Lana Turner doesn't always ring twice—unless it's a Universal double feature, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes.
"Well, well, well, what do you know? We've got a triangle going."
Her online biography squashes the myth that Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was discovered at Schwab's Drugstore, but as "Sweater Girl" Lana Turner, she turned the heads of moviegoers for decades, with famous turns in The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Three Musketeers, and Peyton Place.
Universal's double feature of Portrait in Black and Madame X casts Turner in a pair of movies involving romantic triangles, violence, and murder. Moviegoers who saw Madame X in 1966 might have been thinking of Turner's real-life brush with romance and violence; her daughter killed Lana's violent lover in 1958 in a case that brought a ruling of justifiable homicide. They might also have been drawn to seeing the glamour gal looking decidedly weather-beaten in the last reel of that weepy melodrama.
Facts of the Case
Two Lana Turner movies are featured on two discs:
Portrait in Black
Rivera shows Sheila a hypodermic. "Look at this. It's more deadly than a gun, a thousand times less detectable. I use it every day on him." Rivera's contemplating injecting a deadly air bubble; he wants to leave the country because he doesn't want to be tempted. Sheila persuades Rivera to stay, and soon Cabot is dead.
After the murder, Sheila's nervous, and Rivera's staying away as much as possible to keep their affair a secret. Still, he's on hand when Sheila starts reading sympathy letters. One letter isn't so sympathetic: "Dear Mrs. Cabot. Congratulations on the success of your murder."
Now Rivera is nervous—and that could lead to more murder!
On the other hand, womanizing bachelor Phil (Ricardo Montalban, Fantasy Island) likes Holly (Lana Turner) just fine. When Holly goes to his apartment to break off the affair, he won't let her go—until he falls down the stairs as she struggles to break free.
Estelle offers Holly some help with her situation—for a price. Holly must fake her own death and take up a new life in Switzerland. Holly eventually becomes addicted to absinthe, which makes her heart grow even fonder for what she lost.
When Holly finds herself accused of murder, her public defender is her own son—Clay VI (Keir Dullea, Brave New World)!
Director Michael Gordon painted his Portrait in Black right after he sketched Pillow Talk, so you might expect a light, stylish take on the cat-and-mouse game. However, Gordon really pumps up the melodrama, translating tortured passion and murder into overacting.
It's still a fun movie with lots of red herrings and moments of tension. Just check out the scene in which Sheila awakens from a nightmare after Cabot's murder to hear the invalid's bed moving up and down. By the time she figures out who—or what—is making the noise, you might be jumpy, too.
The cast—which includes Sandra Dee (Gidget) and John Saxon (Battle Beyond the Stars) as ill-fated lovers, Richard Basehart (Moby Dick) as a slimy lawyer, Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian) as a chauffeur with gambling debts, and Anna May Wong (A Study in Scarlet) as a stern housekeeper—lathers things up well.
While Madame X also finds Turner in a deadly triangle, there's no mystery; it's pure melodrama. Turner sobs all the way through the saga of the shopgirl who makes good, loses good, goes into decline, and faces a tragic end. She's got the tears down pat and manages to make you feel for her in her final speech, even though she looks a little too glamorous for the part. Bennett, Montalban, and Burgess Meredith (Rocky) have their slimy characters down as well, even if none of them has a mustache to twirl. Dullea's performance makes him just seem slow as he defends his long-lost mother without realizing it, but that's the only big mistake in the casting.
You might forgive the melodramatic turns thanks to the great cast, but to love Madame X, you'll need to be in the mood for weeping or mocking. It's a modern remake of an often-filmed play by French writer Alexandre Bisson.
Both movies underscore the drama with heavy-handed touches like thunder claps at key moments in the action and schmaltzy orchestral scores. The endings each deliver the poetic justice requisite at the time. Madame X makes it predictable, but writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts come up with a twist that could surprise you in Portrait in Black.
The Technicolor picture fares well in both movies, from the vivid red walls of Cabot's bedroom/office to the day-for-night shots of crime scenes to the shadowy meetings between lovers. I didn't have any problems with the sound either.
Theatrical trailers are the only extras. Madame X's trailer tells too much about the plot, but I doubt anyone who went to see it really cared.
You might pick up on a pop culture coincidence in a short John Forsythe speech about his "angels" as Lana Turner puts the heavenly ornaments on a Christmas tree; Forsythe, of course, spent several years talking about—and to—his "angels" as the voice of Charlie on Charlie's Angels. In another coincidence, Goff and Roberts, who penned Portrait in Black, created that famous series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Thunder claps punctuating the action? What is this, Scooby-Doo? Both movies have their moments, but there's nothing groundbreaking here; neither film's a must-see.
With a list price under $15, fans of Lana Turner will want to snap this one up, even without the extras. If you enjoy 1960s suspense films, Portrait in Black is roaring good fun and Madame X makes a nice kitschy bonus, even if you wouldn't buy it on its own.
Guilty—as in guilty pleasures.
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Scales of Justice, Portrait In Black
Perp Profile, Portrait In Black
Distinguishing Marks, Portrait In Black
• Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Madame X
Perp Profile, Madame X
Distinguishing Marks, Madame X
• Theatrical Trailer
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.