Lake and Ladd pack heat in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar star in “This Gun for Hire.”

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more…]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ opens Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre

The Veronica LakeAlan Ladd quintessential film noir “This Gun for Hire,” co-starring Laird Cregar, opens the Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. Directed by Frank Tuttle from a Graham Greene novel, the 1942 film helped shape many archetypes of the genre. Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett wrote the script, with an uncredited contribution from Tuttle. John F. Seitz shot it and Edith Head designed the costumes.

Noir City: Hollywood, the longest-running film noir festival in Los Angeles, is now in its 19th year. For 2017, the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque will present a program “replicating the movie-going experience of that time – 10 double bills, each featuring a major studio A picture paired with a shorter B movie … showcased exactly as it was back in the day.”

In Friday’s B-movie slot is the well regarded “Quiet Please, Murder” (1942, John Larkin), which stars the inimitable George Sanders as a con artist.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller will introduce the lineup. There’s a cocktail hour between films for all ticket buyers, sponsored by Clarendelle inspired by Haut-Brion and Teeling Irish Whiskey.

Compiled by Muller, Alan K. Rode and Gwen Deglise, the festival runs through April 2.

In honor of the film and the fest, we are re-running an earlier review of “This Gun for Hire.”

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Noir City: Hollywood, TCM Classic Film Festival and COLCOA French Film Festival are around the corner

Calling all cinephiles: Three great festivals are about to kick off…

Noir City: Hollywood will run Friday, March 24, to Sunday, April 2, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The famed fest is presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation.

Organizers say the fest will feature favorite rarities as well as many never-before-screened obscurities. This 19th edition of the event aims to replicate the movie-going experience of that time: 10 double bills, each featuring a major studio A picture paired with a shorter B movie.

The series opens with “This Gun for Hire” and “Quiet Please, Murder.” Other highlights include: “Ministry of Fear,” “The Dark Corner,” “The Accused,” “Chicago Deadline,” “I Was a Shoplifter,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends”  and “The Big Heat.”

Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation will introduce the movies.

Next up: Find your best vintage pencil skirt and your favorite fedora. The TCM Classic Film Festival comes to Hollywood Thursday, April 6, to Sunday, April 9. Gear up for a dose of hilarity because this year’s theme is Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies. “From lowbrow to high, slapstick to sophisticated comedies of manners—we will showcase the greatest cinematic achievements of lone clowns, comedic duos and madcap ensembles.”

We’re very stoked about “Born Yesterday,” “The Graduate,” “High Anxiety,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Singin in the Rain” and “Whats Up, Doc?

Holliday and Holden in “Born Yesterday.” Turns out, Judy ain’t as dumb as she looks.

And might there be a third title to feature redheads?! So far, we have “Those Redheads from Seattle” and  “Red-Headed Woman.” Let’s hope more are announced.

We are also eager for the slate of panels, special guests and parties that have come to define this fest. Organizers do a truly stellar job of planning and programming and keeping their cool amid the craziness.

Wry chuckles, silly humor, belly laughs, boundless fun. We’re in!

Last on the lineup but first on the list of any self-respecting Francophile (bien sur!) is the 21st annual City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival. COLCOA runs Monday, April 24, to Tuesday, May 2, at the Directors Guild Theater in Hollywood.

So far, we know that director Damien Chazelle, who just won the Oscar for “La La Land,” (at 32, he is the youngest director to win the coveted prize) will present Leos Carax’s “The Lovers on the Bridge,” starring Academy Award® winner Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant.

COLCOA will honor writer-director Stéphane Brizé with a special presentation of “Not Here To Be Loved” (2005) and the festival will host the West Coast premiere of Brizé’s new film “A Womans Life,” (Une Vie), based on the Guy de Maupassant novel and starring Judith Chemla.

Of special interest to noiristas: COLCOA will present the world premiere of the newly digitally restored “One Day in a Clowns Life,” the first film written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The screening honors the 100th anniversary of the iconic filmmaker’s birth.

We are looking forward to our date with Delon.

Also part of the Melville birthday celebration is a special presentation of “Le Cercle Rouge,” starring Alain Delon, Bourvil and Yves Montand.

