Wendell Corey astonishes as a doofus turned dangerous

The Killer is Loose/1956/Crown Productions, UA/73 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

Budd Boetticher, who didn’t direct nearly as many films as he should have, made a lot of them in the ’50s. And in 1956, he directed both a classic Western (“Seven Men from Now”) and a neglected semi-classic low-budget noir, “The Killer is Loose.”

Joseph Cotten plays a dedicated if disgruntled LA cop, Rhonda Fleming is his unwisely feisty wife, Alan Hale and John Larch are fellow fuzz, and, very memorably, Wendell Corey is the escaped bank robber who blames Cotten (correctly) for the death of his wife during his arrest.

Corey was a dependable, if often unexciting, sidekick and secondary guy in the ’40s and ’50s. In 1947’s “Desert Fury,” he plays John Hodiak’s right-hand crook, another great noir role. Corey gives an astonishing performance here as the psychotic vengeance-seeker – playing the character not as the usual cold-blooded, relentless Lee Marvin or Jack Palance type, but as someone you’d probably trust.

Wendell Corey plays the psycho as a polite, trustworthy type.

He’s a polite, preoccupied, considerate, somewhat clumsy, nice-enough-acting doofus, not at all maniacal or dangerous-appearing. He’s also seemingly unstoppable, as he breaks out of jail and moves inexorably toward Cotten and Fleming and their home in the suburbs, killing everyone in his way.

Corey’s loose killer and his last disguise, which in some ways anticipates Norman Bates’ mother in “Psycho,” are both absurd and scary.

The movie, like a lot of Boetticher, is immaculately well executed, the work of an extraordinary genre-bending talent. By the way, Lee Marvin had one of his all-time best heavy roles in Boetticher’s above-mentioned gem “Seven Men from Now.” In that movie, it was hero Randolph Scott who was the relentless pursuer, out to avenge his wife.

The cinematographer of “The Killer is Loose” was Lucien Ballard, Boetticher’s good friend and great collaborator. Ballard, an ace at both Westerns and noirs, shot this movie the same year he lit Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.”

MGM Limited Edition Collection, available from online retailers. No extras.

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fffashion L.A. shows work of eco-conscious designers

About 300 guests attended last Thursday’s fffashion L.A., a fur-free fashion show, at Wonderland nightclub in Hollywood. Organizers call it a showcase of “cutting-edge fashions that are friendly to animals and the environment.”

The show is a project of Born Free USA, a nationally recognized leader in animal welfare and wildlife conservation. The group is the U.S. affiliate of the U.K.-based Born Free Foundation, founded by “Born Free” stars Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

The band 8mm performed before the show. Here a few runway highlights; you can see more photos here.

KissinCussin two-piece, Donna Salyers faux fur vest, Tea Tree Designs jewelry

 

Sherri Hill dress

 

Dalia MacPhee gown

 

Ashley Cook ensemble; Imoshion bag

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Juliette Beavan, frontwoman of the band 8mm, modeled in the show. She wears a black Sherri Hill dress.

Photos courtesy of Bliss Media

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‘Mulholland Dr.’ takes us through shiny dreams and devastating nightmares

Mulholland Dr./2001/Universal, Studio Canal/145 min.

Let’s face it, reality sucks. So, on second thought, let’s not face it.

David Lynch

Instead, pluck an image from your fantasy du jour, then jump into your limousine, Lamborghini roadster or sedan chair and head to “Mulholland Dr.” for poolside cocktails with your dear chum writer/director David Lynch.

Or just put your feet up and watch the movie. This terrific neo-noir mystery is a story within a story within a story within a story about Hollywood, its shimmering promise and dark secrets, its cut-throat power and caustic pain, and its huge cast of heroes, hopefuls, heavies and hangers-on. The film is also a visual poem and Lynch’s highly personal, surrealistic imagery resonates long after you see it.

Lynch’s Tinseltown reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes in “The Great Gatsby,” the famous Hollywood sign, like the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, set amid wild delight and staggering decadence.

Lynch’s detractors complain that his motifs – portals and shadowy rooms, lurking danger beneath an innocent exterior, secret languages, nightclub singers and stages, for example – are shallow gimmicks that Lynch leans on from film to film. (His other work includes: “Eraserhead” 1977, “Blue Velvet” 1986, “Wild at Heart” 1990, the TV series “Twin Peaks” 1990-91, “Lost Highway” 1997, “Inland Empire” 2006).

