David Melville returns with a new series, or mini-series anyway — FORBIDDEN DIVAS. He has a major series up his sleeve too, but that’ll have to wait a wee while. For now ~
Kissing the Flame
“Does that man interest you?”
“Man? Let’s say men interest me.”
Carlos Thompson and Lana Turner, Flame and the Flesh
Some femmes, as we know, are more fatales than others. For French audiences in the 30s and 40s, the gold standard was set by Viviane Romance – a star known to this day as “The Flame”. Born in 1911 as simple Pauline Ortmans, she was by no means a great beauty. She had an angular face, a plump body and a shock of unruly black hair. But she had, also, a warm and earthy carnality that no other star, perhaps, has ever rivalled. (At moments, Anna Magnani and Ava Gardner came close.) Could anyone else “act” allure as compellingly as she could? And, of course, there were always her eyes, dark and liquid, unfathomable…
The 1937 film that made her a legend, Naples au baiser du feu (which translates badly as Naples in the Kiss of Fire) has long been unavailable on DVD. So too has its lavish MGM remake, the 1954 Flame and the Flesh – which stars a far more cosmetic and glamorous sex symbol, Lana Turner. Faced with the all-but-insurmountable difficulty of seeing either film, comparing the two may seem like an exercise in obscurity for its own sake. Yet the films we have not seen can possess our imagination as powerfully – and as dangerously, perhaps – as those we have. And sooner or later, one of them may actually show up.
As the credits roll on Naples au baiser du feu, the first thing you notice is that Viviane Romance is not the star. That honour goes to Tino Rossi, a sculpturally handsome French singing idol of truly spectacular dullness. He plays Mario, a singer-cum-gigolo who entertains rich ladies in a swish Neapolitan restaurant. He shares a house with Michel Simon, a bachelor who describes Mario as his “godson” but whom Mario describes as “my father, my brother, my godfather, my family in fact”. Hmm. As if he were not busy enough, the boy is also chastely engaged to Mireille Balin, the proprietor of the restaurant – in other words, his boss.
The script sets Rossi up (his acting certainly doesn’t) as the apex of a love triangle – in which neither relationship officially involves sex. That, of course, is where Viviane Romance comes in. In the opening scene, a cargo ship is unloading down on the docks. The hold opens to reveal a steaming mountain of hot coal. A black stoker (whose nickname is ‘Blanc’ or ‘Whitey’) makes his way through the lower depths of the ship, where a stowaway lurks. Viviane Romance as Lolita, looking only slightly sweaty in all that heat. Symbolically, this woman rises from the darkest pit of Hell itself. Worse – so the script implies – she may have given sexual favours to a black man just to get a free ride. Proof, for a 30s audience, of her utter depravity.
Perhaps I should mention here that Naples au baiser du feu was directed by Augusto Genina, a pioneer of Italian silent film who also made the Louise Brooks classic Prix de beauté (1930). Very shortly after, he would reinvent himself as a highly successful maker of Fascist propaganda films. (The best known, The Siege of the Alcazar (1940) and Bengasi (1942), are said to be extremely well made.) Although Naples is heavy-breathing tosh with no overt political content, a Fascist aesthetic is visible in the way Genina serves up sex in lubricious dollops – all the while condemning it as vile and unclean. Once the temptress lures Rossi away from the narrow and none-too-straight, he upbraids her as follows: “You spend your whole life lying. You even lie when you kiss me. You lie with your eyes, with your smile. You live only to be desired.” As if boffing sex-starved ladies in return for tips were, somehow, morally superior…
All of which leads on nicely to Flame and the Flesh, which – unusually for an MGM film – is remarkably upfront about how its hero earns his living. Heavy hints are dropped by the song “Pedlar Man” where the lyrics go “Come along, ladies, look and buy / Come along, ladies, don’t be shy”. Something tells you he’s not selling Bibles or life insurance. The young stud in this version is an Argentine actor-singer called Carlos Thompson, who made several Hollywood films before marrying Lilli Palmer and moving to Europe. The kindest thing one can say is that he’s less dull than Tino Rossi. But he still resembles a well-dressed department store mannequin, with a singing voice piped in by ventriloquism.
Alas, Thompson barely seems man enough for Pier Angeli, as the doe-eyed ingénue, or Bonar Colleano, who’s here been downgraded from “godfather” to “war buddy”. Never mind Lana Turner at her flashiest and most flamboyant. Never a great or perhaps even a good actress, Lana is surprisingly gutsy and impressive as a scheming, devious trollop with one thing (and one thing only) on her mind. Her hair darkened and her figure squeezed into unflattering thrift shop clothes, she seems liberated – as in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) – from the usual MGM pressure to be ladylike. She’s at her best in a wordless scene, where her mere appearance on the beach at Amalfi sparks a near riot.
Starting as a pallid Technicolor copy of the French film, Flame and the Flesh improves considerably as Lana lures the poor sap to run away and hit the road with her a la Postman. The director, Richard Brooks, had a flair for women whose sexual and romantic impulses went beyond what society was prepared to tolerate – or, at least, what their hapless male partners were able to provide. Turner here can be seen as a rough sketch (in lurid multi-coloured crayons) for Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Jean Simmons in The Happy Ending (1969) or Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Her performance is arguably bolder and more enterprising, if only because she lacks the other women’s talent or technique.
Brooks even allows Lana the luxury of character development, a thing wholly lacking in the absolutist moral scheme of Genina. By the end of Naples au baiser du feu, Viviane Romance has tired of Tino Rossi and taken up with a photographer (Marcel Dalio). She is busy manipulating and lying to this new man, just as she has with all the others. Lana, at the end of Flame and the Flesh, is still in love with Thompson. (Trust me, this does require some acting.) But she gives him up for his own good – pretending to run off with a rich protector, so he’ll go back to that nice girl in the restaurant back home!
Once her good deed is done, Lana says goodbye to her would-be sugar daddy and walks off proudly into the night. We are left to imagine how she will raise the fare to her next stop.