If I were to say that Vincent Price is the actor most synonymous with horror, I think I would get very few arguments. His name alone conjures skeletons, torture devices, and fiendish plots. Price won the blackened hearts of fear fans everywhere with his mellifluous voice and elegant approach to barbarity. But as wonderful as his fright flicks are, we often forget that Price was a fairly successful actor long before he haunted a single house. In 1938, he began his movie career as a leading man and spent the '40s as a character actor. During that time, Price flirted with the macabre. From a stint as the translucent hero in The Invisible Man Returns to his performance as a treacherous patroon in the gothic Dragonwyck, Price always seemed the type who preferred a coffin to a bed. His full potential wasn't realized until 1953's House of Wax, but the Merchant of Menace always relished a good murder.
Since this month hath been dubbed "Noirvember" by the cool kids on social, I thought I'd shine the spotlight on the film noir of Mr. Vincent Price. Before he was a known ghoul, he was a reliable suspect. Sometimes he was guilty, sometimes innocent, but he was always delightfully slimy. Because the Dark Prince of Cinema made so many noirs, I've limited myself to five must-sees. These fearsome five are films I think will please lovers of the grim, regardless of the genre. The monsters are missing, but the murder and madness remain. Light yourself a cigarette and enter the shadowy world of film noir with Vincent Price as your guide.
"A STRANGE AND DANGEROUS EXPERIMENT IN LOVE AND MURDER!" That's the way one print ad described Laura, and it's not far from the truth. Less about murder and more about the aftermath, Laura is the twist-laden tale of the eponymous Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), a successful Madison Avenue executive killed by a shotgun blast inside the doorway of her apartment. The ensuing investigation involves an assortment of oddballs that includes mercurial gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), penniless Southern gigolo/Laura's fiance Shelby Carpenter (Mr. Price), and Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the detective who falls in love with the dead woman. As the viewer begins to piece together the plot, a shocking detail is revealed that changes the entire nature of the mystery. What is it? Well, you'll just have to watch the film to find out!
Laura is considered by many to be one of the defining works of noir. Though the film lacks the shadows generally associated with the genre, its relentless cynicism and lurid themes exemplify the prevailIng attitude of noir. Laura is a film with the appearance of Hollywood glamour but the soul of a pulp novel. The central mystery unravels in such an ingenious manner that I wouldn't dare spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it. David Raksin's immortal score is as haunting as it is lovely, and Otto Preminger's direction is flawless. It's endlessly quotable, funny without overdoing it, handsomely designed, and thrilling to the last second. In short, Laura is pretty darn neat!
Much has been said about Clifton Webb's performance as the charmingly arrogant Waldo Lydecker, and with great reason: he gets the best lines and walks away with the film in his pocket. However, I feel that Vincent Price does a remarkable job with a less showy part. Far from the supervillain we all adore, Price is a more pathetic sort of wicked here. The parasitic Shelby Carpenter desires wealth but prefers not to work. While he may be a contemptible playboy, Shelby fancies himself a gentleman. Even when portraying a character as sleazy as Shelby, nobody plays a gentleman better than Price. Due entirely to Price's undeniable charisma, we never hate Shelby quite as much as we should.
Vincent Price considered Laura to be the best film he ever made. While I certainly agree that it's great, it was very nearly perfect. Vincent Price was meant to sing "You'll Never Know" during a party scene in what surely would've been a glorious moment in human history. Some say he even recorded the tune. If that's true, then it's been lost to time. A recording of the song eventually appeared in the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, but Vincent Price had nothing to do with that. If you are lamenting the loss of a musical number by young Vinnie, fear not! Price was given a chance to sing in an earlier picture, The House of the Seven Gables.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
If you aren't paying attention, it's easy to mistake Leave Her to Heaven for a grand love story. Successful author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets the ethereal Ellen Berent on a fateful train ride. In no time at all, the two fall in love and get married. Everything is hunky-dory... except that Ellen Berent turns out to be a dangerous sociopath. Willing to do anything to achieve her goals, Ellen commits murder and more to possess Richard. As things escalate, it becomes evident that even death isn't enough to stop Ellen.
Filmed in stunning Technicolor, Leave Her to Heaven is one of the most gorgeous films ever made. The fact that the scenery is so breathtaking makes the atrocities committed by Ellen all the more shocking. Ellen's unspeakable cruelty poisons lush, romantic settings. Director John M. Stahl was something of a predecessor to Douglas Sirk (Sirk remade two of his films, three if you count Interlude), but he proved here that he has more than a little Hitchcock in him.
Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent is possibly the most terrifying villain in '40s cinema. Fully human and equally monstrous, Ellen is a complex creation who's warmly passionate one moment and despicably cold the next. She's both Snow White and the Evil Queen. The way Tierney effortlessly shifts from false compassion to pure menace is just incredible. It's no wonder Tierney was nominated for an Oscar for this part. Without spoiling too much, Tierney will absolutely turn you against paddle boats.
Vincent Price is absent for most of the film, but he makes an absolute feast of the final ten minutes. Once again, Price plays the former fiancé to Gene Tierney, but he's afforded more dignity this time. He is Russell Quinton, the jilted district attorney who serves as the prosecutor at a rather significant trial. I won't say much about the trial, but I will say that it is a showcase for Price, who hams it up spectacularly. Price was playing unpleasant parts at this point, but he wasn't yet the dastardly figure he would later become. It's in the next film on the list that Price began to show his devious side.
