SLIGHTLY SCARLET didn’t get much attention in 1956, the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit” only making it to 115th place among the years crop, with a gross of $2,800,000. But time has been good to the torrid Technicolor tease, a quietly hysterical, innuendo-laced, naughty noir centering on corruption, thanks mainly to its bold visual package, a sexy showcase for a matched pair of Hollywood’s more ravishing redheads. *
‘Ben Grace’ (John Payne) is the brains behind the organization of ruthless hood ‘Solly Caspar’ (Ted de Corsia), who runs the rackets that plague Bay City. While digging up dirt with which to smear an honest mayoral candidate, double-dealing Ben finds his dirty lucky hands full of two sisters, ‘June Lyons’ (Rhonda Fleming), the clean candidate’s secretary and coy girlfriend, and June’s klepto-nympho sister ‘Dorothy’ (Arlene Dahl), fresh out of prison and hot as the upholstery on the backseat of a convertible in Death Valley. June’s not exactly an onion milkshake, either: both flaming dames fall for Ben. Not one to play the sap, Ben works the percentages, the angles and the curves. While the sizzling siblings seem to have a…um..close..relationship, June has some measure of control, but Dorothy is as stable as nitroglycerin in a baseball. The brutish Solly, meanwhile, when he’s not slapping people, has a way with words: as his goons dump a reporter out an upper-story window, he suggests “Let’s see if we can beat him down.”
Cain’s 178-page 1942 story is pure pulp malarkey, the script version by Robert Blees (Magnificent Obsession) is amusing hooey, and the direction from prolific, proficient old-timer Allan Dwan (Sands Of Iwo Jima), is just serviceable. What makes the tawdry tale work so well is the casting, the color cinematography by John Alton and the abandon-all-decorum decor in the art direction, swank digs accentuated by the deft use of shadows and the just-right vivid/garish color selection for highlighting. Those sets are killers, but Alcott’s love-them-tender camera really goes to town with the faces and forms of Fleming and Dahl (she’s also given credit on the cool costuming as ‘Arlene Dahl creations’).
Payne’s solidly sleazy, de Corsia happy in his nastiness. Fleming, 33, flaunts her figure with some of those atomic-brassier-meets-straining-sweater arrangements the 50s gainfully employed, but the ace part goes to the delirious Dahl, 31, who appears to be having the time of her life as the come-hither-and-make-it-now hellion, an EverReady battery of sinful delight.
99 minutes, with Kent Taylor, Buddy Baer, Ellen Corby, Lance Fuller, Myron Healey.
* The red-tressed, bed-dressed vixens of Slightly Scarlet had some lascivious company in ’56, signs of a thaw in the moral iceberg of the Eisenhower Era. Dorothy Malone was downright wanton in Written On The Wind, the self-caricature superstructure of Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It was up against Marilyn Monroe spilling out of her costume in Bus Stop, Carroll Baker raised temperatures (and Catholic fury) as Baby Doll, and if our homegrown pep squad wasn’t heat-seeking enough, Brigitte Bardot thanked us for D-Day via…And God Created Woman. If the brazen B-flick Slightly Scarlet had been a higher profile release, it may well have stirred prude pudding, as you have to be fairly dense (and pretty dull) to not put six and nine together over the girls interpretation of sisterhood.
Word around Cell Block 99 is that in the 70s there were whispers of a more explicit re-do with Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, but that carnal collision didn’t develop: more proof the Universe is heartless.