Additionally, COLCOA will show an international premiere of “Farewell Bonaparte” (1985), the beautifully restored historical fresco from filmmaker Youssef Chahine.

Playtime,” Jacques Tati’s inventive and ambitious 1967 film, will have a special presentation at the festival to celebrate its 50th (gasp!) anniversary.

The full schedule will be announced April 5.

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Bogart & Bacall on Valentine’s Day: Need I say more?

The Big Sleep/1946/Warner Bros. Pictures/114 min.

Howard Hawks added romance and comedy to the dark tone of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Every scene with Bogie and Bacall sizzles.

“The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is almost too much fun to be pure noir. Actually, it’s not pure in any way because under the thriller surface, it’s all about sex. The women in this movie especially are thinking a lot about the bedroom.

(That’s pretty much the case with most of the film noir canon, but this movie is an outstanding example.)

“The Big Sleep” was released in 1946, the year after World War II ended. Having been man-deprived for four long years while their guys were all over the globe fighting battles, all of a sudden, everywhere the ladies looked, Men, Glorious Men! For the vets, being welcomed home and hailed as heroes by women, who likely weren’t playing all that hard to get, was not too shabby a deal.

Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe. Cynical, stubborn and streetwise, Marlowe is impervious to the trappings of wealth and power, though, given his line of work, he often finds himself dealing with the ultra rich. Marlowe flings sarcastic barbs as casually as they drop cash, even when his companions are slinky, sharp-tongued women, like spoiled society girl Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, played by Lauren Bacall.

Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is a rich party girl who constantly courts trouble.

Vivian’s Dad, a wise and way-old patriarch known as General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), has hired Marlowe to get a blackmailer named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) off his back and to track down a missing chum: Sean Regan (a character we never see onscreen).

Fueling Brody’s scheme are the, uh, antics of Sternwood’s other daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), a sexy party girl who sucks her thumb and likes posing for cameras with very little on. Snapping the pics is seedy book dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), whose snippy clerk Agnes (Sonia Darrin), has, as her “protector,” feisty little Harry Jones, played by film noir’s number one patsy, Elisha Cook Jr.

That’s just one piece of a very complicated puzzle, full of false leads and red herrings, bad guys and blind alleys, and more plot twists than I can count. By the time Marlowe puts it all together, seven are dead. But the best part of the movie for me is the dry humor and that sexy subtext I was talking about. Even the title, “The Big Sleep,” referring to death, could be a play on the French phrase for sexual climax: “le petite morte” (the little death).

Bogart’s Marlowe charms a bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone).

By the film’s end, Marlowe’s had propositions aplenty. For example, as Marlowe gathers info on Geiger, he strolls into the Acme Bookstore and meets a bespectacled brunette clerk(Dorothy Malone, later more famous as a blonde). They chat, she provides a description of Geiger, and Marlowe tells her she’d make a good cop. It starts to rain and he suggests they have a drink. Next thing you know, she removes her glasses, lets down her hair and says, “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.”

Then there’s the perky female cab driver who tells Marlowe to call her if he can use her again sometime. He asks: Day and night? Her answer: “Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Apparently, all Marlowe has to do is get out of bed in the morning to be inundated with offers to climb back in. Most importantly, of course, is Marlowe’s innuendo-heavy badinage with Vivian Sternwood. They’re attracted from the moment they meet and, with each subsequent encounter, they turn flirting and verbal sparring into an art form. Here’s a quickie (sorry, I couldn’t resist):

Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse-racing and other amusements.

“You go too far, Marlowe,” says Vivian.

He replies: “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”

Perhaps their most famous exchange occurs when they trade notes about horse-racing – with Vivian comparing Marlowe to a stallion.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but, uh…I don’t know how – how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.

Marlowe: There’s one thing I can’t figure out.

Vivian: What makes me run?

Marlowe: Uh-huh.

Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work. It’s been tried.

The horsy banter was added after the 1945 version was completed and shown overseas to audiences of U.S. soldiers; several other changes were made for the 1946 stateside release. In the late 1990s, the original version of the movie turned up. Though the original made the plot points more clear, most critics and viewers prefer the altered (second) version.

