Slightly Scarlet

(Allan Dwan, USA, 1956)


The meaning of the cinema of Allan Dwan resides first and foremost in the correspondences between choice of shot and Platonic existence.


Cinephiles sure do talk funny sometimes. They tend to describe this particular legendary Allan Dwan film in paradoxical terms – as a film noir in colour, and a cop thriller (mostly) without violence.


Slightly Scarlet starts, right in the opening credits, like no other movie before it in film history – and not too many after it, either. It resembles a Pop Art gallery, beyond even Samuel Fuller: characters assemble, separately, at a scene (two women – sisters, as it happens – greet each other, a guy photographs them), and, at certain points, the images freeze. What colours, what poses, what gestures, what bodies and faces! Every freeze-frame a painting. In contemporary, post-Pop work, those arrêts sur image are almost indistinguisable from some pieces by the Australian artist Robyn Stacey.


Adapted from a James M. Cain novel and starring John Payne (on whom so many cinephiles, Serge Daney included, have fixated), Slightly Scarlet is full of that insouciant stylishness and wisecracking charm characteristic of the best Hollywood B movies. Cain’s fiction was always closer to the so-called trashy, pulp end of the crime/detective/mystery/noir genre – the Micky Spillane end – rather than the more respectable Hammett (& etc.) end. All of that, here, is concentrated in not only the tangle of sisters, but also the opaque, inscrutable good/bad guy incarnarted by Payne.


Dwan takes on all the coarseness of behaviour, the particular kind of vulgarity inherent in Cain’s base-line view of the human animal in all its glorious spite, conpetitiveness and revenge-seeking. Here the ingredients for the stew include one of those fuzzy amalgams of mental illness (kleptomania, nymphomania …) characteristic of bad girl/rotten sister types (Arlene Dahl is immortal as Dorothy, pitted against Rhonda Fleming as June).


Cinephile-critics go crazy for Dwan. A tribute by the Platonic John Dorr (himself a filmmaker) in the May/June 1972 issue of the Canadian magazine Take One aligned Dwan on an “evolutionary” scale of cinema, pointing the way to late Roberto Rossellini:


There is no sense of conflict in Dwan’s choices, no sense of a projection of inner obsession onto the screen, no sense of suppressed ambition. Instead, Dwan’s style is marked by simple, assured, quietly observing analysis. One is struck not by the moments of delirious escape from conventionality, but by a unified rhythmic flow of images.


A unified rhythmic flow there certainly is – a little like that slightly stoned or inebriated evenness we experience in Raoul Walsh’s Scope movies of the later 1950s (such as The Revolt of Mamie Stover, 1956), or Howard Hawks’ Red Line 7000 (1965) – the aforementioned Robyn Stacey even did an exhibition with that title! – but mercifully pepped up with less talk and more tension. Dwan effortlessly conjures his own guiding presence as a High Classicist floating above his perfectly, pristinely clichéd material – benignly, but also so Highly that he becomes positively Brechtian. Hence the cinephile cult he ignites in several generations.


Dwan’s films – particularly this one – do give the feeling of a formalist engineer at work, slotting into place all the symmetrical bits of rooms, gestures, groupings of characters (especially those henchmen-villains, who love to appear in packs in this genre) …


Alain Masson (in his 1982 Positif tribute to this film renamed for France as, roughly, Two Redheads in a Brawl) remarked: “Its noble and delicate content, and its light and lucid style, demand our tender admiration”. He’s rather more specific and material in his appreciation than Dorr: he illuminates the horizontal relations wrought by the production design (that amazing house set), for example. And he links all that, finally to the film’s thematic “moral lesson” (and these are not easily won in cinema!): the see-saw effect, the Zen-like oneness and planfication of all things, all people, all moral positions as they are moved through the twisty plot.


A man refracted through two sisters: there’s a genuine teorema for you. And between or across the sisters, something tricky also happens: Masson delves into the incredible erotic gesturality of the film in order to surmise he presence of an “allegory of desire”, in that the bad sister Dorothy emotes hornily – but it is the good sister June who truly experiences passion!


Both Masson and Dorr alight on something central: if Slightly Scarlet can strike us today (maybe it even struck some this way in 1956) as a film of pure style, that purity is not really (despite some strong moments) in the mode of melodramatic excess à la Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, the kind of outburst that was so prized by the semiotic scholars of the 1970s. The MacMahonist cultists such as Jacques Lourcelles tuned into a serene, meditative quality in Dwan – interwoven with a gentle surreality: note those repeated set-ups of cars arriving down the driveway, and the dreamlike transitions between scenes. So dream on, cinephiles of the New Dwan!

© Adrian Martin December 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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