Film Noir File: A Day with Ulmer, the King of Poverty Row Noir

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 Dark Day with Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

The French call him an auteur. The Americans call him The King of Poverty Row. And no cultish filmmaker of the classic Hollywood era, not even the infamous Ed Wood, Jr., has a stranger, more offbeat, more off-the-wall filmography than Edgar G. Ulmer. He’s the man who made “The Black Cat,” “Bluebeard” and “The Strange Woman” as well as a picture shot for a song that eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry, that legendary 1945 no-exit low-budget classic of fate, despair and sudden death, “Detour.”

Ulmer, born in Olmutz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary in 1904, started his career in Germany, in the heyday of German Expressionism, working, he claimed (some dispute it), on classics such as “Metropolis,” and “The Last Laugh” for film geniuses like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. He received his first directorial credit on “People on Sunday,” with fellow filmmakers Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.

While Wilder and the others became A-list directors and even Oscar-winners in Hollywood, Ulmer was exiled to “Poverty Row.” There he labored for the rest of his career on an amazing potpourri of low-budget titles, including westerns, film noir and science fiction.

The Black Cat posterThe reason: While he was directing the 1934 horror hit, “The Black Cat” starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Ulmer made the mistake of having an affair with his producer’s wife, Shirley Alexander. Shirley later divorced her husband Max, married Ulmer and worked beside him, as script supervisor or scenarist, from then on.

Ulmer’s Hollywood career lasted from the early ’30s to the mid ’60s, largely because he doesn’t seem to have ever turned down a script. He shot on bare-bones sets, with actors usually (though not always) on the B or C or D lists, from scripts for which the adjective “clichéd” would be a compliment. And though his movies may have been shot for peanuts, in his hands, they often looked like caviar.

A healthy percentage of Ulmer’s movies were film noir – or close to film noir. They took place in a world of fear and darkness, sometimes because the characters were swallowed up in impending doom, and sometimes, one suspects, because the electricity bill hadn’t been paid. Whatever the job though, Ulmer was one of the real masters of the noir form and style.

And why shouldn’t he be? His whole life and career, in a way, were film noirs – dark stories of infidelity, betrayal, paranoia and persecution, enacted in an Ulmerworld that was lost in shadows of menace and dread.

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ulmer died in 1972, but he lived to see his work revived and his name made famous – cultishly famous, it’s true, but renowned nonetheless. He and Shirley are buried near each other. And they now have Ulmerfests near his Austrian-Hungarian birthplace.

Here is your own Ulmerfest from TCM. So, take the detour. You won’t find cheaper, better, crazier, more cultish, shadowy, mesmerizing (or should we say “Ulmerizing“) Poverty Row classics anywhere.

The Ulmerfilmen (Tuesday, Oct. 21)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Her Sister’s Secret” (1946, Edgar Ulmer). A weepy soaper, starring Nancy Coleman and Margaret Lindsay as sisters with a secret (an illegitimate child). Not quite in Douglas Sirk’s class, but better than most cheapo tear-jerkers.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Edgar G. Ulmer The Man Off-Screen” (2004, Michael Palm). A 2004 Ulmer documentary. Interviewees include Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Corman. Also shown at 5 a.m. (2 a.m.) on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Carnegie Hall” (1947, Edgar Ulmer). Marsha Hunt is a faithful Carnegie Hall music lover determined that her son (William Prince) will be a great classical pianist. While she drives him onward and upward, director Ulmer –  a classical music buff of the first degree – beautifully stages and photographs some incredible performances by such legendary classical virtuosi as pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregor Piatagorsky, conductors Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner (Ulmer’s personal friend and the godfather of his daughter), opera singers Lily Pons, Ezio Pinza and Rise Stevens, and, for variation, pop music stars Harry James and Vaughn Monroe.

Few musical movies have ever boasted a lineup like that – and this movie probably had a special place in music-lover Ulmer’s heart.

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.): “Murder is My Beat” (1955, Edgar Ulmer). Two cops chase a killer. One of Ulmer’s pure noirs. With Paul Langton, Robert Shayne and Barbara Payton.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.): “Detour” (1945, Edgar Ulmer). With Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Esther Howard. Read the full review here.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Amazing Transparent Man” (1960, Edgar Ulmer). A gangster and a mad scientist with an invisibility formula team up for a crime wave. There is no truth to the rumor that the producer told Ulmer to make the entire cast invisible to save on salaries. With Marguerite Chapman and Douglas Kennedy.