Shock…Now that's a title I really dig! And the plot is just as good! In this fright-heavy suspense yarn, Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) arrives at a hotel to meet her husband Paul (Frank Latimore), a returning prisoner of war who had been assumed dead. After a night of uneasy dreams, Janet goes to the hotel's balcony, where she witnesses a murder in an adjacent suite: it's Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price) in the living room with the candlestick! The sight of such brutality sends Janet into shock. (It's just like the title!) When Paul discovers Janet in a catatonic state, he takes her to see a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist? Dr. Richard Cross. Now with the one witness to his crime under his care, Dr. Cross does everything he can to convince the world that Janet is insane. Good Lord! *choke*
How's that for a premise? If it had just another corpse or two, this would be a proper horror film. The expressionistic nightmare sequence that opens the film would give even Dr. Caligari the creeps! There's thunder, lightning, inky shadows, and more than a few lunatics. While the film never quite reaches classic status, it's a fine B-movie with plenty of old-fashioned chills. With just a few alterations, this could've been an all-timer. Heck, if the rest of the film were as eerie as the opening, it would've been there!
Shock is not a movie many people talk about, but it did make one important contribution to cinema. As I said before, Price mostly played unlikable characters but not outright evildoers before this point. With Shock, the future horror icon graduated from feckless fop to Vincent Price: Evil Mastermind. Though Dr. Cross often battles his avenging conscience, he is a true blue villain, killing and gaslighting his way through the entire picture. Ever charming as always, Price is as smooth as he is sinister. Here, we see a preview of the killers, monsters, and mad doctors Price would be known for. For putting Vinnie on the path of darkness, Shock deserves some recognition.
The Web (1947)
Vincent Price continues his mean streak in The Web, a mystery movie rich with suspense and intrigue. When Brash attorney Bob Regan (Edmond O'Brien) is hired as a bodyguard to businessman Andrew Colby (Vincent Price), he shoots and kills a housebreaker (Fritz Leiber) on his first night, a man who just so happens to be a former employee of Colby's. Reagan is acquitted, but something feels off. Reagan investigates the matter only to find himself caught in... The Web!
In addition to the previously mentioned players, the stylish Ella Raines is here and wonderful, but she isn't the femme fatale that the posters make her out to be. A Machiavellian Price perpetrates all significant evil. Like Shock, this picture is another major step towards Price's run as cinema's most venerated villain. But unlike the last film, Price's Colby never has to wrestle with morality. He's mannered and witty, but he's a real bastard! In this one, Price makes your blood boil, and you absolutely love him for that. Colby is a proper scumbag, which is exactly how I want my noir baddies.
His Kind of Woman (1951)
The last film on my list is also the one that inspired it. His Kind of Woman has all the shadows and low camera angles we associate with film noir, and it even stars celebrated genre icon, Robert Mitchum. It's so much a noir that it almost feels like a spoof, often by design. At one moment, it's a two-fisted crime caper with unbearable tension. The next moment, it's a wacky slapstick comedy. By far, it's the strangest film on the list, but that doesn't really hit you until Price takes over.
On the surface, it seems like a traditional crime drama, albeit a rather pulpy one. Professional gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) is down on his luck and desperate for a break. When he receives a mysterious offer to leave the country for $50,000, he accepts. Milner gets a $5,000 advance and is sent to a Mexican resort called Morro's Lodge to await further instructions. There, he meets a collection of eccentric characters, the most important being famous film actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price) and his girlfriend, Lenore Brent (Jane Russell). In a strange turn, Milner learns that notorious mobster Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is looking for a new identity: his. Aided by a shifty plastic surgeon, Ferraro plans to steal Milner's face long before John Woo released his first dove.
His Kind of Woman is a zany movie, and its troubled production certainly explains it. Director John Farrow turned in what he had believed to be the finished film. When RKO boss Howard Hughes (yes, that one) saw it, he ordered extensive re-writes, re-casting, and re-shooting under uncredited director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Fleischer was coerced into the project when Hughes threatened not to release the film he had just completed, The Narrow Margin. To make a long (and bizarre) story short, Hughes loved the Vincent Price character and wanted more of him. While the film's expensive production/post-production lost money, I feel it was worth it in the grand scheme of things. Hughes was right: Vincent Price is an absolute gem in this one.
Of all the non-horror performances of Vincent Price, this one may be my favorite (Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective aside). Initially, you believe that Mark Cardigan will be a sniveling Shelby Carpenter-type, but he actually gets to be the hero, in a demented sort of way. Cardigan is the ham of hams: a theatrical, game-hunting, Shakespeare-quoting nut who seems to think he's in a movie (which is technically correct). When mobsters arrive, Cardigan dons an opera cape and goes after them like the Lone Ranger. He's a scene-chewing psycho, but he's also weirdly noble. For the first and final time, we see Vincent Price: Action Star.
Vincent Price is always at his best when it seems like he's having fun. He had the ability to wink at the audience without disturbing the reality of the film. As Mark Cardigan, Price seemed to be having the time of his life. Boisterous and majestic, Price plays a cartoon version of himself that's dignified but still hilarious. You wouldn't expect this from a film noir, but His Kind of Woman is genuinely funny, and Price is entirely responsible. Price would eventually play another self-deprecating part as a ham in Theater of Blood, though it's interesting to see him do that just a few years before he became a pop culture sensation. Why, they even went as far as to make him an amateur chef, just like the man himself.
Our dear Uncle Vinnie has appeared in countless films and guest-starred in just as many TV shows. Not all of them are horror, but Price brought his inimitable charm to them all. Whether a monster movie or film noir, Vincent Price appearances are always priceless.