The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
In the same year that John Garfield appeared in an adaptation of a work by author Ernest Hemingway—The Breaking Point—the acclaimed actor starred in a film based on one of Hemingway’s earliest tales (published in his first short story collection, Three Stories and Ten Poems), My Old Man. Man tells the tale of a horse rider who’s keeping a secret from his son, and screenwriter Casey Robinson (Captain Blood, Dark Victory) retitled it as Under My Skin (1950).
Julie plays Dan Butler, a working-class jockey living and competing in Merano, Italy…and while the reasons for why he’s working abroad are a bit murky, it’s implied that his history of throwing races caught up with him in the States and necessitated a change of scenery. Old habits die hard; Dan’s agreed to throw another one for a hood named Louis Bork (Luther Adler)…but when circumstances dictate that he win the competition instead, an enraged Bork and his henchmen want the money they lost on the race. Butler is forced to beat a hasty retreat out of Merano with his son Joe (Orley Lindgren) at his side.
Arriving in Paris, Dan and Joe plan to settle in a cafe establishment run by Claude, one of Dan’s oldest friends…instead, Dan is told by his pal’s girlfriend Paule (Micheline Prelle) that his chum is dead and she holds him responsible (Claude apparently met his demise at the hands of some gamblers with whom Dan was involved). Though Paule is barely able to conceal her hostility toward Dan she takes a shine to Joe, and even offers to give him French lessons during his stay.
Dan eventually meets up with Bork and a couple of his goombahs, who are going to put Butler out of his misery unless he can come up with the money he owes the gangster in one week. With the information that a race involving fellow jockey George Gardner is fixed (George is the favorite, but he tells Butler otherwise), Dan bets on the winning horse and collects enough to start squaring himself with Louis. Son Joe, however, takes the news that his father is dishonest a little too harshly, and so Dan plans to ship Joe back to the U.S., so he can be properly brought up by relatives in Michigan.
Joe changes his mind about going to Michigan, something Dan is overjoyed to hear. In fact, the younger Butler comes up with the solution to race a horse Dan’s purchased from his trainer: enter the nag in a steeplechase instead of a regular horse race. When Dan starts winning a few competitions, Bork hits upon the scheme that there’s big money to be made if Dan throws another one. Will Dan risk sacrificing the respect of his son again just to become, in Louis’ words, “a free man”?
I wrote in a previous “Where’s That Been?” column that I consider The Breaking Point to be the movie that features John Garfield’s finest performance…so it’s rather fitting that Under My Skin is sort of a “tune-up” for that amazing turn; Garfield is great in the part of Dan Butler, but a lot of his onscreen energy is missing. Sadly, Julie was two films away from leaving this world for a better one, and the actor even suffered a heart attack during the making of Skin, necessitating the shutting down of production for three weeks.
Even though Garfield could have used some help in the vitality department, the role of Butler is a good fit for him; one of an endless number of anti-heroes who haven’t always adhered to the straight-and-narrow but eagerly seek out that last minute chance for redemption. For Dan, his entire life has been dictated by not being on the up-and-up. When Paule tries to convince him throwing the final race is in his best interests from a healthy point of view (if he doesn’t, Bork will have him rubbed out), he responds: “Just one race—one more and one more, and that’s the way it goes! When I was fifteen, I threw my first one. I’ve thrown hundreds since. Now look at me! The places I run away from! The places I can’t show my face! A guy ends up playing tag with himself! He’s gotta stop sometime!”
Actress Micheline Presle (billed here as Micheline Prelle) was quite the star in her native Paris, featured in such films as Claude Autant-Lara’s Devil in the Flesh (1947). With her marriage to actor William Marshall in 1950, Micheline embarked on a short-lived Hollywood career—Under My Skin marked her American movie debut. Despite roles in American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950; with Tyrone Power) and Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951; with Errol Flynn), stardom on this side of the pond eluded her and she soon returned back to France to universal acclaim. In Skin, Presle’s fine performance reminded me a good deal of Valentina Cortese—another actress of foreign extraction whose fleeting success in U.S. movies like Thieves’ Highway (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) soon prompted a return to films produced abroad. Orley Lindgren (Young Man with a Horn, Red Planet Mars) is okay as Young Master Joe but I wish the filmmakers had been able to secure Dean Stockwell (the first choice) for the role–it would have made a tremendous difference.
Under My Skin served as the film debut of character great Noel Drayton, a South African actor hired to play Dan’s fellow jockey pal, George, based on his riding ability. Drayton would go on to a twenty-five-year career in films and TV, with high profile roles in Plymouth Adventure (1952) and The Court Jester (1956). The role of hoodlum Louis Bork was one of four movies graced by Luther Adler in 1950, which turned out to be quite a year for him as he also gave incredible performances in two film noir classics, D.O.A. and the underrated Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.
The European footage of Under My Skin was shot by an uncredited Otto Lang (while much of the locations are authentic, the film’s principals actually never left California) while the entire production was helmed by veteran Jean Negulesco, who had worked with star Garfield earlier in both Humoresque (1946) and one of my favorite noirs, Nobody Lives Forever (1946). Forever and Skin share a common theme: a man struggling to make things right after a lifetime career of illegitimate behavior. Garfield fans won’t want to miss this one, and if you’re more familiar with the 1979 TV movie that kept Hemingway’s title but changed the gender of the jockey’s offspring (Kristy McNichol and Warren Oates star in this version) tuck the 1950 film under your cinematic belt for an interesting compare-and-contrast.