Film noir feline stars: The cat in ‘Postman Always Rings Twice’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” 1946

Name: Sasha Pirster

Character Name: Curiosity

Though her screentime was brief, Sasha Pirster made a memorable impression in "Postman."

Bio: “I like cats, they’re always up to something,” says the motorcycle cop as he looks admiringly at a full-figured kitty climbing a ladder in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Directed by Tay Garnett and based on the famous novel by James M. Cain, “Postman” is a seminal film noir.

Sadly for Curiosity (Sasha Pirster), platinum blondes with nice legs are also always up to something. The blonde in this case is Cora (Lana Turner) who plots with her lover Frank (John Garfield) to kill her husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway). Curiosity is on screen only long enough to be noticed by the cop and make Frank nervous before she meets a rather brutal end.

The lovers’ first attempt to do away with Nick is staging an accidental drowning in a bathtub. But when the power fails, their plan is foiled and poor Curiosity, who happened to be an innocent bystander, is electrocuted. “I never saw a prettier cat,” says the cop. “It killed her deader’n’ a doornail.” This strange omen does not deter the killers in the least and they proceed to Plan No. 2.

Lana Turner

Despite her character’s grim fate, feline actress Sasha Pirster was a joy to work with. Known for her wry one-liners and practical jokes (she was fond of offering cash rewards for mittens), Sasha was popular with both cast and crew.

In fact, Lana Turner was between husbands during the filming of this movie and the two actresses frequently went out on the town; their drink of choice was kahlua and cream. It was on one of these outings that Sasha met the love of her life, a wealthy fish merchant (well, ok, he was a fat cat) named Felix Kurllup, whom she married in 1947.

Sasha said goodbye to acting and became a homemaker; the couple had 13 children. After raising the kittens, she launched a popular line of turbans inspired by Turner’s elegant toppers in “Postman.”

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FNB writer Michael Wilmington wins Golden Ciupaga award

From left: Sebastian Jankowski, director of the Polish Film Festival in Madison, Wis., Michael Wilmington and the Polish Film Festival in America’s Anna Maria Gliszczynska.

Exciting news from Chicago: the Polish Film Festival in America has honored contributing FNB writer Michael Wilmington with the Golden Ciupaga award for his contribution to the promotion of Polish film in the United States. Also honored was fellow film critic Zbigniew Banas. The awards were presented Nov. 20.

Now in its 23rd year under founder/director Christopher Kamyszew, the two-week festival typically features more than 70 features, documentaries and shorts, and draws Polish filmmakers from around the world. The fest attracts an audience of 35,000. Previous award winners include Roger Ebert; Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival and Milos Stehlik, founder and director of Facets Multi-Media in Chicago.

Said Wilmington: “The Polish festival is a wonderful event. It opens up whole new worlds for its audience. This year, they brought one of 2011’s best movies, Agnieszka Holland’s brilliant ‘In Darkness’ and they brought Agnieszka too! I’m proud and very happy to accept this award.”

The intense-looking ciupaga signifies trailblazing achievement. “In Darkness,” a World War Two-era suspense drama set in Lvov, a German-occupied city in Poland, opens in the U.S. Dec. 9.

From left: Beata Banas, Michael Wilmington, Iwona Korzeniowska and Anna Maria Gliszczynska.

Holland received Academy Award nominations for “Angry Harvest” and “Europa, Europa.” The latter film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

She received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for the pilot of the HBO series “Treme,” and got critical praise for her work on “The Wire.”

Besides Chicago, a city with more than 1 million inhabitants of Polish descent, the PFFA hosts satellite screenings in Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis and Rochester, N.Y.

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Film noir bounty: Giving thanks for Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea

Joan Bennett

Hope you had a portion-control-be-damned! Thanksgiving. Feel like plopping onto the sofa for a noir double-feature? Treat yourself to a cinematic cornucopia – two films from director Fritz Lang with the same outstanding cast: Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea. “The Woman in the Window” from 1944 has Bennett juggling men, donning elegant frocks and downing cocktails.

Even darker is 1945’s “Scarlet Street,” another noir love triangle, in which Bennett’s character, nicknamed Lazy Legs because she’s just not digging the whole 9 to 5 thing, decides that blackmail might not be as bad as it seems.

