movie review: The Scarlet Hour (1956)

What did you watch: the 1956 film noir The Scarlet Hour

Finally! An actual film noir that was film noir and not some cop-out crime movie? Kinda.

The Scarlet Hour stars Carol Ohmart, who did not appear in a lot of movies compared to the other various stars from these reviews. But she stood out in movies she was in. Many were stinkers, but one, The House On Haunted Hill, is a classic on a few levels: the gimmick (emerg-o-vision, where they had a skeleton zipline down a wire in theaters during its showing), the star (Vincent Price), and Carol herself – a stunning bombshell who is either a victim or up to no good.

Carol plays Paulie, who is married to Ralph. Ralph is a busy housing developer, so busy that he hires Marsh to assist him. But Marsh also assists Paulie, by making out with her in lover’s lane. Paulie won’t leave her abusive and controlling husband Ralph, however, because Ralph is rich and she doesn’t want to be poor again. Anyway, they’re interrupted at lover’s lane (the kind at the top of a hill looking over a city – look, I’m from Chicago, it’s flat, we don’t get that kind of view here) and hide in the bushes, an opportunity to hear a trio of nogoodniks plot a robbery.

Ralph suspects Paulie is having an affair. He decides he’s going to rekindle their turbulent marriage by forcing her on an extended vacation (Dateline wasn’t a thing back then) and putting Marsh in charge of his business. Also, Ralph’s secretary Kathy has a serious crush on Marsh, and she’s thrilled for his promotion (and he brushes her off – geez, these meatheads in this movie, amiright ladies?).

Paulie decides the best thing to do is rob the robbers after the robbery. This lady needs an education. She steamrolls Marsh that this is their only chance. Maybe Marsh can get a new job what with how respected he is in the business and she can run away with him that way, they can make a clean break, but maybe “gainfully employed and being middle class while Marsh continues up another ladder of success” is not a guarantee for Paulie that she won’t return to poverty. Has she not heard of “risk management?” I mean, the ONLY way to get out of her situation is to steal from thieves?

Ralph figures out it’s Marsh that Paulie is seeing, and during a meandering evening with friends Ralph makes up some excuse to head back to the office to follow Marsh. But Paulie also makes up an excuse to ditch these friends, one who figures out that Paulie has a man on the side. Paulie & Marsh get to the block where that house is being robbed, and as Marsh confronts the robbers. Ralph shows up and starts beating Paulie. The robbers shoot at Marsh as he runs with their loot, and Paulie shoots Ralph. So, the robbers are about to take the fall for the murder, I guess.

So, now Marsh is truly in charge of the company, and he’s a guilty mess. They also can’t sell the jewels because of how profile both the murder and now the victim of the robbery is, now that the cops think the two are related. Like all other murder mysteries where there’s some kind of love tryst as a motive, the two survivors can’t see each other without drawing attention to themselves. Marsh is racked with guilt over the whole thing, and Paulie pines for him but can’t see him and has no support as the cops close in.

The man who owns the house that was robbed makes his way to Paulie’s mansion and confronts her about the robbery. It turns out the jewels are fake, and that he had planned the robbery to have them stolen and cash in on the insurance. He threatens her, since if anyone tries to sell those jewels the buyer will find out they’re not only from a well known collection but ALSO completely fake now, it’ll be easy to charge him with the scam. Paulie says if you want the fakes, go bother her unsupportive Marsh. After Kathy lies to the cops to give Marsh an alibi, Marsh decides he can’t be involved with Paulie or this scheme or drag Kathy into it, and leave town. That’s when the guy with the insurance scam shows up and grabs the fake jewels.

Well, I have to tell you, this should be exciting, and the movie looks great, but with this setup and confrontation, nothing happens. The movie just drags after the robbery. Paulie & Ralph’s friends are supposed to be some kind of contrast to their relationship, a wife who likes hanging around her businessman husband and just wants to have a good time socially. (I think they’re supposed to be some kind of comic relief, but they have zilch to work with.) Carol Ohmert is, um, a knockout, so at least you get to look at her. But otherwise, it’s a big nothing where there’s suspense and then threats and then (spoiler) everyone pretty much turns themselves in, with Marsh halfheartedly showing a little love for Kathy and Paulie witnessing it, heartbroken.

So, it’s noir, but nothing happens. Yeah, there’s no ironic death or just desserts. Plotlines of heavier noir films are less melodramatic, as Marsh, Paulie, and Kathy just lay their emotions on thick. Ralph’s a jerk, and Paulie pretty much shoots him in self defense. There’s some redeeming moments: the copy I saw looked fresh and every shot either in day or night is pretty clear (sometimes there’s degradation of the film before it makes its way to DVD or digital…or, they just had no money for lights, which also happens a lot). And, did I mention that Carol Ohmart is stunning? Like, jeez.

Check out The House On Haunted Hill sometime. It’s cheesy and the scares make zero sense in context of the movie, but it’s iconic of 50’s horror and one of the better Rifftrax episodes if you’re into that sort of thing.

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