Nevertheless, in each film, Lynch creates a unique cinematic world that takes your breath away with its striking beauty, sly humor, intense characters and uncommon depth. In “Mulholland Dr.” Lynch invites us into a shiny dream as well as a devastating nightmare. Though it’s a contemporary setting, there are so many retro references that the story almost feels like a period piece.

In part one, we meet golden girl Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a young actress who’s just arrived in Hollywood. Sweet, perky and hopeful, Betty has a retro-chic apartment to live in and an audition set up for a role in a major movie. Just in case she needs to borrow a cup of sugar, her charming landlady Coco (Ann Miller, in her last movie role) is ready and waiting to help.

Laura Elena Harring

Ann Miller

Nothing throws this girl, not even finding a stranger using her shower. This particular mystery woman calls herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring) because she can’t remember her own name or anything else about her life. Arrestingly beautiful, with raven hair and ravishing features, Rita appears to be on the run from some nefarious mobsters but she doesn’t know why, natch.

Nor does she have any idea why she has a key and $50,000 in her handbag, which the girls hide in a hatbox. (Well done! If you’ve picked the right frock and got your lipstick on straight, why bother to carry cash?)

Betty decides that Rita needs to retrace her steps in order to regain her identity. But first Betty must prepare for her audition. Rita helps her rehearse and the next day Betty wows everyone in the room, including her debonair co-star Jimmy Katz (Chad Everett). Afterward, Betty is whisked away to meet edgy young director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who’s casting a flick called “The Sylvia North Story.”

Later, over coffee at a diner (Lynch always loves a diner), Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn; this leads them to an apartment where they make an unsettling discovery. That night, Rita has a few tricks up her sleeve for Betty – first a seduction, then a visit to a strange, nearly empty dive bar called Club Silencio, where Rebekah Del Rio, playing herself, performs a stunning a capella rendition of Roy Orbison‘s “Crying.” When they return home, Rita uses her key to open a box and Betty disappears.

Watts, Lynch, Harring and Theroux

There are several subplots involving a fantasy creature in a diner parking lot; a hitman (Mark Pellegrino) who steals an address book, then casually kills three people; and slick-suited heavies (including Dan Hedaya as Vincenzo Castigliane) pressuring Kesher to cast unknown blonde actress Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) in his movie. Oh, and Kesher’s wife (Lori Heuring) is sleeping with the pool guy (Billy Ray Cyrus).

In part two, Lynch rejiggers this world. The glossy, fun-filled days and Betty’s wholesome aspirations are gone, replaced by pitch-black, sinister nights, acts of betrayal and quests for revenge.

“Mulholland Dr.” – whose abbreviated title may be a tribute to Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” – deserves high praise, for its look, its performances, its humor, its risks, its weirdness. Angelo Badalamenti (he has a cameo as gangster Luigi Castigliane, a man who takes espresso extremely seriously) contributes a stellar soundtrack and Peter Deming’s cinematography, with bright light and saturated color, is a treat.

Most of all, though, Lynch’s direction is superb. So is the acting. Watts easily shifts from fluffy and fierce, graceful to gritty. Similarly, Harring makes a fluid transition from lost soul to lady in charge. Though the plot is sometimes thorny, the actors are breezy and believable.

To think that Renée Zellweger received a Best Actress Oscar nom for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Watts didn’t make the list is baffling. (Halle Berry won that year for “Monster’s Ball.” The other contenders were Sissy Spacek for “In the Bedroom,” Nicole Kidman for “Moulin Rouge” and Judi Dench for “Iris.”)

Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Ron Howard won for “A Beautiful Mind,” which also won Best Picture. At Cannes, however, “Mulholland Dr.” received the Palme d’Or for best direction. (Lynch shared the honor with Joel Coen for “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”)

Don't want to keep Clive waiting ...

Of all that’s been written about “Mulholland Dr.” critic Stephanie Zacharek sums it up best: “‘Mulholland Dr.’ is the most womanly of David Lynch’s movies. … It’s wily and sophisticated, stylized like an art deco nude, and suffused with so much feline glamour and beauty and naked eroticism that its chief aim seems not to be to dazzle us with its typically Lynchian plot twists, but to seduce us into its sway and keep us there. This is a movie with hips.”

Speaking of seducing, I must dash back to my fantasyland. I’m meeting with my agent so I can sign that $3 million book deal. Then, I’m off to dinner and dancing with Clive Owen at the Stork Club. Ta ta!

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‘Mulholland Dr.’ quick hit

Mulholland Dr./2001/Universal, Studio Canal/145 min.

Two parallel stories and a bizarre tangle of story threads – by turns sumptuous and sinister – courtesy of visual poet David Lynch. A bright young actress (Naomi Watts) comes to Hollywood to pursue her dreams.

