Oscar picks courtesy of the happy chappies at Ladbrokes

Happy Oscar Sunday! Getting my hair blown-out (goodbye mop-top) and heading to an Oscar party. Don’t have to debate over my ballot because I’m lifting the favorites from U.K. oddsmaker Ladbrokes, as listed by Joe Morgenstern in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Cheers, Joe.

I will be tweeting throughout the show.  Meanwhile, here are “my” picks:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christian Bale, “The Fighter”

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”

BEST ACTOR: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: “The King’s Speech”

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: “The Social Network”

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins, “True Grit”

BEST DIRECTOR: David Fincher, “The Social Network”

BEST PICTURE: “The King’s Speech”

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‘Black Swan’ charts madness, dreamily voluptuous terror

Black Swan/ 2010/ Fox Searchlight Pictures/ 108 min.

Michael Wilmington

With the Oscars this Sunday, I want to highlight a contender with intriguing noir elements: “Black Swan.” Critic Michael Wilmington shares his thoughts on director Darren Aronofsky’s latest foray into tortured psyches and Natalie Portman’s startling performance.

Who makes crazier art movies — agonized characters, trapped in more nightmarish fixes — than Darren Aronofsky? David Lynch, Bong Joon-ho and Roman Polanski, maybe, but few others. A specialist in tales of the brilliantly sick and the sickly brilliant, Aronofsky has spun, with disorienting intensity, barmy movie stories of a crazed math genius going nuts on the stock market (in “Pi”), of a family of lower- depths junkies and pill-poppers flipping out together (“Requiem for a Dream”), and of a  battered, over-the-hill wrestler putting himself through hell for one last fight (“The Wrestler.”) In “The Fountain,” Aronofsky’s whole universe went bonkers, in segments.

And in his latest movie, the justly hailed but occasionally (understandably) ridiculed dance melodrama “Black Swan,” this chronicler of mad lives charts the psychological disintegration of a young, ambitious New York ballerina named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman with ferocious dedication), who’s been given the dream role of the swan princess of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” at Lincoln Center and promptly goes over the edge into some kind of madness, as well as, apparently, self-mutilation, paranoid fantasies and sexual hysteria.

As we watch, Nina whirls and leaps and goes delusional. And the camera seems to whirl and leap and go delusional along with her, executing wild leaps and dizzying spins, peeking over her shoulder, Polanski-like, wherever she goes. When the ballet company’s seductive bully of a master choreographer, Thomas Leroy (played by French star Vincent Cassel, as a kind of sexy, sadistic puppet-master) casts Nina as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, replacing his former prima ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, who plays Beth like a mad, self-destructive witch), he’s simultaneously anointing her and hurling her into hell.

When he tells Nina she’s ideal casting  for half the part (the role of the pure white swan) but not the other half (the wicked black swan), he’s dropping her into an inferno of nightmares, hurling a dart at the splintering psyche we glimpse beneath Nina’s “Persona”-like, beautiful, introverted face.      

Aronofsky bombards us with Nina’s fears and desires, in scenes of dreamily voluptuous terror. The ballet studio and stage become arenas of paranoia. So does her home, an art-cluttered Manhattan apartment she shares with her painter mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).

Stricken with fear, Nina tears and rips at her own flesh, on her shoulder blades, her hands, near her cuticles, and then the cuts are mysteriously healed.  She’s flung into predatory sexual escapades or fantasies, involving Thomas, and her main rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas says is the perfect Black Swan, and who (seemingly) dives between Nina’s legs one night, a fling that Lilly then denies. (“You fantasized about me? Was I good?” she asks delightedly.)

As the fantasies (?) rage, Nina becomes ill, is berated by Thomas, attacked by Beth, played for a fool (maybe) by her rival Lilly, bossed by her devoted yet domineering mother. Nina works herself into near-collapse, her mind unhinges, her body is ripped open. Lilly plays the part of seductress/rival/friend, the earthy black swan against Nina’s ethereal white. Amid this accelerating chaos, the beauty and classicism and first night of “Swan Lake” looms.

But how much of this is really happening? Is there really a theater, really a company, even really a white and black swan? We know some it is real, some of it a dream. We can never be too sure which is which. That’s what makes the movie so interesting. It hovers on camp, of course. More than hovers: it swoops and circles and dives right in. [Read more...]

