Noir nightmare ‘Shock Corridor’ ramps up the pulp and reminds us: We’re all a little wacky

Shock Corridor/1963/F & F Productions/101 min.

With the nuttiness of holiday travel and family gatherings nigh, we at FNB think it’s the perfect time for a little noir fun at the insane asylum. Crazy? Bring it on!

By Michael Wilmington

Sam Fuller’s B-movie noir “Shock Corridor” – about an arrogant reporter trying to solve a murder in an insane asylum – is a cheap little picture that packs wallop after wallop in one powerfully conceived and incandescently unhinged scene after another. Fuller fears neither God nor man in this show. And he especially doesn’t fear most movie critics, whose every canon of taste and judgment he tends to ignore or trample on, but who wound up largely on his side anyway.

Set mostly in the asylum’s endless corridor (an effect done with mirrors and midgets), the movie makes its very cheapness an asset – low-budget minimalism turning into something of a nightmare. It’s a world emptied of conventional signposts, an arena in which lunatics and doctors can act out their strange drama without interference. In the center of it all, reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck of TV’s “The Big Valley”) poses as a psycho and gets committed so he can hunt for the asylum killer. This story, he reckons, will yield a Pulitzer and plenty of cash.

Peter Breck

Constance Towers

Egotistical and argumentative, Johnny seems a bit of a head case himself. His ruse starts when he rehearses the symptoms of psychosis with a friendly psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn). Then he enlists his stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to masquerade as his sister, for whom he feigns an incestuous obsession. That would seem an easy lie to check and disprove, but, as usual with Fuller, we let it pass. The movie, though, would probably have been stronger if there’d been a real sister, in addition to Cathy.

Played out with maximum impact against severe white backdrops, the script starts succumbing to B-movie infatuations and noir shtick of its own. Johnny jaw-bones with the know-it-all Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and befriends the huge-of-girth, opera-singing Pagliacci, played by Larry Tucker, the comedy/scriptwriting partner of Paul Mazursky. (Mazursky asked Fuller why he wasn’t cast in “Shock Corridor” too, only to be told, “You were too skinny.”)

Johnny interrogates three crazy witnesses: Stuart (James Best), a Korean war veteran who thinks he’s a Confederate Civil War general; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a trail-blazing black student at a Southern white university who thinks he’s a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, and Boden (Gene Evans, the Sgt. Zack of Fuller’s great Korean War movie “The Steel Helmet”), the world’s most brilliant nuclear scientist, now with the brain of a 6-year-old. As Johnny gets closer to the truth of the murder mystery, he also edges closer to real madness, stumbling closer to the traps of insanity that seemed to bedevil him from the start.

If you compare the pulpy, uninhibited “Shock Corridor” to a relatively realistic picture of mental institutions and psychiatry like Milos Forman’s film of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” or the Olivia de Havilland asylum drama “The Snake Pit,” you’ll find it wanting.

Fuller is a polemicist who likes to editorialize and use his stories to get at overarching truths. The Cold War, racial prejudice and the arms race are as loony as the inmates. Journalism is a trust, not a goldmine. Madness and sex are nothing to toy with.

The seeds of “Shock Corridor” were in a thriller script with an exposé attitude called “Straightjacket” that Fuller wrote for Fritz Lang in the ’40s. In “Shock Corridor,” Fuller spreads his net wider. American society itself, in addition to psychiatry, is under the lens.

The movie was a hit with audiences and critics, especially ’60s auteurists. The cast, though less than A-list, is good and the technical talent is ace-high. Eugène Lourié (of Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” and “The Southerner”) did the sets. Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Night of the Hunter”) was the cinematographer. They make the movie look great.

Shot and cut by Fuller just as he wanted, with nothing held back and probably nothing softened, it’s a movie that, like Johnny, may seem at first too brash, too loud and too wild. But it gets the story told. Shockingly.

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My quest for the perfect eyeliner: Part Seven

Artliner by Lancôme is a go-to tube.

Looking to perfect your cat eye or create some subtle definition? Lancôme’s Artliner eyeliner, $29, is a go-to tube whether you’re going for full-on glamour or understated élan.

The liquid pen with a slender foam tip is easy to use and the rich, intense color leaves a soft, pretty finish. Artliner goes on smoothly, layers nicely and stays put without streaking or flaking.

I was excited to find out it comes in nine colors – two variations of black as well as aubergine, brown, gray and navy as well as three metallics – forest green, baby blue and amber.

