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Barbara Stanwyck - Queen of the Screen
on 20 February 2011
This is Stanwyck at her magnetic and photogenic best.
The plot, briefly...
Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) is the wilful, spoilt daughter of her business tycoon father (Ed Begley). She meets down-on-his-luck Henry (Burt Lancaster, in only his sixth feature film) and falls in love with him. He sees her as a meal-ticket to a brighter future and they get married. Unfortunately, things don't work out. Henry is given a prestigious job by Leona's father, as a vice-president of his pharmaceuticals company. But the post is empty and meaningless, created to keep him where Leona and her father want him. He comes to feel like a plaything in their hands, with no command over his own fate. She responds to his unhappy restlessness by developing psychosomatic medical conditions which she uses to emotionally blackmail Henry into compliance with her wishes. In desperation to assert his own independence and give his life meaning, Henry sets up an illegal drugs operation, using materials from the company. Eventually she discovers that Henry is plotting to have her murdered, so he can get his hands on her life insurance money and pay off the mob which has gained control over his operation. At the last minute Henry tries to call off the hit...
You can see this film develop as you watch it. To start with the dialogue is clunky and at times illogical, and the characterisation cliched and almost risible. But as time passes it settles down. The dialogue becomes fluent and engrossing and the characterisation subtle and multi-layered. We see why Leona is how she is, neurotic and demanding; it is the only way she can gain any independence and self-control from her domineering father. Henry, too, is portrayed as a man who does the best he can with what is to hand. Far from being shown as a classic black-hat villain, we see him do what any decent man would do - try to make the marriage work, attempt to infuse his role in the company with some meaning, search for another job when that doesn't work. We see his hope drain away as he tries to keep some control over his life - an impossible task given Leona's manipulative behaviour and her father's grip on the purse-strings. He is not a villain - he is You and Me.
There are clever and intricate sub-plots which you need to watch the film to understand, but above all there are the performances of Lancaster and Stanwyck. You can see why Lancaster became a major star - his acting is subtle and convincing, engaging the sympathy and understanding of the audience in a way that few actors could pull off with such a difficult, multi-tasking role. As with Marlon Brando, it is in such earlier roles that you see why he went on to become a cinema great.
But Stanwyck walks away with the laurels, as she usually did with any film she appeared in. She makes us understand the difficult and aggravating Leona, as Lancaster did with the manipulated and desperate Henry. And her fear, mounting to ungovernable hysteria as she realises her time has come, is almost unendurable. At the end, as the shadow of her nemesis creeps along the wall towards her you think My God, she's not acting, she is in real fear for her life. You will rarely if ever see such a convincing portrayal of mortal, abject terror as Stanwyck gives here.
This is Noir at its best. Don't miss it.
P.S. My DVD was a Korean import. I've had a few of these and they've all been absolutely fine, so if that's a worry for you, forget it.