The Noir File: ‘The Set-Up’ is a highlight of Robert Ryan Day

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

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

PICK OF THE WEEK

Robert Ryan plays the role of Stoker Thompson with dignity rather than sentimentality, with realism rather than melodrama.

The Set-Up” (1949, Robert Wise). Wednesday, April 10, 2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.). Boxing was a sport that the quintessential film noir tough guy Robert Ryan knew very well. Ryan was a four-year college boxing champion at Dartmouth, and later, when he became a Hollywood star, one of his finest roles and movies came in Robert Wise’s low-budget gem “The Set-Up,“ where Ryan played a seemingly washed-up prizefighter named Stoker Thompson – he’s been set up to lose what will probably be his last fight. Stoker’s craven manager Tiny (George Tobias) has been paid to insure Stoker throws the fight, by a crooked gambler (Alan Baxter), who has a big bet against the veteran. Tiny thinks it’s a sure defeat anyway. But Stoker still has his pride, still has his memories of what it was like when he was almost great and he doesn’t want to lie down in the ring, even if the mob will punish him severely if he doesn’t.

The film, which is based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, plays out in real time, beginning shortly before the fight, ending shortly after it. Wise, who is at his best as a director, gives “The Set-Up” relentless pace, tension, compassion and a marvelously seedy low-life atmosphere of matter-of-fact corruption and impending doom. Audrey Totter (in an untypical sympathetic role for this classic film noir dame) plays Stoker’s worried wife Julie. Wallace Ford is a salty old ring guy and Alan Baxter is Little Boy, the natty gambler who has the bet down and the muscle to back it up.

Ryan, one of the great film noir heavies, could play sociopathic bad guys like few other actors on screen. But here, he endows Stoker with the humanity and the grace under pressure that this great actor always had, but that we rarely see in his classic noir villain roles. Ryan plays this proud, beleaguered, supposedly over-the-hill fighter with dignity rather than sentimentality, with realism rather than melodrama, and with an intimate knowledge of the ways men can inflict bodily harm on each other for money.

Of all those tough and perceptive movies that show the dark side of professional boxing – “Body and Soul,” “Champion,” “Fat City,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and the others – “The Set-Up” may be the best. Once you hear the final bell, you’ll never forget it.

Wednesday, April 10: Robert Ryan Day

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). With Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame. Reviewed on FNB November 20, 2012. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: Bogart and Bacall heat up the big screen in Hawks-Chandler noir classic ‘The Big Sleep’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

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

PICK OF THE WEEK

The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). Sunday, March 10, 3:45 a.m. (12:45 a.m.) See review in previous post.

Wednesday, March 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. TCM host Bob Osborne chats with one of Hitchcock’s great blondes, Chicago’s own Kim Novak. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. After the interview, four of her films will screen: “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958), “Picnic” (1955), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) and “Of Human Bondage” (1964).

Friday, March 8

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “Stage Fright” (1950, Alfred Hitchcock). After he left England to make “Rebecca” in 1940 for David Selznick, Hitchcock returned to make only two more features there: the excellent “Frenzy” in 1972, and “Stage Fright” in 1950. The latter is a backstage theater drama with Jane Wyman as a romantic-minded acting student, who tries to help a man on the run (Richard Todd). He’s accused of murdering the husband of a swooningly beautiful actress (Marlene Dietrich). “Stage Fright” is usually considered one of the lesser Hitchcocks, but second-tier Hitch is still better than most films. The pungent London theatrical settings and fine cast (including Alastair Sim, Sybil Thorndyke and Michael Wilding) keep “Stage Fright” an entertaining slice of Htchcockian cake.

Audrey Totter’s Claire has the dreariest of of milquetoast husbands (Richard Basehart) in “Tension,” directed by Black List victim John Berry.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “Tension” (1950, John Berry). An obsessed and cuckolded milquetoast (Richard Basehart) bent on murder, becomes ensnared in a twisty shocker of a story. With Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan and Audrey Totter; directed by Black List victim John Berry.

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer). With Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “Split Second” (1953, Dick Powell). Atmospheric Cold War thriller about an escaped con (Stephen McNally), holding hostages in part of a Nevada A-bomb testing site area. With Alexis Smith and Jan Sterling.

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Man in the Attic” (1954, Hugo Fregonese). Jack Palance plays one of the screen’s more ferocious Jack the Rippers.

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.) “Second Chance” (1953, Rudolph Maté). A high-style, high-octane film noir couple – cool Robert Mitchum and hot Linda Darnell – are lovers on the run to Mexico, with the scariest of hit men, Jack Palance, on their trail.

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “Suddenly” (1954, Lewis Allen). With Frank Sinatra and Sterling Hayden.

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Director takes a gamble in yuletide yarn ‘Lady in the Lake’

Lady in the Lake/1947/MGM/103 min.

Mistletoe and holly, egg nog and parties, guns and murder. In “Lady in the Lake,” based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, actor/director Robert Montgomery mixes Christmas traditions with ironic noir style.

After Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) hires Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), their relationship morphs from business to pleasure.

While sleigh bells are jingling, Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe, the famed private eye, is trying to find a mystery woman named Chrystal Kingsby. Chrystal is married to Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the owner of a book publishing company in Los Angeles; she was last seen at the Little Fawn Lake resort.

