He’s a cold fish, an unemotional Darwinian droid. “Well at least the weather’s warm” Ralph Adams says goodbye see ya later at the hotel and Brennen takes him over to the car.
Blane now comes in contact for the first time and passes Sheriff Hoak who is leaning up against the car, with his thumbs secured in his belt buckle head titled like he’s not liking this New York Lawyer at all. The man next to him says ” Smart looking fella that lawyer” Hoak looks at the man ” Hhhm…if he had been real smart, he never would have left New York”
This starts to set up the outsider aspect of the Noir. Man vs Man/ The us vs them. Unlike most Noir characters Blane is an unsympathetic character. Not just an East Coaster. But educated with money and easily perceived as an elitist. Not an everyman. Not a misunderstood man down on his luck and in a situation that traps him, not of his own making.
A few young punkish townie boys refuse to move off the hood of the car. Leering at Blane as if he’s the Devil come to invade their little town. Brenner moves the car slow enough and shoves them off. Blane says “A man could relax out here.”
“With what’s confronting you, I hardly think so.” Blane asks Brenner, “Which reminds me, did I come cheaper than the legal eagle from San Fransisco?” Brenner says, “I take it you’re referring to Lester Rawlings” Blane answers, “Hhm, I heard that Reston’s had him down as their first choice” Brenner says, “They did, but I persuaded them to retain you…despite your higher fee.” Blane chuckles, “Coming from a Baltimore Corporation Lawyer, that’s a compliment.”
So here for our edification there is laid out the strain of classism. Not just from the town folk themselves but amongst the professionals. The hierarchy that exists, as was in Kazan’s Panic In The Streets. Blane is cocky, success driven and money oriented.
Brenner adds a hint of this when he tells Blane, “I’ll pay you but one compliment Mr Blane…if and when you win an acquittal.”
Blane pauses, jiggles his head a little as if he’s felt a slight blow, impact felt. and then stares forward in the car, as the scene fades.
Back at the Reston’s house around the luxurious pool from a bird’s eye view, the pool is shaped like a tiled leaf. The Vavava Voom burlesque horns float over Charleen who is drifting on a blow up raft in the water. She’s wearing a black one piece bathing suit. Brenner brings Blane to the back to meet the sexy Mrs Reston, who now lifts up her head, and smiles coyly at the tall handsome lawyer from New York. The music has transformed into 50s melodramatic strings and horns. A note of playfulness and a touch of irony, a dash of tainted romance and the underlying smell of scandal in suburbia.
“How do you do… how’s the water?” Blane looks at Charleen matter of factly. “Find out for yourself” she says in a drawn out daring tone, she pauses momentarily and then says, “Oh Paul (Brenner) dig out a pair of trunks for Mr Blane.” Then Blane says, “looks inviting” He smirks as he and his hands in his suit pockets turn his back on her while he and Brenner walk back into the house. She remains on the float, leaning on her elbows watching after Blane. She finds the man attractive. Then lying back down on the raft to continue to drift in an aimless seductive sunny revery.
As Blane comes out of a room, having changed into his swimming trunks, Michael Reston walks into the room. He introduces himself and the men shake hands. Reston says, “I thought you’d be an older man”, Blane turns his back on Reston and replies, ” And I thought you’d be a much more worried man.” Their tête-à-tête. has begun.
Reston says to Blane in a manner of unfriendly seriousness, “When I spill a drink on the carpet… my butler cleans up after me.” Blane comes back quickly, “When you spill blood your lawyer is expected to do the same.” With that retort, Reston icily shakes his head in Blane’s face and says, “Exactly!”
Blane remains a few long seconds to eye him down. And then walks away dismissively. The short verbal duel is over. Reston the more ruthless man of the moment has seemed to score the point this round. Neither man is likable. The characters are not sympathetic because they come from privilege and believe that what ever mess they make, it is up to other people to clean up after them. They are entitled. They are above the law. They are untouchable. No matter what they have done wrong. As far as this film being a morality film, it works around the edges, and tells us easily who we are supposed to despise. People playing games with lives like Blane as if they are marketable commodities to gamble with.
Without regard to what is right, or what is moral. Blane wants to win, that is his only concern.
Reston is a cultured beast of prey, a polished predator who uses his wife’s attractiveness to other men, to fuel his inner rage. He wants to obtain, avoid, conquer, destroy, dominate, manipulate, control and be superior to. The Restons are hated by the common town folk as intruders, and Blane is hated as a similar privileged intruder, coming in to uphold the usury and Elitism that the Restons flourish on. Michael Reston is an aristocratic version of the modern man.
“When I spill a drink on the carpet, my butler cleans up after me”- When you spill blood, your lawyer is expected to do the same.”- “Exactly!”
