Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Hard Way (1943)

Directed by Vincent Sherman
Starring: Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson
Grade: B+

Rosalind Russell's pushy mother in Gypsy is perhaps the most abundant example of a parent wanting too much for her child. The Hard Way's Helen Chernen isn't a mother (at least not biologically-speaking) but treats the future of her teenage sister with a similarly half-maternal/ half-tyrannical fervour, making it top of her list of priorities and gamely shoving youngster Katie into the big bad world of showbusiness. Ida Lupino is this driven woman, and suitably conveys the exasperation of a thirty-something home-maker who can't really afford to give her sister the life that she wants. A high school photograph puts things into perspective: clad in grey drab and amidst a sea of girls in gleaming white dresses, Katie is a scruff, an ugly duckling, someone destined to end up enslaved in the same kind of monotonous marriage her sister is currently enduring. One of the few problems with the film is that it doesn't do enough in its early stages to back this idea up, and introduces a half-heartedly needless flashback framework that would return to detract from Joan Crawford's Possessed four years later.

Still, The Hard Way can't really be criticised for being this flimsy with the rest of its structure, since its 110-minute running time goes by in a breeze. It doesn't have the musical stop-gap's of Gypsy, nor the overbearing overtness of its themes on show, and while it's in danger of being bland on occasion The Hard Way does emerge as a more sly and knowing counterpart to LeRoy's film. Part of this is achieved through Lupino, who grabbed the New York Film Critics' Best Actress prize for this, giving an enigmatic performance; shrewd, unwaivering, solid, manipulative without any Joan Collins in Dynasty-style showcasing. Lupino leads her film while often in the background as the mousy manager to the charming Katie (Joan Leslie), and like a limpet at her side becomes frustrating in her coy assurance that her actions are all for the kid's well-being.

This stuff isn't ground-breaking, and you get the impression that The Hard Way has not aged well. It has a lot of style and tight characterisation but the waves of melodrama are anchored by plot devices that have been done to death since, and probably before, Vincent Sherman's film was released in 1943. Love triangles, forlorn husbands, and career betrayal all give The Hard Way that 'seen it, done it, got the t-shirt' feel, but if a thing's done well, how can you knock it? The film achieves more than most in that it convincingly travels years, dredging up characters more than once and alluding to just enough social environment without compromising the true compact melodrama of the piece.

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