Film Noir File: ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ and a Buñuel bundle are this week’s baubles on TCM

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

Sweet Smell of Success” (1957, Alexander Mackendrick). Sunday, Jan. 25, 10 p.m. (7 p.m.).

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster star in “Sweet Smell of Success.”

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster star in “Sweet Smell of Success.”

“Sweet Smell of Success,” an American movie masterpiece and one of the best and gutsiest of all the classic film noirs, is a sleek killer comedy/drama about Broadway in the ’50s.

It centers around two influential New Yorkers: megalomaniac star gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and one of his more energetic publicist-sources, scummy but fashionable Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis).

And yes that is actor David White aka Larry Tate from TV’s  “Bewitched”as Otis Elwell (uncredited). Watching  “Sweet Smell of Success” now, you naturally think of “Mad Men” and an elite long-ago world of white men climbing the ladder of success: ruthless and glamorous, cut-throat and captivating.

Yes, that is actor David White (right) aka Larry Tate from TV’s  “Bewitched”as Otis Elwell (uncredited).

Yes, that is actor David White (right) aka Larry Tate from TV’s “Bewitched”as Otis Elwell (uncredited).

Read the full review here.

Monday, Jan. 26

Five by Luis Buñuel

Five superb films, from his middle and later years, by the great dark Spanish movie surrealist Luis Buñuel, whose extraordinary films, whether made in Spain, France Mexico or the U.S., are as noir as they come.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Belle de Jour” (1967, Luis Buñuel). The most beautiful movie actress alive directed by the world’s most brilliantly rebellious and surreal filmmaker. That was the incendiary match-up of star Catherine Deneuve and director Luis Buñuel, most notably in their classic 1967 French erotic noir drama “Belle de Jour.”

In that great film, Deneuve – so lovely and so classically, radiantly, sexily blonde – played Severine, the icy, ravishing Parisian wife, who becomes a prostitute during the day to escape her boring bourgeois life and her handsome but boring husband (Jean Sorel). Severine then falls into a mad world of crime, hypocrisy, dreamlike perversity and mad peril. “Belle de Jour,” adapted from the novel by Joseph Kessel, was the most popular, sensational and best-remembered film of Buñuel’s entire career. In French. with English subtitles.

Catherine Deneuve is unforgettable in 1967’s noir drama “Belle de Jour.”

Catherine Deneuve is unforgettable in 1967’s noir drama “Belle de Jour.”

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972, Luis Buñuel). Buñuel’s sly, surreal Oscar-winner (for Best Foreign Language Picture of 1972), about a bourgeois dinner party that gets constantly interrupted and a world that is increasingly out of joint. The splendid cast includes Delphine Seyrig, Michel Piccoli, Fernando Rey, Stephane Audran, Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Cassel. Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carriere co-wrote the script. In French, with subtitles.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964, Luis Buñuel). Jeanne Moreau is a sultry chambermaid in a perverse French household, surrounded by exploitation and erotic menace. Adapted by Buñuel and Carriere from the novel by Octave Mirbeau (previously filmed in 1946 by director Jean Renoir and star Paulette Goddard). In French, with subtitles.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Viridiana” (1961, Luis Buñuel). A young convent woman returns to her wealthy and lascivious uncle’s elegant house and learns, unhappily, that the world of man and the will of God are often at odds. Buñuel’s return to Spanish filmmaking after decades of exile was then banned in Spain, but was otherwise a worldwide art house hit and a Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner. With Silvia Pinal, Fernando Rey and Francisco (”Paco”) Rabal. In Spanish, with subtitles.

3:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.): “The Exterminating Angel” (1962, Luis Buñuel). One of Buñuel’s greatest dark jokes: A Mexican upper-class family and their friends stage a posh dinner party, but then discover that they somehow, mysteriously, maddeningly, can’t leave the dining room. They must stay there, suffer, degenerate and perhaps die. An incredible piece of stylish nightmare : pure Buñuel. With Silvia Pinal and Enrique Rambal. In Spanish, with subtitles.