Such a palette, such pigment! Who knows what inspiration you might find?

Product Source: I received a review sample from Lancôme. I did not receive compensation for this post.

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AFI FEST 2011 announces award winners, closes with ‘Tintin’

AFI FEST Director Jacqueline Lyanga presents the honors.

AFI FEST 2011 presented by Audi wrapped up Thursday with the awards brunch and closing-night gala screening of “The Adventures of Tintin” by Steven Spielberg.

AFI FEST Director Jacqueline Lyanga announced the award winners at a short ceremony in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room, which was the venue for the first Academy Awards presentation on May 16, 1929.

There were encore showings at the Egyptian Theatre of some of the award-winning films. The festival bestows audience, jury and critics’ prizes. More than 150 filmmakers from around the world presented their work this year.

AUDIENCE AWARDS
Breakthrough (award accompanied by a $5,000 cash prize): “With Every Heartbeat” by Alexandra-Therese Keining (Sweden)

New Auteurs: “Bullhead” by Michaël R. Roskam (Belgium)

World Cinema: A tie between “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” by David Gelb (US) and “Kinyarwanda” by Alrick Brown (US/Rwanda)

Young Americans: “Wuss” by Clay Liford (US)

There were encore showings Thursday at the Egyptian.

CRITICS’ AWARDS
This year, AFI FEST debuted its New Auteurs Critics’ Prize selected by Justin Chang (Variety), Mike Goodridge (Screen International), Mark Olsen (Los Angeles Times) and Jean Oppenheimer (American Cinematographer).

Grand Jury prize: “The Loneliest Planet” by Julia Loktev (US/Germany)

Special Jury prize: “Attenberg” by Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece)

Acting prize: Matthias Schoenaerts of “Bullhead” (Belgium)

SHORT FILM JURY AWARDS
A jury chooses the top live-action and animated short films. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recognizes each winner as a qualifier for the Academy Awards. To read the list and see more highlights from the fest, visit: http://afi-afifest.tumblr.com/post/12651668281.

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‘Nightmare Alley’ star and story dare to go against the grain

Nightmare Alley/1947/Twentieth Century Fox/110 min.

There’s a fateful moment in the beautifully lit “Nightmare Alley” in which cinematographer Lee Garmes creates a latticework of light, with neat bands of shadow slicing the room to bits. Performer/con artist Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is at the height of his success, having built himself up from nothing, but he’s about to get trapped by a soigné spider woman who’s far sharper and more ruthless than he.

Molly (Coleen Gray) and Stan (Tyrone Power) take their code on the road.

Stan is handsome, charismatic and ambitious, a born player. He hones his craft by working in a seedy carnival and taking what he can from his fellow performers. He cozies up to Zeena (Joan Blondell), a matronly “mentalist” who’s seen better days, angling to get her secret code designed for a mindreader and an assistant.

Her former co-star and now-alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith) opposes the idea, but Zeena relents after Pete dies from drinking wood alcohol.

Helping Stan learn the code is Molly (Coleen Gray), easy on the eyes, eager to please and smitten with him. Zeena and Bruno the strong-man (Mike Mazurki) push Stan to marry Molly; the newlyweds form an act and leave the carnival for Chicago.

Helen Walker

At the upscale Spode Room, Stan does a reading for cooly elegant Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychologist with a roster of wealthy clients. He senses that, despite her diploma and pedigree, Lilith is a player just like he is. (Maybe it’s her slightly mannish outfits that tip him off.)

Together they see a way to cheat Lilith’s clients and rake in hundreds of thousands in cash as Stan morphs into a spiritual healer. The still-devoted Molly does her best to stand by him.

But Stan can’t compete with Lilith’s level of deception and treachery. The trap evoked in Lilith’s office by the latticework shadow is now real. Starting with a bottle of gin in a dingy hotel room, Stan begins to self-destruct.

Pete (Ian Keith) talks shop with Stan (Tyrone Power).

Based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham (Jules Furthman wrote the script) and directed by Edmund Goulding, this is an incredibly sophisticated and well made film, though it fared poorly at the box office. It may have been easy for viewers to dismiss as strange or sordid because Power plays an anti-hero and Goulding refuses to shy away from showing alcoholism and addiction.

