Saturday, November 10, 2007

John Farrow, Robert Mitchum and "His Kind of Woman" (1951)

The other night I finally decided to break into the Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection #3. I figured I didn't need to let it sit unopened on the shelf any longer because I now have the fourth set, and that package includes ten films. I always like to have a backlog of movies to watch... for some reason it gives me a cozy feeling knowing I've got future discoveries to make here in my very own home. Perhaps it's the American in me. I had to find something to hoard. The first two Warner Bros. Noir sets were very entertaining, and I have to credit them in part for establishing my recent passion for Film Noir. When I scanned the titles in #3, I noticed that there was one featuring Robert Mitchum, and I figured that was an appropriate place to start.

His Kind of Woman was directed by John Farrow, and released in 1951. Along with Mitchum, this Howard Hughes-produced flick starred Jane Russell and Vincent Price. But the star power doesn't end there- the flick also contains Raymond Burr as the arch-villain, and the familiar face of Jim Backus (of Gilligan's Island fame) as a cheesy "playboy" type. The inclusion of Mitchum and Burr in a cast usually means that we are going to be entering true Noir territory. Even Price was known to do some good turns in the genre before he became the Hollywood horror icon that most viewers grew to love later in his career. Check out his performances in the fascinatingly oily roles in such classics as Laura (1944) and Shock (1946). As a young man he seemed to encapsulate an effete, sophisticated charm that worked to confound the typically world-weary and streetwise heroes that tend to anchor the standard Noir entry.

On the other hand, the presence of Backus should have raised the red flag of warning. He's a cliche of comic relief, and plays true-to-form in this ensemble vehicle. Still it would be unfair to blame our thwarted expectations on Backus alone. We've got Jane Russell, who was handpicked by Hughes to become a cheesecake icon. She's simply not able to muster the smoky allure that we are used to seeing in our femme fatales. In fact, next to the seasoned veterans in the cast, she comes off as a lightweight. We're supposed to believe she is an accomplished goldbrick, yet she still stumbles about like a wide-eyed country hick. Meanwhile Price is hamming it up in the guise of a successful actor (a la Errol Flynn) who dreams of an adventure worthy of his on screen persona. Somehow the screenwriter allows him to transform into a backwoods "white knight".

Instead of the gritty streets of the urban wastelands, we are taken to the balmy palms of a posh Mexican resort. We don't get tense stalkings through abandoned factories, but rather a pallid pursuit through the bowels of a large yacht. In truth this film is more Fantasy Island than Out of the Past. Perhaps all of this wouldn't be so disappointing if Robert Mitchum delivered his best work. But what could he do (really) with a script that has him ironing money as a cure for boredom? Is he laconic? Check. Cool under fire? Yup. Nonchalant? Sure. Yet I couldn't help but wonder how much pot he had to smoke to get through this farce of a film. Anyway.. I had to look up the details of his arrest and imprisonment for marijuana usage, and (sure enough) it was a scant two years before His Kind of Woman was filmed.

All of this is not to say that this is a complete waste of time. There are enough hardened professionals in the film to make it interesting- even if everyone has to strain to look busy. The depiction of early-50's, jet-setting tourism was mildly compelling from a sociological viewpoint. And there are a couple of gems within the clumsily-aped patter that the writers tried to pass off as Noir-speak. You could do worse than spending two hours watching this spectacle. You could watch a modern Hollywood crime thriller. But why would you, with the hugely expanded catalogue of movies available on DVD today? If you are a Mitchum or (God forbid) Jim Backus completist, then by all means see His Kind of Woman. Otherwise you're not missing much here.

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