Portrait in Black (1960)

Directed by Michael Gordon
Cinematography Russell Metty

Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) becomes increasingly disturbed as she cares for her ailing, disagreeable husband (Lloyd Nolan). Along the way, she falls in love with Dr. David Rivera (Anthony Quinn), who is tending her husband. This leads to a series of unfortunate events, resulting in the death of the husband and an ensuing murder investigation.

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Distress Of The Very Rich

1 March 2010 | by Lechuguilla (Dallas, Texas) – See all my reviews

Oh the heartache and troubles rich people suffer through. Take Sheila Cabot (Lana Turner) for example, an attractive, middle-aged woman married to a wealthy, but ailing, shipping tycoon, Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). They live in a San Francisco mansion overlooking the Bay, and have multiple servants. But Matthew is gruff, verbally abuses his wife, and generally treats everyone like dirt. It’s enough to make Sheila … well … cry. Making matters infinitely worse, Sheila has a lover on the side. And she’s desperate to exchange the gruff hubby for the lover. However will she manage?

That’s the setup for this melodrama-mystery combo, a story that involves passion, suspicion, deception, and ultimately murder. The film’s easy to follow plot gets a needed boost when a card addressed to Sheila arrives in the mail. All the card says is: “Congratulations on the success of …” That scene sends the plot hurling into mystery territory. Who wrote the card, and why?

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The script’s two main characters behave in ways that do not seem credible, given their circumstances. And the idea that a grown woman living in California has never learned to drive is a tad dubious.

The film’s overall look and feel is that of a typical 1950s melodrama. Elegant, expensive clothes, dreamy violin background music, and melodramatic acting conjure up visions of some sudsy 1950s film directed by Douglas Sirk. I don’t recall any scene in which Lana Turner is not wearing an expensive dress and, in some scenes, a full-length mink coat.

Color cinematography is acceptable, if unremarkable. Casting favors well-known actors. And they perform well enough. I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Sandra Dee.

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If you’re looking for a believable story, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a sudsy melodrama and/or mystery, “Portrait In Black” will appeal. I could have done without the pretentious suds of these very rich people. But the plot puzzle provided enough mystery to keep me hooked.

Lana and Company in Entertaining Melodrama

7/10
Author: dglink from Alexandria, VA
12 March 2008

Adultery, murder, blackmail, and Lana Turner, what more could one ask of a Ross Hunter production? Perhaps a good script, but that would spoil the fun. “Portrait in Black” will have lovers of camp in stitches at dialog that makes daytime soaps seem Shakespearean. The overwrought emoting and melodramatic scenes are often unintentionally funny, and the plot requires Olympian leaps to cross the credibility gaps.

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Lana is having an affair with Anthony Quinn, the doctor who is attending her terminally ill husband, Lloyd Nolan, a shipping magnate. Nolan’s company, Cabot Lines, is evidently quite successful, because Lana’s daily expenditures on wardrobe, coiffures, and makeup would likely sink a ship. The couple’s palatial San Francisco home is a Ross Hunter fantasy whose upkeep could sink yet another Cabot Line vessel. Nolan’s daughter from a first marriage, Sandra Dee, evidently has her stepmother’s taste in clothes and manicure, while the son from his marriage to Lana has to make do with a toy airplane. Throw in a greedy business associate played by Richard Basehart; Dee’s suitor, John Saxon; a chauffeur, Ray Walston; and a housekeeper, Anna May Wong; and you have a delicious cast of potential suspects to populate an Agatha Christie mystery. However, “Portrait in Black” is not a whodunit, but rather a “who knows they dun it.”

Lana is the ultimate drama queen, and she is in peak form. She suffers, she screams, she cries; she is the empress of high camp. Anthony Quinn, who should have read the script before he signed the contract, plays down to his part and seems to know he has had and will have better parts. Sandra Dee appears to be studying for future Lana Turner roles, while Walston and Wong play their parts with the necessary ambiguity to keep viewers guessing their secrets.

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However, despite the overacting, bad writing, and soap opera direction, “Portrait in Black” is great fun for those who love their melodramas with big budgets and great style. Even the obligatory mirror smashing has been incorporated. The movie is enormously entertaining for its sometimes howlingly funny situations, absurd lines, and the sheer pleasure of watching Lana looking and emoting at her best.

A fun Ross Hunter soap opera from 1960

7/10
Author: mrsastor from United States
5 January 2007

Portrait In Black is in many respects typical of the Ross Hunter films that rejuvenated Lana Turner’s later career. If you’re a fan of the genre, this one is quite entertaining, and in my opinion far superior to the previous year’s terrible remake of Imitation of Life.

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Portrait In Black brings us a torrid soap opera revolving around the relationship between the wife of a wealthy shipping magnate, Sheila Cabot, and her husband’s physician, Dr. David Rivera. Unable to bear having only a few stolen moments for the each other, they conspire to murder Sheila’s husband so they can be together. They subsequently find themselves blackmailed and must determine who is the blackmailer and how they will extricate themselves from this web of danger that continues to keep them separated.

As previous reviewers have pointed out, there are some rather silly aspects to the story, but these again are typical of the genre. For beginners, Sheila’s husband Matt Cabot is said to have a hopeless terminal illness and to have been ill for many months. Thus, their motivation for murdering him is rather weak; he will soon die without any malicious intent on their part. If they really could not bear the wait, the idea proposed in the script, that they cannot just run away together because Matt Cabot would ruin Dr. Rivera’s career and he would “never practice medicine again”, is a rather unrealistic threat (although admittedly common in soap opera land).

