Ruth Roman in Lightning Strikes Twice
  • Ruth Roman in Lightning Strikes Twice

“It’s possible to look at this film and see nothing but camp, but give it an ounce of respect and you’ll discover a remarkable aesthetic object—an exercise in mise-en-scene of an awesome, glacial beauty.” That’s how Dave Kehr described Josef von Sternberg’s Dishonored (which screens twice this weekend) when he wrote it up for the Reader some decades ago. Nowadays Kehr’s staunch auteurist defense no longer represents a minority critical position, as von Sternberg is hardly the contentious figure he once was. That’s not to say that auteurist critics succeeded in redeeming every major Hollywood filmmaker who skirted camp. Case in point: while quite a few of King Vidor’s silent and early sound films (The Big Parade, The Crowd, Our Daily Bread) are widely considered to be classics, almost all of the features he directed after Duel in the Sun—among them Ruby Gentry and Man Without a Star—remain near-exclusive causes of Vidor diehards and camp enthusiasts. If you’re digging the current Dietrich/von Sternberg retrospective at the Music Box, then you might enjoy looking into late Vidor when that series ends.

Thanks to the Warner Archive Collection and the Chicago Public Library, I recently caught up with Lighting Strikes Twice, a melodrama that Vidor made for Warner Bros. in 1951. The film shares a screenwriter, Lenore Coffee, with Vidor’s previous feature, the Bette Davis showcase Beyond the Forest, and like that film, everything here is deliberately, almost cartoonishly over-the-top. After her doctor orders her to take a sabbatical, a failed stage actress (reduced to touring the plains with a fleabag troupe) hits the road and winds up in a small, isolated Texas town. She meets, then quickly falls for, a wealthy landowner who’s just been acquitted of murdering his wife. To prove her love for him—and to dispel her doubts—she determines to find out who really committed the crime. Was it the landowner’s unctuous best friend? The headstrong neighboring rancher played by Mercedes McCambridge four years before she took a similar role in Johnny Guitar? And why are both suspects sexually ambiguous?

The heavy dose of glamor, overacting, and ludicrous plot twists anticipates such 80s prime time soaps as Dallas and Dynasty. (Incidentally, Lightning star Ruth Roman would later play a major character on Knots Landing.) But, to quote Kehr, give the movie an ounce of respect and you’ll discover a remarkable aesthetic object. Vidor’s imposing imagery—constructed around the wide-open expanses and distant mountains that characterize the setting—situates the overwrought emotions within a stark, eerily underpopulated environment where one must make oneself larger than life to make any sort of impact on other people.

The images of decadence in a topographical void suggest a science-fictional spectacle about the royal family of the moon. (I challenge any viewer to be bored by this film.) The highly physical performances, typically augmented by theatrical lighting setups, hark back to Vidor’s silent dramas. Indeed Lightning Strikes Twice sometimes feels like Vidor’s attempt to make a 1926 film in 1951, as dialogue takes a distant second place to imagery in conveying the psychological conflicts. I haven’t tried this yet, but I suspect the movie plays even better with the sound off.