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‘The Woman in the Window’ quick hit

The Woman in the Window/1944/Christie Corp./99 min.

The characters played by Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, as directed by Fritz Lang, perfectly exemplify noir themes of fate, moral bankruptcy and sexual perversity. Robinson’s Professor Richard Wanley meets the beautiful Alice Reed (Bennett) by chance. He ends up committing a crime and they try to put it behind them. Making sure they can’t is a lowlife named Heidt (Duryea). Noir decadence at its finest.

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A little bromance, a beautiful woman, a battle with Fate

The Woman in the Window/1944/Christie Corp./99 min.

When you least expect your life to unravel is exactly when your life will unravel, at least in a Fritz Lang film. Take “The Woman in the Window” from 1944. Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) lives a cozy bourgeois life – he gives lectures on Freud by day, enjoys after-dinner port and cigars by night. But by the end of this night, Richard will be covering up a murder.

Sipping and smoking with him at their Manhattan men’s club are his friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon), who’s fond of barking “Great Scott!”

Richard leaves the club after their booze-fueled yack-fest and lingers at the window of the art gallery next door. While he gazes at the creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady peering out from the canvas, another creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady materializes – it’s the model, a woman named Alice Reed (Joan Bennett).

Alice (Joan Bennett) is the woman in the painting Richard (Edward G. Robinson) and his friends admire.

After chatting over drinks, she invites him back to her splendidly appointed place. Just as they’re getting to know each other, her flashy peacock boyfriend Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) barges in. Clearly, Alice and Claude haven’t had that “Are we seeing each other exclusively?” talk and violence erupts.

Claude’s rumored “disappearance” doesn’t fool people for long – the cops are digging for info, Richard’s pals Frank and Michael chatter about the case endlessly, and a sleazy associate of Mazard’s named Heidt (Dan Duryea) sees a plum opportunity for blackmail.

Alice and Richard are randomly bound together.

Sharply written and brilliantly acted, “The Woman in the Window” proved a box-office hit. Nunnally Johnson produced the movie and wrote the script from the J.H. Wallis novel “Once Off Guard.” The movie’s original score, a group effort led by Arthur Lange and Hugo Friedhofer, received an Oscar nom.

Vienna-born Lang infuses the film with fatalism, despite its upbeat ending. “I always made films about characters who struggled and fought against the circumstances and traps in which they found themselves,” he said.

And, as usual, Lang pulls out all the visual stops, suggesting powerlessness, alienation and doom. A signature noir shot is Claude entering the shadowy lobby of Alice’s apartment building, against the backdrop of a lonely, rainy nightscape pierced by the glare of a neon clock. Later his body will be draped in more shadows, in the back seat of Richard’s car.

Alice sweet-talks Heidt (Dan Duryea).

Inside Alice’s pristine white apartment, mirrors splice and distort images, contributing to a fractured sense of reality. The effect may have helped inspire Orson Welles to create the fun-house mirrors sequence in 1948’s “Lady From Shanghai.”

Though he got typically great work from his actors, Lang also had a reputation for being difficult. But he clicked with Bennett. Maybe he appreciated the sacrifices she made for her art – a natural blonde, Bennett dyed her hair black. ;) She also had lots of drama offscreen – she married four times and endured a scandal after her third husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover in the groin. (Her second husband was producer Gene Markey).

Lang and Bennett made four (almost five) films together: another famous noir, 1945’s “Scarlet Street” (which also starts Robinson and Duryea, and is definitely the darker of the two), “Man Hunt” 1941, and “Secret Beyond the Door” 1948. Bennett also starred in “Confirm or Deny” 1941, but director Archie Mayo was brought in to replace Lang.

Johnny Depp

Later in her career, Bennett portrayed Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the ’60s TV series “Dark Shadows” and she appeared in the 1970 movie “House of Dark Shadows.” The Collinses will hit the big screen again next spring in a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration.

