Archives for July 2013

Film Noir File: Here’s looking at you, Bogie

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


Bogart poses in his classic fedora and trenchcoat.

If there is a country of film noir, then Humphrey Bogart is its president, its first citizen, its uncrowned king – a man of one unforgettable face and of many standout roles. Bogie was Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, two ace detectives. He was Roy Earle and Duke Mantee, outlaws on the run.

He played gang leaders (“The Roaring Twenties”) and their prosecutors (“Marked Woman,” “The Enforcer”), a treasure hunter (in “Sierra Madre”) and a bad-tempered screenwriter (“In a Lonely Place”). Outside the land of noir, he was sloppy steamboat Captain Charlie Allnut in “The African Queen” and mad Captain Queeg of “The Caine Mutiny.”

Perhaps most famously he was Rick Blaine of “Casablanca,” the melancholy, sexy night club owner, no stranger to secrets, cynicism and, ultimately, sacrifice for the greater good.

Bogart’s career was sluggish at the start; he owed his big break to Leslie Howard. They starred, with Bette Davis, in “The Petrified Forest.”

As he walked the dark, rainy streets of noir, he often wore a raincoat and fedora, with a cigarette curling smoke past his grimacing, partly paralyzed lip (the result of a fight when he was in the Navy) and likely carrying a gun. His eyes were dark and sad, his voice was low and hard-edged. There was usually a snarl in that voice.

Bogart was born into a comfortable Manhattan home, the son of a surgeon and an artist. In 1918, Bogart joined the Navy, after which he went into theater and film. One of his first movies was a prison baseball comedy called “Up the River,” directed by John Ford and starring, also in one of his first movie roles, Spencer Tracy. (Ford later called the picture “one of my mortal sins.”)

Bogart’s big break came in “The Petrified Forest” (1936, Archie Mayo). Co-star Leslie Howard insisted Bogie be cast as gangster Duke Mantee (they previously starred in the play’s Broadway run). Bogie quickly became a Warner Brothers contract player fixture. He started off as mostly a villain, then an anti-hero, then finally mostly a hero.

Bogart and Bacall were married from 1945 until Bogart’s death in 1957.

Howard Hawks once labeled Bogie as probably the most insolent guy in movies. Then Hawks told Bogart he was going to put him in a movie with a young actress even more insolent: Lauren Bacall. Hawks directed them in 1944’s “To Have and Have Not” and they fell in love. Like Tracy and Hepburn, Bogie and Bacall became one of the great Hollywood couples – and their marriage (her first, his fourth) was the stuff that dreams are made of.

At 57, Bogart died of throat cancer from too many of those signature cigarettes of his. Speaking at the funeral, John Huston, his favorite and most sympatico director, said: “We shall not look upon his like again.”

When Bogart won his Oscar for “The African Queen” – beating out Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun,” two of the most influential movie performances of the ’50s – he explained, “I’ve been around for a long time. Maybe the people like me.”

Bogart and Bacall were introduced by director Howard Hawks.

They do like him, still. Nobody wore a raincoat, cracked wise to a crook or a cop, or walked down a mean noir street, like Bogie. Nobody ever will. Here’s looking at you, kid.

(Note: Most of the following titles have been reviewed on FNB. Use the search tool on the right to find them.)

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Bogart: The Untold Story” (1996). A documentary look at Bogie’s life in (and out) of movies, hosted by his son, Stephen Bogart.

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “High Sierra” (1941, Raoul Walsh).

9 a.m. (6 a.m.): “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston).

10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.). “To Have and Have Not“ (1944, Howard Hawks).

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948, John Huston).

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.) “Tokyo Joe” (1949, Stuart Heisler).

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.). “Beat the Devil” (1954, John Huston).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “In a Lonely Place” (1950, Nicholas Ray).

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Harder They Fall” (1956, Mark Robson). [Read more…]

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Los Angeles honors Marilyn Monroe with memorial tributes

Marilyn Monroe in 1957; shot by Sam Shaw. Copyright Sam Shaw

Several special events in Los Angeles are slated to mark the 51st anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death on Aug. 5, 1962. Monroe overcame tremendous adversity to become one of the most iconic movie stars of all time. She died alone at her Brentwood home from a drug overdose; she was 36.

In conjunction with Marilyn Monroe: The Exhibit, which runs through Sept. 8, the Hollywood Museum will host two onsite events. At a meet-and-greet from 1- 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3, Marilyn collectors Greg Schreiner and Scott Fortner will share the history behind items on display in the exhibit.

From 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 4, there will be a book signing with authors Lois Banner, Douglas Kirkland and James Spada. Banner, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, which explores Marilyn’s life from a feminist perspective. Photographer/writer Kirkland’s book An Evening with Marilyn includes a series of Marilyn photos he took as well as details of the shoot. Spada produced the coffee-table book Marilyn Monroe: Her Life in Pictures.

The Hollywood Museum is located in the historic Max Factor Building at 1660 N. Highland Ave.

On Saturday night, dance critic Debra Levine and Oscar-winning actor, singer and dancer George Chakiris will introduce the 60th anniversary screening of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” part of the Academy’s Oscars Outdoors series in Hollywood. The event is sold out but there will be a standby line.

Additionally, the annual “Marilyn Remembered” memorial service, co-sponsored by the Hollywood Museum, takes place at 11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 5, at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, 1218 Glendon Ave. in Westwood.

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‘Our Man in Havana’ offers wit, savvy and suspense

By Michael Wilmington

Our Man in Havana/1959/Kingsmead Productions, Columbia Pictures Corp./111 min.

Our Man in Havana,” a dark 1959 comedy starring Alec Guinness,  was the third and final film that British thriller writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed made together. Their first was 1948’s “The Fallen Idol.” Their masterpiece was “The Third Man” (1949).

“Our Man in Havana,” about spying and murder and vacuum cleaners in pre-revolutionary Cuba, is not as suspenseful as “The Third Man” and, even as a comedy, it’s not all that funny. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or even a mediocre one.

“Our Man” is just not as good as we want it to be, not as good as the deliciously tense, scathingly witty and beautifully sad “The Third Man,” which boasts a wonderful cast, gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker and that haunting zither music by Anton Karas. At least one group of British critics selected “The Third Man” as the finest British picture of all time.

But perhaps we expect too much from “Our Man” and miss what’s there: a good amount of intelligence, wit, suspense, romance, political savvy, elegant Havana-location photography by Oswald Morris and a pretty wonderful, if uneven, cast. Guinness, as Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned reluctant spy, joins Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward as the maladroit spymasters who hire and employ him; Maureen O’Hara, as his affair-minded assistant spy; Burl Ives as Wormold’s best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher; and Ernie Kovacs as the urbane, sadistic Cuban head cop, Captain Segura, who’s in love with Wormold’s daughter Milly (Jo Morrow).

The time of “Our Man in Havana” is the 1950s, with Cuba under the Batista regime. Wormold is a typical guilt-ridden Greene character and Guinness plays him with some of the introverted whimsy he put into the role of the fussy inventor in “The Man in the White Suit.” Light on cash, Wormold allows himself to be recruited by a local MI6 agent named Hawthorne (Coward). Hawthorne asks Wormold to put together a spy team for MI6, which is run back in England by the dithering “C” (Richardson). Wormold, who has no experience and no contacts, hits on the stratagem of simply making up an agent list and writing phony reports – along with the plans for what looks like fictional weaponry but is actually one of his vacuum cleaners.

So convincing are all Wormold’s fantasies and absurd inventions that MI6 wants more and sends him a helper (O’Hara), to gather more of his non-intelligence. But there is a real world of spies and killers operating in Batista’s Cuba, and soon some of them are after Wormold, with real murder on their minds. Like “The Third Man,” the plot plunges a naïve but imaginative amateur into a political game that turns deadly serious in a dark, corrupt city that is filled with criminals and deceptions.

A masterpiece? Not so much. But “Our Man” knows how to have a good time.

The movie was shot on location in Havana, in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba although the novel, published in 1958, was set in Batista’s Cuba and that may have created a problem. Greene’s and Reed’s Havana never seems as real or as sinister as their Vienna in “The Third Man.”

There are two bits of miscasting. Burl Ives doesn’t have the accent for Hasselbacher and he plays his one mournful note too dolorously. And Jo Morrow can’t make you think she’s a British teenager (even when Wormold “explains” that she picked up her accent in America).

Most of this unusually talented cast, though, seems to be having fun, especially Guinness, Coward and Richardson – and, more surprisingly, Ernie Kovacs, who’s so good he makes you forget he isn’t Cuban and doesn’t seem at first to belong in a Graham Greene movie.

The biggest joke of Greene and Reed’s last film though, is that the plot is based on real life. Greene (a WWII spy before he became a writer) heard a story about a Spanish spy for the Nazis named Garbo who did exactly what Wormold did: invented a whole fictional spy team and submitted fictitious reports to his gullible employers. That tale clearly appealed to Greene, master of thrillers and deception – a good Catholic, albeit with sins on his conscience.

Sony Pictures recently released “Our Man in Havana” on DVD.

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Film Noir File: ‘Paths of Glory’ seduces you with its beauty, shatters you with its horror

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


Paths of Glory” (1957, Stanley Kubrick). Saturday, July 27: 1:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m.)

In 1957, Stanley Kubrick, still in his 20s – with “Dr. Strangelove,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” still in his future – made one of the greatest of all anti-war movies: his grim, stylish and incredibly moving adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s World War I novel, “Paths of Glory.”

Kubrick may not have known war first hand. But, in that film, he created an indelible image of war’s inhumanity and horror. “Paths of Glory” is a compelling, wrenching nightmare of a movie with a brilliant (and very noir) cast including Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready and (at his best, or worst) Timothy Carey.

Based on a real-life episode, the movie was made on location in Bavaria and is set in the French trenches, where the infantry soldiers eat and sleep in the cold, dirt, and mud – and from which they charge forth to fight and die. It’s also set in an elegant chateau, far from the battlefield, where rich, ambitious generals plot the sometimes-insane strategies that will get their men killed.

Michael Douglas plays Dax, the regiment’s idealistic commanding officer.

When one ill-advised attack against the Germans fails, Macready, as the vainglorious Gen. Mireau, flies into a murderous rage and demands that his own men be executed for cowardice. His superior, the wily Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), argues the number of the condemned down to three soldiers: Meeker, Carey and Joe Turkel. Defending them is Colonel Dax, the regiment’s courageous and idealistic commanding officer (played by Douglas, one of the leading Hollywood liberals of the ’50s and ’60s). Outraged by the mad injustice of the trumped-up court-martial , Dax – a famous criminal lawyer in civilian life – argues eloquently and fearlessly for the lives of those three guiltless men.

What a great movie this is! “Paths of Glory” is a film to see when you’re young and more innocent, like the three soldiers. And to see again when you’re stronger, more mature and full of fiery ideals, like Dax. And finally to watch yet again when you’re even older and have witnessed a lifetime of the awful compromises and vile injustices that “Paths of Glory” paints with such absolute lucidity, such deadly, inexorable narrative force.

Timothy Carey had worked with Kubrick in 1956’s “The Killing.”

By the time he directed and co-wrote “Paths of Glory,” Kubrick, 29, had three features already under his belt (including the classic 1956 film noir, “The Killing”). His partner on “The Killing,” James B. Harris, produced “Paths of Glory.” Douglas – then at the height of his Hollywood stardom and power – made it happen.

Two great American novelists collaborated with Kubrick on the screenplay: Oklahoma-born noir ace Jim Thompson (author of the crime classics “The Killer Inside Me,” “The Grifters” and “The Getaway”) and the acidly funny Southern novelist Calder Willingham (“End as a Man,” “Eternal Fire”) Probably thanks to those two, “Paths of Glory” has one of the darkest visions, some of the richest characters and some of the most pungent dialogue of any American movie of that era.

Kubrick’s masterpiece of war’s injustice seduces you with its beauty, shatters you with its horror. The battle scenes are shot with a black and white grit and shock reminiscent of Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but also with the Max Ophuls-like grace and romanticism that Kubrick loved and that ironically permeates his film.

War is hell. It’s also noir.

Paths of Glory” is available in DVD on Criterion. [Read more…]

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Di Leo Italian Crime Collection Vol. 2 releases Tuesday

Famous for his bold, intricately plotted, ultra-violent stories about pimps and petty gangsters, director and writer Fernando Di Leo perfected the genre with an uncanny accuracy that prefigured the works of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

Raro Video U.S. collects some of his finest work in Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection Volume 2, a three-DVD set that includes Di Leo’s lost masterpiece, “Shoot First, Die Later,” which has never been available on DVD or Blu-ray before, along with “Kidnap Syndicate” and “Naked Violence.”

The set, which also contains an impressive list of bonus features, will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 30.

Down the road from Raro Video: DVD and Blu-ray versions of The Conformist directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, restored from the original 35mm negative. Stay tuned for release date and bonus features.

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Film noir gem ‘Murder by Contract’ highlighted in new book

This summer, my friend Rob Elder released a new book (his sixth): The Best Film You’ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love.

As Roger Ebert put it: “How necessary this book is! And how well judged and written! Some of the best films ever made, as Robert K. Elder proves, are lamentably all but unknown.”

It’s a great read and an invaluable reference tome for any serious film lover. To give you an idea of the treasures you will discover, Rob has kindly agreed to let me run an excerpt of the chapter in which he discusses “Murder by Contract” (a taut and chilling film noir) with director Antonio Campos.

Murder by Contract
1958, Directed by Irving Lerner. Starring Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is an unusual hit man. He wasn’t born to the life, but instead he made himself a resourceful, calculating contract killer with an existentialist worldview. “He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that,” says Antonio Campos, who champions Murder by Contract. Campos praises the stylized off-camera hits, the economy of shots, and Edwards’s lead performance in this B-level noir film, shot in eight days.

That’s not to say he thinks it’s a perfect film. “What’s also charming about the film is that it is kind of a diamond in the rough,” Campos says. “Whatever rough edges Murder by Contract has are ultimately completely overshadowed by the brilliant dialogue and the commitment to a tone that was so ballsy.”

Antonio Campos, selected filmography:
Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012)

Robert K. Elder: How would you describe Murder by Contract to someone who’s never seen it?
Antonio Campos: It’s a faithful noir film about a contract killer, from a time when not many films were made like that.

What made it special?
Campos: I remember vividly, I’d seen it at the Film Forum, and I remember feeling like I hadn’t seen anything like that in the program, and also I’d never seen anything like that outside of even contemporary film. Obviously there are contract-killer films now, but there was something about it, and the lightness, the light touch that it had, that really struck me as something very unique.

Let’s talk about the star, Vince Edwards, who was best known as the lead in TV’s hospital drama Ben Casey. Can you talk about him as a leading man?
Campos: The first time I ever saw Vince Edwards was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). And I think he’s one of these B actors from that period. I was thinking about Vince Edwards and I was thinking about Timothy Carey in The Killing—they’re very specific kind of actors but could never be the classic leading man. Vince Edwards could be the leading man in that film, but he couldn’t be—he would never be—the movie star that he probably wanted to be. And I find those kinds of actors fascinating.

What does Edwards do in this role that makes him so magnetic, that pulls us through the film?
Campos: It’s his charisma as an actor. As a character, it’s the fact that he believes in something. As fickle as it may be, he has this amazing control. He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that.

If the film was made today, you’d have a little bit more violence to make the character a little more complex. You’re kind of rooting for him from the beginning.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is misanthropic but he has a heart and certain principles.

This is Edwards’s first film with Irving Lerner, a former documentarian, and shot in eight days.
Campos: What I find really interesting is that it isn’t a perfect film. It’s not a film that you watch and you think, “This guy is some brilliant unknown director!” What’s interesting is, for example, the first scene where Claude meets the character of Mr. Moon, that long shot that plays out. That felt like a very strong choice. It felt like Irving Lerner was in complete control of the way this film was made.

In Afterschool, many of your characters are also kept out of frame, especially in that first twenty minutes. Am I right to draw that parallel to Murder by Contract?
Campos: It wasn’t necessarily a direct influence. There was a certain kinship, I felt, with the way that he was approaching his composition.

My feeling about offscreen action and that fragmentation of characters is that you heighten the mystery and the tension because you’re holding back someone who feels very important to the story. Those moments in which the characters are offscreen or, for lack of a better word, decapitated by the frame, you almost make the universe of the film larger. In terms of Afterschool, you always felt like there was a bigger world outside of the frame that you wanted to see and also a bigger world outside of the frame that you couldn’t see. That, to me, is one of the things that can make a smaller film or a lower-budget film feel bigger.

Claude’s solitary nature is similar to Travis Bickle’s loner life in “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese.

And one of the other parallels is the solitary nature of Vince’s character, especially inside his room—something it shares with the protagonist in Afterschool. Was that sequence influential?
Campos: Murder by Contract definitely could’ve played a sort of subconscious influence on me. I find that there are the filmmakers whose body of work I’ve become very familiar with, but then I’m aware of them influencing me. And then there are those one-off films that I see that subconsciously have made a greater effect on me that I don’t realize.

That particular sequence also influenced Martin Scorsese. Lerner’s austere training montage is reflected in Taxi Driver.
Campos: For Claude, it’s a job, and he’s had to train himself. He says many times that this is not the way he was born. He’s developed a certain coldness intentionally so that he can be a contract killer. Obviously, film noir was so much about antiheroes, and this is about someone who is a very cold-blooded killer and so calculated. The other thing that struck me is his point of view of the world that was quite misanthropic and quite cynical, but at the same time, he had a heart and he had certain principles that he was struggling with.

Why do you think we, as viewers, are drawn to the charismatic psychopath or sociopath?
Campos: We’re drawn to them when they’re done a certain way. Taxi Driver, for example, has Travis Bickle, and Bickle is the charismatic sociopath. At first, you sympathize with the fact that he is so disconnected and confused.

I don’t feel like they’re completely sociopaths. They have sociopathic tendencies or something, but deep down inside, there is a heart and humanity. [Read more…]

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Can Ryan Gosling save ‘Only God Forgives’?

“Only God Forgives,” starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas, opened on Friday to mixed (mostly negative) reviews. This art house/crime thriller film, written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In 2011, Refn, Gosling and Carey Mulligan teamed up for the eloquent and extremely violent “Drive.” You can read Stephanie Zacharek’s review of “Only God Forgives” here.

And on the small screen: The success of political-intrigue TV dramas such as “Scandal,” “House of Cards” and “Homeland” means the Beltway has displaced Manhattan and Los Angeles as the capital of noir, says James Wolcott in next month’s Vanity Fair. You can read the full story here.


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Happy b’day, Babs! FNB joins Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon

Very few actresses truly deserve accolades like stellar, peerless, magnificent and amazing. Barbara Stanwyck, who had a stage, film and TV career spanning more than 50 years, is surely one of that select group. She might have cringed at such lofty praise, however, referring to herself as “a tough old broad from Brooklyn.”

Adjectives aside, Stanwyck stands out for the range of parts she played, her discipline as an artist, and the subtlety and strength of her performances. That’s why I was so pleased when Aubyn at The Girl with the White Parasol let me join this month’s Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, which runs through July 22.

For my contribution, I’m highlighting a fluffy detail from the great “Double Indemnity” (1944): Phyllis Dietrichson’s tawdry blonde wig. The piece also includes some observations from master director Billy Wilder on working with Barbara – born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16, 1907, and later nicknamed Babs, Missy and The Queen. She still rules today.

A Babs Stanwyck moment for FNB

On Phyllis Dietrichson’s wig: Looking through some photos the other day, I noticed how often I lost the fight with my fine, curly hair and 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 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. 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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The Noir File:‘The Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 memorably captures the contradictions of the Kennedy era

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer). Thursday, July 18: 9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.)

In John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 movie thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” we will be plunged into one of the greatest nightmare sequences in American cinema.

After the “Korea, 1952” opening title, we see a squad of U. S. Army soldiers, led by their good-guy Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and brusque Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). They go out on a mission but are betrayed by turncoat guide Chunjin (Henry Silva), then handed over to Russian officers and helicoptered off. It’s a bit like a Sam Fuller scene.

Playing “war hero” Raymond was one of Laurence Harvey’s career highlights.

Next, we see a U. S. Air Force plane landing at a Washington airport, and a bustle of reporters and photographers swarming over it. A portentous narrator informs us that Sgt. Shaw has won the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Korea.

We also see that Raymond has an imperious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), and a knuckleheaded sap of a stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who also happens to be a U.S. senator and a well-financed presidential candidate – and that Raymond hates them both.

Now comes the nightmare. We are in Major Marco’s hotel room, and we see him tossing and sweating. Why the cold sweat? He’s remembering/dreaming, noir-style, both the days of the Korean War and one of the strangest club meetings ever seen. It’s a scene that probably only John Frankenheimer could have executed and shot.

Angela Lansbury as Raymond’s malevolent mother is one of many superb performances in this classic film.

The soldiers we met – some now shaggy and unshaven – are sitting on stage at a gathering of a New Jersey women’s horticultural society in a hotel lobby full of plants and flowers. The chairlady and speaker, a know-it-all named Mrs. Henry Whittaker (Helen Kleeb), is delivering a stupefyingly boring lecture on hydrangeas.

Suddenly the setting changes to an ominous bare stage in a medical theater; the walls are decorated with posters of Stalin and Mao. The speaker is a smiling Chinese doctor named Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who is delivering a lecture on brainwashing the enemy to an audience of Chinese, Russian and probably Korean military and political people. We are in Manchuria.

The scene shifts from the New Jersey hotel lobby to the Manchurian theater and back again. That revolving camera track before the scene splits into eerie, jarring fragments is still an all-time stylistic movie coup.

Frank Sinatra shines as Bennett Marco, a tormented good guy who reads, plays cards and courts love interest Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh).

As for the plot, “war hero” Raymond has been programmed by the Red Chinese to be the triggerman in a scheme to destabilize the American government by putting an idiot into the U.S. presidency. The candidate: Raymond’s addle-brained Commie-hunting stepfather.

Frankenheimer lent his terrific neo-noir vision to a fantastic cast: Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, an obligatory love interest, Laurence Harvey in the finest hour of a peculiar career, Henry Silva as one of the main traitors of a movie saturated with treachery and James Gregory a hoot as the reactionary U.S. Senator who can’t keep track of the number of Communists he’s exposing (he finally settles on the easy-to-remember Heinz Ketchup figure of 57). And, as one of the most evil mothers in the history of movies, giving one of the most darkly magnificent performances, Angela Lansbury, long may she reign.

All this is at the service of one of the most hypnotic, blood-chilling yarns ever to be put, mostly uncompromised, on screen: a movie whose twists and turns are brilliantly calculated, largely unexpected and beautifully anxiety-inducing. Few films reflect the Kennedy era, and all its contradictions so memorably and so well.

Frankenheimer was the key. In the 1950s he’d become famous as the enfant terrible of a great generation of TV drama directors – a generation that included Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer was the leader of that group: an instinctive master of live performance and especially, of camera movement.

An ace at left wing social and psychological drama, he went on to make “All Fall Down,” “The Young Savages,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Train,” “Seconds,” “Grand Prix” and “The Fixer.” But “The Manchurian Candidate” was the project where he was able to work his virtuosity into the very texture of the film itself, where TV and the way it records real life becomes part of the drama, in this case, a hybrid of theatre and politics.

With “The Manchurian Candidate,” Frankenheimer created a style that was almost as original and exciting and unique as the young Orson Welles,’ and he remained one of the great American moviemakers throughout most of the ’60s. [Read more…]

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‘The Last Seduction’ is smart, funny and unforgettable

The Last Seduction/1994/ITC/ 110 min.

Several years ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune. Each week, I interviewed experts on ways women could work smart and climb the corporate ladder. Most of the time, no matter what the obstacle or dilemma was – job hunting, negotiating a raise, getting a promotion – the bottom line was: do your homework, highlight your achievements and ask for what you want.

In 1994’s “The Last Seduction” by director John Dahl and writer Steve Barancik, Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory takes this advice to dazzling new heights. As the story unfolds, this career maven excels in not just one job, but several. In the opening scene, she’s a supervisor at a telemarketing sales firm in New York City, where she doesn’t ask, she demands. Then she needles her hapless sales guys mercilessly, calling them “maggots, eunuchs and bastards.”

At least they know where they stand. That pat-on-the-back stuff is way overrated.

Later she becomes Director of Lead Generation at an insurance company in a small town in New York state. Under her own steam (at night, of course, this being a noir) she researches prospects for a telemarketing murder business. Hey, it’s not like there isn’t a market.

And she launches an entrepreneurial venture in which she steals a boatload of cash from her husband, malleable Clay (Bill Pullman) and taps loyal-to-a-fault Mike, her lover/investment partner (Peter Berg), to help her. Neither of these dudes is much of a match for her – their chief virtue (besides being good looking) is that they are good at following orders, which is especially true in Mike’s case.

Bill Pullman and Linda Fiorentino play husband and wife.

When one of Mike’s friends asks him: “whadd’ya see in her?” he replies: “a new set of balls.” Her résumé also includes legs that never stop, bedroom eyes and a ready laugh, especially at the expense of doofuses or dumpy small-town mores. Just when you think an interfering man is going to impede her climb to the top, she flicks him away like a speck of lint from her sleek pinstripe suit.

Having done her due diligence, she’s hoping to close the deal in such a way that neither Clay nor Mike can claim a penny of the profit. Talk about multi-tasking. It’s understandable that so much juggling might make Bridget a little irritable from time to time.

Luckily, Mike is nothing if not supportive and just turns the other (butt) cheek when she calls him a rural Neanderthal. When he suggests they go on a date and chat sometime; she asks: “What for?”

When Mike (Peter Berg) suggests going on an actual date, Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) asks, “What for?”

To say that Fiorentino, a Philly native with a fiery intensity, nails the part is an understatement. She is one of the fiercest femmes fatales in all of neo-noir moviemaking. If I were a guy, I think seeing this performance would surely give me an uneasy night’s sleep. I would have loved to see Fiorentino work with Quentin Tarantino, but her career short-circuited fairly early. I have heard she was a tad hard to work with – shocker! Pullman, Berg and the rest of the cast more than hold their own, underplaying their parts and letting Fiorentino hold bitchy court.

Director Dahl is a neo-noir specialist (he also directed “Red Rock West,” “Kill Me Again and “Rounders”) and the sharp, funny script is peppered with references to noir classics. For instance, Dahl tips his hat to “Double Indemnity” by having Bridget and Mike both work at an insurance company and, when Bridget calls the police to falsely accuse a guy of exposing himself (so she can make a getaway), she gives her name as “Mrs. Neff.”

I suppose that could be evidence of her truly tender heart – in her imagination, the doomed lovers Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson get married and live happily ever after. Yeah, right. But, if Bridget said it, you might believe her.

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