The Velvet Touch


Guilt, fear and suspicion – these are all key characteristics of film noir. Marry those elements to the duplicity inherent in the world of the theater, where the necessity to don and discard the masks of performance, and the result should be a richly cultured blend of deceit. These circumstances provide a wonderful source of drama and melodrama, one tapped regularly by filmmakers. Sometimes the world of moviemaking itself becomes the main focus, while on other occasions it is the older and grander backdrop of the traditional theater. The latter forms the setting of The Velvet Touch (1948), where ambition, desire and tangled relationships on and off the stage see barbed witticisms replaced by a blunt instrument, resulting in tragedy.

In a sense, the whole movie could be summed up as a shift from comedy to tragedy. The leading lady of the story, and the leading lady of the Broadway production which has just reached the end of its run, is Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell). She has earned success and renown as a star in light comedic roles yet that pebble in the shoe of human nature that picks at many a person, and most especially the protagonists of film noir, is present. Yes, dissatisfaction is whispering insistently in Valerie Stanton’s ear, urging her to spread those artistic wings and set off and explore new areas. That alongside a new romantic relationship with an architect Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) is pushing her ever closer to a break with the past. And the break is a clean one when it does come, just as clean and sharp as the blow she strikes her producer and former lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames). This is essentially where the viewer comes in, literally in through the window of Dunning’s office, gliding in from the neon lit New York sky to witness the end of a highly strung and threat filled argument, the end of one man’s life and the beginning of a fresh ordeal for others. Shortly afterwards the movie dissolves into a lengthy flashback as Valerie reflects on the circumstances which led, step by relentless step towards this moment of violence. What follows is an investigation into the death conducted by the shrewd and reassuringly portly Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet), an investigation that sees suspicion fall on the devoted but spurned Marion Webster (Claire Trevor). With dread and self-interest setting the pace and driving events into still darker corners of morality, the climactic denouement hints at life imitating art and those lines separating the the performer and the performance becoming blurred once more.

Those blurred lines  recall A Double Life to an extent, but even so I don’t think the similarities run too deep. Sure there’s the theatrical setting and the star, although only towards the very end of the story here, seeing aspects of her personal life and circumstances mirrored in the role she has taken on, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in this case. While The Velvet Touch is a good picture, attractively shot by Joseph Walker from a Leo Rosten (Sleep, My Love) script, it doesn’t have the same depth. That Rosten screenplay has some wonderful dialogue, as sharp and incisive as a scalpel and devilishly funny too; the exchange between Genn and Russell when they first meet at a party and he feigns ignorance of her celebrity is a delight. Some of that may be down to director Jack Gage too. He started out in the business as a dialogue director on  René Clair’s ever charming I Married a Witch as well as Double Indemnity for Billy Wilder. He then fulfilled the same role on  several pretty good melodramas, with Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Bette Davis (A Stolen Life), and Rosalind Russell in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra before landing his one and only credit as a feature film director.

I will have to admit  that I’ve never been a great fan of Rosalind Russell. That said, I do admire her work and in particular I admire what I think of as her courage in embracing certain roles – for example, Joshua Logan’s Picnic sees her throw herself into her character in an extraordinarily challenging way. The part of Valerie Stanton is not an especially attractive one. Admittedly, she is wronged in some respects but her egoism and fealty to her own ambitions, whatever the cost to the innocents around her, is desperately unpleasant. It requires guts and great self-confidence from a performer to undertake such roles, and it is to Russell’s credit that she didn’t shy away from the more unsavory aspects. Claire Trevor rarely disappoints and turned in another excellent piece of work in the same year that she would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her humiliated moll in John Huston’s Key Largo. She got across the bitterness and hurt of the perennially wronged woman perfectly, bringing a considerable amount of dignity to it all.

I often wish Sydney Greenstreet had made more movies. That imposing physical presence in tandem with his rich and unmistakable voice could be employed with equal success to comedic, dramatic and outright villainous roles. I have seen almost all of the films he appeared in and it is safe to say he enriched every one of those. His entrance in The Velvet Touch is terrific. Moving onto the stage to interview the assembled cast, he at first projects an air of vague menace as he casts a fishy eye over the nervous group in front of him. His gaze shifts then to the pitifully small chair at his disposal as he lowers his bulk with trepidation onto it, and breaks into an avuncular chuckle in full recognition of the absurdity of it all. It is a beautifully played aside, milking the tension expertly before leavening it with some much needed humor. Of the others, Leo Genn is debonair and smooth, Leon Ames is brimming with malice and energy and primed for a deserved fall, Dan Tobin radiates a knowing whimsy as a conceited critic, and Frank McHugh gets another chance to practice his patented puppy dog enthusiasm.

