Design of the times: A critical review of “Manhandled” (1949)

Some thrillers are more famous for how and when they show than what. For example, the 1955 pulp crime drama “Kiss Me Deadly” is remembered for its bleak atmosphere and foreshadowing neo-noir cinema, but also for its snapshot of mid-century Los Angeles architecture. Within 15 years of the film’s release, a chunk of the downtown LA it displayed had been torn down, but it’s still accessible on screen.

It seems surprising that 1949’s “Manhandled” is not thought of in a similar way. Late Art Deco style drips from every corner of the screen. It’s in the costumes, the sets, the props, even the glossy marble walls behind the characters as they absentmindedly wander around. It’s a period designer’s dream, maybe even an “American Gigolo” for the 1940s. It also features a truly novel cast. Lead actors Sterling Hayden and Dan Duryea made their share of film noirs, but co-star Dorothy Lamour was known for Crosby/Hope comedies, not thrillers. You also get Alan Napier – TV’s Batman’s Alfred – and Keye Luke – Charlie Chan’s number one son – in smaller roles.

So if “Manhandled” has stylish production values and an unusual cast. However, it’s usually just mentioned in passing, a footnote in the review of some other noir. Why is that? Probably because it’s a mediocre movie.

It starts moodily enough. “Manhandled” begins with a man getting a handle on his dreams (seriously, what’s up with that title? The poster is great, but it’s an absolute lie). He tells his psychiatrist he has a recurring nightmare about murdering his wife. Harmless enough, until she turns up dead. The husband is the number one suspect, but things get more complicated when his dead wife’s jewels go missing. The police, an insurance investigator and a private eye are all looking into the crimes, but some of them are more connected to things than they appear.

The plot of “Manhandled” is… haphazard. There’s just a lot going on. It’s not bad stuff, but did we really need all of it? The film opens like it’s going to be a psychological thriller about dreams and repression. That’s great. This blog loves weird old movies like that. But then it transforms into a routine heist drama about fencing jewels. That’s OK, I guess, but it leaves me wondering where all the psychological themes went. Then the movie decides to bring some of them back by cramming them into the climax in the midst of bad lighting. That’s not good. There is a hint of nonlinear storytelling. That could have been pleasantly surprising if it weren’t poorly executed by the script, and hindered by choppy and awkward editing.

It doesn’t help that the film completely abandons some of the elements and characters from the psychological thriller part of the movie. Even when the film is done with them, questions remain. If “Manhandled” was supposed to be a heist picture, why bother with the psychoanalytics at the start? What about those dreams? What happened to Alan Napier’s head? Either way, in the middle of a gritty crime film, do we really need a running gag about filling out paperwork for new brakes on a police car?

I actually have similar problems with Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” which feels like a psychological crime drama for the first half and a police procedural for the second. Two things make that film easier to forgive. The first is it had the sense to stick with the new genre once it switched its narrative focus, so the tone felt more consistent. The second is it’s an Akira Kurosawa film. “Manhandled” is not.

There are some nice touches, however. The direction, by co-writer Lewis Foster, is professional. The cinematography, by Ernest Laszlo (who worked on the aforementioned “Kiss Me Deadly”), is sometimes quite striking in a film noir sorta way. The performances are mostly what they are, although Duryea, as the low-rent and gum-smacking private detective, is charismatic and fun to watch. Ain’t he always though?

If you’re still reading, you might be here for the design. Art direction was by Lewis Creber and set decoration by Alfred Kegerris, both of whom had some mysteries and thrillers under their belts. Edith Head is listed as a costumer. That probably had something to do with it too. I didn’t even realize it was her until after the fact, when I had been so struck by the outfits I had to see who had worked on them. I’m not sure I can stress that enough. I had never seen a movie I where was captivated by Alan Napier’s pajamas or Dan Duryea’s shirt and tie before, but I have now. I just wish that movie itself had been a more consistent thriller.

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