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Zazie dans le Metro” (1960, Louis Malle). Reviewed in FNB on June 24, 2011.

Tuesday, Jan. 27

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “Three Days of the Condor” (1975, Sydney Pollack). Robert Redford is a U. S. government reader and analyst whose world suddenly opens under his feet one day, when most of his colleagues are killed and he becomes a wanted man on the run. The quintessential paranoid anti-C.I.A. thriller, this is a modern variant on the prototypical Hitchcockian “wrong man“ suspenser. Based on James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor,” it’s been copied endlessly, especially by novelist John Grisham. With Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson and John Houseman. [Read more...]

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Femmes fatales x 2 Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center

The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series at the Skirball Cultural Center (2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25) features a superb lineup: “Pitfall” (1948, André de Toth) and “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak). Veteran critic Dave Kehr once described “Criss Cross” as “an archly noir story replete with triple and quadruple crosses, leading up to one of the most shockingly cynical endings in the whole genre.” 

You can read more about “Pitfall” here.

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

What would film noir be without obsessive love? (Or “amour fou” as the French would say.) Just a bunch of caring and sharing among equal partners with no cause for discontent? How frightfully dull.

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949. Director Robert Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Steve (Burt Lancaster) find it impossible to say goodbye.

“Criss Cross” tells the story of a nice guy from a modest background who, try as he might, just cannot break ties with his sexy but venal ex-wife. They are one of noir’s most stunningly gorgeous couples.

Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson takes your breath away with his arresting features and beautiful build. Equally captivating is exquisite Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster on the ’60s TV show, “The Munsters”) as Anna.

Lancaster and De Carlo were also paired in Jules Dassin’s prison film “Brute Force” from 1947. And in 1946, Siodmak helped catapult Lancaster and Ava Gardner to stardom in “The Killers,” another seminal film noir. Miklós Rózsa wrote original music for both Siodmak films.

Back to “Criss Cross.” Having returned to his native Los Angeles after more than a year of roaming around the country, working odd jobs, Steve’s convinced that he’s over Anna and can move on from their failed marriage.

He gets his old job back (as a driver for Horten’s, an armored car service) and reconnects with his family (a very unusual touch – most noir heroes are total loners). There’s Mom (Edna Holland), brother Slade (Richard Long) and his brother’s fiancée Helen (Meg Randall). They’re all anti-Anna, natch, and so is Steve’s childhood friend Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally).

Anna likes the perks that her sugar daddy Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) can provide.

It’s only a matter of time (and fate, of course) before Steve sees Anna again, only to learn she has a new love interest, an unctuous gangster and sugar daddy named Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), whom she abruptly marries.

But Anna can’t quite tear herself away from Steve – he is Burt bloody Lancaster, after all. When Slim catches the pair together, Steve stays calm and says he’s figured out a way to pull a heist – an inside job at Horten’s – but he needs some help to carry it out. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however, and the caper turns into a smoke-filled shootout, which lands Steve in the hospital and launches Slim on the lam.

Noir master Daniel Fuchs adapted “Criss Cross” from a Don Tracy novel. While the script’s references to Steve’s imminent doom are a little over the top, the movie is still an excellent showcase for the talents of German-émigré Siodmak, an auteur largely underrated in postwar Hollywood, as well as for his cast and crew. “Criss Cross” is both a tense, lean crime thriller and a textured, haunting story about relationships and human nature.

Much as I like “The Killers,” I prefer “Criss Cross” and its probing into questions of fate, our inherent human capacity for perversity and self-destruction, our tendencies toward paranoia, greed and guilt, and our willingness to trust, trick and manipulate others and ourselves. Basically, everything we hate to think about and try to repress.

We see romantic relationships that run the gamut from sweet to steamy to sadistic, with Siodmak and Fuchs reminding us of the violence that can lurk just under a tranquil surface. It’s also interesting to speculate, upon repeat viewings, just how far back Steve might have been hatching his plan and to what extent it grew out of Slim’s wider and stickier web of deceit.

When Slim and his gang invade Steve’s place, Steve outlines his plan.