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Film noir’s feline fatales, tough tom cats: A new feature

Of the many visual symbols in film noir, the cat is one of the most elegant and expressive. Sitting in a doorway, watching and waiting, or sprawled contentedly on a chaise longue, these haughty creatures convey the quintessential femme fatale attitude: “If I deign to take you on, I’ll win.”
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Cats are smart, nimble and fastidious. They spend hours grooming themselves and, unlike dogs, they have no work ethic. Enough said. In between doting on my cat, I’ve done a little research so I can start a new feature on the most famous kitties in film noir.
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The Cats in “This Gun for Hire” 1942
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Names: Fluffy Taylor and Tab Burton
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Character Names: The Stray, Toughie

The happy Hollywood couple

Bios: “Cats bring you luck,” says Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in 1942’s “This Gun for Hire.” Raven’s first good-luck charm is The Stray (Fluffy Taylor), a petite, violet-eyed beauty, who wanders through his window first thing in the morning. Despite being a cold-hearted hitman, Raven gives her milk and protects her from the nasty maid, Anna (Pamela Blake).

The second “charm” is a tomcat named Toughie (Tab Burton). But Toughie doesn’t fare as well as The Stray. Philip Raven happens to be a psychopath and he turns on Toughie in a deadly betrayal. Well, maybe the name Raven didn’t bode too well for feline friendship. (Off screen, however, Burton and Ladd were great chums. It was Ladd’s first major movie role and he welcomed Burton’s advice on acting.)
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And contrary to some accounts, the feline stars of “This Gun for Hire” never once had a catfight on the set. Just the opposite: While working together on this film, British imports Taylor and Burton fell madly in love. Seven years Burton’s junior, Taylor had been an established star in England since kittenhood.
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Burton was born in Wales and studied acting at Oxford University. Following their U.S. debut in “This Gun for Hire,” the pair soon became the “it” couple among Hollywood’s feline set, co-starring in “Catopatra,” “The Taming of the Mew” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Puss?” They were also known for their lavish, jet-set, cream-and-catnip lifestyle.
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They married in 1945, divorced in 1955, remarried in 1957 and divorced for a second time in 1962. After they finally parted, Burton’s career faltered and he passed away in 1964. When Burton died, the ever-popular Taylor referred to him as “the love of my life and my very best friend.”
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As their close friend Morris once said of them: “He gave her class. She gave him sex.” And they gave each other Fancy Feast Salmon.
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Another day to chill and a chance to charm the copper

If you have today off, why not treat yourself to a mani-pedi? I like places that let you byob and my polish du jour is The Old Bill, $14, by Butter London.  It’s a tawny copper with a subtle sheen that’s quick drying and resistant to chips. And how convenient to know that if you decide the Old Bill (English slang for police) is getting too close for comfort, you can simply lock it up in a cool spot until the next time you fancy a spot of copper.

Butter is well picky about what goes into its products.

The makers of Butter products, Sasha Muir and Nonie Creme, pride themselves on providing “color not carcinogens” and call themselves a “3 Free” company, which means their products contain no formaldehyde, no toluene, no DBP [dibutyl phthalate]. What a concept!

And I love the variety of their colors. Looking to avoid the Old Bill forever? I get it. In that case, try the Artful Dodger (an arresting teal), Come to Bed Red, Pearly Queen or their latest No More Waity, Katie!, an elegant greige with a splash of lilac glitter; available for pre-order now, shipping March 1. Visit Butter London or try a beauty-supply store.

Additionally, Butter makes a matte-finish, non-toxic basecoat called Nail Foundation, $18, which primes your nails for the main event. Creamy beige in color, it can also be worn on its own in case you are evading, oops, I mean avoiding attention, as is sometimes necessary when you tend to look like trouble. ;)

Product Source: From my own collection; I did not receive products or compensation from Butter London.

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Billy Wilder on Barbara Stanwyck’s ‘Double Indemnity’ wig, her wonderful brain, casting Fred MacMurray

 This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Preservation Blogathon, a fundraiser hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren to benefit the non-profit Film Noir Foundation; their event last year raised $30,000. I hope you will consider making a donation. If you give, you help save a film: 1950’s “The Sound of Fury” starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Cy Endfield.

