Portrait in Black
Cast & Crew
In San Francisco, shipping magnate Matthew Cabot, though fatally ill, watches over his fleet and remains controlling and cruel to his wife Sheila and second-in-command, Howard Mason. As he does each day, Dr. David Rivera, who is secretly having an affair with Sheila, arrives to administer Matt's injection of ether to control the pain, a procedure Howard considers suspicious. While Sheila listens in silence, Matt questions David about the position the physician has been offered as the head of a Zurich hospital. After dismissing David, Matt treats Sheila roughly, accusing her of having a "love deficiency" and demanding that she give up her plans to learn to drive. Sheila decides to go out, and although she has not left the house for days, her stepdaughter, Catherine, expresses disdain at her desire to escape Matt. Sheila asks her chauffeur, Cob O'Brien, to drive her to the store, but once there, sneaks out the back entrance and visits David. The two are desperately in love, but Sheila knows if she leaves Matt he will keep their son Peter and destroy David's career, which is of utmost importance to him. David admits to Sheila that he must take the job in Zurich to escape his constant fantasies of murdering Matt with an untraceable air bubble in the hypodermic. Although despondent at the thought of David leaving, Sheila bids him farewell. The next day, however, David shows up at her house, and together they inject Matt with air, killing him instantly. Meanwhile, Cathy visits her boyfriend, Blake Richards, who is trying to rebuild his father's shipping company, which Matt put out of business years earlier. Blake announces that Matt has awarded him a large shipping contract, the profits from which will allow the couple to marry. At Matt's funeral, Howard unnerves David by implying that the doctor is unusually close to Sheila. Later that night, Sheila, plagued by nightmares, calls David for comfort, and although he is afraid to be seen with her, he agrees to visit soon. The next day, Howard declares his love to Sheila, and after she refuses him, he threatens to look into his suspicion that she was unfaithful to Matt. Among the corporate papers Howard urges Sheila to sign is the dissolution of Blake's contract, which throws the struggling businessman into insolvency. Blake confronts Howard at his office, where Howard forces his secretary, Miss Lee, to lie to Blake that Matt did not want him to have the contract. Blake vows to fight against Howard, unconcerned that Howard is taping the conversation. Later, Cob, a clandestine gambler who is being hounded by loan sharks, checks the mailbox for a letter. David and Sheila meet inside the house, and after Cathy interrupts them, David fears that they are not being covert enough about their relationship. Before David can leave, Sheila opens a handwritten letter, postmarked from Carmel the previous Monday, which reads: "Congratulations on the success of your murder." Soon, David is so wracked with anxiety that he can no longer perform surgery, and tells Sheila that they must find and kill whoever has written the letter. That night, Miss Lee, who loved Matt and does not want Blake to blame him for Howard's treachery, presents Blake and Cathy with papers proving that it was Howard who systematically destroyed Blake's father's business. While Cob searches the mailbox again, Sheila grows concerned about the apparent disdain of her housekeeper, Tani. On the way to David's office, Cob asks Sheila for another advance on his salary, and later she wonders to David if Cob's remarks about his insolvency are a covert attempt to blackmail her. Just then, Howard calls Sheila and infers that he knows that she and David are lovers. Sheila is forced to admit to David that Howard loves her, after which David deduces that Howard sent the letter from his Pebble Beach golf club. He plans to murder Howard on the night of the upcoming longshoremen's strike, and to this end has Sheila invite Howard to her house. Howard presents her with a corsage, after which she allows him to kiss her. After he leaves, she signals to David, who shoots into Howard's car. Sheila is shocked when, minutes later, Howard appears at her door, unharmed. When David then calls, Sheila pretends he is Cathy in order to stall Howard, allowing David to return to the house. However, Howard discovers his corsage discarded in the fire pit and, after intercepting a real call from Cathy, deduces Sheila's involvement in the attempt on his life. Howard is about to kill Sheila with a fireplace poker when David bursts in and shoots him. The sound wakes Peter, but Sheila tells him he has merely been dreaming. In order to get rid of Howard's car and body, David insists that Sheila follow him in her car to the cliffs of Half Moon Bay. Unable to drive, Sheila tries to