Blonde Ice (1948)
“Ice in her veins…icicles in her heart!” It’s time for Blonde Ice (1948), a film noir that you can watch at TheFilmDetective.tv starting November 1 as part of Noir November!
The Film Detective is a really cool site with a large library of classic films available to stream on a bunch of apps (Amazon Fire, Roku, Apple TV, etc.) and online. You can watch the movies for free with ads, or subscribe for $3.99 a month or $34.99 a year for an ad-free experience. Click here to learn more about the site and check out their selection of movies here.
I was delighted when The Film Detective asked me to review one of their new noir titles, and extra pleased when I got to choose Blonde Ice. The movie was based on Whitman Chambers’ 1938 novel Once Too Often, though it took ten years to get to the screen. It’s a B-movie noir (made with a smaller budget and intended to be the second half of a double feature) produced by Martin Mooney Productions. Mooney was a screenwriter and producer who also produced one of the most famous B-movies, Detour (1945).
Fun fact: some of the large studios had production units that cranked out B-movies to accompany their A-films, but there were also studios that only made B-pictures, like Monogram or Republic Pictures. Blonde Ice appears to be the only movie made by “Martin Mooney Productions,” though it wasn’t uncommon for small companies to make just a few B films before folding or re-organizing under a different name.
Blonde Ice is a great pick for Noir November because it is packed with film noir tropes and style. Film noir literally translates to “black film,” and was first used in 1946 when French critic Nino Frank wrote an article called “A New Police Genre: The Criminal Adventure.” Frank wrote about the Hollywood films Laura (1944), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Double Indemnity (1944), among others, noting their brutality, darkness and cynicism, and labelling them “film noir.” (The term had been used in France in the late 1930s to describe poetic realist movies like Le Quai des brumes (1938), but most agree that Frank was the first to use it in its modern, Hollywood sense).
It’s not surprising that it was a French critic who called attention to the dark tendencies of these American movies; after all, Hollywood films had not been shown in France during WWII, but when the war ended, French theaters were flooded with a backlog of Hollywood imports. This circumstance helped critics like Frank detect themes and tendencies that were less noticeable to Americans who didn’t have the option of watching Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon back to back, for example.
Anyway, the term film noir stuck, though it remains an incredibly sticky, contested label. Some scholars and critics refuse to grant film noir the status of “genre,” preferring terms like “tendency,” “category,” “mood,” “phenomenon,” “cycle” or “style.”
Part of the problem with the term film noir is that it was only applied retroactively; unlike musicals or gangster films, Hollywood studios did not have a category of “film noir,” and the filmmakers never described their films as such. Instead, most canonical film noirs were called “melodramas” when they were produced.
But there are certain characteristics that shout (or suggest) film noir: an urban setting, a private detective, a femme fatale, an anti-hero, crime, a mood of cynicism and pessimism, corruption, moral ambiguity, fatalism, violence and brutality, erotic elements, a hardboiled style of narrative and dialogue, flashbacks, voiceover narration, a dreamlike quality, and sometimes a hopelessly tangled plot.
Film noir also has a certain visual style, which includes expressionist flair (composition, angles, etc., visit The Lost Weekend for more on German Expressionism), and iconography like rain-slicked city streets, neon signs, Venetian blinds, and cigarettes. But perhaps the most notable element of film noir style is low-key lighting, which means darker-than-normal photography. (For more on that, visit my Double Indemnity post.)
Blonde Ice has a healthy dose of film noir qualities: a femme fatale, an anti-hero, violence, pessimism, corruption, expressionist photography, low key lighting, Venetian blinds, hardboiled newspapermen, gruff policemen, plenty of cigarettes, and psychological themes. It’s also a poor man’s Double Indemnity in a lot of ways, but I’ll get to that later.
To the film! We open at a wedding in a lovely mansion in San Francisco. As I wrote about in History Through Hollywood: Love, it was very common to be married at home. In this case, it’s the wealthy groom’s house.
Les Burns (Robert Paige) and Al Herrick (James Griffith) discuss the bride, Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks), as they wait for her appearance. Both men are reporters at the newspaper where Claire wrote the social column, and both were once in relationships with her. In fact, she gave both men cigarette cases engraved with the same message, just a different name. As we learn through the movie, she probably bought the cases in bulk and had an engraver on standby to fill in the names!
