Recently watched: Of Love and Desire (1963). Tagline: “If you are an adult in every sense of the word, you will probably understand about Katherine and Paul – and why there were so many men in her life!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).
When smolderingly handsome American civil engineer Steve Corey (Steve Cochran) lands his private plane in Mexico City to work for the mine owned by wealthy industrialist Paul Beckman (Curd Jurgens) and his half-sister Katherine (Merle Oberon), Bill Maxton - the man Corey is replacing - is quick to tip him off about Katherine. "All you have to do is touch her! She goes off like fireworks!” he leers. “There were plenty of guys before me - and there'll be plenty after me." After encountering her at a chichi cocktail party (complete with a mariachi band and female guests all wearing bouffant Jacqueline Kennedy-style helmet hair), Corey is indeed sucked into Katherine’s voracious sexual web. Maybe it’s the dramatic way she descends the staircase, or how she inscrutably murmurs, “I may look like champagne – but deep down I’m scotch and soda.” Their first date, though, is cataclysmic. When it comes for the goodnight kiss, Katherine lunges at Corey’s mouth, pawing him while hungrily gasping, “Please! Please!” then takes offence at his startled response. “Did I give in too fast for you?” she demands. “Didn’t I play the game right? I didn’t set the stage right, did I? I should have turned off the lights! Put on soft music! I should have pretended longer, but just how much longer? One hour? Two?! Just what do you need to make you feel like I’m a conquest?!”
Despite Katherine’s whiplash mood swings, transparent neediness and “scarlet” past, gallant Corey is no slut shamer and finds himself genuinely falling in love with this troubled temptress. “I like you,” he assures. “I think you deserve to be treated like a woman.” (Is Katherine glamorously neurotic? Neurotically glamorous? You be the judge!). The sun rises and church bells toll as they make love for the first time. But what’s the deal with Katherine and Paul’s oddball relationship? At the party, Paul had leaned-in and sniffed Katherine’s perfume, inquiring, “Black orchid?” in a most unbrotherly gesture. And why is he taking such an unhealthy interest in Corey and Katherine’s burgeoning romance?
Today Merle Oberon is best remembered for portraying Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939) and for her secretive origins (during her lifetime the Bombay-born Anglo-Asian Oberon concealed her biracial identity, allegedly passing-off her sari-clad mother as her maid). In the thirties and forties Merle Oberon had been hailed as one of golden age Hollywood’s great beauties. By the early sixties, movie offers had sputtered to a halt (she hadn’t made a film since 1956) and she was residing in Mexico as a jet-setting socialite with her Italian millionaire husband. Perhaps surprisingly, Oberon decided to resume her film career aged 53 and the result was this bizarre comeback vehicle / vanity project. Of Love and Desire is a candy-hued, lushly appointed melodrama in a similar vein to the deluxe soap operas that producer Ross Hunter was then concocting for aging screen divas like Lana Turner and Susan Hayward. Sammy Davis Jr croons the bossa nova-tinged opening theme tune over the opening credits of lush tropical flowers. The travelogue-style footage of mid-century Mexico is gorgeous. All the key players are well into in their late forties or fifties. Oberon’s close-ups twinkle with flattering Vaseline and gauze, she sports a fabulous wardrobe (including – memorably – a bikini) and she may well be wearing her own jewelry collection. Many of the interior scenes were reportedly filmed in in Oberon’s own sumptuous Mexican hacienda.
But what’s most unique about Of Love and Desire is its prurient focus on incestuous attraction and the agony of nymphomania. This was the era when popular culture was titillated by “oversexed women”, treating the topic as both a genuine psychological condition and an alarming social issue. In her romantic lead heyday Oberon’s roles were mainly decorative and ladylike. While her tremulous performance here isn’t “good” by most standards, there’s something undeniably gutsy about how Oberon commits to the messy, sexually insatiable Katherine. It helps that she’s partnered with rugged film noir tough guy Steve Cochran. Who couldn’t be “oversexed” near Cochran’s pheromones? A 46-year-old DILF here, Cochran is a soupçon beefier and fuller-faced than he was in the forties and fifties, but his allure is most definitely undimmed (and we get to see him in revealing swimming trunks).
Anyway, for enthusiasts of camp Of Love and Desire teems with moments to treasure. Prepare for overwrought dialogue like, “Oh, darling! I wish I were as young as you make me feel!” Corey had commented of Katherine’s long opulent upswept beehive coiffure (clearly a wiglet): “I can’t run my fingers through it …” In response, Katherine spontaneously instructs a barber to lop it off into a perkily youthful shorter ‘do (a makeover sequence shamelessly swiped from the Audrey Hepburn film Roman Holiday). “Now you can run your fingers through my hair any time you want!” she simpers. Watch for a bathtub sequence in which Oberon daringly reveals a surprising amount of tanned naked flesh. Best of all, in a climactic moment, Katherine is overcome by self-loathing and has a psychological freak-out while in public. Running through the street and then a hotel lobby, she is horrified that everywhere she looks there are MEN ogling and approaching her (and they’re saying things like “Hey, lady!” “Is something wrong?” and “Que pasa?”). Hilariously, it culminates with Katherine becoming trapped in a revolving door. In closing: extramarital sex and female desire lead to nothing but heartache, but don’t judge nymphomaniacs – they have their reasons.
Watch Of Love and Desire here.
Stunningly ageist and misogynistic contemporary review of Of Love and Desire in the New York Times.
Amusing analysis (with some great pics) in the reliably great Poiseidon's Underworld blog.