Beginning with a magnificent shot that lands us in the middle of the story, we witness a clandestine meeting, a few minutes in a parking lot, of lovers Steve and Anna.

Then, as Siodmak backtracks to fill us in on their story, it’s one ravishing chiaroscuro composition after another, often shot from high above and suggesting a sense of encroaching peril or shot low to create a feeling of dominance, danger and power. Entrapping shadows abound.

Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer were at the top of their game in “Criss Cross. “ It’s hard to beat the panoramic opening scene and the pieta-like closing shot. Another striking scene: when Steve sees Anna dancing the rhumba (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) as Esy Morales’ band gives it their all. I also love the alternating high and low shots as Anna and Steve discover that Slim and his gang have infiltrated Steve’s place, quiet as cats, save for the refrigerator that pounds shut as they help themselves to beers. “You know,” says Dan Duryea’s Slim, in a cool, silky voice, “it don’t look right. You can’t exactly say it looks right now can you?”

Was there anyone better in 1940s than Duryea as the cheap, sleazy, misogynistic gangster-type who never failed to be dressed to the nines in the flashiest and gaudiest of garb?

Steve and Anna hope to reunite after she extricates herself from Slim.

Additionally, it’s a testament to Lancaster’s power of expression – his graceful physicality, measured, calm voice and what seems to be an innate kindness and intelligence – that you continue to root for him knowing that every step he takes is the wrong one.

And you can see how De Carlo as Anna could sear a man’s heart. (De Carlo later starred as the quirky matriarch in TV’s “The Munsters,” 1964-66.) While some would write Anna off as a conniving shrew who causes Steve’s downfall, and it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise, she at least never plays too coy – she wants him, yes, but she wants money too and she’s entirely clear that she’ll get it with or without him. It’s his choice (as much as you have a choice in film noir) to execute a heist to get a bunch of cash. As for the heist, particularly the planning of, I think there is much here that influenced John Huston when he made “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950).

Also memorable in their performances are Percy Helton as the bartender, Alan Napier as Finchley, the stately, dignified crook consultant who works for liquor and Griff Barnett as Pop, the co-worker whom Steve betrays. “Criss Cross” also features Raymond Burr, uncredited, as a gangster.

Steven Soderbergh remade “Criss Cross” as “The Underneath” in 1995 and it’s a good film. But just as Lancaster’s Steve likens his love to getting a bit of apple stuck in his teeth, “Criss Cross” similarly lodges in your psyche. Like a lurking temptation, it’s hard to let go.

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Skirball Cultural Center offers a double dose of intrigue on the big screen this Sunday

The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, with an excellent double feature.

Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott face Raymond Burr in “Pitfall.”

Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott face Raymond Burr in “Pitfall.”

The first film is “Pitfall” (1948, André de Toth), featuring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt in a classic noir love triangle. Just a few years before, Powell, a song and dance man, reinvented his screen persona when he played detective Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk). Powell then became a regular on the film noir slate.

In “Pitfall,” he plays John Forbes, a happily married husband and father with a good job. Problem is, John is bored and it’s not long before he risks everything by getting tangled up with an irresistible femme fatale named Mona Stevens (Scott).

Further complicating the situation is Raymond Burr as a private investigator who also covets Ms. Stevens. Powell and Wyatt are spot-on, Scott lends humanity to what could be a two-dimensional role and this is one of Burr’s best performances.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster can’t stay away from each other in “Criss Cross.”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster can’t stay away from each other in “Criss Cross.”

Next up: “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak) is a spare, chilling story that zooms along at breakneck speed with characters you’ll never forget.

Here, the stunning Yvonne De Carlo (whom you might remember from TV’s “The Munsters”) lures her ex-husband Burt Lancaster into a high-stakes heist. The sleazy bad guy is played perfectly by Dan Duryea.

