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I saw this film while catching up on classic film noir. I was not
much--a little B film. And Maltin's summary did nothing to encourage my
expectations. However, I found a solid film here.
It has an intellectual patina, which is surprising in an American film from 1951. The characters actually talk about some serious issues, though this talk may not be agreeable to some viewers. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, in his review of this film (April 23, 1951), wrote that the film "expresses in several thousand words of dialogue. . .perhaps the least measure of intelligence or dramatic continuity that you are likely to find in any picture, current or recent, that takes itself seriously." Obviously, I don't agree.
The film is well cast and acted by an unusual combination of actors: John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, Emlyn Williams (the English actor), and Ezra Thompson in the leads.
Even the song, "Summer Rains," sung by McCambridge, is perfect for this film: a solid, torchy number in a minor key. Why wasn't this recorded by Peggy Lee or Julie London or Chris Connor? It would have suited them fine.
I was taken totally by surprise by John Ireland's appearance here. This is the only film I've seen Ireland in in which the man is hot, sexy, alluring--certainly not words that one would normally use in discussing John Ireland's appearance. A good part of this is due to cinematographer Franz Planer, though Ireland got some help from his costumes, too. Planer is careful to light Ireland's face in a flattering way, and Ireland just shimmers in the shadow and light of the sharp black and white photography. There is one close-up of Ireland that is stunning--a pure Hollywood glamour shot in the Hurrell tradition: Ireland is sitting at a table in a bar. He has his hat cocked so that it hides one of his eyes and throws half of his face into shadow. He slowly looks up at the camera. This kind of glamour close-up was usually reserved for top female stars in Hollywood's Golden Era, but Planer gave it to Ireland here.
In addition to these shots of Ireland's face, which make him truly handsome, he is wearing throughout most of the film a white t-shirt that makes clear that even at age 37 he still had a nice, in-shape body--nice chest, nice biceps. (Ireland started his career performing as a swimmer in a water carnival.) Later on Ireland is shown wearing a black turtleneck sweater that compliments his chest and a black leather jacket. And who put those pants on Ireland? They aren't expensive--just cheap cloth, but in every scene, those pants just hug the long, lean lines of his butt and his upper thighs. Hot stuff!
I found the film totally absorbing, so much so that I got through the final movie hokum scene which reveals the villain. I can see how some would react negatively to this film. For instance, critic Manny Farber writing in The Nation (May 26, 1951) called "The Scarf" "a disjointed, monstrously affected psycho-mystery freak show." Ha! That comment could be considered a reason to see this film today, Manny.
There is a satisfactory plot summary and commentary on this film on pages 152-3 of Robert Ottoson's The American Film Noir (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1981). However, Ottoson misidentifies Dr. David Duncan as "the prison psychiatrist." He is, in fact, a psychiatrist in private practice and a friend of Cyrus Barrington. Ottoson says that actor Lloyd Gough plays "the detective." Gough plays Dr. Gordon, who is the prison psychiatrist.
Two years after appearing in All The King's Men, John Ireland and Mercedes
McCambridge reunite in The Scarf. Talented actors both, neither of them
would enjoy, in number or in quality, movie roles commensurate with their
gifts. A recondite find today, The Scarf could hardly have been much less
so in 1951; under the `Gloria Productions' imprint, it fell to a German-born
director of little reputation, E.A. Dupont.
But while not every emigrant from middle Europe was a Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak or Billy Wilder, most had tradition behind them and a touch of inspiration, like John Brahm and Edgar G. Ulmer and even Dupont. Though The Scarf starts off dead slow a long, quasi-philosophical dialogue between a turkey-ranching hermit in the California desert (James Barton) and an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane who has sought refuge with him (Ireland) soon enough the movie picks up its pace and shows flashes of originality and style. The cinematography is by Frank (Franz) Planer, another refugee steeped in Expressionism who had behind, and ahead of, him several noirs.
