Tales from the Warner Archives #2: "My Blood Runs Cold" (Conrad, 1968)
In the midst of working on what my man Jack Torrance would refer to as "a new writing project," I come upon a road block which I decide would be best transcended via distraction. A 1965 serial-killer thriller with a supernatural edge starring Troy Donohue and Joey Heatherton and directed by William Conrad would appear to be just the thing.
But My Blood Runs Cold turns out to be quite a bit, well, tonier than its particulars would make it appear. Granted, its opening minutes—a 19th-century flashback that Conrad places a scrim of optically-printed parchment behind—is on the goofily faux-refined side, and who does that plummy but gruff voice reciting poetry belong to...
...but our own auteur himself. (Personal note: Ever since watching Bride of Frankenstein together years ago, My Lovely Wife and I only ever refer to the above Romantic poet as "George Gordon, Lord Byron!", exclamation point included.) And the sight of Joey Heatherton in period dress does give one a real who-knows-what-to-expect presentiment.
But the picture rather quickly settles in to a mode of contemporary melodrama not that far removed from the work Donahue did with Delmer Daves just years earlier, and then-sex-kitten Heatherton is, to my eye, a more creditable performer than Connie Stevens. I know, I know—you're gonna have to see it to believe it. Heatherton plays a standard-issue self-destructive young heiress who meets "drifter" Donahue (who really puts on his best Rock Hudson voice here) after knocking him off his motorcycle in a road accident. Donahue's character calls himself Ben, insists on calling Heatherton's Julie "Barbara," and has an interesting story about how the two were lovers a century ago. Julie's dad, a ruthless businessman played by Barry Sullivan, doesn't like it, and neither does Julie's basically-okay-but-sort-of-spineless paramour Harry (Nicolas Coster). Julie's aunt (Jeanette Nolan in faux Agnes Moorehead mode), on the other hand, is intrigued, particularly because this stranger has all of the facts about a generations-ago family romance dead on.
Conrad refuses to overplay the supernatural hoo-ha aspect of the scenario (the screenplay is by John Mantley, from a story by John Meredyth Lucas) and hones in on the poor-little-rich-girl domestic dramatics in a fashion that's both fluid and slightly, slyly, self-conscious. "Father, please, you sound like something out of East Lynne," Heatherton's character protests at one point. Even when one very real corpse turns up, Conrad's perspective is one of near-disinterest. One might expect such an approach to yield the cinematic equivalent of lukewarm water, but instead one is kept pleasingly off-balance, at least up until the sadly inevitable "he's-both-a-delinquent-AND-misunderstood" plot reveal/climax.
Which is not to say that the picture entirely lacks in the lurid perversity department, where I was expecting it to deliver most. There's one scene in which Heatherton, doing some restoration work on a family beach house, turns on the radio and starts doing an entirely unmotivated dance number to some fake Jobim/Gilberto grooves. Conrad, who by his friend Anthony Burgess' account was as much an ass-chaser as he was a Shakespearean, begins the sequence thusly:
Then Joey really gets into it:
...Endust, take me away!
Donahue's impassive reaction shot (he's snuck in and is watching) is a real keeper:
No, don't get too excited there, fella.
Thoroughly minor stuff, to be sure, but entirely worthwhile for genre fiends, Bill Conrad boosters, and doubters of Joey Heatherton's acting chops. You WILL believe!