Linda Darnell, Noir’s Fallen Angel

lindadurnellnoirLinda Darnell, dark-haired, long-legged beauty who bewitches hungry men in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel and anyone who has watched the film over the long years since. Sexy, sassy, fragile and doomed, she’s surely one of noir’s most memorable sirens. I met her for the first time just a few nights ago.

One of the (perhaps dubious) pleasures of watching old films, certainly those from the 1940s and 1950s, is when I see someone who grabs my attention and I wonder what other films they have been in. Sometimes it might be a face that seems familiar somehow from some other film, like Anne Revere in Fallen Angel. Sometimes it might be just be being struck by a performance (Ronald Lewis, or Laurie Zimmer for instance) or simply being taken aback by a woman’s beauty, as was the case of Gia Scala in The Garment Jungle. These are actors and their faces given some measure of immortality, and endless beauty, moments of their lives frozen in time on celluloid, with lives and careers that can be researched and reviewed in minutes, summarised in mere paragraphs. I’ve been here so many times before but its endlessly fascinating.

One sometimes forgets, in the ‘heat’ of being caught up in a thrilling or absorbing noir, that any given scene is something filmed, usually on a studio set, at a time incongruous to that being filmed- maybe its a Tuesday morning or a Friday afternoon, and when the director yells ‘cut’ everyone breaks and costumes are doffed and casual clothes are put on, Hollywood magic dispelled and real-life returned, whatever ‘real-life’ was back in 1944 or 1949, a reality as distant and foreign to us now as anything captured in Hollywood fantasy. Naturally working in Hollywood was rather more mundane than the magical spectacle the Hollywood spin-masters or tabloid gossip writers would have it, and careers harder and less care-free. Hollywood lives could be as noir as anything in its darkest thriller.

All these years later, of course, Hollywood and its denizens are like that of some other, alien planet. The music they listened to, the cars they drove, it’s not really something we can ever ‘know’ except, ironically, from the versions of that world that we see in those movies. We can’t ever really ‘know’ Linda Darnell, only glimpses through the filmography (fifty-six credits in films and television between 1939 and 1965) and the milestones of her personal life.

So Linda Darnell; born October 16th 1923, died April 10th, 1965, aged 41. Right there one is taken aback. That’s a young age, just twenty years after the film I’d just seen, Fallen Angel, in which she was just 21. It gets worse: in the tradition of all things noir, she didn’t die well: she died after being caught in a fire at a freinds apartment, painfully lingering for a few days having suffered horrific eighty-percent burns. Some accounts have it that a dropped cigarette on a downstairs sofa ignited the fire; one account claimed that Darnell was initially trapped upstairs but fire-fighters found her lying near the burning sofa. Its probably overly-dramatic hyperbole in accounts that describe her falling asleep on the sofa watching one of her old movies, reliving past glory before absently dropping a still-lit cigarette- that’s like something from that old Twilight Zone episode, or Sunset Boulevard, or a typically dark noir. A case of Hollywood life blurring into Hollywood myth?

It doesn’t get much better, the more I read. Her beginning was almost as noir as her end.  Born to parents who were not happily married, Linda Darnell (originally Monetta Eloyse Darnell) was one of four children (plus two from an earlier marriage) but she was evidently the prettiest- her mother Margaret ‘Pearl’ Brown was a failed actress herself and decided, like the darkest of noir mothers, to succeed vicariously through her daughter, pushing her into a modelling career and later into theatrical work at a very young age. Darnell said “Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another. I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly, but Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.” Pearl would later, unsurprisingly earn a bad rep in Hollywood for being pushy and domineering.

Marriages often offer a glimpse of a life beyond that captured by the camera: husbands were Paverell Marley (m.1943, div.1951), Phillip Liebmann (m.1954, div.1955) and Merle Robertson (m.1957, div. 1963). Three marriages, so very Hollywood: tempestuous affairs (Howard Hughes, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) and numerous marriages spell a grim love-life to me (maybe I’ve never lived, but did Darnell live well?) Paverell was over twice Linda’s age; 42 to her 19, they’d eloped to Las Vegas. The second marriage was a loveless one, apparently- of all things, a business arrangement (a wealthy man’s trophy wife?) that proved a nightmare she couldn’t maintain, while at the divorce proceedings for her third marriage, Darnell accused her airline pilot husband of infidelity and fathering the baby of another actress. So love was something that didn’t go particularly well for her: an ironic price of beauty, perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, Darnell suffered from depression and alcoholism and a faltering film career full of what-if’s and maybes, finally released from her contract with 20th Century Fox in 1952 (just seven years after Fallen Angel). “Suppose you’d been earning $4,000 to $5,000 a week for years. Suddenly you were fired and no one would hire you at any figure remotely comparable to your previous salary. I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along. The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?” she would later ruefully comment, aware there was likely little unusual regards her career. How many other beauties suffered a similar fate in the noir reality of  Hollywood’s dreamland? Well, not many of them are immortalised forever in something as memorable and iconic as her performance in Fallen Angel, certainly.