Whichever version you prefer (both are available on the Warner Brothers DVD), “The Big Sleep” is full of all kinds of pleasure, thanks to director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers. Hawks was known for being a master of all genres, garnering great performances from stars like Bogart, John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Marilyn Monroe, and for perfecting the bromance, long before the term came into currency.

In “The Big Sleep,” the pace is brisk, the characters are richly drawn, there’s loads of action and the scenes with Bogart and Bacall truly sizzle. Though the cinematography by Sid Hickox doesn’t bear the expressionistic stamp of the more Germanic noir directors, the film certainly holds its own in terms of visual panache. And Max Steiner’s original music lends sonic verve.

Marlowe gets details from his client, the wealthy and weak Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron).

Also brilliant, and not just for its subtext, is the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The dialogue, much of which comes straight from Chandler’s novel, is both colorful and economical, as shown by this exchange between Gen. Sternwood and Marlowe:

Sternwood: You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life – crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?

Marlowe: Not particularly.

Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Flesh, perfume, sweetness and corruption permeate “The Big Sleep,” my favorite of Bogart and Bacall’s great noirs. (The others are “To Have and Have Not” 1944, also directed by Hawks, “Dark Passage” 1947, and “Key Largo” 1948.) What’s not to love, or at least lust after, for 114 minutes?

Too bad Lauren Bacall never made a guest appearance on “Sex and the City.” She could have taught Carrie and the girls a thing or two.

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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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We love us some Edmond O’Brien, especially on his birthday

Edmond O’Brien, a film noir stalwart who appeared in more than 100 films, was born Sept. 10, 1915, in New York City. He died on May 9, 1985, in Inglewood, Calif.

D.O.A./1950/United Artists/83 min.

“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow,” says a doctor to his shocked patient, “you’ve been murdered.”

Edmond O’Brien is doomed in “D.O.A.”

This is the premise for 1950’s “D.O.A.,” directed by Rudolph Maté, a classic noir about a standup, solid guy from Banning, Calif., named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who, while on a trip to San Francisco, learns he has been poisoned with a time-released fatal toxin. He has just a few days to find his murderer. And here he thought it was just a hangover.

It’s particularly bad luck because Bigelow hasn’t served time, he doesn’t play the horses, he’s not eyeing easy money. He is a self-employed accountant in a small town near Palm Springs minding his own business. True, he does like hard liquor, is a bit of a skirt chaser and he’s on the fence about committing to doting girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but those are minor flaws in the noir scheme of things.

D.O.A posterEven though Bigelow is dying, his genetic tough-guy instinct kicks as he abandons his ledger book and adding machine to follow clues, talk tough, tote a gun and chase his prey. Clearly, he missed his calling as a macho gumshoe who could give Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a run for their money.

Checking in via phone calls to Paula, who also happens to be his secretary, he learns that a Mr. Phillips, an importer-exporter in Los Angeles, has been urgently trying to contact him. Bigelow returns to LA but, before he can probe for info, Phillips takes a flying leap from a tall building. So, Bigelow taps Phillips’ inner circle: his brother Stanley (Henry Hart), his wife (Lynn Baggett), his secretary Miss Foster (Beverly Garland, credited as Beverly Campbell), and co-worker Halliday (William Ching).

Turns out that Bigelow’s connection to these Angelinos is that six months prior, he notarized a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium. Phillips bought the stuff from a mysterious man named George Reynolds.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

While working to track Reynolds down, Bigelow encounters a sultry and sullen model Marla Rakubian (Laurette Luez), a man known only as Majak (famed stage actor Luther Adler) – clad all in white and with an indeterminate foreign accent, which instantly makes him suspect in Tinseltown terms – and a trio of heavies led by raging psychopath Chester (Neville Brand, in his first movie). Though Brand might seem like a miscreant plucked from a dingy alley, he was in fact a WW2 vet, who had received numerous awards, including the Purple Heart.

As he narrows down the suspects, Bigelow also realizes that Paula is The One and the scene where he professes his love is touching. He eventually busts the bad guy in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way, but, as we knew from the start, Bigelow is a goner. No plot spoilers here.

