Portrait in Black

December 17, 2009 at 5:56 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , , )

Portrait in Black is a fairly late noir, released in 1960, that has an all-star noir cast. The films leading characters are played by the likes of Lana Turner, Richard Basehart, Lloyd Nolan, Anthony Quinn, John Saxon, and Sandra Dee. Turner, Basehart and Nolan are among noir elite and all three give good performances, though Basehart is the standout.

The film was directed by Michael Gordon who is a rather unknown director with only a few really low budget noir films such as An Act of Murder and Crime Doctor to his credit. The film was written by Ivan Goff, who’s screenwriting credits include the magnificent White Heat and later in his career, the TV series Charlie’s Angels.

The film is set in San Francisco and centers around a dying shipping magnate named Matthew Cabot (Lloyd Nolan). His doctor David Rivers (Anthony Quinn) tends to Cabot in Cabot’s office overlooking his little shipping empire. Suddenly we are introduced to Cabot’s wife, Sheila (Lana Turner). She is much too young and virile for the aging and dying Cabot, but she is just right for the vigorous young doctor.

David and Sheila cannot wait for Matthew Cabot to die on his own. Sheila uses her womanly charms to convince the good doctor that he should finish the job ASAP and they can be together forever, and with more money than they know what to do with. The major problem with their plan is that Howard Mason (Richard Basehart), a smarmy little guy who is too smart for his own good, wants his hand on the shipping fortune and the widowed Cabot. He has been running the shipping business for several years and feels he is entitled. This is the struggle that forces the action in the movie and leads to the inevitable outcome.

Elements of Noir

This film, though just outside the heyday of the genre, does have noir elements. Shadows are used for effect in several instances, such as when Dr. Rivers is bathed in shadow just before the idea of murder is mentioned and is split down the middle as the idea of killing Cabot is discussed. Anytime murder is discussed or about to take place, shadows rule the image.

Also Dr. Rivers, like most men in noir, doesn’t seem to really be in control of himself. He would have never committed murder if he had been permitted to simply continue his practice. However, his weakness allowed him to get mixed up with a femme fatale, Sheila Cabot, and his fate was made. He lost control of his life at that point and was simply going along for the ride.


This is certainly a film noir, but not a very good one. It is sad to see such wonderful actors and a writer that has written some wonderful material to be involved in something so bad. This film fails on many fronts.

First of all, its imitation of Hitchcock goes far beyond simple influence. The director Michael Gordon tries way too hard to make the film look like a Hitchcock to the point of making it appear amateurish. Also, the soundtrack is incredibly obnoxious and makes you want to watch the film with the sound off.

The most disheartening part of the film is watching Anthony Quinn. Quinn is generally a wonderful actor, but in this film he is miscast entirely and poorly directed. His love scenes with Lana Turner are among the worst I have ever seen. You can certainly tell that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the scenes or the dialogue. The dialogue is horrible and the delivery no better.

If you are looking for a quality, obscure film noir, keep on looking. Portrait in Black is a nice noirish title, but the film does not deliver. The only reason to see this film is to see Basehart, who is the class of this film, but it really isn’t worth the hour and a half it takes from your life.


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