Archives for January 2014

Costa-Gavras hits a peak in true-crime thriller ‘Z’

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).

Pick of the Week

Z posterZ” (1969, Costa-Gavras). 3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.). Tuesday, Feb. 4.

In Greece, in the turbulent 1960s, under the tyrannical reign of “The Colonels,” an extremely popular leftist opposition leader (played by Yves Montand and based on the real-life politician Lambrakis) tries to speak at a political rally. But, before he even arrives, he is frustrated by the Greek police, by obstructionist “regulations” and by a vicious band of hecklers and armed thugs outside the hall. Finally, while crossing the street to the rally, Montand’s political leader is assaulted with a blow to the head that eventually kills him.

The police do nothing, though the killers are well known to them. These deliberately undiligent law enforcers and unresponsive government leaders (namely Pierre Dux) ignore the facts and leads, including one persistent witness (Charles Denner), whom the assassins try to run down in the street s most famous scene and image). But an incorruptible court investigator (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a crusading young journalist (Jacques Perrin) keep gathering facts and tracking down the guilty.

Greek-French director Constantin Costa-Gavras had had an early ’60s film noir hit with his first film, the cop thriller “The Sleeping Car Murders.” It’s a fast exhilarating murder mystery, based on the Sebastian Japrisot novel, with a cast that boasted many of the same actors as “Z“: Montand, Trintignant, Perrin, and Denner. In “Z,” working with screenwriter Jorge Semprun, Gavras goes further, digs deeper. He exposed a real-life murder and a plot that involved the Greek police, right-wing political parties and government leaders — all part of the oppressive Greek regime.

The film’s impact was enormous. The French-made “Z,” a huge international hit and the 1970 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, is one of the most influential true-crime thrillers ever made. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Wednesday, Jan. 29

Manchurian Candidate poster8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer). With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury Reviewed in FNB on July 18, 2013.

12:15 a.m. (9:15 a.m.). “Pennies from Heaven” (1981, Herbert Ross). Adapted from writer Dennis Potter’s brilliant British TV mini-series, this Depression-era film noir musical was probably star Steve Martin’s finest hour. He plays a traveling salesman, who, together with the ravishing Bernadette Peters, sings and lip-synchs his way to an unplanned career as an outlaw lover on the run. One of the major unfairly neglected Hollywood musicals, and a marvelous neo-noir. Features a wonderful score of vintage period recordings (including the title song) and standout dancing from lanky Christopher Walken.

Thursday, Jan. 30

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933, Michael Curtiz). William Powell plays the snobbish Manhattan socialite/sleuth Philo Vance as he turns his detecting prowess to foul play at a Long Island dog show. Snappily acted by Powell and directed by Curtiz, and one of the best Golden Age detective series movies.

10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich). With Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Victor Buono. Reviewed in FNB on July 28, 2012.

Sunday, Feb. 2

6 a.m. 3 a.m.: “The Letter” (1940, William Wyler). With Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 19, 2012.

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “12 Angry Men“ (1957, Sidney Lumet). With Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley and Jack Warden, Reviewed in FNB on June 13, 2013.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Lost Weekend” (1945, Billy Wilder). Ray Milland as Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer is left alone by his girlfriend (Jane Wyman) and his brother (Phillip Terry) for a long, lost weekend in New York City. In something close in mood to a German expressionist nightmare, Don will try to sell his soul for a bottle, to find the booze (and the shame) that he’s hidden, and to stumble from (drunken) ecstasy to (withdrawal) agony, from life to near-death, from one empty glass to another.

It’s a noir without crime, but with plenty of guilt and punishment. “The Lost Weekend” won the Best Picture Oscar; Wilder won Oscars for directing and co-writing, and Milland won Best Actor.

The film’s source was the best-selling novel by Charles Jackson, himself an alcoholic writer, and a man who knew whereof he spoke. (The actress playing the hat-check girl in the night club became Wilder’s wife, Audrey Wilder.)

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Spellbound” (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck and Leo G. Carroll. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 9, 2013.