Director Maté, who was the cameraman on foreign classics “Vampyr” and “The Passsion of Joan of Arc” as well as “Foreign Correspondent” and “Gilda,” tells a riveting story. Aided by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography, Maté creates a mood that is both hard-boiled and slightly surreal. The storyline becomes so lusciously serpentine, with perilous curves and hairpin turns, it rivals Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” from 1946 for the most convoluted plot in all of film noir.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Edmond O'Brien some more trouble. O'Brien is definitely not having a good day.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Frank (Edmond O’Brien) some more trouble. Frank is definitely not having a good day.

I especially like the scenes in which Bigelow leaves the comfort of dancing the rhumba and downing a few drinks in the upscale St. Francis Hotel to visit the noisy, smoky Fisherman club, where he watches a bebop jazz band play its all and chats with “jive-crazy, high-society” Jeannie (Virginia Lee), an elegant blonde who turns out to be a mere red herring.

O’Brien, with his good looks and strapping self-confidence, plays the determined Bigelow as every man’s take-charge fantasy. Britton as Paula is the kind of girl next door that bad-ass femmes fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Bennett would eat for breakfast. Her innocence is nicely countered by a rich array of dastardly, devious characters.

Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse wrote the original screenplay, perhaps inspired by a 1931 German film “Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht”/ “Looking For His Murderer” directed by master noir creator Robert Siodmak with writing help from the great Billy Wilder. (In “D.O.A.” Rouse’s name, along with Laszlo and assistant director Marty Moss, appears on the guest register of the Allison Hotel in Los Angeles.)

The movie was remade in 1969 as “Color Me Dead” and in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Charlotte Rampling. The original is the best of the lot. Watch it and you’ll see why.

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Stanwyck shines in ‘Crime of Passion’

Today is Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday! Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – Jan. 20, 1990) ranks as one of film noir’s most important actresses, having played perhaps the greatest femme fatale of all, Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.”

Always popular with audiences and admired by colleagues for her uncommon intelligence, versatility and professionalism, she also starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The File on Thelma Jordon,” “No Man of Her Own,” “The Furies,” “Clash by Night,” “Jeopardy,” “Witness to Murder” and “Crime of Passion.”

Crime of Passion/1957/United Artists/84 min.

Aah, how often has Film Noir Blonde fantasized about giving up her dreary day-job. If only she had a lackadaisical husband whose career needed a jumpstart, she’d quite happily quit writing and meddle in his affairs full time. In director Gerd Oswald’s “Crime of Passion” (1957), Kathy Ferguson Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) makes that noble sacrifice for her hubby.

Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) is go-along, get-along, but that’s OK. His wife Kathy (Barbara Stanwyck) has more than enough ambition for both of them.

Kathy is a tough, high-profile advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. She’s also a singleton who’s stylish, smart and openly defiant to the male chauvinists in her social circle. She loves dishing out wisdom and doesn’t consider herself lovelorn or lonely-hearted, dismissing marriage and family as “propaganda not for me.” (An interesting turn of phrase from writer Jo Eisinger.)

That’s before Kathy meets her blonde Adonis, aka Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), who comes to town with the Los Angeles police as they expand their search for a criminal. Kathy helps them by putting a plea for surrender in her column. The cops nail the killer and Kathy gets a job offer from a New York paper. Alas, she never makes it to NYC because she’s fallen head over heels for Bill. The idea of them moving east for her career doesn’t occur to anyone, even Kathy.

Shortly into their relationship, Kathy has an OMG-what-did-I-do-last-night? moment and asks Bill: “Who are you? Who are you?” Next she peppers him with questions, like “What are your favorite colors?” In fact, what she did was get married. Yep, just like that.

Kathy can barely contain her frustration with the dim-witted convo.

Kathy quits writing, moves to LA and tries to become a dutiful wife. “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours and hours darning them,” she gushes to Bill.

Unfortunately, however, Kathy seriously overrated the appeal of darning socks for hours at a time (shocker) and becomes darn bored.

At social gatherings, she gets stuck chatting with the ladies about cream cheese and olives, and 36-inch TVs. Not exactly thrilling stuff and Kathy starts to go a little crazy. OK, a lot a crazy. (Note to self: Before ditching my drivel-writing, check that husband has cool friends to hang with or at least lives near good shopping and spa treatments.)