The mood of “The Woman in the Window” is pure Lang, and much of that mood comes from the actors. Duryea convincingly plays a slimy loser while, in reality, he was a standup guy. It’s a testament to his versatility that Robinson, though famous for his tough gangster roles, is completely at ease as the innocent, cultured professor caught in a film-noir web.

Best of all is Bennett, noir to the nines, spinning that web.

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‘Scarlet Street’ quick hit

Scarlet Street/1945/Fritz Lang Productions, Universal Pictures/103 min.

Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea regroup for more intrigue, manipulation and twisted love, having made “The Woman in the Window” with director Fritz Lang the year before. In this much darker flick, Christopher Cross (Robinson) is a bank employee who lets wannabe actress Kitty March (Bennett) think he’s a wealthy artist so she’ll give him the time of day. But that little fib is nothing compared with the con that her manager Johnny Prince (Duryea) has in mind. The sense of doom is almost palpable and you might wonder how Lang got this ending past the censors. Wry, stylish and very entertaining.

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Langian gloom, love gone awry, Lazy Legs in ‘Scarlet Street’

Scarlet Street/1945/Fritz Lang Productions, Universal Pictures/103 min.

The 1945 film “Scarlet Street” was director Fritz Lang’s favorite in his American oeuvre. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols based the screenplay on Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel “La Chienne,” which also inspired Jean Renoir’s 1931 movie of the same name.

“Scarlet Street” stars the knock-out Joan Bennett as “actress”/call girl Kitty March, Dan Duryea as her sleazy cad “manager” Johnny Prince and Edward G. Robinson as kindly bank cashier and weekend painter Christopher Cross.

Kitty (Joan Bennett) tolerates dreary Chris (Edward G. Robinson) because she thinks he's loaded.

On a dark rainy street (natch) in Greenwich Village, Chris happens to walk by as Johnny is pushing Kitty around and manages to fend Johnny off. Kitty and Chris have a nightcap and he lets her think that he’s a well-established artist with money to burn, not a hobbyist with a day job. With a name like Chris Cross, the man is a magnet for mix-ups.

Kitty has hobbies too: drinking, smoking, lying on the sofa, eating bon-bons, and letting dirty dishes pile up in her sink. She’s tried modeling but getting to shoots on time is kind of a drag. Even though Johnny’s a jerk, his nickname for her, Lazy Legs, is spot on.

When Johnny learns of the alleged Mr. Moneybags, he decides Kitty can milk Chris for all he’s worth, then hand the proceeds to him. Chris, smitten with Kitty, caves every time she asks for money. He’s also keen on finding a way out of his miserable marriage to the shrewish and domineering Adele (Rosalind Ivan).

Eventually, however, Chris figures out he’s being scammed, at which point he swaps his paint brush for an ice pick and acts on his fury. Through lucky circumstance, he gets away with his crime – pretty much unheard of in ’40s Hollywood. But his residual, unrelenting guilt is perhaps more of a punishment than prison could ever be.

In Lang’s gritty pessimistic view, the harder Chris struggles to do the right thing, the fewer options he seems to have – the world is out to get him and it does. Lang uses high-contrast lighting and extreme-angle shots to set the mood of tension bordering on paranoia. But fear not, the movie is such an entertaining entanglement that it can’t be called a true downer.

A year before this flick, Lang directed the same three leads in a similar noir “The Woman in the Window.” Building on the rich talent and lively chemistry of his actors, with “Scarlet Street” Lang delves deeper into the psychic nightmare of a pawn caught in a trap.

Johnny (Dan Duryea) and Kitty (Joan Bennett) make plans, perhaps to go shopping for another ridiculous hat.

Bennett plays her role as effortlessly as a cat batting a piece of yarn. Duryea oozes unctuous badness and somehow makes his pimp’s wardrobe look perfectly plausible. Robinson, famous for playing tough-guy gangsters, turns that character type on its head and finds his simpering, submissive side, even donning an apron for his domestic scenes.

Considerably tamer and lighter, 1944’s “The Woman in the Window” was a box-office hit. The Spectator said of the movie: “Rarely has Art and Mammon been so prettily served.”

“Scarlet Street” remained loyal to Art and saw only middling commercial success, but many critics now consider it the superior of the two films. “The Woman in the Window” and “Scarlet Street” make a terrific double-bill regardless of whether you believe Art or Mammon makes the better master.

