Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees thinks that any crime lord who tangles with Joan Crawford is just asking for trouble.
She's the private lady of a public enemy!
Joan Crawford's comeback performance in Mildred Pierce reinvigorated her stalled career and launched her into tougher, more hard-boiled stories than the women's films that had made her so popular in the 1930s. But, interestingly enough, The Damned Don't Cry, made five years later, returns to the formula that brought her success over a decade before: the hard-luck kid who fights her way up the economic ladder via guts and determination. Because this is a crime drama and not a women's picture, Crawford no longer sticks to high moral ground, but the formula adapts itself well. Even when Crawford's character is using up men like Kleenex, we're on her side. She's fighting the system—or using it—for all of us. Whether she can stay on top in a corrupt world, a man's world, is the question…and that's what creates the suspense in this drama that's as tough as a 75-cent steak.
Facts of the Case
Life in the oil fields of California is tough, both economically and emotionally, and Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) wants more for her son than she and her lout of a husband can afford to give him. When a tragic accident takes place, she realizes that there's nothing left of her marriage but mutual resentment, so she leaves her husband and strikes out on her own, determined to have a better life. As a housewife with no education and no training, she has few career choices, but she uses her looks and sex appeal to land a modeling job, where she meets mild-mannered accountant Martin Blackford (Kent Smith, Strangers When We Meet). She has the moxie and the savvy to parlay his math skills into a lucrative connection with a gambling boss and, eventually, with the powerful crime lord George Castleman (David Brian, Flamingo Road). Martin thinks that he and Ethel are a team, but when Castleman takes a shine to her, she doesn't hesitate to leave Martin behind for the top man.
Castleman has her polished up and made over into a society woman, now known as Lorna Hansen Forbes, and she really moves into the good life. But scarcely has she become accustomed to life as a rich gangster's moll before Castleman wants some return on his investment. He sends her on an undercover mission to suss out the secrets of one of his underlings: the rebellious Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran, White Heat), whose Vegas operations haven't been bringing in enough profit. Nick's as tough as they come, but he takes a shine to the cool, elegant Mrs. Forbes. Then Castleman begins to suspect that Lorna has started taking her assignment too personally, and he sends the embittered Martin to keep an eye on her. As professional and personal loyalties collide, Lorna finds that she may be on the losing side of a deadly conflict.
The Damned Don't Cry is an intriguing departure from the expected movie message about an ambitious woman. Ethel/Lorna climbs the ladder with her own tenacity and assertiveness and her willingness to use men, including their talents and their attraction to her. But she still has vestiges of hope, of optimism, that lead her to relax into what she thinks is an affectionate relationship with the powerful Castleman—which leads her to get hurt all over again, and also leads him to treat her with a lover's jealousy as well as with a criminal's calculation. Somehow her hardness leads men to grow soft on her, to fall for her, and then they turn remarkably nasty when they recognize that their own vanity or idealism has misled them. She's neither as good as they believe her to be nor as bad as their disillusionment makes them think she is. She's a hard, practical career woman, and the film validates her for being that, since this is a world where everyone but Crawford is a weakling or an SOB. Although we do see that she'd like to be loved, to stop fighting if she gets the chance, the film seems to tell us this only to make her even more sympathetic, not to indicate that she made the wrong choice by prioritizing financial security over domestic ties. Unlike movies of just ten years before, the film doesn't show us that she's sinned in placing other priorities over love. She doesn't have to repent or die for being ambitious or "unwomanly." The final word of the film is that she did what any of us would have done: she tried to escape a rotten situation.
This driving desire for more than she has parallels earlier Crawford vehicles like the excellent Mannequin (1937)—frustratingly not available on DVD—in which she plays a heroine who climbs out of poverty and brutality to a life of glamour, popularity, and power. In Mannequin she starts out relatively innocent and wises up, thanks to the no-good men all around her (including her father and first husband, another parallel between the two films). But she retains a kind of moral grounding that she can't afford to have in The Damned Don't Cry—which makes it all the more surprising that she's not punished at the end of this later film. But times have changed, and after World War II the world doesn't seem so innocent a place; no doubt that's how such a similar plot can now be a noir instead of a women's film. This is the kind of role that audiences of the time always responded to in Crawford: one that allowed her own fierce strength, determination, and almost frightening ambition to show through. Perhaps it's because these stories mirror Crawford's own rise from poverty to glamour, as the included featurette suggests. Whatever the reason, it's a compelling story with wide appeal: the Cinderella with guts, resourcefulness, and a refusal to take things lying down.
