‘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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Given the election, here’s how I feel in 2017 …

IWUS 1I Wake Up Screaming/1941/Twentieth Century-Fox/82 min.

In the Neglected Works of Noir department, “I Wake Up Screaming” from 1941 is just crying out for attention.

Director H. Bruce Humberstone made a fun and taut whodunit that’s also a treat for the eyes. The film stars Betty Grable (singer, dancer and pin-up legend in her first dramatic role) and Carole Landis as sisters Jill and Vicky Lynn, who quickly shed their homespun sensibilities as they fend for themselves in New York City, Jill working as a stenographer and Vicky waiting tables.

IWUS 2Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the fine-boned fair-haired creatures are discovered. Vicky’s in the spotlight first after PR guru Frankie “Botticelli” Christopher (Victor Mature) stops into the diner one night with some friends and decides, as he puts it, to make her The Next Big Thing. (At one point, Frankie asks how expensive she is; she replies he couldn’t afford her. To circumvent censors, that risqué line was reportedly added while shooting.)

Frankie’s pals Jerry (William Gargan), Robin (Alan Mowbray) and Larry (Allyn Joslyn) also jockey for her attention and lend their support to her quest to be a model/actress. But, just as she’s about to jet off to Hollywood for a screen test, Vicky is murdered, and all her pals are under suspicion as is the creepy clerk at her apartment building, Harry, played by noir great Elisha Cook Jr.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Matching Cook’s seediness is hefty Police Insp. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Cregar caught critics’ attention with his dark, skulking, mysterious presence; his name is probably a hat-tip to writer Cornell Woolrich.

Also, look out for “Black Mask,” the famous pulp magazine, for sale on a newsstand.

As the story unfolds, a romance develops between Frankie Christopher and Jill, and the movie proceeds at a nice clip, clocking in at 82 minutes. “I Wake Up Screaming” makes significant strides in noir style and technique, though it rarely gets credit for its achievements. One of the films that eclipsed it was director John Huston’s mightily famous “The Maltese Falcon,” also from 1941. A big-budget release from Warner Bros., the now classic movie is often cited as the first film noir.

IWUS 5“I Wake Up Screaming,” a much smaller project than “Falcon,” was the first film noir made at Twentieth Century-Fox. Humberstone incorporated arresting compositions and lighting – note the dramatic, single-source lighting in the police interrogation room scenes. The scene in which Cornell pays Christopher a night-time visit virtually defines noir, with its exaggerated shadows, grim faces, a black cat and a neon sign in the distance. Edward Cronjager was director of photography. Noir czar and author Eddie Muller points out in his excellent DVD commentary that, in visual terms, “The Maltese Falcon” is pedestrian compared with the creativity in “I Wake Up Screaming.”

Additionally, scriptwriter Dwight Taylor conceived the story as a series of flashbacks – a hallmark of film noir storytelling – though Steve Fisher’s pulpy novel is not structured that way. And, long before it became common for actors, Cregar hung out with L.A. police to lend realism to his performance. The score is interesting too – featuring “Over the Rainbow” as well as “Manhattan Street Scene,” which was also used in “The Dark Corner.” (“I Wake Up Screaming” was remade in 1953 as “Vicki,” starring Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters and Elliott Reid; it was directed by Harry Horner.)

"I Wake Up Screaming" is visually spectacular.

“I Wake Up Screaming” is visually spectacular.

So why did “Screaming” get such short shrift? Well, it wasn’t a prestige picture and, while Humberstone made the best of this low-budget B movie, it’s tough to compete with John Huston, one of Hollywood’s finest talents ever. Also, “I Wake Up Screaming” contains a generous dollop of fluffy romantic comedy, which pairs a bit uneasily with the sly, wry humor and cynical entanglements of film noir at its grittiest. Btw, I love the scene where Frankie and Jill take a dip in a public pool – both flaunting their great shape, of course – Frankie puffing away merrily on a cigarette.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that “I Wake Up Screaming” has a happy ending. Sadly, though, two of its actors died not long after the movie was released. In 1944, Cregar’s promising career was cut short at age 30 when the Philly-born actor had a heart attack, likely spurred by crash dieting for a part. Four years later, Wisconsin native Carole Landis, 29, died of a drug overdose. Her career had dead-ended and she was in bad shape, having been dismissed by the industry as a pretty airhead.

