CLEO MOORE in “On Dangerous Ground”
When I think of supporting actress candidates, I don’t really have a problem including performers whose roles are essentially cameos, maybe even just one scene. Not if the impression they create in those few moments has the power to really resonate. “On Dangerous Ground” is an electrifying little Nicholas Ray noir. It’s dressed up with a swirling Bernard Herrmann score. One that grabs you by the throat from the credits on. -but never fights the picture, just elevates an already impressive vehicle. Robert Ryan stars as a fist-happy cop. Not a stretch, maybe, but there’s no denying he’s awfully good at it. Yet it’s Ray’s use of his supporting cast that really startles. In a genre known for colorful side characters, “On Dangerous Ground” is especially well-cast, each player utilized to terrific effect. Tired detectives waiting for their pension, barflies, bookies, crones and stool-pigeons - all seem vivid here, flesh-and-blood rather than stereotypes. Following a lead, Ryan
ends up at a rundown apartment building, looking for the girlfriend of a dangerous suspect. Cleo Moore turns out to be that girl – and when she answers the door, the temperature shoots up. Wild-eyed, gleaming with perspiration, prowling around the place in a loose kimono, she looks like June Haver just back from a trip to Hell. Disturbed and reckless. The voice is breathy and it's intense, getting the most out of some insinuating dialogue. Those insinuations seem to point to masochism and nymphomania. And behind closed doors - to get information out of her – Ryan apparently gives her what she wants (which seems to be rough sex). It’s clear that when her boyfriend finds out she’s talked, the consequences for her are likely to be lethal. But Ryan couldn’t care less. She’s just a disposable means to an end. Moore was a brand new face in ’52. And though there were plenty of other good-looking blondes on the scene, for sheer carnality - major voltage - there was no one to beat Cleo Moore. Next to her, the Mamie Van Dorens and Joi Lansings were just pretend. The major studios may not have been able to handle Moore’s undiluted sizzle.
But Actor/director Hugo Haas was quick to notice her. She became his muse, starring for (and often with) him in a string of lurid – but highly effective – B’s with titles like “One Girl’s Confession”, “Bait” and ”Over-Exposed.” Moore’s extremely sexy (and pretty terrific) in all of them. Where’s that Cleo Moore/Hugo Haas box set?
VIDA HOPE in “Women of Twilight” (U.S. title “Twilight Women”)
With a few exceptions even top tier British films got limited exposure in the U.S. in the early 50’s. Low-budget quickies like “Women of Twilight” barely saw the light of day. Certainly American reviewers rarely bothered with them. But the DVD age has revealed the depth and breadth of British cinema from the era, most of it largely unseen on this side of the Atlantic. “Women of Twilight” ’s no masterpiece. But it’s got a kind of “Caged” vibe –which is to say it’s chock full of actresses. Good ones. A pre-fame Laurence Harvey pops up briefly early on as a crooner/gigolo , disreputable cause of one girl’s downfall. But for the most part the film’s fully focused on the ladies and gives all of them a chance to run with the material. It’s not a prison film, but it does place its characters in a closed, claustrophobic and pernicious environment. Freda Jackson’s the hissable villain of the piece. Think Jeanette Nolan with a malevolently cultured British accent ,a sprinkle of Sondergaard and a dash of the Wicked Queen from Disney’s “Snow White”. She runs a boarding house, ostensibly to help unfortunate girls, but actually to exploit them . The girls, are mostly in one sort of trouble or another, mainly unwed mothers. A pre-Moneypenny Lois Maxwell is the latest, most vulnerable addition to the group. The other roles are divvied up between an assortment of skilled British character actresses. The kind that probably learned the ropes from the ground up in repertory theatre. Including Rene Ray (an important star in the 30’s), now very effectively projecting a sad-eyed older but wiser glamour - plus the priceless Dora Bryan, as a good-natured over-the-hill trollop who cheerfully asks the others to leave the window open a crack so she can get in after her nightly prowl. But best of all is Vida Hope. Born in Liverpool barely a generation ahead of the Beatles, her name’s hardly remembered now. But she was a terrific talent. Given half a chance, Hope was usually splendid. As in the Brit noir classic “They Made Me a Fugitive”, where she sends out memorably strange vibes as a woman with her own twisted reasons for harboring criminal on the run Trevor Howard. An eminently resourceful actress, Hope knew how to make an impression in more down-market circumstances, too. The ’55 British B “Marilyn” is a bottom of the bill quickie – an unofficial riff on “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Sandra Dorne, the closest thing Britain had to Cleo Moore, has the Lana part. Vida’s her obsessively devoted bff – that is, until she thinks she’s been betrayed. Then – watch out! In “Women of Twilight” she’s the villainess’s right-hand woman. Coarse, sloppy, hot-headed and mouthy one minute, quietly conniving the next. In the end, she’s not quite as evil as Jackson. But it’s an awful lot of fun watching her push everybody’s buttons. When I think of the performances I enjoyed most from ’52, I inevitably remember Vida Hope in “Women of Twilight”. She’s plain faced and chunky. Nobody would have been offering her the Kim Novak parts. But – as a performer – she was genuinely gifted. Unfortunately Vida Hope died young (at 45). Definitely the kind of character actress whose years of peak accomplishment would probably only have been beginning at that age. Had she lived, it’s likely she’d have left us with a lot more performances to admire. Possibly even some Oscar nominations. As “Women of Twilight” proves, she was certainly good enough.