object, but with no other choice, she is forced to maneuver through the treacherous streets in the driving rain. After David pushes Howard's car off the cliff, Sheila screams hysterically. Later, the police uncover Howard and Blake's taped conversation and assume Blake is the murderer. As they question Sheila about Howard's visit, Cathy realizes that her stepmother is lying about the evening's timing. After Peter then reveals to her that he heard a gunshot that night, Cathy deduces that Sheila killed Howard, and races to David's for help. David tries to convince her that Sheila, who cannot drive, could not have committed the crime and dumped the body. After Cathy leaves, David is consumed by guilt, and, hearing the Hippocratic Oath repeatedly in his mind, informs Sheila that he must go away. Soon after, Sheila receives a second handwritten letter of congratulations. David races over, and when he sees Cob sneaking out of the house, demands that Sheila detain the chauffeur, despite her protestations. At David's questioning, Cob admits that he stole some money to pay off his bookie and now needs more money, and a reference. David tries to trick Cob into printing out his address, in order to compare the handwriting with that in the note, but Cob refuses. David then tricks the driver into admitting that he was in Carmel the night the first letter was mailed. When David attacks him, Cob cries out that he was driving Sheila that night, causing David to comprehend that Sheila sent the letters herself. Sobbing, Sheila begs David to understand that she deceived him only to keep him from going away, and in response he promises her that they will now start a new life together. Just then, however, they realize that Cathy has been listening and now knows their secret. When Cathy picks up the phone to call the police, David chases her upstairs, following the terrified girl into her room and onto the window ledge. Just as Blake arrives at the front walk, Sheila calls out to David, startling him. As Sheila watches in horror, David falls onto the walk to his death.
Anna May Wong
Richard H. Riedel
Waldon O. Watson
Portrait in Black
Lloyd Nolan plays Matthew S. Cabot, the sick and grumpy owner of a successful shipping company. Lana Turner plays his wife, Sheila Cabot, whose marital misery has led her into a love affair with her husband's physician, David Rivera, played by Anthony Quinn with a mixture of pugnacity and charm. Several others are on the scene as well: Richard Basehart as Howard Mason, the magnate's assistant; Sandra Dee as Cathy Cabot, the magnate's daughter by a previous wife; John Saxon as Blake Richards, the magnate's smalltime rival and Cathy's boyfriend; and Ray Walston as Cobb, the Cabot family's chauffeur. The supporting cast also includes the marvelous Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, playing a housekeeper named Tawny after more than a decade's absence from the screen, and Virginia Grey as Miss Lee, a lovelorn secretary with the shipping firm.
Simultaneously enticed and repelled by fantasies of killing his patient Matthew and having Sheila for his own wife, David is on the verge of succumbing to despair, leaving America behind, and taking a new job as chief of a Swiss hospital. At the last minute, he seizes what he regards as his only chance for happiness, however, and murders Matthew by injecting an air bubble into a vein with Sheila's help. It seems like a perfect crime - David had injected Matthew with painkillers every day, and air bubbles can't be traced - until a terrifying letter arrives in the mail, bearing a single sentence printed in block letters: "Congratulations on the success of your murder." The identity and intentions of the sender are unknown, but the message fills the recipients with dread. Deciding that Howard is the person most likely to know what they've done, David and Sheila work out a plan to eliminate him, bringing about further complications in the already tangled narrative. Subplots concern a canceled shipping contract, an impending longshoremen's strike, and Cobb's escalating indebtedness to his bookie.
After directing several crime thrillers in the 1940s and taking a hiatus from Hollywood during the years of the scurrilous anticommunist blacklist, Gordon reinvented himself as a comedy director with the Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk in 1959 and stayed quite loyal to that genre for the rest of his career. Portrait in Black was the major exception, and while its story is anything but comic, it has the stylish look and sleek performances found in most ultra-glossy entertainments of the period. The picture was originally slated for director Carol Reed, who bowed out because of creative differences with Universal, causing the first of many delays that kept the 1946 stage play from becoming a movie until 1960.
