Monday, January 2, 2012

Las Vegas Story - 1952

“Las Vegas Story” (1952) is like the seductively slow Mona Lisa smile of its star, Jane Russell: both sly and simple, secretive and open. It’s a noir that loses a lot of its noir shadows in the bleached, unblinking sunshine of the desert. Like the city for which it’s named, this movie does its own thing in its own way.

This week we adventure in Las Vegas -- with Jane Russell and Victor Mature today, and on Thursday we’ll have Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse in “Meet Me in Las Vegas” (1956). I hope it proves to be a lucky start to a lucky year.  By the way, we once featured publicity for this movie at this previous post.

“Las Vegas Story” is a crime drama. Jane Russell is the wife of Vincent Price, a suave, well-heeled businessman from the east out here on a pleasure trip to try his luck. The couple are followed by a very handsome pest played by Brad Dexter, who though obviously attracted to Miss Russell, is even more attracted to the gaudy diamond necklace she wears.

The necklace will figure prominently in a murder.

There are a few subplots to the story that keep us entertained while we’re waiting for the crime to happen. So entertained that, in fact, the crime story seems almost like an afterthought. First, there is the back story about Jane Russell, who during the War was a singer in one of the casinos here. She’s here not to gamble, but to come to grips with her past.

“I have a feeling I interrupted a conversation between you and the desert,” Vincent Price tells her in what I think might be my favorite line from the movie. Perhaps it’s just his charming, sensitive delivery. He has broken away from the gaming tables briefly to notice she has wandered off by herself, alone outside on the terrace. They appear to have a comfortable, affectionate relationship, but something is nagging each of them that has nothing to do with the other.

Vincent Price, too focused on gambling to pay much attention to her anyway, indulgently allows her to sort out a few old ghosts, and suggests she go off on her own to explore the Strip.

“Go ahead. Get it out of your system,” he tells her.

She heads for her old hangout, a casino called The Last Chance. There’s Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, playing “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” I love when Hoagy’s at the piano when we walk in the door.

This is an exquisite scene. Jane Russell stands some distance away from where Hoagy is seated at his piano. He doesn't know she's there.  At once we see she is remembering days gone by. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a flashback done with such sensitivity and such style. In a close-up on her face, we see her eyes wander around the room and then lock on a small table with an empty chair. From the chair, we go back to a close-up of her face, and her eyes gently move to something beyond the piano. We hear the echo of a woman’s voice singing. In another moment the camera shows us…

…she is watching herself. A younger, happier woman, with longer 1940s style hair. The room is full of GIs, and a large flag hangs on a back wall. Victor Mature is seated at the empty chair, dressed in an Army uniform, adoring her.

We go back to Jane’s expression as she remembers.  Her face registers the wonder of recognition, the co-mingling pleasure and pain of memory.  Usually in a flashback scene, we are dropped into the past, and when the scene is over, we get wrenched back to the present.  Here, the camera keeps shifting from the scene to her face watching it. We never completely enter the flashback; we always have one foot in the present, just as she is firmly rooted in the present but cannot let go of the past. She is stuck between two worlds emotionally, and in this scene, literally. This marvelous tactic makes the memory seem like real-time.

What Jane Russell does just with her eyes, and with the slightest flicker of sublte expression is so impressive. This scene is a skillful union between a starlet who rose to fame on her voluptuous figure but who clearly really could act, and a director, Robert Stevenson, who with admirable delicacy, pays more attention to her face than her chest.

The movie was produced by Howard Hughes, second to none for his famous appreciation and promotion of her décolleté.  While we have the obligatory costuming and camera angles that showcase Miss Russell’s physical attributes (including a gratuitous shower scene, and the demonstration that she wears nothing but heavy makeup to bed), there is still more even more here about her broken heart.

Victor Mature, and his perpetual grimace, is the tough police detective whose beat is the Strip. We gather Jane was supposed to wait for him until he came back from the War, but didn’t. They are equally delighted and distressed to see each other again, and Mature becomes particularly bitter. He also reflects on his former self:

“That guy was a chump. He believed that if he left his hat or his girl at a table they’d be there when he got back.”

A couple of subplots on Mr. Mature’s side include the teenaged would-be bride and groom he has to hold in detention until the parents show up to stop the quickie wedding. There is also the playful antagonism with his boss, the sheriff played as his comic foil by Jay C. Flippen.

The Last Chance, where Jane used to sing during the War also keeps a couple of side stories on the back burner for us: Hoagy and his pal, played by Will Wright. Mr. Wright, the hangdog proprietor/house detective of other movies here plays a floorwalker who used own The Last Chance, but lost it in a bad business move. The stern new owner, played by Robert J. Wilke, comes down hard on his staff. Hoagy hates him, and Wright chokes on his humiliation.

Which is something we have to consider when this same new owner ends up dead.

Vincent Price has the most dramatic reason to kill him. Mr. Price is an embezzler, wanted back east, and takes his wife’s necklace to buy himself credit at the gaming tables. When he loses big at The Last Chance, Mr. Wilke takes no pity on him.

But what of Brad Dexter, perpetually tailing Miss Russell in and out of cocktail lounges and swimming pools? He turns out to be an insurance investigator, and maybe Jane and Vincent have something cooking between them to scam The City of Second Chances?

Lots of suspects, and an unresolved love story in the middle of them.

The movie is capped by a nifty chase scene between an old woody station wagon and a helicopter.

The car is not unlike the old woody rumbling through the Nevada desert in “Split Second” (1953) seen in this post, and another reminder of that film is the abandoned military installation where the final confrontation between helicopter and car occurs. I don’t know if any atomic testing went on here, too, but it’s deadly eerie.