Unfortunately, that’s a story that’s been told and retold in Hollywood.

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Welcome the New Year with a glass from the past

Looking to add retro flair to your New Year’s Eve entertaining? Here are a few ideas to keep your bartender busy.

The LA Fizzy Blonde has a nice kick, sans alcohol.

The LA Fizzy Blonde
8 ounces ginger ale (don’t use diet)
2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Mix soda and juice. Add ice and lime slice to garnish.
From FNB’s own fridge

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The Biltmore’s Black Dahlia cocktail

The Biltmore’s Black Dahlia
This concoction is named after the mysterious Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, who was allegedly seen at the Biltmore Hotel on the evening of Jan. 9, 1947. She disappeared that night and her mutilated body was found several days later.
3 ½ ounces Grey Goose Le Citron vodka
¾ ounce Chambord black raspberry liqueur
¾ ounce Kahlua
Ice
Shake ingredients in a shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange zest.
From the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and www.imbibemagazine.com
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The Hummingbird: perfection in a glass.

The St.-Germain Hummingbird
2 parts brut champagne or dry sparkling wine
1 ½ parts St.-Germain elderflower liqueur
2 parts club soda
Stir ingredients in a tall ice-filled Collins glass, mixing completely. Think of Paris circa 1947. Garnish with a lemon twist.
From St.-Germain

The classic Pink Lady cocktail has a mere three ingredients.

The Pink Lady
1 ½ ounces gin
2-4 dashes of grenadine
White of one egg
Shake well with cracked ice; strain into cocktail glass
From various sources; variations call for the addition of the juice of half a lemon, ½ ounce cream, ¾ ounce applejack and Maraschino cherry as garnish. Photo from www.tipsytexan.com
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This retro manual is available at LA’s Dragon Books.

The Ward 8
Juice of one lemon
½ jigger of grenadine
1 jigger of Fleischmann’s Preferred gin
Shake well with cracked ice. Strain into 8 ounce glass. Decorate with slice of orange and Maraschino cherry
From Fleischmann’s Mixer’s Manual, 1948
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The French Breeze is from 1961.

The French Breeze
2 ounces Calvados
2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1-2 dashes orange-flower water
¼ teaspoon fine granulated sugar
Chilled Champagne
Pour Calvados and juice into a cocktail shaker one-third full of cracked ice. Add orange-flower water and sugar. Shake the drink well and pour it into a chilled 12-ounce highball glass. Fill the glass with chilled Champagne and stir lightly to blend.
From Gourmet July 1961; posted this month by Brie Schwartz for Gourmet Live
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Eureka Lake poster

The Manhattan
2 ounces rye or Canadian whisky
½ ounce sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry to garnish
Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, stir well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add cherry.
From www.cocktails.about.com

Choose your Fireman’s Brew by hair color.

If you’d rather keep the drinks list simple, try a pretty pale, such as Fireman’s Brew Blonde Beer, a Pilsner lager brewed and bottled in Southern California. The guys also make Fireman’s Brewnette and Redhead Ale.

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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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Highly anticipated ‘The Girl on the Train’ ultimately derails

By Mike Wilmington

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a chic romantic crime thriller in the “GONE GIRL” mode — but not as engrossing or gripping, nor as packed with interesting characters and wicked plot twists. Mainstream audiences should like it, but most of them probably won’t love it (as they did with the book) or become obsessed with it, the way they might with, say, Hitchcock‘s train-riding masterpiece, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Unlike the Gillian Flynn-penned bestseller TRAIN tends to resemble, or the David Fincher-directed suspenser based on Flynn’s book, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN tends to be more ordinary and less icily compelling.

Writer Paula Hawkins’ bestseller is about a woman whose life falls apart and who becomes a hard-drinking, train-riding voyeur, spying on what she imagines to be the perfect lives lived by the two couples she regularly watches from her commuter train windows. Rachel Watson (played by the eye-catchingly beautiful Britisher Emily Blunt), has lost her husband Tom (played by the disturbing Justin Theroux) to a pretty little blonde, Anna (played by Swedish stunner Rebecca Ferguson).

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Rachel, besides drinking herself silly, also spies on another couple, just a few houses down from Tom and Anna, two others she imagines are leading lives of golden joy: macho man Scott Hipwell (Welshman Luke Evans) and another pretty little blonde, Megan (Haley Bennett).