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Dr. Rivera’s home gives the impression he is already quite wealthy, it is not as though these two would be condemned to a life of poverty and want. These plot holes are exasperated by the poorly directed love scenes between David and Sheila, which consist of much-overplayed melodramatic panting, gasping, crying, and an inordinate and unnatural amount of chewing on one another’s hands. Secondly, there are a few script blunders that could have been easily corrected. When Dr. Rivera requires Sheila to drive, he puts her in the car and has to explain what the gas and brake are for, yet in scene one we are told Sheila has been issued a learner’s permit by the Department of Motor Vehicles. A learner’s permit allows one to drive so long as another licensed driver is present, and one would obviously have to have mastered the basics of what makes the car go in order to be issued such a permit. The plot of device that Sheila “doesn’t drive” would have been far more believable without the unnecessary learner’s permit in the script. There are a number of similar absent-minded script errors here.

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Having said that, one does not watch a period Ross Hunter soaper for realism. One watches it for drama, and the lush and beautiful feel we expect from Mr. Hunter. In this regard, Portrait does not disappoint. Our setting is upper crust Nob Hill in San Francisco. The Cabot home, with the exception of the library being inexplicably painted black, is breathtaking. Lana Turner is stunning, and of course immaculately outfitted in high class fashions, shoes, hats, furs, and jewels at all times, as is Sandra Dee in her second role as Lana Turner’s daughter (well, step-daughter in this one). Drama abounds and the at times weak script is handled expertly by the well seasoned cast, including Richard Basehart, Ray Walston, Virginia Grey, Anna Mae Wong, and John Saxon. While Anthony Quinn would have been ideally suited to his role of Dr. David Rivera if the film had been made fifteen years earlier, he is so badly addled by Michael Gordon’s incompetent direction in this role it makes him seem a bit past it (with the exception of Pillow Talk, none of Mr. Gordon’s films are particularly well directed).

All things considered, this film easily meets its purpose, to entertain and is fun to watch…if you can find it. It is not out on DVD, is no longer available on VHS, and is seldom aired on television. But if you get the chance, it’s well worth a watch.

UPDATE: This film was release on DVD in Jan 2008, and it looks great!

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A picture the likes of which will never be seen again.

Author: Poseidon-3 from Cincinnati, OH
6 June 2008
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ms. Turner, enjoying a career renaissance kicked off by the combination of her Oscar-nominated role in “Peyton Place,” the Stompanato murder case and the extraordinary success of “Imitation of Life,” reteamed with producer Ross Hunter here as another well-to-do beauty suffering great duress. She plays the wife of cantankerous Nolan (who was the noble doctor in “Peyton Place”), a successful shipping magnate confined to a mechanical bed. His inherent bitterness leads him to lash out at Turner, who turns to his handsome doctor Quinn for comfort. When it becomes clear that they can never truly be together as a couple, they decide to relieve Nolan of his pain for good, but soon after they begin to get letters that hint of blackmail. Before long, they are faced with the prospect of committing a second murder in order to protect their secret. Meanwhile, shifty Basehart is running the company and eyeing Turner and Nolan’s daughter Dee (who was Turner’s daughter in “Imitation of Life”) is carrying on with low-rung tugboat owner Saxon. Also, sneaky chauffeur Walston and vaguely threatening housekeeper Wong lurk around every other corner.

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Turner looks terrific throughout most of the film, being saddled with a couple of ugly hats here and there (and :::gasp::: wearing one outfit twice!), but generally looking fantastic. She was perfect at these types of glossy, over-the-top melodramas and this is among the best. The story (riddled with contrivance and preposterousness) reaches a fever pitch several times and overwrought Lana is right there to help serve it up at its best. Quinn seems a tad out of place, but it’s nice to see him in a film from this period that didn’t have him playing an Indian, a slave, a fisherman or some other type of earthy character. Basehart is remarkably slimy, Dee a bit more mature than she had been in previous films, yet still unable to shake off her squeaky-clean image and Saxon gritting his teeth in outrage when he isn’t trying to canoodle with Dee. Walston gives an appropriately mysterious performance while silent film legend Wong is mostly relegated to stern stares and curt comments.

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Grey has a supporting role as Nolan’s beleaguered secretary, while fairly grating child actor Kohler plays Turner’s inquisitive son. Based on a short-running Broadway play from the 40’s, but slathered over with the customary Hunter lavishness, this slightly overlong film is a glimmering camp hoot today. As if the overheated acting, silly script and glitzy décor weren’t enough, there is a deliriously insane Frank Skinner score punctuating every “nuance” of the plot. At least there is some very creative, for the time, lighting and camera-work in evidence, giving the picture a nourish feel at times (which is quite an accomplishment considering all the gloss in view.) Highlights of the film include: Turner running open-armed to Quinn in his apartment, Turner, decked out in a purposefully drab gown, watching Quinn enter the house to kill Nolan, Turner running around the house and up and down stairs in her snug skirt, turning off lights and panicking and, most especially, Turner confessing that she can’t drive and then being forced to operate an unfamiliar car on the Pacific Coast Highway during a hysterical rainstorm! Yes, it’s basically her show all the way right up to the closing frames.

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