Tuesday, February 5, 2008

PORTRAIT IN BLACK/MADAME X (Universal 1960-66) Universal Home Video

Lana Turner’s real life escapades far outweighed any role the actress ever portrayed on the big screen. By 1960, Turner had run the gamut of five husbands before winding up with dead lover, Johnny Stompanato in a pool of blood at her feet; reportedly stabbed by daughter, Cheryl Crane.

To be certain, Lana’s love life made for good tabloid fodder. It also invigorated her later film career as producers and directors capitalized on variable ‘imitations of Lana’s own life’ for a series of tawdry melodramas that mirrored her own truth. Of these, Universal Home Video has decided to release 1960’s Portrait in Black and 1966’s Madame X as a double disc feature.

Caught somewhere between a road show soap opera of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a legitimate thriller a la the ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ ilk, producer Ross Hunter’s Portrait in Black (1960, and directed by Michael Gordon) reunites much of the crew responsible for Turner’s comeback movie, Imitation of Life (1959). Today, many of the rather tawdry aspects of this thriller have not held up – appearing even more stagy and contrived than when originally presented for public consumption. Still, with its atmospheric touches and some breathtaking cinematography in and around San Francisco, there’s much to admire in this campy ‘who done it?’

Based on a mildly popular stage play, Turner is Sheila Cabot – the wife of wealthy, though sickly, businessman Matthew (Lloyd Nolan). Matt is in a bad way and has entrusted his care to suave personal physician, Dr. David Rivera (Anthony Quinn). On the surface, the good doctor only has his patient’s best interests at heart. However, in his private time, Rivera carries on with Sheila until their brief interludes and stolen kisses will not contain the couple’s passion any longer.
The two conspire, and successfully knock off Sheila’s husband. But Sheila and Rivera’s illicit bliss is shattered when a mysterious blackmailer, Howard Mason (Richard Baseheart) begins to demand a high price for his continued silence.

The screenplay by Ivan Goff is awash in cliché and improbabilities. For starters – Matt is terminally ill. Hence, what is the immediate motivation for Sheila and Rivera’s murder? True, Matt has vowed to destroy anyone who would presume to steal his wife, but with death staring him down how much of a threat is that?

After the murder, Rivera requires that Sheila drive Matt’s car, but Rivera must first explain to her what the brake and gas pedals are used for; not particularly problematic unless one reflects on an earlier scene where we learn that Sheila has just been given a learner’s permit – hence, she has to at least know how to use a gas and brake pedal! Finally, the love scenes are overwrought; played with lots of fitful tears and melodramatic flings into passion. Ho-hum.

If the soap and melodrama seems a bit thickly laid on, the syrup positively sticks to the saccharine of David Lowell Rich’s umpteenth remake of Madame X (1966) – the second film on this double feature disc. Eight times removed from its popular and enduring original source material (with two more incarnations since), Madame X is the story of a woman scorned and her ultimate redemption after living a life of mostly debauchery.

The tale opens on Holly Parker (Turner), a young woman of low finances but high moral fiber who is engaged to Clayton Anderson (John Forsythe) - a millionaire. Unfortunately for the not so happy couple, fate in the form of Clayton’s mother, Estelle (Constance Bennett) intervenes. Estelle informs her son that if he proceeds with the marriage, she will disown him. Rather than give up his cushy lifestyle, Clay drops Holly from his list of things to do. She is further shunned by polite society and quietly blacklisted by Estelle until her reputation is in tatters.

Unfortunately, at this low point Holly also learns that she is pregnant with Clayton’s child. Holly has the baby, Clay Jr. (Ted Quinn as a boy/Keir Dullea as an adult) before giving him up for adoption. Forced to fend for herself; Holly’s life spirals out of control. She takes up with an abusive lover, Phil Benton (Ricardo Montelban) and is later accused of his murder. In the meantime, Clay Jr. is reunited with his father. He becomes a district attorney and, sensing the good in Holly – who he does not recognize as his mother – resolves to help her beat the murder rap, then help to find the son she gave away.

Despite its source material dating all the way back to 1910, most previous versions of Madame X owe their foundation to a little remembered MGM programmer from 1931, The Sin of Madelon Claudette starring Helen Hayes in the ‘Holly’ role. Of the two movie offerings included herein, Madame X is the more palpably engaging by today’s standards. Turner is quite convincing as a woman of the world reduced to rags, though the age-make-up created for her later scenes cannot hide the fact that, at the time of production, Lana was still a very beautiful woman.

Universal Home Video’s transfer quality is a mixed blessing. The anamorphic picture elements of Portrait in Black suffer from low contrast and a grainy palette of color. Flesh tones adopt a rather ruddy orange hue. Blacks are deep with a loss of fine detail. Whites adopt a slight yellowish hue. A small amount of pixelization breaks apart background information.

On the whole, Madame X seems to be a much smoother presentation. Colors are more vibrantly reproduced. Contrast levels appear more naturally balanced. Film grain is present but does not distract. The audio on both films is stereo and adequate for these primarily dialogue driven movies. There are no extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Portrait in Black 3
Madame X 3.5

Portrait in Black 3
Madame X 3.5


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