With talent, perseverance and a bit of luck, she’ll soon be the toast of the town, right? Think again, doll. Exciting work from an excellent cast, particularly from Watts and co-star Laura Elena Harring.

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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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‘Detour’ quick hit

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Hard as nails Ann Savage is hell on wheels, literally. As a hitchhiker with a taste for fraud, she pulls unlucky traveler Tom Neal into her sticky web of treachery and deceit.

A searing, seminal noir from often-unappreciated director Edgar Ulmer, known for performing minor miracles on a shoestring budget.

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Dig in: Dolce & Gabbana decadence is a tonic for excess

Chocolate by Dolce & Gabbana

Mondays are when I atone for weekend indulgences such as chocolate bobka, chocolate cake and cherry pie (well, it was a birthday party, what can I say?).

I am weaning myself off celebratory desserts with Dolce & Gabbana’s Chocolate, $20, the latest addition to the Intense Nail Lacquer collection. Rich and intense, the lacquer provides excellent coverage and a shiny finish. This shade is a deep enough brown to function as a neutral and the collection overall has a great palette, from subtle nudes to dramatic pops of color.

Also, unlike the real stuff, this form of chocolate stays put and lasts for days.

Product Source: From my own collection. I did not receive product or compensation from Dolce & Gabbana.

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Bribes, brawls and bullets, and sultry Marie Windsor

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

“She haunts my dreams and some of my nightmares as well,” says an ardent fan of actress Marie Windsor in 1952’s “The Narrow Margin,” directed by Richard Fleischer.

Billy Friedkin

The fan in question is Chicago-born Billy Friedkin – director of “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), among many others – and his comments come in the form of DVD commentary for “The Narrow Margin,” a definitive film noir. Maybe Windsor had that mysterious-older-woman vibe going on too, since Friedkin was only 17 when this B-movie came out.

In it, she plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, a gangster’s wife. She’s a bribable beauty with a sharp tongue. The story takes place almost entirely on a train from Chicago to LA, where Mrs. Neall is scheduled to testify against the mob. Making sure she doesn’t bail on the way is her police escort Walter Brown (Charles McGraw).

Charles McGraw

One snag is that the mob is less than thrilled about the prospect of her naming names when she takes the stand. So two heavies board the train hoping to rub her out; their earlier attempt resulted in the death of Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe). They’ve got their work cut out for them, though – they don’t know what she looks like. And they’re up against Charles McGraw.

It’s a great yarn, fast and lean, where every second counts. The visuals are richly lurid – the stark shadows of Mrs. Neall’s apartment building when the cops come to get her are standouts. As Friedkin puts it: “Lighting is a character in these films.”

Fleischer also manages to convey a sense of realism despite the fact that “The Narrow Margin” was primarily shot on a train set. One way he accomplished that was by employing a hand-held camera, using it to simulate a sense of motion. Cramped compositions and claustrophobic camera angles heighten the mood of entrapment. Shot in less than a month, the film was a big hit at the box office.

We also meet some memorable fellow passengers such as the curious and tubby Jennings (Paul Maxey) who declares: “Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.”

And of course Windsor exudes streetwise strength every time she makes one of her barbed comments or acidic rejoinders. When Brown tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach,” she barks: “Well use your own sink.” Upon seeing him put on his gun one morning, she asks: “What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?”

“The Narrow Margin” garnered an Oscar nomination (rare for noirs) for the story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote the story and screenplay for another famous noir: “Detour,” made in 1945 by director Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Narrow Margin’

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

No wonder Marie Windsor’s a little cranky. As a mobster’s wife, she’s used to the cushy life and here she is stuck on a train from Chicago to LA with a tiresome police escort (Charles McGraw) who’s making sure she’ll testify against the mob. Or will she? It’s a fast ride full of sharp turns. Richard Fleischer directs this Oscar-nominated story; the low-budget gem was a big money maker for the studio (RKO).

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Out of the Shadows: More from David J. Haskins

I recently interviewed David J. Haskins about his Black Dahlia play, “The Chanteuse and the Devil’s Muse,” recently at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. The play was scheduled to run through Oct. 1 but closed on Sept. 17. There will be one more performance on Nov. 12, as part of Theatrefication. Haskins is a writer, director and musician, formerly a founding member of the band Bauhaus.

Here are more highlights from our talk, Parts 2 & 3. You can see Part 1 here. (Dr. George Hodel was a suspect at the time of the 1947 murder. His son Steve Hodel believes his father was guilty and outlines the evidence in his book “Black Dahlia Avenger” first published in 2003.)


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