It’s a Man’s World: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) by Guy Savage
“The only thing that counts is that stuff you take to the bank--that filthy buck that everybody sneers at but slugs to get.”
The Damsel-in-Distress is a familiar character in film noir. Most of these dames have husband problems (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) and the appeal for help includes an unexpected violent death, widowhood, and a pine box. But there’s another type of female role in noir--the Woman-in-Jeopardy. These women are under threat from forces they’ve usually invited into their lives. Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952), threatened by a vengeful, money-hungry husband (Jack Palance) and his persistent girlfriend (Gloria Grahame), is the perfect example of a Woman-in-Jeopardy film. Joan Crawford delivers an earlier, equally exquisite performance of a Woman- in-Jeopardy in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950)--the first of three films Crawford made with director & lover Vincent Sherman: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Harriet Craig (1950), and Goodbye My Fancy (1951).
The Damned Don’t Cry, a smash hit upon its release, is the story of Ethel Whitehead, a woman who following a family tragedy abandons her humble origins and climbs to the top of society … one man at a time. According to the DVD cover, Ethel Whitehead is “as tempting as a cupcake and as tough as a 75-cent steak.”
The film begins with a car careening on the dark, deserted roads outside of the remote resort town of Desert Springs. The car stops, the door opens, and a body is tossed out. When the stiff is discovered, the consensus from the local police is that it was a matter of time before cocky gangster Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran), owner of the local gambling joint, the Hacienda Club, was murdered. Naturally they search his house and discover some interesting home movies which include footage of wealthy socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes. A trip to her rented home nearby leads to her abandoned and clueless companion, society dame Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) and a patch of blood-soaked carpet. An APB goes out for the missing socialite, but as the news agencies pick up the story, they uncover conflicting stories about her past; she’s alternately a wealthy oil widow, a Denver socialite, or a Texas heiress depending on who you ask. Lorna’s background melts under scrutiny, and it becomes clear that Lorna is a fake name.
Then the mink-clad socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes, driving an expensive car, shows up at a joyless, poverty stricken town packed with shacks and oil rigs. One of those shacks is home. Strip away the mink, the jewels and the fancy name and Lorna is in fact … plain old Edith Whitehead (Joan Crawford).
When Lorna/Edith arrives at the home of her parents, she receives a chilly welcome from her father (Morris Ankrum) while her mother, worn by poverty and hard work, looks old enough to be her grandmother. When Edith’s father challenges her about her rich clothing and money, she breaks down in tears. Flashbacks give glimpses into the hardships of Edith’s earlier poverty stricken life. In the past, Edith and husband Roy (Richard Egan)--a man with the sensitivity of Attila the Hun, lived with their son in the shack they share with Edith’s parents. It’s a bad set-up with Edith’s father siding with his son-in-law and jumping in during an argument over money which takes place when Edith buys a bike for their son. The fight explodes into war and ends with the accidental death of the boy. After the funeral, Edith packs a battered suitcase and telling her family that she’s sick of waiting for life to ‘get better,’ she’s decided to go out into the world and grab what she wants while she still can.
While working as a shop assistant, an accidental meeting leads to a job for Edith as a floor model. In these days before sexual harassment, part of the job description includes entertaining out-of-town buyers who consider the models to be one of the perks. Edith isn’t comfortable with this part of the job at first, but she’s inducted into the finer points of selling clothes and wrestling male clients by fellow employee, Sandra (Jacqueline deWit), a wise cracking dame who leads those out-of-town suckers into card games at the back of Grady’s restaurant. The buyers, who place generous orders with Edith and Sandra’s boss, think this gives them license to grope the models. In return Sandra and eventually Edith view the buyers as suckers to be fleeced in the card room, and for every sucker they lead to Grady’s, the models get to split a 100 bucks.
One wonderful scene reveals Edith’s initial discomfort with the arrangement between Sandra and Grady (Hugh Sanders), but then the very next scene shows a gum-chewing Edith, hardened and very comfortable with the change as she deals payback on Sandra. While this causes enmity between the two models, the scene’s significance comes in Edith’s metamorphosis and her acceptance that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. In this scene, Edith’s ambition is now comfortably married to her lack-of-conscience. She’s going to get ahead and step on anyone who’s stupid enough to get in the way.
