Ya gotta feel bad for Lana Turner. She and Tony Quinn have this problem—a bad problem. They’ve just bumped off her rich, nasty, terminally ill husband, Lloyd Nolan, and now…they’re feeling bad about it.
Tony feels bad because he was Lloyd’s doctor and by slipping a bubble into Lloyd’s hypo he’s violated his Hippocratic oath. That’s very bad (and not an action to inspire confidence in future patients). And Lana feels bad because it’s not a nice thing to bump off your hubby, who’s left you enough money to keep you in Jean Louis gowns, David Webb jewels, pricey shoes, furs, cosmetics, chauffeured cars, and even “original oil paintings from The Martin Lowitz Gallery” to last you till the crack of doom. So Lana feels bad and Tony feels bad and it’s bad, so bad, all around, and oh, do these two suffer, and I mean suffer for all this bad. Who knew life could be so bad for such a beautiful, rich, gorgeously gowned, coiffed, and jeweled widow and her equally beautiful, rich, gorgeously suited, and socko-macho hot-blooded Latin-lover paramour? Can it get any badder?
You bet it can. All this badness is happening in the 1960 Ross Hunter production Portrait in Black, one of those overstuffed cheesecakes about how bad it is for those living at the very top of the economic ladder. I’m both bemused and amused by such films, which seem to serve simultaneously as warnings against the sin of Envy toward those who never have to worry about next month’s rent money, and as an outlet for working-class schadenfreude, a harmless way to derive satisfaction from the guilty writhings of the super-rich. It’s lots of fun. Portrait in Black is the kind of movie you settle down to watch with popcorn and red wine and mounds of nibbly chocolates while goggling at the costly display of clothes and décor (mentally calculating what portion of Hunter’s budget was spent just on those bowls of yellow roses scattered about sets like big bright balls of spring sunshine). How can you not enjoy a film about the woes of people who spend their days in fabulous fashions and designer mansions and limo’d cars, seeking a little help, a little surcease, from their manifold miseries that drag after them like the train of a silk dress across marble floors? Only the most curmudgeonly of Marxists could complain.
And the rich do suffer. Honestly, they do. They just have nicer accommodations to suffer in. Lana, for instance, weeps away her sorrows in a white-and-cream-colored bedroom the size of a minor rajah’s domicile, where, decked out in enough silk and diamonds to turn that minor rajah bright green with envy, she lights a four-inch-long cigarette with a solid silver lighter you could smash walnuts with, and then phones her housekeeper on the cream-colored in-house princess phone to ask that her uniformed chauffeur (who’d much rather stick by the radio to listen to the horse races and find out how his “investments” are doing) drive her out shopping in the Mercedes. Lordy, the suffering. And you thought you had problems.
It’s more than Guilt and Anguish and Suffering, though. It’s Love and Passion and Need, and those precious moments in your lover’s arms when you can forget that snuffed spouse in the bedroom back home. Lana’s only comfort from her miseries are her secret meetings with Dr. Tony, stealing a few breathless kisses whenever Guilt, Anguish, etc., become de trop. “Just hold me,” she pleads, while the camera cuts to an intense close-up highlighting her perfectly lip-sticked lips (a coral-peach shade, I think) rising in the saddest of smiles toward her lightly blushed cheeks (an artfully placed shadow outlining the delicate curve of chin and cheekbone), as her large, liquid blue eyes (the merest touch of color on the lids), gaze up at Tony, her very pupils melting with passion, before their faces come together in a lingering kiss. All that lingering passion because Tony is escaping, I mean leaving to accept a research appointment in Switzerland—a country, Lana says, that’s “so clean.”
Well, I guess clean countries are important, especially to those used to living at the highest levels of taste, beauty, and luxury (New Jersey just won’t do). But not even a sanitary nation can comfort Lana for Tony’s loss. She’s desperate to keep him, right in his fabulously accoutered multi-room apartment, with a stone balcony and marble floors and warm gold lighting and a view of San Francisco Bay, plus what I take to be some of those Martin Lowitz Gallery original oil paintings on the walls, in front of which the pair embrace to violins sobbing on the soundtrack, slobbering over each other’s hands in agonized departure (Lana nibbling Tony’s knuckles as she does so; a nice touch). There’s so much raw, throbbing feeling, as raw as turnips fresh-pulled from the sod, it bursts out at you like candy from a smashed piñata. And the most feelingest of all is Lana, her melting baby blues glistening with unshed tears as she takes a final hurl into her lover’s arms before they must part forever. Only a heart of stone (as stony as that ornate balcony) could fail to throb along with her.
