Bad Movies We Love: Portrait in Black

Lana Turner churned out nothing but celluloid cheese after the scandal over her daughter Cheryl's stabbing to death Mom's gangster lover in 1958--and Portrait In Black is Lana's four-course Velveeta banquet.

The erstwhile "Sweater Girl" cats about as hot-blooded Sheila Cabot whose lover, Dr. David Rivera (Anthony Quinn), cold-bloodedly injects a lethal air bubble into the gnarled veins of Sheila's loathsome invalid husband (Lloyd Nolan). It looks like a perfect crime until Lana receives a note: "Congratulations on the success of your murder."

There ensue scenes of our heroine thrashing in bed--mussing not a hair--to suggest guilt, Quinn swooning during surgery when he hallucinates that his murder victim awaits on the operating table, a second murder and nearly a third--alas aborted, since the intended victim is Sandra Dee, who chirps such lines as "If I'd known we were going to a beatnik joint for coffee and word jazz, I'd have worn my tights."

Fellow connoisseurs of the overwrought will savor such set pieces as the row during which Quinn shatters Turner's mirrored reflection with a candlestick or when Quinn--driven yet again to the breaking point-crushes a syringe in his hirsute paw. And the dialogue? Turner and Quinn cling tightly, murmuring "David," "Sheila;" "Sheila," "David." And do not miss several scenes played in shadow--allegedly because the star arrived on the set visibly battered by an ardent admirer.

We know and love such late-era Turner epics for what they are: exercises in mutual exploitation by a manufactured, scandal-wracked star and her creators. Here, pushing 40, shot in gauzy soft focus, sporting 14 Jean Louis getups and, gushed the publicity, "$1,175,000 worth of jewels--using 4,200 real diamonds, 700 pearls, 250 emeralds," Lana is the last of the great zircon icons, forever Miss Rhinestone.