This post is our contribution to the ongoing For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon. As we mentioned last week, the blogathon is being held in support of the Film Noir Foundation, and all of the funds collected will be dedicated to the restoration of 1950′s The Sound of Fury, starring Lloyd Bridges. See the end of this post for more information about how you can help this very important cause.
Caution: there be spoilers ahead.
Lured is not your prototypical film noir.
But then, how could it be, considering its female lead is legendary comedic actress Lucille Ball?
Lured is one of the more than 70 films featuring a pre-I Love Lucy Ball. Though she acted with any number of A-list stars during her days as a contract player (Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, even the Marx Brothers), Lucy was popularly known around Hollywood as the “Queen of the B’s.” And in large part, many of these movies were made in black-and white; Ball’s coloring—vibrantly red hair and blue eyes–were especially difficult to light and film, leading some around town to refer to the actress as “Technicolor Tessie.”
Lucy’s filmography ranges from the broad comedic stylings of her Annabel films (1938) to maudlin tearjerkers like 1942’s The Big Street to musicals such as Too Many Girls (1940) and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943)–for which her singing voice was dubbed, incidentally. The schizophrenic nature of Lucy’s career was not by design; in her pre-television days, the studios simply had no idea what to do with the young actress.
In the midst of her B-movie peak, in 1947, came another dabbling in drama–this time the noir genre–in Lured. And truthfully, this film is more noir-lite, apeing some of the classic characteristics of the genre while not quite settling into its rhythms.
Lucy stars as Sandra Carpenter, an American transplant to a shadowy, gritty, and not-quite-convincing London (the entire film was shot on studio lots). She is working as a taxi dancer in an effort to support herself, as her dreams of performing on the stage were dashed almost immediately upon getting off the boat from New York.
Sandra’s friend and coworker, Lucy (Tanis Chandler), is a naive girl looking for a knight on a white horse to rescue her from the endless nights of dancing with dumpy men. She answers a personal ad in the newspaper and, one particularly shadowy evening, travels to meet this potential cavalier.
At work the next evening, Sandra and Lucy are approached by a scout for Robert Fleming (George Sanders) and Julian Wilde (Sir Cecil Hardwicke), a pair of stage producers, and offered auditions for a new show. Sandra accepts, but Lucy demurs, telling a cynical Sandra that she will be leaving soon to be with her newfound lover.
In the meantime, a serial murderer known as the “Poet Killer” (whom we see typing his missives in a stylized bit of shadowplay) sends yet another in a series of verses to Scotland Yard, taunting the police with the threat of killing another young woman: “A beauty that only death can enhance/For tonight, my friends, is her final dance.” The police determine that the killer’s new target is a dancer, and it soon becomes apparent that Lucy is the Poet Killer’s next (seventh) victim.
Sandra cannot make it to her audition for Fleming and Wilde and calls their office to reschedule. Fleming answers his own telephone, and Sandra, believing him to be his own assistant, sasses him. Instead of being insulted, though, Fleming is intrigued by her voice and finds himself enraptured by her bold “American-ness.”
Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn) approaches Sandra and questions her about Lucy’s life. She tells him about the personal ad Lucy had answered, and he determines that this is the killer’s method of attracting his victims. After a cursory demonstration of the shapeliness of her legs (naturally), Temple also discovers that Sandra has keen observational skills and, in a moment that tests the audience’s capability to suspend disbelief, offers her a position on the force–she is to be used as bait to entice and trap the Poet Killer. She is given a police identification card and a gun of her very own (for “moral support”).
Sandra sets out to answer the personal ads in the newspaper. After a couple of misfires, Sandra finds a promising suspect in the once-famed, now-delusional dressmaker Charles van Druten (Boris Karloff), who became paranoid after finding his designs had been stolen by a competitor. But van Druten turns out to be merely insane–not a killer (and not, judging by the get-up in the picture below, a very competent designer).