And then that Mysterious Letter arrives.
You know it’s Mysterious because it’s written in block letters and is unsigned and says, in what I think is meant to be a snide tone, that the writer of this missive Saw All and Knows All. Referring, of course, to the offing of Lana’s hubby. Which means the guilty secret is now out and bounding free, and suddenly Lana and Tony are getting a whiff of the gas chamber. If it was bad for our passionatas before, it’s really bad now, and you can bet that whistle-clean Swiss trip is off. For now Tony and Lana must sort through the Red Herrings and figure out Who Saw, Who Knows.
So is it: Richard Baseheart, Lloyd Nolan’s creepy business manager, who sneers with a smile and reeks with Lana-gripped lust?
Or is it: Anna May Wong, the Inscrutable Oriental Housekeeper (her appearances always accompanied by Inscrutable Oriental Music on the soundtrack), who watches Lana from Inscrutable Oriental Eyes?
Or is it: Ray Walston, the bookie-haunted chauffeur with debts to pay and no ethics to speak of; Virginia Grey, Nolan’s loyal secretary who loved him in secret for many years; John Saxon, a hot-headed young entrepreneur whose pending business deal with Nolan expired when Nolan did; Sandra Dee, Nolan’s squealy-voiced daughter who disapproves of Lana’s shopping trips; or even Lana’s young son, who has a talent for getting underfoot just when you don’t want him? There’s enough incarnadined clupea harengus here to start your own canning factory, and then some.
I’m curious: Did or do audiences ever take this stuff seriously? I mean, aside from the agonizing of two healthy, beautiful, rich, fortunate people who’ve just happened to commit a murder and now can’t get away with it, what’s the problem? A movie like Portrait in Black is a fantasy, like something out of the Arabian Nights, where heroes find portals to secret worlds of luxury and beauty; and I think it’s telling us something beyond its ostensible murder-mystery story. It’s how Life is a continuing drama of Passionate Intensity, where everything—even pulling open the drapes (gold-tinted silk, of course)—is fraught with Intense Passion. And where everything takes place in the best, lushest, most holy-cow exclusive of surroundings. There’s no such thing as the daily monotony of living, where you pay the bills, cook the dinner, clean the house, feed the kids, and empty the garbage. No one in Portrait in Black ever needs to wash a hair or brush a tooth. Everyone and everything are perpetually shiny and Swiss-clean, fresh out of the plastic wrap, untouched by anything except the finest fabrics and gems.
It’s the feelings that count, see. You’ve gotta have the good life, of course, with everything gilt-edged and gold-flecked and made of silk, fur, or dark, polished wood. But then you’ve gotta suffer for it, so you can feel OK about living it. Thus even setting out on a mundane shopping trip becomes heightened drama, like Aeschylus performed in the pages of House Beautiful. Here comes Lana, in a calf-length beige sable fur coat (with matching turban), strolling down a gleaming white staircase as long as Niagara Falls; and up comes guilt-inducing stepdaughter Sandra, snarling the right guilt-inducing comment to set Lana’s anguish ablaze (“Enjoy yourself,” sneers Miss Sandra in her best pussy-washing-whiskers manner). Every pleasure in life must be paid for, and poor Lana pays, pays, right down to her anguished twisting of a chunk of diamond ring large enough to be declared a lethal weapon. And her payment is counted out, cent by cent, in the most exquisitely felt feelings, each delicate lash of emotion a tribute to her finely tuned sensibilities, perfectly in tune with all those finely tuned interiors .
Those quivering sensibilities do more than vibrate; they twine into a quaking bundle of ardor around Lana’s love for Tony. Love is Suffering on Steroids for Lana, it’s her agony and ecstasy, her alpha and omega, with bundles of nice money on the side. I can’t recall seeing two more suffering characters so swamped in the fixtures of high living. In all their scenes Tony and Lana touch, kiss, cry, embrace, and cry some more, while up to their eyelids in expensive clothes, cars, rooms and spacious windows overlooking the blue expanse of the Pacific. Ain’t love grand? Everything’s so tasteful and coordinated, the discreet, lush background to inflamed desire. The murder’s just a prop, necessary to evoke such levels of passion (a falling out over a missed dinner date, say, wouldn’t do), and a second murder serves as a springboard to ever more amatory extremes. The shadows fall, the music swells, the violins weep, and Tony and Lana clutch, grip, grapple, smooch, and gnaw on each other’s flesh like starved fleas seeking blood. It’s the classy way to live, love, and suffer.
