I don’t know how it happened that I missed the news of the death of Tony Curtis on September 29, 2010. My niece—who knows I’m mad about old cinema—was reading Time Magazine the other day and asked me, “Which movies did Tony Curtis act in?” Though I eventually named Some Like it Hot, Who Was That Lady?, also a comedy and total farce like Some Like it Hot, was one of the first films that came to mind.
When I asked my niece why she was asking about Tony Curtis’s films, she gave me the news that he’d died.
So, for the oh-so-attractive Mr Curtis, who swashbuckled his way through The Black Shield of Falworth and The Prince Who Was A Thief; who made us laugh with Operation Petticoat and Some Like it Hot, and who made a resounding statement—and antagonised a lot of people—by insisting that Sidney Poitier be billed alongside Curtis and not after him in The Defiant Ones… a tribute.
The first scene of Who Was That Lady? is enacted without any words other than Dean Martin’s title song for the film being played in the background. For the first few frames, in fact, we don’t even get to see the faces of the lead players: just the legs. A pair of very shapely legs, prancing seductively into a chemistry laboratory at Columbia University, strolling along in the wake of a pair of trouser-clad legs as they move around the lab… and then coming really close:
…just as another pair of female legs enters the frame, halts abruptly—and allows the camera to sweep up and show the irate face of Janet Leigh. This, we discover, is Ann, the wife of the Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Columbia, David Wilson (Tony Curtis). We never get to know who Miss Shapely Legs was (her face is never shown and she disappears when Ann arrives on the scene), but Ann doesn’t wait to hear David’s explanation: she gapes, open-mouthed and indignant, then dashes off, threatening divorce.
David soon has another visitor, his bosom buddy and the dashing man-about-town Michael ‘Mike’ Haney (Dean Martin). Mike is a writer of screenplays for television, and David sobs out the entire story to him. David’s in charge of admissions at the university, and the young lady whom Ann had seen kissing him is a foreign exchange student, expressing her gratitude the only way she knows.
David’s explanation: he couldn’t stand there and do nothing, could he? So he kissed her back. But there wasn’t anything to it. And oh, if Ann divorces him, what’ll he do? How’ll he live without her?
David’s belief is that since Mike’s a writer and the creative mind and whatnot, he’ll be able to think up a good way to stop Ann leaving David.
It’s a tall order, but with the help of some lab-brewed alcohol, Mike gets to thinking—and comes up with what seems like a tall story at first: David should tell Ann he’s an FBI agent, and that he was kissing the girl—a foreign agent—in the line of duty.
Hah! As if Ann will fall for bunkum like that! David’s understandably scornful. Until, that is, Mike shows him evidence that you may never know what secrets your best friends harbour. He proves to David that he, Mike, is an FBI agent… down to the three dots tattooed on his heel (“J Edgar Hoover has seven.”) Five minutes of rapid-fire explanations from Mike about when he was trained, where he was first hired by the FBI, who else is an agent, and so on—and David is convinced. He allows Mike to give him a temporary tattoo with a pen (and a fan to help dry it quick), while Mike confesses that he isn’t really FBI—that was just a ruse to get David hooked. The tattooed dots on Mike’s heel are from his university days.
But David’s too desperate by now to blow his top about being thus fooled. Mike takes him to the CBS studios, where they head for the props department. Here Mike passes David off as an actor and gets him not just an FBI gun, but also an FBI ID card with David’s photo on it. The stage is set, literally.
… and with some good playacting, the two men manage to pull it off. Ann is initially all disbelief, even anger at the thought that these two men think she’s idiot enough to swallow their story. But they’re so convincing, she ends up forgiving David everything, and fawning over her hero of a husband, and wondering why he doesn’t use jujitsu when he gets into fights with nasty cabdrivers and so on… (And yes, they also convince her that Mike too is an FBI man). All is well.
But it isn’t, not really. Because the man who looks after the props department at CBS is a conscientious soul. When he doesn’t see David’s FBI card used on the show, he goes off to the FBI and reports it. The boss, Bob Doyle (John McIntyre) deputes Harry Powell (James Whitmore) to go investigate.
