Friday, March 09, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Tattered Dress (1957)

THE TATTERED DRESS is an absorbing courtroom drama starring a number of excellent actors. I found it a most enjoyable viewing experience.

Jeff Chandler plays James Gordon Blane, a renowned criminal defense attorney from New York who arrives in a sleepy Nevada burg to represent accused murderer Michael Reston (Phillip Reed, recently profiled at Speakeasy). Reston killed the man who'd been making time with his glamorous but unfaithful trophy wife Charleen (Elaine Stewart).

Blane secures an acquittal for Reston, but the film is just getting rolling at that point. The local sheriff (Jack Carson) is enraged by the verdict, and as it happens he'd had a backup plan in place; he conspires with one of the jurors (Gail Russell) to frame Blane for jury tampering. After Blane falls out with the defense attorney (Edward Andrews) he's hired, he defends himself, supported only by his hitherto estranged wife Diane (Jeanne Crain) and a former client (George Tobias) who wants to help.

The film is a bit soapy, particularly in the early going when attention is often focused on the trampy Charleen, but it also features sharply delineated, imperfect characters who are truly interesting.

It's rather surprising, but Chandler's Blane is almost more of an anti-hero than a true leading man. His wife had left him because he was incapable of being faithful, and he has a gambler's streak which proves his undoing. Just as he admits he enjoys gambling with life and death in the courtroom, he avidly reads the Racing Form, blows thousands at the poker table, and can't seem to help himself from pursuing women. His professional success is such that he is able to afford such vices, but they don't make him an admirable man and ultimately help set the stage for his downfall. Chandler is especially compelling in his final summation, shot in fairly long takes.

Crain is very good as the sympathetic wife who doesn't want her two little boys hurt if their father is sent to prison. As the adulterous wife at the center of the murder trial, Stewart creates a vivid character in her limited screen time, with Carson also excellent as the sheriff. Watching Carson's reactions is something akin to watching an acting class; he's incredibly natural, and simultaneously he's so sleazy you'd love to smack him.

I also thought Edward Platt (GET SMART) was particularly good as a New York reporter who travels to Nevada with Blane to cover the case. He's a sympathetic character who functions both as a commentator on the trials and as a sounding board for Blane.

I was especially impressed with Gail Russell as the juror who testifies she took a bribe from Blane. Her character is introduced so subtly that I rewound the film to make sure she'd actually been on the jury in the first trial; many of the shots focusing on the jury exclude her. Russell is simply outstanding when her character moves front and center. It's a great tragedy that she was dead by 1961. (She would have been a great topic for the current Gone Too Soon blogathon...)

If you don't blink, William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW) can be spotted in a bit role as the courtroom clerk; Schallert, who will be 90 this summer, is still acting 55 years later.

Also keep an eye out for Ralph Brooks, the court reporter; Brooks had over 350 bit roles spanning over four decades.

This 93-minute film was directed by Jack Arnold, with black and white CinemaScope photography by Carl E. Guthrie. The evocative score was composed by Frank Skinner and the uncredited Henry Mancini; there's great jazzy theme music over the opening credits which I suspect might have been Mancini's contribution. The score seemed to become more nondescript as the film went on.

This Universal film has not had a release on VHS or DVD. It can currently be seen on YouTube. I appreciate my friend Carrie's help in seeing this movie!

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