Sitting around the table having cocktails are 4 people. Blane asks Charleen, “Did Larry Bell assault you?” Michael Reston looks visibly angered. Blane tells her as she starts to react. “I’m defending you, not Mr Reston” She answers apathetically,
Michael Reston tinkering with something instead of engaging in his own defense, like a spoiled child.
“Would you like to see the dress?” Blane pushes the issue, ” Did he assault you?” Mr. Reston asserts himself. “Sounds like gutter talk” Blane cuts him off, “That’s a very acute observation”, then he turns back to Charleen and re asks the question.
“Did he?” She doesn’t even lift an eyebrow, very coldly ” Yes…he did” Then Blane asserts, “For the first time?” Mr.Reston getting excitable says “Now look here.” Blane points his finger at the man. ” You be quiet til I come to you!”
“Mind your manners Mr Blane” But Blane says to him, ” Mr Reston, I’m not impressed by you or your bank account…in fact you irritate me. Reston stirs, ” Now look!” Reston rises up and Blane confronts hims straight on, “It’s about time” as Blane cuts him off, “now that’s more like it, that’s the way I want to see you in court…not as a cold fish but as a man…Outraged.” Here is an overt reference to man and his supposed appropriate behavior. This of course is from the perspective of the academic intellectual point of view. From various perspectives there will be other observations or studies on multiple masculinities.
Charleen is just coldly sizing up Blane silently. Unmoved. She has no emotion, she is merely a prop, and a symbol of the emerging modern carnal woman who is smashing the role of the immaculate house wife. Diane Blane is such a creature, bearing the pain of her husband’s infidelities and ravenous appetite for power. And Now Blane asks another question “Mrs Reston are you a faithful wife?” Charleen has a peculiar grin on her face, leaning forward and very specifically she says, “In my fashion. Frustrated Blane asks her yet again, “Were you having an affair with Larry Bell?”
Mr Reston instead of getting angry at his wife is entirely dismissive of the idea, “He was a bartender.”
Here again, it is obvious the division between class. The dead boy has been reduced to a sub class of citizen. A bartender. This minimizes his victimization as well as explains why his threat level from the affair only elicited a shot in the back. If it had been a billionaire courting his wife, the situation might have played out differently I suspect.
In Reston’s mind his wife would never have a love affair with someone who works as a bartender. These are twisted people who place no value on human life. To Charleen Larry was a play thing, and the husband doesn’t take the infidelity seriously because the boy had no money or means. He was not threat. Reston’s ‘money’ is his manhood.
Blane just looks irritated at Reston again, then looks back at Charleen and asks the same question yet again, “Were you?” She very obviously is purposefully evasive, jingling the ice in her cocktail says, “No.” But we know different. She was in fact carrying on a long term sexual affair with Larry Bell. In terms of her cockiness, it is strange that she even bothers denying it. Unless, this is to show that the assault did take place, and is her way of contributing some help as a wife to her miserable, despicable husband.
Blane says to her, “Don’t lie to me or you’ll have to get yourself another lawyer.” Finally, very defiantly she turns to him, “I saw Larry Bell just twice before.”Blane continues his questioning, “Were you receptive to his advances?” She tells him “Yes.”
“What happened the third time?” Charleen shows her true colors, “I was bored with him.” Blane asks, “you resisted him”
“I ignored him” She says with no emotion. “Did you tease him?” An element of it’s the woman’s fault for getting the man all riled up. The built in justification for the alleged assault. Did you tease him. Did you cause this. How were you dressed. Etc.
So now, if she was raped, it was her fault because she is ‘promiscuous.’ ‘A tease.’ A ‘Bad Girl.’
Not that I find Charleen an attractive or sympathetic character. Charleen is the antithesis of Constance Towers character Kelly in The Naked Kiss 1964. It was a multifaceted role for a woman to play and Towers did a masterful job of eliciting sympathy and thoughtfulness to the idea of an independent, non conventional, rebellious female role, Kelly’s ex-prostitute. She would not be sublimated by a male dominated patriarchy and she made no apologies for how she lived her life, in the end retaining her self respect, though she decide to leave the town she walked away on her own terms.
Constance Towers as Kelly in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss 1964
And not that I question nor believe that Charleen was raped by Larry Bell, but Blane’s asking if she coaxed the attack is disgusting to me. But it was and still is the logic of the defense to draw out that line of questioning from a rape victim.
Anyway, MonsterGirl digresses as usual. Mr. Reston gets a little jarred, “You sound like a prosecutor.” Blane answers him snidely, “Another acute observation.”
It’s interesting watching the smarmy lecturing the smarmy. Jeff Chandler has a face that looks like it’s been carefully carved out of clay. His eyes a dark and piercing under his black brows. His hair is as white as a marble Adonis. He looks down and away from Reston, and his mouth pouts just a bit. Just enough to let his jaw line bulge in a clench. A thinking man. Perhaps he’s thinking of what dress and pumps to wear after the film’s dailies are done.
His lips move tautly over his teeth, as he half mumbles his lines. He could almost look like a Greek Philosopher or British nobleman because his features have an exaggerated look. He’s handsome in an odd way. Tall lanky. That salt pepper hair that’s white like marble. And he has a languid swagger to him. Not as quietly sophisticated as lets say Gregory Peck, but I could see how some women might find him sexy. I am ambivalent about whether I find him attractive or not.
Right now, I find him a pompous asshole. As he comes back at Mr Reston in a pissy I’m better than you tone. “Another astute observation…you’re cleverer than I imagined” Now he turns back to Mrs. Reston.
“Did you want Bell to attack you?”Here again the film injects ‘the woman at fault’ premise. Are we to wrestle with this notion or is the film telling us, this is how we are to feel. Does it exploit this concept or expose it’s flaws.
Charleen gets a queer smile and finally engages Blane. The explicit nature of the conversation begins to take on a slight edge of titillation, “You mean subconsciously?” Blane says directly, “No…consciously.”
She looks down at her drink and laughs, “Oh that’s absurd isn’t it?” Blane comes back at her, “Is it?” She says, “I don’t….I have to think about it.” Curious that she has to ‘think’ about it.
She gets an inquisitive look on her face as she puts the swizzle stick in her mouth and thinks about the question posed to her. “Mrs. Reston as you move about from resort to resort what else Do you think about?” The insult is blaring.
Charleen looks over at him. Dumps her stick into her drink, rises up from the table and says, “You’re so right Mr. Blane.”
As she leaves, the light burlesque jazz starts to accompany her over to the pool as she goes to take a dip. Blane stares at her as she begins to slip into the water. Watching her with lascivious eyes. Mr. Reston just looks down. He has no influence with his wife.
Brenner has been silent throughout the entire exchange. Blane tells them he’ll be at the Hotel. But Brenner tells him that they arranged to have him stay there at Reston’s house. but Mr. Reston tells Brenner “Mr Blane doesn’t approve of us.”
Blane just adds. “No sense adding to the prejudice of the jurors..I don’t want them to think that I belong to Desert Valley.”
Brenner tells him he’s got a point. And Blane then tells Reston, “Perhaps another time if you and your lovely wife managed by my sweat to escape the State Penitentiary.”
The horns turns serious. Blane rubs his hands together and walks away. A martyr for the cause of guilty rich folk in trouble. Their fragile lives in his hands now. Oh the Huberis, the unabashed egoism masked in self sacrifice. Both men are repulsive.
From a long camera shot we see Blane checking out Charleen who is still standing on the diving board, she looks over at him and suddenly plunges in. Under the water she wriggles her legs like a fish until she swims through an underground passage that leads out to the other side of the wall, inside the house. She climbs up the stairs from the indoor part of the pool like she’s doing a strip tease, and says in her sexiest voice “I’ll be seeing you Mr Blane” he just grunts at her “uh huh” and walks away.
Now Blane is driving down the desert highway adjusting his tie when suddenly a police vehicle with it’s siren blaring comes up behind him. He looks in his rear view mirror. Sheriff Hoak slowly approaches his car. Blane tells the sheriff he was only doing 80. And Hoak tells him that he’ll take his word for it. He introduces himself.
“I”m Nick Hoak Sheriff of Bolton County.” He asks Blane to follow him. Blane asks “where to traffic court?” Hoak laughs “I’d hate to see YOU in any of our courts.”Hoak adds a bit of compliment to catch Blane off guard.
Blane’s reputation is notable. They stop in front of a gas station. Hoak pulls out two bottles of pop and Blane asks where they’re going and Hoak tells him, “God’s Country.”
They ride out in a jeep, further into the desert. The vast expanse of wide open space and sky and sand as far as the eye can see. I half expected to see a giant Ant from Them or Arnold’s Tarantula come flaling it’s jagged antenna or hairy 8 legs over the sandy rugged dunes. An open airy country side with the plains of western landscape. An pioneer motif, an expansive melody plays as they ride up on a small ranch.
As the 2 men get out of the jeep we see an elderly couple sitting on the front porch. Hoak introduces Blane to the old man. “We got us a visitor from New York.” Blane says hello to the old man sitting on the porch wearing suspenders, a simple working man looks the lawyer over sideways from a sitting postiion. Hoak asks, “How bout a couple beers.” Then Hoak turns to Blane, “Mr. Blane have you ever seen anything like this before?”
Blane tells Hoak it’s beautiful and Hoak tells him, “No swimmin’ pools… none of those “fancy Hawaiian sport shirts like it has in Desert Valley. It cost me a pretty penny to level this off and dig a well.”