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FNB talks film noir with Paris-based critic Lisa Nesselson

Hope you are getting to your gatherings and getting ready to indulge!

This is a quick chat (shot quick and gritty and a tad noisy) that I had last month at the Chicago film festival with film critic Lisa Nesselson. A longtime resident of Paris, Lisa is a Chicago native. She is also charming, brilliant and delightfully funny. Lisa contributed to Variety from Paris from 1990 through 2007 and now writes for Screen International.

Additionally, from 1986-2001, she wrote the irreverent monthly film pages of the Paris Free Voice. A contributor to the BBC World Service and a former Radio France International anchor, her book-length translations from French to English include biographies of Clint Eastwood, Simone de Beauvoir and Cinémathèque Française founder Henri Langlois.

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Holiday movie magic: A brand-new black and white, the blonde bombshell, a bad cop, Cronenberg and Scorsese

It’s that time again … Oscar season is here. Starting Wednesday, Nov. 23., there is much to see at the movies; these films surely will appeal to noir fans. (Check your local listings for details.) Enjoy!

‘The Artist’

Bérénice Bejo

“The Artist,” set in 1927 Hollywood, is writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ visually resplendent ode to the vivacious beauty of silent cinema. Debonair heartthrob and household name George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) coasts from movie to movie and lives in high style – posh home, trophy wife (Penelope Ann Miller), loyal valet (James Cromwell) and faithful companion, a Jack Russell terrier.

Ambitious actress and dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) has talent, looks and perfect timing – the introduction of sound is reshaping the way films are made. She’s drawn to George but, at first, he doesn’t pay her much attention beyond an admiring glance. George’s idyllic world starts to collapse when he sees that his style does not work with the latest and greatest technical advance, talkies. Can he find a way to keep up with the times and salvage his career?

The story, though a bit of a stretch, is delightful. The era is fastidiously recreated and Hazanavicius draws fine work from his cast. Dujardin neatly balances pomposity with humility and Bejo dazzles as Peppy. Her high energy nearly sparks off the screen and it’s a joy to watch her marvelously expressive face. And John Goodman is spot on as blustery producer Al Zimmer. The film has won several awards from festivals, including best actor for Dujardin at Cannes.

“The Artist” is a tender-hearted, near-perfect pastiche of a classic art form.

‘My Week with Marilyn’

Kenneth Branagh

Manipulative, desperate, vulnerable. Funny, gifted, magical. Never dumb. In “My Week with Marilyn,” Simon Curtis’ portrait of ’50s screen icon Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), we see her multiple sides and many problems through the prism of chaste voyeurism and our jaded, tell-all modernity.

“They like to keep her doped up, she’s easier to control. They’re terrified their cash cow will slip away,” says one observer, during the shoot, in England, of 1957’s “The Prince and the Show Girl.” Her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) takes issue with her erratic behavior, but he also envies her raw, intuitive talent.

Adrian Hodges wrote the screenplay, based on “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an assistant director on the film and the son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (of “Civilisation” fame). Dame Judi Dench plays actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Dougray Scott plays Arthur Miller.

Curtis creates a beguiling visual confection with tour-de-force Oscar-caliber performances.

‘Rampart’
In “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt cop in early 1990s Los Angeles. Moverman wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy. Also stars Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Anne Heche and Ice Cube.
Note: “Rampart” is out for one week only in Los Angeles and New York; wider release hits in January 2012. We at FNB are looking forward to seeing it!

‘A Dangerous Method’

David Cronenberg speaks at a press conference last week.

David Cronenberg brings his consummate eye to a remarkable historical drama in “A Dangerous Method.” Flawlessly photographed, the story is rendered with intelligence, austerity and precision. Though the chilly, almost clinical, tone undermines the film’s emotional buildup, it’s nevertheless a gripping saga.

Under Cronenberg’s lens is the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in the pioneering days of psychoanalysis when ethical boundaries had yet to be drawn. Jung’s intent on helping a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who enters his clinic flailing, wild and barely able to speak.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina is emotionally shattered as an adult. She makes rapid progress with Jung and the two begin an illicit, intimate relationship. Eventually Sabine decides to become an analyst and in the course of her study challenges some of Freud’s work.