Saturday, Oct. 18

Assault poster2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976, John Carpenter). Trapped in a local Los Angeles precinct station and lock-up, with communication cut off and a gang of vicious delinquents and criminals besieging them from outside, a group of cops and convicts try to make it through the night. Director-writer John Carpenter, inspired by one of his favorite movies (the 1959 Howard Hawks Western “Rio Bravo”) gives us one of the quintessential entrapment thrillers. With Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston.

Sunday, Oct. 19

5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.): “Foreign Correspondent” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). With Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders and Herbert Marshall. Reviewed in FNB on March 26, 2014.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Marnie” (1964, Alfred Hitchcock). With Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren and Martin Gabel. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 30, 2012.

10:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.): “Julie” (1956, Andrew L. Stone). The same year she sang “Que Sera, Sera” for Hitchcock as the menaced mom in Hitch’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Doris Day played a comely stewardess stalked by her psycho ex-husband, Louis Jourdan, in this lady-in-distress thriller from the poor man’s Hitchcock, Andrew Stone. It’s an okay movie with a good cast: Barry Sullivan, Frank Lovejoy, Jack (“Maverick”) Kelly, Jack Kruschen and one of D. W. Griffith’s great threatened ladies, Mae Marsh of “Intolerance.” Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 20

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock). Robert Cummings plays one of the classic Hitchcockian “wrong men,” falsely accused of World War II era sabotage, racing cross country to try to find and expose the real saboteurs. In the tradition of “The 39 Steps“ and “North by Northwest,“ it’s full of sometimes astonishing suspense set-pieces, including the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing scene with Cummings and Norman Lloyd at the top of the Statue of Liberty.

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‘Fury’ hits hard with a powerful story and fine performances

Fury posterFury/2014/Columbia Pictures/134 min.

Writer/director David Ayer’s “Fury,” a World War II drama, is a force to behold, with one of Brad Pitt’s finest performances.

The movie is set in April of 1945 and the war is coming to an end, but this is no gradual winding down. Instead, it’s a tooth and nail fight, a savage final struggle to defeat the Nazis on the European front. Pitt plays an army sergeant nicknamed Wardaddy who commands a Sherman tank and a crew of men.

Boyd (Shia LaBeouf) clings steadfastly to religion to get him through. Jon Bernthal’s Coon and Michael Peña’s Gordo gave up hope a long time ago. Logan Lerman, as a new addition named Norman, shows us a heart-wrenching evolution from paper-pusher to Nazi-slayer.

The soldiers hold their own for a while but, as they push through enemy lines, it becomes frighteningly clear that they are far outnumbered by the Germans.

Pitt melds fierce intensity and psychological battle scars with layers of mystery, dignity and reserve. The rest of the cast (including Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg as German women the men encounter) match him, beat for beat, thanks to assured and nuanced direction from Ayer.

‘Fury’ can be hard to watch at times – it’s gory and graphic from the start – but war is hell, remember. And this is one hell of a story.

“Fury” opens in theaters today.

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‘Whiplash,’ by writer/director Damien Chazelle, works on many levels, including as a neo-noir tale of obsession

Whiplash posterStrictly speaking, “Whiplash,” about a jazz student going to crazy lengths to please his maniacal teacher, is a drama. But unstrictly speaking, “Whiplash” counts as neo-noir.

How so? Shot in LA (in 19 days) but set in New York City, the urban landscape has a stark, unforgiving, slightly menacing vibe. Andrew, the sensitive but determined student (Miles Teller) at an elite fictional music conservatory, steers his passion into obsession, blood dripping from his fingers, as he determines to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer, à la Buddy Rich.

Andrew shuns his ever-supportive father (Paul Reiser) and, perhaps thinking he’s in charge of his destiny, he stubs out his nascent romance with a lonely movie usher/Fordham student named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he will resent her.

Andrew meets his match in the form of the tyrannical, abusive teacher Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), always dressed in black with immaculate posture and a perfectly shined bald head, who believes that verbal whippings and public humiliation will push his musicians into the realm of greatness.

