Monday, 23 November 2015

MORE THAN MOLLY X: THE STORY OF JUNE HAVOC



Though  not one of Eddie Muller’s storied Dark City Dames or Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s  Bad Girls of Film Noir, Hollywood actress June Havoc featured in six pitch-dark crime dramas over a five year period which afford her ample claim as a true “sister under the mink”. 

Havoc’s personal and professional story up to that time is legend, revealingly told by the actress herself in two candid autobiographies, Early Havoc (1959) and More Havoc (1980). Those who know the gorgeously gaudy Jules Styne/ Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Gypsy will remember the refrain “My name is June, what’s yours?”, delivered by Baby June, the curly haired moppet. The show was inspired by her early life on the vaudeville circuit and that of her famously ambitious stage mother, Rose Thomas Hovick and older sister Rose Louise who became Gypsy Rose Lee, celebrity burlesque queen and striptease artiste. 

Although Havoc acknowledged the greatness of Gypsy as a musical production, she otherwise contested it, asserting that it was a hurtful misrepresentation of her own part of the story. However, it seems that from a very young age Havoc had had to fight hard for her share of whatever was owed, including a mother’s love.


Havoc was born in Vancouver Canada in 1912 but moved stateside with her mother and sister while still an infant. At age two, she was playing bit parts in silent films. By age five, she was a headliner on the Keith Orpheum Circuit in vaudeville earning $1500 a week. 

But Mama Rose kept June on the road well past the cuteness stage. Frustrated and weary of the grind, Havoc tried to escape when she was fifteen by marrying a boy in the show. However, the marriage was short lived and she went back on the circuit until it collapsed early on during the Great Depression. To survive, she gutted it out in dance marathons, the experience of which she evoked vividly in a 1963 play Marathon 33 which garnered Tony nominations for direction and Julie Harris as a young vaudevillian named June.

In 1936 at age 23, Havoc began to appear regularly in Broadway musical comedies. A big break came four years later in 1940 when she starred alongside Gene Kelly as Gladys, a night club performer in the Rodgers and Hart hit Pal Joey. One critic wrote, “June Havoc, who has been Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister so long she is sick of it, came into her own as a musical comedienne.”



Now into her twenties, Havoc had developed into a striking blonde beauty and a natural stage actress. At this point Hollywood could not stay away. In 1941, Havoc made an impressive feature film debut in Four Jacks and a Jill with Ray Bolger and Anne Shirley. The following year she starred with Bert Lahr and Buddy Ebsen in Sing your Worries Away in which she took off her clothes in a pointed take-off of her sister. Other supporting parts followed in My Sister Eileen (1942), a successful Fox musical Hello, Frisco (1943) and Brewster’s Millions (1945), thought to be the best of the several screen versions of the popular play. 

Though the roles were small, her performances were all well-received. But Havoc wanted larger parts in less airy productions. She’d starred earlier on Broadway as Miss Sadie Thompson in Rouben Mamoulian’s re-working of Rain which had provided her the experience and the confidence to contemplate more serious roles. Then in 1947 she was cast in Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement as Gregory Peck’s secretary, a self-hating Jewess who had changed her name to the more ethnically-neutral ‘Elaine Wales’ in order to work for Peck’s virulently anti-Semitic magazine. Though Havoc received nothing but praise for her performance, nothing bigger came of it. 



Havoc was now 35 years old and neither a fresh face nor an established attraction. She’d also elected not to be put under studio contract so as to be able to continue to accept stage work. And in October 1947, she flew to Washington with a group of actors and directors that included Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye to protest the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Neither did anything to help to her career. Nevertheless, Havoc still was able to find work, though limited to second-tier A titles and lesser B productions. However, the silver lining was that she was at least as big as the pictures on offer and leading roles now were available to her. 

The first of these would be in Intrigue (1947), one of the six classic film noirs in which Havoc would feature.  



Intrigue is an ‘adventure noir’ in which Havoc plays a bewitching tiger-woman, Madame Tamara Baranoff, who heads up a black market operation in post-war Shanghai. Sharing the bill is George Raft as Brad Dunham, former US Air Force pilot with a tarnished service record who contracts to set up a smuggling operation within Havoc’s territory. Dunham sees an advantage in their working together and makes an approach, business first, then pleasure.  

At the same time, Dunham finds himself romantically pursued by Linda Parker aka Linda Arnold (Helena Bonham). Parker’s later revealed to be investigating her father’s mysterious disappearance while serving under Dunham, thus thickening the plot.

Intrigue was directed by journeyman Edwin L. Marin who’d previously worked with Raft on Johnny Angel (1945), Mr. Ace (1946), and Nocturne (1946) and later would make Race Street (1948) with him. The film starts out promisingly, in large part due to cinematographer Lucien Androit’s beautifully moody and evocative camerawork. Androit, a prolific Hollywood lensmen earlier had shot Jean Renoir’s The Southerner, the best of the French director’s handful of American-made films. 

However, Intrigue soon sags under the weight of a pedestrian script and the burden of Raft’s dour and charmless persona. The actor by this time was several years past his sell-by date and though only in his late 40’s, looks older and much the worse for wear. The street swagger and bravado looks cooked-up and any presumption of Raft as a romantic lead is just that. It couldn’t have been easy for the far younger Bonham to have to lock lips with the reptilian Raft, but she manages. 

Meanwhile, Havoc in her first starring movie role mostly looks uncomfortable, especially during some of the laughably pulped-up exchanges with Raft: 
Her: “How do you know you’re safe with me?”
Him: “How do you know I haven’t got a gun?”
Her: “Because your clothes fit much too well.”
Him (leering): “It’s plain to see you haven’t got a gun either.”



