BOOTLEG FILES 480: “Malaga” (1960 British feature starring Dorothy Dandridge and Trevor Howard).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film seems to have disappeared from view.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, I hope so!
Being a bootleg video fiend requires a great deal of patience, because sometimes it takes years to track down a decent copy of a long-missing flick that never made it to commercial home entertainment release. Of course, locating a film does not necessarily mean that a classic-in-hiding has been unearthed – more often than not, many unavailable films are probably best left resting in cinematic oblivion.
But, on occasion, the search for a long-lost film brings in some interesting surprises. Case in point: the 1960 British drama “Malaga” (released in Europe as “Moment of Danger”). The film is valuable because it offers the last theatrical film performance by Dorothy Dandridge, one of the most bewitching yet elusive figures in film history.
Dandridge was a popular nightclub singer who was fast-tracked for movie stardom in the early 1950s. Her role in Otto Preminger’s 1954 production of “Carmen Jones” created a sensation and brought her into the history books as the first African-American woman to earn an Academy Award nomination in the Best Actress category.
However, Dandridge’s career seemed to decline as quickly as it peaked. A number of intriguing projects, including an all-black remake of the Marlene Dietrich classic “The Blue Angel,” failed to materialize, and Dandridge unwisely rejected supporting roles of the lovesick slave Tuptim in the film version of “The King and I” and as a wacky entertainer in the popular comedy “The Lieutenant Wore Skirts” (both films would make a star out of then-unknown Rita Moreno). Dandridge’s subsequent Hollywood films – “Island in the Sun,” “The Decks Ran Red” and the Preminger version of “Porgy and Bess” – were inferior to her “Carmen Jones” triumph. Stymied by Hollywood’s racial limitations, she sought offbeat roles in Europe – first in the French-based “Tamango” and then in England with “Malaga.”
Dandridge’s presence in “Malaga” is very surprising, because she is playing a woman of unclear heritage. Her character has the name Gianna and there is a condescending reference to things “in her language,” though the script makes no specific citation to an Italian background and she makes no effort to carry a foreign accent. And if the film’s British producers believed the presence of an American star would win audiences across the Atlantic, they seem to have overlooked the sad fact that Dandridge was not really (as they say in Variety) boffo box office, despite the “Carmen Jones” triumph.
Still, Dandridge is front and center, and she provides a startling performance that fuels an otherwise uneven drama. However, it is important to view “Malaga” in the context of its creation and not to go reading contemporary sociological or pop-psychological meanings into its material.
“Malaga” opens in London with a jewel heist at a posh home. The thieves are John Bain (Trevor Howard), a locksmith with a prison record, and Peter Curran (Edmund Purdom), a flashy lowlife whose girlfriend Gianna (Dandridge) supports them. Bain and Curran successfully pull their heist, but Curran double-crosses Bain by leaving him to be apprehended by the police. Bain’s stolid demeanor manages to withstand police interrogation, and he discovers that Curran abandoned Gianna and fled to Spain to conclude the miscreant transaction.
Bain and Gianna have no immediate fondness for each other, but both want to track down Curran: Bain to get even for being double-crossed and Gianna to get a slice of the rich cash payout promised from the sale of the stolen jewelry. They pool their meager funds to travel to Madrid, but they miss Curran as he boards an airplane to the Costa del Sol resort of Malaga. Unable to follow him by air, Bain and Gianna cross Spain via hitchhiking and long walks until they reach Malaga and try to find the slippery Curran.
Hungarian-born director Laslo Benedek, who gained some degree of notoriety for his films “Death of a Salesman” (1951) and “The Wild One” (1953), was imported to England to helm “Malaga.” However, his direction was erratic. Some of the sequences are startling for their artistic and emotional power, most notably the noir-worthy jewel heist that launches the story and the rough emotional exchange between Howard and Dandridge over her efforts to raise money to fund the trip to Malaga. (I don’t want to give away the latter sequence, because its power comes from the sense of surprise.) But much of his direction betrays the production’s cheapjack budget – the police interrogation scene with Howard and the always wonderful Michael Hordern as an exasperated investigator looks like it was shot in someone’s garage – and the depiction of Spain as a dingy and silly country will shock anyone that has traveled through the Iberian Peninsula.
But the real energy in “Malaga” comes from Dandridge’s performance. Her Gianna is a moody, melancholy, embittered yet indefatigable force of nature. Some contemporary writers have assumed that Dandridge channeled her then-brewing personal problems into the role, but that is too convenient of an explanation for her subtle ability to plumb the character’s emotions. As she proved in “Carmen Jones,” she was able to play complex emotional roles and to invest an unusual degree of maturity and intelligence into her acting.
Of course, it is difficult to overlook the racial aspects of her casting. Although she receives a peck on the cheek from Purdom’s Curran and she fends off less-than-romantic advances from other white men throughout the film, she never enjoys a full kiss with Howard’s Bain despite their long time together in Spain. Some people might see that as a reflection of the primitive racial attitudes of that bygone era, but they are overlooking one primary element of the screenplay: Bain and Gianna are emotionally numb people who only realize their attraction when it is too late. To have them fall madly in love, or even politely in love, would have diluted the nature of their thorny relationship. The power of the film’s ending (and, again, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot twists) relies on Gianna’s steely willingness to sacrifice her own happiness in favor of someone else. If Howard and Dandridge had a big kiss, it would have made history and ruined the movie.
“Malaga” was shot in 1959 and released in England in 1960. However, no U.S. distributor was interested in the film until Warner Bros. picked it up for a 1962 release. But it made no impression on American audiences. Dandridge would never star in another feature film, and in 1965 she was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment. Whether her death was the result of suicide or frayed health has been debated for years, which only adds to the mystery of Dandridge’s allure.
“Malaga” remained mostly forgotten until there was a revived interest in Dandridge’s legacy during the late 1990s. However, the film remains mostly unseen outside of a few retrospective screenings of the star’s canon. To date, there has been no U.S. commercial home entertainment release of this title. An unauthorized posting of the film, via a somewhat faded and scratchy 16mm print, turned up on YouTube a couple of months ago.
If “Malaga” is not a great film, it is important evidence to Dandridge’s abilities as a dramatic actress. It is a sad and astonishing swan song for a woman whose talent was not fully appreciated until it was too late.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!