Slightly Scarlet (1956)

“A dame is a dame. There’s bound to be something to nail her on.”

Ben Grace (John Payne) is hired by Bay City crime boss, Solly Casper (Ted de Corsia) to get the dirt on mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). Frank Jansen–the “Boy Scout” reform candidate–is squeaky clean–but his girlfriend, June Lyons (Rhonda Fleming) isn’t. June brings her man-hungry, kleptomaniac sister Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) back home from jail. Ben Grace discovers this tawdry little secret, but hides it from Solly.

Ben Grace falls from favour with Solly who dismisses him with a whack across the face and various slurs about Grace being a “college boy.” Ben Grace immediately forms an alliance with June Lyons, and tells her “I’m not a nice man. I know how to win elections. It takes a little dirt.” With no way to destroy Frank Jansen, Solly desperately threatens a newspaper editor. When things go wrong, Solly hides out in Mexico until things cool down. In his absence, Ben Grace takes over where Solly left off.

Slightly Scarlet is splendid 50s noir. Based on a James Cain novel, the action flows non-stop. While Frank Jansen forms the moral center of the film, Ben Grace is a much more difficult character to read. At first, he seems out of place with Solly’s gang, and his motives aren’t clear. June is a girl who’s trying to clean up her act, and she hovers on the brink of respectability. She knows that Frank is a good catch, and she’s willing to play a role to get him. Dorothy, the wild sister, is a degenerate who cannot be reformed, and her behaviour threatens June’s plans for a nice quiet, respectable marriage.

Slightly Scarlet is a colour film, and the quality is perfect. The sets in the film are striking–the interior scenes are shot in huge open rooms. June’s ranch style home, and Solly’s mansion both have the same open stage-like style. There are some good minor roles found in Solly’s gang, but Arlene Dahl’s performance steals the film–Dorothy is vulnerable and disruptive, trouble waiting to happen, and Dahl plays all of Dorothy’s flawed angles with confident, competent style. Rhonda Fleming as June wears outrageous mini-mini shorts and tight sweaters at home, and classy business suits for work in the office (this adds a slight camp element to the film). Film extras include: trailers, commentary, photo gallery, a James Cain bio and a James Cain book gallery. Noir fans … don’t miss this one. From director Allan Dwan.

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