The Velvet Touch has been released on DVD in the UK by Odeon and in the US by Warner Brothers so it should be easy enough to track down. It’s a solid noir melodrama set amid that theatrical milieu that this viewer never tires of and has a handful of strong performances to recommend it. I recommend it.

53 thoughts on “The Velvet Touch

  1. Colin
    Have had a copy recorded off TCM for years. But for some reason I keep slipping it back to bottom when it hits the top of the pile. Most likely that I only think of Rosalind Russell as a comedy actor. But, going off your review, I will give it a look next time it comes up. Thanks.

    Gord

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  2. Not so keen on this one. Roz Russell seemed miscast. I could actually see Claire Trevor as the star – she was great as always in her small role and of course Mr. Greenstreet never disappoints. Leon Ames was good too.

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    • The theatrical setting and the presence of Claire Trevor & Greenstreet are selling points for me. I can take or leave Russell in general but I thought she did well here and the fact she was and still is seen as more of a comedic actress adds to her playing a character trying to make a similar career move.

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  3. Great review Colin. Saw this last about a year back. I love the theatre and it can be a great subject for drama, from The Twilight Zone (“The Trouble with Templeton”), the Cole Porter musical smash KISS ME KATE and the farce of Bogdanovich’s film adaptation of Michael Frayn’s sublime NOISES OFF. But you have to care about the people and I did find it hard fo really connect with Russell’s character. At this point in her career she was working very hard to be taken seriously as a dramatic performer and made some pretentious duds to prove it. Shame really. I think you are spot on about PICNIC but otherwise she got quite arch and OTT in her later films. Streisand at her most self important often reminds me of her. Leo Rosten was a fascinating writer – have you read his Hyman Kaplan books? They’re hilarious and as a teacher I really think you’d relate to them 😁

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  4. My feelings about Rosalind Russell almost exactly mirror yours, Colin. Not an actress I seek out but I admire her courage in taking a role such as that in “PICNIC”.
    I also completely agree about both Greenstreet and the wonderful Claire Trevor.

    I would like to add my own mention of Leo Genn who was a fine actor who excelled in understatement. He was though also a most interesting man. He qualified as a barrister before finding acting more compelling (a not inconsiderable achievement) and during WW2 rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery. Before returning to acting at war’s end he served as an Assistant Prosecutor at tribunals after the freeing of survivors of the horrors of Belsen.
    Quite a man!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Quite, Genn was what I’d term a very quiet, understated actor, and generally an effective one. As you say, he was also a complete man and a lot more rounded in terms of life experiences than the average actor.

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  5. This Weekend the films are…
    1- CHEYENNE 1947 Also known as THE WYOMING KID It is a Raoul Walsh directed film with Dennis Morgan, Jane Wyman, Janis Page and Bruce Bennett. It is a another western that I have never crossed paths with before, so I’m hoping for the best. Any opinions?

    2- SWEET COUNTRY 2017 A film from Down Under set in the late 1900s about the manhunt for an Aboriginal man accused of murder. Bryan Brown and Sam Neill star. Another one that is new for me.

    3- HUMAN DESIRE 1954. Have not seen this one in many years so it is time for a fresh viewing.. Fritz Lang directs with Glenn Ford, Brod Crawford and Gloria Grahame as the leads.

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    • The Lang is a movie I plan to revisit myself soonish. I remember liking it when I last saw it many years ago but I don’t think it has the greatest reputation. Perhaps it suffers by being compared with that other Lang film with Ford and Grahame.

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  6. I have not seen this. I whole heartedly agree with you on Sydney Greenstreet. With his face,voice and built, he has a commanding presence.

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    • There are only a handful of his fims I’ve yet to catch up on, and none I can’t access easily so I want to make an effort to make a clean sweep in that respect. That rich voice was used very well too on radio and I enjoy his Nero Wolfe performances, as with a lot of vintage radio they are easy to find online.