Taste of Fear

tasteThe second film that I’ve watched in Indicator’s fourth Hammer box-set, Taste of Fear is a psychological thriller from 1961 deliberately set up to arose the viewers suspicions and curiosity and at the same time surprise through misdirection and subversion of those viewer suspicions. Its inevitably unnatural and artificial, rather like being played in a cinematic game between film-makers and audience, which unfortunately reinforces a sense of distance from the proceedings- for myself, rather than feeling immersed in the proceedings I felt distanced from them, always aware of film-maker scheming and manipulation. All films are manipulative of course, the skill is in hiding it- murder mysteries etc always seem to excel in manipulation and are less inclined to hide it, aware its all part of their appeal.

Its to Taste of Fear‘s credit then that I missed the films central twist, and unfortunate that as this is its main success I cannot divulge what that twist is- otherwise the film has little to really offer the viewer. I can comment on the cast, which is really pretty excellent. Indeed, one of the things that most interested me in the film prior to seeing it (indeed the only reason I ever knew of it) was the casting of Ronald Lewis in the film. I have mentioned Lewis here before, and in my review of an earlier Hammer film that I saw him in, The Full Treatment. Lewis was an actor of some talent whose career didn’t ever really hit the highs it might have done, and who died, apparently committing suicide, in 1982, shortly after being declared bankrupt. Films are time-capsules, and Taste of Fear is one- Lewis here in his relative prime and when his career was on the up, ignorant of the reality years ahead that our perspective affords us. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that he is better here than in the earlier The Full Treatment, but its clear he could have been something of a star with better material and a little luck in choosing it. People today generally have no idea who Ronald Lewis was, and it might have been so very different.

Old films and our contemporary perspective of them and the people who made them can offer sobering insights of the human condition, something that endlessly fascinates me. I was particularly impressed with Taste of Fear‘s lead, Susan Strasberg, who played the wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby- its a great performance that surpasses the limitations of the role and script, she engenders real empathy and she was the clear highlight of the film for me. I was surprised to later learn that Strasberg would only have limited success in film, instead generally appearing onstage and mostly in guest-spots on various 1960s and 1970s TV shows. Shades of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood there, funnily enough.

Its difficult to refrain from looking up actors names from these old movies, seeing what else they were in and inadvertently the success of their career or lack of it, or indeed reading an entire bio in just a paragraph or so. Marriages, siblings, deaths. Lewis died at the age of just 52, Strasberg passed at just 60. Taste of Fear of course will live forever, the two actors in their youth frozen in time, as is the wont of film. Indicator’s Blu-ray release in this box-set is of typically high standard, with some very interesting and informative supplements that perhaps belie how generally forgotten the film has become over the years. I think its nice to think that actors like Lewis and Strasberg can be seen by more people because of releases such as this, and we can watch them and wonder at what might have been. At the very least, it gets bloggers like me mentioning them, and ensures they might be forgotten a little less.

 

The Full Treatment (1960)

 

full2So here we go with the fourth film in Indicator’s second Hammer box, The Full Treatment. If I were to be brutally honest and ranking the four films in preference, this film would be third on the list, but nonetheless this has quite a lot going for it. In essence it’s a very odd and strangely ‘modern’ film regards its sensibilities, with all sorts of subtext, intentional or otherwise.

The film begins quite brilliantly, really grabbing the viewer with the immediate aftermath of a road accident, depicted in some graphic detail. Immediately following their wedding, racing driver Alan Coulby (Ronald  Lewis) and his Italian wife Denise (Diane Cilento, who is quite brilliant in this film) have been involved in an head-on collision with a truck, killing the truck driver and throwing Denise clear into the road with superficial injuries. Alan Coulby, however, has suffered severe head injuries. Several months after the accident, Coulby is released from treatment and attempts to get his life back on track by taking the honeymoon that was originally curtailed by the accident.

Unfortunately Coulby is something of a broken man- he is too traumatised to drive, which, considering his earlier prowess as a racing driver, would be doubly emasculating (Denise has to drive them to their honeymoon destination, with Coulby a frustrated passenger) and is rendered impotent by an unnatural urge to strangle his wife whenever they attempt to be intimate or share physical contact. He stares at his trembling hands, compelled to do his wife harm whenever aroused, as if his hands belong to someone else. Driven (sic) to distraction by all of this, he is prone to violent outbursts and rages. This proves to be a difficulty for the film, the character as written is a pretty unlikeable lead which impacts the films ability to foster much sympathy for his predicament. Instead we feel for Denise and view Coulby almost as a villain, which is likely not the films intention.