If there’s supposed to be chemistry happening between the two, then the experiment is a dud. 

On the other hand, Havoc probably was not been the best choice to play the exotic femme fatale, Madame Baranoff. Havoc could be a wonderfully tough cookie but she was strictly a made-in-America tough cookie. She didn’t possess the kind of icy hauteur the part called for and comes across as stiff and emotionally withdrawn, especially in the difficult scenes with Raft. 

Otherwise, Havoc is an arresting presence in Intrigue and much of the movie’s budget obviously was assigned to putting her into a succession of stunning outfits, a different one in every scene. Wardrobe and design feature large in the film. Raft himself is stylishly attired though it’s apparent that an effort’s being made to hide the actor’s widening girth.

However, in the end, the movie made it plain what would work for the attractive, spirited actress and what wouldn’t.

Havoc’s next starring picture was an A title, The Iron Curtain, an urgent, well-crafted ‘spy noir’, directed by William Wellman and starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. 



Andrews plays a diplomat attached to the Russian Embassy in Ottawa who decides to defect with his wife (Tierney) and their infant child. Based on the story of real-life spy Igor Gouzenko, the movie is an exciting and credible anti-commie saga (a full account of the Gouzenko affair is found in the book, Gouzenko: The Untold Story, by John Sawatsky, a Canadian investigative journalist). 

Havoc’s in a supporting role but it’s one critical to both the development and understanding of the story. Nina Karanova (Havoc) is an embassy clerk ordered by embassy and military officials to befriend Gouzenko and test his loyalties, both professional and personal, when he first arrives in Ottawa (while his wife remains in Russia). 

Karanova does as ordered. She asks Gouzenko to go for drinks, have dinner, and go out dancing. The evening finishes with her inviting him to her apartment. Igor, now drunk, seems delighted with the way things are going. But Nina then begins to press him about his Embassy responsibilities and even his wife, asking him whether she is “as beautiful as I?”  Gouzenko, suspecting that he’s being played, responds to her in drunken rage, “Your beauty is a thing carved out of granite with no body or soul!” 

It’s a disquieting moment. Up to then, Gouzenko has treated Nina decently and she’s begun to feel close to him. But Nina is vulnerable, more used to being abused and belittled by her male superiors (When she gets her instructions to test Gouzenko’s loyalty, one of the officials Major Kulin (Eduard Franz) crudely propositions her. When she ignores him, he says with contempt, “Cold fish, isn’t she”?) 

Nina has learned to be calculating and duplicitous as she responds to dictated beliefs. Havoc convincingly negotiates the treacherous terrain of the The Iron Curtain and comes closer to hitting her mark as a compelling femme fatale.

Her next noir assignment came only months later with Chicago Deadline (1948), the story of a reporter’s attempt to find out the truth about a beautiful woman discovered dead in a seedy South-side Chicago boarding house.



Directed by Lewis Allen (Desert Fury 1947, So Evil My Love 1948, Sealed Verdict 1948, Appointment with Danger 1951), the film stars Alan Ladd as Ed Ames, a reporter who uses the woman’s address book to try and track down those who may have known her, or at least of her. Ames soon finds that in either case, no one can or is willing tell him much at all.

Gradually, professional curiosity turns into personal obsession and what little he’s been able to learn about the mysterious woman – identified as Rosita Jean d’Ur (played in flashback by Donna Reed) – has only come to frustrate and disturb him. Ames rants, “She’s a dame, a saint, a gangster’s girl, and a sister who remembered birthdays! Who is she?”. 

Meantime, he meets Leona Purdy (Havoc) at a party. Leona’s a little drunk and a little needy and more than pleased to get some attention from Ames – at least until he asks her about Rosita. She quickly backs off and says “You do get around”. Ames presses her and she gives way, confessing, “I don’t get along with champagne and you shouldn’t have looked at me like that”.  She tells him that she only met Rosita once or twice and that was a couple of years ago. She also teases him, saying “As a reporter you’re a dud. Why, even I could have got much more out of me.”

Leona is playful and unconcealed in her feelings. She’s also very aware and understands how much Ames is in thrall to Rosita and that if she’s going to be with him, she has no choice but to play her cards as dealt. Though Leona perseveres, she gets little in return for her loyalty and affection. The best Ames will do is to tell her she’s “a good kid”. But Leona sticks with him until the end, the funeral of Rosita. Ames has dragged himself there while still recovering from a gunshot wound and Leona realizes he’ll die if he doesn’t get back to hospital. When he resists, she says to him with regret but without hesitation, “If you won’t do it for me, Ed, I know she would want you to”. 




It’s a sorely sentimental scene but then too often Chicago Deadline tends to be maudlin when it should be mordant. However, if the movie has problems, Havoc’s performance isn’t one of them. She’s the most genuine thing in the film. While Havoc lets us feel sympathy for Leona, she leaves little space to feel sorry for her. Despite her too-ready allegiance to a fated relationship, Leona refuses to demean herself.

In Chicago Deadline June Havoc’s noir persona begins to take full form: intelligent, realistic, resilient, and tough-minded. It’s a man’s world but Leona has learned to live in it, sometimes on its terms, sometimes on hers. She sidelines disappointment and rejection with smart humor. When Ladd’s inattention gets to her, she wisecracks, “Honey, what did you take as a sedative before you met me?” Havoc is undefeated in Chicago Deadline and more than just a “good kid”; she’s a marvelous and memorable film noir dame. 


