Happy birthday, Veronica Lake!

Veronica Lake in black dressShe was born today in 1922 in Brooklyn. Lake was almost as popular for her sexy long peek-a-boo hairstyle as she was for the film noir titles she starred in with Alan Ladd: “This Gun for Hire,” “The Glass Key,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “Saigon.”

She died July 7, 1973.

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Lake, Ladd and Chandler script help ‘Blue Dahlia’ bloom

Blue Dahlia posterThe Blue Dahlia/1946/Paramount/96 min.

Sitting here waiting for the Tigers game to start and for the bf to make dinner, I keep thinking of food metaphors. For instance: watching “The Blue Dahlia” is like ordering a blue-cheese burger at a steakhouse – tasty fare, but not quite as satisfying as filet mignon. So I have a one-track mind. I’m hungry.

That does, however, sum up “The Blue Dahlia” – it’s a pretty good yarn and in the hands of a more stylish director, instead of comedy specialist George Marshall, it might have been a true gem. In Marshall’s hands, the visuals are ho-hum, there’s not much atmosphere and there are several moments where the pace seems to idle. Overall, it feels a bit dated.

On the plus side, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd lead a strong cast and Raymond Chandler received an Oscar nom for his original screenplay. (It lost to the British psychological drama “The Seventh Veil” by Muriel and Sydney Box.) Also, “The Blue Dahlia” has several famous location shots, such as the Brown Derby, and in 1947 the film’s title gave rise to the name of one of Hollywood’s most nefarious real-life mysteries.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's third movie together.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s third movie together.

Ladd plays an ex-Navy bomber pilot named Johnny Morrison, who arrives in Los Angeles with two pals from the Navy. The three jump off the bus at Hollywood Boulevard and head to the nearest bar. Buzz (William Bendix) has sustained war injuries (he has a plate in his skull) and isn’t thinking too clearly; his foil is calm and level-headed George (Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver.”)

Next up for Johnny is a reunion with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. Not exactly a picture of wifely devotion, raven-haired, rye-chugging Helen is hosting a raucous party that night. (Doris Dowling’s real-life older sister Constance Dowling played shady lady Mavis Marlowe in the film noir “Black Angel,” also from 1946, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and directed by Roy William Neill.)

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

After Helen confesses that her drinking led to the death of their son, Johnny pulls his gun out and considers using it, but changes his mind. Instead he drops the gun on an armchair, next to a blue dahlia flower from Helen’s, um, companion, slick and sleazy Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Harwood owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub, hence he hands out flowers.

Johnny heads out into the rainy night and hitches a ride with Joyce Harwood (Lake), a chilly blonde goddess with an air of mystery. She’s also Eddie Harwood’s estranged wife.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Well, as you know, no good deed goes unpunished in film noir and leaving the gun behind wasn’t the wisest decision on Johnny’s part. The next morning Helen is dead and Johnny tops the list of suspects. Others on the list include disloyal Eddie Harwood, the oft-confused and easily excited Buzz, who paid Helen a visit the night of her death, and ‘Dad’ Newell (Will Wright), the seedy house detective at Helen’s apartment complex.

In Chandler’s original script, Buzz did the deed but painting a vet in bad light would be courting disaster with the censors so Chandler had to revamp the story and find a new villain. Reportedly, Chandler, who was fond of drinking like a fish, locked himself away one weekend and got even more smashed than usual in order to cobble together the revised script, which the studio needed in a hurry because Ladd was called for military service.

A highlight of the flick is the wry banter between Ladd and Lake – this was the third of four films they made together (preceded by “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key,” and followed by 1948’s “Saigon”) and by this time they have it down. Ladd snarls and pushes her away, Lake purrs and turns her nose up, aloof and amused.

Elizabeth Short became known as the Black Dahlia.

Elizabeth Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia after her death.

“The Blue Dahlia” also played a part in the aftermath of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder: Elizabeth Short, a pretty girl from a Boston suburb who came to Hollywood looking for adventure or a husband, whichever came first. Short was brutally killed; her mutilated body was found on Jan. 15, 1947.

As the police investigation progressed, Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia. Some say a Long Beach bartender dubbed her the Black Dahlia in 1946 because of her sometimes-theatrical appearance (acquaintances said she liked wearing heavy makeup and flowers in her hair when she dressed up); others attribute the moniker to journalists covering the grisly case. Either way, “The Blue Dahlia” movie triggered the nickname.

“The Blue Dahlia,” with its smart writing and solid acting, is required film noir viewing, despite its flaws. And I almost forgot  – there’s a great dry moment when the maid finds Helen’s body. No screaming or wringing of hands for this hard-living broad, just an “Oh brother” and a long sigh.

