Along with Singin' in the Rain, 1952's The Bad and the Beautiful was one of the two key studio movies to emerge around the halfway mark of the cinema's first century that cast a glance over its shoulders at what had gone before. Instead of Gene Kelly's peppy footwork, we're here offered a series of no less elaborate (but doomier) moves and manoeuvres, and a glimpse into the dark heart of Tinseltown out of which director Vincente Minnelli's romanticism had previously flowed freely; presumably he - like everyone else behind the scenes here - had been screwed over just once too often, and the result contends with Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place for the title of Greatest Hollywood Noir.
Kirk Douglas's producer Jonathan Shields, introduced paying the actors he's hired to serve as mourners at his generally unloved father's funeral, is an amalgamation of high and low Hollywood instincts. Part Val Lewton, part Selznick, he's a "genius boy" who came to prominence making the most of the limited means made available to him. (His early features include such titles as "The Cat Man" and "The Curse of the Cat Man", allowing Minnelli to have as much fun with the B-movie aesthetic as Singin' in the Rain did with the advent of sound.) The film observes Shields through the eyes of the three creatives who knew him better than anyone else - and vowed never to work with him again.
These are Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), the director Shields rescued from poverty row yet screwed over on the pair's first prestige project; Georgia Lorrison (an achingly vulnerable Lana Turner), the faded, suicidal starlet he romanced and rescued from the shadow of her overbearing father, only to dump in the most heartless of circumstances; and James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), the Southern writer whose scepticism appears adequate resistance to the producer's charm - until he finds himself imprisoned in the Shields offices, with his employer going after his nearest and dearest. "Don't worry," Shields tells Bartlow, "some of the best movies were made by people who hated each other's guts." "Then we should make a great movie," comes the response.
The Bad and the Beautiful remains a film of corrective instincts, forever finding ways to curb or critique the melodramatic excesses that had become standard in the studio features of the time, either through its imagery (Douglas literally carries Turner in his arms at one point, only - as the music swells - to dump her in a swimming pool) or through the sly contributions of its superior supporting cast. Consider the Latin lothario leading man who offers Shields a new convertible with a girl in the passenger seat ("the smoothest of rides"), or the jaded extra Lila (Elaine Stewart), who wonders just what - or whom - she has to do to land a speaking part, and ironically speaks the epitaph for the whole movie: "There's no great men, buster. There is only men."
She, of course, gets her man - another of Douglas's superbly cold, hard creations, a brillantined, shell-like huckster who goes unredeemed and can only truly be defined by those he betrayed in pursuit of his next project or paycheque. Yet for all the film's trenchant cynicism, its essential definition of the producer's role isn't so very far removed from that of the recent, and more outwardly elegiac, Father of My Children: someone who connects disparate people, and offers them a helping hand even he's tempted to make off with their souls and wallets with the other. A necessary evil, in other words.
The Bad and the Beautiful opens in selected cinemas from Friday.