“Slightly Scarlet” is one of a few color noirs from the 1950’s (Niagara, Leave Her to Heaven and A Kiss Before Dying to name a few others). A flamboyant Technicolor crime film loosely based on James M. Cain‘s novel, “Love’s Lovely Counterfeit,” the film stars bow-tied John Payne, and two succulent looking redheads, Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming.
Publicist Ben Grace (Payne) is a stooge for local underworld kingpin Solly Casper (Ted de Corsia). With an election coming up, Casper wants Grace to dig up some dirt on the anti-crime fighting mayoral candidate Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). It turns out the weak link in Jansen’s armor is his beautiful secretary June’s (Rhonda Fleming) ex-con sister Dorothy (Arlene Dahl) who has just been released from prison. Dorothy is beautiful, sexually promiscuous and a kleptomaniac. Ben however falls for June and double-crosses his boss. Casper decides to go after the crime fighting newspaper publisher Norman Marlowe instead, killing him. With pressure mounting from the police, Casper leaves town. Ben, a guy who seems to work both sides of the law, steps in to take over the rackets. He also ends up in the middle of a sexual fantasy with the two sisters hungering for him. It all comes crashing down in a dramatic conclusion when Casper returns to town with a vengeance coming after Ben as he previously promised.
Shot in lavish widescreen Technicolor, evocative of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas of the same period (Written on the Wind), the visuals though drenched in rich color are filled with dark shadows and actors with half-lit faces suggestive of the bleak black and white atmosphere relished in classic noir settings. This is all attributable to cinematographer John Alton who remarkably shot this lush color film as if he were using black and white film stock. Alton, a veteran of B noir classics like “Raw Deal”, “T-Men”, “Border Incident”, all directed by Anthony Mann, and “The Big Combo” was one of the most original and flamboyant DP’s working during this period.
Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl create their own style of heat, as the good sister (June) and bad sister (Dorothy), though one has to wonder how does June, a secretary afford a luxurious home and a maid too. Is she providing more than secretarial services to her rich boss Jansen? Both women are dressed in the tightest clothes imaginable accentuating their assets to the fullest degree allowable by cinematic law. Dahl has the showier role as the kleptomaniac and seductive younger needy sister. She is at times a combination of frightened, vulnerable, flirtatious and deceitful. Fleming is continually trying to protect her sister and her own desires, which seem to bounce back and forth between Ben and the kind-hearted Jansen. With their flaming red hair, the two ladies are convincingly believable as sisters. John Payne, as Ben Grace has the most ambiguous role in the film. His character seems to be all over the map, nice guy, criminal, double crosser. You never know for sure what he is going to do. Payne was in the middle of a second phase in his career. His first began in the 1940’s when he made a series of musicals (Tin Pan Alley, Hello, Frisco Hello) for 20th Century Fox. Later on, he re-energized and changed his image with a series of crime films (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) and westerns (Silver Lode, Santa Fe Passage). “Slightly Scarlet” also has one of the great character actors of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ted de Corsia as mob leader Solly Casper (what a great name!). Brooklyn born De Corsia will be familiar to many for his roles in such films as “The Lady From Shanghai,,” “The Big Combo,” “Naked City,” “The Enforcer” and “The Killing” (he is the cop who needs to pay off his wife’s medical bills).
Director Allan Dwan was seventy years old when he made this work and he would go on to make five more films before retiring in 1961. His first film was way back in 1911! In between, he made more than 400 films. The eternally constipated New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther once again proved his faulty judgment by trashing this film, calling Dahl’s performance laughable and the film “an exhausting lot of twaddle.” While the film is not in the same class as Cain’s previously adapted to the screen works such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “Double Indemnity”, this is an entertaining, if not quite a classic piece of work.