The 1947 noirish thriller Lured stars Lucille Ball and is directed by Douglas Sirk, neither of them names you’d associate with this sort of thing. Ball was a comic actor, Sirk is now chiefly remembered for big, overheated and florid dramas like All That Heaven Allows, but both show their breadth of talent in this relatively low-budget production shiny with quality.
It looks at first like a serial killer thriller, and a particularly modern one – seven women dead, each of whose murders has been accompanied by a poem sent to the police, a Seven-style taunt. The police, meanwhile, though led by crusty oldster Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn) are bringing all the techno-whizzery they can to the solving of the crime, with several scenes pointing out the importance of detailed forensics. Again, pretty modern.
Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, a “taxi girl” paid to dance with strangers at a dance hall, who is seconded to work for the police when a fellow dancer goes missing, presumed dead. Arming Sandra with a gun (no training, just like that), Temple sends her off to act as bait for the killer, with much being made of Sandra’s devastating looks.
What then plays out isn’t really a serial killer story at all. As Sandra puts herself in the orbit of one potential killer after another, we’re given something more like a disquisition on female agency in society. Who’s the perp? Is it eccentric (to the point of insanity?) designer Charles van Druten (Boris Karloff), supercilious butler Lyle Maxwell (Alan Mowbray)? Mysterious South American magnate Dr Nicholas Moryani? Nightclub impresario Robert Fleming (George Sanders)? Or Fleming’s business partner Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke)? All are domineering men, and fresh to the point of being “rapey”. Sandra meanwhile is a sassy, cool operator who at no point really looks out of her depth (it’s suggested she’s learned how to deal with men’s wandering hands and drunken proposals on the dance floor). Ball gets a couple of good comic lines and creates a couple of moments that aren’t really in the script. She’s excellent as the green but plucky amateur sleuth with innate powers of perception and deduction.
The whole cast are excellent though, particularly Coburn, Sanders and Hardwicke, though George Zucco is also worth a mention, as the cop assigned to keep half an eye on Carpenter, and who, it’s suggested, might have fallen in love with her.
Supposedly set in London (a matte painting of the Houses of Parliament), it was made in California by producer Hunt Stromberg, who had a reputation for turning out good films on a budget. It’s smartly written, lushly orchestrated in film-noir style by Michel Michelet, who’d also scored the French original, Personal Column (aka Pièges), and Michelet includes a snatch of the nursery rhyme London Bridge Is Falling Down at one point to help make the illusion real. Ball is dressed exquisitely throughout – the police have given Sandra an expenses budget, we’re told, by way of a half-assed explanation, and this is one of those films where there is a “Gowns by” credit (Elois Jenssen).
The film was a flop. Sirk was convinced it was because its name was changed halfway through its run, from Lured to Personal Column (like the original). The studio was worried that Lured was too close to Lurid, ironic considering that that’s exactly what Sirk’s films became later in his career, though there’s little trace of that here.
What there is, though, as things wind to a close, is a very interesting and very Sirkian bit of character development in one of the suspects. Is he gay, and that explains the murders? There are nudges in that direction, hints dropped, insinuations made, all of which massively foreshadows Sirk’s later work, when secrets of one sort or another would often provide the dramatic tug in his dramas.
Lured is a film heading in two entirely different directions for much of its running time, and for a good central chunk of it it’s as if everyone involved has forgotten that there’s a serial killer on the loose. But there really is lots to like and it’s a much subtler and more substantial film than it appears to be at first glance. But then that is the way with Sirk.
I am an Amazon affiliate
© Steve Morrissey 2021