As Claire walks down the stairs at the beginning of the ceremony, she gives Les and Al knowing looks. So we know she is no good! But in case we missed it, our first glimpse of Claire are her feet in sexy sandals. So she’s definitely a bad lady!
Usually, when women are introduced “feet first,” there is something shady going on. Remember Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck‘s) appearance in Double Indemnity?
Fun fact: you may recognize Leslie Brooks from Cover Girl (1944) where she plays a frenemy of Rita Hayworth. This was Brooks’ biggest role, but she retired from movies in 1949.
Anyway, as the wedding ceremony gets underway, Claire looks away from her husband-to-be, Carl Hanneman (John Holland) to watch Les leave the room. Not great when the bride can’t stay focused on her fiancé during their wedding ceremony!
Things get even worse (for Carl) just after the ceremony when Claire sneaks away to talk with Les on the terrace. She tells him she still loves him and fully intends to continue their relationship despite her marriage. “I’ll think about you on my honeymoon…” she says as she embraces him. That’s cold!
Then things go from inappropriate to ridiculously inappropriate with a big old smooch. In full view of the wedding reception. Three minutes after the ceremony.
You can watch the scene here:
Carl sees his new wife kiss Les, but she tells him she was just kissing him goodbye, and really they have a brother-sister relationship, so don’t worry! Carl is an idiot, and Claire is very pretty, so he believes her.
Off they go on their honeymoon to Los Angeles, but it’s a rocky start. She loves spending her rich husband’s money, but he’s a thrifty man and her profligacy troubles him.
Also, she wasn’t kidding about continuing her affair with Les. If you thought Claire’s decision to kiss her ex-boyfriend at her wedding reception in full view of her new husband was bad, get ready for this doozy. She writes a love letter to Les but hides it under a letter to a girlfriend when Carl enters the room.
She hands him the papers, assuming her “transparency” about the letter will relieve Carl’s suspicions. But then he drops the letters and sees the one to Les. Nice job, Claire. She’s bad, but not very smart.
Carl decides to file for divorce, and says he will use the love letter to prove adultery and thus get out of paying any alimony. Claire is horrified. She was fine with a divorce, but wanted that sweet cash!
Carl goes back to San Francisco alone. But that night, Claire pays a crooked pilot named Blackie Talon (Russ Vincent) to fly her to San Francisco in secret. The movie cuts from the airport back to hotel the next morning, so we don’t know what exactly she did on her trip…but it probably wasn’t good.
The next day, Claire calls Les and says that Carl had to go to New York on business for the week. She wants to come back to San Francisco and spend her free days with Les, so he arranges a flight for her and even drives her home to Carl’s mansion.
When they arrive, Les makes a grisly discovery: Carl’s body in the living room. He is dead from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But we know better. Just look at Claire’s face as she watches a shaken Les call the cops!
Now Carl is out of the way, and as his widow, Claire gets everything. And this money was all she cared about, so she is feeling pretty good.
But the cops realize there is something fishy going on. There were no fingerprints on the gun and no powder burns, but they don’t have enough evidence to charge Claire, thanks to her (false) alibi of being in Los Angeles. And there isn’t any strong evidence tying Les to the murder, either, though he is an obvious suspect. Venetian blinds make great shadows, don’t they? So very noir.
Over the next few weeks, Claire and Les pick up their love affair as though her week-long marriage never happened. But Carl’s money isn’t enough for Claire. Now she wants position, and she knows who can provide it: a big time lawyer named Stanley Mason (Michael Whalen) who is currently running for Congress. She spots him when she is at dinner with Les, but the presence of her current lover doesn’t inconvenience her in the slightest. And like all good femme fatales, she has a certain something that draws men to her and renders them pliable and stupid.
She tells Stanley she needs a good lawyer to handle the transfer of Carl’s estate, and he agrees to help her. But soon their relationship becomes much more than attorney-client.
Meanwhile, the police come after Les for the murder of Carl, and he also gets suspicious as he learns more about the holes in the suicide theory. Eventually, he finds out about the secret flight Claire took with Blackie. He confronts her, which leads to this amazing exchange:
Hurray for saying the title in the movie itself! This is one element that makes me call this movie the poor man’s Double Indemnity. It gets corny and over the top in a way Double Indemnity and the best film noirs don’t. Even at its most intense, Double Indemnity remains spooky and cool, and doesn’t verge into the obvious or silly. That film, like other classic noirs such as Out of the Past (1947) or The Maltese Falcon have something mystical and mythical about them, and also about the femme fatale at the center of the story.
