Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Seven Sinners (1940) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne star in SEVEN SINNERS (1940), released last month on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber

SEVEN SINNERS was the first of a trio of films starring Dietrich and Wayne; the other two films, THE SPOILERS (1942) and PITTSBURGH (1942), have been reviewed here previously.

In the case of SEVEN SINNERS, it's really Dietrich's film all the way; Wayne isn't seen until well into the movie's 87 minutes, and it's close to a supporting role, featuring as the handsome young (and slightly hapless) hunk in what's really Dietrich's story.

The movie, directed by Tay Garnett,  has a unique opening, with the credits sequence featuring a brawl at some island dive, rather than music.

Following the fight there is much talk of a woman named "Bijou," but we don't actually meet her until a few minutes into the movie, when the brawlers appear in court.  It seems that Bijou, a performer played by Dietrich, tends to cause barroom brawls wherever she goes, and she's immediately put on a ship and deported.

Bijou begins a friendship with the ship's doctor (Albert Dekker), but leaves him behind when they dock at the next island.  She takes a job at a saloon ("nightclub" would be too kind) where she's worked in the past, the Seven Sinners, run by Tony (Billy Gilbert).

Bijou develops a crush on a handsome navy lieutenant, Dan (Wayne), who by rights should be wooing lovely and politically connected Dorothy (Anna Lee), the daughter of the governor (Samuel S. Hinds) -- but instead he scandalizes his superiors when he announces he wants to marry Bijou.

Also unhappy with Bijou and Dan's romance is local mafioso type Antro (Oscar Homolka), whose advances have been rejected by Bijou.  The conflict between Dan and Antro builds to a brawl even bigger than the one that began the movie...

This was an entertaining film which I think I appreciated much more having seen a couple of presentations on Dietrich's career and style by fashion historian Kimberly Truhler of GlamAmor. Dietrich's appeal used to baffle me, but I've gradually come to appreciate her, and thanks to Kimberly's talks I noticed key aspects of Dietrich's screen persona and fashion on full display in this film, including the use of feathers and men's clothing.

Dietrich has the opportunity for some good musical numbers, including "The Man's in the Navy," and the opportunity to play everything from light comedy to romance to pathos.  Bijou puts on a glamorous show, but underneath one senses a lonely woman who's hurting inside; the emotionally wounded doctor is perhaps the man who really understands Bijou, not the lust-struck Dan. 

It's the rare film where Wayne and his charisma don't jump off the screen, but this was one of them.  He's handsome, charming, and great in a fight, but he's in Dietrich's shadow.  The balance changed by their next film, THE SPOILERS; I noted in my review of that movie that Wayne "lights up the screen every time he walks in the room."

Anna Lee does what she can with a few scenes and an underwritten role, making Dorothy more than a simple ingenue, but it's pretty much a nothing part.  It was fun, however, to see Lee and Wayne on screen together, years ahead of appearing in John Ford's FORT APACHE (1948).

Reginald Denny has a handful of scenes as Wayne's superior officer; he initially comes off as stuffy, but his last scene with Wayne is one of the best, and funniest, in the movie.  It's always a pleasure to see him in a film.

The supporting cast includes Broderick Crawford, Mischa Auer, Richard Carle, Vince Barnett, Russell Hicks, and Antonio Moreno.

As a side note, there are other, unrelated films which go by the title SEVEN SINNERS, including a 1925 silent film and a 1936 British mystery.

For the most part the Kino Lorber Blu-ray looks terrific, beautifully showing off the rich black and white as filmed by cinematographer (and future director) Rudolph Mate. In the latter half of the film there are a couple scenes with a light vertical line on the left side of the screen, but I think the reason I particularly noticed is that the rest of the print looks so good by contrast.  

Sound quality is excellent.

Disc extras include the trailer, four additional trailers for films starring Dietrich and/or Wayne, and a commentary track by David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner.

SEVEN SINNERS isn't a great film, but it's quite enjoyable, with Dietrich on screen for most of the movie, beautifully filmed by Mate.  Fans of the actress will want to add this Blu-ray to their collection.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger barrylane said...

The review captures every quality in Seven Sinners to perfection, but I add, that in what amounts to a prologue and epilogue, Albert Dekker just shines. Despite that, and the film's tone, this is from a story perspective, a tragedy. Nothing for these people but disappointment and destruction.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much, I appreciate that!

I agree with your comments on Dekker and the story. To elaborate further on what I wrote about her loneliness, I felt Dietrich's character was headed pretty much nowhere; she seemed doomed to a poverty-stricken, lonely old age once she could no longer get by on her looks. Perhaps her connection with Dekker's character might change that, but I'm dubious about her having a long-term relationship, in terms of either romance or employer.

Best wishes,

9:46 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Lee and Wayne appeared together in "Flying Tigers" from 1942. There they had a romantic relationship that John Carroll tries to upend upon his arrival into their world. (Wayne and Carroll are pilots who are old friends and free lance in China fighting the Japanese prior to WWII.) Comparatively, she has a more substantial role in "Flying Tigers" than in "Sinners" or "Fort Apache."

While she had a long and fruitful career I thought it too bad she wasn't more of a leading lady throughout.

Haven't seen "Sinners" in some time but oddly Billy Gilbert is one of the things I remember most about it.

Thanks for you column. It always has something interesting. I particularly like the way you link to older related things so we can get more information or context.


6:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Chris, thank you both for the kind words and for the info on FLYING TIGERS. I'm gratified to know you find the links useful!

As I've mentioned here in the past, one of my ongoing "viewing projects" is trying to catch up with the many non-Western films Wayne made in the '40s. I've been steadily crossing titles off my list, but FLYING TIGERS is one I still need to see -- so I was glad to hear more about it and have you add that info here. Looking forward to seeing another teaming of Lee and Wayne, and I have a soft spot for John Carroll.

Since I first knew Anna Lee from THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and GENERAL HOSPITAL (where she appeared 1978-2003), followed by her work with John Ford, it's been enjoyable gradually catching up with more of her films.

Best wishes,

9:19 AM  

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