Why, oh why is this film called Slightly Scarlett? With two bombshell redheads, Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl, Technicolor that seems almost lurid at times, and enough sin for a few films, Positively Scarlett would have been a better name! Based on a James M. Cain novel, and released in 1956, it stars John Payne as the man in a full-blown noir maelström.
First a cranky note about preferences: I know that The Postman Always Rings Twice, perhaps the most famous Cain-film noir adaptation, is revered as one of the greats, but I found it pretty tame and weak. Then there are a lot of films that are billed as ‘noir’, at least on Netflix, that seem to me hardly to make the grade. Union Station, with William Holden, is one of these: Black and white, police work, suspense, but basically a procedural melodrama. The only noir aspect, remarked by many, is the singularly rough treatment given the crooks, including a staged near-murder of one of them to scare him into talking. In the end, the good guys win, everyone is happy, the crooks are dead. Not in Slightly Scarlett!
Maybe it’s the Technicolor that causes the filmmakers to go slightly round the bend. Think of Leave Her to Heaven, another color-noir that is mind-boggling. John Payne also starred in Hell’s Island, a crazy and enjoyable color romp through the catalogue of film noir themes. As for Scarlett, my Encyclopedia of Film Noir refers to it as ‘one of the most bizarre noir films‘ made while the Hollywood production code was in force, and it identifies many of its strange elements as the result of attempting to accommodate the censors. That, and the director Allan Dwan’s taste for perversion.
Dorothy just got out of jail and there’s sister June to greet her. Ben Grace is spying on them with a whopper of a lens. He works for the local mob boss, Solly Caspar, and he’s trying dig up dirt on a mayoral candidate running on a clean government platform. June is the pol’s secretary and, platonic, love interest. All Ben gets is some female cuddling. What was Dorothy doing time for, I wonder?
How does June afford that house on a salary? Solly was probably onto something thinking there was some hanky panky with Mr. Squeaky Clean. When Dorothy gets there, she goes right for the booze, and something seems fishy between the girls. We learn that June is a completely co-dependent family member, enabling Dorothy’s dispsomania, kleptomania, and nymphomania. Maybe Dorothy doesn’t need a shrink…maybe she’s just bad!
Solly gets steamed watching that mealy-mouthed reformer call him names on the nightly news! He’s angry that Ben didn’t get any material to use against him.
Ben has limits to what he will do, leading to a dressing down from Solly, who refers to him as ‘Genius,’ presumably because he went to college and speaks standard English. Ben is a real noir type – Solly has his number: “You’re not crooked, and you’re not straight. You’ll take what crumbs you can get, but you don’t want any trouble.”
After humiliating Genius – Hey guys, remind me never to send my son to college…if I ever have a son! Har har! – Solly shows how things are done by throttling the newspaper owner who supports the reform group. Oops, he used a little too much force. He’s dead! Ben informs on him, and Solly has to skip town, leaving Genius to take over the rackets.
Will Solly gone, the Goo-goo get elected mayor, and Ben moves in on his secretary. Tight clothes and lots of skin a part of the suburban scene, 50s style. Check the view through the window.
Dorothy isn’t about to let sister have all the fun.
Just butting in…
Wow, that’s between a rock and a hard place!
Genius takes over the rackets, and does quite well with them. He runs a tight ship, with a minimum of violence. It’s just gambling anyway – somebody has to give people a place to have fun.
Ben gets wind that Solly has returned from being on the lam, and it’s time to scram. There’s a lot of money in the safe at Solly’s beach house, enough for him to skip the country. The scenes of the ocean remind me of my childhood in southern California. Dorothy tags along with Ben while he searches the place: maybe he does a little exploring of her secret places too, but it’s only hinted at. Dorothy is pretty looped, as usual, and with that interior, those colors! – who could blame her? Anyway, she’s always running riot in somebody else’s house – her sister’s, Solly’s beach house, Solly’s mansion, now lived in by Ben – that’s what she likes to do.
She goes a little too far, playing the pretty mermaid with a harpoon gun.
One last shoplifting run and the cops are on to Dorothy. She’s all set up to head back to the joint because this store detective isn’t taking any excuses – “She’s ill. She needs a doctor! – from June. Poor June – she’d ruin her own life to save Dorothy. Maybe the morality squad just couldn’t stomach a really evil woman: just say she needs a shrink and it’s okay for public consumption…
The latest run in with the law sends Dorothy over the edge. She ends up at Solly’s beach house and finds him there, waiting to take revenge on Ben. Meanwhile, he has a little fun with the fetching nympho, watching TV, running barefoot through piles of money… that sort of thing.
June shows up, and Solly is all set to plug her and dump her over the terrace into the sea. After all, she must have been part of sending him on the lam so her boyfriend could be the Mr. Clean mayor.
Dorothy is just loving it! She’d love to see Solly plug her sister – it would be fun!
Doesn’t work out that way…June shoots Solly with the harpoon, Ben rushes in to save the day, but he’s got to hold off the hoods until the cops arrive. Solly tells his thugs to take care of Ben, but he taunts Solly for being not ‘big enough‘ to do it himself. Do what? Not big enough where?
Genius takes a few bullets in his body to protect the ladies. Pretty masochistic.
As Genius bleeds on the rug, the cops and the mayor arrive. Cops wear fedoras, pols wear homburgs: I have both. Mr. Clean and the cop confer. June weeps over Ben’s not quite dead body. Mr. Clean and June share an awkward moment: can they get together again?
The ambulance takes Ben away and Mr. Mayor goes to retrieve hysterical Dorothy. It’s all going to be okay. June will be with the mayor, Dorothy will go to a mental hospital, Solly is headed to Alcatraz, and Ben… nowhere to be seen.