Lancaster’s Steve is essentially a good guy who just can’t get his ex-wife out of his system. Some would call him crazy. The French would term it “amour fou.” But what would film noir be without obsessive love? This somewhat neglected movie completely holds its own with any other title from the film noir canon. “Criss Cross” plays particularly well on the big screen and it’s great fun to see the Los Angeles locales. The opening shot is tremendous and look out for a young Tony Curtis.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Admission is $10 general; $7 seniors and full-time students; $5 members.

The exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect will remain open until 8 p.m.

The File on Thelma Jordon posterThe Intriguante series concludes on Feb. 12 with “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950, Robert Siodmak), a crime drama starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck.

Additionally, there are two more free Tuesday matinees at the Skirball Cultural Center. On Feb. 3 is 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Edward G. Robinson as an FBI investigator. On Feb. 10, “Act of Violence” (1948, Fred Zinnemann) looks at the plight of returning World War II vets in a captivating film noir brimming with dark secrets, betrayal and revenge. Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh lead the cast.

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Film Noir File: Kazan taps TV’s evil in ‘A Face in the Crowd’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

A Face in the Crowd” (1957, Elia Kazan). Tuesday, Jan. 20, 3 p.m. (12 p.m.).

Andy Griffith gives a mesmerizing performance.

Andy Griffith gives a mesmerizing performance.

Three years after they collaborated on the great noir “On the Waterfront,” screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan joined forces brilliantly again, on another classic noirish drama: “A Face in the Crowd.”

Andy Griffith stars as a guitar-playing, propaganda-spewing vicious bum named Lonesome Rhodes, whom a bunch of TV types transform into a folksy national superstar – a crazy mixture of Arthur Godfrey, Hank Williams and Senator Joe McCarthy.

Not as famous or as influential as Waterfront, Face is nevertheless another American masterpiece. Thanks to Kazan and Schulberg it had another gutsy, gut-punching script, a similar sense of life in all its intensity and complexity, and another very strong (if not quite as remarkable) cast: Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick, Kay Medford, Burl Ives, Mike Wallace, Walter Winchell.

Patricia Neal leads an excellent support cast.

Patricia Neal leads an excellent support cast.

As for Griffith, he was as essential to “Face in the Crowd” as Marlon Brando was to “On the Waterfront.” There were few movie and TV actors more specifically, joyously American back in the ’50s and ’60s than Andy Griffith, a hugely talented small-town North Carolina guy who could so aptly play both good men and bad.

And as Lonesome Rhodes, he gives an explosive, mesmerizing rendition of pure guile and homespun brutality.

Saturday, Jan. 17

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). Saturday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Read the full review here.

Foreign Corr poster10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “Contraband” (1940, Michael Powell). A Danish ship captain (Conrad Veidt) and a British beauty (Valerie Hobson) get mixed up in spy high jinx at the onset of World War II. Masterminded by Powell and writer Emeric Pressburger, who would make some of the most offbeat movie masterpieces of the World War II era.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Above Suspicion” (1943, Richard Thorpe). This glamorous MGM chase thriller sends Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray (a pretty odd couple) on a honeymoon in terror, with villainous Nazis (including Conrad Veidt, of “Casablanca” fame) as their tour guides. Crawford shines off-type as a smart and loyal wife.

Monday, Jan. 19

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Intruder in the Dust” (1949, Clarence Brown). A stately, graceful adaptation of the Mississippi murder mystery by William Faulkner, in which a brave boy (Claude Jarman, Jr.) helps a stubborn, heroic old black man stand up to a lynch mob. A very atypical film for the elegant metteur-en-scene Clarence Brown, Greta Garbo’s most frequent director. But it’s probably the best film he ever made.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Defiant Ones” (1958, Stanley Kramer). Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped chain gang prisoners, shackled together and on the run, in the most Stanley Kramerish of all Stanley Kramer pictures.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Edge of the City” (1957, Martin Ritt). With John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, Jack Warden and Ruby Dee. Brilliant acting – pitched in an “On the Waterfront” key and set in the same kind of grim dockside milieu – stands out in this tough yet humane film.

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Film Noir File: John Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is the stuff that dreams are made of

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

Maltese Falcon posterThe Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). Sunday, Jan. 11, 12 p.m. (9 a.m.).

