Slightly Scarlet (1956): No surprises


The Museum of Modern Art in New York over the last month has held a retrospective of films by Hollywood producer, director, and writer Allan  Dwan.  His career spanned over 40 years beginning with silent movies in the 1920s and ending with his last film in 1961.  It is only since the early 70s that Dwan has attracted the interest of film scholars.  It is debatable whether he has auteur status, though he seems to have had certain mannerisms in his late output.  Signature stylistics include the use of bright primary colors in his technicolor work, the placement and tracking of actors within the frame to delineate attachments, jealousies, and conflicts, and the use of phallic motifs and the like.

You can see all these elements in the 1956 film, Slightly Scarlet, an overwrought gangster movie, based on a novel by James M. Cain. The ambitious lieutenant of a  gambling racketeer contrives his elevation to boss of the outfit, while setting up a favour bank with a pliant cop and a crusading mayor.  Add two gorgeous redheads to the mix and you have the makings of a pot-boiler.  Some critics give the picture film noir status. I don’t buy it. There is an homme-fatale, crime, sex, corruption, and greed. Yet these elements don’t gel into a recognisable noir.  It is more a revenge chronicle filmed in lurid color not in shadows.  DP John Alton is given little to work with as the scenes tend to be stagey, though he manages to create a malevolent atmosphere through shadow artifice and areas of black from under-exposing some internal scenes. Dwan’s use of gaudy colors is visually tiring but rendered to good effect in filming the racketeer’s opulant bungalow and the interior of a beach house, where Dwan theatrically stages the violent scenes that end the picture. Indeed, he places the protagonists in the living area and on a staircase, mapping out the dynamics of the final resolution of the conflicts that have propelled them to the inevitable bloody confrontation.

A plodding pace and no surprises however make for a dull 100 minutes. Only Rhonda Fleming in short shorts, tight skirts, and pointy brassiere is (very) distracting. John Payne is ok only as the ambitious hood, and Arlene Dahl as Fleming’s slutty kleptomaniac sister completes the triangle.


3 thoughts on “Slightly Scarlet (1956): No surprises”

  1. Ah Tony, I deeply regret not get over to MOMA, and haven’t a very good excuse either in view of my many trips into Manhattan all year round. I would have liked to see even a few of these films. But obviously not this one! Ha! I agreed it’s reputation is much higher than it should be. Yes, the lurid color is immediately an issue in the noir universe, and the acting is solid (especially Arlene Dahl) but nothing special and rather a conventional genre piece. Too bad when you consider it was based on Cain and shot by Alton! Yet another extraordinary review of masterful economy that will have readers hanging on every word!


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