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When the ultimate Nicholas Ray clip reel is assembled, Hot Blood (1956) won't likely be on it. But if the lurid gyrations of Cornel Wilde's gypsy heir apparent and Jane Russell's tempestuous arranged bride are preposterous, they're at least never boring. They often seem at a loss for what to do and how to do it, not surprising in a film that began as a serious attempt to render American gypsy life in almost ethnographic terms, but veered into a misbegotten musical. Ray consulted Frank Loesser, fresh off the filming of Guys and Dolls (1955), but the only evidence of it is the way Wilde wears his straw fedora in a cocky Frank Sinatra-Sky Masterson mode. Still, Hot Blood is a heady swirl of tutti-frutti excess propelled by reds, oranges and purples into the primitive expressionist universe that was meat and drink to Ray.
The trouble here is that he didn't digest much or drink deeply enough. Part of Ray's indecisiveness about where to take the film stemmed from the fact that he was simply tired, still drained by the unforeseen effort of completing Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Ray didn't even stick around for the film's final editing. Coming in at a trim 86 minutes, it may not have much to say, but at least doesn't take long to say it as it lurches through a plot in which Wilde's American urban gypsy prodigal playboy is shaped up by the jolting news of the impending death of his older brother, gypsy king Marko, played by Luther Adler in a far more detailed and thought-out way than the leads.
Bringing to the role a gravitas that is nowhere else matched in the film, Group Theater pioneer Adler almost overcomes the fact that he's fundamentally miscast. Yet his focus and intensity come close to justifying rebel Ray's insistence on casting him against type. Wilde's Stephano is on another plane entirely, bulling ahead with crude vitality, convincing us that he'd make a terrible successor to his able older brother. Crashing crudely through the role, he's headstrong, heedless, warped by sibling rivalry issues, a creature of the moment, utterly devoid of the skill set and shrewdness it takes to steer the gypsy community through an unwelcoming environment determined to marginalize them. This would seem to be rich psychic turf for Ray, with his innate sympathy for -- and identification with -- marginalized outsiders in They Live by Night (1948), Knock on Any Door (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950) before Rebel. Wilde even gets a speech denouncing stereotyped views designed to keep gypsies disenfranchised.
But the thorough research of Jean Evans into gypsy life as a submerged subculture in Manhattan was jettisoned except for accurate depictions of wedding and other ceremonial scenes. We are not talking Tony Gatlif and Latcho Drom (1993) here, or even King of the Gypsies (1978). But we could have been. Still, it was the film's Vincente Minnelli-like embrace of studio artifice that the French New Wave picked up on and celebrated. Jean-Luc Godard lauded its gaudy colors. Francois Truffaut praised its devil-may-care vitality, soft-pedaling the fact that the vitality is mostly visual. In place of veracity and conviction, it offers exuberance and visual extravagance, with the less said the better about cameraman Ray June's pan from Russell's face to her ample bosom where the camera remains for a few more than telltale seconds.
Russell is the reason the film was pushed through. Ever since she stole The Outlaw (1943) from Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday with a roll in a haystack that caused the Howard Hughes film to be banned and make oodles of money, Russell was America's pre-Marilyn Monroe sex goddess. But Hot Blood was her fifth film in thirteen months. She had produced and starred in a demanding musical made in Europe, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, quickly segued to The Tall Men, and was, by her own admission, exhausted, spending her lunch hours in restorative steam baths. She liked working with Ray when he took over for fired director Josef von Sternberg in Macao in 1952, but in her autobiography says she didn't give him or Wilde much.
Her fondest memory connected to the movie had to do with getting small parts for her brothers. Jamie played her brother in Hot Blood. Wally played the gypsy king's right-hand man. Still, she's fiery when she has to be, which is most of the time, starting with her entrance, when she's bailed out of jail by the gypsy king who has arranged her wedding to his brother. She throws the desk sergeant the first of her many smoldering glances and snaps, in spitfire fashion, "Just one little fortune I told in Peoria!" Nor does she bat an eye in what we now would cringingly dismiss as unacceptable brutality during a whip dance with Wilde and other bits of I'm-the-king-of-the-gypsies-and-I'm-the-king-of-you sexism. She delivers more spark than she perhaps realized.
In a role without shadings, Wilde delivers nothing but vitality. As a young fencer good enough to make the US Olympic team, the New Yorker of Czech-Hungarian ancestry switched to acting, was discovered on Broadway as Laurence Olivier's Tybalt (and fencing instructor) in Romeo and Juliet, and enjoyed a successful film career as a swashbuckler and in crime melodramas. Ironically, his command of body language as a fencer didn't translate to the dance numbers, where choreographer Matt Mattox served as his dance double. Other piquant bits of casting include Russian diva and vocal coach Nina Koshetz as a gypsy stalwart and, to give you an idea of the music's detour from original gypsy sources, it was supplied by easy-listening king Percy Faith, with songs by Armenian composer Ross Bagdasarian, famous for his hit, "Come on'a My House" (recorded by Rosemary Clooney among others). Both were rewarded with small roles, as gas station attendants. Speaking of which, Wilde has a snazzy entrance, too in an aquamarine Thunderbird convertible accessorized with a blonde behind the wheel. Jacques Demy would have died for it. Hot Blood suffers from an identity crisis indicated by its succession of prior titles No Return, Tambourine, Bad Blood. But it never suffers from tired blood. For all its problems, it's easy to succumb to its wacky non-stop verve.
Producer: Harry Tatelman, Howard Welsch
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Jean Evans, Jesse Lasky, Jr.Cinematography: Ray June
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Les Baxter
Set Decoration: Frank Tuttle
Cast: Jane Russell (Annie Caldash), Cornel Wilde (Stephano Torino), Luther Adler (Marco Torino), Joseph Calleia (Papa Theodore), James H. Russell (Xano), Nina Koshetz (Nita Johnny), Helen Westcott (Velma).
by Jay Carr
Bernard Eisenschitz (translated by Tom Milne): Nicholas Ray An American Journey
Jane Russell: My Path and My Detours