The Tattered Dress (1957)

The Tattered Dress (1957) is a small town courtroom corruption drama film noir which pits a supposedly corrupt New York lawyer against the definitely corrupt Sherriff of a small town California resort.

A mixture of commentary and caper, sexual molestation and revenge, domesticity versus barbarism and big city manners versus straight-talking small town mentality, The Tattered Dress (1957) is a combination of tropes, all of which are settled in courtroom scenes dark alleys and in the luxury homes of the wealthy resort dwellers.

A slick and effective tale of violence, corruption, foul play, conspiracy, lies and relentless vengefulness, The Tattered Dress evokes late film noir style. Not the obfuscous and stygian shadowy affair that might be typical of 1940s film noir, the evolved style fits the wider screen and the greater amount of light, almost anticipating the later life the movies would have on television, there are longish courtroom scenes which rely on light and not the indistinct flavours of light which make up classic noir.

Jack Arnold turned out to be a director for all styles. He seemed to be at home when making science fiction, western, or crime. The Tattered Dress is not a straight up crime film, but would be better classed as a thriller.

Some scenes even remind us of other Jack Arnold's films. When Elaine Stewart dives into a swimming pool and swims underwater we can evoke our fond memories of The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and seeing Jeff Chandler driving in the desert may bring to mind Tarantula (1955) and It Came From Outer Space (1953).

Encroaching predatory male hand in The Tattered Dress (1957)

After top lawyer James Blane gets an acquittal for a man who killed another man for sexually roughing up his trophy wife, the murderous town sheriff frames him for bribing a juror in the case.

It's an obvious first degree murder and leads to dark places, especially for Gail Russell who plays the bullied hateful witness upon whom the bribery and corruption falls. The idea behind the movie is that there are difficult secrets within us that we must face. Once confessed 

Blane has a reputation as a hot shot —  the phrase 'New York lawyer' does so much heavy lifting in this movie —  as much as the sexy sax that pipes up every time —  every time — every single time — that Elaine Stewart appears.

Blane basks in the glory of his legal fame although his celebrity and infidelity have estranged him from his wife, Diane (Jeanne Crain), and their children who stand as if in mourning at a train station for a short and forced cuddle with their father. 

Despite the sexy saxophones and small-town tough talk, the highlights of the film are packed into the courtroom scenes. Blane's tough questioning of crooked sheriff Nick Hoak (Jack Carson) leaves the poor sheriff embarrassed and angry and looking for revenge which he exacts by setting Blane up to make it look like he bribed witness Carol Morrow (played by Gail Russell), who has secretly been seeing Hoak.

The Tattered Dress is a movie of playfully confused morality. There is also a modicum of confusion over vestments also —  the dress of the picture's title is torn and not tattered, which seems a manifest fault from the off — but perhaps more urgently, the metaphor of the tattered dress itself seems to play out uneasily and less clearly in New York lawyer Jeff Chandler's closing courtroom speech. 

Chandler's character suffers as much as anybody else in The Tattered Dress (1957) — perhaps even more. It is supposed to be a picture about his suffering. He is supposed to be the one undergoing the cleansing transformation. He confesses to his faults in his closing speech and wins the movie. Gail Russell's character loses the movie as her bullied neurotic personality cracks under the strain of doing the wrong thing and she becomes homicidally manic, condemning herself by taking out the villain.

Jeanne Crain in The Tattered Dress (1957)

He does suffer the cleansing ritual of the small-town punishment beating, which is a rather nasty and effective part of the action. We have to assume that the beating is organised by nasty Sherriff Hoak — although we never receive confirmation of this. 

As film noir beatings go it's a pretty bad hiding. In the first this is probably because New York lawyer James Blane probably does not deserve it, but there is something final and realistic about the violence when he is pulled into the dark alleyway — small towns have these too — and bruised up.

Jeff Chandler in The Tattered Dress (1957)

It's not fair to talk about who deserves what in The Tattered Dress (1957). Probably the only decent character in the production is James Blane's wife, the seemingly long-suffering Diane Blane, played by Jeanne Crain.

Diane has an odd relationship with her husband. She waits at the train station dressed as if in mourning and with her two children, and her husband steps off the train, has an awkward conversation with her and then returns to the train — and leaves again.

Elaine Stewart in The Tattered Dress (1957)

When James Blane — 'New York lawyer' — is on trial in the small town where the law has run wild and everybody seems to be crippled by deceit, Diane stands by James, despite his rather cavalier attitude. The more desperate his situation becomes, the more valuable her succour and comfort are to him. 

The courtroom dramas of the 1940s and 1950s played out something significant. Some of the better examples from the 1950s included:

  • The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)
  • Rashomon (1950)
  • I Confess (1953)
  • Trial (1955)
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
  • The Wrong Man (1956)
  • 12 Angry Men (1957)
  • Paths of Glory (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
  • Libel (1959)

In noir the criminal is without doubt a metaphor for a dimension within the viewer, within the self, a dimension that may not be comprehensible to ourselves. Film noir often shifts the emphasis of criminality from the gangster or career criminal and into the public arena — responsibility and motivation are central film noir issues, and so what better place to hash these out than in the courtroom?