So, the next day, Powell turns up at the Wilsons’, only to discover that David is away at work. But a very excited and bubbly Ann fawns over Powell when he introduces himself; she even asks him how many dots he’s got on his heel. From her somewhat muddle-headed exuberance, Powell realises the truth behind all of this. After he leaves the Wilsons’, he phones his boss Doyle, and they discuss the matter: the Wilsons are just a couple of kids, and what will Doyle or Powell get out of ruining their marriage? Best keep this quiet and not initiate any proceedings against David or Mike.
David, however, can’t possibly hold on to the FBI card and the gun he got from CBS; so Powell is ordered to go back to the Wilsons’ that evening and get the gun back.
Evening comes, and with it a romantic tête-à-tête between the Wilsons: Ann in a little black dress, champagne and flowers and a pearl necklace. They’re just getting warmed up when Mike arrives…
…with the news that he and David have to go on an assignment to Lee Wong’s Chinese restaurant, where they’re to meet two women, both of them spies. Mike spins a yarn about one of the tables at Lee Wong’s being wired, and about Lee Wong himself being a relative of Chiang Kai Shek’s. Heh!
When he gets a moment alone with David, Mike tells him the real story: that the two women are a pair of sisters, Gloria Coogle (Barbara Nichols) and Florence Coogle (Joi Lansing), who never go out without the other. They’ll be great company, and it’ll be like old times. David is reluctant – married man and all that – but he agrees.
The two men arrive at Lee Wong’s, and are soon joined by the Coogle sisters:
… and on their heels comes Ann, with Powell in tow. She’d found that David had left his gun behind, and how can he go on an assignment without his gun? So she’s come, and since Powell had arrived at the flat just as she was leaving, she’s brought him along too. Powell, of course, is very curious about this assignment.
And David makes another discovery: this double date is another bit of BS from Mike. The fact is, the Coogle sisters are amateur showgirls who do a singing-and-dancing rabbits act. They’re trying to get a break, and Mike’s told them David’s the head honcho in CBS.
These girls may be blondes, but they aren’t dumb. They excuse themselves to go to the ladies’, and while there, they make a quick phone call to someone they know in CBS – and find out that David is a nobody. Of course, Gloria and Florence are furious – they rave and rant and swear they’ll fix David good and proper.
Guess who, having crept into the ladies’ to keep an eye on the ‘spies’, overhears?
From then on, what with the Coogles out to get David, and Ann out to get the Coogles before they get David, and Powell (who’s suffering from an ulcer) trying to stop Ann before she gets anyone… and as if that wasn’t enough, some genuine spies enter the picture… mayhem ensues.
What I liked about this film (and what I didn’t like):
It’s difficult for me to say what I liked about this film and what I didn’t like, because some of it overlaps. For instance, take the story. It’s funny – or rather, the basic premise is funny: a husband, trying to pacify an enraged wife, tries to pull the wool over her eyes and ends up in much deeper trouble than he’d bargained for. Fun, and it shows up in a lot of scenes: for example, when Mike convinces David that he, Mike, is an FBI agent; when the Coogle sisters, unaware that Ann is listening in on their conversation and is convinced they’re spies, talk about how they’ll ‘get’ David; and the climax itself. All very funny.
On the other hand, it is the story that is one of the weakest elements in Who Was That Lady? There are several weak bits in the plot; one of the most glaring is Mike’s motive for taking David out with the Coogle sisters so soon after David’s marriage has gotten up from the rocks. Just a few hours after they’e managed to coax Ann into accepting David back into her life, and Mike is piling on the baloney about the two women spies whom he and David have to meet at Lee Wong’s. And David goes along with the charade, too – for no very good reason that I can see. Further on in the story, there are other mysterious motives and illogical turns that don’t make much sense, either.
Janet Leigh’s character was another of those thoroughly irritating ones that can spoil an entire film for me. Ann is shrill and seems woefully dumb; even though I could sympathise with her at times – the bored housewife’s sudden leap into an exciting spy-filled life is kinda cute – the cuteness begins to pall after a while.
But. Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are sweet together (despite the fact that their marriage was already going downstream). Tony has some inspired scenes with Dean Martin (and the two of them are delightful), and if you can forgive the inadequate story, the film’s entertaining enough.