Also involved in this peeping Tom’s delight of a tale is Megan’s sexy shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Edgar Ramirez) – and Rachel’s friend Kathy (Laura Prepon), who’s putting her pal up and forgives all her rotten behavior. Soon Rachel has plunged into what might be a nightmare of infidelity and possible murder.

GONE GIRL was an incredibly clever thriller with an incredibly tricky plot. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is not too clever, not too tricky. Director Tate Taylor (who made the humanistic Southern family drama THE HELP) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY), have changed the background from London (in the book), to New York and the Westchester suburbs, and maybe they’ve lost something in the switch.

Emily Blunt is a real camera-stealer, but her character has been written (at first) as such a pain-in-the-ass, that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her. The surprise ending isn’t very surprising. Only Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmanneque score (justly praised by Hollywood reporter’s Todd McCarthy), achieves excellence in the style department. And only Allison Janney, in a fine sardonic “Law and Order-ish” turn (she’d be a good match for the late Jerry Orbach’s Lenny Brisco) has crafted much of an engaging character.

The screenplay is just about what you’d expect and Taylor’s direction doesn’t rise above the ordinary either. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN may have been a great read on the airplane (or on the train), but the movie made me want to watch something else, out the window.

Unfortunately, I was in a theater at the time.

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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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Remembering Marilyn’s charm, talent, happiness and heartbreak

Marilyn Monroe (June 1, 1926-Aug. 5, 1962) will be honored at a memorial service on Monday, Aug. 5, in Westwood.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marilyn modeled to support herself.

Bugs. Dogs. God. Since childhood, she was quick to ask questions about the everyday and the esoteric. This little girl named Norma Jean, as curious and proud as she was lonely and neglected, grew up to be Marilyn Monroe, the world’s most iconic and enduring sex symbol. Her love affair with the public still burns bright more than 50 years after her death on Aug. 5, 1962. She was 36.

Perhaps she sought answers and collected facts as a distraction from the grinding poverty and desperate uncertainty she faced as a kid. Her mother, Gladys, who fought bouts of mental illness, was unable to take care of her and her father had long been absent from their lives.

Norma Jean bounced between friends’ places and foster homes in Los Angeles. She was treated poorly for the most part, made to bathe in dirty water, molested by a man named Mr. Kimmel, pushed into marriage at 16 to Jim Dougherty, whom she barely knew, to avoid returning to the orphanage.

She was physically as well as intellectually precocious, fully developed by 12, and she knew her looks would open doors for her. There was a way, she believed, she could parlay her games of make believe into something refined, meaningful and artistic. If she got training and made the right connections, she could escape from her harrowing childhood.

“The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves, I was as unsensual as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.” — MM on her school days

Groucho Marx described Marilyn as Mae West, Theda Bara and Little Bo Peep all rolled into one.

“In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hair-do.” — MM

“After a few months, I learned how to reduce the boredom [at a Hollywood party] considerably. This was to arrive around two hours late.” — MM

As a struggling model and actress, Marilyn would spend Sundays at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, watching people walk from the trains to be greeted, hugged and kissed, wondering what it would feel like to be cared about, to be missed and wanted.

“I could never be attracted to a man who had perfect teeth. I don’t know why, but I have always been attracted to men who wore glasses.” — MM

She got a few small parts in the pictures, studied acting and attended Hollywood parties, carefully crossing her legs to hide the holes in her nylons, quietly watching other guests play cards and win money.

“When the men laughed and pocketed the thousands of dollars of winnings as if they were made of tissue paper, I remembered my Aunt Grace and me waiting in line at the Holmes Bakery to buy a sackful of stale bread for a quarter to live on a whole week,” she recalled in her memoir (co-written with Ben Hecht), “My Story.”

The studio suits weren’t encouraging. Darryl Zanuck and Dore Schary told her that she was unphotogenic, that she didn’t have the right look. She persevered. Eventually, it was her enraptured fans (she garnered 7,000 letters a week) who fueled her fame and propelled her rise to the top. “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”

“We were the prettiest tribe of panhandlers that ever overran a town.” — MM on her early years as a Hollywood actress.

One of her most important movies, early on, was a film noir: “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952, Roy Ward Baker) and “Niagara” (1953, Henry Hathaway) also showcased her talent for playing dark, dangerous women.