Vincent Cassel plays psychiatrist Otto Gross; Canadian newcomer Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s wife. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay from his play “The Talking Cure,” which was based on the book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.

“We’ve all been influenced by Freud whether we know it or not,” said Cronenberg at a press conference last week in Beverly Hills. Cronenberg added that though Freud fell out of favor, his professional stature has recovered lost ground in the last 15 years. “Some of his theories have been absolutely confirmed.”

He pointed out that despite his stern and uptight reputation, Freud was in fact “handsome, charming, witty and funny.” That called for “slightly oblique, non-traditional casting” so Cronenberg said he talked Mortensen into the part. This is their third collaboration, following “History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”

Of Knightley’s portrayal of Sabine, Cronenberg said, “I’ve always thought she was an underrated actress. … It’s a really beautiful performance.”

‘Hugo’

From a champion of film noir and master neo-noir director Martin Scorsese comes “Hugo,” an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” It is one of Scorsese’s most accomplished productions ever (stunning 3D color cinematography; gorgeous production design by Dante Ferretti) and one of the year’s very best films.

Georges Méliès

In 1930s Paris, a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a railway station and keeps all the clocks running. He clashes with an over-zealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), flirts with a pretty young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and meets her family, including the great but forgotten filmmaker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

The movie is Scorsese’s Valentine to the cinema, and few more sumptuous love-notes have been made. Filled with clips from silent classics, including Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon,” this is a jewel no genuine movie lover should pass by.

“Hugo” review by Michael Wilmington

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Film noir with Farrell and Knightley is a little bit of all right

London Boulevard/2010/GK Films, et al/103 min.

“She’s not wearing that dress, the dress is wearing her,” the fashion police might grumble before making an arrest. “London Boulevard” commits a similar crime – it’s a movie that ultimately overpowers its director.

That said, there is much to admire in this work from William Monahan, who directed and wrote the script from a novel by Ken Bruen. Monahan, having won the Oscar for “The Departed,” is completely in his element with noir scripts, setting up compelling narrative threads and knocking out smart, fast, sometimes-funny lines.

Colin Farrell plays Mitchel, an ex-con determined not to return to jail. But, in need of quick cash, he hooks up with simple-minded Billy (Ben Chaplin) and helps him make his rounds collecting money in South London for flashy gangster boss Rob Gant (Ray Winstone). At a pub gathering to celebrate Mitchel’s release, a pretty girl (Ophelia Lovibond) tells him he could approach a “retired” friend of hers for a job as a handyman.

The friend turns out to be anxious and vulnerable Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a famous actress who can’t leave her Holland Park home without being bombarded by the snapping and flashing of verminlike paparazzi. He catches her eye (Colin Farrell just has a way of doing that), then earns her trust as well as that of her manager, Jordan (David Thewlis), a former actor and fluent drug-taker. At the same time, Mitchel tends to his unstable sister (Anna Friel) and seeks retribution for the murder of a damaged old criminal (Alan Williams).

Still, the ties with the underworld are tough to break. After Mitchel endures a beating from rival thugs (Billy flees), the boss offers him a promotion. “No thanks, got a new job” does not go over well and Mitchel has to find a way to extricate himself from Rob.

“London Boulevard” has many of the elements of a first-rate neo noir. It starts with high energy (the music helps) and an exciting pace – Monahan seems in command of his material. Chock full of dodgy characters, the movie is nicely cast and all the actors are interesting to watch. Farrell and Knightley have a spindly spark of chemistry, which is about all you could expect from this ships-in-the-night liaison.

But, about two thirds of the way though, the movie’s rhythm goes haywire, lingering too long on one storyline, then rushing abruptly to another. It’s hard not to notice the drafty holes in the story as it shunts to its slightly surprising, yet far from inevitable, conclusion.

Flaws aside, however, “London Boulevard” is an entertaining yarn with a considerable amount of visual flair (Chris Menges shot it) and intelligence. So the movie police might complain – film noir with Farrell and Knightley is still a little bit of all right.

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