“This place is dangerous. The time right deadly. The drinks are on me, my bucko!”
There’s an old saying that all films are made at least three times: once, when the screenwriter commits the story to paper; again, when the director captures the story on film; and finally, when the story is constructed in the editing room. At its best, this can open a margin of creativity that improves a final cut. At its worst (and most common), it can allow for too much creative input and the film becomes a compromised mess.
The latter point is what makes the film His Kind of Woman such an oddity.
Released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1951, His Kind of Woman is a film that suffered mercilessly at the hands of its studio. Scenes were rewritten, characters were recast, and the majority of it was reshot after production had wrapped. It fuses film noir and screwball in completely nonsensical ways. It’s overtly violent at times and incredibly hammy in others. It’s also far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
In an effort to determine how such a confounding little film was made, I’m going to break His Kind of Woman down into its respective acts; each of which reflects the input of a different artist.
ACT 1: THE FILM NOIR
The first draft for His Kind of Woman was actually styled as a traditional film noir. Screenwriters Jack Pearson and Earl Fenton (uncredited work on Nocturne and Out of the Past) penned a story that had all the obligatory bells and whistles: gangsters, gunplay, and plenty of choice dialogue for star Robert Mitchum to rattle off while looking cool.
The film’s opening scene plays to this style, with its seamy Los Angeles backdrop and hoodlums who’d just as soon beat you to a pulp than play a game of cards. In the case of Dan Milner (Mitchum), he’s treated to both — the price of being an amateur gambler on good days, and a professional loser on bad ones. But things seemingly turn around when he’s approached by a mobster and offered $50,000. The catch? That he go down to a resort in Mexico and make good on an undisclosed “favor” when called upon. Milner smells a rotten deal, but like any self-respecting sap, he takes the bait anyway.
John Farrow was hired to direct after helming Mitchum’s previous film, Where Danger Lives (1950), and his tight, economic pace is evident in these early scenes. Note the way the camera lingers on its surroundings here, winding up tension through silence. As soon as Milner boards a plane to Mexico, though, you can feel Farrow’s grip being pried from the steering wheel and replaced with that of the film’s producer, Howard Hughes.
ACT 2: THE COMEDY
Hughes was evidently unhappy with Farrow’s cut of the film, and decided to overhaul production himself. In an effort to create something that was more commercially viable for audiences, he had Pearson and Fenton rewrite every scene that took place after Milner arrives in Mexico. It’s anybody’s guess as to what they had in mind for the original script, as their rewrites unspool the tension of the opener and replace it with silly characters and a few romantic subplots.
Generally speaking, this is a good way to ruin a film noir. There have been countless situations where a noir opens in the city, provides a bleak tone, and then undermines it with a second act that sees characters hideout in the Midwest or somewhere in South America. Regularly passed off as an attempt to humanize the characters, it mainly succeeds in making them less compelling. See Desperate (1947), Dark City (1950), and the colossal waste that is One Way Street (1950) for proof.
The main reason this second act avoids the curse is that it doesn’t take its radical shift in tone too seriously. It actually settles into something of a screwball comedy groove, as Milner begins to mingle with the more eccentric guests (Jim Backus is especially fun as a skirt-chasing stockbroker) and flirt with lounge singer Lenore Brent (Jane Russell). The two elicit sparks instantly, even as Brent attempts to woo rich movie star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price) away from his wife.
Mitchum and Russell’s chemistry is superb, but really, it’s Price’s hammy performance as Cardigan that steals the show. While Mitchum is forced to remain the straight man and investigate clues, Price is allowed to go every which way as a character desperate to trade his “phony” hero image in for the real thing.
The scene where Cardigan screens his latest swashbuckler at the resort is a side-splitting highlight. The hopeful star sits behind the crowd, eagerly scanning to see if their enjoyment equals his own. At one point, he stands up and claps at his character’s victory, only to recoil in silence when he realizes he’s the only one doing so. The chilly reviews he gets from Brent (“Oh it was fine, it was just a little long. About an hour and a half.”) and the miserly Dr. Kellog (“It has a message even a pigeon wouldn’t carry.”) rank as some of the best one-liners in the film.
If Cardigan feels superfluous to the story, it’s because he was one of Hughes’ later additions. Fenton originally wrote him in as a minor character, but the producer was so amused by Price that he brought in writer/director Richard Fleischer to give him more scenes. Price later spoke on the bizarre production, and the impact it had on his co-stars: “I think Bob [Mitchum] was disappointed at the direction the script took because if he had known about the comic tilt, he would have played his character in a lighter vein.”
As Milner is taken captive by gangsters, however, Hughes and Fleischer prove just how far they’re willing to go down the rabbit hole of bizarre storytelling.
ACT 3: THE CHAOS
Nothing in film noir quite matches this film’s dazzlingly strange finale. There have been those that are more brutal perhaps, or more comedic, but there’s never been one with scenes this wildly juxtaposed, yet somehow integral to one another. Milner learns that deported kingpin Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) plans to steal his identity and reenter the U.S. using plastic surgery. In the meantime, however, he strips Milner of his shirt, savagely beats him with a belt, and attempts to put a bullet in his unconscious body.
The violence shown here is made all the more brutal by the calm that preceded it, while Fleischer (who was hired after Hughes saw a rough cut of The Narrow Margin) bring a claustrophobia and desperation to the characters. This is especially true with Ferraro, who Burr plays with borderline masochistic behavior: “I want him to be fully conscious. I don’t like to shoot a corpse. I want to see the expression on his face when he knows it’s coming.”
We then cut to a lake, where Cardigan is prepping a rescue mission. He’s armed and enraged over Milner’s capture. He’s also wearing a cape, quoting Hamlet, and sinking in a paddle boat with a fleet of Mexican policeman. “My kingdom for a ship,” he mugs at the camera, “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground!” They eventually make it to Ferraro’s ship, where things devolve into a feverish parade of pratfalls and violence.
Milner gets the girl, Cardigan gets to be the hero, and the film closes on a fittingly nonsensical shot given the 120 minutes that preceded it: a pair of trousers being burned by an iron. Sounds about right.
ACT 4: THE AFTERMATH
In his 1991 autobiography Just Tell Me When to Cry, Fleischer said that the film took two months to reshoot, including the scenes with Ferraro (Burr replaced original actor Robert J. Wilke) and everything in Mexico. The new footage was then pieced together with scraps from Farrow’s abandoned cut. His Kind of Woman eventually premiered in August 1951, over a year after its initial completion.
Audiences were expectedly confused by the film when it was released, and it lost a reported $820,000 at the box office (roughly the same amount Hughes spent on reshoots). Even upon watching the film today, its awespiririn. Nothing adds up, plot threads come and go as they please, and the actors emote as though they’re in different genres altogether.
Yet, its enjoyable qualities stem in no small part from it being such a mess — a film as unpredictable and thrilling as anything released during the studio period. A film where a man in a cape, a sadistic gangster, and a tender romance somehow coexist on the same canvas. A film that accidentally paved the way for a generation of violent noir-comedies (In Bruges, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Ice Harvest continue to heed its influence today). Not everyone will like it, but those that do will love it.
If allowed to sum up His Kind of Woman with a single line, I’d defer once again to Mark Cardigan: “This place is dangerous. The time right deadly. The drinks are on me, my bucko!” A
TRIVIA: Hughes had to pay $15,000 to reshoot the scene of Cardigan and the police sinking in the rowboat.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.