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A Babs Stanwyck moment for FNB

Looking through some photos the other day, I noticed that back in the late 90s, I often lost the fight with my fine, curly hair and just let it go wild (left). Not every day can be a good hair day. If I ever need assurance that every femme fatale has a styling glitch from time to time, I just look at Barbara Stanwyck’s awful wig in “Double Indemnity,” a quintessential noir from 1944, directed by Billy Wilder. 

Paramount production head Buddy DeSylva said of the stiff blonde ‘do, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington.”

It also reminded me that it had been ages since I’d looked at my copy of “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe, published in 1999. The jacket states: “Here, in a Q&A format — a nod to Truffaut’s unforgettable Hitchcock — Billy Wilder, Hollywood’s legendary writer-director, talks to Cameron Crowe, one of today’s best-known writer-directors, about screenwriting and camera work, set design and the stars, his peers and their movies, the old studio system and filmmaking today.

Of course, I flipped right to Wilder’s answer to Crowe’s question about the direction given to Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” for the silent shot on her face while the murder is occurring. 

Said Wilder: Sure, that was a highly intelligent actress, Miss Stanwyck. I questioned the wig, but it was proper, because it was a phony wig. It was an obviously phony wig. And the anklet — the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man. They scream for murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in "Double Indemnity" from 1944. Both played against type.

Yeah, naturally we rehearsed this thing. But I rehearsed it with her once or twice, that’s the maximum, and it was not that much different from the way she would have done it. She was just an extraordinary woman. She took the script, loved it, right from the word go, didn’t have the agent come and say, “Look, she’s to play a murderess, she must get more money, because she’s never going to work again.”

With Stanwyck, I had absolutely no difficulties at all. And she knew the script, everybody‘s lines. You could wake her up in the middle of the night and she’d know the scene. Never a fault, never a mistake — just a wonderful brain she had.

Crowe asked if the part had been written for Stanwyck. Wilder said: Yeah. And then there there was an actor by the name of Fred MacMurray at Paramount, and he played comedies. Small dramatic parts, big parts in comedies. I let him read it, and he said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Why can’t you?” He said, “It requires acting!” [Laughs.] I said, “Look, you have now arrived in comedy, you’re at a certain point where you either have to stop, or you have to jump over the river and start something new.” He said, “Will you tell me when I’m no good?” [He nods: a partnership is born.] And he was wonderful because it’s odd casting.

Paramount image of “Double Indemnity”

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‘Blood Simple’ launches Coen brothers’ brilliant careers

Blood Simple/1984/River Road, Foxton Entertainment/97 min.

T.S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper.

In “Blood Simple” banging precedes death, but one life ends spitting dirt; another with a belly laugh. Perhaps that’s not surprising given that “Blood Simple” was the writing and directing debut of first-rate storytellers and masters of neo noir Joel and Ethan Coen. For anyone who saw this movie, now nearly 30 years old, in its initial release in 1984, it must have been exciting to witness the talent of the then almost unknown Coens (Joel was 26, Ethan was 25).

"Blood Simple" was Frances McDormand's first big movie.

The young brothers made a knowing homage to classic noir, updated for ’80s audiences and heavily injected with dark, often perverse, humor. Not only do the Coens honor the traditions and touchpoints of their ’40s predecessors, they also subvert convention and reinvent visual language to serve the story.

Their original tale of adultery, revenge and murder takes place not in the big city, but in Texas, and they nail the mood of a dusty, sweaty small town where lax morals, lust and lawlessness are the only markers on the vast landscape. The title comes from a Dashiell Hammett reference to a dulled mental state (blood simple) that results from repeated exposure to violence.

In her first major screen role, Frances McDormand plays Abby, an appealing country girl – no makeup and all healthy glow – whom some might call a hick. She’s cheating on her husband, tavern owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya), with one of his employees, Ray (John Getz). It’s hard to imagine that Abby would even go on a second date with greasy, seething, sleazy Marty, let alone marry him, but hey, that’s why she bedded kinder, gentler Ray. That and his washboard abs.

