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February on Fire: She Played With Fire (1957)

In the throes of winter, we lean closer to the hearth with this month's fire theme.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: There’s just something about an insurance investigator with an action-packed expense account. We don’t hear much about them these days; I don’t know if they still exist or if they’ve gone the way of so many other professions. This film centers around one of them, Oliver Branwell (Jack Hawkins), who is sent to look into a housefire that has damaged a valuable painting on Christmas Eve (should we have waited until December to unspool this drama?). Upon arrival he coincidentally meets Sarah Mortenton (Arlene Dahl), whom he had a brief affair with five years earlier in Hong Kong. Upon investigating another case, he encounters Vere Litchen (Greta Gynt) who happens to have the same painting in her home that was damaged in the fire. Before long, he runs into Sarah again, where they finally pick up where they left off in Hong Kong. Later he discovers her husband dead and their historic home engulfed in flames. He is (naturally?) suspected for the crime and has to race against the clock to clear himself and find out what exactly Sarah is involved in, especially when a blackmailer starts sniffing around for half of her husband’s insurance policy.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: He goes above and beyond the call of duty when he attempts to put out the raging fire with a single fire extinguisher.

RB: Those insurance investigators were a hearty lot, weren’t they?

SG: Hawkins is made out to be an attractive, masculine protagonist, though to my eyes he looks like someone's meaty dad prematurely aging due to too much drinking and smoking. By contrast, Dahl is model-esque and Gynt is a saucy minx, and they're much too attractive to settle for a boring insurance investigator.

RB: I can’t disagree with your comments about Hawkins, although he was 47 when he appeared in this film and had reached some level of stardom in the US due to his third billing in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) which I suspect may have had some bearing on Columbia’s decision to import this film, although he filmed this right before it (I welcome your comments if I am incorrect about this). In reality, he was a three pack a day smoker (according to Wikipedia) who eventually had to have his larynx removed. In his final roles, his voice was dubbed to cover his croaking voice. He died from complications during a surgery to attempt to insert an artificial voice box in his throat.

SG: How awful! I've been watching The Odd Couple lately and Jack Klugman had a similar career-ending cancer diagnosis and procedure that damaged his voice box. Luckily in his case it improved enough that he could work again and it didn't kill him.

RB: This is the sort of film that Arlene Dahl was made for, and she was well known for her cosmetics and lingerie company during this time as well. And yes, I do have to point out that your description of Gynt, an actor that I was completely unfamiliar with before, is completely accurate. I’m typically not a fan of UK imports, but I may be interested in seeking more of her work out. Purely for the aspect of film study, of course.

SG: Look for Christopher Lee in a small role as a guy with a black eye.

Hilariously, when Morton (Dennis Price) explains he is having an asthma attack, he takes a heavy drag on his cigarette to soothe it.

RB: I’m assuming that those were asthmatic cigarettes, using stramonium leaves. While I was vaguely familiar with the existence of such things, a Google rabbit hole that I went down told me that these were recommended and used in various forms until the 1990’s. These days, at least in the US, they seem to have gone the way of insurance investigators with action packed expense accounts.

SG: I suppose they once thought smoking tobacco had health benefits, so it shouldn't be much of a stretch to accept that people thought smoking another kind of leaf would be beneficial, but it just seems crazy.

"Well, crawl off to the appropriate place and be sick."

The most unnerving part of the story was when the couple's dog was taken from the apartment. Though they did not seem particularly shaken by this violation, it sent shivers down my spine.

Bernard Miles makes a big impression as the liaison for a blackmailer. He is somewhat bumbling and low-class, but with an intimidating strength and ease.

She Played With Fire is the alternate title for the novel Fortune is a Woman by Winston Graham, both monikers that screenwriter and director Sidney Gilliat disliked. Graham also wrote Marnie and was best known for the Poldark series.

RB: Gilliant may have disliked the title, but that was how the film was originally released in the UK. It received its current moniker upon re-release a year later in the US.

SG: Just as Branwell has an uncanny feeling when he looks at the manor on the hillside that he has seen the view before, I had deja vu in the scene where Branwell snoops around in the dark at the paintings in the hall trying to determine if they are fakes. Upon inspection of a stack of lobby cards included in an eBay lot years ago, I found that I have two cards from this film, including one of Branwell inspecting the paintings, something I forgot about when we chose this title.

The old house has a spooky austerity that reminded me of Rebecca or Dragonwyck. Cinematographer Gerald Gibbs gives Branwell's dream sequences an otherworldly quality that aids this feeling.

Harrison's Reports called it, "an involved but fairly interesting British-made mystery melodrama... The story depends on the long arm of coincidence and is too patly contrived to be entirely believable. On the whole, however, it keeps one intrigued and offers more than a modicum of suspense." I enjoyed the film too. Three stars.

RB: This is the sort of film that is competently made, but not particularly original or interestingly directed (although there are a few interesting shots), though it’s just fine in all of those regards. The screenplay was adapted by Frank Launder, who also directed films himself including The Blue Lagoon (1949), which we’ll be screening at our 2024 show. As far as this film, I didn’t expect to particularly enjoy it, but I thought all in all it was pretty good, and quenched my thirst for a film like this. It’s available on bluray from Kit Parker Films in a really nice transfer in their Film Noir Collection 3, which I recommend highly. Three stars.

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Thanks for this pleasing discussion of a modest and entertaining little thriller. You never go wrong with Jack Hawkins. And a nod to Mr. Bowcock for his amusing opening-remarks allusion to JOHNNY DOLLAR, one of my radio OTR shows. The remark made me smile.

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