Sometimes you want to see movie characters with pure motive – no layers, psychology, or (shudder) backstory.
Now, by “pure motive” we mean All Motive, as in, Good or Evil, and we have a film that specializes in this Very Thing.
Temptation (1946) stars the tall-haired Merle Oberon as a woman with a Past who is All About the Money. Her character is a completely self-absorbed phoney baloney, just shy of campy caricature. Unhappily for the men in her life, she has enough of the Refinements of her era to fool them.
Oberon, at first, is proud of her inability to love. We suspect there is a Tragic Story in her past, but, fortunately, we are spared these Sordid Details. She marries the affable (and wealthy) George Brent, an Egyptologist who brings her to Cairo – and who, conveniently, spends a lot of time at his excavation site.
Oberon gamely tries to make a New Life Egypt, but – alas! – she is bored, bored, bored.
But look! She meets a handsome young man (Charles Korvin), who is a professional blackmailer of women. He isn’t blinded by love or flattery, but he is easily outsmarted by his tremendous ego.
Korvin and Oberon are well matched; each sees the other for who they truly are. But Oberon makes the mistake of falling in love with Korvin, a love that can only lead to murder.
Temptation could be considered a film noir, but it’s really a study in Power and Motive, and who deserves the Top Spot in the Fatale Food Chain (FFC).
Brent, the cuckolded husband, is, sadly, at the bottom of the FFC. His motive is pure: He has a genuine interest in ancient Egyptian history, and he’s helplessly in love with his wife. His limited power comes from the respect he receives from his peers and neighbours.
(Digression: We’re normally lukewarm towards Brent as actor, but we really like him here as a man who blindly trusts a woman, No Matter What.)
Just above Brent on the FFC is Arnold Moss, the police captain. He has power only because he has The Law on his side, but he’s hamstrung by the need for Concrete Proof and Evidence.
Any thriller/film noir worth its Salt will place the femme fatale (or homme fatale) at the top of the FFC. Temptation has both persons fatale, and each struggles to maintain superiority over the other. Oberon is a master manipulator, but so is Korvin, and it’s difficult to guess who will ultimately triumph.
Temptation is based on the popular 1909 novel, Bella Donna, by British novelist and Renaissance Man Robert Hichens. This novel was, apparently, one of the top best-selling books in the United States at the time.
In 1912, the novel was adapted for the Broadway stage, then it was adapted for film in 1915 and again in 1923.
Reviews were mixed for 1946’s Temptation. Variety thought the story was stretched too thin, while our pal Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it “claptrap”.
Ultimate Movie Rankings lists it at 120 on the box office rankings for 1946, but it did have a respectable domestic gross of $64 million US (adjusted).
This film is underrated, in our opinion. Because of its historical setting, it has a slightly different vibe for a noir. But it is an excellent study in power and motive, and who might outwit whom at the top of the Fatale Food Chain.
Temptation: starring Merle Oberon, George Brent, Charles Korvin. Directed by Irving Pichel. Written by Robert Thoeren. International Pictures, 1946, B&W, 98 mins.