The next person to fall into Edith’s path is shy, middle-aged accountant Martin Blankford (Kent Smith). Edith spies him at the water fountain and hones in like a hunter on her prey. With dollar signs in her eyes, Edith follows Martin to his lowly office and sprawls across his desk in spite of the fact--or perhaps because--she’s dressed only in lingerie. Martin is easy pickings, and after hearing the letters CPA (and getting an explanation for what they stand for), she swoops him off to Grady’s thinking that she’s hooked another sucker. As fate would have it, mild-mannered Martin ends up doing an accounting favour for Grady, but Grady is just one piece in the criminal empire of the very nasty gangster George Castleman (David Brian).
Edith, who sees Marty as a prize she’s discovered, inserts herself as his pseudo business manager negotiating better deals and basically pimping him out in the mob empire. Poor Marty goes along for the ride leaving his moral scruples behind in his hopes of winning Edith with his impressive new salary. Unfortunately, Edith has bigger plans in mind, and in one wonderful scene she worms her way into Castleman’s office, and a heavy-breathing display of power vs. sex takes place. Perfumed, frilled and wearing what she thinks is a flattering hat, Edith obviously goes to Castleman’s office not to negotiate a better deal for Marty, but with seduction in mind. Like a couple of exotic caged animals, Castleman and Edith square off exchanging first insults and then sexual challenges as the sparks fly for this pre-mating display. He growls: “I admire a woman with brains, but a woman with brains and spirit excites me.”
Like many a gangster before him, Castleman is obsessed with leaving the appearance of his lowly beginnings behind, so just as he’s groomed himself into a gentlemen (complete with Etruscan vases), he expects Edith to make the switch to society dame….
The Damned Don’t Cry is a study is one woman’s difficult climb to the top of the heap, and up until the point Edith stiffs Marty, she is a sympathetic character. Obviously marrying Marty would have landed a good, comfortable life far from her humble beginnings, and not only does Edith lose our sympathy when she ditches Marty, but she also makes a strategic error. Edith may think that she wants the things that money can buy, but by the film’s conclusion it’s clear that what Edith really wanted was power and independence. Milquetoast Marty would have allowed Edith to run the show, and he would have been happy to labour under a mink-lined leash. Unfortunately Edith is fatally attracted to Castleman’s power--clearly an aphrodisiac, and she fails to understand that it won’t rub off on her; she’s still basically a tool--albeit a tool of a powerful gangster. Ultimately, she has as little control over her life as she did when she lived in a shack with Roy.
Following the blinding success of Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford once again enjoyed a renewed, successful film career. The role of Edith Whitehead fits Joan like a glove, and doubtless the film star identified with the role of a woman driven to flee poverty to seek the finer things in life. Like Edith, Crawford was born on ‘the wrong side of the tracks,’ and she never quite left her Southern roots behind in spite of her glamorous film star life. Crawford was known for starring in the so-called ‘woman’s picture,’ and while The Damned Don’t Cry is a woman-centered film, its core element of criminality lands this tale on the darker side.
Crawford preferred to have flattering full face shots, and photographers took slightly out-of-focus photos to soften her features which hardened dramatically with age. Those luminous shots are evident in the film and are particularly noteworthy when Edith first arrives back home and pleads for entry. Is it any coincidence that when Edith uses her siren charms to persuade Marty to join Castleman’s criminal empire, we see her full profile directed with all its terrifying power as she subdues Marty by sheer dominance? While the Castleman/Whitehead relationship ignites in a sort of sick power struggle, Crawford’s relationship with Steven Cochran doesn’t quite have the same impact. Cochran, a noir natural, at the height of his career stars here as loose-cannon gangster Nick Prenta. He’s clearly a younger man, and his attraction to Edith/Lorna never quite makes the grade. Nonetheless, The Damned Don’t Cry is a superb film with one of the greatest performances of Crawford’s magnificent career.