Dan Hedaya and M. Emmet Walsh

When Marty learns that he’s been cuckolded, he hires venal but philosophical butterball P.I. Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to knock the lovers off. The movie opens with this narration from Visser: “The world is full of complainers. And the fact is, nothin’ comes with a guarantee. Now I don’t care if you’re the pope of Rome, president of the United States or man of the year; something can all go wrong. … What I know about is Texas and, down here, you’re on your own.”
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It seems that Visser has done his duty, but he double-crosses Marty. After that comes a slew of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and messy cleanups, which is pretty impressive, given that there’re only four main characters in the story.
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One plot detail in particular to watch for: Though money stolen from Marty’s safe is repeatedly referred to, we never know conclusively who took it. Since three people know the combination, your guess is as good as mine. Part of the fun of this movie is anticipating what comes next so I don’t want to reveal any more twists – it’s unpredictable but not convoluted. In fact, the tight plot and spare dialogue lend the movie an earthy sort of elegance.
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Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld’s arresting visual style – stark camera angles and repetition of certain images, such as the overhead fan – heightens the suspense. Sonnenfeld was the cameraman on several other Coen Bros. movies and later became a stylish and successful director on his own, best known for the “Men in Black” series. Carter Burwell wrote the “Blood Simple” score and has worked on every Coen brothers movie since.
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The characters might be a bit cartoonish, rendered as they are in broad, sweeping strokes. But that approach works in a movie like this and for these characters who are archetypes of noir love triangles. Life is short and they live it hard. Who has time for psychological complexity and multiple layers of personality? “Blood Simple” is taut, suspenseful, slyly funny and very entertaining. And it holds up well. “Blood Simple” was remade as “A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop” in 2009 by Zhang Yimou.

Joel, left, and Ethan Coen at the New York premiere of 2010's “True Grit,” their most recent movie.

Additionally, the Coens get excellent performances from their actors. With little to say, McDormand instead conveys feeling, especially fear, through nervous gesture and subtle facial expressions. Walsh’s gross gumshoe effortlessly glides from mutton-headed and dawdling to powerful and menacing.

Hedaya’s Marty fights to the bitter end and has since made a reputation in films as a snarling villain (I also loved his tough-love Dad in “Clueless.”) Getz makes the most of his part as well, the neo-noir version of a knight in slightly tarnished armor, though in his case, the armor is more muddy and dusty than tarnished.
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The Coen brothers, who later made Oscar winners “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” rank with the world’s finest filmmakers and they are the undisputed champions of American neo noir.
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Coen brothers photo by Evan Agostini/Associated Press/New York Times
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‘Blood Simple’ quick hit

Blood Simple/1984/River Road, Foxton Entertainment/97 min.

How FNB would love to meet those darling Coen brothers and probe their diabolical little minds. And of course I’d gush about “Blood Simple,” their first baby, a fast-paced, taut thriller that will keep you guessing till the end. When a husband (Dan Hedaya) confirms that his wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him, he decides to have the lovers killed. But simple? Not so much, especially not in Texas.

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On Cupid’s special day, prepare for a peck and perhaps a little more

In honor of St. Valentine, you may be pondering certain philosophical questions:

Is love purely an emotional state or does it encompass cognitive, aesthetic and spiritual elements? Or it is just a random byproduct of instinct and hormones?

Can love be described and understood through language or are words merely clumsy metaphors for the ineffable?

Does Aristotle’s concept of love (a single soul inhabiting two bodies) trump the behaviorist view?

Are my lips soft, plump and ready to kiss?

DuWop Lip Venom Plumping Paste perfects your pout.

For the first few questions, you are on your own but for kissability expertise, I can help you out. DuWop Lip Venom Plumping Paste, $18, is a great way to prepare for a peck and perhaps a little more …

According to the company, which says it created the lip plumping category for the beauty industry, the product is “a treatment masque for the lips that conditions, exfoliates and plumps simultaneously.”

The plumping pros combined exfoliating jojoba beads with castor seed oil and hydrogenated jojoba to polish and prime your lips. Dab some on and leave for 10 minutes. You will feel a tingling sensation as the thick white paste goes to work. Wipe off, add color and, voilà, irresistible lips. Happy Valentine’s Day!

DuWop’s lip paste is available online and from beauty-supply stores.

Product Source: From my own collection; I did not receive products or compensation from DuWop. 

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‘D.O.A.’ reveals the ultimate inspiration to solve a murder: when it’s your own

D.O.A./1950/United Artists/83 min.

“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow,” says a doctor to his shocked patient, “you’ve been murdered.”

Edmond O’Brien is doomed in “D.O.A.”