Havoc got to put that best dame forward again in her next film, The Story of Molly X (1949), a crime drama and ‘prison noir’ that’s become one of the actress’ best-known films. 



Molly is a glamorous, brass-knuckled broad who’s taken over her lover’s crime outfit in San Francisco following his murder. She’s determined to keep his operation and find out who killed him. After a jewel robbery that goes bad, she discovers the culprit was Rod Markle (Elliot Lewis), one of the gang’s inner circle. Molly soon takes care of him. 

The robbery, however, lands Molly at the women’s state prison in Tehachapi, a California state correctional institution. Molly couldn’t care less about becoming a model inmate - until she hears that her dead boyfriend’s partner, Cash Brady (John Russell) has been charged with Markle’s murder and is facing the chair. Molly then plays by the rules in order to earn early parole and so she can get rid of evidence that points directly to her. 

Havoc is terrific as Molly, the toughest dame in the prison dorm. She lays a ferocious beating on Lewis’s double-dealing girlfriend, Anne (Dorothy Hart), a rat recruited by McGraw to help get proof of Molly’s involvement in the Markle killing. 

However, Molly X extends beyond being a briskly-told hard-boiled crime drama. The film, written and directed by life-long progressive Crane Wilbur, takes up the cause of inmate reform and rehabilitation over criminal punishment. Wilbur brought the same conviction to several other prison films, including Canon City (1948), Outside the Wall (1950), Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), and House of Women (1962). 

The movie goes further as an embittered Molly recounts to a cell mate how as a young girl she’d been sexually assaulted by her stepfather and had had to run away and turn to crime to survive. The inference that sexual abuse could be a root cause of anti-social and criminal behavior was a brave proposition for the time.




Molly X also breaks ground when Molly takes of control of the gang in the movie’s opening scene at the Top of the Mark Lounge in San Francisco. Molly moves on this decisively and without drama, despite evidence of threats coming from Anne. To today’s audience, female agency is taken for granted; however prior to Mollie X, examples of such unapologetic assertiveness and authority had not been seen on the screen since Pre-Code days.
  
It’s a treat to see Havoc get the chance to act out in a lead role with as much force as she does in Molly X. Here was an actress with guts who’d come up the hard way and survived and whose best films were those in which she was able to fold that experience into her performances. Molly X leaves no doubt as to Havoc’s special qualities as an actress, running the gamut from hard-boiled defiance to heartfelt contrition, as convincingly as the script might allow. The film’s sentimental ending is a letdown, given all that’s come before. Despite that, The Story of Molly X ranks as a first-rate little B noir.

On its heels came Once a Thief, a wonderfully punchy, no-frills B noir with a one-step-ahead storyline. 



Told in flashback, the movie has Havoc in the lead as Margie Foster, a factory girl who in desperation turns to shoplifting after getting laid off from her job in San Francisco.  After Margie nearly gets busted, she heads for Los Angeles and once there decides to go straight. She takes a waitressing job in Eddie’s Cafe where she meets Flo (Marie MacDonald), who’s also down-on-her- luck. The two become friends and move in together. 

Margie then runs into Mitch Moore (Caesar Romero) while dropping off a dress at his dry cleaners. Moore, who looks good, is just a cheap hustler and shameless womanizer. When he happens to get a sneak peek at Margie’s bankbook – which shows a healthy balance – he’s over her like ants on picnic blanket. 

Margie falls hard for Mitch, convinced he’s going to get her to the church on time. However, as she later laments in voice-over, “Instead of a wedding ring, I ended up with a handcuff on my wrist”.  Mitch reveals himself by stealing every penny she has and then turning her into the cops for a crime committed earlier in San Francisco just to rid of her. Molly goes to jail but later escapes and hellbent for revenge.



Mitch is breath-taking in his disregard for anyone but himself. Too lazy to be clever and too selfish for his own good, Mitch will get what he deserves but along the way does dreadful damage. When his former girlfriend, Nickie (Marta Mitrovich) begs him to stay with her, he says, ‘You could drop dead for all I care’ – after which she kills herself. When Mitch finds her with her head in the oven, all he has to say is, “I don’t know what gets into a dame like that”. He finds a suicide note to which is clipped her last ten dollars. He stuffs in pocket and smiling, goes straight to the bar telling the barkeep to, “Set ‘em up Eddie, this round’s on me!”. 

Mitch is another of the cold-hearted cads and small-time chiselers that Caesar Romero had been playing since his debut in The Thin Man in 1934.  However, Mitch with his cocksure allure is in a whole other league. Her friends try to warn Margie off, including the brassy, down-to-earth Pearl who’s always got a good word for her: “So you’re hanging on by your eyelashes, a pretty gadget like you. You got nothing to worry about. Just stick around me. Life is a merry-go-round and someday you’re going to latch onto the ring.”  Then there’s Gus (Lon Chaney Jr.) who minds the store for Mitch and runs a gambling room at the back.  But while he’s Mitch’s faithful wing man, he at least has a heart where his boss has a hole. And for her part, Flo never stops trying to warn Margie about Mitch, finally telling her when she’s in jail to “just forget him”. But now Margie knows where she really stands, that’s not going to happen. 




If there’s one film for which director W. Lee Wilder would never need to apologize, it’s Once a Thief.  Done on a miniscule budget, it’s a gritty and honest B noir gem with a fault-proof cast and a hard-knuckled and determined script that’s willing to follow through on the obvious. Though Once a Thief has been compared to The Blue Gardenia, it’s a poor comparison, given the latter’s labored plot, carelessly-written characters, and Anne Baxter’s flatulent emoting. In contrast, Havoc keeps a lingering distance even during the most intense moments. She cuts against the grain as she’s able to elicit empathy without ever coming close to emotional pandering or soapy sentimentality. 

