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Back Street (1961)

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Here’s a movie that wasn’t shot in Lincoln, Nebraska — but it’s set there.

Fanny Hurst’s oft-filmed tearjerker gets the ultra-sudsy, completely over the top treatment in this glossy Ross Hunter production directed by David Miller, which manages with stupefying accuracy to consist of nothing but one cliché after another, both in the dialogue and the visuals, creating an entirely unconvincing narrative centering on Rome, Paris, New York and — wait for it — Lincoln, Nebraska, all of it created entirely on the Universal back lot, with some stock footage spliced in for establishing shots. There’s more rear projection and doubling in this film than one can imagine.

The plot is both simple and predictable; Susan Hayward is an up and coming fashion designer who leaves Lincoln for New York, where she makes it big, but falls in love with John Gavin along the way, and since he’s married to Vera Miles, this creates all sorts of complications. In the 50s, the great Douglas Sirk would have directed this for Hunter, who specialized in this sort of film, but by the 1960s, the whole production had to be done relatively cheaply, with the somewhat stolid Gavin standing in for Rock Hudson.

Vera Miles is the best thing in the film, and one wonders what might have happened to her career if Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t put her under exclusive contract, and then pretty much kept her off the market — except for Psycho and The Wrong Man — but the most striking thing about Back Street is in its absolute insistence at being utterly predictable at every turn. One can literally recite the dialogue for the film without ever having seen it, and it’s hard to believe that the protagonists of the film took it very seriously; it almost defines the camp sensibility.

There’s a gorgeous DVD out on the film now from TCM; it’s a jawdropping experience.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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