To occupy her brain, Kathy engineers a series of stunts to accelerate Bill’s ascent on the career ladder. She befriends the police inspector’s wife Alice Pope (Fay Wray) and does her best to sabotage Bill’s competition, captain Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano). His annoying wife Sara (Virginia Grey) relentlessly promotes her mate, but she’s no match for Kathy.

That just leaves the job of getting the big cheese, police inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), to rally behind Bill. So, she has a fling with Tony, natch. The only problem is that when Tony decides he’s made a mistake, the unlikely lovers don’t see eye to eye, and she grabs a gun …

German-born Gerd Oswald, the son of director Richard Oswald, made his first foray into the noir genre with 1956’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and worked with Anita Ekberg on three noir movies. He also directed “The Outer Limits” and “The Fugitive” TV shows. “Crime of Passion” may not be the director’s finest film, but it’s still strong storytelling – well paced with compelling performances and visually engaging cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Stanwyck was 50 and Hayden 41; it’s fun to watch these two old pros reeling off their lines and riffing with Burr, of “Perry Mason” TV fame.

I’ve seen some harsh online assessments of “Crime of Passion.” Sure, it has its flaws (55 years later, parts of it might seem stilted and corny) but it’s still a lot of fun and has some pretty biting social commentary to boot.

If you judge a work of art (or entertainment) from the past by contemporary standards, it’s easy for it to fail. A girdle from 1957 didn’t have Lycra; that doesn’t mean it didn’t do the job.

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TCM Classic Film Fest provides ample opps to feast on film

By the end of the TCM Classic Film Festival on Sunday night, we were bleary-eyed and decidedly not bushy-tailed. But we were blissed out on terrific movies!

In “Brief Encounter,” Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are a proper pair who unexpectedly find true passion.

After starting off with “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945, Elia Kazan), we would not have passed up the chance to see David Lean’s brilliant 1945 love story “Brief Encounter,” starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, on the big screen.

Friday began with 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” directed by Charles Vidor and starring Doris Day as real-life torch singer Ruth Etting, married to a gangster, played by James Cagney.

The Conversation” (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) captivated the audience and made us realize anew the subtle talent of Gene Hackman and Cindy Williams. The rarely seen film noir “Private Property” (1960, Leslie Stevens) was sordid, but in an entertaining way …

Angela Lansbury

And the highly anticipated screening of “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer) was enthralling and chilling, especially in this election year. Alec Baldwin interviewed Angela Lansbury and she was a delight.

On Saturday, writer-director Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951) starring Kirk Douglas was the ideal preface to 1982’s noir spoof “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin. Carl Reiner, who wrote and directed “Dead Men,” was interviewed after the movie. Hilarious! And smutty, just as you’d expect.

Gina Lollobrigida

A rare treat was the interview with film legend Gina Lollobrigida at the showing of “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (1968, Melvin Frank).

And rivaling Reiner’s entertainment value was Elliott Gould, who appeared at “The Long Goodbye” (1973, Robert Altman). Gould nicely met the challenges of playing Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective Philip Marlowe. The French New Wave classic “Band of Outsiders” (1964, Jean-Luc Godard) ended a full day of fest-going.

All too soon, it seemed, it was Sunday and there was still more to see: “All That Heaven Allows” (1955, Douglas Sirk), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949, John Ford) and “The Band Wagon” (1953, Vincente Minnelli). In attendance at the latter was director-choreographer Susan Stroman.

This year’s theme was Moving Pictures and the organizers were right. Kleenex was as essential as Coke and popcorn.

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‘Falcon’ still flies high at age 75

The Maltese Falcon,’ directed by John Huston and arguably the first film noir, turns 75 this year. To honor that milestone, the movie will screen in select cities nationwide on Sunday, Feb. 21, and Wednesday, Feb. 24. TCM and Fandango are presenting the Warner Bros. film. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Maltese Falcon/1941/Warner Bros./100 min.

