July 4, 2009

CALCUTTA (1947)



It’s easy to understand why the studio bosses at Paramount would pair Gail Russell with Alan Ladd in Calcutta. She seems to fit the same mold as Veronica Lake, with whom Ladd struck gold on numerous occasions — beautiful, reserved, demure, and vulnerable. Russell was only hampered by her nerves. She was cripplingly shy and suffered from what today would certainly be called a severe social anxiety disorder. Her story is one of Hollywood’s saddest. She was discovered while still in high school and placed under contract with Paramount as soon as she got her diploma. Her beauty was special in that she bore no particular resemblance to any existing famous faces. Her doe eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips were hers alone, and Paramount had high hopes. They cultivated her acting skills and brought her along slowly, but whether it was due to a lack of talent or her personal difficulties she never caught on. She worked on a few big projects, including Angel and the Badman and Wake of the Red Witch opposite John Wayne and The Unseen with Joel McCrea, but despite the many opportunities afforded by her looks and a certain magically ethereal quality she was never able to break into true stardom. She only found the courage to get in front of the camera through alcohol, and eventually got popped by the LAPD for driving drunk. In a testament to her personality, numerous people from the industry, including Wayne, tried to help her get past her troubles, but it wasn’t in the cards. Russell died from a heart attack in a low rent Hollywood apartment at the lamentable age of 36.

The miscasting of Gail Russell is the most obvious problem with Calcutta, but it bears pointing out that replacing her with Lake would have been unlikely to salvage the picture. Lake too, being that she and Russell were somewhat similar types, would have been miscast in the role of femme fatale Virginia Moore. That’s not to say that a demure, even girlish, leading lady couldn’t be effective as a black widow in the right picture — think Jane Greer — but it doesn’t work here. Russell was cast because the producers were hoping her type would once again strike lightning against Ladd’s brooding hero. However the exotic mystique of a film such as this demands an equally exotic leading lady — a highly sexualized, larger than life type: Hayworth, Mayo, Gardner — maybe even the other Russell, you get the idea. Not Gail Russell, not Lake, not even Greer. Someone involved in the production recognized this early on and tried to spice up the movie with a sexy second lead. In this case it’s June Duprez, who outshines Russell by a mile and only makes her look worse by comparison. Duprez, who even resembles Russell (it gets confusing, they should have given her part to a blonde), gives the film a shot in the arm and has a real spark with Ladd.

In 1947 Alan Ladd was still on top of the world. He looks great in Calcutta, like a man who is in his prime and knows it. He is very comfortable playing the brooding, morose, tightly wound hero who seems to have no time for women and is struggling inwardly to get over the war. (Ladd was practically playing himself here.) The film casts him as Neale Gordon, American ex-pat pilot now flying the Chungking to Calcutta route with air corps buddies Pedro (William Bendix) and Bill (John Whitney). When Bill turns up strangled, Neale and Pedro take a leave of absence from the airline to hunt for his killer. They get mixed up in all sorts of far eastern intrigue and cross paths with a variety of colorful Indian habitués, from the colonial authorities to urbane casino owners to native jewelry smugglers. Neale also gets involved with Virginia (Russell), who was engaged to Bill and knows more about his death than she lets on. One of the popular conventions of film noir, so far as bad girls are concerned, is that the hero’s first impression of the woman tends to be correct—even if she initially manages to pull the wool over his eyes. That’s certainly the case here, and it plays out through a good deal of the running time. Neale’s first impression of his dead buddy’s girl is that she’s a no-good gold digger, though her girl-next-door facade thaws him out as they get to know each other better. In Calcutta’s best use of irony, she helps him get to the bottom of the mystery, all the while aware of her own culpability.

