Rhyming cinema

One thing I’ve had reinforced through watching the Rudolph Maté directed Robert Mitchum vehicle Second Chance (1953), is the total disconnect between Golden Age Hollywood movies and their posters. This is not a particularly egregious example, but still: ‘sky-high excitement atop a South American peak’ refers to scenes set and filmed in Mexico, and as frequently occurs, the female lead is put in a cocktail frock for the poster, even though she doesn’t wear one in the film. It was an era when studios believed that what sold movies was attractive dames, and men doing manly violence, so that’s what was emphasised on the poster, irrespective of the flick’s contents. Of course there was usually a lot of both those things in the films anyway, and Second Chance is not an exception. It’s probably not a movie you’ve heard of, unless you’re a particular Mitchum buff, as it was no more than a moderate success in its day, and it isn’t remembered as a classic now, but there’s a certain pleasure to be had from watching films of this era, even when they’re not the acme of the film-maker’s craft. The most extraordinary thing that one is reminded of is the extent to which film stars are now required to act, as though telling the story in hand were the most important aspect of their job. Back then they were expected to command the screen with their charisma, and to comport themselves in the ways proper to movie stars, which largely seems to have consisted in performing their gender, as though there was a present danger of men being mistaken for women and vice versa. In Second Chance Mitchum portrays a boxer, on tour in Mexico attempting to pursue his career without hitting anyone too hard, for fear of killing them as happened at some point previously in the US. The film was unusual in being shot mainly on location, and this lends its early scenes a gritty visual realism—or at least it does if you have some clue what to expect from an early 50s Robert Mitchum movie. However, when Mitchum gets some lines to say, the tortured, soulful, blue-collar, tragic hero we might be expecting turns out to be absent. Instead we get an urbane, diffident, manly movie star, with impeccable dress-sense, an eye for the ladies and an unwillingness to avoid any form of peril. The plot is eminently forgettable, and serves largely to afford opportunities for Mitchum and Linda Darnell to smoulder politely at one another, and to get all of the principal players into a cable car for an exciting denouement. Jack Palance is visually menacing and verbally plank-like as the bad guy, and only the supporting cast show any sign that they think there might be anything particular about their characters (although if they’re playing Mexicans they just ham it up). The climax certainly is exciting, and it must have looked pretty spectacular in 3D (this was one of the first commercial movies to be released in 3D), although the colour cinematography was absolutely beautiful as we watched it on streaming TV, and the 3D process would have ruined that. There’s really very little to say about this movie, except that watching it seventy-odd years after its release, it’s so full of unintended humour that it’s even more entertaining than it would be just on the basis of its stars’ extreme stylishness. There’s something refreshing about entertainment product that makes no attempt at naturalism whatsoever, an approach that I find infinitely preferable than the inept lip-service to verité paid by most contemporary commercial cinema. Second Chance is like a nursery rhyme in comparison: everything is in its place, playing its part, and criticising it for its lack of poetic subtlety would be to miss the point of it completely.

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