Victor Mature is in the helicopter, which buzzes the car and follows it right through an empty hangar.  The murderer has taken a hostage, and tries to escape in a cat and mouse game with the dogged Mr. Mature, in an abandoned wooden control tower. There is no dialogue in this exciting scene, just the sound of footsteps, gunfire, and the howling wind from the desert. A tumbleweed rudely bounces off the head of a slain figure in the dust.

The crime story may have not a lot of depth to it, but at times this is a visually stunning film. Along with the desert, and miles of footage of Jane Russell, we get the obligatory shots of the neon casino signs embroidering the night sky: The Golden Nugget, The Pioneer Club, a montage of all the old casinos and hotels. The Thunderbird, the Flamingo. The sign at the Union Pacific station where Jane Russell and Vincent Price arrive in town, not to be outdone, tells us Las Vegas is the “streamlined city of the west.”

The movie ends on an upbeat note with another of Hoagy’s songs. Not very noir, but Vegas makes its own rules.

Come back for more Vegas and more songs on Thursday in “Meet Me in Las Vegas” with Dan Dailey as a most unlucky gambler, until he grasps the delicate hand of dancer Cyd Charisse.


KimWilson said...

I like Victor Mature in just about everything he does. You are right about people forgetting that Russell could act. As you mentioned, I always get a kick out of how much emphasis directors/studios place on her shapely figure. It's as though they sat around in a room and with other men and dreamed up ways to put as few clothes on her as possible. Nice post.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kim. It's an interesting little movie, strangely muted despite the gaudiness of the setting. All the performances are really pretty good. As for Jane Russell and what image the men who ran the studio preferred for her, I guess she managed to take it in her stride.

The Lady Eve said...

In perusing TCM's "Now Playing" guide I discovered that "The Las Vegas Story" will be airing Jan. 30 on my favorite channel. Since I haven't seen it, I'm going to have to come back to this post later in the month - though I did read just enough to know I can expect a visually striking look at the Mojave Desert, Jane Russell and old Las Vegas. Thanks for making me aware of this movie!

Matthew Coniam said...

A lovely post; I really enjoyed reading it.

This movie for some reason gets quite a bit of flak but it's one of my favourites, so it was good to see you like it too.
I'm never really able to take Victor Mature seriously, and the nods to Casablanca were sometimes a little too overt to ignore, but apart from that I love everything about this: Jane, Hoagy, Vincent, the songs, the finale in the desert...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lady Eve, I didn't know this movie was slated to be shown this month, I'm glad you'll have a chance to see it.

Matthew, thanks so much. I know this movie gets flak for everything it's not. I wish more had been fleshed out about why Jane Russell didn't wait for Victor, (she has no noble reasos as in "Casablanca") but there's still so much to this movie that is interesting and enjoyable.

Yvette said...

I know I've seen this since I probably have seen every Jane Russell movie - I was a big fan when I was young...Actually, still am.

But it doesn't sound familiar. Ah, memory.

I'll have to add it to my TBS list.

I loved your review, Jacqueline. So very well written. Your affection for the movie really shines through. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. As Lady Eve notes, it's to be shown on TCM later this month. I hope a lot of recorders will be going.

Most of us can still really enjoy a movie even knowing it's not perfect. I think only professional critics demand perfection. I'm not a critic; I just like to watch old movies.

Caftan Woman said...

The cast has always interested me, but the title didn't so I've let chances to catch this movie pass me by. I won't make that mistake next time.

Matthew Coniam said...

Caftan Woman makes a good point - it is indeed a rotten title, and I'm sure that has stood in its way over the years.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's it, then. We're just going to have to think of a new title. Any suggestions? How about: "The Movie with the Really Neat Helicopter Chasing a Car"?

I'm no good at this. (Hangs head in shame.)

Yvette said...

Me too, Jacqueline. :)

I also like Vincent Price and Jane together. Well, I like Vincent Price period. ALso loved him in that film you talked about a while back, another with Jane Russell. I think Mitchum starred in it.

I always preferred Vincent Price when he wasn't the bad guy. He could play vulnerability very nicely.

He's one of the few people I would love to have spent a lot of time with, listening to him talk about acting and art and all the people he'd met. Does he have a autobiography? I'll bet he does.

I'll check.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I know I covered "Dragonwyck" some time ago with him and Gene Tierney. He was good in everything.

I know he wrote cookbooks, but I don't know if he did an autobiography. He did seem like a fascinating gent, with so many interests.

Laura said...

Very much enjoyed this post! I'm particularly intrigued by the location photography you described and look forward to seeing it. Love the shots of the vintage signs, and that helicopter chase looks great!

Victor Mature is someone I didn't care for when I was a young film fan, but over the years I've come to really appreciate him. As a matter of fact, I'm currently halfway through watching him in CRY OF THE CITY, a very good noir costarring Richard Conte. Hope to have time to finish and write about it over the next day or two.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Laura. I think it's a fun movie.

Victor Mature didn't have a big range, or at least the studios never offered more challenging parts - however, he had what I guess you could call authority on screen. We knew this man, what he was about, and I think the audience has a lot of trust in him because of that.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I thoroughly enjoyed your post about THE LAS VEGAS STORY, and I'm very much looking forward to setting up my TiVo for it on January 30th! Jane Russell doesn't get nearly as much respect as she should; she was not only beautiful, but a truly gifted and appealing actress! It's always fun to see her onscreen with Victor Mature and Vincent Price, too.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Dorian. Nice to see Jane Russell has her fans, and I hope everyone who hasn't seen this movie will be able to catch it on TCM this month.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post. I have always been fascinated by Howard Hughes but haven't seen any films produced or directed by him. I'm looking forward to seeing this one when I finally get around to it!

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