Archives for November 2016

Warming up to the ‘Big Heat’ all over again

In honor of Gloria Grahame’s birthday, November 28, 1923, we are watching “The Big Heat.” Again.

Fritz Lang

The Big Heat/1953/Columbia Pictures/89 min.

“When a barfly gets killed, it could be for any one of a dozen crummy reasons,” says Police Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) in “The Big Heat.” Fritz Lang’s grim but gratifying crime drama from 1953 is laced with violence that’s still a bit shocking even by today’s standards.

Barflys don’t get much sympathy in the fictional city of Kenport, an upstanding community full of white-picket fences and happy homemakers that also harbors a flourishing criminal empire and rampant police corruption.

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford star in “The Big Heat.”

Wilks is talking to an upright cop, Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (easy on the eyes Glenn Ford), about the torture and murder of Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green). Lucy was the girlfriend of police sergeant Tom Duncan, also dead; his suicide is the film’s opening scene.

Tom’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) is not what you’d call crushed at her husband’s demise and she’s martini-dry as she answers questions from Bannion. Bertha claims her husband was ill, hence the suicide. Bannion got a rather different story from Lucy Chapman.

Unlike Tom Duncan, Bannion seems to have a perfect wife, the golden-haired Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister), and a cute little daughter, named Joyce. As Mr. and Mrs. Bannion share smokes, sips of drinks and steaks, they banter easily and make each other laugh.

In addition to questioning barflies and ungrieving widows, Bannion noses into the business of an oily mobster named Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a vicious operator whose right-hand man is the lithe and snarling Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

The incomparable Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, Stone’s inamorata. Debby spends most of her time shopping, drinking and looking at herself in the mirror. What’s not to like? As she tells Bannion: “I’ve had it rich and I’ve had it poor. Believe me, rich is better.”

(In, 1954, Ford and Grahame starred in another Lang noir, “Human Desire,” a film version of Émile Zola’s novel “La Bête Humaine”/“The Human Beast.”)

Grahame and Ford have sizzling chemistry.

Shortly after the exchange in Lagana’s living room, a car bomb meant for Bannion kills the lovely Katie. Bannion doesn’t take much time to mourn; instead, with eyes glazed, he’s hellbent on proving the link between the police and Lagana’s mob. Suspended from the force, he seeks vengeance on his own, setting the pace for ’70s vigilante cops such as Clint Eastwood‘s Dirty Harry. As Bannion obsesses over hate and revenge, in a chilling transformation of character, he becomes the moral equivalent of the gangsters he despises.

Known for stark, intense visuals, here director Lang contrasts gloomy, barlike shadows that bind the characters to their destiny with shocks of scouring white light suggesting revelation. Lang was also known for being difficult with cast and crew, but Ford for one never saw Lang’s tyrannical side.

In “Glenn Ford: A Life” by Peter Ford, the famed actor describes his experience: “Fritz Lang came out of the old German studio system, where the director was like a dictator, barking commands and making people jump. He had a pretty nasty reputation in some quarters. There were people in Hollywood who had worked with him who hated his guts, especially some of the crew guys down the line. I mean, there were stories of people throwing lights at him and threatening to kill him for the way he treated them.

“So I head into this picture wondering how bad it’s going to be. And then Fritz and I met and had a couple of cocktails, and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He treated me with great respect. A wonderful friend, and I learned so much from him. We’re talking about one of the real geniuses of the movie business.”

Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin: a couple with, um, a problem or two.

“The Big Heat” drew inspiration from real-life events a few years before the film was made. When the U.S. Senate set up the Kefauver Committee to probe organized crime, televised hearings brought the Mafia into the consciousness of the American public. Sydney Boehm wrote the script from a serial by William P. McGivern in the Saturday Evening Post.

And of course, any time crime’s on the rise, you know loose women are involved, which brings me to the pièce de résistance: Grahame as Debby. Though she doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, she’s funny and fresh, and brims over with sexpot charm – striking the perfect balance between waifish, wide-eyed vulnerability and pleasure-seeking sophistication.

