THE PRETENDER –
Well, OK, this is a William Lee Wilder film that wouldn’t, all by itself, automatically make you think of him as Billy Wilder’s idiot brother. A brother of inferior talent, certainly, but not absolutely hopeless. The deciding difference is either John Alton’s moody noir photography, which is always a pleasure, even coming at you through a gray fog of low-def VHS, or the script, which has one very nice idea — sleazy stockbroker Albert Dekker (he of the appalling death) seeks to marry a rich client to stave off bankruptcy (she’s so rich she has the Emperor Ming, Charles Middleton, as a butler), but she’s set her sights on someone else. So he hires a gangster to procure a hitman to rub out his rival, thinking he’ll catch his gal on the rebound. But meanwhile she ditches her loverboy all by herself and proposes to Dekker. He can’t believe his luck. But he’s told the gangster to put the hit out on the guy whose picture appears in the paper as his girl’s fiance, and so when his own pic is printed he has to urgently call off the job — but a clusterfuck of plot contrivances immediately piles up in his path.
Wilder films conversation scenes in unimaginative and static flat two-shots, but when there’s tension or psychological dissonance afoot he and Alton achieve some charming noir effects, aided by a theremin borrowed from the smarter brother’s LOST WEEKEND. And while Wilder’s sci-fi and horror stuff always showed complete disinterest in character, here the lack of sympathy actually has a point, since the plot hinges on the protagonist’s treacherous and unworthy nature.
The track-in to close-up with theatrical lighting change to introduce internal monologue either comes from DETOUR or from some common noir ancestor, but it’s very nice here.
WOMANEATER, on the other hand, by Wilder’s directing partner Charles Saunders, is an unmitigated howler. George Coulouris (frequent victim of the hit-and-run Z-movie crowd) is a mad scientist who attempts to create a reanimation serum by feeding women to a tropical plant. It’s not quite clear how this will be a boon to humanity, unless I suppose each victim produces enough serum to revitalize two corpses. The arithmetic is never explained.
Eat Drink Man Woman.
Bubbly Vera Day is very funny, without really trying, as the heroine, a showgirl who loses her job and becomes George’s housekeeper. With her comedy comely figure and natural working-class accent, she is, on the one hand, a stylised comic-book character, and on the other, far too credible for a film like this. She seems odd because she’s the only actor with one foot in reality. Oh, apart from Joy Webster as another bit of walking plant-food, who plays her role with the kind of tired contempt that ought to have come naturally in such surroundings.
Jimmy Vaughn, as “Tanga, the native” is utterly hilarious at all times, but I can’t really find any argument to defend his cheerfully awful work here. He kind of seems like he’s just stumbled into the movie, or else maybe he was hired more for his bongo playing than his thespian abilities. And the local constable, Edward Higgins, is spectacularly ill-at-ease in front of the camera, making his every moment cherishable. While Vaughn has no other credits, Higgins’ screen career spans fourteen years of uniformed bit parts — I shall certainly be watching out for him.
NB: Womaneater is also a fine Britney Spears song.