Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 118 minutes.

AESTHETICALLY PROMISCUOUS, confoundingly likable, and intermittently unhinged, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a crash course in mid-twentieth-century Hollywood mores and backlot intrigue. Taking Citizen Kane (1941) for its template (and enlisting Kane midwife John Houseman as producer, for good measure), it ricochets off so many touchstones that you could a construct an entire class in postwar American film from the scintillating shards. Coming two years after Billy Wilder’s baroque tragicomedy (traumedy?) Sunset Boulevard and in the same year as Stanley Donen’s high-spirited musical satire Singin’ in the Rain, it has sequences that make the former look down-to-earth, as well as a charming routine where besotted friends sing “Don’t Blame Me” in a convertible that could be an outtake from the latter.

The Bad and the Beautiful captures the allure of Hollywood at its peak while merrily disassembling the moviemaking machine: Kirk Douglas plays the genius producer Jonathan Shields, who rises from the ashes of a mogul father’s burnt bridges to become a visionary creator, an even bigger bastard, a more powerful player, and, ultimately, a destitute, despised washout. In working different tonal and moral registers in the brash anything-for-a-frisson Kane mode, there’s a dynamic sense of joyfully toying with form and attitude. The storytelling hums along like a Ford conveyor belt, but individual setups are treated as occasions to throw off the audience’s expectations, undercut the film’s own pretenses, or push both to the limits of credulity.

The film’s efficiency dictates bum-rushing through the necessities (éminence grise Walter Pidgeon is rolled out every half hour to deliver the same paternalistic exposition) but slowing down to savor every strange and thrilling undertone, such as Lana Turner, as the alcoholic daughter, dangling her legs from a library loft in a memory-haunted house, or staggering around her own lousy studio apartment with the Murphy bed and the pinned-up shrine to the character’s dashing, dead, John Barrymore–like actor-prick of a father. Half the time, The Bad and the Beautiful doesn’t seem to be elaborating on Orson Welles’s techniques so much as confidently auditioning for a place on Freud’s leather couch: It passes the audition with tongue-in-cheek neuroses to spare.

Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 118 minutes. Jonathan Shields and Georgia Lorrison (Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner).

The framing device is that Shields’s former moneyman (Pidgeon) convenes members of the old gang (Barry Sullivan as the director, Turner as the star, Dick Powell as the writer), each of whom he betrayed and alienated in his own special fashion, to hear the transatlantic phone pitch for his comeback. They take turns narrating their own Shields Experience. The director recalls how they began making low-budget, highly artistic horror films (a glorious nod to Val Lewton and his Cat People and Leopard Man movies), only to have Shields steal his dream project and hand it to a “name” director. The star is discovered, groomed, detoxed, and romanced by her producer; the insecure performer falls in love, or transference, with him, only to learn his sole interest was in coaxing/conning a good performance out of her. The writer is highbrow with an overbearing wife, so Shields arranges to have her seduced, but she’s killed in a plane crash with her seducer. But after the script is done, Shields gives himself away, taunting the heartbroken screenwriter that he’ll be better off without that albatross.  

The most frequent sobriquet for the film is “cynical.” But Minnelli’s animating impulse is love of the medium and its eccentric possibilities, which extends to and from his accomplices, including the much-undervalued screenwriter Charles Schnee and the cinematographer Robert Surtees. It’s also a love for the damaged and destructive people who tap into those deep surfaces and shallow depths. Turner and Douglas project the dicey charisma of instability and self-loathing channeled into the Will to Succeed. They’re his special kind of cat people—Douglas as the lion king who eats nice guys for lunch and spits them out better for the bilious education.

Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 118 minutes. Jonathan Shields and Georgia Lorrison (Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner).

Turner is the more equivocal case: She’s top-billed over Douglas, which attests to what a box-office draw she was from the 1940s to the early ’50s. While he’s remembered as an archetypal, larger-than-life figure—and still kicking at 102 years old, taking his movie immortality literally—Turner mostly remains a hazy footnote to Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck. She was more popular than any of them, but she’s been eclipsed even by the likes of Gloria Grahame, who here has a parodic little part as the doomed Southern belle. Turner plays someone whose sensationalist backstory is partly lifted from Diana Barrymore’s, but whose limitations and underdog aspirations seem very much her own.

The film’s triptych structure grants each of Shields’s collaborators an act to his or herself, but Turner gets the three best scenes in the movie. She is confronted by the producer in her apartment, where he waits for her at 4 AM, and the encounter—or mind-gaming ambush—bobs and weaves between possible outcomes. Anything from rape to a bitter career kiss-off to a nervous breakdown seems to hang in the stale air. Around her dresser mirror is an altar made from swashbuckling caricatures of her late father, which the producer uses to goad her, like some prosecutor-psychiatrist.

When she has pulled herself together enough to do a full screen test, she watches the results from the projection room in a brilliantly orchestrated shot that conveys the effect of watching her own autopsy. Not merely cruel, it adds a few metalevels to the dissection of Turner’s screen persona, all while keeping up the appearance of entertainment. Godard’s Contempt, ten years later, elaborates on and intellectualizes the implications of this shot, but doesn’t surpass it. After Shields makes Turner a star (here, the reference point has evolved into the legendary producer David O. Selznick), she leaves the premiere to share the moment with her mentor and lover, and finds him with another woman. This occasions an elegantly staged blowout, where Douglas drives her out into the night with a blast of male hysteria that doesn’t really qualify as cathartic but is some kind of breathtaking. The Bad and the Beautiful fades in the stretch and ends on a wishy-whitewashy note suggesting that his betrayed minions may return to the fold like thirsty adolescents letting absentee dad spirit them away on a Shields World holiday. Elaine Stewart, as the hanger-on who gets to play the other woman for a night, should have been given the last word about him and the movie racket: “There are no great men, buster. There’s only men.”

The Bad and the Beautiful is now available on Blu-ray.