The dangerous but fascinating woman exercises a strange and powerful hold on the men around her. Claire sort of has that, but not in the way that Phyllis Dietrichson or Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past do.
We don’t really see Claire’s power or understand why these men fall for her. Instead, she says things like, “They say the female of the species is deadlier than the male,” rather than acting it out in a sexy, mystical way. And we know that Claire is bad from the very beginning, but we never get more depth to her character besides learning that she wants money and power. She’s just evil.
Back to the film! That same evening, Blackie, the pilot, resurfaces to blackmail Claire. He needs cash, so he threatens to tell the cops about flying her to San Francisco unless she pays up.
Claire gives him some jewelry and hopes to never see him again. Then she goes about her romancing of Stanley. At dinner one evening, the couple is joined by a psychologist, Dr. Kippinger (David Leonard) who sees through Claire. Finally, a psychological element enters in the form of a very perceptive, stereotypical shrink! He even has a vaguely German accent.
Anyway, the police eventually close Carl’s murder because they can’t find strong evidence that would convict Claire or Les. So she is free to continue her life, though Blackie pulls her back into the morass when he shows up once again. So she kills him. NBD.
Then she goes back to her public life and stands by Stanley when he wins the election. At the victory party, he announces that they are going to be married. Les is horrified: he is losing Claire once again to a rich, powerful man.
But just after the announcement, Claire finds Les and promises him she still loves him. It’s a replay of her wedding to Carl, down to Stanley walking in on Claire and Les kissing. Will she never learn?
Amazing expressionistic cinematography with Claire’s face in the extreme foreground!
Anyway, Stanley decides to break off their engagement. He also mentions that Dr. Kippinger had just warned him about Claire. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take the warning very seriously. As soon as he turns his back on her, she stabs him. No one leaves Claire! Then she waits for Les to return and pins the murder on him.
The police arrest him, but Dr. Kippinger and a few others know that Claire is the culprit. So they confront her in her office at the newspaper.
But guess what? Claire has already written her confession explaining that she killed Carl, Blackie, and Stanley. It’s unclear why she has decided to come clean, so it’s quite a shock. But she wants to take one more life before she is finished, and pulls a gun on the doctor. In the struggle, she shoots herself accidentally. It’s all very exciting.
And weird, because after she dies, Les and a bunch of other people file into the office and stare at her dead body. So much for crime scene contamination. Eventually, it’s just Les looking down at her, though he too leaves and shuts the door on her corpse! So strange. But very noir, I suppose.
This movie was in production for a few weeks in February 1948 and premiered soon after on May 20 (most B-movies were made very fast). Motion Picture Herald‘s review was lackluster. The paper called Blonde Ice a “routine murder yarn” that should “go over in those situations where patrons enjoy crime films.” Variety was more critical. Its review claimed that “Miss Brooks, who has the looks and enough ability for better roles, is surrounded by a fairly capable cast that appears to have been misdirected by Jack Bernhard. The story, of course, is too implausible to make much on the screen” and “Vehicle screams its limited production values.” Finally, the movie “has little for the marquee excepting the title and lurid pictures. Film, at best, is only lesser dual fare.”
Fun fact: speaking of “dual fare,” the movie played as the second part of a double bill with several other movies, including Easter Parade, The Emperor Waltz, and The Street With No Name.
Another fun fact: Box Office magazine recommended exhibitors exploit the relationship between the movie and the book, Once Too Often, by creating tie-ins with libraries and bookstores. “Blonde Ice” hairdos and makeup at salons were another advertising recommendation, as was the rather farfetched “Blonde Ice” cocktail or ice cream sundae.
I love the suggested catchlines, too: “There was Evil in her Tender Touch…Death in her Warm Embrace…And the Men in her Life were Marked for a Tragic, Pitiless Doom.” No beating around the bush here!
Blonde Ice will be available to stream on The Film Detective’s site and apps on November 1 as part of Noir November. As I mentioned, you can watch the movie for free with ads, or subscribe for $3.99 a month or $34.99 a year for an ad-free experience. Click here to learn more about the site and check out their selection of movies here.