Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Velvet Touch (1948)


In Praise of a Fat Man

Sydney Greenstreet was one great presence in film - literally. In The Maltese Falcon he filled every inch of the screen. John Huston shot “The Fat Man” from such a low angle that he actually looked even larger than he was - which was pretty big. At 62, this was the first film the proud stage actor agreed to be in. His film career would only last eight years but through Warner Bros he would work with some of the greats in movies. WB paired him with Peter Lorre nine times including two of the most beloved films of all time, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

Because of his large size, age and lack of leading man looks Greenstreet wasn't expected to ever be the main attraction. He was a standout supporting player around bigger stars - but never bigger in actual size. Peter Lorre was lucky he didn't go into orbit around his frequent WB co-star. Warners eventually used used the unique Greenstreet as a top-billed star in more than a few releases. They include the film noirs The Verdict, The Mask of Dimitrios and Three Strangers. All three are worth the effort to find and watch.

Then there's The Velvet Touch - the 1948 film directed by Jack Gage. Greenstreet is billed fourth behind Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, and Claire Trevor. Greenstreet doesn't appear in the film until after the 45 minute mark. Getting to that point in this routine drama is a chore for any movie fan.

Russell plays a middle-aged Broadway leading lady trying to break away from her light comic plays and act in something “serious”. She has an argument with her former love - lecherous producer Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) - after a performance. Russell kills him with a blunt blow on the head with a Tony Award. Once she realized what she's done she quickly exits the back stage of the packed theater. She, all shifty-eyed and nervous after the killing, rushes through coworkers and fans and gets into her limo - successfully exiting the theater before the body is found. It's amazing that no one suspected her of the crime. Russell pulls off a unique performance - appearing guilty and looking down her nose at people at the same time. I suspect she was trying to play the part as a hammy actor trying to keep her cool. However, all these acting ticks actually makes her character annoying and unlikeable.

Looking back at reviews from 1948, The New York Times infamous reviewer Bosley Crowther nails Russell's performance:

“This foregone conclusion of the story is only one of the film's weaknesses. The muddiness of the character played by Miss Russell is another one. The role was so randomly written by Leo Rosten that one finds it hard to see any solid personality or consistency in the dame. At this point she's sweet, at that she's vicious, here she's pitiable and there she's vile, with no purpose or reason to the bridges—save, perhaps, to give Miss Russell things to do.

True, she does them with forthright application. She acts charming, lovable and sad with the same glittering polish in performance as when she's acting deceitful and cruel. She also has sobbing hysterics with the same evident emotional thrust as she shows in tossing her sweet self ecstatically into her lover's arms.”

After the killing Valerie Stanton (Russell) returns to her swanky apartment. The film goes into flashback mode and tells her back story - including the romance Crowther hints at.

All the Broadway sophisticates talk and behave like they were somehow live versions of New Yorker Magazine cartoons. The two standout performances are from noir regulars Claire Trevor and comical Esther Howard. It's not surprising that they're the only actors in the film to play anyone even close to down-to-earth. Trevor is refreshing as a love-sick but hard-boiled actress who's accused of the crime and Howard is funny as an obsessed Broadway fan. All the men, unfortunately, are lanky, mustached fifty-somethings that every young woman in these types of film seem to find dreamy.

Before the film becomes totally unbearable the flashback finishes and the film returns to current time. The police call the whole theater group to meet with Captain Danbury to discuss the killing. With the entire theater group seated in front of him Greenstreet takes the stage and carefully examines a rickety wooden folding chair. The whole theater groups erupts in laughter after Greenstreet carefully plants himself in the creaking chair and breathes a sigh of relief. The scene is funnier than any of the supposed comedy shown on stage throughout the film. Capt. Danbury explains why he's there and begins questioning all the people in the theater in front of everyone. “Routine, ladies and gentlemen.” he says. “Simply routine.” No one believes it especially not Russell who pegs him as a clever man she needs to be wary of. (Notice how Russell can look down her nose at everyone even while sitting.)

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It's at this point when the movie becomes familiar but at the same time quite enjoyable. The audience knows who-done-it but the fun is following the food-loving and dapper Danbury find out the truth. (Crowther found Greenstreet “quite ludicrous as the sleuth” but I disagree. He's excellent.)

The melodrama is considered “film noir” probably due to the crime, the lengthy flashback at the beginning of the film, and the shadowy shots at Russell's apartment after the killing. Cinematographer Joseph Walker worked on other noir-like films including The Dark Past, The Lady from Shanghai, Harriet Craig, The Mob and Affair in Trinidad. He makes New York City's Broadway seem a nighttime world filled with glamorous people and bright lights. Unfortunately it's not as dank as you would expect from a film noir.

A better “Broadway noir” would be the outstanding A Double Life released in theaters just six months earlier. Ronald Coleman - playing a cracked Shakespearean actor a little too into the characters he plays - kills a loud-mouth waitress from the wrong side of the tracks (Shelly Winters). Edmond O'Brien plays an enterprising press agent. Winters, Coleman and O'Brien bring just enough grit to make the stagy film a superior noir film.

However The Velvet Touch - even with it's shortcomings - is not without charm. The film's worth seeing for one of the “Queens of Film Noir” Trevor - always a welcome sight - and the giant known as Sydney Greenstreet.

Home viewers of the movie are advised to fast-forward past the male-chorus-sung theme song written by the usually reliable Leigh Harline.


Written by Steve-O



3 comments:

  1. I have a 45rpm instrumental recording called "The Velvet Touch" by Henri Rene's orchestra and wonder if it was also the theme of this movie, although it's said in your writeup that a male chorus sings the theme song. Does anyone know?

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  2. Sydney's bit with the chair is hysterical.

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  3. I always saw Captain Danbury as a model for Lt. Columbo in the way he interrogates Miss Stanton.

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