Tuesday, April 30, 2013

His Kind of Woman

When you think of great teams from the golden age of cinema, you may think of Loy and Powell (Who doesn't adore them?), Rogers and Astaire (Who doesn't enjoy them?), Hepburn and Tracy (neither of whom i've ever particularly liked).  But my favorite may be Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, two actors that never seemed to give much of a damn about acting. Russell seemed perpetually bemused onscreen -- movie stardom beat the hell out of working in a chiropodist's office, but so would a lot of things. As for Mitchum, his nonchalant savoir-faire is the stuff of legend. The man rolled through freight trains, chain gangs, cowboy movies, weed busts, film noir, endless spread-thighed starlets, Calypso albums, Technicolor blockbusters, fifty-something years of marriage, international superstardom -- all this, half-asleep and completely blase.
His Kind of Woman was their first film together, a kind of screwball noir. It was made at RKO during the Howard Hughes era, back when the mogul was only slightly deranged, but he still made films according to fetish and whim -- and fetish and whim with inexhaustible financial backing can sure drag out production time. Thus, His Kind of Woman took over a year to shoot (Vincent Price apparently threw a swingin' party to mark his first anniversary of being on the set), had two directors, three villains and was stopped about five times for rewriting, recasting and/or reshooting.

It opens a bit slow, with a lot of panning back and forth across maps with droning voiceovers. (It's better than a cheesy montage, but not better than a cartoon plane moving across the big map.) and some guys in suits babbling in front of some ugly art. Then some other guys in ugly suits play cards. All of this happens in low angle shots with heavy chiaroscuro. Finally, Robert Mitchum shows up, trades quips with the diner counterman, beats up some ugly suits, passes out, wakes up, answers phone. "No, I'm not busy. I was just getting ready to take my tie off. Wondering if I should hang myself with it." Naturally, poor Mitchum is getting set up by all the suits. He's being paid off to go hide out in Mexico for a year and... well, he's not sure, but he'll take the money and head south and see what happens. Robert Mitchum is not one to fight fate. Unless it hits him first. Or insults his buddy. Or knocks over a cripple. Or slaps a dame around. But fate (or Jane Greer) totally has to make the first move...

Their meeting is exactly as it should be. Mitchum tinkles the piano while Russel preens in her compact, both feigning obliviousness while putting on a show. He offers her a drink, she announces, "I'm drinking champagne." Mitchum one-ups her by pulling out an already uncorked bottle with a wry grin. Russell one-ups him by pulling out a bottle of her own, raising an eyebrow ever-so-slightly. He shrugs, reaches for the glass, "Where's yours?" She's a singer and, uh,  socialite who just happens to be hanging around this seedy bordertown bar, waiting for a plane out of the country.

Russel was always oddly believable in these jaded woman of the world roles -- one, she seemed like she could take care of herself (Look at her: If she socked a fella in the jaw, it would hurt.) and, two, she seemed to have alternately fended off and absorbed life's slings and arrows with more humor than pathos. And whatever exotic locale you drop Jane in -- Mexico, Macao, Minneapolis -- she's always popular with the locals.
Another pan across maps, this time to Mexico to the most fabulous mid-century tropical resort ever constructed on a soundstage. We will stay at Morro's Lodge, as it is called, for much of the remainder of His Kind of Woman because, frankly, who would want to leave? It's introduced to us in a glorious tracking shot, following two blondes (Look closely! One is Mamie Van Doren back when she was still Joan Olander.) and their sugar daddy up from the beach, then losing them in the lobby, picking them up again in the bar, then losing them again on the dance floor before swinging around to catch Robert Mitchum coming in from the pool.

Everyone's wandering around in Hawaiian-print shorts and wiggle dresses, wanting to play gin rummy or go hunting or have a martini or play chess or sunbathe, surrounded by palm trees and white sands, googie prints and vertical blinds. Even Thurston Howell III himself is in the house!

