by A.J. Hakari
Exposing one’s self to the world entails two different levels of sacrifice. Not only does an actor, model, or the like surrender a degree of freedom once they choose to pierce the public consciousness, so do their admirers, who devote time and energy towards keeping up on their affairs. It’s easy to lose your way in pursuit of loving or being loved, a fate that’s befallen scores of those unfortunate enough to be trapped in a film noir narrative. The ensemble inhabiting 1953’s Vicki follows suit to an extent, yet the picture itself falls achingly short of fostering its tragic themes in a fashion that resonates with viewers. It talks the talk and passes with flying colors a good deal of noir’s technical prerequisites, but the story merely skirts the sort of sordid territory in which its brothers in darkness thrived.
Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) was inescapable. Glance at any billboard or flip open any magazine, and there she was, her enchanting visage beckoning you to buy whatever it was employed to sell. But now, Vicki’s received the biggest press of her life…only it’s for her death. A blow to the head put an end to Miss Lynn’s brief time on this earth, and Lt. Cornell (Richard Boone) is hell-bent on hunting down who did it. Out of the frenzy surrounding the crime scene emerge two suspects: publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and Vicki’s sister, Jill (Jeanne Crain). An intense grilling follows, during which the two profess their innocence while detailing the deceased’s rise from humble waitress to superstar in the making. But no matter how ironclad Steve’s and Jill’s alibis might be, that doesn’t cut it with Cornell, who couldn’t care less about how many innocent reputations he tramples over in his crusade to bring Vicki’s killer to justice.
Based on the same material that inspired 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming, Vicki endeavors to examine the ways in which obsession warps all it touches. No souls are off this flick’s hook, whether you’ve allowed yourself to be suckered by a pretty face or you’re the one letting your mug profit off the adoration of others. “If men want to look at me, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” inquires Vicki during her ascent into notoriety, showing just how swiftly even the most pure-hearted can be seduced by fame. All appears set for a sardonic exploration of some very rich, sinister themes, yet the story’s fear of painting itself in too somber of strokes ultimately undermines its efforts. Vicki is visibly skittish about casting the characters it eventually wants us to like in a negative light, as well as in trying to cast suspicion onto others. While the picture needn’t dive whole hog into depravity to be interesting, its shaky command of moral complexity makes it that much harder to appreciate what elements do click. It’s a recurring issue that comes into play as soon as the movie veers from its initial, Rashomon-esque set-up, which sees Vicki’s personality pieced together via accounts from people who knew her in different capacities. From the woman of the hour herself to those who witness her climb to the top, all manner of figures with multiple facets screaming to be expanded on come across as disappointingly by-the-numbers.
However, none of this is because of Vicki‘s actors, each of whom put forth as profound of a performance as the script allows. Foremost is Peters, who, despite her role not quite achieving the dominating presence that the story demands, exudes a genuine and undeniable charm. Hers is a grounded turn, one portraying Vicki as a sweet person whose gradual cravings for recognition are shown to stem from good enough intentions. Crain (1945’s State Fair) fares nicely as her supportive yet skeptical sister, Reid does a solid job as the rare PR guy in a movie who’s (seemingly) genuinely concerned about his client’s well-being, and Boone commits himself to filling Cornell with piss and vinegar to spare. There’s nary a sour note struck by anyone in this bunch (which also includes future TV mogul Aaron Spelling as a shady switchboard operator), but again, without a screenplay going that extra mile, the amount of dimensions so briefly addressed is downright disheartening. Plus, as if that weren’t enough, the film comes to favor a romantic bent that deals even more blows to what moody atmosphere it has to its name. Milton Krasner’s ink-black photography and the odd burst of acerbic dialogue reflect the relative doom and gloom that’s a tenet of any proper noir, yet the whole enterprise culminates in an ending far too sunny by genre standards.
Tonal gripes and nitpicks aside, Vicki is a perfectly serviceable thriller. The acting is sturdy, the cinematography maintains an ominous ambience, and not all of the notions the writing touches upon go by wasted or undeveloped. Vicki isn’t a bad flick, but get ready for the grand-daddy of echoes with how much room for improvement there is.
(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)