Maltese Falcon poster“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.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, Huston’s “Falcon” is the third big-screen version of the story (others were in 1931 and 1936) and it’s by far the best. Huston follows Hammett’s work to the letter, preserving the novel’s crisp, quick dialogue. If a crime movie can be described as jaunty, this would be it. Huston’s mighty achievement earned Oscar noms for best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor (Greenstreet) and best picture.

According to former New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther: “The trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school – a blend of mind and muscle – plus a slight touch of pathos.”

A few more of Huston’s tricks include striking compositions and camera movement, breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting, and a pins-and-needles atmosphere of excitement and danger. (Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer; Thomas Richards served as film editor.)

For the few who haven’t seen “Falcon,” it’s a tale of ruthless greed and relentless machismo centered around the perfect marriage of actor and character: Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade – the ultimate cynical, streetwise, I-did-it-my-way ’40s alpha-male. As famed noir author Raymond Chandler once put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Bogart appears in just about every scene in “Falcon.”

As Raymond Chandler put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Raymond Chandler put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Spade, he sees through the malarkey, cuts to the chase and commands every situation, even when the odds are stacked against him. At one point he breaks free of a heavy, disarms him and points the guy’s own gun at him, all while toking on his cig. He’s equally adept at using wisecracks and one-liners to swat away the cops, who regularly show up at his door.

Mary Astor plays leading lady Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Bogart’s Sam Spade and it is she who sets the story in motion when she walks into Spade’s San Francisco office. Brigid asks Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to trail a man named Thursby who, she says, is up to no good with her sister. They accept the job and Archer takes the first shift of following Thursby. Next morning, Archer’s dead. Turns out that Brigid doesn’t have a sister and Archer’s widow (Gladys George) has the hots for Spade.

Spade’s ultra-reliable and resourceful secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick) is the one gal he can trust and it’s clear she means the world to him. At one point he tells her, “you’re a good man, sister,” which in Spade-speak is a downright gushfest. He might like the look of Brigid and her little finger, but he won’t be wrapped around it anytime soon.

Humphrey Bogart owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Astor, a Hollywood wild child of her time, who left a long string of husbands and lovers in her wake and generated much fodder for the tabloids, was brilliant casting for the part of bad-girl Brigid O. True to form, Astor allegedly was having an affair with Huston during the making of the film.

There is no doubt that Bogart owns this guy’s-guy male-fantasy picture, but Astor and the stellar support cast are unforgettable in their roles. As a good-luck gesture to his son, John, actor Walter Huston plays the part of the old sea captain. Peter Lorre drips malevolence as the effeminate and whiny Joel Cairo, and he has a foreign accent, which in Hollywood is usually shorthand for: he’s a bad’un.

Making his film debut at 61, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman is both debauched and debonair, a refined reprobate with a jolly cackle and tubby physique (he was more than 350 pounds!). Warner Bros. had to make an entire wardrobe for Greenstreet; Bogart wore his own clothes to save the studio money. One more Bogart contribution was adding the line: “The stuff that dreams are made of” at the end of the film, paraphrasing a line in “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

And honing the sort of performance that would become his trademark, Elisha Cook Jr. stamps the character of warped thug Wilmer Cook with code for “psycho” (darting eyes, bubbling rage, edgy desperation) as if it were a neon light attached to his forehead.

Much has been written about the homosexual subtext of the Cairo, Gutman and Cook characters – I will just say they’re all part of the flock that covets and vies for possession the falcon, a jewel-laden statue of a bird that’s the treasure at the core of this tense and serpentine story. When it’s suggested that Wilmer Cook be sacrificed for the good of the gang, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman explains that, though Wilmer is like a son, “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Though there were two other celluloid versions of Hammett’s story, in my view, there’s only one “Maltese Falcon” and this is it.

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‘Life’ is rough when you look for the film noir elements

It’s a Wonderful Life/ 1946/ Paramount/130 min

Michael Wilmington provides a fresh look at essential Christmas Eve viewing: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve dismissed this film as sappy, watch the last act one more time and you’ll likely appreciate anew its noir mood and atmosphere.

