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Long before we learned to love Lucy as TV's first sitcom goddess, Lucille Ball soldiered away in Hollywood, learning her craft in scores of movies, starting in 1933 as a Goldwyn Girl with Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, Ann Dvorak and Virginia Bruce. Often she was uncredited in those early days. Lured (1947) was her 73rd movie, made while she was a freelance actress. Transplanted from its original Parisian setting (and Robert Siodmak's 1939 French policier, Pieges) to a Hollywood backlot version of London, it's a potboiler revolving around a sassy American taxi dancer who allows herself to be used as bait by Scotland Yard to trap a serial killer of women he meets through classified ads in a newspaper's personals column.
There's something of a borrowed Jack the Ripper atmosphere in the early shots - cobblestoned streets, gaslights, fog, visual cues of nocturnal dangers. It's a less than top-of-the-line movie made with impressive craft and style by Douglas Sirk, who had not yet become Hollywood's poet of bourgeois entrapment in misery-generating social roles. Ball is in fact billed second to George Sanders, who three years later was to peak as the disdainful drama critic in All About Eve (1950), in which he dryly and famously introduced newcomer Marilyn Monroe as a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts. In Lured, he runs a London version of the Copa, softening somewhat his usual impression as a walking sneer, partly because he was cast as the romantic interest for Ball's Sandra Carpenter. He can't marry her fast enough after falling under the spell of being dissed by her, in contrast to all the other women in his life, who yearn for the smallest crumb of affection or interest from him. Or perhaps it was that he had already begun thinking himself into his next role, the cavalier King Charles II in Forever Amber (1947).
Either way, it's interesting to see him get the chance to reveal a degree of vulnerability he almost never did on his way through a long career that ended with a string of campy nonsense and a suicide note that mentioned boredom. In Lured, he's more than vulnerable. He's accused of being the killer after Ball discovers a few incriminating clues in his study. What she's doing there at all, playing detective, orbits the film right out of even the slightest gravitational field of credibility, as we're asked to believe that Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Division, headed by an avuncular Charles Coburn, would put her up to playing detective as well as the lure to land the killer, casually handing her a loaded pistol to slip into her handbag to equip her with what he terms "moral support." But then Lured was never about credibility. It was, and now seems even more so, about style.
Once it moves inside from the soot-encrusted streets of gaslit London, it's all glistening bourgeois interiors of the sybaritic club owner's house and snazzy art deco nightclub dcor. Ball's spunky Sandra is the ultimate work of art here, though, in form-fitting suits with shoulder pads, white ermine furs, wide-brimmed picture hats and a flamboyant array of jewels. Had the film been in Technicolor, Ball's red hair and blue eyes would have trumped them all. Not for nothing was she nicknamed Techniciolor Tessie. Yet in the end it isn't Ball's accessories that impress us about her. It's what they're accessorizing, namely her warm, down-to-earth forthrightness. She hadn't yet arrived at the ditsy female image of the Lucy TV years (while becoming, off-camera, Hollywood's most powerful woman player since Mary Pickford). And she modestly claimed to be nowhere near the comedienne Carole Lombard was. But she knew what she was doing, even before she hired Buster Keaton to school her in the comic potential to be gleaned from seeming accident-prone.
Although Lured can seem a bit poky for a thriller, it constantly sends the kinds of reassuring messages that only a roster of competent craftsmen can. Quite apart from Ball, with her American up-frontness, and Sanders, in his sophisticated burnout mode, making an oddly agreeable odd couple, and Sirk beaming surehandedness at us in every bit of lighting, framing and pacing, Lured offers the kind of casting depth that once was common currency in Hollywood, and now, to put it softly, can no longer be taken for granted. Coburn, that veteran Shakespearean from Georgia, never let a film down, and doesn't here as he ploddingly deduces his way to the killer's identity with the use of psychological profiling that also lets Sanders' hedonist off the hook on the grounds that he's too much in love with life and its pleasures to want to see any of it end.
While Ball's combination of warm-heartedness and tough cookie chat is its own reward, she's surrounded by a rich phalanx of character actors. These range from Boris Karloff's demented dress designer, doing a riff on his mad monster roles, to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose chiseled deliveries, sonorous tones, and chilly detachment as Sanders' business partner with a weakness for Baudelaire, make him seem to be phoning his performance in from the moon. It's also a pleasant surprise to note George Zucco, usually cast as heavies, turn up as the fatherly police shadow assigned to lurk in the vicinity of Ball's dancer and keep her from harm, and Alan Mowbray, departing from his usual light comedy assignments to appear as a sinister type. Then there's Robert Coote, less than a decade away from his plum role as Pickering on the Broadway stage in My Fair Lady, seen here as one of Coburn's underlings. And, and, and. Lured is a delicious plum pudding of a cult movie dating from before the term was used to describe that tangy sector of pop culture heaven, or, for that matter, before pop culture entered the lexicon.
Producer: James Nasser
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Leo Rosten; Jacques Companeez, Simon Gantillon, Ernest Neuville (story)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Music: Michel Michelet
Film Editing: John M. Foley, James E. Newcom
Cast: George Sanders (Robert Fleming), Lucille Ball (Sandra Carpenter), Charles Coburn (Inspector Harley Temple), Boris Karloff (Charles van Druten), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Julian Wilde), Joseph Calleia (Dr. Nicholas Moryani), Alan Mowbray (Lyle Maxwell alias Maxim Duval).
by Jay Carr
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, Morrow, 1975
Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, by Kathleen Brady, Hyperion, 1994
Love, Lucy, by Lucille Ball, Putnam, 1996