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Film noir titles to release on DVD from TCM and Universal, thriller marathon in January

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Universal Studios Home Entertainment (USHE) are releasing a terrific three-disc DVD collection on Dec 3. Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers highlights the work of legendary mystery writers Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler.

The set includes:

“The Glass Key” (1942, Stuart Heisler) – Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in this stylish remake of the 1935 film based on Hammett’s popular novel. The story follows a ruthless political boss and his personal adviser, who become entangled in a web of organized crime and murder involving the daughter of a rising gubernatorial candidate. Akira Kurosawa once claimed this film to be the inspiration for his classic samurai flick “Yojimbo” (1961).

“Phantom Lady” (1944, Robert Siodmak) – A man arrested for murdering his wife is unable to produce his only alibi – a mysterious woman he met in a bar – in this adaptation of a Woolrich novel. Now his loyal secretary must go undercover to locate her. Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Alan Curtis and Elisha Cook Jr. star. A sexually charged drumming scene was reportedly dubbed by legendary musician Buddy Rich.

“The Blue Dahlia” (1946, George Marshall) – A WWII veteran who has been accused of killing his unfaithful wife races against time to find the real murderer with the help of a sympathetic stranger. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva and Hugh Beaumont star in this John Houseman production. Chandler’s original screenplay earned an Oscar nomination.

Veronica Lake and Howard da Silva share a tense moment in “The Blue Dahlia.”

Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers will be available from TCM’s online store, which is currently accepting pre-orders. TCM will show “The Glass Key” on Dec. 2.

Additionally, on Jan. 17, author and noir expert Eddie Muller will join TCM host Robert Osborne to present five memorable thrillers from the 1950s. The lineup is set to feature “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish) with Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming; “99 River Street” (1953, Phil Karlson) starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes; “Tomorrow is Another Day” (1951, Felix E. Feist) with Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran; “The Breaking Point” (1950, Michael Curtiz), starring John Garfield and Patricia Neal; and “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey), starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.

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Aero Theatre offers straight-up noir delight with Sam Fuller mini-fest, Fritz Lang night, Barry Sullivan tribute

Sam Fuller

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica has some terrific noir offerings, starting this weekend. First up, an homage to a master: Underworld U.S.A.: The Pulpy Heart of Sam Fuller Cinema. Highlights of the series include: “Shock Corridor,” “Pickup on South Street,” “Underworld U.S.A.” and “The Naked Kiss.”

As part of Monday Night Mysteries, on Aug. 27, there’s a Fritz Lang double feature, starting with a new 35mm print of “The Big Heat,” starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin, followed by “The Woman in the Window,” in which Edward G. Robinson risks his cozy life as a college professor to have an affair with Joan Bennett.

If you missed Alan Ladd’s noir-tinged take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” at this year’s Film Noir Festival, you have a second chance to see the film on Wednesday, Aug. 29. “Gatsby,” which, in addition to Ladd, stars Barry Sullivan as Tom Buchanan, is paired with another Sullivan vehicle, “The Gangster,” to mark the centennial of the actor’s birth. Special guests scheduled to attend on Wednesday are the actor’s daughter Jenny Sullivan and the Film Noir Foundation’s Alan K. Rode.

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Noir City festival returns to Chicago with darkness aplenty

The Music Box Theatre will host Noir City: Chicago.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival returns for the fourth time to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, from Aug. 17-23.

The FNF’s Alan K. Rode and noted writer/historian Foster Hirsch will share hosting duties. All titles are presented on the big screen in glorious 35mm prints.

This year’s lineup looks great! Highlights include:

William Castle’s “Undertow” (1949), which was shot on location in the Windy City.

Alan Ladd x 2: “The Great Gatsby” (1949, Elliot Nugent) and “This Gun for Hire” (1942, Frank Tuttle).

Jean Negulesco’s “Three Strangers” (1946) starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch.

Cornell Woolrich x 3: Noir master Robert Siodmak directs Ella Raines and Elisha Cook Jr. in “Phantom Lady” (1944). Based on a Woolrich novel. “Black Angel” (1946, Roy William Neil) More suspense from Woolrich, this time starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Broderick Crawford and Peter Lorre. “The Window” (1949) Ted Tetzlaff directs an adaptation of Woolrich’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney star in "White Heat," directed by Raoul Walsh.

Phil Karlson’s “99 River Street” (1953) Evelyn Keyes comes to the rescue when her buddy John Payne, a washed-up boxer, is framed for the murder of his wife.