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  7. Finished all 3 of my weekend films.
    1- CHEYENNE 1947 Also known as THE WYOMING KID Ok film but for one thing. I guess I just can’t take Dennis Morgan seriously as a gunfighter type. He is ok in romantic or light comedy roles, but does not pass muster for me as a hard case. Anyways, the film passes the time well enough with R. Walsh handling the action with his usual style. .

    2- SWEET COUNTRY 2017 An Aboriginal man is accused of murder. Bryan Brown and Sam Neill are part of the group hunting him. Interesting outback set film with an ending I was not expecting.. LOL Finally got the correct time setting. 1920.

    3- . 3- HUMAN DESIRE 1954. Had not seen this one in many years. Our man Fritz has the old murder triangle at it again. Gloria Grahame pulls all the right string here. What a great femme fatale she always made. A pretty good noir.

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  8. Off topic, I have just watched “THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN” (2017) and enjoyed it very much. Rare have been new westerns in recent decades that have given me satisfaction – just a few “OPEN RANGE”, “APPALOOSA”, “HOSTAGES”, “UNFORGIVEN”. Now add Lefty Brown to the list.
    It is a western with its heart in the right place, a good story of betrayal, friendship and redemption and Bill Pullman was terrific in it.
    (I felt a similarity, though of much darker hue, between Pullman’s Lefty and the Festus Haggen character played by Ken Curtis in the great “GUNSMOKE” TV series).

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    • Jerry

      Thank for the heads up on this one. Never heard of it till your mention. Both OPEN RANGE and UNFORGIVEN were filmed just outside here in Calgary.

      Gord

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    • RE……..THE BALLAD OF LEFTY BROWN

      Sorry to say this movie never hit the mark for me. The similarity of Pullman to Festus Haggen didn’t connect either with me. However, Pullman’s Lefty did strike similarities to 30’s actor Fred Stone. Stone would have been better.

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  9. Superbly written review, Colin. I watched “The Velvet Touch” last night and enjoyed it immensely. It’s a mystery to me that Jack Gage never directed another feature film as he does a fine job with pacing and also with working with the actors. Claire Trevor is amazing and has to be among the more gifted actresses who have ever adorned the screen. Russell is also superb. Leon Ames is glibly evil and Leo Genn provides his usual pacific presence (“Moby Dick”, “Quo Vadis”). Of course, Sidney Greenstreet’s presence fills out (no pun intended) the story marvelously. I have to admit that I gagged a bit, as did my wife, on the opening theme song. Beyond being campy, it just doesn’t fit in my opinion. It reminds me of the horrid opening song from “7 Men From Now”. Allegedly, Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy hated that song so much that they lobbied, without success, to have it removed when the film was restored. Kudos also to character actor Lloyd Bacon who played the smart alec waiter Albert. His befuddled look into the camera as the railway gateman at the end of “Spell Bound” is priceless. “The Velvet Touch” is one of those films I never would have found if not for “Riding the High Country”.

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    • Well if I got you switched on to something that you ended up enjoying, then that counts as job done.
      The opening music does appear a bit odd in light of the story which follows, but perhaps it was intended to reflect the part Russell plays at the outset, a light comedic star. As she attempts to move her career and sees her life slide in a very different direction it’s no longer in evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Saw a preview on You-Tube for an upcoming western film called, OLD HENRY. The film is written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli. It stars Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins, and Stephen Dorff. It looks like a winner to me. Check out the preview.

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  11. Coming up on cable here in the next couple of weeks are some interesting films. These include, . SANTIAGO 1956 with Alan Ladd, CLOUDBURST 1951 with Robert Preston, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE 1952, THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY Hardy Kruger,, WILL PENNY 1968 Chuck Heston, TRANSATLANIC TUNNEL 1935 Richard Dix and CURSE OF THE DEMON 1957.Dana Andrews.

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    • Not only interesting but very good too in a few instances. Tourneur’s movie is arguably every bit as good as what he’d been doing in the previous decade with Val Lewton. And Cloudburst seems to be something of a rarity. I know Hammer put a nice copy of it online a few years ago – that’s the way I saw it anyway – and it is pretty good effort all round.
      Will Penny is superb, in my opinion. I understand Heston felt it was one of his best roles, perhaps the very best, and I reckon he was right about that. I regard the movie highly and wrote a piece on it here years ago.

