In the audio commentary to the first blu ray release of this searing 1964 melodrama, film historian Kat Ellinger describes the film as “one the most deliciously sleazy high camp over the top scandalous soap opera dramas to come out of a major Hollywood studio in the 1960’s.” She goes on to say “if this film had a smell or scent it would be old spice aftershave, three day old stale whiskey, smeared lipstick, charred cigars, with an overtone of pure testosterone.” It’s probably a little weird to begin by quoting an audio commentary, but to be fair she totally nails the ridiculously over the top joyful titillation inherent in this seedy beautiful trash. In the 60’s it was a sensation, with George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) playing Jonas Cord Jr a ruthlessly driven entrepreneur, buying and selling companies and discarding and manipulating all those around him. Its a brutal, sordid and amped up sensation that is deliriously camp, deliriously nasty, and deliriously overdramatic.
You may remember Peppard during the 80’s, as a silver fox with a cigar clenched between his teeth smirking “I love it when a plan comes together,” at the end of every A-Team episode. But this is a young taut Peppard, back when he thought he was Brando, a coiled spring poured into his blue jeans. He’s the quintessential American businessman sociopath, equally lauded and loathed, where money gives him the power to make or break as he wishes. The rest of the cast includes Carroll Baker (Baby Doll) as Cord’s sexpot mother in law, Alan Ladd (Shane) in his final role as Nevada Smith the clean living movie cowboy, and the future Mrs Peppard Elizabeth Ashley (Coma) as the doe eyed Monica Winthrop who actually marries Jonas Cord and becomes his long suffering wife.
Everything is pushed up to 11. Jonas Cord jr’s method of informing his mother in law of the death of his father and her husband is by sexually assaulting her. Later when his fiancé confesses her sordid past as a prostitute with a role in a stag film, Cord tells her matter of factly that he knew she was trash that’s why he wanted her. More than an antihero, Cord is toxic, one note and sadistic, a grotesque monstrosity. Something is broken in him. where his humanity should be there is only ambition.
The film comes from an even more risqué Harold Robbins novel of the same name. To some extent it’s the 50 Shades of Grey of the 60’s – though much more fun. Breathlessly directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny), it’s a lavish Hollywood epic. The sets are ridiculously opulent, the acting is ridiculously opulent, even the running time is ridiculously opulent. Never has trash had so much money spent on it. Its intoxicating, the seedy cruelty of capitalism wafts from every frame. You can find links to Kirk Douglas’ 1952 melodrama The Bad and The Beautiful, where he plays film a film producer who burns through people on his rise to the top, though its impossible to ignore stronger links to Howard Hughes, particularly when Cord takes over a movie studio and starts directing a film. Imagine Citizen Kane helmed by Kim Kardashian and you’re almost there.
It’s fascinating to think that a film that was such a huge scandalous success upon its arrival has since faded so far from view, particularly something so unapologetically and beautifully sordid. Thankfully its been rescued from oblivion and presented on blu ray for the first time, with Ellinger’s aforementioned painstakingly researched and frequently humorous commentary, as well as a 5.1 mix. Whilst some may bristle at the sensationalism, desire to shock, or even some of the surface deep characterisations, it’s impossible to deny the Cord and indeed The Carpetbaggers itself is the epitome of capitalist success; a toxicity deep inside the soul of America that’s celebrated even to this day.