Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tonight's Movie: The Hard Way (1943)

Helen Chernen (Ida Lupino), who has raised her little sister Katie (Joan Leslie), promises Katie that she will find a way for them to have a better life outside of their dirt-poor coal mining town, Greenville. When Katie becomes friendly with a vaudeville team (Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan) passing through town, Helen sees a golden opportunity and takes it; Katie joins the act (in more ways than one), and she and Helen are on their way out of Greenville. As Katie's acting career blossoms over the years, Helen will stop at nothing to see Katie reach the pinnacle of success, as Katie finds out THE HARD WAY.

This is a rather dark film, both literally and figuratively. Grim, grimy Greenville is memorably conveyed, as is the world of lower-end vaudeville. Although it's mostly a backstage drama, the film has a bleak, noirish overtone and a body count to go with it.

Helen and Katie initially have the audience's sympathy, but as Helen continues to manipulate their way up the ladder -- the gradual changes in hairstyles and Orry-Kelly costumes helping delineate the transitions in financial status -- the viewer is increasingly disturbed by Helen's lack of concern for others, including the two men who gave Katie her start. (Katie herself is complicit in some of Helen's bad decisions, but she is young, impressionable, and loyal to her sister, so she maintains more of the audience's sympathy.) For Helen, Katie's stardom equals financial security, which equals happiness. Relationships don't matter a bit.

The performances are outstanding. Lupino, always a fascinating actress, was given the Best Actress award for THE HARD WAY by the New York Film Critics. Leslie was just 17 when this was filmed, and successfully conveys both the childish, gum-snapping teenager and the more mature woman who has weathered tragedy and is trying to figure out what's really important in life.

Morgan and Carson, who are often associated with lighter fare, both give extremely good performances. Morgan's character starts out as a hardbitten skirt-chaser, who gradually wises up; it's interesting to contrast the trajectory of his character with that of Lupino's, as the two characters share many of the same experiences yet grow in different directions. Carson, who was also touching in the same year's PRINCESS O'ROURKE, is moving as a man who finds his dreams falling apart and can't handle it.

THE HARD WAY was directed by Vincent Sherman. The film was shot in black and white by James Wong Howe, and it runs 109 minutes.

THE HARD WAY is not yet available on DVD or video. I'd love to see an Ida Lupino DVD set with titles like this and THE MAN I LOVE.

THE HARD WAY can be seen as part of the library on Turner Classic Movies.

The trailer for THE HARD WAY can be seen here.

July 2009 Update: THE HARD WAY is now available on DVD-R format from the Warner Archive.

April 2018 Update: I had a chance to see this film in a beautiful 35mm print at UCLA, along with the similarly themed HARD, FAST AND BEAUTIFUL (1951). The same week I had a chance to photograph some of the film's exterior sets!

Please also visit The Hard Way (1943): A Photo Gallery.


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