Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: World for Ransom (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1954) (and General Notes on Robert Aldrich's Actresses)

Robert Aldrich's compositionally dazzling noir World for Ransom serves as a warm-up for Kiss Me Deadly both thematically (Cold War / atomic bomb paranoia) and visually (many of the shots will show up again with minor variations in the later film, and also in the subsequent Attack). Gene Lockhart's villain Alexis Pederas is of exactly the same type as Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly -- he'll peddle the end of the world to the highest bidder.

The female lead in World for Ransom, Marian Carr, shows up as the lascivious Friday in Kiss Me Deadly. She disappeared from movies a couple of years later, and I can't turn up a thing about her subsequent history; she just "drops out," as is said of the frightened Ray Diker in Kiss Me Deadly. Carr made nine noir-related films in a brief career: San QuentinThe Devil Thumbs a RideRing of FearCell 2455 Death RowWhen Gangland StrikesThe Harder They FallNightmare, and the two for Aldrich.

Come to think of it, two other actresses in Kiss Me Deadly were semi-dropouts. Maxine Cooper married screenwriter Sy Gomberg and her career puttered out after 1960, with only three later bit roles; she died in 2009.

The German-born Gaby Rodgers worked in theater and (up to 1962) television, but had only one other feature credit besides Kiss Me Deadly, a hitherto-unknown-to-me 1953 crime film called The Big Break, directed by Joseph Strick (who was associated mainly with offbeat projects such as the film version of James Joyce's Ulysses). The Big Break is described thus at the IMDB:

An independent film using the streets, buildings and parks of NYC as sets that was distributed by bottom-feeder Madison Pictures which means it was barely distributed at all, as Madison was mostly the supplier of changed-title PRC films made a decade or so earlier. Marty (James Lipton) is a shipping clerk in the garment district and a wise guy trying to cut corners and get by on angles, and not very good at it. He meets Helen (Gaby Rodgers) and decides to change his ways, but lack of patience in slow-progress jobs leads him to become involved with a neighborhood gang.

Yes, that James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actors Studio! Has anyone seen this film? The location shooting would seem to relate it to such other New York-based indie projects as Little FugitiveKiller's KissShadowsBlast of Silence, and Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which were made with some regularity in the Fifties and Sixties.

Rodgers, who married the famed songwriter Jerry Leiber, is still alive as far as I know. She gave an interesting interview in 2002:

Gaby Rodgers Interview


World for Ransom has a perfectly downbeat noir ending, in which Dan Duryea's protagonist discovers that the woman for whom he risked everything was lying to him all along, isn't the least bit interested in him, and, what's worse, isn't even interested in men:

In a shockingly vicious attack on Duryea, Carr slaps his face and informs him that she hates all men, finds them repellent, and that she only put up with [Patric] Knowles because the relationship was purely platonic. Stunned by her rejection of him, Duryea leaves Carr and wanders the streets of Singapore...The rather sensational lesbian overtones in Carr's character were even more explicit in the original version of the film, which opened with a lesbian kiss. This, of course, was cut by the censors.

The dialogue is a little oblique, but yeah, that's the gist of it. We might have guessed that something was up with the Marian Carr character from her odd name alone, "Frennessey" (with its suggestion of "frenetic"). Names are very revealing in these early Aldrich films. Dr. Soberin in Kiss Me Deadly is indeed "soberin[g]," and as we see from the art dealer's prescription bottle, his initials are "G.E." As Jack Shadoian notes, General Electric's motto was "Progress is our most important product"!

What makes this all especially interesting is that it is the only the beginning of Aldrich's career-long interest in the "twilight world" of lesbianism. Let us not forget that this is a director who can boast Sodom and Gomorrah in his filmography!

In the interview with Gaby Rodgers, she discusses Aldrich's concept for her "Lily Carver" character (whose name suggests a castrating man-hater):

[Rodgers] asked Aldrich how she was supposed to portray Lily Carver; he told her that he wanted her to play a lesbian! So she had her hair cut short and wore (as she described it), a "tuxedo." (That's that surprisingly modern-looking black suit with the white lapels.) She naturally asked if she had any scenes with other women, and Aldrich said no. So the short hair and the tux are all that indicate Aldrich intended for her to be a lesbian for this part.

A correspondent pointed out to me that there are also some lesbian overtones in Christina's initial dialogue with Mike in the car -- she throws out general criticisms of "man, wonderful man," and we learn later that she was rooming with another woman (the real Lily; the Gaby Rodgers "Lily Carver" is an impersonator). Christina's comments to Mike pick up where Frennessey's monologue at the end of World for Ransom leaves off, dovetailing the two films (released only a year apart) nicely. The possible relationship between Christina and Lily gives added poignance to the death of Christina's pet bird, since in another sense her "bird" (woman), Lily, does die pathetically. (Howard Hughes in his book Crime Wave points out that, despite the line of dialogue about Christina's roommate "letting" the bird die, it most likely died from radiation contamination in the apartment, sort of a canary in the uranium mine.)

Another thematic link between these two early Aldrich films: Lily's address to Mike Hammer at the end -- "Kiss me, Mike. The liar's kiss that says, I love you. You're good at such kisses..." -- recalls Frennessey's kisses of Mike Callahan, which are of precisely that type.

Aldrich went on in the Sixties to direct Kim Novak as a bisexual actress in The Legend of Lylah Clare, and then upped the ante with the most explicit mainstream lesbian picture to date (a pretty good one, too), The Killing of Sister George. He closed out his career in 1981 with ...All the Marbles, a comedy about lady wrestlers that, while not overtly lesbian, cannot be said to stint on woman-on-woman action.

On the other hand, as Alain Silver has pointed out, Aldrich probably made more films without any significant women characters than almost any other director:

Attack (no women at all)
The Flight of the Phoenix (no women at all)
The Dirty Dozen (no significant women)
Too Late the Hero (no women at all)
Ulzana's Raid (only very minor women characters)
Emperor of the North (one tiny female speaking part)
The Longest Yard (only minor women characters)
Twilight's Last Gleaming (only very minor women characters)
The Choirboys (only minor women characters)

World for Ransom

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