Most noirishly, as the story unspools, there are subtle signs that we somehow, without knowing quite when or how, have left reality behind and are stranded in a dream-world of desperation, angst and paranoia. The dramatic lighting and tense pacing also contribute to the edgy, one-foot-in-hell mood. Cleverly, though, the story ends on a high note – a triumph of Andrew’s talent and perseverance.

“Whiplash,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is one of my favorite films this year. Chazelle is both imaginative and precise in his storytelling; the Harvard University grad clearly knows what’s like to navigate a path at a competitive, elite institution. And he clearly knows jazz – in fact, both he and Teller play the drums. “Whiplash” also functions as an homage to the art form.

To me, though, Chazelle’s greatest accomplishments are the memorable, moving performances from the entire cast, especially Teller, looking a bit pudgier and pastier than usual, as he goes from schlubby to super-focused, and Simmons as the quietly rageful, ready-to-pounce sadist.

Kill the Messenger poster“Whiplash” opens today in theaters.

ALSO OPENING TODAY:

The Judge,” directed by David Dobkin. Compelling performances from a great cast (Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton), but the bloated, overlong script weighs this court-room drama/father-son story down. Way down.

And still on my list to see: “Kill the Messenger” is a conspiracy thriller directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner about drug smugglers with links to CIA. Based on true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb.

Also: “Addicted,” a story of adultery, directed by Bille Woodruff and starring Sharon Leal.

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Film Noir File: Hitchcock’s favorite: ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

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

Shadow of a Doubt
(1943, Alfred Hitchcock). Sunday, Oct. 12; 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright star in "Shadow."

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright star in “Shadow.”

A bright and beautiful small town girl named Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored, bored with her well-ordered home in her pretty Norman Rockwellish little city of Santa Rosa, California. It’s a place where trees line the sunlit streets, everyone goes to church on Sunday and lots of them read murder mysteries at night. Charlie has more exotic dreams. She adores her globe-trotting, urbane Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she was nicknamed – and is deliriously happy when he shows up in Santa Rosa for a visit.

But Uncle Charlie has some secrets that no one in his family or among their friends knows about. Not Uncle Charlie‘s adoring sister (Patricia Collinge), nor his good-hearted brother-in-law (Henry Travers), nor their murder-mystery-loving neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), nor Charlie herself.

Shadow posterUncle Charlie, who conceals a darker personality and profession beneath his charming persona, is on the run, pursued by a dogged police detective (Macdonald Carey), who suspects him of being a notorious serial killer – a murderer who seduces rich old widows, kills them for their money, and whose signature tune and nickname come from Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow” waltz. As handsome, cold-blooded Uncle Charlie, Cotten, who called “Shadow” his personal favorite film, is, with Robert Walker and Anthony Perkins, one of the three great Hitchcockian psychopaths.

“Shadow of a Doubt,” released in 1943, was Hitchcock’s sixth American movie and the one he often described as his favorite. As he explained to Francois Truffaut, he felt that his critical enemies, the “plausibles,” could have nothing to quibble about with “Shadow.” It was written by two superb chroniclers of Americana, Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Benson (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), along with Hitch‘s constant collaborator, wife Alma Reville. The result is one of the supreme examples of Hitchcockian counterpoint – an American small town nightmare: with a sunny, beguiling background against which dark terror erupts.

Friday, Oct. 10

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “Illegal” (1955, Lewis Allen). Edward G. Robinson in one of his better later roles: as a district attorney turned big-bucks defense attorney for mostly rich guilty clients, who tries to regain his integrity with a sensational murder trial. Directed by Lewis Allen (“Desert Fury,“ “Suddenly”); based on Elliot Nugent’s 1932 “The Mouthpiece.” With Nina Foch (the defendant), Jayne Mansfield, Hugh Marlowe and Albert Dekker.

Sunday, Oct. 12

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943, Alfred Hitchcock). See Pick of the Week. [Read more...]

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Bardot reigns over land of lost chances in noirish ‘Contempt’

By Mike Wilmington

Contempt posterJean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” is a melancholy drama about love’s dissolution and the compromises of moviemaking. Few films on either subject project so much beauty and bitterness. Thanks to Godard and Brigitte Bardot, it’s a masterpiece of mournful eroticism, one of the cinema’s most anguished portrayals of the ways love turns to hatred and passion curdles to contempt.