Havoc’s Margie has the stuff of a great film noir heroine. She’s tough without being hard, street smart but still emotionally vulnerable, ever hopeful but ultimately fated. She hooks up with the wrong people and makes bad choices every time she turns around.  But as in Molly X, we’re drawn to her and suffer with her. In Once a Thief, in which all the characters have unknown pasts and dime-a-dozen lives, Margie is a woman worth a lot more. We desperately want her to escape the daily drudgery and the peril of men like Mitch. By the time Once a Thief comes to its precarious ending, all that’s left is to hope. 

In Lady Possessed (1952), Jean Wilson, lies in a semi-conscious state in a private hospital in England recovering from a miscarriage. On her released, Wilson and her husband Tom (Steven Dunne) retreat to a country estate they’ve rented from Del Palma, a well-known British composer and performer (James Mason) whose wife Madeline has recently died.



Jean becomes fascinated by stories of Madeline and the weight of her presence in the house. Jean feels she’s becoming possessed. She begs to leave but Tom insists she just needs more rest.

After attending a concert by Del Palma in London, Jean begins to stalk the composer, convinced that Madeline’s returned in spirit and wants Jean to replace her in Del Palma’s life. Del Palma thinks she’s just another doting female fan of a certain age and sluffs her off as a celebrity seeker.  Eventually though he warms to the attention. They start going out and, unaware of her intentions, he invites her to join him on a tour of appearances in European capitals. Jean willingly agrees. 

An offbeat suspenser, it’s uncertain in the early going whether Lady Possessed is going to be a psychological thriller or supernatural spine-chiller. Whichever it is, the film is engrossing right up to its heady climax when Del Palma finally comes face to face with the murky circumstances of his wife’s death.


Del Palma is a charismatic but moody character. He’s impatient, arrogant, and abrasive – character traits made worse by the drinking that follows the loss of his wife.  That said, he has a lot on his plate, not the least of which is keeping a career going while still grieving and also the insistent and disquieting presence of Jean to whom he feels a reluctant attraction. Del Palma increasingly becomes the object of our sympathy and gathering apprehension. Mason is as good in Lady Possessed as in any his films - which is to say, splendid. No one ever played ‘conflicted’ with more tragic allure and Havoc would never come up against a stronger actor. However, she holds her own with a performance that’s unflustered and unmannered. Though Jean winds up heading down the wrong track, it’s clear that she’s not going to go off the rails. As her infatuation with Del Palma becomes a fait accompli, her marriage to Tom recedes into irrelevancy – as did personal freedoms in The Iron Curtain, emotional needs in Chicago Deadline, or a lover’s life in Once a Thief. Havoc lived best on screen within a transactional film noir universe, even one as perilously out of whack as that of Lady Possessed.



The production history of Lady Possessed was itself a famously fraught Hollywood horror story. The film began as an independent production of James Mason and his wife Pamela Kellino for their company Portland Pictures. Mason, now working in the U.S. intended to use funds frozen in England to shoot half the film there then return stateside to finish it. William Spier, husband of June Havoc was brought to work on the screenplay and direct.  However, the Masons threw out the script and rewrote it themselves. 

To add insult to injury, Spier then was blocked by British unions from working in the UK so British director Roy Kellino, ex-husband of Pamela Mason was hired on to do the British sequences. June Havoc was deeply unhappy about taking direction from Kellino so Mason had to step in and take over the picture. But when the production moved to the US, Spier again was sidelined and Kellino once more took over the helm and finished the movie.  Meantime, Spier’s former wife, Kay Thompson had been engaged to write some of the music for the film, despite there being no love lost between her and Havoc.  The outcome was not a pretty picture but in the end, a decent film noir. 

After Lady Possessed, Havoc left films in favor of television, returning to the screen after Spier’s death in 1975.  In the 1980’s she toured with a stage show, An Unexpected Evening with June Havoc and in 2003 an off-Broadway space was dedicated as The June Havoc Theater. She died in 2010.

Over the years, Havoc always had been diplomatic when speaking of her mother and sister. But in a 2003 interview, she came clean about her feelings: 

“My sister was beautiful and clever –and ruthless. My mother was endearing and adorable – and lethal. They were the same person. I was the fool of the family. The only one who believed I was loved for myself was me.”
  
Certainly, anyone able to view these six film noirs through – movies that define Havoc’s best work on screen – would have no problem in giving her the love and adding this versatile and unconventional actress to a list of female film noir greats. June Havoc has earned her place. All that remains is to give it to her.     


  
Written by Gary Deane

(A version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY, 2015 Fall Edition)

Monday, 31 August 2015

ROOM AT THE BOTTOM: LAURENCE HARVEY AND FILM NOIR




“I’ve never been able to like you”, Sam Houston (Richard Boone) to Col. William Travis (Laurence Harvey), The Alamo (1960)

“Get down off your high horse, Travis”, Col. Davy Crockett (John Wayne)


Some of the best things British are named Harvey: crime writer John Harvey, Harvey’s Shooting Sherry (very dry and sadly no longer available), London’s venerable Harvey Nichols department store, and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, so far ahead of its time that time’s still running to catch up.   

Then, of course, there’s Laurence Harvey, a man who many people disliked and some despised, both as an actor and human being.

