The Damned Don’t Cry
Movie Review by Curt Solash
At once, a great film noir, an expert crime adventure, often preposterous and frequently (unintentionally?) very funny.
* Warner Brothers
* Director: Vincent Sherman
* Cast: Joan Crawford, David Brian, Kent Smith, Selina Royal, Richard Egan, Morris Ankrum
A poor, working-class woman works her way up to what she thinks is a better life by becoming involved with a crime syndicate and comes to regret it.
I think only Joan Crawford, at the tender age of 45, could and would attempt to play a rags-to-riches gun moll in a role probably more appropriate for someone half her age. And only she could make it work as successfully as it does in “The Damned Don’t Cry,” a film as lurid, sleazy, kitschy, and entertaining as its title suggests.
Well into middle age, Crawford refused in real life (and in the movie) to mellow gracefully and in this take-no-prisoners role, she makes sure no one will doze or forget that she’s still quite a force to be reckoned with. She is also aided by a director who knew her well (they were having an affair during production), a script and pacing that sparkle, and first-rate co-stars who support her perfectly. The musical score is melodramatic and obvious and lets the viewer know as soon as the credits roll that all of this will be great fun, but by no means great art.
The opening sequence immediately engages the audience, as a lone woman driving in the middle of the desert at night is racing away from some unknown danger. We learn that this is the rich society matron, Lorna Hanson Forbes, of whom the authorities (the FBI, the IRS) can find no record. When she arrives at her parents’ home, we are taken to the beginning of the story by flashback.
Ethel Whitehead is a poor wife and mother ekeing out a modest existence in the oil fields, living with her brutish husband (Richard Egan) in her parents’ home. She doesn’t complain, managing the best she can with the poverty and hopelessness of her life, but when her young son is killed in an accident, she decides to leave and make up for lost time by starting over in the big city (There is a very effective scene of her sitting at the back of the bus enroute, her face all at once registering hope, fear, insecurity and vulnerability. Crawford, often underrated as an actress, very capably evinces all these emotions in the film, as well as confidence and self-scrutiny; she also does plenty of scenery chewing, lest we forget who she is.).
We admire and like her for her gumption and bravery. It should be noted, too, that the Warner’s make-up department, by eschewing cosmetics and emphasizing plainness at this point but never eliminating her sex appeal, have done an admirable job of simulating a much younger woman, Later on, there’ll be plenty of the Crawford polish and glamour.
Cut to the big city. Ethel rapidly graduates from cigarette counter-girl to clothing model to attending (with her nice-guy accountant boyfriend, Martin Blackford, played by Kent Smith) a high stakes syndicate meeting with a major crime mob. Using her keen intelligence and hungry ambition, she becomes mistress and moll of the mob’s boss, Dan Castleman, played with oily menace by David Brian.
She is given a new identity as Mrs. Forbes, an oil heiress, and is instructed to go to Las Vegas to spy on Nick Prenta, a mob member trying to usurp Castleman’s position (played by the hunky, if somewhat simian, Steve Cochran.). Not knowing that she will fall in love with him, she is followed there by the suspicious Dan who kills Nick and beats her severely in an exciting ambush sequence.
As she flees for her life, we are brought back to the start of the movie. Dan catches up with her but is killed by the police. She is reunited with the still loyal accountant but the film’s end leaves us wondering: Has Ether learned her lesson that gun molls have no right to happiness and she should accept her modest lot in life or will she try for more again?
Part of what makes the film so irresistible is that there is so much of the real Crawford limned into the character that it seems to have been done on purpose, almost with a playful wink to the audience. This film, like many of her others, is full of “Crawfordisms” such as screaming tirades, withering sarcasm, knowing smiles, etc. It may have been Joan herself who engineered this, since she attempted to take control of all her films from about the mid 1940’s on.
When Ethel tells Blackford that one has to claw one’s way to the top and stay there at any cost, that no one is going to look after us but ourselves, that Dan has offered her the world and she’s got to have it and “drain it dry”, it is basically the true Crawford talking. Like Crawford, Ethel is smart, knows the score, is intensely ambitious, angry and bitter about what she’s missed, discards man after man when they no longer serve her purposes, and gets what she wants the hard way. Of course, it doesn’t last long. Like Ethel, maybe the actress was left wondering at the end if it was worth the struggle.
We know that Joan Crawford was a desperately unhappy woman, angry and insecure, driven and severely determined, who had a decided taste for men younger than she (as are all the male protagonists in the film). The hard-boiled, predatory control freak she eventually devolved into left her an unfulfilled lonely alcoholic. Every fan of hers knows all of this (and much more since the publication of “Mommie Dearest” and knowing the “inside story”, as it were, and being “in on the joke” (if that’s what it is) increases the voyeuristic fun.
Although dismissed by contemporary critics as quite the tawdry comedown from her days as “MGM royalty,” this is a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. It’s a bracing film with solid production values in every department.
For someone like me, who loves this type of movie, and relishes Hollywood legend, warts and all, it is at once a great film noir, an expert crime adventure, often delightfully preposterous, and frequently (unintentionally??) very funny and more than a little perverse. Lay in plenty of popcorn and have a ball!
copyright 2019 CURT SOLASH
CURT LOVES OLDIES: Curt Solash dishes on the best and worst movies of all time
Curt Solash is a retired educator, an antique advertising collector and a lifelong cinemaphile from New York City who now lives in sunny Florida with his life partner.
Watch the trailer for "The Damned Don't Cry"