The Velvet Touch (Jack Gage, 1948)

by Douglas Buck Volume 24 Issue 5-6-7 / July 2020 6 minutes (1435 words) 16mm chez Phil

Opening on a bird’s eye view across spectacular Broadway at night – illuminating the glitz and glamor, the surface presentation of myth and make-believe – with, just as suddenly, the street placards high on the city rooftops presenting the names of the hottest stars abruptly blinking off for the night (as the lively show-tune score quiets down to a single downbeat note) – the enveloping darkness ironically bringing forth the foreboding urban landscape (of the kind where many a noir tale unfolds), the camera now moving (ominously) towards a single city window where a glimpse of a heated conversation can be seen – and finally entering the room…

I mean, can there be any doubt that suspense master Hitchcock studied this visual flourish of an opening (and other similarly grandiose cinematic noir examples just like it) when he created his own introductory craning shot – no pun intended – into the hotel room where Janet Leigh’s tragically fated Marion Crane dresses after an illicit daylight triste with her secret love, on her way along a journey that will end in the most famous shower scene ever put to cinema at that old semi-abandoned roadside motel, run by that odd bird Bates fellow?

Joining the argument in the impressive theater office with wall photos and awards screaming of success (as does much of the film, taking place amongst the rich and celebrated of the theatrical jet set), the argument continues between two star-size narcissists — big time Broadway actress Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell) and her former lover and long-time producer (of the “You’re nothing without me, baby” variety) Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) – in which Stanton is trying to get out of her contract, but the jilted Dunning isn’t having it, threatening blackmail. With positively crackling dialogue so common to 1940’s cinema, humming along from the delivery by two seasoned pros, the scene builds and builds in intensity, with the actress feeling more and more trapped, culminating with a brilliantly staged and edited murderous act of passion; a knocked over lampshade on the floor spilling the room into shadows reinforcing guilt, a sublime exclamation point on a stunningly executed intro and set-up.

The scene that follows is also compelling, as our new murderer staggers, ghost-like (yet also theatrically ‘actor-like’) in a daze down the impressive corridors, through the long ornate hallways of the Broadway theater (with apparently the entire film’s vast interiors having been built from scratch on a back lot set), past the stages where the crew breaks down for the night, into the dressing room; a voyage for her to slowly reclaim her senses, to begin to try and hide her guilt behind the ‘star’ persona that she defines as her identity.

Now, THAT is what you call a gripping film noir opening! Yep, I know. I don’t need to say it, but I will anyway – they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

While the remainder of the film doesn’t quite reach the levels of the wild flourish of its opening, there’s more than enough to keep it captivating right until the final curtain call (and I mean that literally, as, no surprise, a final curtain call plays heavily into the story’s conclusion). A large chunk of the tale is remembered in flashbacks from the emotionally tortured Stanton (because, as us noir-aficionados know, nothing intrudes on the present like the past!), detailing the events leading up to the fateful tragic night, including meeting who she realizes is her great love – a man who naturally immediately becomes Dunning’s antagonist — the wealthy, suave yet playful architect Morrell (Leo Glenn), introduced in scenes with dialogue so playful and erudite they veer the film a bit incongruously into Howard Hawks-style sophisticated comedy territory (but that’s only temporary… the increasingly shifty eyed and jittery Stanton, her fear at being caught growing, define the present-day scenes).

Reinforcing the film’s noir credentials, there’s narrative doubling all about, equally contrasting and mirroring; not only are there the two rich men – Dunning and Morrell — out to woo Stanton, there’s the two producers out to nab the star performer for their next production – Dunning, the box office king of fluff comedy, and the much more artistic Peter Gunther (Walter Kingsford), through who the aging Stanton hopes to finally be treated as a serious performer. There’s two actress rivals revolving around Dunning, both past lovers, Stanton and the much more earthy – yet still not wholly rational (her constant attacks on Stanton for being self-involved and uncaring seem as much from jealousy than truth) Marian Webster (a nice turn by the reliable Claire Trevor) who still pines for Dunning… and is ultimately also blamed for the murder, while being quite sure who actually did it.

As with so many 40’s studio productions, The Velvet Touch is rich with character actor turns; along with the aforementioned Trevor, none other than the ‘fat man’ Sydney “The Maltese Falcon” Greenstreet shows up, bringing his usually engaging persona as the investigating policeman Captain Danbury, a charming officer so starstruck by the theater and its stars he doesn’t seem to quite notice how twitchy Stanton grows around him… or perhaps he does…. I’m still not quite sure and the film’s over…

Sydney Greenstreet with Rosiland Russell

Making sure the film doesn’t stay too long in the lighter romantic mode, the tale drops a shocking suicide that signals there’s no turning back for our guilt-ridden protagonist…. even giving herself up will allow for no real peace… no escape from the deeds of her past, even as she ironically delivers that last brilliant stage performance that guarantees herself respect.

It may not be a classic on the level of many of the much more celebrated films noir of that time, but the fact that the _ The Velvet Touch_ has as much to offer as it does (with those incredible opening scenes that not only skillfully set-up the entire narrative, but manage to cleverly, and with great panache, visually layout the themes of hidden secrets behind glittering surfaces) and yet is so barely discussed today, adds that much more fuel to the fire of film director and critic Paul Schrader’s contention of the 1940’s as the most consistently quality decade in Hollywood history.

As is his wont on these 16mm film projection nights, long-time founder of the continuing Montreal film series Le Cinéclub/The Film Society Phil Spurrell came forth with an additional little celluloid treat to the main feature, this time a 1953 segment of the long-running (a decade, to be precise) dramatic anthology “General Electric Theater”. Starring crime film regular Richard Conte, he of gentle voice and thuggish demeanor (and I’ve always found somewhat limited range for a actor who got as many parts as he did), with the apropos title “Eye of the Beholder”, the episode reveals itself as an interesting, surprisingly experimental (and even meta) “Rashomon”-style tale that starts with a possible murder of a gorgeous young woman committed by a feverish portrait artist (Conte) in his city studio… with the tale then immediately recounted chronologically in a sort of series of ‘memory’ flashbacks by a string of witnesses who followed the artist’s path that day to his studio (with each witness playing out their memory of what occurred, interspersed with them speaking directly into the camera of their perceptions of the artist as they were having them, in an inspired early television go at breaking the fourth wall).

A gruff, opinionated cabbie riffing in stream-of-consciousness form about betting and political rackets. A slick maître d’ overhearing the conversations of the privileged class at each table he serves. A busy-body building superintendent who suspects everyone of wrongdoing. And a practical landlord in a business suit. It’s a lineup of familiar characters (and character actors) that we’re used to seeing inhabit the iconic urban noir landscape, with each of them – as we discover by the end, when the entire tale is told singularly from the Conte character’s perspective – infusing their own biases and subjective perspectives into their memories, which leads to the entirely mistaken belief that a murder has occurred by a madman artist.

It’s a nice riff, a worthy little experimental 20 plus minutes — I guess the kinda thing you could get away with when you have to fill a half an hour each week — with a surprisingly unsettling and cynical underlying message (for network television, anyway) – that being you can’t really trust people’s perceptions and testimony… especially when murder might be involved.

Definitely worth a look.

The Velvet Touch (Jack Gage, 1948)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Volume 24 Issue 5-6-7 / July 2020 Buck A Review   film noir   rosiland russell   sydney greenstreet