Saturday, August 17, 2019

Joseph Cotten Triple Feature: Portrait of Jenny (1948), The Steel Trap (1952) and A Blueprint For Murder (1953)

Roger Ebert wrote, "There was often a sadness about Joseph Cotten, and it was one of his most attractive qualities as an actor."   The mysterious, underlying sadness that the actor conveys in his performances is significant to three films that I watched recently.  We see immediately in The Steel Trap (1952) that Cotten has a good job as an assistant bank manager, a nice home in the suburbs, and a loving wife and child.  So, what is his motivation to embezzle $500,000 from the bank where he works?  The filmmakers never bother to answer to that question, but we can sense a sadness in Cotten and assume that stealing a vast sum of money is Cotten's attempt to buy off his dark feelings.

The Steel Trap is a strong drama - taut, suspenseful and intriguing.


The Steel Trap was released on DVD in 2012.  It is currently available on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Then we have Portrait of Jennie (1948).  Cotten plays an impoverished painter, Eben Adams, who is in despair over his inability to sell his work.  Adams shows his portfolio to an art dealer, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway).  Matthews expresses dissatisfaction with Adams' work, which mostly consists of dispassionate sketches of landscapes.  The script reads:
Adams grimly starts to put his pictures back in the portfolio.
No actor could do "grimly" better than Cotten.

Ethel Barrymore and Joseph Cotten in Portrait of Jenny (1948)
Matthews' partner, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), expresses an interest in looking at his portfolio, but Adams has been hurt by Matthews' comments and gets defensive with Spinney.  He tells her that he has nothing that would interest her.  She replies brusquely, "You're probably right.  But do you mind if I take a look at what interests you?"  She takes his portfolio from him.  She sees a painting of a flower, which holds her interest.  She remarks, dryly, "You paint a nice flower."  He becomes irritated and reaches for the portfolio, but she ignores him and continues to examine his work.  The scene proceeds in the script as follows: 
SPINNEY Sit down, Adams. You may not sell anything, but you can rest.

MATTHEWS (Softly) I'd advise you to sit down.

ADAMS sits down reluctantly.

SPINNEY (slowly, almost indifferently, as she continues to look at the paintings) Ever read Robert Browning?

ADAMS Yes. . . a long time ago.

SPINNEY Remember his poem about Andrea Del Sarto?  The perfect painter? Proportion, anatomy, color - he had everything.  And he had nothing.  He could paint a perfect hand, where Raphael drew a formless claw.  But Raphael loved what he did, and poor Andy Del Sarto. . .

ADAMS I get your point.

MATTHEWS (embarrassed by her forthrightness) Miss Spinney -

SPINNEY Oh, don't be so soft, Mr. Mathews!  I'm an old maid - and no one knows love like an old maid!  (almost harshly, to Adams) And there isn't a drop of it in your work!


She looks straight into Adams' eyes. He stares back at her.  After a few moments, Adams' eyes waver; he turns away.

SPINNEY (relentlessly) You're a closed man, Adams.  You must learn to care deeply about something.

Adams' despair dissipates once he encounters an enigmatic young woman named Jennie Appleton.  Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine wrote, "[Adams] isn't so much avaricious as he is lacking in self-worth, and his relationship to the eponymous Jennie is seemingly summoned by his need to transcend the desperation of his loneliness and poverty."  Again, the sadness conveyed so well by the actor tells us everything we need to know about his situation and his motivation.

Lastly, we have Blueprint For Murder (1953).  Grief is certainly a driving force for Cotten when his young niece Polly dies under mysterious circumstances.  In time, he suspects his late brother's widow of having poisoned the girl to gain control of her trust fund. 

Cotten brings these characters to life with the same skills he used to bring to life the disillusioned Jed Leland, the rejected Eugene Morgan, and the disheartened Holly Martins

Reference sources

Roger Ebert, "Joseph Cotten: Master of Mood," (February 13, 1994). 

Ed Gonzalez, "Review: Portrait of Jennie," Slant Magazine (June 27, 2001).

1 comment:

  1. David O Selznick certainly gave us an enigmatic visual feast when he concocted this strange production. Probably made to promote his star (and soon to be wife) Jenifer Jones.

    This was the final film for Award-winning Cinematographer Joseph H. August (The Hunchback Of Notre Dame ’39) who created many beguiling visuals for this impressive oddity. The epic storm at sea, featuring the haunting abandoned Graves Lighthouse in Massachusetts, is quite an eye opener - with its eerie tinted sequences and the final full color shot of the stunning portrait - making for an unforgettable closing.

    Joseph Cotton is convincing as the obsessed painter, living on poverty Rd and continually searching for the elusive Jenny. He gets good support from Cecil Kellaway and Ethel Barrymore, as a couple of art dealers who take pity on the struggling artist. Dimitri Tiomkin provides the descriptive musical moods by adapting several melodies by Debussy - but he also has some additional help from Bernard Herrmann.

    A failure when originally released, it’s now regarded as a Fantasy Masterpiece, but finding a quality transfer on DVD will take some research, as there are several sub-standard editions on the market. I purchased The Film Collection release which claimed to be Re-mastered but has visible scratches and soft focus, making playing on a large screen a somewhat disappointing experience. A good-looking treat for those with a liking for the classically unusual.