Sunday, August 22, 2010

Blonde Ice (1948)

“I once said I couldn’t figure you out. I can now. You’re not a normal woman. You’re not warm. You’re cold like ice. Yeah, like ice. Blonde ice.”

The iconic noir femme fatales, boldly created without a shred of sentimentality, are guaranteed to be some of the nastiest women in cinema. Noir isn’t required to include a femme fatale, but it certainly spices up the action when there’s one on the prowl. These femme fatales are women who lack the so-called female qualities of tenderness and gentleness, and they ooze sex appeal thinly stretched over the evil ambition underneath. To the Wicked Women Gallery of Noir which showcases Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Jane Palmer (Lizabeth Scott), and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), add Claire Cummings from Blonde Ice. In Claire’s case, she’s arguably trashier, but then Blonde Ice is unabashedly B noir, so perhaps the two go together. What went wrong with the genetic make up of these women? Did they miss their Betty Crocker lessons? Blonde Ice argues that nice girls are left in dead-end jobs while bad girls like Claire clamber over the corpses of the men they use and discard on their way to the top of society. Based on the novel Once Too Often by Whitman Chambers (and the title says it all), the film is a portrayal of a woman whose thirst for money and power unleashes havoc in the lives of the men who are foolish enough to love her.

When Blonde Ice begins, the story of Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) is already underway. We don’t know how an “$18 a week stenographer from a hick town” managed to morph into a San Francisco newspaper woman, but even her bemused boss, Hack (Walter Sande), admits that it wasn’t due to talent. The mystery of Claire’s meteorical career is solved for the viewer early in the film when Claire, who’s a pro when it comes to manipulating men, brazenly juggles three suitors on her wedding day--marrying stinking rich Carl (John Holland) and leaving the other two pining at the altar.

The two abandoned suitors are former co workers, and they are very different types of men--the weasely Al Herrick (James Griffith) and the bitterly besotted Les Burns (Robert Paige). One of the big differences between these two is that Al doesn’t mind losing as long as Les loses too. Both men even possess identical cigarette cases which were gifts from Claire, and this nice touch really gets to the heart of Claire’s shotgun--rather than focused--modus operandi. She has the audacity to be caught smooching on the balcony with Les right after the marriage ceremony, and before Claire flies off with Carl, she leaves Les dangling with the atta boy comment that will drive him crazy if he dwells on it too much: “I’ll think of you on my honeymoon.”

The honeymoon doesn’t bode well for the rest of the marriage with Carl lecturing Claire about her spending habits, and it’s clear that Claire, although she doesn’t argue with Carl, doesn’t plan on taking his crap either. But the trouble really begins when Carl catches Claire writing a love letter to Les. Carl angrily cuts the honeymoon short. He returns to San Francisco, threatening divorce and leaving her just enough money to pay the hotel bill. Stinging from the humiliation of being outmaneuvered by Carl, Claire hires a plane and its shady pilot, rubber-check-writer Blackie Talon (Russ Vincent), to fly her overnight to San Francisco, no questions asked….

The next day, Claire telephones Les to say that she’s coming home early since Carl is wrapped up in some business affairs. Calling Les to heel, Claire tells him to arrange her flight and to pick her up at the airport. Imagine Les’s shock when he escorts Claire home and discovers her husband slumped dead in a chair--an apparent suicide. Claire moves seamlessly from new bride to new widow, and then without missing a beat, she’s a society dame picking up bachelor-about-town attorney Stanley Mason (Michael Whalen), a promising politician for hubbie #2.

