Out of jail and heavily in debt, gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) accepts five thousand dollars to fly down to Mexico on a mysterious mission whose finer details are unnervingly unclear. En route, Dan shares a cosy cabin with sultry singer Lenore Brent (Jane Russell), who is posing as a wealthy woman to land herself a rich man. Although Lenore is engaged in an extramarital affair with hammy Hollywood star Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), sparks fly between this brassy broad and our two-fisted hero, as Dan uncovers a nefarious conspiracy afoot at their luxurious seaside resort. When undercover cop Bill Lusk (Tim Holt) turns up dead, the truth comes out: Dan is being played for a patsy by psychotic crime kingpin Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr).
When Jane Russell passed away recently, the media concentrated largely on her blouse-busting debut in The Outlaw (1943) or her equally iconic turn opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1954). Some where wise enough to cite Son of Paleface (1952), but few deemed to mention His Kind of Woman, an inspired pairing with Robert Mitchum and a rare venture into film noir, albeit noir laced with a healthy dose of cracked comedy. Russell may smoulder in an array of low-cut gowns, but with her arched eyebrows and sexy sneer she remains every inch the hardboiled heroine: gutsy and sharp-witted. When Dan implores her to leave before “the fireworks start”, Lenore replies: “But I like fireworks.” The chemistry between Mitchum and Russell is so electric it is a wonder why they never went on to become one of the great screen couples, nor indeed why Jane’s only other thriller role was her last in Darker Than Amber (1970). Their lengthy scenes of steamy banter do little to propel the already complicated plot, but are among the movie’s chief pleasures.
Like Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum was under contract at RKO, which initially meant meaty roles in diverse classics from Build My Gallows High (1947) to Pursued (1947) and Holiday Affair (1949). Unfortunately, once billionaire aviation enthusiast-cum-fruit loop Howard Hughes seized control of the studio, Mitchum resigned himself to a series of potboilers until they eventually parted ways. Based on the unpublished short story “Star Sapphie” by Gerald Drayson, His Kind of Woman may have started out as a conventional thriller. It was directed by John Farrow, father of Mia Farrow and a dab hand at noir as evidenced from The Big Clock (1948) and Where Danger Lives (1950), but though he delivered a finished cut, Hughes hired Richard Fleischer to re-shoot huge chunks of the film, added pointless narration delivered by a minor character who has nothing to do with the plot and personally co-scripted a new ending. The resulting tonal shifts between gritty noir and screwball farce endeared it to some as much as it alienated others, placing the film in the company of such similarly oddball, not-quite-a-spoof/not-quite-serious items as All Through the Night (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart or Citadel of Crime (1941) with John Wayne.
Hughes’ obsessive tinkering threatened to capsize an already complicated plot, yet snappy writing from Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard along with sheer star-power make every scene compelling. The film is chock full of vividly drawn, memorable characters, from the ex-Nazi plastic surgeon (John Mylong) to timid blonde (Leslie Banning) married to a reckless gambler, in whom Dan takes a paternal interest. Tim Holt makes an exit as sudden as his arrival after he uncovers the truth behind Ferraro’s scheme, but keep your eyes peeled for Jim Backus, the voice of Mister Magoo, as a sleazy broker and another prolific voice artist Paul Frees, in one of his rare screen roles as a gangster.
Robert Mitchum was the archetypal noir star. Some will say Humphrey Bogart, but as wonderful as he was, Bogie was more the definitive tough-talking gumshoe and rarely out of his depth like your usual film noir fall guy. As Dan Milner, Mitchum may exude his usual nonchalant cool, but has an alarming knack for getting ambushed. He’s tough but vulnerable, cool but compassionate, which is why we care. Farrow plays Mitchum’s plot strand for maximum moodiness with stark violence amidst sinister shadows (“I don’t want to shoot a corpse”, snarls Ferraro, looming near an unconscious Dan. “I want to see the expression on his face”).
The man who shoulders the second strand is none other than Vincent Price. Price steals scenes as the hugely affable Mark Cardigan: showbiz star, sportsman, amateur chef and raconteur. A man who applauds his own performance onscreen, but still jumps at the chance to stop play-acting and be a real hero. When Dan is in trouble, Mark grabs his guns, dons his cape (!), quotes Hamlet then leaps into action. The entire third act is thrill-a-minute stuff, with a superb standoff between three gunmen and the sharp-shooting ham. Just savour the relish in Price’s honeyed tones when he goads one nasty supporting villain (Charles McGraw) with his florid monologue (“Aw come on, I’ve been known to miss”). It builds to a climax both exciting and hilarious, wherein not even a dozen thugs and a hypodermic full of poison can subdue a bare-chested Mitchum while Price offs more bad guys than many an action hero. So you’ve got a charismatic Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell at her sultriest, and a wholly lovable turn from Vincent Price. Why shouldn’t His Kind of Woman tickle your taste buds like vintage champagne? “The drinks are on me, my bucko!”