Robert Ryan x 2: “Caught” (Max Ophuls, 1949) and “On Dangerous Ground” (Nicholas Ray, 1952).

Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich) Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides adapted Mickey Spillane’s detective novel to create this film noir classic. Ralph Meeker stars.

White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh) James Cagney is unforgettable in one of noir’s greatest roles, outlaw and killer Cody Jarrett. The superb cast also includes Edmond O’Brien, Virginia Mayo, Steve Cochran and Margaret Wycherly as the bad-ass mama at the core of it all.

Also, be sure to check out the FNF’s Marsha Hunt interview. The actress joined Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode at the 14th annual Noir City: Hollywood for a rare screening of “Mary Ryan, Detective” (1950, Abby Berlin). Hunt discussed her work with Fred Zinnemann, Jules Dassin, Orson Welles and others. I watched the event live and it’s terrific – it’s hard to believe she is 94! You can watch the interview at the FNF Video Archives.

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Noir City X film fest starts Friday in San Francisco

The Film Noir Foundation celebrates 10 years of deliciously dark programming with NOIR CITY X: The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of. The 10-day festival features a Dashiell Hammett marathon, freshly preserved 35mm rarities, by-popular-demand encore screenings, and special guest star Angie Dickinson. The fest runs Jan. 20-29 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Among the rarities NOIR CITY is presenting this year is a new 35mm print from Universal Pictures of 1949’s “The Great Gatsby,” starring Alan Ladd as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary hero. Universal is also providing a new 35mm print of 1954’s “Naked Alibi,” starring noir’s favorite bad girl, Gloria Grahame. Also on the bill are preservations of the 1946 classic “Three Strangers” and 1950’s “The Breaking Point,” directed by Michael Curtiz and starring John Garfield.

After San Francisco, the fest will travel to other cities with variations on the programming.

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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ 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.

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 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’ quick hit

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

This role hardly qualifies Veronica Lake as a femme fatale. She’s loyal to her man, works for a living and helps out Uncle Sam. Shocker! That said, this movie is still full-on noir and Lake, who blazes a trail with hitman Alan Ladd, completely captivates. Laird Cregar delights, as always, as the peppermint-popping heavy. Based on a Graham Greene novel; directed by Frank Tuttle.

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Film noir’s feline fatales, tough tom cats: A new feature

Of the many visual symbols in film noir, the cat is one of the most elegant and expressive. Sitting in a doorway, watching and waiting, or sprawled contentedly on a chaise longue, these haughty creatures convey the quintessential femme fatale attitude: “If I deign to take you on, I’ll win.”
Cats are smart, nimble and fastidious. They spend hours grooming themselves and, unlike dogs, they have no work ethic. Enough said. In between doting on my cat, I’ve done a little research so I can start a new feature on the most famous kitties in film noir.
The Cats in “This Gun for Hire” 1942
Names: Fluffy Taylor and Tab Burton
Character Names: The Stray, Toughie

The happy Hollywood couple

Bios: “Cats bring you luck,” says Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) in 1942’s “This Gun for Hire.” Raven’s first good-luck charm is The Stray (Fluffy Taylor), a petite, violet-eyed beauty, who wanders through his window first thing in the morning. Despite being a cold-hearted hitman, Raven gives her milk and protects her from the nasty maid, Anna (Pamela Blake).

The second “charm” is a tomcat named Toughie (Tab Burton). But Toughie doesn’t fare as well as The Stray. Philip Raven happens to be a psychopath and he turns on Toughie in a deadly betrayal. Well, maybe the name Raven didn’t bode too well for feline friendship. (Off screen, however, Burton and Ladd were great chums. It was Ladd’s first major movie role and he welcomed Burton’s advice on acting.)
And contrary to some accounts, the feline stars of “This Gun for Hire” never once had a catfight on the set. Just the opposite: While working together on this film, British imports Taylor and Burton fell madly in love. Seven years Burton’s junior, Taylor had been an established star in England since kittenhood.
Burton was born in Wales and studied acting at Oxford University. Following their U.S. debut in “This Gun for Hire,” the pair soon became the “it” couple among Hollywood’s feline set, co-starring in “Catopatra,” “The Taming of the Mew” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Puss?” They were also known for their lavish, jet-set, cream-and-catnip lifestyle.
They married in 1945, divorced in 1955, remarried in 1957 and divorced for a second time in 1962. After they finally parted, Burton’s career faltered and he passed away in 1964. When Burton died, the ever-popular Taylor referred to him as “the love of my life and my very best friend.”
As their close friend Morris once said of them: “He gave her class. She gave him sex.” And they gave each other Fancy Feast Salmon.
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