In his book Hollywood Genres, film scholar Thomas Schatz mobilizes an evolutionary model to describe film genres. For simplicity sake, Schatz posits that a genre essentially moves from classical to baroque in its style and conventions as it ages. If we place the film noir genre (whose status as a genre has led to much dispute, but let’s table that as I don’t feel like taking an aspirin while writing this review) within this model, we would find Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) on the classical side of the scale and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) on the baroque. Yet there is a major problem with concept of linear development as it supposes that all films in a genre progress towards the end goal of the baroque and are in formal and thematic unison. The main reason I love John Farrow’s film noir His Kind of Woman (1951) is that it was self-reflexive and parodic roughly five years before the “baroque” stage in film noir‘s development is often thought to of occurred with the release of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
The production and release timing of His Kind of Woman stands at an odd temporal threshold in the history of the film noir. Only one year previously, such noirs as Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle were released. Asphalt Jungle, with its intense focus on a heist, is rather classical in its construction. Sunset Blvd. and In a Lonely Place are a bit more out of place, satirizing the film industry with their screenwriter protagonists and having some fun with audience expectations by respectively infusing romance and comedy into the noir form. Farrow’s His Kind of Woman takes this idea of generic hybridity and cranks it up to 11. I would describe it as a Blazing Saddles (1974) noir equivalent … 35 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) performed a similar task.
Perhaps the production context behind the film led to its schizophrenic form. The film suffered numerous post-production problems, during which producer Howard Hughes replaced director John Farrow (The Big Clock, later remade as No Way Out) with Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin), brought in new screenwriters, and re-shot and re-edited the film. While I’m not familiar enough with the specifics of the film’s production (there is a commentary on the DVD by film historian Vivian Sobchack for those interested), the finished product does have the form of a film with too many cooks in the kitchen as it begins as a rather typical noir and ends up being a outright comedy.
The film begins with Dan Milner (noir regular Robert Mitchum), an impoverished gambler with bookies on his tail. Milner, seeking an escape from his debt, accepts an offer of $50,000 to retire to a luxurious hotel in Mexico on the condition he never return to the United States. Milner accepts, retreating to Mexico and more than pleased to find the voluptuous Lenore Brent (Jane Russell, whom producer Hughes had designed a push-up bra to wear during production on The Outlaw nearly ten years previous). This plot sounds similar to another noir, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), also featuring Robert Mitchum as a down on his luck P.I. lured down to Mexico on the trail of Jane Greer’s femme fatale, does it not?
Well, the film does not leave the audience on familiar footing for long. Shortly after arriving in Mexico, Dan discovers that the $50,000 he was given was for his identity, which will be going to a deported mafia kingpin (Raymond Burr). Yet, Dan continues to fraternize with the resort’s guests, such as Lenore’s boyfriend, the self-absorbed actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price). Call it Dark Passage (1947) meets Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008). The oddest and most rewarding characteristic about His Kind of Woman is the complete tonal reversal it exhibits. The first half of the film is a fairly typical noir plot. However, once Dan gets kidnapped by his malevolent benefactor and held hostage on an off-shore boat, it shifts to a bizarre comedy with Mark Cardigan emerging from the supporting peanut gallery as Dan’s savior, commandeering a sinking row boat and shouting down his crew’s incompetency with the line “Alas, why must I be plagued by yammering magpies on the eve of battle?” As one of the Mexican police officers describes Mark, “You are not a pig. You are what a pig becomes. It is sometimes eaten between two pieces of bread.”
Despite my adoration for the film, I realize both that it is far from perfect and will not be well-received by every viewer. With a running length of two hours, the film’s first half, particularly given its resemblance to superior noirs and the lack of Vincent Price’s character, can drag a bit. Hell, let me just come right out and say it: this film’s raison d’être is Vincent Price. Just the fact that Price’s Mark assumes that he can actually fire a gun because he’s played a character who has done it amuses me to death. I do not mean to short shrift the performances of Mitchum and Russell, who are also quite good, but Price makes this film. Yet, in the end, His Kind of Woman will have more resonance with a noir genre affectionado, familiar with the genre’s themes and stylistic tropes. However, 40’s and 50’s film buffs with an preference for the hilariously bizarre would be hard strapped to find a better way to spend two hours.