Wednesday, September 24, 2014

cinema obscura: Ken Hughes' "Wicked As They Come" (1956)

The joys of moviegoing/moviewatching can be neatly divided into two camps.  First and foremost, there's the guaranteed joy that comes from watching a favored film over and over and over and over again.

No less important, however, is the joy of discovering a new movie - not something current that just opened at your local cineplex but an older title that's been around for some time, without your even knowing about it.

Falling cozily into the latter camp is a little (and little-known) 1956 gem from Columbia Pictures, "Wicked As They Come," directed by British filmmaker Ken Hughes, whose diverse résumé includes Peter Finch's "The Trial of Oscar Wilde" (1960), The Sherman Bros. musical, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (1968) and the Alan Price remake, "Alfie, Darling" (1972).

"Wicked As They Come" aired on Turner Classic Movies during its annual Summer Under the Stars outing in August as part of a day devoted to its star, Arlene Dahl.  I caught it quite by accident.  My viewing was totally unplanned.  For the life of me, I can't remember how or why I started to watch it - the film was an unknown entity to me - but I'm glad I did.

It's a keeper.

Filmed by Mike Frankovich's production company largely in London with a British crew and a cast of  Anglos and Americans, "Wicked As They Come" casts Dahl as Kathy Allen, née Allenborg, a restless Boston woman from a deprived background with an indifference to all men.

Kathy sets out to rebuild her life, starting with her eye on Miss Stylewear, a local newspaper-sponsored beauty contest that's conveniently fixed in her favor.

She shrewdly exploits the affection that the newspaper's editor feels for her and, once the contest is over and won, she abandons him and, with her cash winnings, moves to London, where she flits from man to man, each progressively older, wealthier and more prominent, scamming them all.

Kathy's advance is witnessed by another American expat, advertising man Tim O'Bannion (Phil Carey), who is both fascinated and repelled by her transparency. O'Bannion at once wants to expose Kathy, punish her, rehabilitate her and ... ensnare her.

His fascination inevitably turns into obsession.

Sound remotely familiar? Well, the basic core of "Wicked As They Come" is nearly a dead ringer for Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" from 1964.

"Wicked As They Come" isn't nearly as accomplished as "Marnie," and, true, there are major differences. Still, there are so many small narrative similarities here that it's difficult to believe that Hitch wasn't a fan of Hughes' modest little film from eight years earlier. ( It should be noted, however, that Jay Presson Allen's script for "Marnie" was based on a novel of the same title by Winston Green, while "Wicked As They Come" was adapted from another book, "Portrait in Smoke," by Bill S. Ballinger.)

Dahl and Carey could be playing prototypes for the characters ultimately essayed by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in "Marnie."  Like Connery in "Marnie," Carey's character keeps popping up in the heroine's life, and there's a sequence in which Carey shows up at the office where Dahl is working that could be a template for the same scene in "Marnie." "Wicked As They Come" even comes with a Hitchcock specialty - the final-curtain psychological explanation, a theory for Kathy's troubled behavior.

Not surprisingly, like Marnie, Kathy's damage was caused by a sexual trauma from earlier in her life.

It's gratifying to see the terrific Carey at last in a rare leading role, and Dahl, an actress who was made for Technicolor, is even more beautiful in black-&-white.

The cinematograher Basil Emmott (a name new to me) achieves a soft, smokey  image here that is gorgeous, and hugely flattering to Dahl, absolutely first-rate.

A little symmetry here:  While "Marnie" is one of those aforementioned favored films that I'd gladly watch over and over and over and over again, and have, its modest doppelganger, "Wicked As They Come," is a decidedly new favorite. Someday, these two will make a terrific double-bill.


Sheila said...

Sounds like a find. I appreciate the comparison to Hithchock, but I can't imagine that it is as psychologically resonant as "Marnie."

Kurt said...

Years ago, my daughter said she didn’t like “old movies.” I showed her "Marnie" and she sudcdenly became a big fan of “old movies.” It really is a grabber from beginning to end. Gotta show her this one!

Lee said...

I caught this movie on Turner unexpectedly, too, and was also impressed. It's a good rainy-day flick.

gregg said...

Phil Carey was always great. I happened to this film, too, and think that Carey set off Dahl quite beautifully. Seems to me there was special vein of good humor between them throughout, like they shared an inside joke.

Laurence Klavan said...

It's always fascinating to run across films that Hitchcock was influenced by. The amusement park murder scene in "Strangers on a Train" comes straight out of "Wanted for Murder" (1946, with Eric Portman), and the shower scene in "Psycho" takes imagery from "The Seventh Victim" ('43, Mark Robson).

joe baltake said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Laurence. I was aware of the "Strangers on a Train"/"Wanted for Murder" connection, but the "Psycho"/"The Seventh Victim" is new to me. Must check it out.

Frannie P said...

I also caught this one by accident on Turner - always fascinating to see something one never heard of before...

Sensei said...

Very interesting post. I just saw the film and found it a lucky accident, as you did. However, I found O'Banion sympathetic rather than a stalker, and I liked the focus on trauma rather than the idea that some women are just bad. I've also seen it compared to Baby Face rather than Marnie, I need to watch the later again and see what I think.