Based on a novel by Louis LAmour and full of witty exchanges and a striking visual style, the film follows a vaudeville troupe that stays one step ahead of the bill collector as it tours the frontier circa 1880. The central premise finds ringleaders Angela Rossini (Loren) and Tom Healy (Quinn) needing a more flamboyant act than normal in order to entertain the citizens of the wild West.
Heller in Pink Tights
features a captivating if intriguingly awkward story born of an unusual number of powerful, creative voices behind the camera. The 1960 film's screenplay was co-written by Walter Bernstein (Fail Safe
), whose blacklisting following his unfriendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee ended the year before with Heller
star Sophia Loren's wartime romance, That Kind of Woman
. The equally legendary Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach
) shared writing credit; Carlo Ponti (Blow-Up
), Loren's strong-minded husband, co-produced; and Hollywood Golden Age director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story
) presided over the odd, Louis L'Amour-based Western.
Loren plays Angela Rossini, leading lady in a down-on-its-luck, traveling theatrical company barely held together by founder Tom Healy (a sympathetic but largely miscast Anthony Quinn). Always staying a step ahead of creditors and lawmen, the troupe stops in a Wyoming town where a hired gunman, Mabry (Steve Forrest), "wins" the reckless Angela, who has long had a romance with Healy, in a poker game. Determined to keep her even as he eludes assassins, Mabry attaches himself to the dispirited Healy's company as it rides through dangerous Indian territory. The final act finds all the principals battling their way to a resolution behind the scenes of a play at a theater Angela has built for Tom with money she stole from Mabry. It's all a little clunky, but Cukor ensures a certain vitality in the proceedings, moves comfortably between striking shifts of comedy to intense drama, makes Loren look great, and exposes--to an unexpected degree--a psychological bond between Angela and Mabry. --Tom Keogh