That Crawford persona—the strong woman who won't quit—is the driving force of the film. The plot, inspired by the real-life story of Bugsy Siegel and his moll Virginia Hill, is a workmanlike crime drama, but it wouldn't come off without the strong leading lady. Nevertheless, the male leads hold up their end pretty well. As Castleman, David Brian has the coldest eyes I've ever seen, and he brings real menace to a brutal scene near the end; Steve Cochran also brings convincing brutality to his role as the dangerous Nick. And Kent Smith is appropriately mild and gentle as a counterpoint to the gutsier, more worldly Ethel/Lorna. Jacqueline deWit adds pungency as the jaded coworker who wises up Ethel to the ways of the world, including the fact that every woman is out for herself and solidarity among sisters doesn't exist.
Warner's house style is definitely in evidence here, with snappy, blunt dialogue and gritty atmosphere. In the early part of the film Crawford even appears to be going without makeup, just one instance of the emphasis on realism that enhances the film's impact. (At the same time, costume designer Maggie Rouff really goes all out for the dresses Crawford wears in her modeling career and her life as the wealthy Lorna.) Even the featurette, "The Crawford Formula: Real and Reel," seems to partake of the fast-paced Warner technique: It races through lots of discussion in its ten-minute running time, with speakers discussing the parallels between Crawford's and Ethel's life, the links to the Siegel-Hill liaison, and the elements of the distinctive Warner style. It's pretty clip-heavy, like most of these recent Warner featurettes, but it does add a lot of useful context to the film.
Audiovisual quality for this transfer is uneven, with some sequences showing lots of flicker and wavering in the picture. On the whole the print seems pretty clean, but there are some instances of minor damage and vertical lines. Nevertheless, the depth of the grayscale tone is satisfying, with bright whites and rich blacks, and the imperfections in the print aren't too distracting in this gritty flick. The mono audio track is free of hiss and major distortion, and does its job sufficiently.
Besides the new featurette, the primary extra is the audio commentary by director Vincent Sherman (who also appears in the featurette). It's impressive that the director himself is on hand to provide a commentary, but the reality is that his track adds very, very little to the experience of the film. I think what this commentary needed was an interviewer to pull more information out of Sherman, because almost without exception he simply tells us what the scene is about, tells us what we're seeing and hearing (even repeating dialogue), and then tells us what we're going to see later on. After half an hour of this, which was enlivened with only a few tiny, general tidbits about the making of the film (Crawford, he comments, was the most cooperative actress he ever worked with), I couldn't take it any more. Perhaps I missed some illuminating revelations later on, but I'll have to live with that. Also included is the original trailer, which is enjoyably melodramatic.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Damned Don't Cry is a decent crime drama and a good Crawford vehicle, worthy of its inclusion in the Crawford boxed set, but I hope that Warners will start releasing some of Crawford's earlier work. The set this film belongs to focuses only on her post-1939 films, while many of her most interesting films belong to earlier in her career. At the same time, this boxed set includes movies already available on DVD instead of unavailable gems from this era of her career, like the riveting A Woman's Face (1941). I hope that we'll see another Crawford boxed set that gives us that suspenseful drama as well as early titles like the 1931 Possessed, in which she climbs out of poverty to be Clark Gable's mistress and soul mate, and Mannequin, in which she's partnered with Spencer Tracy. Crawford's later films are the ones that seem to be getting all the DVD love (with the notable exception of 1932's Rain, in which she's remarkable), but her early career really warrants DVD exposure too. In her later films it's uncomfortably clear that she's heading toward camp, toward a time when she's increasingly parodying herself. I think viewers need to be able to look at the full span of her career, not just the portion where she was on her way to becoming a cruel joke.
A movie that proves no one could take it on the jaw like Crawford, The Damned Don't Cry is an effective later vehicle for this powerhouse of an actress. I wouldn't count it among her best films, but her performance is definitely worth a rental for the curious, and a purchase for fans of late Crawford.
Guilty? Baby, the world is guilty for making this dame what she is. Court's adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary with Director Vincent Sherman
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