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Saturday, September 26, 2009


A tasty romance-slash-murder mystery with an outstanding cast, King Vidor's lightly noirish LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE (1951) recalls the days when a "woman's picture" didn't necessarily have to put male audience members into a stupor. With its opposing camps facing off across miles of wasteland, a man who may have been falsely accused of murder, and a woman whose love is clouded by fear and suspicion, it's almost like something Emily Brontë and Alfred Hitchcock might've knocked off together during a tipsy weekend on a West Texas dude ranch.

When New York stage actress Shelly Carnes (Ruth Roman) is ordered by her doctor to go West, she falls for a young man named Trevelyan (Richard Todd) whom she meets when they both take shelter during a storm. At the Tumble Moon Ranch she meets Liza McStringer (Mercedes McCambridge) and her crippled younger brother String (Darryl Hickman) and finds out that the reclusive Trevelyan has just been acquitted of murdering his wife after his second trial resulted in a hung jury. Liza, who clearly has a thing for him, was the jury member who kept him from being convicted.

Shelly and Trevelyan's next meeting leads to a whirlwind romance and a quickie marriage. But on their wedding night, Shelly's growing doubts about her new husband's innocence are confirmed when Liza admits to having witnessed the murder--and hints that the killer was indeed Trevelyan.

This is a good old-fashioned atmospheric thriller that's lean and well-paced. Simply yet stylishly directed by King Vidor, with good use of southwestern locations, the story is taut and suspenseful and never lapses into melodrama. The editing, except for a couple of curiously jarring moments, is noticeably good and the crisp black and white photography is a pleasure to look at. Master film composer Max Steiner contributes a robust musical score.

Mercedes McCambridge, with her natural and self-confident (and somehow peculiar) Method acting style, is fascinating to watch from her first moment on the screen. What an interesting young actress she was. She's subtle yet spellbinding during her long expository speech to Shelly, going about little bits of business around the kitchen in an offhand way and then deftly rolling a cigarette with one hand and lighting it as she delivers her dramatic exit line. After that I looked forward to watching the rest of her performance during the movie, and does it ever pay off before it's over.

Ruth Roman, on the other hand, gives a first-rate "movie star" performance as the affable and attractive heroine. Until recently I'd only seen some of her later roles (both she and McCambridge appear in the 1979 TV-Western "The Sacketts" as older and much more timeworn women) and never realized how cute and appealing she was in her younger days--she reminds me a little of Debra Winger. Her character is cocky and adventurous, yet vulnerable enough to make us want to take care of her during the dicey situations she keeps getting herself into. As the mysterious Trevelyan, Richard Todd is an intriguingly enigmatic romantic figure, managing to make us like him even as we're wondering whether or not he's really a murderer.

Appearing only briefly is Zachary Scott as Trevelyan's friend Harvey Fortescue Turner, an idle playboy who knows more about the murder than he's telling. Kathryn Givney and Frank Conroy are Myra and J.D. Nolan, wealthy ranchers who raised Trevelyan as their own after the death of his parents. Familiar character actor Rhys Williams plays the local priest, Father Paul, a reluctant witness whose testimony was damaging during Trevelyan's trial. Former child actor Darryl Hickman is effective as Liza's troubled brother, String.

Ruth Roman's femme fatale gaze from the cover of this Warner Archive Collection DVD is hardly indicative of her character, but it looks cool anyway. The full-screen image and English Dolby 2.0 sound are good considering that this burn-on-demand title, like the rest of the Archive series, isn't restored or remastered but simply transferred from the best video master in the Warner Brothers' vaults. This means that picky videophiles will probably cringe at some of the scratches and pops. I barely notice them, having gotten used to seeing much worse prints on TV and in theaters over the years. In fact, the less-than-perfect picture quality only increases the film's nostalgic appeal for me.

LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE is the kind of movie that I took for granted back when you could see this kind of stuff on TV all the time. Now that old black and white films are, sadly, a real rarity amidst a sea of infomercials and other cheap filler, getting to watch this classy thriller on DVD is a real treat.


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