The Look of Mary Beth Hughes

In the 1954 B-noir Highway Dragnet, Mary Beth Hughes appears in literally only the first four and a half minutes of the story, but she steals the film. She’s that blowsy blonde who just-out-of-the-army Richard Conte picks up at a casino bar in Las Vegas as a way to kill time. Her character is a plot device, a means to get to get the action rolling, but Hughes gets you interested in this woman. She gives us not a gimmick but a person.

You sense that in her first encounter with Conte, when he asks if the bar stool next to her is taken. Her eyes shift slightly, you know she’s aware he’s there, but as yet she doesn’t look. “Reserved,” she answers, her slight emphasis on the last syllable—teeth meeting lower lip in a pronounced ‘fh’ sound—letting us know she’s on the way to intoxication. “For whom?” Conte asks. Now she turns to look. “The guy who smiles,” she replies. Her response is a challenge, which Conte takes up; he grins comically at her. At that, Hughes smiles herself, a shrug audible in her voice. “Well, it’s been a long time between smiles,” she notes with a wry quickness. And something within this lady, you sense, has been stirred.

At this point in Hughes’s career, it must have seemed like a long time between smiles for her. A curvaceous platinum blonde, with saucer eyes and overripe lips, Hughes was a baby-faced sex bomb in the 1940s; she looked like Shirley Temple on hormones. She began as a contract starlet first at MGM (she has a small role in 1939’s The Women), then moved on to 20th-Century Fox, where she appeared in such high-B films as Orchestra Wives, the Charlie Chan series, and the Michael Shayne mystery series.

Her one role of note in this period was in William Wellman’s great 1943 Western The Ox-Bow Incident, playing one of only two female roles. As Rose Mapen, the former prostitute who had been Henry Fonda’s squeeze, Hughes has one scene (and she’s onscreen for less than five minutes), but her impact is indelible. The episode (which appears in the novel) is like a parodic reversal of the scene in John Ford’s Stagecoach, when Claire Trevor’s hooker is run out of town by the respectable ladies. Here, Hughes’ Rose is returning to her home town, triumphantly wedded to a well-to-do San Franciscan; no one’s gonna run her out. Stepping from the coach conveying her and her newly attached spouse, she slowly smiles at the crowd of gaping cowpokes, delighted she can still wow the guys. When Fonda rides up and sees her, another small, fleeting smile crosses Rose’s face, combining pleasure at viewing him with satisfaction that he now sees her properly married. Then their eyes lock; and Hughes returns her former lover’s gaze unflinchingly, as if daring him to respond to her new status. Everything we glean about Rose is through that gaze. How she looks at others is how she defines herself.

It’s that gaze, confident, alluring, and challenging, that may define Hughes in our collective cinema unconscious. And it’s what made her a great femme fatale in film noir. In 1945’s B-noir The Great Flamarion, Hughes again defines herself by how she looks, here at her formidable co-star, Erich von Stroheim, an actor not known for melting glances. In the film he’s a vaudeville sharpshooter who, once disappointed in love, can now only see women as objects to shoot at onstage; he no longer wants to look at a woman as a woman. But Hughes, his onstage assistant, has other plans. Coming to him with a tale of an unhappy marriage to her drunken husband, who’s also in the act (Dan Duryea), she forces von Stroheim to look back at her, to acknowledge her as a sexual presence. A now-smitten Flamarion then bumps off the husband during a performance, freeing Hughes to run off with another lover and leave Flamarion flat. When the revenge-driven sharpshooter finally catches up with her, in a flea-bitten theater in Mexico, he shoots out the lights in her dressing room so she can’t look at him before, in a play on his vaudeville act, he shoots her.

By the late 1940s-early 1950s, Hughes’ roles had dwindled to small parts in very low-budget territory. She was frequently in B-Westerns, serving mainly as a decorative presence, or in C-movie cheapies such as the now-considered-camp I Accuse My Parents, which bestowed on her a minor cult status. She also had bit roles in bigger films (e.g., Young Man With A Horn), and did TV work (the Red Skelton and Abbott and Costello shows, among others). Given the chance, though, she could still show what she had. Her look could still define something about her.

That it does in Highway Dragnet. By now Hughes had shed the baby fat but was still lusciously zaftig, with a hard, blonde allure that lends her a tawdry glamour. As the drunken floozy, she’s good-humored and playful, jangling her bracelets to let Conte know she’s made earlier conquests. But she’s plastered enough to be volatile; when Conte offers to freshen her drink, she snaps back, “I’m not here for that.” Yet she can’t stay annoyed long. Her look at him becomes one of burgeoning interest; she’s sizing him up, but without calculation. It’s more than an awareness of his presence. She seems to see him as a kindred spirit—someone adrift, as loosened from solid moorings as she is. Just looking for that smile.

The usually intense Conte projects a relaxed masculinity with Hughes; he’s interested but taking his time. When she suddenly flares at him again for another imagined slight, Conte backs off, not looking for trouble; but now Hughes won’t be mollified and tries to slap him. “Stop it, everybody’s looking at you,” he shouts, and grabs her. Hughes then gives Conte the Look in full: her eyes stroke his face as she slowly smiles, again bringing her lower lip to meet her teeth, as if anticipating how he would taste. Her kissing him as the scene fades is a moment of pure sensual indulgence; it’s startlingly sexy for such a short scene. But Hughes holds the Look on Conte for several long seconds before embracing him, she lets the audience wait for her reaction. It’s eroticism charged with a subtle power. Her character seem supremely sure of herself; she’s gotten Conte all riled up, but she knows exactly what she’s doing.

Alas, when the next scene comes up, Conte is being arrested for Hughes’ murder, and she’s out of the picture. The story then tracks Conte’s escape and his picking up two more women (Wanda Hendrix and Joan Bennett) as hostages. The rest of the movie unfortunately doesn’t live up to its opening: the real murderer’s identity is telegraphed long before the ending, and the plot follows the standard noir trajectory of the wrong man clearing his name. It’s not bad (the film’s gritty desert locations add an element of grungy menace). It’s just not that interesting to watch; it’s been done as well or better many other times. But at least, even if only for four and a half minutes, Mary Beth Hughes really does give us something to look at.

Highway Dragnet can be watched at in its entirety (especially those first four-and-a-half minutes) by clicking here.

This article was originally posted on Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in slightly modified form.

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