Monday, Feb. 3

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth and Zachary Scott. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 1, 2010.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955, Nicholas Ray). With James Dea, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. Reviewed in FNB on April 13, 2013.

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Face in the Crowd reveals a beguiling portrait-maker

Crowd #9 (Sunset 5), 2013, by Alex Prager

Crowd #9 (Sunset 5), 2013, by Alex Prager

Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd at M+B Gallery in West Hollywood is well worth a visit; the FNB team attended the opening on Saturday night and snapped a few candids (below). The exhibition reveals an artist with an eye for sublime color and masterful compositions as well as a beguiling portrait-maker who deftly mixes kitsch and mystery with humor and poignancy.

Prager, 34, is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker who started shooting after seeing William Eggleston’s color images. A Los Angeles native, her work frequently draws on vintage Hollywood, retro advertising and neo-noir imagery. The new show features large-scale color photographs of elaborately staged crowd scenes that explore the psychological complexities of human interaction, specifically the dynamics of an individual within a mass of people.

“I’m fascinated by the experience of being involved in other people’s lives accidentally,” Prager said, noting that her work has been influenced by time spent in busy cities such as New York and London. “Crowds have always been an interest of mine. It may look like a sea of people, but there are so many interesting stories, all colliding silently.”

Prager directed hundreds of costumed actors on specially constructed sets, creating congested public spaces including an airport terminal, a city hall lobby, a beach and the Sunset 5 movie theater. The stories of the various characters within these crowds culminate in a new film, featuring actress Elizabeth Banks.

Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd will run at M+B through March 8.

AP crowd 1

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AP crowd 7

AP crowd 8

AP crowd 9

AP crowd 10

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‘Laura’ and ‘Blue Velvet’ to screen at the Egyptian Theatre

Laura 1944 posterThe delightful, urbane and unapologetically posh film noir “Laura” (1944, Otto Preminger) screens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, part of the American Cinematheque.

“Laura” makes me nostalgic for a life I never led — the adventures of a 1940s career girl living in Manhattan: landing a job on Madison Avenue, buying suits and silk stockings for work, renting a place for $40/month, meeting handsome men, dinner and drinks at the Stork Club, weekend trips to the country.

Of course, “Laura” does have a few downsides — murder and mistaken identity, for starters. Seems that turning every head and being the toast of the town, as is the case with the charming and lovely Laura (Gene Tierney), may prove very dangerous. In a series of flashbacks, we learn the details of Laura’s life and it appears that in addition to having many admirers, she attracted an enemy or two as well. You can read the full review here.

Blue Velvet posterAnd Thursday night: Thomas Ethan Harris presents a seminar on deconstructing writer/director David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986). This detailed look inside Lynch’s masterpiece takes place in the Spielberg Theatre of the Egyptian.

In “Blue Velvet,” Lynch dazzles and disturbs us as he probes the evil beneath the surface of sunny small-town Americana. Twenty-eight years later, its trippy shimmer has not dimmed, reminding us of Lynch’s auteur power. You can read the full review here.

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Noir City fest gets a passport, Anthony Mann films at UCLA, Alex Prager photography at M + B Gallery

The darkness, dahlings, just doesn’t stop. And who’s complaining? Not us! There is much for noiristas to relish, starting today:

Too Late for Tears posterNOIR CITY’s flagship festival in San Francisco returns to its home at the historic Castro Theatre Jan. 24-Feb. 2, 2014. The 12th edition of the popular film noir festival is going international and the lineup is downright sumptuous. Films include: “The Third Man,” a restoration of “Too Late for Tears” (with Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea), “Drunken Angel,” “It Always Rains on Sunday,” “Brighton Rock,” “The Wages of Fear,” “Rififi” and “Pépé le Moko,” just to name a few.

We can’t wait until the fest hits Los Angeles in April!

ANTHONY MANN is being celebrated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. The series Dark City, Open Country: The Films of Anthony Mann runs Jan. 31 to March 30.