Not coincidentally, the quickened pace comes with McCambridge's arrival, as a singing bar waitress who hitches a ride with Ireland. With her distinctive organ-pipe voice and her instinct for biting off her lines clean, she brings both quirkiness and force to this standard role (tough gal, good heart). Though some of her best known roles showed noir influences (All The King's Men, Johnny Guitar) she only appeared in two obscure noirs (Lightning Strikes Twice was the other). The cycle is poorer for her rarity.
The Scarf's plot, alas, falls under the rubric far-fetched. It involves Ireland's not quite remembering the crime for which he was committed strangling a girl with her scarf and a sinister psychologist ( Emlyn Williams) somehow in the employ of Ireland's powerful father. Dupont can't do much with the bulk of it (who could?), but along the way sneaks in some arresting sequences. The best occurs when McCambridge has been ordered to leave town on the 11 p.m. bus for Los Angeles; as she vacillates, looking down the dark road at the sign reading `sheriff's station,' it turns into a lure for her to sell out Ireland for the reward on his head, with `$5000" spelled out in beckoning neon.
It was rumored that after his role in ALL THE KING'S MEN, John Ireland had demanded too much from the studios. This smaller production is filmed in the same slow mist of the hero's memory. Mercedes McCambridge is excellent as the female support. James Barton gives great support on the male side. It is a strong well acted performance. It should be shown more often. It is a shame that features like this are not shown on today's cable systems or available in any format.
The Scarf (1951)
A peculiar but sometimes charming movie, filled with empty moments, people sitting and talking, the wind whistling through trees in the desert, and a possible killer on the loose. The best parts for me were the odd pairing of a loner woman played by Mercedes McCambridge and the leading man on the run, John Barrington (John Ireland). Later, both of these characters appear in different places, sometimes crossing paths. McCambridge is a sharp, funny, slightly tragic actress, and Ireland is a super sweet guy. They make a surprising pair.
The setting for all this is a nice little village on the edge of the desert, and a dry turkey farm out of town. As Barrington suffers with his guilt and doubts about having committed a murder (strangling someone with a scarf), he bounces from place to place, just barely avoiding trouble. People are rough and Barrington can't get his head together, but he plugs along, butting against McCambridge at times, and the tensions grows before you realize it.
It isn't quite a Hitchcockian innocent man on the loose. We doubt him, too. We are unravelling the problem as they go. It isn't always a remarkable unfolding of events, but it has remarkable moments, and a strange, spare mood that is possessing. At first I almost stopped watching it because it was a bit clumsy and raw, but that becomes smoother and more essential over time. Eventually it becomes downright idiosyncratic in the best ways, just on the happy edge of weird. There's even a barroom scene with McCambridge singing a simple blues song, pretty amazingly.
The plot takes on some forced twists toward the end, but they are still dramatic ones. "The doctor is allergic to irrelevant laughter."
The previous reviewer said it was a shame this film was never shown on any cable channels. I just saw it today on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). I had never seen it before, and have to agree it is a great example of the films noir of the '50s. There is a lot of suspense in the film with a "did he do it or not?" theme, where the protagonist has a loss of memory and can't recall the crime. Mercedes McCambridge is excellent in the film, and the bar scenes give us lots of the '50-era atmosphere. There are so few movies with Mercedes McCambridge that one can see anymore, so this movie is a treat if only for being able to see her. So don't give up hope. TCM's website is a great source for info on classic movies, and you can look up the dates and times they will be showing this film again.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an oddly engaging B noir largely because of an interesting if motley and disparate cast of actors; the story hardly warrants close inspection.
There's John Ireland, not quite up to leading man status and yet curiously suited to this role. A young feisty Mercedes McCambridge struts her stuff endearingly. James Barton gives a warm and thoroughly convincing portrayal as the farmer content to be far from the madding crowd. Lastly there's English actor Emyln Williams turning in a pedantic performance, ludicrously out of place. There's no conceiving him and the John Ireland character ever having been "best friends". He tells Ms. McCambridge "you're a beautiful woman.." which is also somewhat of a stretch.
