Let’s Pretend


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.

The Woman Eater

18 Responses to “Let’s Pretend”

  1. I’d read something about the details of Dekker’s death, but your link provides more than I’d previously known. Wow. I have yet to catch up with THE PRETENDER, Wilder produced it himself, which may explain its scarcity and poor quality. I acquired Stuart Heisler’s AMONG THE LIVING some years back on VHS, and its quality sounds comparable to your PRETENDER. Released by Paramount in 1941, ATL has Dekker playing twin brothers, one the owner and corporate head of a factory (married to tragic cult icon Frances Farmer, pretty much wasted here), the other dangerously insane, kept locked away in the family mansion until he manages to overpower his caretaker. Just as Alton’s camerawork elevates the appeal of THE PRETENDER, Theodor Sparkuhl’s Southern Gothic cinematography helps to distinguish AMONG THE LIVING (Renoir hired Sparkuhl as DP for LA CHIENNE). A young Susan Hayward plays Millie, a free-spirited factory girl who meets up with the sick twin, oblivious to his troubled background. She’s pretty hot here, a real firecracker. As many of us know Universal owns Paramount’s catalogue, I just wish they’d provide us with better prints of their holdings, such as this and THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE. My VHS copy’s pretty murky, but its visual appeal is pretty evident even through the murk.

  2. It’s always a shame to see Alton’s work treated so shabbily, which is why better copies of Reign of Terror and The Amazing Mr X are so welcome. I love Sparkuhl’s work also (and his name!) and Among the Living sounds pretty good.

    Temple Drake would be an obvious choice for one of those pre-code collections, it’s much more racy and transgressive than most.

  3. A friend of mine transferred it onto DVD for me, I’ll burn you a copy and send it with my next batch. Like I said, it’s a bit problematic, but definitely worth a look.

  4. La Faustin Says:

    Joy to the world! The Museum of Modern Art and TCM are restoring THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE. It will be shown as a work in progress at the TCM Classic Film Festival next month (http://www.tcm.com/festival/). In the Great Beyond, Stephen Roberts and Karl Struss beam; Jack La Rue smoulders; and Miriam Hopkins, apparently, shudders and pours herself a stiff drink (http://www.divasthesite.com/Acting_Divas/Trivia/Trivia_Miriam_Hopkins.htm).

  5. How very, very cool. I’m guessing the folks at TCM got enough of an earful re. TEMPLE DRAKE from the film’s admirers that they just decided to go for it. And they’re also showing NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH as well! Damn! Someone must be paying attention!

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    I saw a trailer for WOMAN EATER many years ago and images of “Mr. Thatcher” and Vera have remained in my mind. But I’ve never seen the actual film.

    As for “daring Dekker”, this evokes that scene in THE RULING CLASS and David Carradine’s recent demise. Didn’t anybody warn them,. “This will be the death of you”?

  7. Carradine quite clearly failed to follow his famous father’s wise advice: “Never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing.” With Dekker, there is an unresolved question about whether he was actually alone at the time of his death, leaving open the possibility of murder or manslaughter.

    The fact that the womaneater plant is one of cinema’s most explicit vagina dentata is kind of interesting, I guess. Plus its tentacles are unusually phallic for any non-Japanese monster. It’s a Freudian minefield.

    Very good news on the Temple Drake restoration. It’s a somewhat ugly film in terms of content, but incontestably beautiful in form.

  8. Fascinatingly lurid Dekker link.

    I treasure him for his performance in Kiss Me Deadly alone. Especially his climactic speech to Gaby Rodgers when she pulls out a gun and plugs him — and opens the “Pandora’s Box”

  9. Anybody for the Tony Richardson version of The Story of Temple Drake?

  10. The fact that Dekker had the word “whip” written on his backside had me thinking the same thing, something a 62-year-old man might find difficult if not impossible to do.

  11. I’d really like to see Sanctuary, the Richardson version, but it seems almost as hard to find as his Laughter in the Dark.

    Let’s see, if I wanted to write “whip” on my ass I’d probably write it in mirror-script on a piece of paper and then sit down on it. Maybe the cops found the piece of paper but didn’t know what it was. “It just says PIHW — what the heck kinda suicide note is that?”

  12. Roberts’ Story of Temple Drake is cruel and mean, but then so was One Sunday Afternoon, and they’re two of the more notable Roberts films. Strange that he was a shorts director for Jack White comedies most of his career.

  13. Neither your typically hilarious fun with WOMANEATER nor any of the responses (I hope I didn’t read too fast) mentions that this ultra-drab Brit horror sports a brief but arresting film appearance by Marpessa Dawn, the lovely star of BLACK ORPHEUS. She doesn’t really do anything, not even twitch to a single Samba beat. By the rules of Shadowplay, you’re all now morally obligated to watch WOMANEATER, front to back, with a straight face.

  14. Hang on, is that her right at the beginning, when Coulouris goes up the Amazon? In that case I’ll just watch that bit. I thought the name sounded familiar!

    Of course, Roberts’ source novel is even crueler in its way that the film, which plays out like a more vicious version of The Sheik, only with bootleggers instead of Arabs. Or The Bitter Tea of General Yen, come to that.

  15. Christopher Says:

    actors often give their best performances in the bathroom..

  16. In this case, a kind of shower curtain call.

  17. One Sunday Afternoon has a very creepy, murderously obsessed Coop. Neither hero or anti hero, he’s more like a smarter Moose Malloy, without the patter. How he’s cured of his romantic obsession is one of the more sexist ways I’ve seen, too. There was no sproing in his meeting his old sweetie Fay Wray (dressed and made up like an expensive hooker), even when she came on to him. Never seen the source play, so I don’t know how close it hews to it, as far as in-your-face meanness. They did soften it quite a bit for The Strawberry Blonde. I thought it one time when softening (and different casting) helped.

  18. Sounds fascinating. Roberts clearly benefits from intense lighting in Temple Drake, but he seems to be very on top of the weird emotions and some of his sequences are extremely powerful, in a pulpy way.

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