Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dishonored Lady (1947)

Director: Robert Stevenson                                Writers: Edmund H. North & Ben Hecht
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                               Cinematography: Lucien N. Androit
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Dennis O’Keefe, Morris Carnovsky and Margaret Hamilton

There’s no denying Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr’s considerable beauty, very much in the Vivian Leigh mold. But her career was far less so. After working in Europe she met Louis B. Mayer in Paris and then came to Hollywood in 1938, her first American film performance coming in the smash hit Algiers. And while she never had roles in any critically acclaimed motion pictures, she did have a successful career and was in some popular films. Dishonored Lady is a low-budget psychological drama released through United Artists, an independent project put together by Hunt Stromberg, former MGM producer. It’s an interesting story that takes a twist for the noir midway through. But in this case it is the woman whose life is turned upside down and with seemingly no way out. And while the film has decided weaknesses, including the acting and the script, it nonetheless is a compelling narrative that impresses in spite of its humble beginnings.

The film begins with two motorcycle cops talking about a parked car up the road. Lamarr is at the wheel and once she gets her courage up she lights a cigarette, races down the road, and drives full speed into a tree. But she survives, and the tree is in front of the house of psychologist Morris Carnovsky, who tells her to come and see him if she ever feels like killing herself again. The next day we discover that she is the art designer for a big magazine in New York City. She is also the subject of much gossip about her private--read sexual--life and people don’t seem to care if she knows. When she refuses to run an ad with a poor layout for a jeweler, and then winds up in bed with him the next evening, her despair brings her back to Carnovsky, who tells her that her sexual addiction is no different than alcoholism but that she needs to recognize it before he can help. After another crisis she quits her job, leaves Manhattan, and takes a different name to start over.

Living her new life she meets a research scientist, Dennis O’Keefe and does some illustrations for a paper he’s writing. His blissful ignorance about her past is just the tonic Lamar needs to enjoy life the way she never had before. But, as things have a way of doing, the past doesn’t stay hidden for long. One of the inescapable features of this film is just how obvious it is that Lamarr is a star of the first order. She has poise and control and her beauty is captivating. Unlike other European discoveries like Garbo or Dietrich, she has an innocence and believability that are utterly compelling. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t have had the opportunity to star in more prestige pictures. But even this independent production has a lot going for it. Director Robert Stevenson had been working since the advent of sound but would do his greatest work in the sixties. And composer Carmen Dragon had won an Academy Award for his film score of Cover Girl just three years earlier. The cast is relatively good, with Morris Carnovsky, Dennis O’Keefe and the great Margaret Hamilton by far the best. Though not really a thriller or a noir film, Dishonored Lady has elements of both, but seems to be a romance at heart and an absolute must for fans of the underappreciated Hedy Lamarr.

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