DVD: Slightly Scarlet (1956)

June 16, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  VCI

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  February 26, 2002

Genre:  Film Noir / Melo-Noir / Suspense / Crime

Synopsis: The lives of a kleptomaniac, her saintly sister, a mob boss and his hungry rival collide in this part noir, melodrama, and gangster thriller.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by mystery author Max Allan Collins / Theatrical Trailer.




Director Allan Dwan may have felt the censors imposed too many restrictions to adapt James M. Cain’s novel Love’s Lovely Counterfeit (1942) for the big screen, but novelist and DVD commentator Max Allen Collins (Road to Perdition) is 100% right in pegging Slightly Scarlet as one of the most underrated film noirs of the fifties, if not a maligned and marginalized work Cain biographers brand as ‘the worst film based on a weak Cain novel.’

Adapted with slick precision by Robert Blees (The Glass Web, Magnificent Obsession, The Black Scorpion), Scarlet is a strange amalgam that shouldn’t work so well, being part noir, melodrama, and crime film, and yet everything hums to an almost perfect rhythm in a constantly swirling tale of June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming) picking up her jailbird Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) upon release, and discovering her little sister is an unrepentant kleptomaniac with an utterly unbridled sex drive for bad boys.

June’s efforts to help Dorothy transition back into society as a good girl are quickly shot down when the latter skips an appointment with a shrink and plays hooky with Ben Grace (John Payne), a versatile but underappreciated thinker in Solly Caspar’s mob. In his superb and full-running commentary, author Collins explains Blees’ smartest move was to bring in Dorothy at the onset instead of the novel’s midpoint, thereby seeding Dorothy’s jealousy of her sister’s attraction to Ben, and the widening rift between co-dependent sisters.

Even after trimming the novel’s material to appease stuffy censors, there’s still a lot of inflammatory elements which go much farther than Dwan’s subsequent noir, the similarly underrated The River’s Edge (1958). The standout costumes flatter the actresses’ considerably stunning figures, and Dorothy’s nymphomania and hunger for Ben remain potent due to some sly direction: when Ben visits the Lyons household, Dorothy is seen stroking a pillow in close-ups, but in a wide shot where she’s out of focus on the patio, it’s obvious Dorothy is stroking her nether regions while Ben and June chatter in the living room.


The American P.R. campaign, with gorgeous colours, overlaping geo-shapes, and an obvious emphasis on skin.


RKO’s promo book emphasizing the actresses in costumes they do wear in the film – a rare moment of accuracy amid the standard P.R. hype and outright lies.


Alternate key art in the long-form poster, with Superscope always present.


And the German poster featuring a moment that doesn’t exist, and two oddly content heroines above the title ‘Street of the Broken’ or ‘Morally Busted!’


Dahl seemed to recognize Dorothy had to be a constant foil, distracting and annoying everyone at hand; it’s a fine physical performance of looks, walks, and leg action which entice or ensnare her targets, and the character’s bold sense of humour signals simmering desires and selfish actions. Dorothy isn’t clueless to her ‘sickness’ – in a great moment of sibling hatred, she tells June how much she liked stealing and upsetting her at a young age, and like a spoiled brat, feigns fear and outrage when the police initially drag Dorothy to jail for stealing a pearl necklace. Dorothy’s constantly performing to maintain her worst habits and behaviour, and June becomes part of the acts when she initially lies to the store detective to keep Dorothy safe.

Ben is just as fascinating, working people for his own benefit and resorting to violence only when necessary, versus Solly’s cruel approach to confronting his target, telling him how he’s going to mangle him, and then tossing the body out of a window like dirty laundry. Solly has plenty of willing henchmen, but he likes the hands-on, personal approach which Ben eschews in favour of Iago-styled maneuvering..

Ted de Corsia played a gang leader in Columbia’s 3D thriller Man in the Dark (1953) and (incredibly) walked away with dignity from the John Wayne debacle The Conqueror (1956) after playing lead Mongol chieftan Kumlek. Although his filmography is packed with many small roles in feature films & episodic TV, Scarlet is one of his best; we feel bereft when Solly disappears from the screen for much of the midsection and are delighted when he returns for the memorable finale that involves money, sex, and a harpoon gun.

Whether by design or pure luck, Scarlet also benefits from fantastic set designs by Van Nest Polglase (Citizen Kane, Suspicion, Gilda) that may be studio-bound, but their ludicrous, vast square footage celebrate the angular glory of mid-century design, as do the striking costumes which delineate the good-bad sister schism, and enabled provocative moments the censors couldn’t conceal.

If the sexy & charismatic cast, meticulous sets, stunning convertible sedans, and twisting plot are the main attraction, then John Alton’s cinematography is secondary. Alton uses low angle, high contrast lighting to create shadows and stark profiles, and in spite of being his first colour film, you could argue Alton lit the film like a moody B&W thriller, yet nonetheless expanding layers of light to capture colour spectrums within wafting cigarette smoke, animated shadowplay, and hard facial edges from flicking a TV screen.

The weakest element is Louis Forbes’ score which tries to address the classic noir elements while boosting the melodrama of the weird dual love triangles of Dorothy-Ben-June, and June-Ben-Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor), the latter June’s long-suffering boyfriend & boss who refuses to give up on marriage. The score’s main theme is an especially drippy romantic ode which owes more to a Douglas Sirk drama than noir, but it adds to the film’s weird blend of emotions and characters with wildly differing morals in what could be pegged as melo-noir, a subset of film noir.

VCI’s DVD features an old and flawed transfer from an adequate print; there aren’t breaks and nicks and nasty wear, but DNR is significantly cranked up to smoothen film grain and soften coarse details. The colours are pastel but seem rather muted. There’s also an aberration when Ben visits June’s house: the image flickers, much like a finger fumbling behind a projector’s lens. The mono sound mix is a bit low but average, and the transfer was made from a 1.77:1 matted Superscope print.

Extras include a trailer gallery and short text bios, but Collins’ love for the film translates into a fine commentary in which he compares novel and film, offers bio material on Cain, cites prior film adaptations and common themes within the novels, and Collins’ own love for the moody, lurid genre. Scarlet is one of the late colour noirs of the fifties, and part of the last wave of productions released by RKO before it went bust under Howard Hughes’ destructive ownership.

It’s also one of 10  films directed by Dwan for prolific indie producer Benedict Bogeaus, which include Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), Passion (1954), Silver Lode (1954), Escape to Burma (1955), Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), The River’s Edge (1957), Typee (1958), and The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961).

Slightly Scarlet is a very strange film – the Main Titles have oddly-placed freeze-frames, and a sprawling, red film title reprised in the End Credits – but this film shows a cast & crew in top form, including director Dwan, whose career spanned nearly 60 years and hundreds of short and feature films with varying budgets.

Arlene Dahl would appear in the titillating British suspense-dramas Wicked as They Come (1956) and She Played with Fire (1957), and endear herself as the prim widower Carla Goteborg in the fantastical Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). John Payne would star in Dwan’s Silver Lode with Lizabeth Scott, and Tennesee’s Partner with Rhonda Fleming.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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