It’s true that Harvey could be a bit of a cad, though that’s probably being too English and polite about it. Harvey was cold, arrogant, conceited, and ruthless in his climb to the top of the heap as an actor. He preyed upon and wed older women (actress Margaret Leighton and studio mogul Harry Cohn’s widow, Joan Perry Cohn) and had affairs with others so as to advance his career and support his expensive tastes. He also bedded men when it suited him for the same reasons and many who knew him well enough believed him to be homosexual.



As for his acting ability, some were unimpressed. British character actor Joss Ackland said, “Americans seemed to think that Harvey was some sort of great actor, which his colleagues certainly did not”. Dame Judy Dench who’d appeared with Harvey on stage spoke of being bewildered at how he never looked at her during his lines. Jane Fonda, who later starred with him in Walk on the Wild Side, 1962, said, “Acting with Laurence Harvey is like acting by yourself”. Others who worked with him are on record as saying that they didn’t like him much:  Shirley MacLaine (Two Loves, 1961), Capucine and Barbara Stanwyck (Walk on the Wild Side, 1962), and Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) to name only a few.  In his autobiography, Knight Errant, actor Sir Robert Stephens, once heir-apparent to Laurence Olivier, describes Harvey as “an appalling man and even more unforgivably, an appalling actor.” And British film critic, David Shipman, author of the best-selling The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, wrote of him, “Laurence Harvey’s career should be an inspiration to all budding actors: he has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to succeed without managing to evoke the least audience interest or sympathy and to go on succeeding despite unanimous critical antipathy and overwhelming public apathy. His twenty year career of mainly unprofitable films is a curiosity of film history.”

Yet Harvey was not without his supporters, admirers and friends. When he befriended a co-star like Elizabeth Taylor (BUtterfield 8, 1960), John Wayne (The Alamo, 1960), John Ireland (The Good Die Young, 1954), or Frank Sinatra (THe Manchurian Candidate, 1962), those friendships were for a lifetime. Sinatra, always a champion of the underdog, was quoted in valet George Jacobs’ autobiography, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra as saying, “Harvey has the handicaps of being a homo, a Jew and a Polack, so people should go easy on him.” (Harvey was born Ziv Mosheh Skikne in Lithuania). 



Michael Craig who co-starred with Harvey in The Silent Enemy (1958) said that off-camera Harvey was relaxed and could be wonderful to be with but in front of the camera he “became stiff and started to act”.  Daniel Angel who produced one of Harvey’s early films, Women of Twilight (1952) thought he was “a bloody good actor” and Jack Clayton who directed Harvey in Room at the Top (1959) was delighted with him and his performance. Harvey also was nominated for the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor and the 1959 BAFTA Best British Actor Awards for Room at the Top, as well a nomination at the 1960 BAFTA’s for his part as an oily talent agent in Expresso Bongo (1959). He was icily effective as the brainwashed Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate and then again as a double agent instructed to kill himself in A Dandy in Aspic (1968).

It’s not too much to say that few actors ever hit the screen with more impact than Laurence Harvey did in 1959’s Room at the Top, a film that would define both a career and the emergence of a new British cinema that eschewed the quaintness of the past in favor of the gritty vérité of postwar Britain. His performance as an ambitious and amoral social climber who leaves a wake of emotional destruction was central to the movie’s finding its international audience. It also opened the doors for Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and a generation of others who breasted the New Wave as working class heroes ready to embrace success at all costs, including self-betrayal.



Joe Lampton made Harvey a star for a while on both sides of the Atlantic, though he appeared to drift back and forth to Hollywood out of no clear conviction. He was able to find a perfect role in The Manchurian Candidate , though the soulless quality of the character seemed to echo Harvey’s own emotionless core and his performance was more admired than liked. Returning to the UK after the poorly received Walk on the Wild Side and disasters-to-follow, The Ceremony (1963) and Martin Ritt’s The Outrage (1964), Harvey reprised Joe Lampton in Life at the Top (1965). Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, the film turned out to be a respectable sequel, mostly due to the continuities that Harvey brought to it. He also got a brief re-bound from John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965).

After that, his career spiraled down as he drifted through a string of forgotten and failed projects for nearly a decade before dying in 1975 at age 45 of stomach cancer. His only child, Domino, a daughter with third wife model Paulene Stone, followed a troubled path, going from model to bounty hunter before her death from a drug overdose in 2005. Her life story was highly fictionalized by director Tony Scott in Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley in the title role.   



In all, Laurence Harvey both on and off the screen was not what some would have liked. However, as they say, he was who he was and never appeared to be uncomfortable with the fact. The image that he fostered was not far removed from the roles he played. “I’m a flamboyant character, an extrovert who doesn’t want to reveal his feelings”, he once said. “To bare your soul to the world, I find unutterably boring. I think part of our profession is to have a quixotic personality.” He went on to say, “Once someone asked me, ‘Why do so many people hate you?” and I said, “Do they? How super! I’m really quite pleased about it.”

In life and death, Laurence Harvey held a fascination for both public and press. Strikingly handsome, he was for a period one of the most exciting and watchable movie stars there was. We admire some actors because we see in their performances something of their true nature that captivates us – which why the comment, “He’s just being himself on screen” often makes little sense. Call it type casting but it’s often all we want from certain actors.