“The Maltese Falcon,” a spectacularly entertaining and iconic crime film, holds the claim to many firsts.

It’s a remarkable directorial debut by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s considered by many critics to be the first film noir. (Another contender is “Stranger on the Third Floor” see below.) It was the first vehicle in which screen legend Humphrey Bogart and character actor Elisha Cook Jr. appeared together – breathing life into archetypal roles that filled the noir landscape for decades to come.

It was veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet’s first time before a camera and the first time he worked with Peter Lorre. The pair would go on to make eight more movies together. Additionally, “Falcon,” an entry on many lists of the greatest movies ever made, was one of the first films admitted to the National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989. Read the rest of the review here.


Saturday, Jan. 10

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Metropolis” (1927, Fritz Lang). The rich vs. the poor, the factory owners vs. the workers, and the mad scientist vs. the people and their heroine (Brigitte Helm as the human Maria and her double, the false robot Maria) in the greatest of all silent era science fiction epics. And it’s noir as well. With Alfred Abel and Rudolf-Klein-Rogge).

Blue Gardenia poster10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Ministry of Fear” (1944, Fritz Lang). The always delightful Ray Milland plays a man desperately trying to stop a Nazi spy ring. Graham Greene wrote the source novel.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “The Blue Gardenia” (1953, Fritz Lang). Working girl Anne Baxter lets her guard down and gets mixed up in the murder of slimy Raymond Burr. The rest of the lineup includes Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Nat King Cole and George “Superman” Reeves. Not Lang’s best, but you won’t want to miss it anyway.

Sunday, Jan. 11

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Knife in the Water” (1962, Roman Polanski). Polanski’s great youthful thriller about three people on a boat in the water, with a knife aboard. The trio includes a nasty young hitchhiker and a malaise-ridden bourgeois couple who are going sailing (Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka and Zygmunt Malanowicz). It’s a sunny day; the sexy wife wears a skimpy bikini; the hitchhiker plays with the knife; the tension keeps mounting and mounting. Polanski’s high visual gifts and his flair for dark moods and rising tension were already in full play here. A world-wide art house hit, this film, co-scripted by Jerzy Skolimowski (Walkover) is a classic of brooding menace and erotic threat. (In Polish, with subtitles.).

3:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.): “Purple Noon” (1960, Rene Clement).

Tuesday, Jan. 13

Rita Hayworth went blonde for “Lady” but her new look was not well received. Hmmpf!

Rita Hayworth went blonde for “Lady” but her new look was not well received. Hmmpf!

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “The Chase” (1966, Arthur Penn). Robert Redford plays an escaped convict whose race toward his Deep Southern home throws the town into turmoil. Jane Fonda is his old pal; Marlon Brando is the liberal sheriff trying to put a lid on the fireworks.

Poorly re-edited, but still an underrated socially conscious neo-noir, adapted by Lillian Hellman from a Horton Foote story. The cast includes Robert Duvall, Angie Dickinson and Janice Rule.

Wednesday, Jan. 14

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948, Orson Welles).

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‘The Woman in the Window,’ one of Fritz Lang’s best films, screens tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center

The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series starts tonight at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles with “The Woman in the Window.” See previous post for more details about the series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice and Richard are randomly bound together.

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

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

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

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

Alice and Heidt (Dan Duryea) make a bad but beautiful team.

Alice and Heidt (Dan Duryea) make a bad but beautiful team.

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

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

Later in her career, Bennett portrayed Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the ’60s TV series “Dark Shadows” and she appeared in the 1970 movie “House of Dark Shadows.”

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

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

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The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series starts Thursday at the Skirball Cultural Center

If you’re feeling slightly sluggish after a whirlwind of holiday activity, remember that watching a feisty femme fatale on the big screen might be just what you need to feel newly energized and thoroughly entertained.

Alice (Joan Bennett) has Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wrapped around her little finger in “The Woman in the Window.”

Alice (Joan Bennett) has Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wrapped around her little finger in “The Woman in the Window.”