Says UCLA: Director Anthony Mann’s reputation is now grounded in his 1940s crime melodramas, many of them film noirs, and his 1950s Westerns (eight with Jimmy Stewart at Universal). … The conflicted heroes of Mann’s Westerns are cut from the same cloth as his noirish crime dramas, often attempting to outrun a past that weighs heavily on their actions, morally ambivalent, as they vacillate between individual desire and communal responsibility. …

"Side Street," starring Farley Granger, plays March 15 at UCLA.

“Side Street,” starring Farley Granger, plays March 15 at UCLA.

Mann often dismissed his early career in Hollywood’s poverty row, cranking out low-budget crime features for Republic, PRC and Eagle-Lion, but a number of critics have begun to re-evaluate his early work. Indeed, this series was inspired in part by the publication of The Crime Films of Anthony Mann (2013) by Max Alvarez, who will also appear as a guest on Wednesday, March 12.

ALEX PRAGER, a Los Angeles-based photographer who draws from vintage Hollywood and neo-noir imagery, has a show opening Saturday, Jan. 25, at M+B Gallery, 612 North Almont Drive in LA. Face in the Crowd features new large-scale color photographs of elaborately staged crowd scenes and a film by the same name. This body of work was created for Prager’s first major museum exhibition in the United States at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which opened in November 2013. Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd will run at M+B Jan. 25 to March 8, 2014, with an opening reception on Saturday, Jan. 25, from 6 to 8 p.m.

Also of note: Director David Cronenberg wrote the intro to a new translation of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis:” http://lat.ms/1c9cU60. And a report on Paris haute couture: Butterflies and Dita Von Teese at Gaultier: http://lat.ms/1aO0csu.

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The Film Noir File: A queen of the screen has her day

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).

Pick of the Week

Joan Crawford Film Noir Day (Thursday, Jan. 23)

Joan Crawford was a muse for photographer George Hurrell.

Crawford was a muse for photographer George Hurrell.

Joan Crawford – she of the huge dark burning eyes, limber legs and mighty shoulder pads – was a Queen of Film Noir, as well as a dancing daughter, a headstrong hottie and a Grande Dame of the movies. She had an unusually long career, during which she remained remarkably popular.

Crawford started in the silent era as one of the last great flappers and continued as a reigning lady of the MGM and then the Warner lot, making classic film noirs and neo noirs like “Mildred Pierce” (her 1945 “Best Actress” Oscar winner), “Flamingo Road,” “Sudden Fear” and “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” She worked all the way up to the ’70s when one of her last directors, on a TV episode of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery,” was a young up-and-comer named Steven Spielberg.

Right to the end, when she looked at men (and sometimes women) with her cool, appraising stare, her dark eyes could drill into them. Through it all – with her flawless screen beauty and sexy presence – she memorably played women in love, women besieged, women at war, women in business, women dancing, women in peril, women who held their own in dark days and light. TCM has devoted Thursdays in January to Joan Crawford, highlighting some of the finest, darkest hours and best film noirs of a superstar who excelled in all-American allure and ultimate glamour.

Mildred Pierce

Crawford won an Oscar for "Mildred Pierce."

Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Oscar for “Mildred Pierce” from 1945.

(1945, Michael Curtiz). 8 p.m. (5 p.m.) Thursday, Jan. 23. With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth and Zachary Scott.

Flamingo Road” (1949, Michael Curtiz). 12:15 a.m. (9:15 p.m.). With Crawford, Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet.

The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman.). 2 a.m. (11 p.m.). With Crawford, David Brian and Steve Cochran.

Possessed” (1947, Curtis Bernhardt). 3:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.). With Crawford, Van Heflin and Raymond Massey.  

Another Joan Crawford portrait shot by George Hurrell.

Another Joan Crawford portrait shot by George Hurrell.

Bonus Crawford Noir on Friday, Jan. 24:
Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich). 4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.). With Crawford, Cliff Robertson and Vera Miles.

Wednesday, Jan. 22

10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): “Scarlet Street” (1945, Fritz Lang). With Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea Reviewed in FNB on Nov. 24, 2011.

4 p.m. (1 p.m.). “Clash by Night” (1952, Fritz Lang). With Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “The Wrong Man” (1956, Alfred Hitchcock). With Henry Fonda, Miles and Anthony Quayle. Reviewed in FNB on Nov. 17, 2012.

Saturday, Jan. 25

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967, Arthur Penn). With Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons. Reviewed in FNB on Feb, 4, 2013.

Sunday, Jan. 26

3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock). With Farley Granger, Robert Walker and Ruth Roman. Reviewed in FNB on April 40, 2011. [Read more…]

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The Film Noir File: Belafonte and Ryan bet it all on ‘Odds’

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).

Pick of the Week

“Odds Against Tomorrow”
(1959, Robert Wise). 1 a.m. (10 p.m.) Monday, Jan. 20

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a stellar cast in "Odds Against Tomorrow."

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a stellar cast in “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose reputation and stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Based on a novel by suspense specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat”), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a social/political allegory that’s pointed and powerful. With Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame. Read the full review here.

Thursday, Jan. 16

Joan Crawford plays a crime boss in this remake of a 1939 Swedish thriller.

Joan Crawford plays a crime boss in this remake of a 1939 Swedish thriller.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “A Woman’s Face” (1941, George Cukor). A crime boss (Joan Crawford) with a ruined face has her physical damage repaired by plastic surgery. Embarking on another crime, she must decide whether to pursue the evil she knows or the good that beckons. Remade from the 1939 Swedish thriller by director Gustaf Molander, with Ingrid Bergman in Crawford’s part. The original was better, but the remake is good. The supporting cast includes Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt (in his Hollywood specialty, a smooth sadistic villain), Reginald Owen, Marjorie Main and Henry Daniell. Script by Donald Ogden Stewart and mystery writer Elliot Paul.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “These are the Damned” (1963, Joseph Losey). Expatriate American director Losey, a Black List victim, was still in Britain when he made this scintillatingly shot mix of neo-noir, juvenile delinquent thriller, and “Village of the Damned”-style anti-war science fiction. MacDonald Carey is the boat enthusiast/ businessman at a coastal British city, who falls for a Teddy Girl (Shirley Anne Field). Her gang-boss brother (played by sullen young Oliver Reed) is touchy, jealous and dangerous. Chased by the gang (whose signature song is the bizarrely uncatchy psychotic-sounding pseudo-rock ballad “Black Leather! Black Leather! Kill! Kill! Kill!”), the couple escapes to an island in the grip of a doomsday scientific experiment with irradiated children, run by Alexander Knox. It’s a pretty crazy show, but it really grips you, and it looks great. Written by Losey regular Evan Jones (“Eva” and “King and Country”).

Saturday, Jan. 18

The one and only Tallulah Bankhead stars in "Lifeboat."

The one and only Tallulah Bankhead stars in “Lifeboat.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lifeboat” (1944, Alfred Hitchcock). During World War II, an American ocean liner is torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. The survivors – now trapped in the lifeboat and in the vast waters – have to decide whether to trust the only person among them who knows how to navigate the boat: the Nazi captain of the sub that sunk them (Walter Slezak). This anti-Fascist parable/thriller and character study, the most political and left-wing movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made, was originally written by John Steinbeck; Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling also had hands in it. Shot basically in one studio tank and in the lifeboat, this underrated flick features a shocker of an ending and a first-rate cast, including Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, William Bendix, Canada Lee, Hume Cronyn and Henry Hull.

Sunday, Jan. 19

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947, Peter Godfrey). With Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012. [Read more…]

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Carole Lombard author gets two parties from Larry Edmunds

The nice guys at Larry Edmunds Bookshop are back in the swing of events with two book parties for Robert Matzen, author of “Fireball: Carole Lombard & the Mystery of Flight 3.”

Carole Lombard died  in a plane crash in 1942. She was 33.

Actress Carole Lombard died in a plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942. She was 33.

Matzen takes a fresh look at Hollywood’s Queen of Screwball Comedies, Carole Lombard, and examines the plane crash that took her life on Jan. 16, 1942. With TWA’s most experienced pilot flying a 10-month-old aircraft on a clear night, why did the flight crash into the side of a Nevada mountain?

