' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: His Kind Of Woman (1951)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: His Kind Of Woman (1951)

“His Kind Of Woman” was an RKO production of the inimitable Howard Hughes, and it shows. The rambling plot revolves around a gangster stuck in Mexico yearning to change his appearance and sneak back into America. It is apropos. Three times over the course of its two hours “His Kind Of A Woman” reverses its tracks and becomes something else. Hughes’ dissatisfaction with original director John Farrow led him to bring Richard Fleischer in for re-shoots and for Hughes himself to re-write the ending of the film with Fleischer. Who knows what Farrow’s original intentions were, but if Hughes only re-scripted the end, not the rest, the evidence would suggest he yearned to break free from the noir genre and into something much more communal, something for everyone to enjoy. And I enjoyed it. Did I ever.


It opens, seemingly, as another in a long line of dark-hearted Robert Mitchum vehicles, him starring as Dan Milner, a down-on-his-luck gambler offered $50,000 to fly down to Mexico, cool his heels and await instructions without having the slightest inkling of just what these instructions will be. On his way to remote Morro’s Lodge deep in the heart of Baja, he encounters a comely nightclub singer Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), bound for the same place. The pins are lined up – The Loner, The Femme Fatale – for fate to twists its screws. Then again, Robert Mitchum – Robert Mitchum!!! – doesn’t drink, and so perhaps this should clue us into the fact that “His Kind Of Woman” is not what it appears.

Once at Morro’s, with nothing for Milner to do but wait and see, the film sort of morphs into a laid-back version of a screwball romance, Milner courting Lenore even if it turns out Lenore is courting a famed Douglas Fairbanks-esque movie star, generous if deluded Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price). As it happens, Lenore is not really Lenore, but Liz, merely posing as Lenore in an effort to woo Mark who is estranged from his wife (who will show up, as she must, to re-woo her husband) to have at his fortune. This might make most men run, but not Milner. Heck, what’s he got to do, ‘cept for snoop around and try to figure out who’s paying him to be there and why. So he flirts with Lenore and does a little reconnaissance on the side. And Lenore turns out to be not quite so devious – a gold-digger with a heart of gold.

The scheme emerges. A gangster, Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), deported from the US, is hiding out aboard a boat anchored off the Mexican coast. His thugs abscond with Milner and drag him to the open sea where Ferraro, whose height and build matches Milner’s, plans upon reconstructive surgery to assume Milner’s identity and return scot-free to the States.


And this is where the film pulls its boldest tonal shift, leaving noir and screwball back at the resort and transforming not merely into an action-adventure but damn near a parody as Mark Cardigan – alerted to Milner’s predicament by Lenore – becomes Kirk Lazarus and Tugg Speedman in “Tropic Thunder” fifty-seven years before “Tropic Thunder.” He takes up his hunting rifle, dons a cape, stands valiantly in the bow of a boat, issues orders, quotes Shakespeare, leads his charges into battle, literally embodying one of the many heroes he portrays on the silver screen. Meanwhile, Milner is strapped down like a shirtless Frankenstein and threatened with a memory-erasing serum. It’s quite nuts and freaking awesome.

It’s a third act meant to appeal to a broader base, a broader base that may have already jumped ship, and that particular appeal may, in fact, frustrate the narrower base more interested in its establishing noir aspects. In other words, it’s a Howard Hughes-served goulash, and whether or not saying it hangs together is factually provable seems beyond the point. Strange as this may sound, it reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry”, in so much as that film concludes and then cuts to Kiarostami and crew on location making the movie. His intent is to remind us that it’s “just a movie”, but the reminder only arrives upon movie’s end.

“His Kind Of Woman” is a movie all along, and this swashbuckling conclusion only works to enhance that sensation. It makes itself up as it goes along and, thus, at a certain point Vincent Price decides to appropriate the film for himself. And rather than prevent this appropriation, Hughes encourages it. I’m glad he did.

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