One of Claire’s extraordinary characteristics is that she doesn’t bother with the social niceties of the world she intends to conquer. In some ways she doesn’t seem to understand that she is expected to behave in certain ways, and that any deviation from the norm is suspicious. She doesn’t, for example, even pretend to mourn her new, dead husband, and the fact that Carl is the subject of a murder investigation doesn’t stop Claire’s indecent, incautious power grab. Naturally she expects Les, the patient poodle that he is, to wait through the next wedding and presumably dream of a reunion sometime shortly after widowhood number two. If Claire had the patience to wait before harpooning her next victim, there would be a good chance that this cold as ice dame would get away with murder, but patience isn’t Claire’s strong suit. Leslie Brooks plays this role excellently, smirking at the right times while cajoling at others. Even though she seems to get her way at almost every turn, there’s an edge of desperation just beneath the surface, and perhaps that explains why she kills when the men in her life thwart her plans.

The film moves along with almost dizzying speed, and this emphasizes Claire’s loosening grip on reality. Mason’s friend, shrink Kippinger (David Leonard) spots Claire as the loony she is after spending just a few moments in her company, and she even gets some free psycho-analysis in the process. Kippinger is the one man Claire can’t use her wiles on, and so the two tolerate a testy relationship; she doesn’t respect him and his “slimy scientific snooping” and he suspects her “distorted” mind.

Once again noir takes a subversive look at society, and this time it’s the way in which women get ahead. Les complains that Claire isn’t a “normal woman.” Compare Claire to mousy steno June Taylor (Mildred Coles), Les’s plain Jane reliable secretary who pines in the wings for the man she’ll never have. At one point, Hack reads a column she’s written and asks with an air of innocent patronage “did you write this all by yourself?” From his tone, it would have seemed natural for Hack to pull out a gold star and stick it on the article. June, the presumably normal woman in the film, doesn’t tell Hack to stuff his comments, she simply endures his condescending attitude. How insufferable to be ‘normal’ June and watch talentless Claire bag an aging millionaire, a regular newspaper column, and office hunk Les into the bargain. Clearly being nice and normal doesn’t get June a thing except lonely nights and daydreams that Les will one day see her good qualities and come to his senses.

Then again, what of the men who fall in love with Claire? Carl should have called it quits right after the wedding when he caught Les and Claire on the balcony. Les rushes to take Claire back when she’s still fresh from her honeymoon with another man. Mason is ready to risk tainting his promising political career with his association with Claire. Apart from the sexless Kippinger, the only man who seems to really understand and admire the ‘real’ Claire is Al. He’s very possibly as nasty as she is, and he seems to find her revolving door romantic adventures amusing more than anything else.

Blonde Ice, from director Jack Bernhard, was originally made as the support feature for a double bill. The film was considered lost, but this version is lovingly restored by Les Fenton. VCI entertainment released Blonde Ice in 2003, and the DVD includes some tasty yet cheap extras that fit this fascinating B title, including: an article about the possibility that Edgar Ulmer was involved with the script (and it certainly has his touch), a short musical number “Satan Wore a Silk Dress,” bios, trailers, an episode of “Into the Night,” a photo gallery, and an interview with Les Fenton in which he discusses the role of the film collector in film preservation. The picture quality tends to grainy and smudgy, but this tawdry tacky noir is well worth owning.

Written by Guy Savage


  1. Just watched this film, and then read your review, which was almost too good for the film. It is an acceptable B noir. Not much plot, but good post-war hats & suits, and enough venetian blind shadows, claustrophobic interiors and dark cars to give it the flavor of noir. And the fatal femme, played well by Leslie Brooks. Problem is, the movie, like the plot, hangs entirely upon her. There is no Sam Spade, no counterbalancing hard boiled or hard bitten male lead, not much real conflict. Just one evil person doing evil, again and again, much like "There Will Be Blood," which I found grueling for this reason.

  2. The bride was hot. Looks like she enjoys playing men for fools from the clip. She must live in mustache town though from looks of the fellows hangin' round.

  3. I rather agree with Dave, about this one and about "There Will be Blood!" I must say, however, that while many call the conclusion of Blonde Ice weak and formulaic, I liked it. When Claire says to the psychiatrist, I would have gotten away with it, you and your psychological snooping! I hate you, and I'm going to kill you! I was tickled. She was as good as her word!

  4. she married blackie!


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley