This is my contribution to the Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please do visit and read the other postings, covering a great range of films.
In her mid-40s when The Damned Don’t Cry was made, Joan Crawford was just a little too old for the part of a gangster’s moll. Yet that’s just what makes this movie so compelling, as she pours herself one more time into the kind of working girl role she had made her own earlier in her career. Although the film is often described as a noir, in some ways it is a successor of pre-Codes like Baby Face. Just like Barbara Stanwyck’s character in that film, Crawford here has nothing but her looks and her wits, and uses them to climb from one man to another, taking revenge on a world which has wronged her.
At the start of the film, a gangster’s body is thrown out of a car. Police start to search for a missing socialite linked with the dead man, Lorna Hansen Forbes, only to discover that her name and her whole lifestyle appear to be fake. Where did she come from? As they try to find out, Lorna (Crawford) turns up at the poor shack where her parents live. Her mother greets her as “Ethel”, but her father coldly ignores her.
The story then unfolds in flashback, showing what has brought Ethel/Lorna to this moment of despair. In the early scenes, Ethel Whitehead is a poor, downtrodden mother, struggling to give her son a better life than the one she has had up to now. Her husband, Roy (Richard Egan) is a bully and a poor provider, who grudges her the money to buy their young son a bike. After the boy is ironically killed on the bicycle Ethel just bought him, she decides her marriage is over, and sets out to reinvent herself.
Moving to a new town, Ethel finds work as a model in a dress store, but also makes money on the side by going out on dates in the evening with “out-of-town buyers”. Crawford plays these scenes with a seductive, mischievous humour which defies the audience to notice that she is 45. She chews gum, swaggers around the office, and, in a striking scene of role reversal, overpowers a mild-mannered but handsome visiting accountant, Martin Blackford (Kent Smith) with her sex appeal. Soon she is helping Marty to strike up a working relationship with mobster George Castleman (David Brian). But Marty can’t keep pace with Ethel’s ambition, and soon she is moving up to higher rungs in the organisation.
Directed by Vincent Sherman, the film is fast-moving and glossy. It has the visual style and some of the sharp lines of dialogue of a noir, for instance, “Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.” But Ethel/Lorna is no icy femme fatale, or at least not always. The film’s fascination lies in the way Crawford changes her personality nearly as often as she changes her gowns. Sometimes she is a cold and manipulative, but often that mask slips and she lets warm emotions be seen below the surface, recalling those early scenes and her devotion to her son. There are also fascinating echoes of her real life, for instance in her name change and blurring of her past.
Watching the film for a second time before writing this posting, once again I found myself rooting for Ethel. Her treatment of Marty is dismaying, but all the other men who land in her path, including handsome gangster Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), are rather two-dimensional compared to her and there’s no need to worry about them too much. Most of the time the film skates over the reality of how the gangsters make their money, as they insist they are an “organisation” and are seen in business meetings. But there’s a scene late on where Marty lays open how it is all funded, pointing out that Lorna’s dresses and furs have been paid for by murder. There are also a couple of violent scenes including a shocking sequence where Lorna is beaten up.
All in all, this film gives Crawford the chance for a virtuoso performance and it’s a vehicle for her all the way – she seems to be in nearly every scene and it’s hard to tear your eyes away to look at anyone else. I don’t think it’s quite up there with one or two of her other films from around this period, such as Flamingo Road and Johnny Guitar, but it’s still highly enjoyable. It’s available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2 – my copy is part of the region 2/UK Joan Crawford Signature Collection.