This is the premise for 1950’s “D.O.A.,” directed by Rudolph Maté, a classic noir about a standup, solid guy from Banning, Calif., named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who, while on a trip to San Francisco, learns he has been poisoned with a time-released fatal toxin. He has just a few days to find his murderer. And here he thought it was just a hangover.

It’s particularly bad luck because Bigelow hasn’t served time, he doesn’t play the horses, he’s not eyeing easy money. He is a self-employed accountant in a small town near Palm Springs minding his own business. True, he does like hard liquor, is a bit of a skirt chaser and he’s on the fence about committing to doting girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but those are minor flaws in the noir scheme of things.

D.O.A posterEven though Bigelow is dying, his genetic tough-guy instinct kicks as he abandons his ledger book and adding machine to follow clues, talk tough, tote a gun and chase his prey. Clearly, he missed his calling as a macho gumshoe who could give Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a run for their money.

Checking in via phone calls to Paula, who also happens to be his secretary, he learns that a Mr. Phillips, an importer-exporter in Los Angeles, has been urgently trying to contact him. Bigelow returns to LA but, before he can probe for info, Phillips takes a flying leap from a tall building. So, Bigelow taps Phillips’ inner circle: his brother Stanley (Henry Hart), his wife (Lynn Baggett), his secretary Miss Foster (Beverly Garland, credited as Beverly Campbell), and co-worker Halliday (William Ching).

Turns out that Bigelow’s connection to these Angelinos is that six months prior, he notarized a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium. Phillips bought the stuff from a mysterious man named George Reynolds.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

While working to track Reynolds down, Bigelow encounters a sultry and sullen model Marla Rakubian (Laurette Luez), a man known only as Majak (famed stage actor Luther Adler) – clad all in white and with an indeterminate foreign accent, which instantly makes him suspect in Tinseltown terms –  and a trio of heavies led by raging psychopath Chester (Neville Brand, in his first movie). Though Brand might seem like a miscreant plucked from a dingy alley, he was in fact a WW2 vet, who had received numerous awards, including the Purple Heart.

As he narrows down the suspects, Bigelow also realizes that Paula is The One and the scene where he professes his love is touching. He eventually busts the bad guy in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way, but, as we knew from the start, Bigelow is a goner. No plot spoilers here.

Director Maté, who was the cameraman on foreign classics “Vampyr” and “The Passsion of Joan of Arc” as well as “Foreign Correspondent” and “Gilda,” tells a riveting story. Aided by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography, Maté creates a mood that is both hard-boiled and slightly surreal. The storyline becomes so lusciously serpentine, with perilous curves and hairpin turns, it rivals Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” from 1946 for the most convoluted plot in all of film noir.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Edmond O'Brien some more trouble. O'Brien is definitely not having a good day.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Frank (Edmond O’Brien) some more trouble. Frank is definitely not having a good day.

I especially like the scenes in which Bigelow leaves the comfort of dancing the rhumba and downing a few drinks in the upscale St. Francis Hotel to visit the noisy, smoky Fisherman club, where he watches a bebop jazz band play its all and chats with “jive-crazy, high-society” Jeannie (Virginia Lee), an elegant blonde who turns out to be a mere red herring.

O’Brien, with his good looks and strapping self-confidence, plays the determined Bigelow as every man’s take-charge fantasy. Britton as Paula is the kind of girl next door that bad-ass femmes fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Bennett would eat for breakfast. Her innocence is nicely countered by a rich array of dastardly, devious characters.

Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse wrote the original screenplay, perhaps inspired by a 1931 German film “Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht”/ “Looking For His Murderer” directed by master noir creator Robert Siodmak with writing help from the great Billy Wilder. (In “D.O.A.” Rouse’s name, along with Laszlo and assistant director Marty Moss, appears on the guest register of the Allison Hotel in Los Angeles.)

The movie was remade in 1969 as “Color Me Dead” and in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Charlotte Rampling. The original is the best of the lot. Watch it and you’ll see why.

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‘D.O.A.’ quick hit

D.O.A./1950/United Artists/83 min.

Edmond O’Brien plays the frantic but determined Frank Bigelow who spearheads the hunt for a killer – his own – in this riveting noir from director Rudolph Maté. You’d be freaked out too if you discovered you’d been poisoned and had to track the culprit before it’s too late. Talk about deadline pressure!

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