Saturday, June 2, 2018

Two Smart People

Two Smart People (Jules Dassin, 1946) Jules Dassin's last job as a contract director for M-G-M (before tearing up the screen when he moved to B-movies at Universal) is a slight caper movie heavy on the relationship side of things; the tension comes not from the "will they pull it off" aspect so much as the "when does the betrayal happen" question. The screenplay is a collaboration between Ethel Hill (her last credit in a career that started in the silent era) and Leslie Charteris—who's most known for creating "The Saint." There are elements of that, but no halo's.

It follows two con-artists—Ace Connors (John Hodiak—he starred in Hitchcock's Lifeboat) and Ricki Woodner (Lucille Ball) who meet at a swanky Beverly Hill hotel. 

Well, they don't so much as collide; "clash" might be the better term. Both have their sights on a mark (the easily befuddled Lloyd Corrigan—but he had a history of playing con-men, as well) Ace has some oil futures he wants to sell to him, but Ricki has enough smart patter—and a deflecting "master-work"—to lure the investor to her side. That is, until Ace exposes it for a forgery, thus making those oil deeds a bit more tempting.
Make of it what you will two cats fighting over a ball of yarn, or a larcenous tennis match, but it puts Ricki and Ace on the same wavelength—one that has a lot of static on the line, but a certain simpatico frequency. Plus, Ace has a reputation—the rumor that he has half a million dollars in stolen bonds squirreled away somewhere, a nice little dividend if she can get her hands on it. But, there's another reason to get close to Ace—she's being threatened by Ace's former partner "Fly" Feletti (Elisha Cook Jr. in full weasel mode), who has a grudge against Ace and wants the bonds, as well. Already, the relationships, as they say, are "complicated."
And just a little slippery. With this couple of swindlers, you need someone you can depend on, so in walks Detective Bob Simms (Lloyd Nolan) who has absolutely no con to play, but does have have a job to do involving Ace; Simms is the cop investigating the stolen bonds and has the duty of escorting him to Sing Sing as part of the con's plea-deal for turning over evidence against Feletti (but not the bonds, the existence of which Ace won't even acknowledge). Simms is a practical man. He likes Ace (he's not a murderer, after all) and when Ace suggests they take the slow-road to Sing-Sing to visit old haunts and indulge in the finest meals that they don't provide on the menu at The Gray Bar Hotel. Simms is a straight arrow, but practical. An extended train-trip sounds like fun and they're in no hurry.
Trouble is, trains are public transportation; anybody can buy a ticket.  So, Ace and Bob are surprised to find that Ricki has come along for the ride (and unbeknownst to them, so has Feletti), which sets up a dynamic where everybody is looking for the bonds that Ace has stashed. He won't betray their location and everybody wants to betray him. What's a con-artist to do? Sit back and enjoy the ride and make the best of it.

Hodiak looks like he's enjoying himself, and Nolan is a trooper. But, Ball, who since denounced the film as "a dog," looks none too happy. Oh, she goes through the motions, but you sense that there's a lip-twisting "Ewwww..." forthcoming in every scene. She had every right to be a bit brittle about it. Like, Dassin, this was going to be her last film before being released from her contract with the prestigious M-G-M. Despite the elaborate costumes she sports throughout the film, there was nothing flattering about the pink slip she'd be getting at the end of it.
I wonder whatever became of her? Well, one of the key technicians on the film was ex-pat cinematography master Karl Freund, who had learned enough from the German Expressionist era to highlight her cheekbones and make her look luminous despite the disadvantage of black-and-white doing nothing for her flaming red hair. Lucy must have taken notice and been appreciative, though. When she and husband Desi Arnaz launched Desilu Productions with their first series idea "I Love Lucy," they hired Freund to apply his same talents behind the camera and enhance the audience-friendly "3-camera technique" that would become of staple of those shows "filmed before a live audience."

Even career set-backs provide valuable lessons. Talk about "smart people."

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