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Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

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