The film revels in ambiguity and mystery, exploring questions of morality and spirituality, particularly when we see Stan layer his act with a preacher’s rhetoric, masking his cynicism and contempt for his faithful believers.

“Nightmare Alley” owes its existence and budget (this is not a B movie) to its leading man and his clout at Twentieth Century Fox. Hugely popular for his swashbuckler and romantic heroes, Tyrone Power was one of Fox’s top stars in the mid 1940s. Coming from a family of stage actors (his heritage was Irish and French), he craved more challenging projects and roles. In 1946, Power and Goulding made “The Razor’s Edge,” based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel.

Goulding, of “Grand Hotel” fame, was known as a women’s director and for throwing lavishly wild Hollywood parties. He gets outstanding work from the “Nightmare Alley” cast with Power giving subtlety and depth to a dark, complicated character. His performance as the unrepentant hustler likely helped pave the way for 1970s anti-heroes such as Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy.”

Power’s popularity and success continued, and he had another noir role in 1957’s “Witness for the Prosecution” by Billy Wilder. Sadly, it was the last film he completed. While filming “Solomon and Sheba” in Madrid, Power, 44, died from a heart attack on Nov. 15, 1958. Handsome opportunist Stan Carlisle in “Nightmare Alley” remains one of his greatest achievements.

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‘Nightmare Alley’ quick hit

“Nightmare Alley” plays today, Nov. 9, at 4:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Nightmare Alley/1947/Twentieth Century Fox/110 min.

Lest you think classic noir is limited to private-eye offices, police stations and penthouse apartments, director Edmund Goulding’s flick transports us to the seedy world of traveling carnivals. Tyrone Power is Oscar-worthy as Stan Carlisle, a charismatic hustler looking to break into the big time. The excellent cast includes Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, Helen Walker, Ian Keith and Mike Mazurki. Based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel.

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One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

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‘The Killers’ quick hit

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

“The Killers,” based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, is virtuoso noir director Robert Siodmak’s most famous work and one of the genre-defining, all-time great noirs. Insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) wants to know who killed “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) and why a chambermaid is the beneficiary of his policy. The root of all evil (are you sitting down?) is a raven-haired beauty named Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), who refers to herself as “poison.” Lancaster’s first movie and Gardner’s first big success.

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‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is an icy thriller by an immaculate artist

“Le Cercle Rouge” plays Saturday, Nov. 6, at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Le Cercle Rouge/1970/EIA, et al/140 min./in French with English subtitles

By Michael Wilmington

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) was, in some ways, the Vermeer of the heist movie. A master of classic noir and neo noir, Melville was a cool, sure-fingered expert and an immaculate artist. Like Vermeer, his pictures were deceptively simple and utterly haunting, punctilious and mysterious. And, like Vermeer, he didn’t leave many behind him.

One of the greatest of all Melville’s films, with one of his most spectacular heists, is “Le Cercle Rouge,” a neo-noir which has, as its centerpiece, a spine-chilling depiction of a jewel robbery at the Place Vendome in Paris.

The job is pulled off with rare skill by three strangely honorable thieves, played by three international film stars: ex-convict Corey (played by Alain Delon), escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).

Alain Delon

The movie is about how these three come together, how they execute the robbery, and how they’re finally driven apart – largely through the quiet skill and determination of their relentless police antagonist. Deceptively lumpish, bourgeois-looking Inspector Mattei is played by comedy star André Bourvil.

Mattei is keeping watch over his prisoner, Vogel, on a train journey. But Vogel slips out of his handcuffs and escapes from the sleeper car of the speeding train. Mattei is humiliated, then obsessed with finding Vogel. The broken handcuffs become a psychological link.

Mattei has an invaluable source in Santi (François Périer), a double-dealer and underworld mole, who looks like a ferret in a suit. Santi owns a nightclub that seems to specialize in crooked assignations and ersatz ’50s American movie musical numbers, set to a cool jazzy score by Éric Demarsan. (The chorus girls in those numbers are almost the only women we see in the movie, except for one faithless lover and one cigarette girl.)

The title “Le Cercle Rouge” refers to a story of Buddha, who supposedly draws a red chalk circle and explains to his students that those who are destined to cross paths will do so within the circle, no matter what.

Melville made and released Le Cercle Rouge in 1970, one year after making his World War Two French Resistance masterpiece, “Army of Shadows” (1969) and two years before making his last film (with his last heist), the flawed “Un Flic” (Dirty Money), starring Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Richard Crenna. “Le Cercle Rouge” was his last masterpiece.