It's tempting to say that Universal was the auteur of Portrait in Black, since some pivotal elements were clearly designed to capitalize on a recent hit from the studio. Most obvious is the pairing of Turner and Dee as step-mother and daughter, a similar relationship to what they had in Douglas Sirk's hugely popular Imitation of Life (1959), another melodrama produced by Ross Hunter. In addition, Turner's glamorous outfits had garnered such acclaim in the 1959 picture that Hunter decked her out even more fabulously here, draping her Jean Louis gowns with jewelry worth well over a million dollars. The cinematographer, Russell Metty, was another Imitation of Life veteran, as were the film editor, art director, and set decorator. The picture's San Francisco settings recall Alfred Hitchcock's moody Vertigo, which had lost money for Paramount in 1958, but the harrowing drive along a cliffside road recalls Hitchcock's dynamic North by Northwest, which had earned a bundle for MGM in 1959. (It's probably just coincidence that Quinn and Basehart had appeared together in Federico Fellini's great Italian classic La Strada in 1954.)
Critics found much to criticize when Portrait in Black premiered. "The screenplay is incomplete and frequently preposterous," the Variety review opined, adding that Gordon's directing is "at least an equal partner in the deficiencies of the enterprise." The picture might have worked more persuasively if other actors considered for the top male roles - Laurence Harvey, Richard Burton, Peter Finch, Louis Jourdan - had landed them instead. And it would definitely have been better without Frank Skinner's corny music pumping away in scene after scene, even punctuating Wong's appearances with hackneyed faux-Asian sonorities.
These things said, however, Portrait in Black has some terrific moments, the best of which involves the aforementioned cliffside drive. Ordered to drive David's car in a sudden emergency, Sheila fearfully reminds him that she doesn't know how to drive! And then she drives anyway, groping for the right pedals as a storm unleashes torrents of pounding rain! This isn't the only effective scene in Portrait in Black, but it's good enough in itself to make the movie worth viewing.
Director: Michael Gordon
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, based on their play
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Art Direction: Richard H. Riedel
Music: Frank Skinner
With: Lana Turner (Sheila Cabot), Anthony Quinn (Dr. David Rivera), Richard Basehart (Howard Mason), Sandra Dee (Cathy Cabot), John Saxon (Blake Richards), Ray Walston (Cobb), Virginia Grey (Miss Lee), Anna May Wong (Tawny), Dennis Kohler (Peter Cabot), Lloyd Nolan (Matthew S. Cabot)
by David Sterritt
Portrait in Black
Sandra Dee, 1944-2005
She was born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck on April 23, 1944 (conflicting sources give 1942, but the actual birth year has been verified by the family) in Bayonne, New Jersey. She was abandoned by her father by age five, and her mother, Mary Douvan, lied about Sandra's age so that she could put her in school and get a job. She was only five when she entered the 2nd grade. Mature for her age, Sandra's mother kept the lie going when she began her modeling career. With her fetching blonde curls and pretty face, Dee found herself moving up quickly on the modeling ladder. By the time she was 10, she was one of the top child models in the country, and by age 13, she met producer Ross Hunter, who signed her to a seven-year contract for Universal. She had her named changed to Sandra Dee (a stage name combining her shortened first name and using her stepfather's surname initial D to sign vouchers) and made her film debut in Until They Sail (1957), starring Joan Fontaine, John Gavin.
Her next film, The Reluctant Debutante, a bubbly romantic comedy with Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall and John Saxon, proved Dee to be adept in light comedy. Yet she would prove her versatility as a performer the following year - 1959, when she scored in the three biggest films of the year:A Summer Place, a brooding melodrama with fellow teen-heartthrob, Troy Donohue; Imitation of Life, a glossy, Ross Hunter sudser; and of course Gidget, the archetypical, sand and surf movie. By the dawn of the '60s, Sandra Dee mania ruled the movie fanzines worldwide.
Her personal life took a surprising turn when she hooked up with singer Bobby Darin. She met Darin in 1960 in Portofino, Italy, where they were both cast in Come September with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida as the older romantic couple. They eventually married and she gave birth to a son, Dodd Mitchell Darin in 1961. All the while, Dee still plugged away with a series of hit films over the next few years: Romanoff and Juliet a charming satirical comedy directed by Peter Ustinoff; Tammy Tell Me True with John Gavin (both 1961; If a Man Answers (1962) a surprisingly sharp comedy of manners with husband Bobby Darin; Tammy and the Doctor, another corn-fed entry that was her leading man's Peter Fonda's big break; and Take Her, She's Mine (1963), a rather strained generation-gap comedy with James Stewart.