You can start this Thursday, Jan. 8, at 8 p.m., when the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles starts its four-film series, The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir. As the organizers note: “During World War II, many women took up jobs in previously male-dominated industries, which imbued them with a new sense of independence. These four movies – all made by émigré directors and featuring strong female leads – widely appealed to this newly empowered audience, as well as soldiers abroad.”

The series starts with 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. When you least expect your life to unravel is exactly when your life will unravel, at least in a Lang film. That’s the lesson Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) learns the hard way after he’s lured into the depraved world of street hustlers Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. “Woman” is an excellent film and well worth seeing. You can read the full FNB review here.

Pitfall posterAdmission is $10 general; $7 seniors and full-time students; $5 members. The exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect will remain open until 8 p.m.

The Intriguante series continues on Jan. 25 with an afternoon double-feature: “Pitfall” (1948, André de Toth), featuring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt in a classic noir love triangle, and the taut thriller “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak), in which a temptress (Yvonne De Carlo) leads her ex (Burt Lancaster) to his doom.  The series concludes on Feb. 12 with “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950, Robert Siodmak), a crime drama starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck.

Additionally, the Skirball Cultural Center is hosting a series of free film-noir matinees on Tuesday afternoons, starting Jan. 6 with “Somewhere in the Night” (1946, Joseph L. Mankiewicz), starring John Hodiak as an amnesic World War II soldier.

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Happy New Year, everyone!

Hope you had a decadent time bidding farewell to 2014 and that 2015 will be darkly delightful.

We took a little time off over the holidays to unplug and reconnect with family and friends. Now we’re back and looking forward to a new slate of noir news and events.

First up:  Wednesday, Jan. 7, is Fyodor Dostoyevsky night on TCM, featuring film versions of four dark Russian classics and the talents of film noir stalwart Robert Siodmak among many others.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner star in 1949’s “The Great Sinner,” directed by Robert Siodmak.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner star in 1949’s “The Great Sinner,” directed by Robert Siodmak.

(8 p.m. EST and 5 p.m. PST): “The Brothers Karamazov” (1958, Richard Brooks). An ultimate dysfunctional family – as portrayed by evil dad Lee J. Cobb and warring brothers Yul Brynner, Richard Basehart, William Shatner and Albert Salmi – clash in Brooks’ adaptation of what may be Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece. The beautiful Grushenka, the part that Marilyn Monroe (a big reader) called her dream role, is played here by Maria Schell.

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Crime and Punishment” (1935, Josef von Sternberg). With Peter Lorre, Edward Arnold and Marian Marsh. Reviewed in FNB on April 9, 2013.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “The Great Sinner” (1949, Robert Siodmak). In real life, Dostoyevsky was a compulsive gambler and this version of his tense short novel “The Gambler,” scripted by novelist Christopher Isherwood, stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Melvyn Douglas, Ethel Barrymore and Walter Huston. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 11, 2014.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Idiot”/ “Hakuchi” (1951, Akira Kurosawa). Kurosawa lovingly adapts his favorite writer’s famed novel, with a brilliant Japanese cast that includes Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori (as Prince Myshkin, the “idiot”), Setsuko Hara and Takashi Shimura. (In Japanese, with subtitles.)

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Film Noir File: When ‘The Apartment’ invites us in, we can’t say no

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

The Apartment posterThe Apartment” (1960, Billy Wilder). Friday, December 19; 5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.),

Laugh-wise, it’s one of the classic American romantic comedies. But “The Apartment’s” high-style black and white look, mordant script, pungent dialogue, sense of entrapment, and sharp savvy urban mood are all very noir. So, of course, is the co-writer/director, the great Billy (“Double Indemnity”) Wilder.

The Apartment” is Wilder’s comic-romantic ’60s masterpiece: a funny, stinging, dark portrayal of American corporate culture circa 1960 and the behind-the-scenes sexism, sex and sleaze that fuels it all, success-wise. Jack Lemmon, at his ebullient best, is C. C. (Buddy) Baxter, a rising young insurance-company employee who lends his apartment to his bosses for their extramarital shenanigans, in return for favorable job reports.

Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, the winsome drop-dead gorgeous elevator girl of Baxter’s dreams. And Fred MacMurray is Jeff Sheldrake, his boss, her married lover, and the man who (job-wise and infidelity-wise) holds the keys and calls the shots.

The movie takes place during the Christmas season, a not-so-joyous holiday time that Baxter’s horny bosses and tenants treat with little sentiment and much cynicism – a background that only emphasizes Baxter’s loneliness.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon play colleagues who are well versed in the seamier side of Corporate America.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon play colleagues who are well versed in the seamier side of Corporate America.

There are two main settings, co-designed by Alexander Trauner (ingenious art director of the French classic “Children of Paradise”). First: Baxter’s slightly worn brownstone digs on Central Park West, where he strains spaghetti through a tennis racket and can’t quite get “Grand Hotel” on his dinky TV.

And second: the gleaming high-rise building and the floor where Baxter toils, among a sea of co-workers, modeled after King Vidor’s vast impersonal office space in “The Crowd.” It is there that our boy Baxter will learn, step by risqué step, that you can’t get a key to the executive washroom without getting your hands dirty.

Wilder’s main cinematic inspiration here, besides Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch and some of Billy’s fellow expatriate noir-masters, was David Lean’s and Noel Coward’s peerless 1945 extramarital romance “Brief Encounter,” starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, who have a chance to rendezvous in a friend’s pad but don’t end up doing so. In “The Apartment,” Wilder lets his imagination run wild and the results, comedy-wise, are bittersweet, hilarious and marvelous.

I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder’s witty fellow scribe on “Some Like It Hot,” co-wrote the script; Adolph Deutsch composed the effulgent score. Jack Kruschen (as Baxter’s mensch of a Jewish doctor neighbor), Ray Walston, Edie Adams and Hope Holiday ably support the three stars – who are all at their absolute best. A multiple Oscar winner and an enduring classic that can still make you tear up, nod in recognition or laugh your bum off, it’s one of own personal favorites. Wilder-wise. [Read more...]

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Film noir family fun: ‘Baby Jane’ might help you bond this holiday season

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane posterWhat Ever Happened to Baby Jane?/1962/Warner Bros., et al/134 min.

Rocking the season of festive joy and family fun is always easier when you actually like your relatives. On the other hand, unresolved issues have a pesky perseverance, sort of like Aunt Milly’s traditional fruitcake that never leaves the fridge.

A case in point is “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich), a classic dark-humor domestic noir. In the movie, Sisters Blanche and Jane Hudson, two retired Golden Age actresses, are in dire need of a good therapist to help them navigate the layers of self-delusion and address the serious damage done by their rather warped parents.

“Baby Jane,” which stars the inimitable Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, was the only film in which these two supreme screen divas and stalwarts of film noir ever played together. Both were strong, gutsy, competitive actresses who didn’t shy away from a fight, especially with each other. The back story of longtime rivals Bette and Joan plotting battles and butting heads, literally and figuratively, is almost as famous as the movie itself. Nevertheless, their difficult offscreen relationship infuses the film with a delicious tension.

Davis is Baby Jane Hudson, a vaudeville child star whose talent expired when she hit puberty. Crawford plays Blanche Hudson, who, as an adult, became a highly regarded and popular Hollywood actress until a mysterious car accident ended her career.

Sisters Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) are two retired Golden Age actresses navigating a tormented relationship.

Sisters Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) are two retired Golden Age actresses navigating a tormented relationship.

Confined to a wheelchair, dignified and gracious Blanche lives in a sprawling house. Jane, bitter and brassy and long forgotten by her fans, has nowhere else to go so she tends to Blanche as best she can – in between guzzling bottles of gin and scotch. And she’s planning a comeback, reprising her decades-old hit song “I’m Writing a Letter to Daddy” with the help of a blubbery, unctuous ne’er-do-well musician named Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono).

