12 March 2008 | dglink
Lana and Company in Entertaining Melodrama
Adultery, murder, blackmail, and Lana Turner, what more could one ask of a Ross Hunter production? Perhaps a good script, but that would spoil the fun. "Portrait in Black" will have lovers of camp in stitches at dialog that makes daytime soaps seem Shakespearean. The overwrought emoting and melodramatic scenes are often unintentionally funny, and the plot requires Olympian leaps to cross the credibility gaps.
Lana is having an affair with Anthony Quinn, the doctor who is attending her terminally ill husband, Lloyd Nolan, a shipping magnate. Nolan's company, Cabot Lines, is evidently quite successful, because Lana's daily expenditures on wardrobe, coiffures, and makeup would likely sink a ship. The couple's palatial San Francisco home is a Ross Hunter fantasy whose upkeep could sink yet another Cabot Line vessel. Nolan's daughter from a first marriage, Sandra Dee, evidently has her stepmother's taste in clothes and manicure, while the son from his marriage to Lana has to make do with a toy airplane. Throw in a greedy business associate played by Richard Basehart; Dee's suitor, John Saxon; a chauffeur, Ray Walston; and a housekeeper, Anna May Wong; and you have a delicious cast of potential suspects to populate an Agatha Christie mystery. However, "Portrait in Black" is not a whodunit, but rather a "who knows they dun it."
Lana is the ultimate drama queen, and she is in peak form. She suffers, she screams, she cries; she is the empress of high camp. Anthony Quinn, who should have read the script before he signed the contract, plays down to his part and seems to know he has had and will have better parts. Sandra Dee appears to be studying for future Lana Turner roles, while Walston and Wong play their parts with the necessary ambiguity to keep viewers guessing their secrets.
However, despite the overacting, bad writing, and soap opera direction, "Portrait in Black" is great fun for those who love their melodramas with big budgets and great style. Even the obligatory mirror smashing has been incorporated. The movie is enormously entertaining for its sometimes howlingly funny situations, absurd lines, and the sheer pleasure of watching Lana looking and emoting at her best.