Blane asks, “This, your place” Hoak tells him, “Uh hum” Blane asks who the elderly couple are, “Who?… Hank and Sarah, they run it for me” the old man hands him a beer bottle. Hoak thanks him.
“Well I’d call it a natural paradise if I hadn’t seen Hank and Sarah.”
Hoak looks at Blane curiously “They look to me like the loneliest and unhappiest people I’ve ever seen.”Now Hoaks true intentions for bringing Blane out to his ranch are realized at this moment.
“Well they got reason to be you see.” Hoak points toward them with his beer bottle. “Their son was shot down and killed last week…they’re Larry Bell’s folks.” Hoak wanted to draw a visual picture of the remains of Michael Reston’s rage. It’s quite a good moment in the film.
Hoak takes a sip of his beer. The music turns dire and solemn as he has now dropped the little visual bombshell on Blane. This was an exercise in showing Blane what he’s defending and who will be effected by the outcome should Reston be found Not Guilty.
As the 2 head back to Desert Valley in the jeep Hoak driving. “Larry Bell could have been one of the greatest half backs of all time” Hoak tells Blane. “What a waste, what a lousy waste.” Now Blane tells Hoak, “I saw you play once.” Hoak looks surprised by this and a little flattered. They pass another man named Stalley outside by his ranch.
Blane asks what Stalley raises out at his ranch. Hoak says, “He raises any hand he figures to beat.” Blane acknowledges he’s a poker player and so Hoak has now planted the seed. There will be a poker game at Stalley’s ranch and Blane’s a gambling man.
In Blane’s hotel room. Adams tells Hoak as he pours himself a drink. “It’s swanky alright” Sheriff Hoak pipes in, “hhm the Governor stays here…when he’s in town.”
Blane asks, “Never in Desert Valley?” Hoak tells Blane, “If he wants to stay Governor” Here it is delineated that Hoak holds the power in the town.
Blane asks “Does the Governor take orders from you?” Hoak coolly explains, “He uh…he takes my advice.” Hoak says this like a wise crack.
The phone rings, Hoak takes off and Blane answers it. On the other end is a little jovial, pudgy smiley faced guy in a white tux who says, “Jim…? Billy Giles.”Billy Giles is an old client, a comedian that Blane defended and got a not guilty verdict for killing his wife and her lover.
Blane asks where he is. Giles tells him Vegas. Blane asks him, “Are you knockin’ em dead?” Giles laughs, “Dead, hah hah hah that’s the word for it…the slot machines get more laughs than I do” Blane asks him, “When am I gonna see you?” “Drive over when you can it’s only 150 miles… the highway runs passed all the crap tables.”
Suddenly a beautiful girl in gold lame runs over asking Billy if she can “have some more” tugging at him like he’s a rich uncle. “By the way Jim they’re betting 6 to 1 against you.” Blane tells him, “Well you get 10 grand down for me.”
“Seriously Jim I hated to see you take this one.” We still see Blane on the end of the phone. “Make that 15 Billy” he says obstinately. We see Billy Giles again. “That should remind me of a story but it doesn’t. Okay Jim if you feel lonesome give me a buzz.” Blane hangs up and now we see Adams looking at Blane who asks how Giles is doing.
“He just didn’t have it anymore… what a shame.” “How could any audience look at him and laugh? They look at him and remember that he emptied a revolver into his wife and her lover.” Again Adams acts as the film’s moralizing voice.
Blane responds, “That was 10 years ago and he was acquitted.” But Adams retaliates.
“Quite a feat too, I don’t think you convinced anybody but the jury.”
“Well when it comes to picking juries.”
Adams says, “I know…” but this time you’ll be forced to pick from Sheriff Hoak’s private pork barrel. “Not a very nice thing to say about Desert Valley’s citizens, especially coming from the one voice of unbiased reason in the film. Blane is too pleased with his talent for picking juries and condoning a violent act against a cheating wife.
Blane tells Adams, “Don’t print this but Mr Hoak is the answer to my prayers.”
Blane is a user. A self appointed master manipulator with an unbroken track record for winning impossible cases. An opportunist and will stop at nothing in order to win any case. His morals are as questionable as Michael and Charleen Reston and Sheriff Nick Hoak.
He does not start out in this film a likable man. Nor does he necessarily end up as one either. That is not of any importance to me however. As I’ve said, I find his character less essential than that of Sheriff Nick Hoak.
The male species protecting his domain, and his masculinity. Defending his preeminence from the intellectual and elitist outlaws who come to usurp his dominance and his reputation in the town. The film acts as a western surrounded by modernity yet the territory here isn’t the wild frontier, dominion over land or gold & ore claims, it is the landscape of ideas, and male primacy at the core of the struggle.
Adams laughs ironically, “Hoak!… Don’t tell me he’s your gimmick in winning this case?”