Having just completed the first sale of war bonds and stamps, following the U.S. entry into World War II, Lombard became the first Hollywood star to sacrifice her life in the war. “Fireball” tells multiple stories: the passengers (including 15 members of the U.S. Army Air Corps), the friends and families left behind (such as Lombard’s husband Clark Gable) and the first responders who struggled up a mountain hoping to perform a miracle rescue.

There will be two signings this week:

From 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16 at the Museum of Flying, 3100 Airport Ave. in Santa Monica.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18 at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, 6644 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-463-3273.

Hurrell's HollywoodAlso available at the bookshop is this essential book for any film lover’s library: “George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992” by Mark A. Vieira, with a foreword by Sharon Stone.

Known as the Rembrandt of Hollywood, Hurrell (1904–1992) was the creator of the glamour portrait and played a crucial role in establishing the star power of Tinseltown’s elite. Perhaps most famous for his work with Joan Crawford, he also photographed Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Jane Russell, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Warren Beatty and, as you can see from the book’s cover, the stunning blonde goddess, Carole Lombard.

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Golden Globes draws largest audience in 10 years

The Golden Globe Awards telecast is required viewing for us film and fashion junkies. The show drew its largest audience in 10 years and its largest young-adult audience in seven years, according to Variety. You can read the list of winners here.

Looks we loved: Cate Blanchett (the Best Actress in a Drama winner wore a lace Armani Prive gown), Mila Kunis, Lupita Nyong’o, Margot Robbie, Uma Thurman and Reese Witherspoon.

Trends we spotted: Bold lips, lots of eyeliner, stylishly messy waves, piecey buns and slicked-back up-do’s.

Surprises we savored: Matthew McConaughey’s win for Best Actor in a Drama; “12 Years A Slave” snaring Best Picture/Drama and Jacqueline Bisset’s bumbling acceptance speech when she won Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or TV Movie.

Marilyn Monroe with the Golden Globe she won for 1959’s "Some Like It Hot."

Marilyn Monroe with the Golden Globe she won for 1959’s “Some Like It Hot.”

 

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Bleak but stylish ‘The Grifters’ lets Anjelica Huston sparkle

Grifters posterThe Grifters/1990/Miramax Films/119 min.

“I’m lucky,” actress Anjelica Huston once said. “The people who tell me they like my work tend to be the kind of people I might be friends with anyway. I have a really nice audience.”

She definitely had a really nice audience last month at the book-signing party at Bookmarc in West Hollywood for her new memoir, “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York.”

The FNB team got off the sofa for this one and we had a lovely time. It made us think of our favorite Anjelica Huston roles and “The Grifters” from 1990 (Yikes! Was it really that long ago?) was at the top of the list. Director Stephen Frears’ bleak but very stylish neo-noir about a family that grifts together and sticks together is a far cry from all that holiday/togetherness stuff, which can sometimes be a tad saccharine for our tastes.

The cold and cut-throat mother here is Lilly Dillon as played by the incomparable Ms. Huston (daughter of John Huston, who directed the classic noirs “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Asphalt Jungle.”) Rail thin, hard as fake nails and damaged as her ash blonde locks, Lilly works for the mob by wedging bad bets at the racetrack.

Her estranged son Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time con artist who says he can quit the grift any time he wants. Sure, Roy, whatever you say. Feeling a little guilty about never winning Mother of the Year and hoping she might help to set him straight, Lilly starts by paying Roy’s hospital bill after he’s in a dust-up that leaves him with internal hemorrhaging.

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.[/

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.

Roy’s not rushing back into her arms – at least not right away. He’s busy with his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Myra used to be a “roper” for big-time money-bilking schemes, meaning she’d lure victims into parting with chunks of cash, falsely promising a big payoff down the line. But the roping biz has slow for Myra so she makes a living any way she can.

Meanwhile, while this strange version of a love triangle does its stuff, there’s another fly in the ointment: Lilly’s boss Bobo (Pat Hingle) who doesn’t write his staffers up – he prefers to inflict intense physical pain. When questioning Lilly after she slips up, he asks: “Do you want to stick to that story, or do you want to keep your teeth?” What a charming guy.