Her success was not to last. By the late `60s, as "youth culture" movies became more confrontational and less frivolous with references to open sexuality and drugs in the American landscape, Dee's career began to peter out. Her few films of that period : Rosie, and Doctor, You've Got To Be Kidding (both 1967) were pretty dreadful and were disasters at the box-office; and her divorce from Bobby Darin that same year, put a dent in her personal life, so Dee wisely took a sabbatical from the limelight for a few years.
The '70s actually saw Dee improve as an actress. Although by no means a classic, her role as woman falling pray to a warlock (Dean Stockwell) who sexually and psychologically dominates her in the The Dunwich Horror (1970), was nothing short of startling. Yet despite her competency as actress, her career never regained its footing, and she appeared in only a few television movies later on: The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972), Fantasy Island (1977).
Dee resurfaced in 1991, when she gave an interview with People magazine about her personal demons: molestation by her stepfather, anorexia, drug use and alcoholism, that had haunted her her entire life. That same year, much to the delight of her fans, she resurfaced briefly when she starred in a stage production of Love Letters at the Beverly Hill's Canon Theatre with her friend and former co-star, John Saxon. Since she was diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney failure in 2000, Dee had been in and out of hospitals for her failing health. She is survived by her son Dodd; and two granddaughters -Alexa and Olivia.
by Michael T. Toole
Sandra Dee, 1944-2005
In the opening credits, the main actors' images appear near their names, then fade to black-and-white "portrait" images that then reverse to negative images. The same devise is repeated at the end of the film, when the image of Lana Turner as the stricken "Sheila Cabot" turns into a negative image.
The following information was reported in a January 28, 1951 New York Times article: Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts wrote the play Portrait in Black in 1945, at which time Universal expressed interest in the screen rights. In December 1945, the studio paid "$100,000 against a sliding percentage of the prospective world film gross, to reach a maximum of 15 percent at $2,500,000." Included in the deal was a provision stating that the rights would revert to the authors if the film was not produced by June 30, 1950. The play was eventually produced in London in 1946 and starred Diana Wynyard. Wynyard's husband at the time, Carol Reed, planned to direct the film version, but backed out due to disagreements with Universal over the adaptation.
In 1948, Goff and Roberts requested to buy the property back, but found that they could not afford to because of the accrued charges against it. In June 1950, Universal resold the rights to the writers, at which time Michael Gordon and Joan Crawford were interested in "a possible production 'package.'" A January 1954 Los Angeles Times news item noted that brothers Edmond and Liam O'Brien were starting up a production company and planned to adapt the play into a film, possibly to be shot in Italy.
On October 27, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reported that British actor Lawrence Harvey would co-star in Portrait in Black. In August and October 1959, "Rambling Reporter" items in Hollywood Reporter mentioned Louis Jourdan, Van Johnson, Richard Burton and Peter Finch as contenders for the role of "Dr. David Rivera." According to a November 17, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Universal was unable to borrow Finch from J. Arthur Rank for the production.
As noted in contemporary news items and reviews, many sequences were shot at locations in and around San Francisco, including Golden Gate Park and the I. Magnin department store. According to a July 1960 Cue article, producer Ross Hunter received so much praise for Lana Turner's Imitation of Life wardrobe, he outfitted her even more luxuriantly in this film. The costumes included $1,175,000 worth of jewelry. Portrait in Black marked the return to the screen of Anna May Wong (1907-1961) after an eleven-year absence. The film was the last for her as well as Universal art director Richard H. Riedel, who died in a car accident on 18 March 1960.
A June 1960 article in Cue detailed Universal's advertising campaign for the film, which included tie-ins with several fashion, photography and publishing companies. In addition, the article stated that Bantam Books had published a "pocket edition" of the film story. Contemporary reviews of the picture were generally negative, and many reviewers noted that Anthony Quinn was miscast. The Variety review read, "The screenplay is incomplete and frequently preposterous, but Michael Gordon's direction must be considered at least an equal partner in the deficiencies of the enterprise."
Released in United States Summer July 1960
Released in United States Summer July 1960