Sandra responds to another ad to meet a man at a music concert, but her “date” does not show up. Instead, she meets Fleming, who recognizes her by her voice, but she brushes him off, much to his amusement. He arranges for her to meet him at his club, where they dance, drink, and bond over their admiration for the song “All For Love,” but in the end she manages to slip away.
In the meantime, Sandra has taken a position as a housemaid under the shady Lyle Maxwell (Alan Mowbray). The head butler of the household, Maxwell had “mistakenly” placed the ad for the maid position in the personals section of the newspaper, and promises Sandra the opportunity for a well-paying, traveling position with his friend, Nicholas Moriani (Joseph Calleia).
It turns out that Maxwell and Moriani have been soliciting girls to travel to South America as part of their crime syndicate. When Moriani fears that Sandra will reveal their plans, he attacks her. Fleming rescues her, however, and she acknowledges that she has fallen madly in love with him after only three encounters with him (as women are wont to do …). They immediately become engaged, and Sandra promptly resigns from her position as police bait, never having told Robert what she had been doing.
Sandra moves into Robert and Julian’s home, and Sandra insists that she does not intend to displace Julian and that he will continue to live with the couple after the marriage. Soon afterward, when Sandra leaves her muff in the living room, Julian discovers her police ID card inside. And not long after that, Scotland Yard receives another poem from the Poet Killer, targeting a girl “in a dress of shimmering stars.” Cut to Sandra, standing in a ball gown dotted with a starry design.
While waiting in the library for their engagement party to begin, Sandra peeks into one of Robert’s desk drawers and discovers her friend Lucy’s distinctive elephant charm bracelet and a group of photographs of various young women, including one of Lucy. Though Sandra is reluctant to believe that he could have had anything to do with the killing spree, Temple arrests Fleming for the murders.
Robert denies any involvement and, angry with Sandra for doubting him, refuses to see or speak to her. In the meantime, Temple begins to suspect that Wilde, rather than Fleming, is the actual killer, having connected the Poet Killer’s obvious love for the work of Baudelaire to Wilde’s own affinity for the poet. Temple and Sandra work together to trap Wilde into confessing his guilt, and just as Wilde attempts to strangle Sandra, the police rush in and save her. The film ends with Robert and Sandra reunited, promising that from this point forward, they’ll do it “All for Love.”
The movie is directed by Douglas Sirk, who would come into his own as a director in a series of well-received “prestige” melodramas (Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows) in the 1950s. In tackling the dark material of Lured, Sirk does a decent job in crafting a suitably atmospheric thriller, filled with murky shadows, threatening characters, and the semblance of a compelling mystery.
But the film’s suspenseful aspirations are ultimately hampered by one big problem: its leading lady. Ball does her best with the material, but she is, in the end, sadly miscast. Sandra is intended to be a sultry siren–tough on the outside with a core of melted butter. While Lucy is undeniably beautiful, she is much too flinty to make the character convincingly vulnerable, particularly in her final showdown with the killer. And Ball’s declarations of love to Robert are cringe-inducing; the sappy dialogue sounds almost pained coming from her lips.
Admittedly, part of the problem is also typecasting; for modern audiences, seeing Lucille Ball on the screen brings with it some expectation of laughter. But even the slightly comedic aspects of the film are troublesome. Though many works of noir use black humor to underscore the darkness of the on-screen action, the humor in Lured is not the dry, sarcastic wit typical of its contemporaries, but a little more slapstick in nature. In the end, it just doesn’t quite work. The “humor” isn’t funny–it’s disconcertingly out of place.
Take, for instance, the recurring gag in which Sandra’s police protector, H.R. Barrett (George Zucco), uses his downtime to work a series of crossword puzzles. Every time he gets stuck on a particular clue, Sandra inadvertently provides the answer:
Barrett: “Hey, wait a minute. What’s a five-letter word meaning ‘excavator?'”
Sandra: “I don’t know. Besides, I don’t want to miss Mr. Schubert’s unfinished B-Minor.”
Barrett [scoffs]: “Unfinished B-Minor … Miner! That’s it, of course.”