Based on Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel “Ghost at Noon,” about a couple falling apart during a blighted film production of Homer’s “Odyssey,” Godard’s movie was considered a failure on its release in 1963. But “Contempt” gradually became acknowledged as one of the great French films of the ’60s.

The doomed husband and wife are played by Michel Piccoli, as Paul, an opportunistic young playwright doctoring the script of “The Odyssey,” and Bardot – then the world’s reigning movie sex goddess – as Camille, Paul’s infinitely desirable but thoroughly alienated wife. Supporting them are Jack Palance as the brutal, lechy and egomaniacal American producer Jerry Prokosch, and Fritz Lang as himself, a legendary film director trying to create art in the midst of madness.

"Contempt" features a classic love triangle.

“Contempt” features a classic love triangle between Bardot, Palance (center) and Piccoli (top right).

When Godard (who also appears in the movie as Lang’s assistant director) started “Contempt,” he had one foot inside the door of the studio system. He was a maverick art-house director with a big international hit (1960’s “Breathless”) and an ambivalent but strong affection for classic Hollywood, especially film noir. Godard has called “Contempt” a film with an Antonioni subject done in the style of Hitchcock and Hawks.

But, after his fracases with “Contempt” producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine, and the picture’s commercial disappointment, he was an independent and an outsider again – and remains so to this day.

“Contempt” is a sad, sarcastic film and a stunningly beautiful one. It dazzles us with visions of Bardot and the sun-drenched backdrops of Italy’s Cinecitta Studios and Capri, photographed by Godard’s master cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Godard, then more famous for the nervous, jump-cut editing style of “Breathless,” here favors long, luxuriant takes in the Max Ophuls-Vincente Minnelli style.

Filmed in Capri, the movie is full of stunning scenery and memorable shots.

Filmed partly in Capri, the movie is full of stunning scenery.

His elegantly composed shots drink in the sumptuous sights of international moviemaking: plush screening rooms, swimming pools, the sparkling blue ocean. Perhaps most memorably, Bardot’s radiant blonde Camille, a ravishing yet vulnerable sexpot, is shot in the nude through red, white and blue filters, in the movie’s opening. (That scene was a strip tease the producers demanded, and that Godard and Bardot turned into an ironic/iconic triumph of her sexuality and his cinematic “gaze”).

Camille is the movie’s object of desire and its victim of love. And when Paul loses Camille, his life, we feel, is almost deservedly shattered. The movie resonates with regret over lost romance and squandered lives, showing the exact points at which love dies, could be rescued and is thrown away again.

BB plays Camille, the alienated wife.

BB plays Camille, the alienated wife.

“Contempt” also shows us another kind of threatened passion: love for the cinema of the great auteurs (like Lang), a cinema that seems to be dying along with Camille‘s love for Paul.

Moravia’s novel was said to be inspired his relationship with his wife, novelist Elsa Morante, a goddess of fiction. Godard, retelling the story in pictures, turns Bardot into another kind of deity. She is BB, flesh become art: high priestess of the land of lost chances, the cinema queen of the moving camera and measureless desire.

(In French, with English subtitles. Available to buy at Criterion. It’s also shown from time to time on TCM.)

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Tense neo-noir ‘Gone Girl’ is the go-to movie this weekend

Gone Girl posterIn the poster for “Gone Girl,” star Ben Affleck stands near a body of water – not a sandy white beach burnished by the sun, but a murky strip of gray bounded by non-descript industrial buildings. A dump, in other words, and just the kind of place that could drive you crazy, especially if the rest of your life isn’t going so great and if your relationship is, well, a bit frayed.

Director David Fincher conveys that strong, vivid sense of place (North Carthage, Missouri) as well as a mood of dour frustration (Affleck’s Nick Dunne is in a strained marriage) within the first few minutes of “Gone Girl,” the much-anticipated neo-noir movie based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. (Flynn also wrote the script.)

