Friday, June 25, 2010

Beware, My Lovely - Something A Little Different

Beware, My Lovely is not a typical film noir. It does not take place in the underworld of Chicago or the back streets of New York. It is not set in modern time, nor does it involve crime bosses or femme fatale molls. Yet, it is as the genre name indicates, a dark movie, tense and disturbing, about a crime already committed and potential crime yet to come. The setting is a small American town in the year 1918. It is Christmas time in a lovely tree-lined neighborhood where children are laughing and playing and the sun is shining.

The film opens in the kitchen of a big-city apartment, where handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) discovers the dead body of the lady he has been working for. Howard looks at the body, shocked and confused. We know he does not know what to do, and in his fear he flees the building. The next scene opens in the small town described above, in the home of a World War I widow Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). Helen is cleaning and preparing her house for Christmas. She is also saying goodbye to Walter (Taylor Holmes), her longtime boarder who is moving away. Helen’s niece Ruth (Barbara Whiting), a particularly sullen and malicious adolescent, is being punished by her mother, who has ordered her to help Aunt Helen with her cleaning. Some of Helen’s little piano pupils drop by, and Helen’s little dog is happily romping around with all the company.

Amidst all of this pleasant bustle, Howard enters. He seems intensely shy and unsure of himself, quiet and gentle. He is looking for work, and Helen decides to hire him for the day to help with the cleaning. Soon Walter is moved out, the children are gone home, Ruth has been released from her punishment, and the dog is outside. Helen is alone with Howard, and so begins a day of terror for her. Howard is mentally unstable, at once menacing and pitiful, sharp and alert one moment, confused and forgetful the next. Helen comes to realize that she is trapped in the house with him, and as she comes to understand the danger she is in, her fear and vulnerability increase with every moment.

Each scene of Beware, My Lovely builds upon the next like the little Russian doll that opens to reveal another smaller doll, than another, until the core is revealed. Screenwriter Mel Dinelli did a wonderful job with this subtly terrifying story. (Dinelli also wrote the screenplay for another of my favorite suspense thrillers, The Spiral Staircase.) There is little more I am willing to reveal about the film because the very nature of it depends upon the unknown. Suffice it to say that this is not a typical story with a typical ending.

Beware, My Lovely began as a stage play and then a radio play in 1945 on the popular Suspense program, starring Agnes Moorhead and Frank Sinatra in his radio drama debut.  Ida Lupino and her husband produced the movie in 1952. Lupino was one of the first women to begin her career as a beautiful starlet and go on to work behind the camera to produce and direct movies. Director Harry Horner did his usual wonderful job (he also directed one of my favorite movies, The Heiress). The cast was solid, including long-time character actor Taylor Holmes and young Barbara Whiting, the sister of famed singer Margaret Whiting and the daughter of Robert Whiting, a prolific songwriter whose compositions included “Hooray for Hollywood” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop”.  The art direction was done by the wonderful Albert D’Asgostino, who was also responsible for art direction in The Magnificent Ambersons. Mention must be made of the costume designer, Michael Woulfe. Lupino’s costume with the long hobble skirt popular in 1918 gives her an even greater look of trapped inability to save herself.  Ryan’s clothing, including an oddly short tie, is rather dorky and sad, like a man who does not know how to dress himself.

With all these winning elements, not to mention the great performance by Lupino, the fact is that Beware, My Lovely is Robert Ryan’s movie. Audiences accustomed to seeing Ryan as intensely masculine, tall and dominant, saw him in this movie as a sad, tired, mentally ill man. He is indeed menacing, but at the next moment unable to remember what had happened and afraid of his confusion. He terrorizes this woman, and at the same time has gentle feelings for her. His character cannot be pigeon-holed into good guy/bad guy, and Ryan masterfully creates this disturbing presence.

Beware, My Lovely belongs in the film noir genre despite its uncharacteristic elements, maybe even because of the peculiarity of mental volatility and disturbing undercurrents that darken the sunniest day.

(ADDENDUM)  A fellow CMBA member, RDF, wrote to remind me that Harry Horner did indeed work on The Heiress in art direction, but not as director.  I appreciate RDF's sharp eye, and  I'm glad to  have this opportunity to keep my facts straight!


  1. Bec, I have not seen the movie, Beware, My Lovely. It sounds like a film noir I want to add to my "gotta see" list of films. Awesome review!

  2. Like Dawn, I haven't seen this film, either. It sounds very suspenseful, though. I like borh Lupino and Ryan, so this might be one I'll check out. Thanks for the great review.

  3. Becks ,like Dawn and Kim I have not seen this film but I liked Ida and Robert in On Dangerous Ground the film they did before this one.

  4. Excellent write-up, Becky. Informative, enjoyable and very well written. This was quite fun to read, especially since I haven't seen the film. You've made me want to see this, and I'm a fan of Robert Ryan (I really like him in THE SET-UP). Thanks for a killer entry in the Film Noir Festival for this month!

  5. Phenomenal write-up, Becky! You have got me champing at the bit wanting to see this! Some of the things I love best about the Cafe include reading about films others love and learning about unknown movies. You just did both for all of us!

    I have always admired Ida Lupino. She acted, directed, and wrote for our viewing pleasure. And this turn by Robert Ryan sounds most intriguing.


  6. Becky, this may be my all-time favorite of your reviews. I love your analogy of the Russian nesting dolls--that's a brilliant way to describe progressive layering of suspense. Like others here, I haven't seen this movie...but definitely want to. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE ranks in my personal Top 50 films, so knowing the same writer wrote BEWARE, MY LOVELY makes that film all the more appealing.

  7. Thanks so much for all of your compliments and interest. If you are one who has not seen this movie, you definitely want to get it. I think you will like it as much as I do.