Heller in Pink Tights (1960)
“One foot on the stage… And one step ahead of the law!”
Director: George Cukor
Cast: Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, Margaret O’Brien
Synopsis: Story of theatrical troupe that travels through the Old West.
Heller in Pink Tights is the only Western made by George Cukor and, given the man’s sensibilities it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is unlike almost any other Western made. With as much of an eye on the set design (red is everywhere!) and the style of La Loren’s costumes as the mechanics of the plot, he dispenses with one of the major characters from Louis L’Amour’s novel Heller with a Gun and focuses instead on the relationship between the manager of a ramshackle touring company in the old West and his leading lady, a flighty Italian beauty.
That beauty, Angela Rossini, is played by Sophia Loren, the wife of the film’s co-producer Carlo Ponti. Angela has a habit of running up huge bills in the clothes shops of whichever town the Healy touring company happens to be playing, meaning that, as the company’s manager — and Angela’s lover — Tom Healy has insufficient funds to pay the bills, so they invariably have to flee before the irate creditors catch up with them. Their aimless journey across the West takes them to Cheyenne, where Angela catches the eye of cold-blooded professional killer Clint Mabry (Steve Forrest). Although the show is a success in Cheyenne, events conspire to force yet another hasty departure.
In urgent need of money, the company raises funds by selling saucy photographs of Angela and young Della Southby (former child star Margaret O’Brien in her first big screen role in four years). But Angela then wagers everything they earn on a poker game in which, certain she has a winning hand, she also stakes herself. Unfortunately, Mabry has a better hand, and is keen to collect his winnings…
Cukor has to be applauded for attempting something different, I suppose, but Heller in Pink Tights has to be considered a failure. The storyline is secondary to the look and subtext of the film, with events seen largely from a female perspective. All the usual components of the Western are in place — the gunslinger, the Indians, the villainous business tycoon — but they all play supporting roles to the relationship between Healy and Angela, which is threatened both by her fear of commitment and the presence of Mabry. Cukor is more interested in the sexual dynamics in play here than action. Healy presents the sensible but vaguely asexual option which offers security but lacks excitement, while Mabry, who has about him an aura of danger, presents the possibility of excitement to which Angela is attracted, but which also frightens her.
Anthony Quinn is miscast in the largely ineffectual role of Tom Healy. He’s a big, rugged man unsuited to playing reserved and thoughtful actor types, and despite playing opposite Loren for the third time, they lack any real chemistry. Loren looks gorgeous, but she was only ever a mediocre actress, and serves primarily as a clothes horse for Edith Head’s sumptuous gowns. She isn’t helped by a character who lacks depth and intelligence, and constantly makes poor decisions. The supporting cast is a capable one, and it would have been nice to see more of the other characters in Healy’s company (played by Eileen Heckart, Edmund Lowe and O’Brien), but the only actor to really stand out is Steve Forrest who, although not first choice for the role of Mabry, manages to communicate the hidden depths that lurk beneath the stereotypical demeanour of the cold-blooded killer. So, while there are elements within the movie that are worth catching, overall, Heller in Pink Tights has to be considered something of a failure.
(Reviewed 20th December 2013)