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From the Vaults: 'Portrait in Black' (1960)

September 13, 2010 |  2:25 am

Portraitposter "Portrait in Black" has just about everything you need for a campy good time: Sandra Dee! Lana Turner in an increasingly elaborate selection of diamond earrings! A very tan Anthony Quinn! Former silent film actress Anna May Wong as a housekeeper named Tawny! It goes on a little long, but this thriller is almost never boring. Pour yourself your favorite vintage cocktail (perhaps an Aviation?) and have a look.

Sheila Cabot (Turner) is weary of nursing her unpleasant invalid husband, a shipping magnate who lies in his hospital bed stroking his Siamese cat and running his empire with the help of sidekick Howard Mason (the aptly named Richard Basehart). About the only bright spot in Sheila's days is her affair with her husband's doctor, David Rivera (Quinn). Together they decide to put her husband out of his misery. How unethical!

After the murder, things are looking good for the couple until Sheila starts receiving taunting, anonymous notes, and Quinn soon realizes that committing murder is like eating potato chips. Are the notes coming from Mason? Tawny? The chauffeur, who keeps hovering around the mailbox? Discontented stepdaughter Sandra Dee? Her fiance, who has a score to settle with the Cabot family? Before you know it, you're knee-deep in intrigue.

PortraitcoupleNot to mention melodrama. Turner lays it on thick and so does everyone else. Her scenes involve a lot  of "Oh David... David!" My favorite bit is when she's asked to signal that someone has left her house by opening a particular set of curtains. She stares at the curtains -- should she? shouldn't she? -- then yanks them open sharply before collapsing, sobbing, against a wall. Work it, girl!

Meanwhile, Quinn does a lot of tortured staring into the middle distance, pausing occasionally to passionately nuzzle Turner's neck (you'll soon be able to identify his favorite spot, not to mention the face that indicates he's about to go in). I adored his Horrible Moment of Self-Awareness in his office, when he gazes at his framed copy of the Hippocratic Oath; the entire thing is recited in voice-over while Quinn makes agonized faces.

Even the bit characters are very mysterious and secretive -- Virginia Grey makes the most of her small part as a secretary -- and do a lot of gazing significantly at each other. The best is Anna May Wong as Tawny, the mysterious housekeeper, who glares at absolutely everyone and even gets her own Exotic Eastern Orchestral Theme. Wong had a long and glorious career going back to "The Thief of Baghdad" with megacutie Douglas Fairbanks, and beyond. This was her final role; she died in 1961.

Another highlight is Quinn trying to very quickly teach Turner to drive a car so she can follow him and drive him home from disposing of a body. "You step on the brake -- here. You release the emergency. You push this button: D. This pedal makes the car go. This one makes it stop. All you have to do is steer it. Sheila, the car practically drives itself! Now, can you remember all that?" "I'll try!" she gasps.

I almost forgot Sheila's young son, who pelts around going "Boy!" and asking the police (who keep showing up) questions like "Do you know Peter Gunn?" He gets the best lines, like "Then I heard a shot. Boy, was it loud! Boy, was I scared!" He's great.

It's a very stylish movie -- the saturated colors are gorgeous, as are the house shots carefully framed around big mirrors and an ornate staircase. And a scene shot off Pacific Coast Highway is quite lovely. I really enjoyed Turner's first sleepless night after her husband's death, when she awakes to a noise in his room and finds his empty hospital bed moving on its own. Eek! It's just the Siamese cat -- or is it?

I don't know if I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie, any more than I can quite recommend an Aviation cocktail (why didn't anyone warn me how cloying these things were?), but in the right mood it's a total blast. And it's nice to see Turner and Dee in their fabulous 1960 hair and gowns. It's predictable but still very satisfying to see the thriller machinery click into place around Sheila and the doctor; this car, after all, practically drives itself. Oh David.... David!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon