Lady of Burlesque (1943)

2016 #5
William A. Wellman | 89 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

Based on the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (as in Gypsy), Lady of Burlesque stars Barbara Stanwyck as Gypsy surrogate Dixie Daisy, a performer in a burlesque show in New York where the backstage arguments turn murderous.

The story unfurls in the traditional Christie-esque shape of a murder mystery: we find out all the different reasons why everyone hates a particular character, then that person dies and they all have motive. For set dressing, instead of the English country houses and other upper-middle-class establishments of Christie, we have the slightly seedy, slightly risqué world of ’40s burlesque… tempered by the strictures of the production code, of course. Stanwyck may get out on stage and wiggle around, but she’s largely shot from the waist up; and it may’ve been released as Striptease Lady in the UK (allegedly), but the clothes remain on (I can’t imagine anyone expected anything else, then or now).

Nonetheless, the world of the story adds some sparkle to proceedings. The investigations are largely confined to a couple of lengthy scenes when the cops turn up, led by Charles Dingle’s meticulous Inspector Harrigan (“This is my first experience with burlesque. It’s a surprising profession.”), and question everyone in one room. These bits have their moments, but feel a little heavy-handed. Around them, the world of burlesque, and the relationships between its performers, rolls on.

Stanwyck carries the film, both on stage and off. Her “will they/won’t they (of course they will)” romance with Michael O’Shea’s comic is kept aloft by her biting ripostes to his advances, and when a comedy sketch is interrupted by backstage noises she saves the day by breaking into song, doing the splits, a cartwheel, and the Cossack dance in quick succession. Not bad for a 36-year-old!

Ostensibly a murder mystery, in practice Lady of Burlesque plays as all-round entertainment with a bit of everything: comedy, romance, songs, shoot-outs, and, yes, both mystery and murders. It’s not the kind of film that will linger long in the memory (apart from Stanwyck’s gymnastics, that is), but it’s entertaining while it lasts.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Forty Guns (1957)

2015 #61
Samuel Fuller | 76 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG

Forty GunsWestern with Barbara Stanwyck as a powerful landowner, and commander of the titular posse, whose bullying brother, Brockie, is consequently allowed to run riot over the town. Enter lawman Griff (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, whose moves to bring Brockie in line kickstart a chain of ruinous events.

Writer-director Samuel Fuller tells his brilliantly constructed tale in brisk and never dull fashion, finding time to sketch interesting characters and, alongside cinematographer Joseph Biroc and editor Gene Fowler Jr., craft much memorable imagery.

(For a more insightful and informative analysis, be sure to read this at Films on the Box.)

4 out of 5

Forty Guns is released on Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema tomorrow.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

2011 #32
Anatole Litvak | 85 mins | TV

Sorry, Wrong NumberA film noir screenwritten by Lucille Fletcher, “based on her famous radio play” — I love how old movies have credits like that. It sounds like pure hyperbole, but in this case seems to be justified: the original play was broadcast in May 1943 but was so popular they chose to re-stage it with the same lead, Agnes Moorehead, a total of seven times up to 1960. Seven!

It’s easy to see how it would work on radio: the plot is primarily characters talking on the phone, though in this case there are flashbacks and visuals to flesh it out. And there are flashbacks within flashbacks too, just to keep us on our toes. Naturally it’s based around a series of mysteries related to our bed-ridden heroine, who overhears a threat on someone’s life and begins to wonder if it’s actually about her. So we wonder, what is her illness? Is it relevant? Is her paranoia a symptom? All are well played, mixed up with possible reasons and motives for her being murdered, which also shift around neatly.

Barbara Stanwyck portrays a not-very-sympathetic lead character, which makes the viewer question how we feel about her possibly being murdered. We should be against it, but she’s not nice, but she is ill, and her whole life’s falling apart down the phone… Please hang up and try againAs if keeping us guessing wasn’t enough, our feelings are shifting in this respect too. Arguably it unravels a little late on — when Evans is explaining his part to her, it’s getting a bit implausible — but it’s all redeemed by the finale.

The film concludes with a hair-raising final sequence. I reckon it must be among the most tense, scary and chilling sequences in all of cinema, certainly that I’ve seen. It’s not so much the performances, or the shadow on the wall, or the screeching music — though they all contribute — as the fear of the actual situation: your home, your personal, private, safe space, being invaded, and the first you know of it is an all-too-solid shadow on the wall, coming up the stairs to get you… It’s horridly brilliant.

Most of Sorry, Wrong Number is very good. If that wasn’t enough, the finale cements it as a memorable must-see.

4 out of 5