Once Debby realizes the depth of Vince’s depravity – burning a young woman’s hand with his cigarette is small potatoes to this guy – she switches her loyalty to the righteous but rigid Bannion. And when Vince learns of her betrayal, she gets burned, literally, with a pot of boiling coffee. We hear, but don’t see, Debby’s wounded reaction in one of the most famous moments in the movies.

With her looks gone, Debby tells Bannion everything she knows and commits the murder that will bring down the syndicate. Oh, and throwing coffee? Two can play at that game. I’d like to see a Starbucks barrista do better.

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AFI FEST spotlights strong women in unusual roles

Isabelle Huppert

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

It’s clearly the year of Isabelle Huppert … at least at AFI FEST presented by AUDI, Huppert starred in two excellent films: “Elle” a thriller by Paul Verhoeven and “Things to Come” a family drama by Mia Hansen Love. In the first she is tough as nails; the second is one of the most human and tender roles of her career. Both are well worth seeing.

Overall, the festival highlighted many strong women’s roles:
Annette Bening in “20th Century Women,” by director Mike Mills
Nicole Kidman in “Lion,” by Garth Davis
Jessica Chastain in “Miss Sloane,” by John Madden
Oulaya Amamra in “Divines” by Houda Benyamina
Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux in “It’s Only the End of the World,” by Xavier Dolan
Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte in “Julieta,” by Pedro Almodovar
Kika Magalhaes in “The Eyes of My Mother,” by Nicolas Pesce
Alice Lowe (actress, writer and director) of “Prevenge.”

And “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom is more than a little brilliant.

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AFI FEST 2016 honors Lupino, Dandridge and Wong

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

Ida Lupino directed “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist,” both from 1953, as well as five other features.

Ida Lupino directed “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist” as well as five other features.

The AFI FEST presented by AUDI, which runs in Hollywood from Nov. 10-17, will honor three brilliant women as part of its Cinema Legacy programming: Ida Lupino, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong.

Most famous as an actress, Lupino was also a director, writer and producer. She was the second woman (after Dorothy Arzner) to join the Directors Guild of America. Lupino was known for her energy and her intensity as well as her fiery temperament and mercurial character. She once described herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” Like Davis, Lupino craved meaty, challenging roles and was not afraid to look unglamorous while playing them.

Dorothy Dandridge

Earlier in her career, she was billed as “the English Jean Harlow” and she was made to dye her hair blonde. But whether she was a blonde or a brunette, Lupino had a strong affinity with film noir. Lupino said of her early days: “I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of 13, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.”

In addition to “They Drive By Night” and “High Sierra,” she earned 15 film noir or crime/mystery acting credits. She directed seven feature films (most notably “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Bigamist” both from 1953) as well as many TV shows.

Dandridge, sometimes called the black Marilyn Monroe, was the first African American to receive a Best Actress Oscar nod. Dandridge was nominated for her performance in “Carmen Jones” (1954, Otto Preminger) but lost to Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl.”

Dandridge and Preminger began an affair during the shoot. He also started giving her career advice, which included turning down several roles. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for 1959’s “Porgy and Bess” (also directed by Preminger). In 1965, she died, alone, under mysterious circumstances. She was 42.

Anna May Wong

Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star. A native of Los Angeles, she worked in silent film, sound movies, television, stage and radio. But given the prejudices of the time, she did get her fair share of Hollywood roles.

Most egregiously, she was not considered for the lead of 1937’s “The Good Earth.” The part went to Luise Rainer. Wong made “Piccadilly” in London with director E.A. Dupont. She died in 1961 at age 56.

“The Hitch-Hiker,” “Carmen Jones” and “Piccadilly” will screen at AFI FEST.

This stellar fest is open to the public and will present galas, tributes, special screenings, world cinema, new auteurs, American independents, shorts and more.

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