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As the 1950s rolled in director King Vidor's brilliant but eccentric pictures became much more eccentric than brilliant. The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry break down into interesting patterns of dynamic visuals, even as their overheated dramatics are impossible to take seriously. 1951's Lightning Strikes Twice forms a link between King Vidor and Douglas Sirk's delirious women's pictures. Faced with a gimmicky, far-fetched storyline and inconsistent characters, Vidor still manages to make the movie highly watchable, even enjoyable.
The script by Lenore Coffee (Sudden Fear, Old Acquaintance, Beyond the Forest) twists the basic idea of Rebecca into a filmic pretzel. A reprieve frees sullen and temperamental Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd, seriously miscast) from prison, where he was awaiting execution for murdering his wife. He returns to his Arizona environs but hides out from suspicious neighbors and meddling friends. Showgirl Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) arrives by bus to take a cure on a dude ranch, and finds herself used as bait by rich neighbor Myra Nolan (Kathryn Givney) to get Richard to come forward. Shelley meets the mysterious Richard on a dark and stormy night, and stays on at the home of Liza and String McStringer (Mercedes McCambridge & Darryl Hickman). While hiding the fact that she's made contact with Trevelyan, Shelley learns that Liza has unrealistic romantic notions about him. Local Father Paul (Rhys Williams) speaks in Richard's defense, while elitist lounge lizard Harvey Fortesque Turner (Zachary Scott) makes his own romantic moves on Shelley. Why won't Richard come forward? Is he really in love with Shelley? What are these people doing out here in this godforsaken desert?
With cameraman Sid Hickox providing a dramatic desert storm to drive the lovers together and composer Max Steiner double-underscoring every visual, Lightning Strikes Twice overpowers its star Ruth Roman, a talent who had definite erotic possibilities in earlier work (like The Window) but too often played unemotional women on the sidelines, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. If the weather or the weird landscapes don't steal attention from Ms. Roman's efforts, director Vidor allows her supporting actors to shamelessly hog the stage. Oily Zachary Scott is for the umpteenth time a slick-talking upper-class weasel one wouldn't trust to wash a car. He's given line after line of witless, unfunny "sophisticated" dialogue that Ruth Roman is obliged to find charming. Scott's Turner enters late and then takes his place among other red herrings, as Shelley angles to discover who killed the first Mrs. Trevelyan.
Back at the McStringer ranch Mercedes McCambridge comes on as if in a Greek tragedy, chewing the scenery as if she ate adobe walls for breakfast. Normally the highlight of any picture she's in, McCambridge does her best to animate yet another character that needs to deceive the audience for the plot to work. Her brother String (String McStringer?) is a cripple, allowing Darryl Hickman to basically repeat his role from Leave Her to Heaven. With this many red herrings the movie begins to ripen early on ...
Shelley and Richard find time to work up a heavy-breathing secret romance, meeting on dangerous cliffsides and holding rendezvous on horseback. In a desperate effort to make Richard seem dangerous, the script has him strike out at Shelley, only for us to discover that he's after a scorpion on the bed next to her. Literal lightning bolts remind us of the title's promise that Shelley will be put in jeopardy. On the other hand, Shelley's very effective nighttime desert drive in the wind and rain makes our imaginations run to creepy thoughts of Hitchcock's Psycho, still nine years away. When she stands in a desert storm listening to the wind noise from the Warner Bros. sound effects department, we keep expecting a giant ant from Them! to appear. Now that would explain what happened to wife #1.
Apparently someone got the idea to set the melodrama in the post-war tumbleweed sun belt, where a number of wealthy Easterners did retreat to enjoy the affluent 1950s in style. But their haunts tended to be picturesque spots like Sedona, not the bleak wasteland seen here. Communities out in the middle of nowhere were built around mining or construction areas. Henderson, Nevada in the late 1960s was blue collar, bleak and depressing, and the main business of the day was avoiding the 120° degree temperatures and staving off hordes of red ants (normal ones). The sight of these swells dressing for the Riviera and keeping liveried servants is pretty amusing; only movie stars would behave this way. Lightning Strikes Twice also does no favors for the local Indian and Mexican-American population, who predictably form a group of smiling simpletons that have little reason to exist except to serve the fancy folk.
Lightning Strikes Twice moves well and has a strange surprise or arresting image every few minutes or so. Vidor was a very dynamic director and we can see it in his choice of angles and his blocking. He also communicates some of the strange isolation of the location. But get ready to smile at the overcooked, sometimes hysterical acting and the big fuss made over a fairly simple mystery ... the picture is a camp hoot from one end to the other.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Lightning Strikes Twice is a terrific retransfer of another WB title allowed to sink into obscurity. King Vidor fans will find plenty of directorial touches to admire, and devotees of wildly mismatched talent will want to analyze why so many of the characters seem to be acting in different movies.
A trailer tries to make it look like Richard Todd's character is a maniac on the loose. Lightning Strikes Twice gets an A+ for dramatic weirdness.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lightning Strikes Twice rates:
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