Realizing that Jane is losing it, Blanche plans to sell the house, get some psychiatric help for baby sis and live in a smaller abode with their kind, caring housekeeper Elvira (Maidie Norman). Think Jane’s going for that? Not bloody likely.

Thus the stage is set for Crawford and Davis to duke it out, including a scene where Davis reportedly kicked Crawford’s forehead and stitches were required. Crawford retaliated by putting weights in her pockets for the scene in which Davis had to haul her around, spurring back trouble for Davis. So much for mellowing with age. As Davis once remarked, “Old age is no place for sissies.”

Joan Crawford reportedly put weights in her pockets for this scene with Bette Davis.

Joan Crawford reportedly put weights in her pockets for this scene with Bette Davis.

Other gossipy asides: Knowing that Crawford was on Pepsi-Cola Co.’s board of directors (a result of her marriage to the firm’s chairman and CEO Alfred Steele, from 1956 until his death in 1959), Davis had a Coke machine hauled on to the set.

Davis arranged for her daughter Barbara Merrill (later known as B.D. Hyman) to play a small role as teenage neighbor Liza Bates. Crawford carped about Babs’ acting ability, which was not exactly in abundant supply.

(And some trivia: Liza’s mom, Mrs. Bates, was played by Anna Lee, who played Bronwyn in 1941’s “How Green Was My Valley” and much later Mrs. Quartermaine on the TV soap “General Hospital.”)

For years, some critics sneered at “Baby Jane” calling it exploitative, campy, far-fetched and too long. Admittedly, it’s medium budget and there is a key plot point that turns on a very creaky hinge. But who cares? The chance to watch Davis dive into her role as grotesque Baby Jane with such pure relish and to see Crawford’s restrained, reined-in performance in the far less showy, perhaps more challenging, part of self-contained victim Blanche is an absolute delight. The supporting cast sparkles as well.

Victor Buono plays the unctuous ne’er-do-well musician named Edwin Flagg who is helping Baby Jane relaunch her career.

Victor Buono plays the unctuous ne’er-do-well musician named Edwin Flagg who is helping Baby Jane relaunch her career.

For all the glorious moments of black comedy, hats off to Lukas Heller’s script from the Henry Farrell novel. Ernest Haller received an Oscar nod for his luscious cinematography.

Following in the footsteps of Billy Wilder and “Sunset Blvd.,” Aldrich masterfully paints this sympathetic portrait of losers and those left behind by the Hollywood machine. And in the reversal at the finale, despite the arch humor throughout, Aldrich probes the poignant depths of a sibling relationship – evoking long-simmering feelings of resentment and guilt, regret and sadness.

Jane’s evil mind-games are chilling and her telephone impersonations of Blanche are hilarious. But what’s most unforgettable and perhaps most brave of Davis is Jane’s dreadful appearance. Her rat’s nest of bleached-blonde curls appears to be groomed on an annual basis. Jane’s caked-on cupid’s bow mouth and heavy bands of jet-black liner apparently made Davis cry when she finally saw herself onscreen. Davis described it as the look of a woman who never bothered to remove her makeup from day to day but simply kept adding more.

Would FNB dare to choose sides between these pioneers of female power, these bastions of bitchiness? Well of course she would! Team Joan is clearly the way to go. Disciplined, determined and driven, Crawford fought tooth and nail for everything she ever had. And she proved to have better business sense than Davis, asking for a percentage of “Baby Jane’s” profit whereas Davis settled for a flat fee. Last but not least, Crawford apparently tried to befriend an unreceptive Davis before the cameras started rolling.

The Warner Brothers DVD edition has a disc of extra goodies, including a short documentary comparing the careers of Davis and Crawford; a Turner bio feature of Davis, narrated by Jodie Foster; a clip of Davis on a ’70s TV show singing “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and wearing a perfectly horrid old-lady dress; and a British TV interview with Crawford, looking and sounding as regal as the queen.

So, pop some corn, roast some chestnuts and gather the family to watch this delicious dysfunction. Happy holidays, everyone!

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