Sunday, May 08, 2011

Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Robert Ryan, like no other actor in Hollywood, had the ability to portray a string of unlikable characters, yet, in his behavior, audiences respond with a head nodding understanding. Like, “Hey, I know a guy like that.” Growing up in Chicago, Ryan was a child of privilege, whose family’s construction business grew as they helped build the city of Chicago into a modern metropolis. It must have been a lonely childhood after his only sibling died of influenza. Educated by Jesuits, Ryan developed a life long love of literature, and in 1931 he graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Literature. He wasn’t all brains, because, while in college he was an undefeated boxing champion for all four years. Things were tough for everyone in the middle of the Depression, especially for young college graduates. Without asking for assistance from his family, Ryan spent two years working in the engine room of a freighter going around the world. Upon his return he worked on a ranch out West. After helping in the family business for a while, he started to take acting classes and came to California in the late 1930s. Except for a hitch in the Marines as a Drill Instructor during WWII, Ryan’s life from 1940 until his death in 1973 was dedicated to acting, the peace movement and civil rights. He especially enjoyed live theater, but it’s the films he made that paid the bills and for which we remember him. In 1952 alone, three noirs with Ryan were released - Clash By Night, On Dangerous Ground and Beware, My Lovely. All three of his protagonists are alienated men, isolated from the every day give and take of human discourse that gives life a semblance of meaning and coherence. It’s only his Howard Wilton in Beware, My Lovely that is beyond any capacity for personal redemption, for Howard is a homicidal paranoiac.

It’s Christmas time 1918. World War I has just ended, and Howard Wilton is a handyman. One day he finds his employer lying dead on the floor of a closet. Having strangled her during one of his mental blackouts, Howard panics and hops a freight train and ends up finding another job as a handyman for a war widow, Mrs. Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). Howard seems “normal” enough as he’s given a list of chores to do. However, when Gordon’s niece chides him for doing “women’s work” when he’s on his knees washing the floor, Howard’s mental spigot gets turned on. Alternating between anger and defensiveness, Howard severs the phone lines, locks all the doors and takes the keys, making Mrs. Gordon a prisoner in her own house. Lupino shows remarkable cool and has to play the cat and mouse game with Howard trying to figure out how to break free from her own home. While she is angling for a route of escape, Helen appears attentive to Howard’s tale of woe, how he has no friends, that he’s unloved, and even was rejected by the Army examination board. When Howard finds that Helen has been lying to him about the unavailability of a rented room, he threatens her, traps her in a room, and comes within a hair’s breath of killing her. By this time a telephone repairman comes, and Lupino is able to tell him to get the police. Howard has now snapped back into a semblance of “normal” behavior and leaves the house totally unaware that he will leaving walking into the waiting arms of the police.

Beware, My Lovely comes in at a brisk 77 minutes, and was made by RKO at a time when Howard Hughes was in the throes of running the studio into the ground. It was directed by Harry Horner, primarily a Production Designer (Academy Awards for The Heiress and The Hustler). He only directed a handful of films and a variety of TV shows, but in Beware, My Lovely, he shows his artistic eye in doing as much as he could of what must have been a shoestring budget. He avoids any of the typical noir low-key lighting that is often used to create menace and instability, for essentially a flat, evenly lit network television look. Instead, what he does is use a variety of extreme angles, close ups and medium close ups that create a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. There is one startling shot of Lupino viewing Ryan’s reflection in a Christmas tree ornament as he creeps up behind her.


In many of Ryan’s noir he plays characters that are bellicose and unpleasant.

In Beware, My Lovely, he alternately is confused, sympathetic and angry, often changing his character in a matter of minutes. Ryan wasn’t an actor who was spontaneous. All of his movements (the flickering eyes) and speech cadences were well rehearsed. Later in his career, as family financial responsibilities became pronounced, he appeared in big budget films, especially war films, where the pay was good and his screen time was short. Towards the end of his career Ryan rebounded in memorable roles in The Wild Bunch, and the part that, as an actor who took his craft very seriously, he was born to play, that of Larry Slade, the failed idealist waiting to die in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. This is his greatest role, yet those series of characters he played between 1947 to 1959 in over a dozen noirs presents us with a body of work that is, arguably, the most tortured and troubling, and, in my opinion, the best, we have seen from a motion picture actor.

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Written by Bob

1 comment:

  1. Netflix recommended this one to me and when I read it had a "psychotic gardener" I had to queue it. However, it almost immediately became "Unavailable." It's a Netflix curse, especially with older movies and music specials.

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