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head,” Nick tells us. Literally, as he touches her sleek blonde hair, and figuratively: “What are you thinking, Amy? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

It seems that Nick’s fate is to ponder these questions and consistently come up short on answers. That’s because elegant and efficient Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund only child from an upper-crust East Coast family, is always several steps ahead of Nick, a good-looking, polite Midwestern guy who fancies that he might one day write the great American novel. They meet in Manhattan, where they both work as magazine writers but, when they lose their jobs, they move back to Nick’s hometown, which has been decimated by the recession.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick becomes the No. 1 suspect. As the drama unfolds, we discover that the answers to the questions about Nick and Amy are far more devastating than we could have imagined.

Flynn’s smart, multi-layered script (which closely follows her book) is just right for Fincher’s capable hands. The film is tense, gripping and darkly funny, and Fincher draws stellar performances from Affleck and Pike as well as Kim Dickens  as the low-key but tenacious lead detective on the case, Tyler Perry as Nick’s slick, smooth-talking defense attorney and Carrie Coon as Margo, Nick’s straight-shooting and sarcastic twin sister.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

The plot of both the book and movie eventually becomes fantastic, even absurd. Sticklers for plausibility likely will grumble by the end.

But that didn’t bother me much because I think Flynn’s aim, as outlined on page one, was to raise thorny questions about the façades we present when dating, the fronts we gain from our jobs (or lack thereof), the compromises of intimacy and the unconscious crafting of a joint identity, the waning and waxing distance between two people over time, and the creeping self-denial and even outright lies that sometimes prop up a relationship, not to mention the current state of sexual power and politics. (The “cool-girl” soliloquy, particularly in the book, is downright searing.)

It’s a lot to think about and Flynn makes it entertaining to boot. That said, there is one central flaw to both the movie and the book, and that’s a deep connection, an undeniable, goose-pimply intensity, between Nick and Amy. That needs to be there for the story to work completely and it’s missing – there isn’t much chemistry, let alone a combustible, powerful passion. In establishing Amy as the alpha girl, Nick’s character remains a bit dull and two-dimensional.

Granted, she’s drawn to the good-looking, affable Milquetoast because she can boss him around, but a Type A like Amy would tire of mere arm candy and look for more of a challenge – someone to push back a bit and stand up to her. After all, she appears to be the golden girl with the world as her oyster.

And there are still a few stand-up, take-charge guys out there, right?

“Gone Girl” opens today in theaters.

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‘The Drop’ makes compelling descent; ‘Honeymoon’ pops scary question about connubial bliss

The Drop posterThe Drop

It’s a terrific cast: Tom Hardy as Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (a bit of a doofus with a weakness for stray dogs); the late James Gandolfini as Bob’s cynical cousin Marv, who runs the bar; Noomi Rapace as Bob’s scarred and streetwise love interest; Matthias Schoenaerts as a menacing psycho and John Ortiz as a smart, smooth-talking cop.

It’s a tense, top-notch script, written by neo-noir stalwart Dennis Lehane based on his short story called “Animal Rescue,” and it’s well directed by Michaël R. Roskam. The “drop” refers to cash bundles that are left surreptitiously at bars and kept safe until mobsters stop by to collect them. When Marv’s bar is robbed and the gangsters’ cash seized, a series of double-crosses and brutalities ensues.

These characters live and breathe before us – Gandolfini in particular easily inhabits a guy who wants the Christmas decorations in his bar down by December 27, who knows which whiskey will seal a deal and who unwinds by parking himself in front of a mindless TV show.

It’s a good-looking film, capturing the feel of a bleak midwinter, shot by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis.

With much in its favor, the entertaining “The Drop” isn’t a great film because the storytelling becomes a bit too convoluted, there are too many questions left unanswered by the end. It feels like something is missing – perhaps the layers of Bob’s character have not been peeled back far enough.

Still, “The Drop” is a thoughtful, mesmerizing, sometimes funny fall into neo-noir darkness.

Honeymoon posterHoneymoon

For some couples, the honeymoon phase might last months, even years. Not so much in the creepy sci-fi flick “Honeymoon,” an impressive effort from first-time director and co-writer Leigh Janiak.

For Brooklynite newlyweds Paul and Bea, ensconced at an idyllic lake cottage far from the city, tenderness and romance are quickly replaced by tension, then terror.

At first, of course, everything seems perfect. Bea (played by Rose Leslie of “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey”) chirpily recites the couple’s dating rituals and the cherished moment Paul (Harry Treadaway of “The Lone Ranger”) proposed. They can’t keep their hands off each other.