Michael Wilmington

Scenario for Christmas: A whimsical guardian angel shows a good-hearted small-town guy, on the brink of suicide, what would have happened if he’d never lived and what a difference his life really made to everyone around him. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Frank Capra‘s holiday masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exhilarating mix of angelic fantasy and small-town comedy, of political fable and poetic license, of Norman Rockwell and film noir.

The last act of this beloved Christmas classic — where George Bailey (James Stewart, in his favorite role) sees his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls turned into a dark semi-urban nightmare, as it would have been if it were run by George’s rich, greedy nemesis, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — is a pure film-noir nightmare, with a tormented protagonist, a world bent into bad-dreams-come-true and a fate that (temporarily) can’t be escaped.

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There are lots of real film-noir mainstays in the cast, people who fit easily into the noir universe — notably Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat”) as the town’s blonde bombshell Violet; Thomas Mitchell (“Dark Waters,” “The Dark Mirror,” “While the City Sleeps”) as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy; Barrymore (“Key Largo”) as the evil banker Potter; and Sheldon Leonard (“Decoy”) as tough Nick the bartender.

The movie’s crack Capra ensemble also boasts Ward Bond (“The Maltese Falcon,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Frank Faylen (“The Blue Dahlia,” “Detective Story,” “The Sniper”) as cop and cabbie (and “Sesame Street” namesakes) Bert and Ernie. And of course there’s the great, shy, stammering Stewart himself, who went on to make such classic noirs as “Call Northside 777,” plus, for Hitchcock, “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

It's a Wonderful Life posterThe script, by turns witty and sentimental, was adapted from a Christmas fable by poet Philip Van Doren Stern. “Life” had a raft of A-list writers, namely Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-wife team who adapted Dashiell Hammett‘s “Thin Man” for the movies. On “Life,” they received uncredited assistance from such stalwart noir writers as Jo Swerling (“Leave Her to Heaven”), Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), Clifford Odets (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right).

Lead cinematographer Joe Biroc (“Cry Danger,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”) gives the movie a distinctly nightmarish look.

The point of cataloging “Life’s” noir vets is that most of the talent in the movie were known more for film noir than the simplistic goody-two-shoes stuff people mistakenly feel is the essence of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Capra-corn. Capra wanted smart, sophisticated collaborators who knew what happened when the lights went off. Noir people.

Capra had already experimented with a mixture of humor, sentiment and noir in his 1944 comedy of murders, with Cary Grant, “Arsenic and Old Lace” but “Wonderful Life” has the style down pat. We see George’s kindness, generosity and sometimes-antic humor shining throughout his difficult but rewarding life as recounted up above to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). But then we see him in a downpour of terror and anguish when he suddenly faces financial ruin, flees his family, wrecks his car, stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide. And finally at the “Auld Lang Syne” end, we get the Bailey family pride and joy when the nightmare ends. Well, some great noirs have happy endings too …

In many ways, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” in reverse. (Barrymore was famous for his interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge, which he reprised every year at Christmas on radio and which he probably would have played for the 1938 MGM movie, had he not been wheelchair-bound by the time of its production.)

Anyway, it all jelled into a movie and an experience, both spinetingling and heartwarming, that nobody ever forgets: On a magical Christmas Eve, a good man understands the meaning of his life and the effects of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge sees the consequences of his own selfishness.

Most importantly, “Life” had Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences deeply and also make them laugh, like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra always thought this was his best movie, even though it was a horrible disappointment to him financially and professionally. The original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, that Capra was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Largely because of “Life,” they lost their Liberty.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” takes you right over the edge. Almost. It’s a wonderful picture: a very funny, often charming, but also terrifying movie about life’s most horrible disappointments, about all your nightmares coming true and all your dreams being torn apart. And that was echoed in real life. George Bailey failed (for a while), and Frank Capra failed (for a while) too.

But Capra was right. This is his best movie. I can’t keep a dry eye when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) toasts him under the Christmas tree as “the richest man in town,” the Bedford Falls crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” and they find Zuzu’s petals. I don’t even want to.

If you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when Harry raises that glass, everybody sings and George hears the bell — well, the hell with you. “Bah, Humbug,” as Potter would say. But the Bedford Falls folks are still going to shout: “Merry Christmas everyone!”

Noir people too.

You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.

Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski

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