In the end Calcutta is little more than a routine potboiler. John Farrow’s direction and John Seitz’s cinematography are competent yet uninspired — disappointing considering that each made numerous quality film noirs, including two pretty good ones together: The Big Clock and Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Farrow’s pacing is a too deliberate and the middle of the picture drags. Seitz does a fine job of masking the back lot locations, though he isn’t able to reproduce any of the exhilaratingly noirish shots of The Big Clock. There are some good lines in Seton Miller’s script, though there aren’t nearly enough of them. The best one comes in Ladd and Russell’s first scene, when she tells him he’s “cold, sadistic, and egotistical.” His response, “Maybe, but I’m still alive.” With the exception of Russell the cast is fine, though the two brightest spots, Bendix and Duprez, don’t get nearly the screen time they deserve. There are lengthy stretches that unfortunately contrive to keep big Bill out of the film, ostensibly for the sake of romantic scenes between Ladd and Russell. But as was often the case with Ladd and Bendix, their movies only got going when they were on the screen together. Their chemistry is obvious in each of the eight films they made together and it’s nice to see them on the same side of the fence for once. If the forties had a character actor with more vitality than Bendix, I’m at least certain that Bill could take him in a fistfight.

Calcutta (1947)
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Director: John Farrow
Cinematographer: John Seitz
Screenplay: Seton Miller

Starring: Alan Ladd, William Bendix, and Gail Russell.

Released by: Paramount

Running time: 82 minutes


2/14

3 comments:

  1. I just watched "Calcutta" and could not disagree more with most of the above review. I think it is a big mistake to attempt to over-analysis a movie which is, quite frankly, a "Terry And The Pirates" type of adventure film, with an added element of "film noir". As to the casting of Gail Russell: I thought it was inspired, primarily because with her innocent demeanor and exotic beauty, she fit the part and while she was not a "great" actress, she had great presence and made the twist ending work. As to the assertion of her not reaching "true stardom," I am not sure I know what that means. She was a star during her time at Paramount, always billed above the title. If anyone did not reach stardom, it was June Duprez, who I happen to like as well. It seems as if some movie goers of that era are only comfortable watching performers in roles they feel fit their "pre-packaged studio image". Later on, in the 1950s, Gail Russell gave a very good "bad girl" performance in "The Tattered Dress". Her personal troubles are well documented, but apparently during this period did not reflect in her work on the screen, which is what really matters on the screen. One further note: Paramount recognized her strong resemblance to Hedy Lamarr.

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  2. Hi there - thanks for reading and for your comment. We'll have to disagree about Russell in this film. The reason I say that she never became a true star is because she didn't. Russell had a very brief run in A pictures, and was never asked to carry a film by herself. No film was developed specifically for her, and when she was cast as the female lead in an A picture it was invariably alongside a bankable male star around whom the film's narrative was focused. In other words, although Russell may have been the top-billed female in a few big budget pictures, her roles were always in support. And certainly it is true that Paramount very much wanted her to be a star, attempted to position her as such, and gave her a real opportunity, it didn't work out. The studio executives failed to renew her contract and moved on, and their decision had a great deal less to do with her alcoholism than with her inability to carry a film. The studios supported — and even propped up — film stars with problems every bit as awful as Russell's.

    Also: I analyze films here, just as most other film bloggers do at their sites. I don't attempt to "over-analysis" them. I also don't give certain films a pass because they lack the artistic pretensions of some prestige pictures. This is, after all, essentially a site about B-movies.

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    1. hi Mark -- Please forgive the long delay in responding to your reply. Not to make too fine a point on it, but as my friend Maureen O'Hara once said to me about billing: "if your name is above the title -- even if it is second -- you are a star." In this particular movie, I would give that "in support" billing to June Duprez. I would like to add as well that Gail Russell was given first star billing (over Diana Lynn) in both "Our Hearts Were Young & Gay" and "Our Hearts Were Growing Up". Even on loan-out for "The Bachelor's Daughters, she was billed above a couple of very illustrious actresses - Ann Dvorak and Claire Trevor. Although not a super star (like Betty Hutton), I would submit she was an important leading lady for at least 4 or 5 years. As to why Paramount dropped her, this was discussed with a Paramount producer in an interview (its somewhere on the internet) and he confirmed it was her drinking which also was affecting her appearance. FYI, she was scheduled to film "Flaming Feather" and when she refused, Paramount used that as excuse not to renew her contract. I appreciate your analysis and sites such as yours give movie fans such as myself an opportunity to contribute. Thanks.

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