Often, a disastrous production results in a disastrous movie. Sometimes, a film will turn out so brilliantly, you’d never guess that the cast and crew went through hell to make it that way. And once in a blue moon, a film will undergo numerous rewrites, recasting, and a change of director—and end up as something bizarre, but wonderful. A messy masterpiece.
That’s what happened with 1951’s His Kind of Woman.
Small-time gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum), down on his luck and with nothing to lose, is offered $50,000 to complete a mysterious job for an unknown client: All he knows is that he must travel to Mexico, where he’ll be given further instructions. Once he arrives, he is sent to an upmarket resort, where he waits to hear his next move. While he’s there, he becomes close to beautiful singer and purported millionaire Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), who is at the resort trying to persuade her lover—B movie star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), who unbeknownst to Lenore, is married—to make things official.
Eventually, after several violent confrontations, Dan learns what he’s signed up for. Bad guy Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) needs a new face so he can re-enter the U.S. under a different identity, and Dan’s is the one that he wants. Unsurprisingly, Dan’s not a fan of this plan, and soon a mission to rescue him from Ferraro’s ship is in order, with Mark at the helm.
When director John Farrow (the noir stalwart behind The Big Clock and Alias Nick Beal) handed His Kind of Woman in to the studio, he thought it was done. Howard Hughes—RKO studio boss and famously eccentric billionaire—did not. Hughes had become enraptured with Vincent Price’s larger-than-life character, and demanded rewrites enlarging his role and the additions of more action and brutality to the whole picture. Farrow, quite happy with his finished product, quit.
Hughes forcibly recruited a reluctant Richard Fleischer to direct the new material by refusing to release the film Fleischer had just finished—the excellent The Narrow Margin—unless he agreed to work on His Kind of Woman. Fleischer spent months completing the reshoots, but then Hughes demanded another round of them when he decided to replace Lee Van Cleef—who had been the chief villain—with Burr. When a frustrated and inebriated Robert Mitchum had a meltdown on the eventual penultimate shooting day, it’s doubtful many blamed him.
Mitchum and Russell became close offscreen friends during the tumultuous shoot of His Kind of Woman, and their onscreen personas have a lot in common. Both are effortlessly sexy and wryly unflappable; when trouble presents itself, they’re more likely to raise one laconic eyebrow and saunter straight into the middle of the fray than run screaming in the opposite direction. The first half of the movie is powered by their easy chemistry—watching the two of them engage in languorous repartee, and flirtation of a more overt kind (like a swimsuited Russell’s “Put some oil on my back, will ya?” at an obliging Mitchum) is a constant delight. Although the plot remains largely static while the two of them are center stage, the sultry sparks that fly each time they share the screen renders that lack of narrative momentum unimportant.
If this was a more conventional movie, you might be justly annoyed that Mitchum and Russell are almost completely sidelined for the pivotal third act—he spends it being beaten unconscious by Burr’s goons, she spends it locked in a cupboard by Price. To have such a smoldering leading pair at your disposal, and then bench them? Madness!
But His Kind of Woman is not a conventional movie. Hughes had a long track record of making unwise decisions in the films he produced—sinking whole budgets on trivialities, angering creative talent with unhelpful demands—but as the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Price was Hughes’ stopped clock moment. Price made over 100 features during his 55 years in Hollywood, relentlessly turning out performances that glimmered with wit and fun and campy charm. Mark Cardigan was quite possibly the most enchanting of his whole career.
From the gleeful smile that envelops his face when Mark realizes his cinematic swashbuckling skills are about to be needed in real life, Price becomes the star of His Kind of Woman, and he yanks the film from laid-back noir to high-key actioner in uniquely exuberant style. Everything he says after he enters full swaggering hero mode sounds ridiculous, and yet—because the movie completely understands Price’s appeal—utterly sublime. There are countless great lines to choose from, but none sums up his whole performance more than his haughty refusal to demand a floodlight (that’s exposing his rescue boat’s position to the enemy ship) be shut off: “I am yet to spurn the welcome glare of a spotlight or run away from applause!” That he says this just after he’s dramatically tossed his cape over his shoulder is almost too perfect.
It’s quite possible that the initial John Farrow cut of His Kind of Woman was excellent. It would certainly have been more tonally consistent. Yet today, watching the film that finally made it to the big screen 70 years ago, it’s hard to mourn the loss of that original version. After all, we still get more than an hour of Mitchum and Russell in their sultry noir before the transition to the ludicrous action of Price’s final act. The stars change abruptly, as does the tone, but there’s never even a moment where the movie stops being wildly entertaining.
There are plenty of classic film noirs out there, just as there are plenty of fun adventure comedies. There’s only one His Kind of Woman.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.