Noir of the Week: His Kind of Woman

(Author’s note: I chose His Kind of Woman for as my next Noir of the Week review because of it’s quirkiness and its hardscrabble fight to be ranked as an actual noir film among noir purists. On a personal note, I wasn’t the biggest fan of it the first time I viewed it – it’s long and it reads long – but two or three views in I actually came to enjoy it. It’s a cult-y film, for sure, and it’s very hard to separate it from the mystique surrounding it… something that seems to surround everything that Howard Hughes touched. I tried hard not to crucify Hughes, even though in my personal opinion his tampering trapped a noir film within several other films. He made some good decisions here, and a lot of bad ones, but the result is a funny little film that maybe doesn’t deserve the harsh criticism it seems to receive. His Kind if Woman made for an interesting topic, surrounded by little side stories that went on behind the scenes – much like the stories in the film itself. I could have gone on for pages, but found myself carefully editing down to what I considered the bare bones… probably in light of the fact that Hughes didn’t do much self-editing!)

Loitering uncertainly near the hinterlands of film noir is the Howard Hughes produced, John Farrow/Richard Fleischer directed film His Kind of Woman. The pedigree of the film destined it for greatness: seasoned directors, smoldering stars, and a stable of gritty noir screenwriters, all financed by the large bankroll of a playboy genius. His Kind of Woman just may be the greatest noir film that never was. What RKO delivered to theaters was a bloated, schizophrenic film – a Frankenstein’s monster of beautifully crafted noir spliced together with a smattering of scenes from several genres. Is the film noir? Yes, undeniably. However, it is also an ensemble melodrama, a Hollywood satire, and a battle of the sexes comedy, mixed thoroughly with a dash of slapstick. So what went wrong? It may be ungracious to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Hughes (after all, what better match for a noir film than a producer controlled by a dark obsessive nature?), but his incessant tinkering and additions are what ultimately doomed the film.

His Kind of Woman was a perfect fit for production company RKO. Though the company had been in financial flux for years, it produced and distributed a heap of films that were successes both critically and commercially in a number of genres. Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Laurel and Hardy, and Walt Disney all had ties with RKO before Howard Hughes gained control of it in 1948, but noir was a house special by that point. The pre-Hughes RKO had released some of the finest films noir we know today: Born to Kill, Murder My Sweet, The Woman in the Window, Stranger on the Third Floor, Out of the Past, Desperate, The Stranger, and Crossfire. His Kind of Woman wasn’t the first or last film noir that Hughes would meddle with, turning out less than stellar results (see also: The Racket and The Las Vegas Story) but the genre would survive in spite of him. Consider the following films, released under RKO during Hughes’ reign: The Narrow Margin, Clash by Night, Cry Danger, The Big Steal, The Set Up, The Hitch-Hiker, Sudden Fear, On Dangerous Ground, Armored Car Robbery, and Beware, My Lovely. This hindsight makes it all the more sad that His Kind of Woman doesn’t quite fit in with the other great films being made alongside it.

In His Kind of Woman, Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a down on his luck gambler lured to exotic Morro’s Lodge by a cadre of shady characters and the promise of $50,000. On the way to Mexico, he meets millionaire chanteuse Lenore Brent, played by Russell. In actuality, she’s a gold digger (with a heart to match) hoping to snag fellow Lodge guest, Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price). The film stalls in its Mexican locale, with Milner and Russell rubbing elbows with supporting cast players while Milner, and the audience, try to unravel the reason we’ve all traveled so far. When Milner overhears suspicious plans between two resorts guests, Krafft and Thompson (John Mylong and Charles McGraw), his curiosity is deferred by another stack of cash. Milner is eventually reinvigorated by the arrival of undercover immigration agent Bill Lusk (Tim Holt), who lets Milner know deported gangster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is behind the scheme and that Krafft is actually a plastic surgeon! Ferraro’s plan is to kidnap Milner, kill him, rearrange his face, and waltz across the border using Milner’s identity. It’s an interesting plot, but gets shelved for too long while Milner is dragged into the useless side stories revolving around the supporting cast of Morro’s Lodge guests. By the time the film gets back on track with the shockingly brutal climax between Milner and Ferraro, the whos, whats, and whys of the plot are almost distant memories.

The plot may be farfetched, but it works in Hollywood, and even in the realistic world of film noir (we’ve seen plastic surgery before in Dark Passage and an even stranger premise in Decoy). Here, it gets lost in the morass of superfluous genres. The biggest detriment to the film was Hughes’ inability to edit himself. Director John Farrow finished the film, but unhappy with the result, Hughes brought in Richard Fleischer to reshoot much of it, recast villain Nick Ferraro, and neatly inserted himself into the screenwriting process. In the end result, you can pick out Hughes’ contributions with near certainty: useless subplots, not one but two dashing aviators, and the endless scenes involving Vincent Price’s character, whom Hughes fell in love with. Yet a patient film lover can pluck out the noir diamond in rough. There are many faultless elements in the film, from cast to cinematography, that tell us His Kind of Woman was carefully crafted and not carelessly churned out of the Hollywood mill.