Minor spoiler alert ahead:
In keeping with the off kilter tone of this whole project, we should not be surprised to witness John Ireland choosing to spend his future on the farm with cello playing, book loving, though still macho old James Barton, rather than take up with torch song singing waitress McCambridge.
Quite an oddity..
If you've read this far, you know what "The Scarf" is about, so I'll only add that after a not-so-promising start it gets wonderfully weird in so many ways that I stuck with it to the rather silly ending. Worth seeing for the actors involved and the priceless and sometimes witless dialog. John Ireland is surprisingly good in a lead role for a change and Mercedes McCambridge is wonderfully cast against type as something of a good-time girl/waitress/singer of sultry songs. John Barton has a chance to really shine in this film during a career consisting of mainly bit parts on television. You can see "The Scarf" on the Netflix instant service, as of 5/14/12.
John Ireland stars with Mercedes McCambridge in "The Scarf" which
features Emlyn Williams and Lloyd Gough.
Ireland plays an escapee from a mental institution who is sure he didn't strangle his girlfriend with a scarf, but unfortunately, he can't remember anything. He hides out in a cabin owned by an isolated old man (Ezra Thompson), helps out raising his turkeys, and eventually goes to Los Angeles to see his friend David Dunbar (Williams), a psychiatrist. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker (McCambridge) en route to a job as a singing waitress. She's wearing the exact same scarf, but he still can't remember strangling his girlfriend.
This is a fairly convoluted story, cashing in on the interest in psychiatry after World War II. Ireland looks very handsome here and does a good job in this small movie. The character of Ezra, the old man, is interesting and likable.
This may sound silly, but for some reason, McCambridge singing "Summer Rains" was the high point of the film for me. I thought she really created an atmosphere with it and raised the level of the film.
Decent performances, but check this film out for McCambridge.
Unfortunately being a psychiatrist myself kind of ruined this movie
content wise (the first part where insanity is debated--shows only
people who know absolutely nothing of mental illness). But maybe that
was the point as John Ireland hadn't a trace of mental illness--just
some sort of PTSD and amnesia.
The British Doctor as the paranoid schizophrenic was a stupid cartoon version but much closer the mark and what most B audiences would view as mental illness (fortunately this idiotic denouement only lasts for about the last 5 minutes of the movie.)
John Ireland is very handsome and the movie clips right along...the other two actors--the philosopher turkey farmer especially and the barmaid are very sympathetic characters as well.
It is very competently filmed and worth a watch. Leagues above the average B movie. Ignore the actual content of philosophy. I once heard that a good educated British accent reading a phone directory sounds intellectual to the average American; this is the same sort of effect you have in this film...just enjoy the flow of the movie and imagine deep things are being said.
This is probably best described as a psychological thriller, although,
it does not have too many thrills. It does have a trio of lead
characters that are fun to watch. John Ireland (Hero or Villain?),
Mercedes McCambridge (Sexy Girl who's not as tough as she thinks) and
Ezra Thompson (cynical desert hermit who's not as cynical as he
thinks)give delightful and skillful performances.
There's nice cinematography and good direction here. The dialog is generally clever and snappy. The musical score works well to accent the scenes with a sense of humor and some suspense.
The narrative could have been a little tighter. The relationship of Ireland and McCambridge takes a long time to define. The first 3/4ths of the film moves rather slowly, and the final 1/4 of the film seems too quick with too many twists. There are plot holes that stand out much more now than they probably did in 1951. For example, how did they know that Mercedes' laughing would set off the bad guy and cause him to reveal himself. Still, it is no more gimmicky than "Spellbound" or other Hitchcock psychological crime stories of the period.
If you're a fan of the 1950's-60's television show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" you'll probably enjoy this film a lot.
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