powered by AFI
A rare attempt at film noir from an unexpected source, Lightning Strikes Twice (1951) is a not entirely successful, but nevertheless fascinating film that boasts deft directorial touches from the great King Vidor, and a compelling performance by the intense Mercedes McCambridge.
New York actress Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) travels to a Texas dude ranch for a rest cure, and meets Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd), whose trial on charges of murdering his wife has just ended with a hung jury. Suspicion still surrounds Trevelyan, and one of his staunchest supporters, Liza McStringer (McCambridge), who served on the jury that cleared him, implies that the wife got what she deserved. Several other characters apparently also had reason to want the wife dead. In spite of what she's learned about the murder, Shelley is drawn to Trevelyan, and their mutual attraction leads to some startling revelations.
Working at Warner Bros. in 1949, director King Vidor had turned Ayn Rand's screenplay of her right-wing polemic novel The Fountainhead into a sexy, delirious melodrama, giving it great visual panache, and exploiting the very real sexual heat between co-stars Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. The studio was happy enough with the film to offer Vidor a contract for two additional films, and the director was satisfied enough with the experience to accept. His follow-up, Beyond the Forest (1949), Bette Davis's final film in her Warner Bros. contract, was a less felicitous experience, and both Vidor and the studio were eager to burn off the final picture in his contract, Lightning Strikes Twice.
Raymond Durgnat's and Scott Simmon's study, King Vidor, American calls Lightning Strikes Twice "Vidor's fullest attempt at film noir," and quotes Vidor as saying that the film "'turned out terribly' owing in part to casting problems, but primarily in part to his own temperamental ones," but does not go into details. Vidor himself did not discuss the film in his autobiography, or in his oral history for the Directors' Guild of America.
Perhaps the casting problems refer to Richard Todd and Ruth Roman, both of whom are rather bland and lack chemistry as the romantic leads, or to Zachary Scott, who has little to do as yet another sleazy playboy. The British Todd seems uncomfortable as a westerner, and is never particularly menacing. And those aren't the film's only issues--there are also glaring inconsistencies in the script (how did a close friend of the accused end up on the jury?). But there are two idiosyncratic and very good performances in Lightning Strikes Twice that make it compulsively watchable.
The film was Mercedes McCambridge's first screen appearance since winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a hard-bitten political aide in All the King's Men (1949). As Liza, she is edgy, secretive and moody. The Cosmopolitan critic wrote of her performance that she "commands your attention every second she is on the screen and makes you miss her every second she's off." The same critic also had praise for Kathryn Givney's sly portrayal of a manipulative businesswoman and close friend of Trevelyan: "Under King Vidor's searching, accurate direction, she plays, with the liveliest craftsmanship, a string-pulling matron who succeeds in bringing the various elements and moods of the mystery together."
Variety's review was generally favorable for Lightning Strikes Twice and its director. "Film has suspense and movement, along with good character development, to keep it always interesting....King Vidor overlooks no bets to keep suspense tight and the real culprit cloaked right up to the finale." Variety also liked the film's production values, saying the film "wears a realistic western dress. The physical values help carry the aim for thrills and chills." Parts of Lightning Strikes Twice were shot on location in Victorville, California on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and the scenes of the upscale Trevelyan ranch were shot at Vidor's own ranch in Paso Robles. His visual style emphasizes character, but can be flamboyant when he needs to highlight the drama.
The "temperamental" issues alluded to by Durgnat and Simmon may have to do with the nature of film noir itself, which is bleak and hopeless, in contrast to the optimism of many of Vidor's best films. Throughout his long and varied career, he maintained his fascination with the quirks of human nature. As film historian David Thomson wrote of Vidor, "No other American director of his time is more engaging or less easy to pin down...He could handle so many genres while retaining such a vibrant sense of the oddity of people."
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Lenore Coffee
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: Thomas Reilly
Costume Design: Leah Rhodes
Art Direction: Douglas Bacon
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Ruth Roman (Shelley Carnes), Richard Todd (Richard Trevelyan), Mercedes McCambridge (Liza McStringer), Zachary Scott (Harvey Turner), Frank Conroy (J.D. Nolan), Kathryn Givney (Myra Nolan), Rhys Williams (Father Paul), Darryl Hickman (String), Nacho Galindo (Pedro)
by Margarita Landazuri