Monday, March 18, 2013

Over-Exposed (1956)

Over-Exposed is included in Sony’s Bad Girls of Noir boxed set, but its claim to noir status is pretty slender, as indeed is its claim to being a Bad Girl movie. This 1956 Columbia production does have some hard-boiled elements however and noir fans might well find it to be worth a look.

Lily Krenshka (Cleo Moore) is about to be run out of town after a notorious clip joint is raided by the police. As she leaves the police station a photographer snaps her picture. She demands to get the photo back and the photographer tells her if she comes around to his place later he’ll give it to her. Lily is nothing if not cynical and she’s pretty sure she knows what he has in mind. But she agrees.

The elderly photographer, Max West, turns out to be a nice old gentleman even if he is perhaps too fond of the bottle. He takes pity on Lily, who has two dollars to her name, and offers her the chance to earn a few bucks posing for him. No, not for those sorts of photos, these are quite innocuous bathing suit calendar shots. He tells her she could make big money as a model but Lily decides that’s a mug’s game. Once your looks start to fade you’re finished. She figures the place to be is behind the camera, not in front of it.

Max takes her on as his assistant and teaches her photography. Before he leaves him he offers her one last piece of advice. She’s never going to make it as Lily Krenshka - why not change her name to something more euphonious? How about Lila Crane? Thus Lila Crane is born.

Lila discovers that making it as a professional photographer is a lot tougher than she thought. But eventually the breaks come her way. A year later Lila Crane is the hottest young photographer in the city, and very rich. She has gained a reputation not only as a great photographer but also as an exceptionally ambitious and ruthless woman. Ironically it is when she tries to do something decent that her world comes crashing down on top of her. Given her reputation for ruthlessness no-one will believe her.

Whatever slender claims this movie has to being a noir comes mostly from the fact that Lila is fundamentally decent but she has a fatal flaw in her character - her excessive love of money and her inordinate ambition. This will propel her into the noir nightmare world. In his sense she does fit the mould of the noir hero. You could even argue (although this is probably stretching a point very far indeed) that the femme fatale who brings her down is herself, or rather the Lila Crane she has created.

Modern audiences are likely to view this movie very differently from audiences in 1956. They are likely to try to misread it by seeing Lila as a feminist heroine, a woman making it in a man’s world. They are likely to view her ambition as being entirely a good thing, but to do that destroys the movie. It’s not that Lila is portrayed as a monster. She is ruthless and she has few friends, but she is fiercely loyal to the friends she has. And while her ethics are slightly slippery she does have ethics. There are some things that Lila would never do, and it’s that loyalty and that essential decency buried beneath the hard-boiled ambitious surface that are the keys to the film.

Lila’s reporter boyfriend Russ (Richard Crenna) also presents a problem. He thinks she’s prostituting her art and that she should be working as a news photographer. In fact Lila’s career as a successful fashion photographer is a considerably more decent way of earning a living than his way. But in 1956 reporters were still seen as heroes (yes it was a very long time ago). If anyone is prostituting themselves it’s him, but that’s another pitfall that a modern viewer is likely to fall into. To appreciate the movie you have to accept its premise that reporters are decent human beings. I know it’s hard, but you have to try.

Cleo Moore does well as Lila, presenting her as a woman torn between love and ambition, and between ambition and decency. Lila is hard-boiled and cynical but there’s enough decency within her to make a character we can care about.

The DVD presentation is 16x9 enhanced and looks great. The only extra is a trailer.

Over-Exposed is unable to escape its B-movie roots. The plot is rather contrived, sometimes too much so, and it’s no masterpiece. Cleo Moore’s performance makes it worth bothering with. Worth a rental if you don’t set your expectations too high.

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