Friday, July 8, 2011

His Kind of Woman (1951)

Try as he might, Howard Hughes couldn't ruin this one...

- Robert Mitchum stars in RKO Picture's 1951 film noir comedy/thriller His Kind of Woman as Dan Milner, a misfortunate pawn in the middle of a criminal caper. A gambler who ironically "only bets on a good thing," Dan has rubbed too many elbows with too many gangsters and is currently quite unlucky and in-the-red in his main trade. Just before the roof caves in on Dan, he is suddenly and mysteriously offered $50,000 to leave the country. He has no choice but to accept - with skepticism.

Dan's destination is a resort in Mexico that is populated by an array of ambiguous but colorful characters that both amuse and caution him. One character that especially attracts Dan's attention is the beautiful, golden-throated Lenore Brent (Jane Russell) who - that's right, you guessed it - appears to be his kind of woman. Lenore seems to be romancing the bumbling, vain actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price) but, just like the rest of the resort's goings on, nothing is as it seems....

His Kind of Woman, as well as being an enjoyable pulp noir thriller, would sound the bell tolling the final hour of RKO's history of making classic pictures in Hollywood's Golden Age. While certainly not the first film that RKO Tsar and producer Howard Hughes interfered with, His Kind of Woman was one of the first times that Hughes would begin to write and re-write, staff and re-staff, cast and re-cast, shoot and re-shoot, and quite simply take an invasive style of producing his pictures at RKO into the ground. Hughes would set a fateful precedent with His Kind of Woman, as his chaotic interfering would become a frequent act that put films over schedule, over budget and would almost single-handedly ruin RKO.

At first, John Farrow (having worked at RKO and Robert Mitchum before with Where Danger Lives (1950)) directed His Kind of Woman - however, Hughes disliked the film's ending and brought in Richard Fleischer to re-shoot the final scenes.... Then Hughes decided to bring everyone back and have Fleischer re-shoot the entire film, re-writing each scene as the days went on. Hughes' fingerprints are all over the film; from Jane Russell's raging cleavage to obvious lines of dialogue (his dislike for "message pictures" clearly made in one particular line). Because of Hughes' tampering, the plot in His Kind of Woman is quite convoluted and sometimes out-of-focus.

This is not to say that His Kind of Woman is a bad film - far from it in my view. It was the first of two films that Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell would star in together and while I slightly prefer their second film, Macao (1952), His Kind of Woman is a very entertaining pulp adventure. Howard Hughes was obsessed with both Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in different ways - Mitchum for his lady-swooning, tough-guy persona (living through Mitchum as he on-screen romanced Hughes' various actress obsessions) and Russell for her voluptuous figure - and putting the two together in one film would be one of the few brilliant results of Hughes' hands-on producing.

Mitchum and Russell are a perfect screen duo in His Kind of Woman, complimenting each other very well with a similar no-nonsense aura and razor sharp wit. Both are similarly entertaining in their own ways - Mitchum in his ability to be laid-back but spectacular and tough but vulnerable at the same time and Russell in her presence, beauty, and singing voice (which she gets to show off not once but twice in the film); it is a shame that Mitchum and Russell did not make more than two films together.

The film offers more than just Mitchum and Russell, who are indeed enough of a draw by themselves, through its cool style and entertainment value. First of all, His Kind of Woman gets a lot of points for visual presentation in its reel-to-reel stylish nature. Many scenes are about as visually archetypal film noir as a movie can get with its memorable low-angled framing and thick shadowing. A very enjoyable Vincent Price helps the entertainment value of the film as well. Price could not have played the role of the vain actor Cardigan any better - the scene with him shifty-eyed and clapping at his own film before it even ended is priceless.

But perhaps more interesting is the fact that, although it was passed through more hands than a doobie at Woodstock, His Kind of Woman manages to be a strong, overall engaging and enjoyable film. While the film's first half of the story is a bit confusing and fairly stagnant in its development, the overall lack of direct focus does not make the film a mess but actually adds to the improvisational and unpredictable feel of the film. Also, His Kind of Woman has the ability to seamlessly go from a comedic bit like Vincent Price standing heroically on the bow of a sinking ship to a chilling scene where Mitchum is being beaten and tortured (and actually stuck with a syringe by the way, much to Mitchum's dislike). His Kind of Woman ends up as one of the few films noir that successfully mingles an even dose of comedy and film noir.

Despite all of the Howard Hughes' meddling, re-writing, re-staffing and re-shooting, His Kind of Woman ends up a unique, entertaining and worthwhile film noir comedy/thriller anyway.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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