DVD’s of the 1956 noir-in-color film Slightly Scarlet are supposed to come with extras, including a Max Allan Collins commentary. Mine may have been bought new, but from a closeout bin, and it came with nothing but a disk with the movie on it. Just a knock-off copy? Who knows? But I would’ve really liked that Collins commentary track.
Call it a noir, call it a crime melodrama, call it what you will, but director Allan Dwan’s film of a Robert Blees’ screenplay – adapted (rather freely) from James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit — is an intriguing movie, and in more than one way.
The source novel isn’t Cain’s best, but less-than-perfect Cain can be better than some others’ best work, and being James M. Cain, the novel includes some scenes/themes that a mid-1950’s movie could never hope to get away with. Here, John Payne plays Ben Grace, who works for Bay City’s ruthless rackets boss Solly Caspar, and has been assigned to dig up dirt on a crusading mayoral candidate making trouble for the syndicate. Doing so might be easier than Ben Grace imagined, once he discovers that the reformer has a girlfriend, and she has a sister newly released from prison.
Rhonda Fleming plays ‘good girl’ June Lyons, who Ben Grace promptly falls for. Arlene Dahl plays ‘bad girl’ Dorothy, an unrepentant thief with an eye for the fellows — the badder the better — and Payne’s Ben Grace will do just fine. With the heat on and the mob boss forced to flee town, Ben Grace takes over the rackets while he falls for sister-the-good but is seduced by sister-the-bad, all in suitably 1950’s era levels of sex-i-fied sizzle. But then Solly the mob boss returns, with wads of dough that more than make up for his gruff ways as far as Dorothy is concerned. Soon, bullets start flying, bodies pile up till the law finally arrives, though not before Ben Grace goes down.
John Payne may have gotten top billing, but this was Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl’s movie all the way, and they’re a delight to watch. Dahl, in particular, pushes the era’s boundaries in both subtle and then overt ways as an unapologetic crook whose sex drive is always in high gear, whether she’s pawing through wads of loot the mob kingpin tosses at her feet, or more provocative still, is sprawled on a sofa and apparently enjoying a little…uhm…’private time’. (Demurely shot from behind the sofa, of course…C’mon, it was 1956!) Bottom line: The two actresses get a workout in this film and turn in terrific performances. FYI, both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are still with us, I believe.
While Slightly Scarlet wasn’t a big budget production, it was filmed in Technicolor (and “Superscope”, whatever that is) and in many scenes and setups, seems to point the way toward the look of many “Neo-Noir” films to come decades later. Familiar film noir camera angles and deeply shadowed corners, backgrounds and overheads are evident throughout, but all in color instead of black & white. Visually, at least, much of the film looks ahead of tis time.
Maybe you’ll spot Slightly Scarlet poking out of a bargain bin yourself. If you do, grab it. It won’t (and shouldn’t) replace Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice on your DVD shelf, but you’ll watch two 1950’s pro’s dialing some so-so material up a few notches, all of it shot in a nifty noir-in-color style that presages ominously dark visuals to come a few decades later.