In Harvey’s case, it’s precisely the iciness, the arrogance, the conceit, the snobbery that attracts. He could express more with just a look than many actors can with words. There was anger about him, a bloodlust. He was always ready to do battle. There was that Harvey look, all bared teeth and arched cheekbones. Creases would appear on his forehead and the area around the eyes would tighten, whether suggesting nastiness or a sure attempt to appeal. There’s a boldness and urgency that often makes one want to side with him even when he’s the villain of the piece. Which when all is said and done, made Harvey an ideal fit for film noir. After Room at the Top, he too often found himself cast in roles for which he was unsuited, unlike earlier on in his career before encumbered by stardom. Below are ten of those ‘before’ films, all of them bracing crime dramas or thrillers, some more deeply noir-stained than others, in which Harvey featured. Several are among his best films, some were just best for him. But all are a true reflection of one of the most compelling actors ever to star in classic British film noir.


HOUSE OF DARKNESS (1948)



In his first film after graduating the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), Laurence Harvey begins as he intends to go on. He plays an arrogant, egomaniac Francis Merrivale who believes that he’s been cheated out of his inheritance by his two step brothers, John and Noel. John suffers from a weak heart and Noel from a paralyzing weakness of mind. Francis causes John to have a fatal heart attack and Noel to vacate the family home by convincing him it’s haunted, leaving Francis as master of the house. However, Francis slowly descends into guilt-induced madness as he begins to believe that the house is cursed with the ghost of the vengeful John.

Though on release House of Darkness was viewed as a horror film, it’s really more a psychological thriller and easily qualifies as a period film noir. The story’s familiar but the film is singular, with a literate script by John Gilling and a darkly ‘haunting’ musical score by George Melachrino, whose orchestra rivalled that of the better-known Mantovanni. The movie features Melachrino who recounts his fictional visit to the ‘House of Darkness’ which inspired one of his symphonies (part of the movie’s orchestration). 

The movie also has Laurence Harvey who as Francis is something to behold in his infantile petulance and fury. His brother John, accuses him of being, “a little egotistical tin-pot Cromwell, puffed up with a delusion of grandeur” while Noel dismisses him as an, “insufferable, conceited cad”. Harvey’s performance also conjures up Bela Lugosi in films such as Dracula (1931) and White Zombie (1932). He would have made an impressive Count Dracula. His malign and chilling presence now memorably inscribed in House of Darkness, Harvey was on his way.


THE MAN FROM YESTERDAY (1949)



The head of an English country estate, Gerald Amersley (John Stuart) invites an old friend from India, Julius Rickman (Henry Oscar), to stay with him. But Rickman, a believer in spiritualism, exerts a baleful influence over the family. Amersley’s wife (Grace Arnold), is wary of Rickman while admitting that that he possesses “some secret fascination, at least to women”.  Amersley’s daughter, Doreen (Gwynneth Vaughn) thinks that Rickman is “unwholesome” and a “malignant spirit” but becomes romantically, if not sexually, involved with him. And Doris, Amersley’s sister, whose lover, Cedric, died under uncertain circumstances, begs Rickman to connect her with Cedric’s spirit. Rickman says to Doris he believes Cedric was murdered and that Gerald may have been responsible.

Doreen’s fiancée, John Matthews (Laurence Harvey) has his own suspicions about Rickman’s motives. When he sees Doreen about to succumb, he tells Rickman, “the poison is sometimes harder to identify than the symptoms of the poisoning” and orders him to leave. Rickman refuses and things go from bad to worse.  
          
With a stodgy direction from Oswald Mitchell and an uneven screenplay by John Gilling, The Man from Yesterday is held together by its excellent performances, especially that of Henry Oscar as the repellent homme fatal, Julius Rickman. For his part, Laurence Harvey is more a presence than a protagonist in this one. He nevertheless asserts himself in what would become a familiar manner, being never quite likeable and always too much in love with himself. 
   
MAN ON THE RUN (1949)



Cpl. Newman (Kenneth More) wanders into coastal pub and recognizes Peter Burden (Derek Farr), an army deserter working behind the bar. Burden bolts to London and needing money for rent, decides to pawn his service revolver. As he goes to show the gun to the store keeper, two armed crooks burst in, assault the jeweler and kill a police constable in the getaway. Burden, now on the run is taken in by a war widow, Jean Adams (Joan Hopkins) who believes his story, both in regard to the robbery and the circumstances of his desertion. Burden is sure he can recognize one of thieves and Joan agrees to help find him. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard officers Chief Inspector Mitchell (Edward Chapman) and Detective Sergeant Lawson (Laurence Harvey) are on the hunt for Burden. They’ve become suspicious of Joan and pick her up for further questioning. But Burden has managed to trace the thief and his partner who abduct him with the intention of doing him in before fleeing to Belfast by boat. The race is now on for the police to track them down before they kill Burden and escape.

Man on the Run is an atmospheric and well-paced thriller, given elegant and expressive direction by Lance Huntington (Night Boat to Dublin 1946, A Voice in the Night 1946, The Upturned Glass 1947 and Mr. Perrin and Mr. Trail 1948). The film suggests some sympathy for the post-war plight of deserters, who in being criminalized are forced to live the rest of their lives as criminals. However, it doesn’t go so far as to advocate amnesty (though the German theatrical release came to a different judgement). 
      
Everyone in the film is excellent, with Laurence Harvey in a nicely unmannered performance as the deferential and sympathetic Detective Sergeant Lawson.


CAIRO ROAD (1950)



Cairo Road, exotic in setting and evocative in detail, is a procedural noir set in Egypt with most of the filming done in Cairo, Port Said, and along the Suez Canal. Col. Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) and his subordinate, Lt. Mourad (Laurence Harvey), recently arrived from Paris with his wife Maria (Maria Mauban), are in charge of Egypt’s Anti-Narcotic Bureau. Mourad is mustard-keen but finds Bey difficult and conservative in his methods. His mantra is, “Let’s keep the facts tidy in our minds, never mind the theories.” But Mourad soon falls in as they follow a thread of inquiry that leads from a murdered man in a dingy Cairo apartment to a drug smuggling ring operated by Bey’s nemeses, the fabled Pavlis brothers.

