Vincente Minnelli’s insider look at the golden age of Hollywood is sly and slickly entertaining, with Kirk Douglas as the unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields adding a tough edge to the black and white melodrama. Told in three long flashbacks, it recounts the relationships of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and the luminous Lana Turner, who plays the actress Georgia Lorrison, to the ambitious Shields. Shields woos them, puts a magical gloss on their burgeoning talent, and then carelessly, casually ditches them when they’ve outlived their usefulness to him.
Charles Schnee’s whip-smart script, packed with sharp one-liners and passionate dialogue is a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the noir-ish look of Robert Surtees’s cinematography. There’s an extra layer of knowingness to the whole production too: shadows, odd staircases, extravagant stage sets and behind the scenes shots are nods to the mechanics of filmmaking, while in-jokes about directors and actors add an extra frisson to this gripping tale of Hollywood hubris.
Director Amiel is the first one to dish the dirt on Shields. A paid mourner at the funeral of Shields’s father, he insults the dead producer: ‘one of the mad men who almost wrecked it, a butcher who sold everything but the pig’s whistle’, unaware that he’s standing next to his son. He apologises and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. The duo learn their craft on the B-movie production lot, their biggest success ‘The Doom of the Cat Men’, where the laughable, ill-fitting cat costumes are abandoned for the shadowy allure of silhouettes: ‘Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive.’ Soon after, darkness enters their relationship too, as Shields’s ruthless disloyalty becomes evident.
Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison is next in line for the Shields treatment. Drunk, and crushed by the weight of the legacy of her actor father, she is rescued by the charismatic Shields from playing ‘the doomed daughter of the great man’. Shields coaches her, stops her drinking, makes her believe that he’s in love with her. Lana’s all aglow, like a damaged angel, tender and trembling and determined to do her best. Until fear overcomes her on the night before filming her first important role and she goes on a bender. Shields drops her in a swimming pool to sober her up, and sets her on the path to being a star. And then along comes the celebratory party where Georgia is feted and Jonathan is missing. Heading to his house wrapped in a white mink, and with her heart on her glittery sleeve, she’s determined to celebrate with him. But instead of a celebration, Georgia is faced with the heart-breaking realisation of Shields’s betrayal.
James Lee Bartlow seems the most likely candidate to resist the allure of the film world. A pipe-smoking Southern writer, with a delightful wife - Gloria Grahame, blonde and blithe and funny, with the catch phrase: ‘You’re a very naughty man, I’m happy to say’ - he nonetheless succumbs: ‘I’m flattered that you want me and bitter you got me.’ Jonathan and James go to work on the script, with constant interruptions from charming Rosemary Bartlow, until Shields, unbeknownst to James Lee, arranges a distraction with fatal consequences. It’s the end of another relationship, a definitive severing of all ties, like those with Amiel and Georgia.
But this is Hollywood, and in the final scene the three protagonists are clustered around a phone, listening to the scintillating, despicable Shields pitching them a new project. Until the very end we wonder if they will be sucked in again by his treacherous charm.