Several hours later, late at night, Bea wanders off alone. Paul finds her and brings her back to the cottage. It soon dawns on him, though, that this version of Bea is not the girl he married and their relationship unravels. Heather McIntosh’s haunting score and crisp cinematography by Kyle Klutz help set the uneasy, eerie mood.

Rooted in psychological fear and grounded with solid performances, the film asks how well we can really know anyone, even those to whom we are intimately attached. As Treadaway put it at a recent press day: “The very process of committing to someone – you love them with all of yourself and trust them with everything you have – is opening up the possibility of this person breaking that trust or not being the person you hoped they were.”

And few things are more frightening than waking up next to a stranger.

“The Drop” and “Honeymoon” are playing in theaters.

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‘Life of Crime’ a waste of time, talent; horror dumbed down; ‘The Last of Robin Hood’ a guilty pleasure

Life of Crime posterLife of Crime

Writing a “Life of Crime” review poses a challenge in that the movie, even though it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel, is so slight and so bland I’d forgotten most of it by the next morning. Something about kidnapping, extortion, adultery and Milquetoast men …

Set in 1970s suburban Detroit, the film introduces us to what we hope will be a cast of edgy, funny characters but who, thanks to a crummy script from writer/director Daniel Schechter, turn out to be a bunch of insipid sad sacks. Jennifer Aniston’s Mickey is married to a rich and obnoxious jerk named Frank (Tim Robbins).

He is cheating on Mickey with Melanie (Isla Fisher). Mickey is cheating on him (sort of) with Marshall (Will Forte). Bad guys appear and kidnap Mickey, then tell Frank to pay up if he ever wants to see her again. But Frank balks, thus putting a wrinkle in the works.

Given the source material, this should have been a more engaging movie. The cast makes a valiant effort and, while there are a few laughs early on, there’s an oddly flat tone and zero atmosphere. It might have helped had the film been shot in a Detroit suburb (references to Woodward Avenue are shoe-horned in) instead of Connecticut, but somehow I doubt it.

As Above posterAs Above, So Below

Not long into John Erick Dowdle’s “As Above, So Below,” the plucky protagonist Scarlett (Perdita Weeks) rattles off a long list of her advanced degrees. Apparently, this impressive pedigree is meant to establish that Scarlett, an alchemist and explorer as well as a professor, is a multi-talented, ultra-capable, intrepid brainiac. Not.

That she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed becomes quite clear when she and her dumbass crew descend into the catacombs of Paris on a ridiculous quest to find the “philosopher’s stone,” which is said to yield material riches and eternal youth. Oh, and truth. That’s what motivates the learned Scarlett, natch.

What comes next is undiluted unpleasantness – life-threatening struggles involving blood, bones, rats, demons and ghosts galore (including Scarlett’s own deceased dad – deep, right?) and more blood and bones, all shot with a frenetic hand-held camera. That’s followed by a forced, tacked-on ending.

I hope Scarlett didn’t invest too much money getting those degrees. If she did, she got robbed.

Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn

The Last of Robin Hood

 Errol Flynn, by most accounts, was a charming, devil-may-care adventurer and actor, best known for playing Robin Hood and an assortment of big-screen Warner Brothers swashbucklers.

One of Hollywood’s most popular movie stars of the 1930s and  mid-’40s (he inspired the saying “in like Flynn”), the actor’s career had slipped by the 1950s. In 1957, Flynn, also known as a womanizer, began a relationship with a teenager named Beverly Aadland, an aspiring actress.

This strange and sleazy pairing is the focus of “The Last of Robin Hood,” by writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Bottom line: this is a guilty-pleasure flick.

Kevin Kline has fun playing decadent, debauched Flynn, Dakota Fanning shines as the precocious Bev and Susan Sarandon conjures sympathy for Bev’s sadly deluded mother, only too willing to look the other way.

If “The Last of Robin Hood” feels like a made-for-TV movie, that’s because it is. Originally made for Lifetime Films, this title has now secured a theatrical release.

“Life of Crime,” “As Above, So Below” and “The Last of Robin Hood” open Friday in theaters.

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3-D ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ entertains, despite a so-so story and one-dimensional characters

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For/2014/Miramax Films/102 min.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” with its bold visuals based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, is a slick 3-D homage to black-and-white cinematography. The snazzy images of Miller’s film (he wrote and co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) are its chief virtue.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

Eva Green is superb as the Dame.