When a script has to rely on a series of bad puns to get its humor across to the viewer, perhaps it’s time to call it a day.
The issues with the role of Sandra don’t rest entirely on Ball’s padded shoulders, however–the character herself is, in the end, too “good” to be the classic noir femme fatale. She’s not a “bad girl,” nor is she morally questionable, as many of the classic noir dames are. Sandra’s a heroine–more cynical than self-assured, but an overwhelmingly positive figure in the film nonetheless. And truth be told, where’s the fun in that? I hate to say it, but what this movie needs is a bitch–a hard-boiled, not-so-good dame to add some feminine ambiguity to the film.
Ultimately, where the film excels is in its casting of the male roles. As the itinerant playboy who becomes enraptured by Sandra’s American brashness, George Sanders adds yet another debonair cad to an already impressive career of similar roles. And somehow, the shtick never seems to get old–the sly, self-deprecating leer that marks a typical Sanders performance is (at least in my mind) always a welcome addition to any film. His usual “smarmy” nature is toned down a bit in this particular role–Robert has a more vulnerable side that is exacerbated in the final act of this film–but the sleek charm (a natural extension of that gorgeously mellifluous voice) is thankfully intact.
Coburn brings his typical gruff fatherliness to the role of Inspector Temple. Coburn is always a welcome sight for me, though I much prefer him in his comedic incarnations in films such as Bachelor Mother and The More the Merrier. Still, even in a more serious role such as this, he brings a bit of a twinkle to the part, a winking, underlying humor that seems to let us in on some subtle joke.
Lured also features Sir Cecil Hardwicke as Robert’s erudite partner, Julian Wilde (I love his positioning in the scene pictured above, as he looms over Sandra like a predatory bird). Hardwicke’s role is a particularly interesting one in the movie. There is more than a hint of homoerotic interest in the relationship between Robert and Julian–not only are the two men business partners, but they share a house and are inordinately involved in the minutia of one another’s lives. Is Julian’s killing spree, therefore, an attempt on his part to remove from competition every lovely young woman who might catch Robert’s eye? Or does he kill these women through a perverse need to “prove” his heterosexuality, to the women AND to himself? It’s an intriguing aspect to consider, and Lured is far from the first noir to play with hints of homosexuality (see Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon for a prime example).
Continuing the casting bonanza, the film also features an interestingly weird performance from Karloff, who stars as the insane fashion designer. Chalk up another monstrous role for Karloff’s already impressively creepy career.
The movie also features a surprisingly heroic role for Zucco, who was perennially typecast as a villain, and an appearance by Alan Napier as one of Coburn’s underlings–Napier, of course, is familiar to many modern viewers as Bruce Wayne’s trusted butler, Alfred, in the camptastic 1960s television adaptation of Batman.
My issues with “Noir Lucy” aside, I consider Lured to be a particularly guilty pleasure of mine. If you allow yourself to simply watch the movie for entertainment’s sake, it works quite well as sheer escapist pleasure. The story is interesting, if somewhat slight (the script broadcasts Wilde’s complicity so early in the film, they may as well have hung a sign around the man’s neck confirming his guilt). Overall, it’s a beautifully-shot film, despite the limitations of shooting a London-based story in southern California. And when it comes to supporting players, you can’t do much better than this talented crew. It’s not the foremost example of noir in cinematic history, but it shows that the conventions of the genre can be adapted convincingly and effectively even on the “B”-level.
For the Love of Film (Noir) comes to an end tomorrow. If you have not yet cracked open your wallet to donate to the cause, please consider doing so now. I cannot urge you strongly enough to contribute whatever you can to help ensure this project’s completion.
Film is one of the best mediums by which we can preserve our history, culture, and heritage. Every film represents a particular aspect of our shared human experience–be it good, bad, or indifferent–and it is absolutely vital that we preserve our classic films while we can.
And many thanks to Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren for hosting the shindig this week. They have gone out of their way to get the word out and drum up support for the Foundation. The world of classic cinema could not ask for better champions.