Thursday, March 11, 2010

TWO OF A KIND (1951)

Of the four films in Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's new Bad Girls of Film Noir Vol. 1 collection, only one, The Killer That Stalked New York, is listed in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward's "encyclopedic" reference book on noir. Has Sony unearthed some deeply buried treasurers for restoration to the noir canon, or are they selling us a bill of goods? Moving on to the second film in the set, chronologically speaking, Henry Levin's Two of a Kind looks promising up front. It teams up two noir icons, Edmond O'Brien and Lizabeth Scott, in a hard-boiled tale of a scheme to sell O'Brien as a fake heir to a fortune. It starts off very hard-boiled. After looking for a likely subject across the country, Scott, conspiring with lawyer Alexander Knox, recruits O'Brien from a Bingo hall. He's an orphan, a grifter, a fighter and a sort of a war hero, an irresponsible sort except in a pinch. His recklessness matches Scott's ruthlessness. He's game for easy money even though it means getting the tip of one of his pinkies amputated to cinch his resemblance to a rich old couple's long-lost boy. He's got to do it the hard way, too. He can't just waltz into a doctor's office and say, "Cut that for me, will you?" He's got to mess his finger up so the doctor has to operate. That means letting Scott slam her car door on his doomed digit. He takes it like a trouper, though.

What would you rather do? Check other people's Bingo cards or get the tip of a finger lopped off on the chance of inheriting a fortune? Ask Edmond O'Brien in Two of a Kind.

One virtue of this script by Lawrence Kimble and James Gunn is that all our schemers are smart cookies, O'Brien included. They know better than to plant him on the old folks' doorstep in a bassinet. Instead, they work their way in through a relative, the couple's comely niece (Terry Moore) who's a friend of the Scott character. O'Brien is just a friend of a friend, taking his time and letting Moore notice the pinkie and ask questions about his past. Our hero enjoys taking his time, or making time, with the girl, and Scott finds herself feeling a little jealous.

Terry Moore is plenty tempting but too much of a "screwball" for O'Brien's taste. Howard Hughes thought differently, of course.

When Moore finally introduces O'Brien to the old man, his approach is a masterpiece of reverse psychology. He tells mostly the truth about his legitimately disreputable past and expresses profound skepticism about possibly being the old man's kid. Of course this makes the codger all the more impressed with O'Brien's sincerity, while a more rehearsed scene with the old lady appears to seal the deal. The old man tells the lawyer that he'll recognize O'Brien as his son, but adds that he'll leave the lad nothing, fearing that wealth would steer him back on the wrong road. Learning the news, O'Brien is resigned, Scott incensed and Knox murderous. A nice twist here is that, come the crisis, it's not the grifter nor the femme fatale but the weaselly lawyer who turns bloodthirsty, determined that his employer should meet an "accidental" death and somehow end up intestate, leaving it to Knox to divy up the estate to his satisfaction. O'Brien and Scott draw the line at homicide, but with all the dirt Knox has on both of them, what can they do?...

While Two of A Kind is a good, entertaining little hard-boiled comedy-drama, noir it is not. Stylistically, it doesn't come close. As for the story, in a way it's too hard-boiled to be noir, because in noir people hurt. In this film everyone's too smart to get hurt (except intentionally, of course, when you have a chance to make money from it), and the one character who gives in to a compulsion is the one least capable of carrying out his intentions. In the end, O'Brien and Scott are too intelligent to give in to temptations, unless you count their attraction to each other. I honestly didn't see the story developing that way from the first ten minutes. In a way, it was a charming surprise, with the leads doing some of their most likable work, but it is a bit of a cheat to have this film in a film noir collection -- though it's still far more worthy than the set's other Scott movie, Bad For Each Other. Both films are included solely because Scott is in them and is, career-wise, a Bad Girl of Film Noir. But don't hold Sony's sales tactics against Two of a Kind. It's not noir, but it's not bad, either.


dfordoom said...

I'll watch Lizabeth Scott in just about anything, and I like Edmond O'Brien. So this one sounds pretty good to me.

I think Lizabeth Scott's best noir wasToo Late For Tears - have you seen that one? Now that has to be the ultimate Bad Girl movie.

Tom said...

Lizabeth Scott is still with us.

Samuel Wilson said...

d: I have seen Too Late For Tears and it'd certainly be a competitor for that honor.

Tom: That's a fact I'm happy to acknowledge. She'll turn 89 this year.

Sam Juliano said...

You make a convincing case here that this film does not qualify for the noir label. I don't hold this against Sony, as it's true what you say here about it being a decent effort. But there are so many other noir titles to unearth, it almost seems a shame they are giving this precedence. As always, a no-holds barred critical account!