Back to Vermeer for a moment. There is one vital quality of Vermeer’s that Melville misses completely, probably never tries for: warmth. Melville’s films noirs are cold, especially when cinematographer Henri Decaë (of Melville’s “Le Samourai”) shoots them. His crooks are cool. They speak little, wear raincoats and fedoras, and smoke cigarettes, like Bogie. His cops are icy. His world is dark: noir to the brim.

Why was Melville so obsessed with criminals, with heists and with heist movies? Maybe because this underworld reminded him of the world that was the French Resistance, in which he had fought during the war.

And maybe it’s because of the one that got away. In the ’50s, Melville was hired to direct the movie that became one of the greatest of all heist movies (François Truffaut’s choice as the greatest of all film noirs), 1955’s “Rififi.” Melville was later fired and replaced by Jules Dassin, who chivalrously refused to take the job without Melville’s consent (which Melville gave). [Read more...]

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‘Eyes Without a Face’ gives us Guignol, Givenchy and grace

Eyes Without a Face/1960/Champs-Élysées Productions/88 min./in French, with English subtitles

I can’t think of many movies that combine Grand Guignol and Givenchy. So I’m grateful for 1959’s “Eyes Without a Face,” which critic Pauline Kael described as: “perhaps the most austerely elegant horror film ever made.”

Edith Scob stars as the disfigured daughter in "Eyes Without a Face."

It plays at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Noir and horror, both rooted in German Expressionism, overlap from time to time – the dramatic compositions, intense interplay of light and shadow, and the examination of the human mind’s most nefarious corners.

Director Georges Franju’s film, based on a Jean Redon novel, invites us into a frightening, yet poetic, world in which guilt has tipped Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) into a spiral of insanity. Loaded with darkness and visual style, “Eyes” counts in my book as a borderline noir.

The doctor’s daughter Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) was disfigured in a car accident and lives as a virtual prisoner, hiding behind a tasteful mask and swathed in glimmering Givenchy. Because he was driving the car, the doctor can’t forgive himself. As any devoted and deranged dad would do, he, along with his secretary Louise (Alida Valli), kidnaps young women who resemble poor Christiane, drugs them and attempts to use their faces as replacements. Christiane could then assume a new identity. As you might expect, this is a pretty tall order.

Louise (Alida Valli) does the dirty work.

While Louise isn’t quite a femme fatale, she’s still pretty tough. In the opening scene, for instance, we see her singlehandedly dragging a body from a car and dumping it in the river. And she’s always so charming, not to mention impeccably dressed, when she lures new victims, offering them little favors like a place to stay or great seats at the theater.

But the doctor starts to be outnumbered. The police (Alexandre Rignault, Claude Brasseur, Pierre’s son) get curious and so does Christiane’s former fiancé(François Guérin). More importantly, though, Christiane eventually revolts.

“Eyes Without a Face” left its mark on pop culture inspiring, for instance, Billy Idol’s ballad by the same name from the 1984 album “Rebel Yell.” The film also functions as a political parable with Docteur Génessier representing the evils of fascism. His daughter, though at first subdued, finally throws off her shackles, as in the scene where she releases the snarling, caged dogs and walks along with a dove on her wrist.

It is one of many surreal images, recalling perhaps a De Chirico painting of a deserted piazza, beautifully crafted by Franju, set off by Maurice Jarre’s chilling classical-style music.

Despite his talent, Franju (1912-1987) and his films have not been widely appreciated. Having made his mark with documentaries, he later specialized in poetic thrillers, romances and fantasies (“Judex,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux”). He was also a co-founder, with Henri Langlois, in 1936, of the Cinémathèque Française.

Here’s hoping Saturday’s screening will earn Franju a few more fans.

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‘Eyes Without a Face’ quick hit

Eyes Without a Face/1960/Champs-Élysées Productions, Lux Film/88 min.

Looking good is often a matter of playing up your best features and minimizing flaws. If your flaw is a missing face, however, that’s rather a bind, even for the most resourceful of fashion-forward gals. In “Eyes Without a Face,” Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) addresses the problem with a chic mask and lots of Givenchy, what else? Her father (Pierre Brasseur) has a far more radical idea that calls on his skills as a surgeon.

Director Georges Franju handles the material with grace and restraint. Alida Valli provides excellent support as the mad doctor’s accomplice.

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