Unfortunately David MacDonald’s (Snowbound, 1948, Good-Time Girl 1948, The Big Frame 1952, Tread Softly 1952) too leisurely direction never allows the excitement to rise quite to the level of the film’s flavorful settings and story. However, a film beautifully shot in deep etchings of black and white, Cairo Road wins on other counts.

Acting honors go to Harold Lang, a distinctive British character actor who appeared in any number of Brit noirs. Lang plays Humble, a glibly charming Cockney importer who is not who he says he is. Lang as usual invests his character with streetwise insolence and shrewdness and a fey, sexually ambiguous menace. Eric Portman’s gift for playing rigid and repressed authority figures is well exploited while Laurence Harvey with his maturing good looks and presence imposes himself nearly every scene as the talented but fallible Mourad.


SCARLET THREAD (1950)



Freddie (Laurence Harvey) is a down-at-the heels London street hoodlum who one evening attempts to pick the wrong pocket belonging to an urbane jewel thief, Marcon (Syd Tafler). But Marcon, needing an accomplice for a job to come decides to take Freddie on, despite doubts about his boorishness and womanizing. Along with getaway driver Sam (Harry Fowler), they pull a smash-and-grab at a jewelry shop in Cambridge but things go wrong when Freddie shoots a bystander and Sam drives off, leaving them to escape on foot. They end up on the grounds of one of the university colleges where they encounter Josephine (Kathleen Byron), the Master’s daughter. Marcon introduces himself as a visiting graduate of the college, which intrigues her but not nearly much as Freddie whom Marcon passes off as his American guest. Josephine is weary of college life and yearns for more and Freddie soon gets around to giving it to her. Eventually, things fall apart for the thieves but even more so for Josephine who realizes she's been wronged in a far more terrible way than merely having been seduced and abandoned.

Scarlet Thread is a movie hobbled with improbabilities, especially the notion that two desperate criminals could concoct such a charade and get away with it. However, there’s still much to enjoy in the film, particularly Kathleen Byron, whose English matter-of-factness and restraint, like that of Deborah Kerr, don’t entirely conceal the flesh-and-blood beneath. Josephine’s desire is palpable and arousing.  Laurence Harvey has a harder time of it, trying to model himself on a Hollywood version of an American gangster. This provokes some unforgiveable overacting, but Harvey’s growing star shine is evident.


THERE IS ANOTHER SUN (1951)




Dare-devil ‘Wall of Death’ motorcycle rider Eddie ‘Racer’ Pleskett (Maxwell Reed) needs a new bike to get back onto the racing circuit after being thrown off for killing another rider. He forces his pal, Mag Maguire (Laurence Harvey) to help him steal the money. Pleskett is a plain villain while Maguire is a decent guy and an up-and-coming fairground fighter hampered only by a misguided loyalty to his only friend. Lillian (Susan Shaw), a chorus girl they meet in a gambling club, is attracted to both though it’s clear to her that Racer is using Maguire. When Racer nearly kills his boss and steals his car, she’s had enough. Bratcher, a police detective who knows that Maguire is just a chump, then enlists Lillian’s help to both get to Racer and help sort out Maguire.

A somber morality tale of greed and betrayal, the film conjures up a particularly grim portrayal of post-war austerity in Britain and the tired sleaziness of provincial carnival life. Stylishly directed by Lewis Gilbert, best known for his stories of wartime heroism in films such as Reach for the Sky (1956); Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) ; and Sink the Bismarck! 1960), Wall of Death reflected early on Gilbert’s affinity for noirish narratives, later to include Cosh Boy (1952) and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

Especially good here is the beautiful and forthright Susan Shaw, the only English actress of the time to go blonde and not be written off as a tart. After her husband, American actor Bonar Colleano was killed in a car accident, Shaw fell to pieces and later died addicted and destitute.

Laurence Harvey is impressive in his first real starring part as the handsome, weak-willed hero, Maguire. He’s also not bad in the ring and looks like he might have trained to get there. More to him for that.”


A KILLER WALKS (1952)




Laurence Harvey in his first top-billed role plays Ned Harsten who, along with his younger brother Frankie, works his grandmother’s farm. Ned is fed up with everyone and everything except his girlfriend, Joan Gray (Susan Shaw) who unfortunately is fed up with him. Ned’s perpetually moody and hostile, going nowhere fast, and needs money. Susan is attractive, brassy and has her eye on a roadhouse pianist, Tony (John Ainsworth) and Ned knows it. He can’t see any way out but to do away his gran in order to get his hands on the farm and frame the emotionally vulnerable Frankie for the murder. However, Ned’s not as smart as he thinks; nor is he able to deal with the aftermath of the killing and the pressures of the investigation.

A penetrating psychological thriller, A Killer Walks is lushly photographed and orchestrated. The film’s claustrophobic setting, an old rural estate house, is gothic and the atmospherics, dark and oppressive. Much of the movie is shot in the fog-shrouded nighttime. There is a sense of dread and the anticipation of unspeakable evil, particularly around Frankie, a sleep walker obsessed with knives. Just as alarming is the selfish, narcissistic Ned whose own mental state deteriorates as the anger and resentment towards his overbearing grandmother grows. It’s enough that she holds his financial fortunes in balance but more than he can take when she tells him that Joanie, his hoped-to-be-bride, is “indecent.”

