When I think of film noir fatales, Jane Russell is not necessarily the first name that springs to mind. Known mainly for her singing and comedic talents, as well as her voluptuous figure and coal black mane, Russell nonetheless made her mark in the realm of film noir, appearing in three features in two years – His Kind of Woman (1951), The Las Vegas Story (1952), and Macao (1952).
The first of Russell’s noirs, His Kind of Woman, focused on an exiled syndicate boss, Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr), who hatches a plot to assume the identity of professional gambler and ex-con Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum). Offered a cool fifty grand to leave the United States for a year, Dan travels to Mexico to await further instructions, where he encounters a motley crew of characters, including pretentious film star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), a former Nazi (John Mylong) who spends his days playing chess with himself, and Russell’s character, Lenore Brent, a singer posing as an heiress. Lenore and Dan manage to find time to fall for each other as Ferraro furthers the execution of his nefarious plan, and when Dan is forced aboard Ferraro’s yacht, Lenore enlists the assistance of the movie actor to help save her man. All’s well that ends well when Cardigan storms the boat, Dan kills Ferraro, and he and Lenore wind up together in the final reel. Although Russell was a visual treat in her lavish, form-fitting gowns, the film did only moderate business at the box office and was slammed by critics – the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune labeled it “nonsensical melodramatic hodgepodge,” and the critic for the New York Times – while noting that Russell was “strategically sheathed in some opulent gowns” – rather nastily (and unfairly!) blasted the film as “one of the worst Hollywood pictures in years.” It was no classic, certainly – but it was lots of fun.
Next up for Russell on the shadowy side of the screen was The Las Vegas Story, where she appeared as a former Vegas singer and wife of a wealthy businessman (Vincent Price, again) who is desperate to raise a large sum of money to cover his role in an embezzlement scheme. On their way to Los Angeles, the Russell and Price duo, Linda and Lloyd Rollins, stop off in Vegas at Lloyd’s insistence, where he tries to use his wife’s pricey necklace to rack up some cash at the gaming tables. Meanwhile, Linda visits one of her old haunts and encounters her former lover, David (Victor Mature), now a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department. As the sparks fly between Linda and her old flame, the action elsewhere heats up as well – we learn that a private detective (Brad Dexter) is trailing Linda and Lloyd. Linda gets kidnapped by the detective, a helicopter chase (!) ensues, David kills the detective and saves Linda, and the two former loves head off in the sunset together while poor Lloyd faces a future marred by multiple embezzlement charges.
Another box-office disappointment, The Las Vegas Story fared even worse with the critics than Russell’s first noir – the kindest review appeared in Variety, where the critic stated, “Mature and Miss Russell take advantage of an occasional bright piece of dialog tossed their way, but overall can’t do much with the characters.” (Yes, that was the kindest review.)
In her final noir appearance – and my personal favorite of the three – Russell played (what else?) a singer, Julie Benton, who has recently arrived in the “quaint and bizarre” East Asian colony of Macao, along with Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), an ex-GI wanted for murder in the states, and Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix), a New York detective posing as a salesman. Although Julie filches Nick’s wallet shortly after their first encounter, the two soon fall in love and find themselves embroiled in a complex series of events focusing on Trumble’s efforts to arrest a local gambling house owner for murder. Panned by critics as “conventional,” and “routine,” Macao was nonetheless highlighted by an exotic setting, more than a few memorable verbal exchanges between the characters, and first-rate co-stars including Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter, and Thomas Gomez.
Once billed as “Mean! Moody! Magnificent!” Jane Russell may not be remembered for her brief sojourn into the dark world of film noir, but she demonstrated during her lengthy screen career that she was more than just a pretty face and an enviable physique. It was perhaps co-star and longtime pal Robert Mitchum who best summed up her lasting appeal and innate talent when he said, “Jane Russell is an authentic original.”
And she was.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of Shadows and Satin, a blog devoted to her two cinematic passions: pre-Code Hollywood and the film noir era. She has written two books on film noir, Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and is the editor-in-chief of the bimonthly, hard copy film noir newsletter, The Dark Pages