The stable of actors in His Kind of Woman is somewhat of a noir dream. Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Charles McGraw, Raymond Burr, Vincent Price, and John Mylong carry with them the experience, grittiness, and sex appeal to pull the film off. Unfortunately, the cast became bloated with a number of supporting actors (Hughes pet Mamie Van Doren supposedly beautifies the background; can you spot her?) that advance the runtime of the film, but not the action. Time spent with bit players Jim Backus and Marjorie Reynolds would have been best served developing the underutilized McGraw and thoroughly creepy Mylong.

Mitchum is the typical noir anti-hero, albeit a little watered down. Milner is a professional gambler, yet he eschews bourbon for milk and ginger ale. He can take a beating and handle a Luger, yet he shows a softer side to help out a couple of struggling newlyweds at Morro’s Lodge. Despite this, Mitchum is the same tall, dark, and sardonic underdog that we like to see, sauntering lazily through the lodge, or gazing half-lidded at Jane Russell. He’s at his best throughout the film, especially sharing scenes with Burr. Recasting Burr as Ferraro is the best “bad” decision Hughes made during the filming. Had the comedy and melodrama been cut and the climax between Ferraro and Milner come a half hour earlier, His Kind of Woman would be a darling among noir lovers. The clash between shirtless, sweaty Mitchum and chillingly sadistic Burr is so disturbing and provocative one wonders how it escaped censors.

Vincent Price, though he is talented here, is ill-used. Hughes fixated on the Cardigan character and padded Price’s role with comedy, action, and romance, much to the detriment of the film, which is such a shame because he’s fantastic! Watch Price during the scene where Cardigan is shamelessly screening his own film to the entire resort: he writhes and simpers in his seat, demurring the accolades he thinks he is receiving from his audience. The problem is the insistent shoehorning of Cardigan into the film – going so far as to maddeningly portray him as hero alongside Mitchum. In one scene Price is the Errol Flynn-like Hollywood actor butting heads with his agent and wistfully longing to be a real swashbuckling hero. In another, he’s the male third of a love triangle trading quips about love and marriage with wife Marjorie Reynolds and mistress Jane Russell. One almost wishes that Hughes had contrived a Mark Cardigan series of light comedies to produce and left him out of His Kind of Woman. Indeed, you could chop out Price’s entire contribution to the film with no ill effects. He adds almost nothing to the working plot, and what little he does to advance the story could (and should) have been handled by Mitchum.

Russell was one of Hughes’ most famous muses – it’s telling and touching that when jumping ship at RKO in 1955, two of the things Hughes took with him was a sack of cash and Jane Russell’s contract. Perhaps at first Hughes was most attracted to Russell’s two most famous assets, but he unearthed a Hollywood talent. As Lenore in His Kind of Woman, she is the femme fatale with the heart of gold, able to stand up to Mitchum with both her stature and ability to deliver the necessary repartee. Louella Parsons called them “the hottest combination to ever hit the screen,” and it’s a pity we don’t see Lenore take a more pivotal role in the film. When Cardigan locks her in the closet near the end of the film it is almost as if Hughes found a way to get rid of Russell in order to make room for more Mark Cardigan screen time.

The noir scenes are as beautiful as noir gets, shot by cinematographer Harry J. Wild, who had already been behind the camera for several noir films including Murder My Sweet, The Big Steal, Pitfall, and Nocturne. Wild’s shadowy scenes are striking; the line of demarcation between the beautifully lit noir scenes and the run of the mill scenes is clear, making it more of a pleasure when Mitchum and McGraw amble into rooms slashed with moonlight. The set designer deserves some credit for heavy lifting here: the mid-century design of Morro’s Lodge seems to be built for a talented cinematographer. Low ceilings and gaping louvered blinds lend a sense of urgency to Milner’s plight the script doesn’t seem eager to impart.

It’s hard to justify a film that begins with a boxcar diner scene reminiscent of The Killers, and ends with Vincent Price sinking a boat filled with Mexican policemen, but His Kind of Woman isn’t terrible. It might not even be bad. Certainly we have an instance where the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. His Kind of Woman is often looked down upon as not being real noir among genre fans (there’s ridiculous comedy, and a lot of it), yet the heart of the film – the best of it – is real noir. Like an insect trapped in amber, it’s surrounded by the trappings of Hollywood… an interesting artifact of the genre worth studying.