Mitchum is still wondering why he's here. (So am i, when i remember to.) He skulks around the lobby, has a lot of enigmatic conversations and listens to even more. The avuncular resort host, the jolly guy in the ugly shirt, the newlywed degenerate gamblers, the misanthropic German chess master -- none are what they appear to be.
(Admire the mosaics on the pool deck.) Despite all the noir baroquery, Mitchum weirdly sticks to sipping milk and ginger ale in His Kind of Woman, odd for one of moviedom's and, indeed, humandom's greatest drinkers.
"I'm a professional gambler," he explains to one of the many persons of interest loitering around the Morro.

The response: "Who isn't?"
And, hey! Look! It's Vincent Price! Price plays movie star Mark Cardigan, sometime playmate of Jane Russell. (Yes, those are tailfins on Jane's bodice. And dig the tiki lamp over Price's shoulder.) It's a delightful performance that really powers the second half of the film, rife with with humor, a certain smarmy charm and thespian self-parody. A scene in which he watches himself in his latest hokey epic is especially droll.
We also discover that Jane Russell is no woman of wealth, but rather a lounge singer who is impersonating a member of the leisure class in order to snag a high-class husband. (Career options for women were more limited in those days, when the only way to make a nice life for yourself was to get some guy rich enough to foot the bills to wanna fuck you badly enough that he'll put a ring on it.) The lady was chasing the ham, but now that he's turned up with that wife that he told Jane was "separated" from (like they do), she's rethinking going back to the piano bars and possibly...
....Oh yeah, gurrrrl, i'd be seriously thinking about it too. Anyway, Mitchum is still hanging about amidst the foliage and parabolas, flirting with Russell, smirking at Price, trying to figure out what he's doing South of the Border for this five grand. Eventually he hooks up with some FBI or CIA or IRS agents who are trying to catch the mobster who is trying to steal Mitchum's identity (Aha!) but as soon as that can happen, one of 'em gets whacked and then it's on! Mitch and Price wind up in a beachside shootout with the bad guys -- hack actor Price keeps forgetting he's not in one of his movies, meaning he's alternately impressively cool and totally ridiculous.
Here is where the plot of His Kind of Woman goes completely two-faced. Mitchum bum rushes the mobster's yacht and is quickly overpowered and winds up subject to a series of particularly fetishy tortures at the hands of (identity-thieving mobster) Raymond Burr and chess Nazi and a half-dozen burly muscleman types. (Apparently this series of steam blasting, goon-beating and experimental drug-injecting was one of the things Hughes fixated upon and kept doing and redoing over and over. Makes ya wonder....)

But in the meantime, Vincent Price mounts a slapstick rescue attempt, spouting Shakespeare as a group of bewildered Federales try frantically to row their sinking boat. About the only believable moment is that Price only keeps Russell from joining the effort by tricking her into getting locked in a closet -- because you know she's not the kind of dame to wait around at home and hope for the best.

Eventually Mitchum kicks the shit out of all the villains (Not unrealistic: After over a year of shooting and endless retakes of getting punched in the gut, Mitchum finally snapped one night and completely destroyed the set.) after Price and posse provide a diversion. Evil is dispatched and Bob and Jane are reunited for some final cynical repartee before the final clinch -- she pours the champagne, he irons out the few dollar bills they have between them....
Mitchum was always greatly underrated as an actor. (Check out this old clip of "What's my Line" for a near-Streep-level ability with accents. Charles Laughton (Mitchum's director in Night of the Hunter) once said, "He'd make the best Macbeth of any actor living" and Laughton has a point. Mitchum always played a man manipulated by women into things he would normally find morally reprehensible (well, he still thinks it's wrong, but he's doing it anyway).

A great part of the charm of His Kind of Woman is in its curiously schizophrenic air -- which was surely abetted by its repeated reshoots and bizarre production history. Mitchum inhabits a violent noir film, rife with plot twists and beatdowns. Russell lives in a sort of romantic dramedy, girl torn between posing as an heiress with a wealthy schlub or going back to her life as a singer with the hunky broke guy. And then there's Vincent Price's comedy/parody, with its cast of eccentric characters, self-referential twists and slapstick scenarios. The stories separate, loop back, come together, then split again, all at a fast pace with clever dialogue. Logical? No. Entertaining?  Hell, yes!

Besides, if you ever wanted to see what Vincent Price looks like in the kitchen cooking a chicken, here's your opportunity.

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