Saturday 1 October 2016

Movie Review: Dishonored Lady (1947)

A psychological crime drama, Dishonored Lady has some interesting themes but is severely frustrated by a low budget cast and an inability to explore its scandalous topic.

In New York City, Madeleine Damien (Hedy Lamarr) is a high-powered executive at a glossy fashion magazine. She leads a glamorous night life and is the subject of attention from various men, including fellow magazine executive Jack Garet (William Lundigan). After starting yet another affair with filthy rich jewelry executive Felix Courtland (John Loder), Madeleine finally hits a wall and attempts to kill herself. Psychiatrist Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky) rescues her and starts treatment sessions, asking her to confront her lascivious lifestyle.

Madeleine abruptly leaves everything behind, moves into a nondescript apartment and embarks on a new career as a fledgling painter. She meets and falls in love with young doctor David Cousins (Dennis O'Keefe), but he knows nothing of her past. Eventually Madeleine's old and new loves and lives collide, and she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, Dishonored Lady is slightly disorienting: it's a film both ahead and behind the times. For a 1947 production, the courage to tackle the topic of nymphomania is laudable, as is the natural introduction of psychiatry, a field still in its infancy in terms of public exposure. But the end product is also about 10 years behind in terms of a cinematic experience. Filled with awkward and unnecessary close-ups of Lamarr and shouty performances more suitable to the early talky era, Dishonored Lady has aged poorly despite its progressive subject matter.

Stevenson and screenwriter Edmund H. North (adapting a play) are tightly handcuffed by the moral police of the era, and are unable to dance around the censors. The central premise of Madeleine's sexual promiscuity is watered down to the point of silence. Her conversations with the psychiatrist Caleb ignore the elephant in the room while groping in the dark for things to say without causing offense. It's an unfortunate handicap for a film clearly willing to take on a controversial topic but comprehensively lacking the deft touch to properly test the limits.

The courtroom scenes come late and exemplify much of what is good and bad about Dishonored Lady. Madeleine willing to punish herself is an intriguing topic worth exploring in a better film, but the awkward trial mechanics and lack of judicial logic defy belief and undermine any good intentions.

Also hindering enjoyment is the underwhelming support for the game Lamarr. She is surrounded by a stiff cast of B-listers, the likes of Lundigan and O'Keefe getting by on towering masculinity and good looks, but unable to do much in terms of actual acting.

Brave but hampered, Dishonored Lady is a clumsy curiosity.

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