What’s needed in such films is a Star who can carry off this guff without audiences shrieking (too much) with laughter. And Lana Turner—Hollywood royalty, if there ever was—delivers the goods. Oh, I know, she wasn’t considered much of an actress; David Shipman wrote she couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. Not true. Lana was no method artiste, but she brought conviction to everything she did, she had an instinct for the right look, the right tone, the right emotional throb. I wouldn’t cast Lana in Williams or O’Neill, but put her in dreck like Portrait in Black and she shines. Even when she’s chomping on Tony’s thumb in erotic abandon, you never question what you’re seeing. The lady was a pro; she understood what she needed to bring to a scene, a script, a character. That’s how a star behaves: she embodies the deep, rushing tragedies of life for her audiences. Who hasn’t loathed a spouse, clutched a lover, thought of murder? A star’s problems are our problems—just on a bigger scale, enacted in extravagant widescreen Eastmancolor. And Lana, bless her, gives all of it her all.
How important is Lana here? Just watch the scene of her climbing a staircase while the housekeeper answers the door where, we know, Tony is waiting with that hypo. It’s meant to show a decision has been made and murder will happen. But what we get is a nine-second shot of Lana, back to camera, climbing the stairs. Why so long for this one shot? It adds nothing to the drama (which, at that moment, rests with Quinn, as yet unseen), it conveys no character information (surely Lana’s character climbs that staircase hundreds of times a year). Why risk the loss of audience focus for such a length of time, letting our attention wander to sneak a peek at the watch or search for that dropped glove or misplaced purse?
But I think we’re meant to see something else here. This isn’t (merely) a woman walking upstairs. This is Famous Movie Star Lana Turner, displaying her famous walk, her elegant rump swaying side to side, her curvaceous figure (a bit matronly here; Lana was pushing 40) displayed in a soft, green-velour Jean Louis gown that would cost most of us a year’s worth of food; the staircase itself a gleaming white ascent of beautiful banister fretwork, rising to two double doors flanking a giant bas relief carving as white and gleaming as the stairs, the doors, the walls, and the fretwork. It’s sumptuous, expensive, clean (like Switzerland), reeking of a wealth and luxury that the film’s audiences could probably only fantasize about. And right smack in the middle is Lana Turner, her starry status such that she can command nine seconds of film footage of her climbing a staircase. And you don’t even see her face. That’s star power.
Guff or not, audiences responded; the film was a hit, and and a glittery feather in Lana’s coutured cap. I’m not surprised. Hunter gave fans their money’s worth. Lana has a costume change for every scene, including glossy black fur for a funeral; she has two hunky men lusting after her; and she drives a car. That might sound like a trivial detail, but, believe me, where Lana is concerned, no detail is small. Seems Lana’s character can’t drive, so a scene where she must actually motor a vehicle is the movie’s highlight. Fraughting the scene even more is that she and Tony have to dump a corpse; there’s no time for leisurely driver’s ed. So Tony hurries Lana through a snap course on the fine art of motoring (press this button, he assures her, and the car practically drives itself); and we watch breathlessly as Lana careens down the highway, bounces off hairpin turns, is stalled by a freight train, caught in a downpour, and finally brakes just before racing off a cliff. Oh, it’s real bad for Lana. And she and Tony still have to ditch that stiff in the back seat. Just how bad can it get?
So bad it’s good. Portrait in Black is a guilty pleasure crying out to be indulged; every grope and paw by its stars to be savored, every space in the frame yielding pleasure: from noir shadows patterning sleek white walls, to Lana in a sequined black gown, accessoried by a diamond pin as big as a canary, preparing to bump off another victim (always dress your best for a murder), to the way a pain-wracked Lloyd Nolan flares out his upper lip, like Mr. Ed when he talks. It’s a movie for when you’re feeling down and blue and want to see others who’ve got it worse but only in surroundings where the rugs are deep-pile, the wallpaper is textured, and the paintings are from the Martin Lowitz Gallery. And at the center is Lana: glorious goddess, iridescent icon, celestial star. Life can never be so bad as long as we have Lana to watch. And if you splurge for the DVD, you can watch Lana and Portrait in Black as many times as you want. It even comes packaged as a double feature with Madame X. Just think of that—think of all the popcorn and red wine and nibbly chocolates that means.
Look, you can’t lose.