In this follow-up to 2005’s “Sin City” (which Miller and Rodriguez directed with Quentin Tarantino), viewers are plunged into a perilous urban universe. Created with truly spectacular special effects and animation, it’s a sleazy, dazzling, self-contained world of inky black, shocks of bright white, stunning shades of gray and pops of color.

Unfortunately, Miller and Rodriguez devote much less effort to the story – an episodic tale of temptation, lust, murder, betrayal, revenge and vigilante justice. The stellar cast – including Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis and Eva Green as the title’s Dame, nail their parts but leave you wanting more. Since only a few of the characters move from one story to the next, there aren’t enough opportunities for these great actors to spark some chemistry and play off one another.

Does the fact that the story is mined from graphic novels mean we shouldn’t expect any depth, nuance or surprise? The narratives are underdeveloped and unsatisfying to a point that suggests laziness. (Why don’t we forget about that dialogue and just add another shot of Eva’s luscious body? Or have Jessica gyrate some more. Who’s gonna complain, right?)

Presumably, the filmmakers made an effort to portray a passel of kick-ass femmes fatales, but it felt like mere window dressing. Why, for example, does Jessica Alba’s character need to mutilate herself before going into battle? In the end, these women have very little power.

This Dame is fast, fierce and entertaining, but she’s no femme fatale in my book.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” opens today.

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The Film Noir File: Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott fall into a deadly De Toth ‘Pitfall’

TCM goes all Audrey on Friday and we can't wait!

TCM goes all Audrey on Friday and we can’t wait!

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

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in ‘Pitfall.’

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in ‘Pitfall.’

Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth). 4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.) Monday, Aug. 25. De Toth was a sometime master at exposing the swamps of terror that could lie beneath the routines of everyday middleclass life. In this scary little noir quadrangle thriller, Dick Powell, who was one of the better Philip Marlowes, is a sort of lower echelon Walter Neff – an insurance man leading an apparently happy (if slightly dull) life who gets involved with a criminal’s sultry girlfriend (Lizabeth Scott). Jane Wyatt is Powell’s sweet bourgeois wife and Raymond Burr is an evil, lecherous private eye, who pulls all of them onto the dark side. That’s a terrific cast, noir to the hilt, and De Toth’s grim, methodical style is ideal for the cynical, unsparing James Cain-ish subject matter.

This pungent little film noir sleeper is part of Dick Powell Day. (Also showing on the big screen Friday night in Westwood: see previous post.)

Friday, Aug. 22: Audrey Hepburn Day

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young). With Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 12, 2012.

Saturday, Aug. 23: Ernest Borgnine Day

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges). With Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. Reviewed in FNB on April 7, 2012.

Sunday, Aug. 24: Gladys George Day

Maltese Falcon poster10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Flamingo Road” (1949, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and Gladys George. Reviewed in FNB on Oct. 19, 2012.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “The Roaring Twenties” (1939, Raoul Walsh). Ace newsman Mark Hellinger produced this punchy chronicle of three World War I vets, (explosive outlaw James Cagney, bad guy Humphrey Bogart and good guy Jeffrey Lynn) and their lives during Prohibition times and the gangster era after the war. It’s engrossing, exciting and salty as the best Walsh, Bogart and Cagney always are. Also with Priscilla Lane and Gladys George.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). With Bogart, Mary Astor, Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond and George.

1:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m.). “He Ran All the Way” (1951, John Berry). With John Garfield, Shelley Winters and Wallace Ford. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 4, 2013.

Monday, Aug. 25: Dick Powell Day

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth). See Pick of the Week.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk). With Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Mike Mazurki.

3 a.m. (12 a.m.): “The Tall Target” (1951, Anthony Mann). With Powell, Adolphe Menjou, Paula Raymond and Ruby Dee. Reviewed in FNB on My 6, 2013.

Wednesday, Aug. 27: Edmond O’Brien Day

D.O.A poster8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953, Ida Lupino). With Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman. Reviewed in FNB on June 6, 2013.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh). With Cagey, Virginia Mayo, O’Brien and Steve Cochran. Reviewed in FNB on March 10, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté). With O’Brien, Pamela Britton and Luther Adler.

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