In many ways, Lured is a kind of dark cousin to the jaunty backstage musical comedies that populated the 1930s. Lucille Ball stars as Sandra, a taxi dancer who spends her evenings getting fed stale one-liners from even staler old men. Throughout the film, she gets to wear fancy dresses, go on dates to the park and symphony, and dance with handsome men at elegant nightclubs. The main difference here is that Sandra’s primary goal, instead of wooing a theatrical producer or playboy heir, is to hunt down the serial killer that murdered her friend.
That’s a far cry from Stage Door (1937), which also featured Ball as a young actress. I couldn’t help but imagine her character in Lured was somehow the same one from Stage Door, perhaps fallen on bad luck but still, dutifully, waiting for her big break. Although even in 1937, Stage Door had begun to delve into the darker lives of chorus girls and Broadway babes, Lured takes this prospect even further, highlighting the prospective array of dangers that could befall any single woman.
Sandra’s journey begins when her friend Lucy disappears, just one day after excitedly mentioning she was running off with a dashing, well-connected man she met through the newspaper personal ads. While Lucy’s story sounds like it could be the happy ending from any number of other romantic films, here it represents only the beginning of the horrors. With Sandra’s help, the police realize that the killer is using personal ads to hunt his victims, so they (somewhat shadily) engage Sandra to respond to them, working as a lure.
This, of course, requires Sandra to go on a lot of different dates with a lot of different men, and it is here that the film cleverly incorporates the tropes of romantic comedy to build tension. Some of these dates are bizarre (Boris Karloff plays a truly deranged fashion designer), some are humorous (the 10-year-old boy who meets her on a park bench with a bouquet of flowers), but they almost all involve a fabulous new outfit. However, while the dating games may be the same, the murderous context lends a dark, tense contrast to the otherwise lighthearted sequences.
That this darkness so easily permeates Sandra’s life, though, emphasizes the potential danger of her—and all women’s—everyday lives. Sandra seems to be a fair bit savvier than most women in the film, who willingly meet random strangers from the newspaper personals or blindly trust men who offer them too-good-to-be-true job opportunities in South America. Yet when Karloff approaches her at night on a foggy bridge, and questions why she accepted his mysterious proposition so easily, her lie—that she needed the money desperately—doesn’t seem like much of a lie at all. We’ve already seen how easily enticed she was by the prospect of a £10 a week job from a talent agent, or the attentions of a rich, handsome man. Sandra has survived up until now, but the film seems to suggest that the world is stacked against her, and, really, all women. Here we see the beginnings of Sirk’s fortitude as a director of women’s pictures… if at least 40% of his trademark melodrama were replaced with “lengthy sequences focusing on new developments in forensic science.”
Sirk deftly maneuvers between this mixture of genres and styles, which is part of what makes the film feels so unique. It has noir elements, but it also has moments of silly comedy, such as the police detective constantly working on his crossword puzzle. There’s the romance angle of course, but scenes like the Karloff one could have easily been played as full horror. (As it stands now, that scene takes place somewhere on the fine line between outright horror and awkward comedy.) The fact that Sandra gets a police-paid expense account to buy new outfits for her dates is straight up romantic wish-fulfillment, as is the meet-cute where she first talks to (and charms) the self-described cad, Mr. Fleming.
Ultimately, there’s something delightfully subversive about crafting a classic Hollywood romance within a larger story about a killer of women, especially while using the stylistic elements of a traditional romance to do so. It certainly seems to call into question the breezy willingness of those earlier chorus girls, accepting drinks, gifts, gowns, and car rides from men they did not know. Or perhaps more bluntly, it questions the screenwriters who put the girls into those situations—without giving her a trusty pistol to hold at her side.