The film does feel quite subversive with the sexual undertones of his murderous urges and jealous rage, I would think someone like Verhoeven or Cronenberg could fashion a quite riveting modern thriller from this material. Its quite surprising to see a Hammer film of this period having some nudity, too- we see Denise swimming naked in the sea or having a bath infront of her husband, quite clearly liberated and confident of her own sexuality and body, which again is at odds with her husbands feelings of emasculation and his horror at his body betraying him when he loses control of his hands and they do Denise harm.

There is a wonderful twist towards the third act, in which Alan and the viewer actually believe that he has indeed possibly killed Denise and he goes on the run, following a blackout. While I doubted that a films of its era could actually follow through with this possibility, its nonetheless an unnerving moment of the film pulling the rug from under you and subverting expectations. For that alone, I rate this film quite highly. Maybe i’m ‘seeing’ too much in its subtext and themes, and the film does become somewhat pedestrian at the end with its fairly formulaic denouement but it isn’t enough to detract from its achievements before.

And of course the film has its interests beyond the film itself- the unfortunate fate of actor Ronald Lewis, which I dwelt upon in a recent post here and Diane Cilento who was soon famous more for being Mrs Sean Connery than her own acting career (which arguably suffered from that marriage).  Neither of the two really reached the heights they might have, but this film is a tantalising glimpse of a moment when both of them had all sorts of possibilities ahead of them.

 

Who was Ronald Lewis?

Ronald_LewisWatching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and can become a rather sobering experience at times. I’ve written about this before- watching an old film, being curious about an actor that I’ve just seen, looking them up on the internet, suddenly reading of an entire life and career summed up in a paragraph. How can an entire life be summed up within a few lines? Of course it can’t, it just leaves us with a tantalizing glimpse, and its human nature to just try fill in those gaps, haunted by those images from films, of lives frozen at that moment, actors/actresses unaware of the futures ahead of them that we can read now, looking back. In some ways it offers a horrifying perspective. Not every story ends well.

Last night I watched The Full Treatment (review coming later), another Hammer film from the recent Indicator Hammer boxset, and I was fascinated, somehow, by the performance of Ronald Lewis in the lead role. To a degree it was one of those have I/where have I seen him before? moments, but I must say I was very impressed by him in The Full Treatment, hamstrung slightly by an awkward script, and thought he looked a good leading man for the time. In looks he reminded me a little of the great Jack Lemmon. I suppose I was just curious why I hadn’t seen him in any other Hammer films, as Hammer seemed to have a group of actors that it used in so many films (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing perhaps the most famous, but many other actors continually resurfaced in minor roles), and it seemed odd that Lewis didn’t  get used by them in other films (as it turned out, I learned that he turned up in another two Hammer films, The Taste of Fear, which I haven’t seen and is apparently superior to The Full Treatment and was much more successful. So Hammer did use him again, Lewis later appearing in 1965’s The Brigand of Kandahar, another Hammer I have not seen).

There was something, though, seeing The Full Treatment, and Ronald Lewis in his presumed prime, frozen in time over fifty years ago. So here again, obituaries offer glimpses of entire lives: Ronald Lewis, born 11 December 1928 in Port Talbot, Glamorgan (which would make him about 31 when he was filming The Full Treatment) died 11th January 1982, aged just 53, having committed suicide-  a drugs overdose, likely connected to having been declared bankrupt the year before. His life summed up as being a Welsh actor most famous for his work in the 1950s and 1960s, his films and television appearances listed. Its inferred he suffered from a drinking problem, with bad press from having allegedly assaulted his wife in 1965, and his career suffered a decline arising either from his bad image or his drinking affecting his work. IMDb alleges that  ‘he was known as an aggressive and perhaps unstable man, with a history of violence towards others, including women’. Two marriages, one child.

So who was Ronald Lewis? Of course, I have no real idea, and after so many years most of those who knew him are likely gone, too. Just the clues left, his life beyond those images from The Full Treatment summed up by a few scant lines. With The Full Treatment his career was still on the rise, a leading man in British film, a career soon to take a bad turn into slow decline, bankruptcy and suicide. But somehow he lives forever in film, frozen in time- in The Full Treatment, it will always be 1960.

In 1962, Lewis appeared in Twice Around the Daffodils, with Kenneth Williams, who in his diary dated 12th January 1982 reflected on the news of Lewis’ passing: “The paper says Ronald Lewis has taken an overdose! He was declared bankrupt last year! Obviously nobody offered him work & he was driven to despair. I remember Ronnie… and that drinking session at the White Horse all those years ago… he was a kind boy & people used him. He was 53.”

Watching old movies, it’s like looking through the lens of a time machine, and yes, it can be a sobering experience, measuring those years, catching glimpses of the lives on that screen.