By the late 1950s the notions of the repressed self and the empty self were dangerously close to the surface of public life. Materiality in one respect forced this, but so did huge questions — the use of the atomic bomb — and so did the questions around alienation, a solid film noir theme.

Meaninglessness is often lurking as the cycle develops, and it was very much a post-war theme — encapsulated in one of the great works of the era — L'etranger by Albert Camus. What L'etranger reminds us is that the stylised drama and high emotions of film noir transforms the negative — self-dissolution, crime, infidelity, corruption, indecisions, and fateful misery — all transformed into a pleasurable experience. 

Jeff Chandler and Jack Carson in The Tattered Dress (1957)

Since most film noirs are based on dramatic action, including violence, and are largely detective stories, female gothic thrillers and melodramatic fantasies, there is not usually perceived to be much philosophical depth in film noir, and fans tend to avoid philosophical conclusions, preferring to immerse themselves in the mood and atmosphere of the films.  

Traditional narratives are however violated in the best of film noir, and these actions which tend to signify an ongoing critique of the US and its systems, its own narratives and its own achievements. In this sense there is a contrast between films noirs and the more traditional Hollywood movies, both those of the 1920s and 1930s and those somehow obscuring a true American culture, which is weakened and corrupt.

The melodramatic fantasies of film noir are precisely that — fantasies.

The people are small-town minded. The actual crime which kicks off the movie seems to be from the viewers' points of view a straight-up murder. See for yourself. A man tears a woman's dress — he does not leave it in tatters, this should be said.

Although the wife seems quite unbothered by this she drives home — these are the opening credits and the theme music for The Tattered Dress by Frank Skinner is incredible. The credits themselves lack a certain credible also, and propose a fantastic and fun set of possibilities — a woman with her back to the camera stands enjoying herself while a hand creeps up behind her and tears her dress.

The woman — the model — the object of the matter — she seems rather amused by this, as opposed to threatened. What are we to make of this? She fails to call the police but drives home, seemingly in a good mood.

Her husband is understandably unimpressed and takes the woman and his gun to track down the man who tore the dress, and without hesitation shoots him — and in front of not just the wife as witness, but others seem to be on hand to witness this too.

Jeff Chandler plays the 'New York lawyer' who gets this man off the charge of murder and this complex acquittal seems to be the impetus for the rest of the often peculiar action of the drama that follows.

Jeff Chandler in The Tattered Dress (1957)

'New York lawyer' rests in quote marks as it is a phrase that is used and used again in The Tattered Dress (1957). The phrase 'New York lawyer' begins as a byword for fancy-pants and snobbishly superior type behaviour, some of which Jeff Chandler's character James Blane has to offer. On the whole though, the phrase 'New York lawyer' is used and overused as a representative and catch- all terms for all the things that irritates small-town America.

It's easy to see why proficient and efficient lawyers irritate them however. Not only do they gun people down in the street around the precincts of the California resort town where all these flawed individuals reside — but they bribe and beat and manhandle and flirt, and perjure themselves and fix juries, and frame innocent New York lawyers — as well as jump them, manhandle them — and this is of course omitting that they tear and tatter dresses too — which is sexual assault.

Jeff Chandler and Jeanne Crain in The Tattered Dress (1957)

In the gritty embrace of the 1950s, Universal Studios boasted a dynamic duo of directors, each wielding their own brand of cinematic pulp. Douglas Sirk painted garish melodramas like Written on the Wind, while Jack Arnold, the maestro of the overtly pulpy, took the reins for Westerns and monster flicks such as Tarantula and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Enter The Tattered Dress, a venture where Arnold ventures into Sirk's territory, navigating a tawdry narrative crafted (or pounded out on a typewriter, as the case may be) by George Zuckerman. Zuckerman, the scribe behind Written on the Wind and the gripping scripts of "Dawn at Socorro" and "The Brass Legend," weaves a tale that might not be an unbridled success, but it sure is a riot to behold.

A woman alone in The Tattered Dress (1957)

Jack Arnold, ever enamored with desolate landscapes, weaves his magic in this arid tale. A canvas of lonely isolation unfolds, where passion and violence simmer beneath the scorching, dusty surface that deceptively appears still. Zuckerman's script may have its lulls, but director Arnold deftly maneuvers through them, swiftly ushering us to the occasional bouts of tension and violence that punctuate the narrative. In this rugged playground, "The Tattered Dress" unfolds, a spectacle that may not be flawless but is, undeniably, a rollicking good time.


The Tattered Dress (1957) on Wikipedia

Directed by Jack Arnold

Genres - Drama, Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Detective Film, Psychological Thriller, Courtroom Drama  |   Release Date - Mar 14, 1957 (USA - Unknown), Mar 14, 1957 (USA)  |   Run Time - 93 min.  |   Countries - United States

No comments:

Post a Comment