Susan Shaw, stunningly glammed-up in A Killer Walks, is actually an accidental femme fatale who really wants nothing of Ned other than a future. It’s Ned who takes it further. Laurence Harvey is terrific in the part, with all promise being fulfilled in this inspired little B noir. It’s a brilliant coming out.


TWILIGHT WOMEN (1952)



Laurence Harvey’s character, Jerry Nolan appears in only two scenes in Twilight Women but his presence hangs over the movie like a stench. Nolan is a louche lounge lizard and self-absorbed parasite who’s taken his pregnant girlfriend, Vivianne Bruce (Rene Ray) for everything he can get. When Jerry is arrested for murder of another woman, Vivianne, a fool in love but not in other ways, is forced to take shelter in a boarding house run by an unscrupulous Helen ‘Nellie’ Alistair (Freda Jackson) who takes in desperate unmarried mothers and single pregnant women thrown out by their families or ditched by their boyfriends. Alistair and her assistant, Jesse (Visa Hope) cash in by shorting the women on their rations, refusing them medical care because of the cost and forcing them to put their babies up for sale. As Vivianne becomes more involved with the boarders – an assortment of tough gals, tramps and frightened innocents – and more aware of the criminal exploitation, she confronts Alistair, who then and there decides that Vivianne must be gotten rid of.

Both a blistering social drama and horror-filled crime melodrama, Twilight Women is adapted from a 1951 play, recently restaged in London.  However, the film by no means feels stage-based and in no way a ‘weepie’. It cuts straight to the bone in its depiction of a world where there are no heroes or heroines, just those who survive and those who don’t.

Twilight Women was controversial when released, both in its subject matter and by the fact that that it was the first film to receive a newly-introduced ‘X’ rating by the British Board of Film Censors. However, what has never been in dispute is that Laurence Harvey is as hateful in Twilight Women as he would ever be in a movie. 
 

THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954)



Harvey moves up the ranks in The Good Die Young, sharing the marquee with Richard Basehart as Joe Halsey, a American war vet hoping to rescue his wife Mary (Joan Collins) from the emotional clutches of her mother; John Ireland as Eddie Blaine, a US Air Force officer who goes AWOL when he suspects his wife Denise (Gloria Grahame) is having an affair; and Stanley Baker as Mike Morgan, a boxer who’s fought his last bout and whose wife Rene Ray) has spent their nest egg to bail out her no-good brother. Harvey stars as Miles ‘Rave’ Ravenscourt, a callous lay-about whose wealthy wife (Margaret Leighton) has cut him off, weary of his gambling and extravagant living (art imitating life?). The four men, having met up in a pub, become friends and find solace in their shared despair. Rave suggests they pull a job, a Royal Mail van heist. The film opens with them driving on their way to the robbery, then flashes back to how each got to be there.

The movie is mostly concerned with what has led each man to desperation, leaving the heist itself – even though sharply constructed – to be done and over with in a hurry. However, the denouement where things get messy leads to some high noir drama, much of it due to the strikingly textured black-and-white cinematography of Jack Asher. 

Most everyone is good in The Good Die Young, especially Stanley Baker in a emotionally demanding performance; also, Harvey, who relishes his signature role as a monstrous cad whom his father, played by Robert Morley professes, to “loath and detest”. Rene Ray is moving as Baker’s fraught wife and Margaret Leighton gives a polished, realistic portrayal. The one off-note is Gloria Grahame who looks to be winging it as the lascivious starlet and her coy off-handedness is uncomfortable and irritating. However, as the film's director Lewis Gilbert later said of her (arguably), “It wasn’t that Gloria was a great star or actress. She’s remembered in films because she had extraordinary style. Most actresses fade into the distant past but somehow or other, one always remembers her”.


THE SILENT ENEMY (1958)



A rousing true-life adventure, The Silent Enemy is the story of Lieutenant Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb, a British naval bomb disposal officer assigned to Gibraltar to destroy an Italian command center carrying out the deadly placing of limpet mines on the hulls of allied ships. The Italians, operating out of neutral Spain, appear to be using underwater chariots to conduct their stealth missions.

Though Crabb (Laurence Harvey) has no diving experience, he takes to it readily under the guidance of a plucky NCO Sidney Knowles (Michael Craig). Much of the film centers around operations and preparation for the underwater assault to come on the Italian base station and is is organized like a heist movie in which Crabb first assembles his feisty crew, among them stand-up character actors Sid James and Alex McCowan. Then comes the serious business of training and hands-on defusing the explosives that night after night are being set by the Italian frogmen.

The film includes some remarkable underwater action scenes including a to-the-death encounter between the British and Italian divers. Though the movie is based in fact, The Silent Enemy is an enormously entertaining film – atmospheric, filled with action and drama and a sense of men going about a dangerous, arduous and thankless job with a quiet sense of duty.

Lionel Crabb had no time for nonsense and was a leader that anyone would want to follow. He was a courageous officer and a true independent spirit in a naval service that tolerated individuality and independence and Harvey does a terrific job of capturing that spirit. Crabb had a dazzling wartime and subsequent service career; however, in 1956 he disappeared while making an underwater reconnaissance of a Russian cruiser moored in Portsmouth harbor.  The circumstances of the disappearance are still a mystery.

The Silent Enemy is Laurence Harvey’s finest hour before taking on the role as Joe Lampton. With a blonde crewcut and naval beard, Harvey for the first time was able to step out of what would remain his character forever, though at least the haircut went with him to Room at the Top.

Gary Deane

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