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    • I first saw “Will Penny” when it was in the theaters. I remember being startled when Donald Pleasence cries out “That there elk is ourn (sic)”. Good movie and Preacher Quint and his sons are in the tradition of Uncle Shiloh Clegg and his “boys” in “Wagon Master” and Old Man Clanton and his sons in “My Darling Clementine”. Donald Pleasance chews up the scenery but that’s fine with me. Nice movie.

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  12. All

    Something new popped up today on cable. It is a Errol Flynn film I have never seen, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN FABIAN from 1951. Anyone of you well informed lot know this one? Any comments would be welcome.

    Gordon.

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  13. Up for the weekend is…
    1- SANTIAGO the 1956 Alan Ladd, Lloyd Nolan adventure film set in 1898 Cub. .Saw it once years ago on an old 2nd generation VHS. This time it is a nice print recorded off TCM.

    2- ACE IN THE HOLE 1951 The superb Billy Wilder film with Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Gene Evans, and Richard Benedict.

    3- NAKED ALIBI 1954 I have never seen it. Had a copy for years but never got around to popping it in the machine, No excuses on my part as it does feature personal favs, Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame as the leads.

    Gord

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  14. THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN FABIAN was a critical
    and commercial flop. Director William Marshall gave Errol such
    a hard time he walked off the picture and Marshall had to complete
    the film using Errol’s stunt double.
    Marshall’s only other directional effort was THE PHANTOM PLANET
    which is reputedly awful but has gained a rather strange
    cult following.
    Marshall was also an actor the Republic quickie BLACKMAIL
    directed by Lesley Selander is well worth checking out
    if for nothing else the constant stream of “hard boiled” dialogue.
    Our UK Talking Pictures TV has some interesting films forthcoming
    especially I BELIEVE IN YOU which I don’t think has appeared on
    TV for some considerable time.
    Jerry will enjoy seeing the Holborn swimming pool back in the days
    when it was an “outdoor” swimming pool.
    TPTV have a few Noirs listed in their new Friday Night Late Series
    The Cavern Club introduced by Caroline Munroe.
    Irving Pichel’s very interesting QUICKSAND with Mickey Rooney
    is pretty rare these days.
    Even better is Alfred Werker’s (and Anthony Mann’s)
    HE WALKED BY NIGHT.
    I don’t know why but I always thought THE VELVET TOUCH was some sort
    of hospital drama so I will be watching next time TPTV show it.
    NAKED ALIBI is a pretty fast moving crime programmer in the
    “Maverick Cop” genre. It never outstays its welcome and is a constantly
    gripping 80 minutes or so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I only saw Belmondo in two films, “Breathless” and “Leon Morin, Priest”. I guess everyone knows about “Breathless” even if they haven’t seen it. I thought “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville was superb.

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  15. Weekend viewing is…

    1- RIFIFI 1955 Jean Servais, Carl Mohner and Robert Manuel and directed by the great Jules Dassin. This will be a first time watch for me.

    2- THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY- THE RESTORED VERSION 1967 First time watch of the restored one.

    3- THE NAKED CITY 48 Another one from Jules Dassin. A re-watch needless to say.

    Gord

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    • I loved “Rififi”. Jean Servais is excellent as the world-weary gangster. Looking 10 years older than he actually was, Servais exudes existential despair. The back and white cinematography of an overcast Paris lends to this sense of oppressiveness. Jules Dassin does a great job and also appears in the film in an important role as the expert safe-cracker. The film is taut and tense and takes its place with the great heist films.

      “Naked City” is a thumbs up but I’m one of the few people in all of creation who has never seen “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”. I have a strong aversion to Spaghetti Westerns although Colin convinced me to watch “Once Upon a Time in the West” which I admired and enjoyed.

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      • We have a close affinity here, Frank, as I am a lifelong and huge fan of the western genre who has also never seen “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” as I also have a strong aversion to those ‘European’ westerns. Like you, I got to “Once Upon A Time In The West” a little late but concede that it is a fine movie, albeit a little drawn out and ponderous at times.

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