Douglas Sirk, 1947
Starring: Lucille Ball, George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Boris Karloff
The “Poet Killer” lurks the streets of London, killing beautiful young women and sending letters and poems to the police, taunting them. After her friend has gone missing and is believed to be the latest victim, an American taxi dancer, Sandra, agrees to help. She is hired by Scotland Yard to go undercover due to her independence, resilience, and intelligence, and begins responding to wanted ads in the local paper looking for young, beautiful, and unattached women. She is assisted by Officer Barrett, her bodyguard, and stumbles across a number of unpleasant schemes, though is unable to find the “Poet Killer.” During the course of her adventures, she meets the handsome, charming Robert Fleming, business man and nightclub owner. Despite Sandra’s resistance, they fall in love and plan to marry, but Sandra accidentally finds evidence that Robert is the killer.
Though it is far from perfect, Douglas Sirk’s nod to film noir and the emerging serial killer genre is an absolute delight. To start with, it infuses a refreshing dose of comedy into a serious, often nihilistic and gloomy genre without devolving into satire. Though this has been on many comprehensive film noir lists, it isn’t really. There is a wonderful sense of German expressionist style and London is full of stark shadows, dark corners, and men with bad deeds in their hearts. There is suspense, scares, and melodrama, but overall this is downright fun and has an unambiguously happy ending. The noir elements mostly center on the fact that the film’s red herrings all reveal a seedy underbelly, a hint that the “Poet Killer” is far from the only evil preying upon the lower-class women of London.
The film actually bears some things in common with The Lodger (1944), another American-made film set in London and centered on a serial killer disposing of pretty young women. Unlike The Lodger, Lured successfully withholds the mystery until roughly the second half, which is unfortunately weaker than the Gothic, doom-filled opening full of beautiful cinematography and references to Baudelaire. Lucille Ball’s Sandra is ultimately simplified and dumbed down by the second half of the film, which is really disappointing. She began as an almost violently independent, cynical woman, and is reduced to a love-sick, hysterical damsel in distress and doesn’t even get a chance to use her gun (given to her by Scotland Yard). With that said, who among you could resist the silky, luxurious charms of George Sanders? Not I.
It is the cast that really makes this film such a treat. Lucille Ball was 36 at the time of production, far older than actresses typically cast in these roles and a scant few years away from the beginning of I Love Lucy. She looks great, with appropriately over-the-top lipstick and gowns, and adds an air of whimsy to the film without being too silly. George Sanders is excellent, as always, as he is in everything, though perhaps I’m biased because he’s one of my favorite actors. His presence here again reminds me of The Lodger, where he also starred as the male romantic lead (and detective in charge of the case).
Charles Coburn (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Heaven Can Wait) is wonderful as Inspector Temple and single-handedly saves the second half of the film. It’s also wonderful to see George Zucco cast as a heroic cop and Lucy’s sidekick; he’s typically remembered for his over-the-top villainous roles in Universal’s B-grade horror films of the ‘40s. He also has some lovely comic moments, namely when he and Sandra switch pistols and a recurring gag where he tries to find the solution to different crossword puzzles. And brace yourself – Boris Karloff has a fantastic cameo that plays up the horror elements of Lured. He plays a fashion designer gone mad, whose personal ad Sandra has replied to. He forces her to dress up in a gown he designed years ago and parade in front of a room of mannequins that he pretends are dignitaries and aristocrats. In a particularly hilarious moment, he calls a grumpy old bulldog, “Your Lordship.”
Finally, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Suspicion, The Ten Commandments) is a solid presence as Julian Wilde, Robert’s business partner and barrister. He doesn’t appear much in the first part of the film, but helps Charles Coburn rescue the second. There is a suggestion of the homoerotic in Wilde’s relationship with Robert (again, as in The Lodger, where the murderer is obsessed with his dead brother). They are business partners and roommates, constantly together. Wilde seems to take comfort in the fact that Robert’s flings are brief, varied, and good for business, which is why Sandra spells trouble in more ways than one.
Director Douglas Sirk rose to prominence in the ‘50s with films like Meet Me at the Fair (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). This is a departure from his reliance on melodrama (though it emerges in the last 30 minutes of the film) and will be a breath of fresh hair for anyone who finds Sirk to be too serious or sentimental. Lured is only out on a cheap, possibly out of print DVD. The film comes highly recommended, simply for its excellent cast and because it is so delightfully fun. Who doesn’t want to see Karloff chewing scenery, Lucy sleuthing around Victorian London, and George Sanders seducing with finesse and a certain predatory glee?