But charming is not what you’d associate with the mind behind “The Grifters” novel, on which the film is based. Writer Jim Thompson (1906-1977) was a troubled alcoholic who recorded his desolate vision of life on the pages of his pulpy but powerful novels. Thompson has been described as a dimestore Doestyevsky and as bringing Greek tragedy to the underclass.

“The Grifters” screenwriter Donald E. Westlake initially turned down the offer to write the script because he thought the novel was “too gloomy. … the characters all go to hell.” Director Frears (an English talent who directed Judi Dench in the terrifically funny and moving “Philomena” and directed Helen Mirren to an Oscar for 2006’s “The Queen”) talked Westlake into it, arguing that the crux of the story was not the son’s defeat, but the mother’s survival.

Lilly's long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Lilly’s long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Westlake accepted the challenge and wrote a sparkling, if sad and twisted, script. (“You really do like B movies,” Westlake told Frears, after hearing which scenes from the book Frears wanted in the movie. Well, the film’s producer Martin Scorsese is certainly a huge fan of B’s.)

Frears, who refers to the film as an “eccentric melodrama” said he was surprised at the film’s popularity, given its grim tone. The popularity surely stems from the fact that Frears still manages to entertain on some level and the leads all deliver searing performances. There are lots of funny one-liners, such as when Lilly addresses Roy’s doctor as they enter the hospital. She matter-of-factly informs him: “My son is going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.”

Huston’s performance will make your skin crawl – Myra has long resigned herself to a lonely life that includes giving and taking violence as an inevitable part of the bargain. She’s tough, sometimes desperate, but also regal with the odd glimpse of warmth.

Bening lets her natural smarts show through, whether she’s coyly conning or clowning around in the nude. Frears says that while making the flick, he turned Bening on to the work of Gloria Grahame, gangster moll extraordinaire, and that Bening “went mad about her.” Bening brings Grahame gals into the ’90s in her own fresh, provocative way. Though Huston and Bening share only two scenes, their rivalry infuses the whole film.

The Grifters got four Oscar nods: Huston for best actress, Bening for best supporting actress, Frears for best director, and Westlake for adapted screenplay. (They lost to: Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost,” Kevin Costner for “Dances With Wolves,” and Michael Blake for “Dances With Wolves.”) Huston and Bening did, however, win honors from several critics’ groups.

Cusack, who previously had played mainly all-American types, relished the chance to play a perverse cheater, who’s not above hitting women. Look out for his Chicago chum: actor Jeremy Piven in the scene with the sailors on the train.

Set mostly in sunny Southern California, the film looks glossy and glaring, just like its heroines. The movie is not a period piece, but Frears plays with time elements – we see Art Deco buildings and a ’50s-era motel. The characters drive ’70s cars like big old Caddys. The Elmer Bernstein score also deftly draws from a number of musical styles.

Cusack wears ’80s suits and rips people off at a Bennigans. Myra and Lilly wear a mixture of ’40s eveningwear, shift dresses, skin-tight animal prints and mini-skirts. Lilly’s wardrobe has special significance: the color red tracks her slide into total wretchedness. Frears says her long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

You know, maybe motherhood just isn’t for every woman.

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A very happy 2015 to all lovers of film noir

I am so behind with posts and so late in wishing you a happy 2014 that I decided to fast-forward and be ahead in wishing you a happy 2015. Way ahead. 😉

I have no good excuse for my getting behind other than it was an extra-busy holiday season: first came Keithmas (Keith Richards’ birthday is Dec. 18, 1943, and the FNB team decided to make it a party – it was his 70th after all), then Christmas and New Year’s. Much fun to see friends and family but I guess travel, time zones and opening gift after gift after gift (life is hard for a gold-digger) got the best of us.

We are now back in LA and grateful for the warm weather. As Keith Richards would say: “It’s great to be here. It’s great to be anywhere.”

KEITHMAS 2013

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