The studio pushed her toward lighter fare – musicals and comedies – where she played frothy flirts and bubble-headed gold diggers: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, Howard Hawks), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953, Jean Negulesco) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954, Walter Lang).

Marilyn pushed back, wanting more complex parts and sometimes she got them. She teamed up with some of Hollywood’s greatest directors: Huston, Hawks, Otto Preminger in “River of No Return” (1954), Joshua Logan in “Bus Stop” (1956), twice with Billy Wilder, in 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch” and four years later in the black-comedy classic “Some Like It Hot.”

In 1960, she worked with George Cukor in “Let’s Make Love.” Cukor also directed her in the unfinished “Something’s Got to Give” (1962). She co-starred with Sir Laurence Olivier (he also directed) in “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) and earned acclaim for her work, especially from European critics.

“In a daydream you jump over facts as easily as a cat jumps over a fence.” — MM

It was choreographer Jack Cole’s idea to pair pink and red in the color scheme of 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Marilyn was the favorite movie actress of the French philosopher/novelist/playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, and he wrote the lead female part in his original script “Freud” (1962) for her. (Susannah York played it.)

“I’ve often stood silent at a party for hours listening to my movie idols turn into dull and little people.” — MM

Her boyfriends reportedly included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, Yves Montand, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy; her best girlfriend (and one-time roommate) was Shelley Winters. During the height of her fame, Marilyn married two more times – to Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio (January-October 1954) and to playwright Arthur Miller (1956-1961).

Miller wrote “The Misfits” (1961) for her. In that ill-fated film, Marilyn co-starred with Clark Gable, the movie star she’d so often pretended was her father, and was directed by Huston, whom she considered a genius. During the arduous shoot in the Nevada desert, the Monroe-Miller marriage came apart. Gable died from a heart attack days after the filming ended. Said Huston of Marilyn: “She went right down into her own personal experience for everything, reached down and pulled something out of herself that was unique and extraordinary. She had no techniques. It was all the truth, it was only Marilyn.”

Marilyn once implored a LIFE reporter: “Please don’t make me a joke.”

Her vulnerability and little-girl-lost quality, coupled with her stunning looks and glamour, are often cited as the reasons for her widespread, lasting appeal.

There’s no doubt she faced a litany of lingering problems: a family history of mental illness; emotional instability and physical maladies; a dependency on drugs and alcohol; endometriosis, abortions and miscarriages; difficulty remembering lines and showing up on time; broken marriages and failed affairs as well as frustration and fights with 20th Century-Fox (the studio refused to let her see scripts in advance of a shoot, then relented).

Some of her early work is slightly cloying – the breathy voice a little too mannered, her demeanor a little forced. And despite critical recognition for “Bus Stop,” “Prince” and “Some Like It Hot,” she remained pigeonholed as a blonde bombshell, a sexy joke.

“When you’re a failure in Hollywood – that’s like starving to death outside a banquet hall with the smells of filet mignon driving you crazy.” — MM

Orry-Kelly designed Marilyn’s clothes in “Some Like It Hot.”

“When you’re broke and a nobody and a man tells you that you have the makings of a star, he becomes a genius in your eyes.” — MM

Marilyn’s marriage to playwright Arthur Miller came apart while making “The Misfits.” Co-star Clark Gable died days after shooting ended.

Yet it was her precise and subtle comic timing that set her apart from other actresses. As Wilder put it: “She was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue. … Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”

“To love without hope is a sad thing for the heart.” — MM

Humor was likely a coping mechanism she’d honed in an effort to ward off the crushing emptiness she’d known since childhood. Norma Jean saw movies again and again at Hollywood theaters; play-acting with other kids, she thought up the good stuff, the drama.

Marilyn liked her body and, some days, she enjoyed the attention she got from her looks. But she also gave the impression that her beauty could be swiftly forgotten, that she got bored too fast to dwell on her appearance. Underneath the surface, right alongside the troubled soul, was a well of pure bliss that wasn’t hard to reach, if she had a receptive audience, whether it was a likeminded bookworm friend or a movie palace packed with people.

When the fantasy was in full, giddy swing, she laughed sweetly and cynically, sometimes at herself. She could be funny with a look, a gesture or a makeshift prop – sparking joy from nothing at all.

Sir Laurence Olivier said of Marilyn: ”Look at that face – she could be five years old.”

Photographers include: George Barris, Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Milton Greene, Sam Shaw and Bert Stern.

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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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