Marlowe’s been hired by one of Derace Kingsby’s employees: uptight and bossy Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a sharp-tongued executive editor with designs on her boss and his money. She chooses her detective not from the yellow pages but from a crime-caper manuscript Marlowe submits for publication – some effective multitasking she’ll no doubt include on her performance review. Though Adrienne’s all about business and bank balances at first, she softens as sparks fly between her and Marlowe.

Heading to Bay City (based on Santa Monica), Marlowe checks in with Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), a Southern-transplant playboy with whom Chrystal was having an affair. But a punch from Lavery lands Marlowe in jail and he wakes up to questioning from Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) and Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan). After his release, Marlowe learns that a woman’s body has been recovered from the lake and that the caretaker has been charged with murdering his wife, Muriel (Jayne Meadows). He also finds Lavery’s dead body.

From there, as Marlowe puts together the pieces of the puzzle – a multiple-identity scam, another murder, several soured love affairs, Chrystal’s part in the proceedings – Adrienne realizes that Marlowe, not Derace Kingsby, is the man for her. (Look out for blonde actress Lila Leeds as a receptionist at the publishing company. Leeds was arrested with Robert Mitchum on Aug. 31, 1948, for possession of marijuana.)

More interesting than the plot is way the movie was shot. Montgomery plays Marlowe but we see very little of him in character because Montgomery as director took a stylistic risk by using a subjective/first-person camera and telling the story from Marlowe’s point of view.

The audience sees Marlowe in the mirror when he pays Adrienne a visit.

First-person camera had been used before – briefly in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) and “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk) and most notably for about 30 minutes in “Dark Passage” (1947, Delmer Daves, starring Bogart & Bacall). But this was the first time the whole movie (other than a few times when Marlowe speaks directly to the audience) unspooled in this manner.

It’s a daring experiment and a bigger deal than you might think, involving a number of technical, staging and acting challenges. In their excellent commentary on the Warner Home Video DVD, Alain Silver and James Ursini provide insight as to what this artistic decision meant for Montgomery.

For example, the film has very long takes and far fewer cuts than most movies of its time – this serves to build suspense but is tough to execute. For the actors as well (other than Montgomery) this presented hurdles. They were required to address the camera directly (something they’d been trained to avoid) and they faced the pressure of knowing that if they goofed toward the end of the take, the whole lengthy shot would have to be redone.

Bad girl Muriel (Jayne Meadows) corners the unseen Marlowe.

Additionally, Silver and Ursini point out that because “Lady in the Lake” was an MGM production (as was “The Postman Always Rings Twice” the year before), it had to conform somewhat to the studio’s preferred look: high production values and high-key lighting – unlike most noirs, which used low-key light and featured richer shadows, more intense chiaroscuro.

So, did the shooting experiment work? Chandler, who drafted a script that Steve Fisher rewrote, thought Montgomery made a mistake. And having watched “Lady in the Lake: a few times, I’m inclined to agree. First, despite the marketing gimmick of putting the viewer in the detective’s shoes and urging him/her to solve the crime, “Lady” feels artificial and stilted, perhaps because the long takes lend a slightly stagey feel to the performances.

Lila Leeds, who plays the receptionist at the publishing company, was arrested with Robert Mitchum in 1948 for possession of marijuana.

Not seeing much of Montgomery/Marlowe makes it hard to connect to the story (typically Chandlerian in its twists and turns) and puts too much weight on the shoulders of the other players. While Totter and the rest are very capable, they can’t quite pull off such a distorted view for the duration of the movie. It’s too big a hole for any cast to fill.

And Marlowe isn’t particularly sympathetic because we only glimpse him here and there instead of seeing him interact with the others – especially Totter. For their romance to work, we need to see them together!

That said, I don’t want to get all Bah-Humbug about this yuletide yarn. “Lady in the Lake” is fun to watch just for the novelty value and I love to picture Adrienne sprawled on a sofa and whipping out her red pen to shape Marlowe’s manuscript as he mixes her a martini, garnished with a candy cane, natch.

“Lady in the Lake” will show in 35 mm at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Wednesday, Dec. 19, as part of Noir City Xmas 3. The evening will also feature the unveiling of the full schedule for the Noir City 11 film festival.

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‘Lady in the Lake’ quick hit

Lady in the Lake/1947/MGM/103 min.

It’s Christmastime and most self-respecting femme fatales are shopping, decorating and wooing men a tad younger and slimmer than Santa. In “Lady in the Lake,” from the Raymond Chandler novel, our leading lady is Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a quintessential ’40s career girl and gold-digger. Adrienne’s an executive editor in a publishing company with designs on her boss Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames).

Sifting through the pile of manuscripts on her desk, she comes across a submission from private eye Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery, who also directed the movie). She’s lukewarm about Marlowe’s writing but she calls him into her office for a chat anyway – she wants to hire him to find her boss’s wife Chrystal so she can have the boss all to herself.

As dead bodies begin to pile up, Marlowe must put his literary aspirations on hold to focus on solving murders. “Lady in the Lake” is famous for Montgomery’s decision to tell the story from Marlowe’s point of view, using a subjective/first-person camera for the entire movie.

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Classic Cain, power plays, Turner and Garfield in ‘Postman’

The Postman Always Rings Twice/1946/MGM/113 min.

In the opening of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a sign reading “MAN WANTED” flashes at us twice. This man, John Garfield as it happens, is really wanted. But you wouldn’t know it from Lana Turner’s imperious entrance.

She drops a tube of lipstick, then deigns to let him pick it up and return it to her. He decides to let her get it herself. She’s unruffled and he’s hooked. In a way, these first few minutes of the film foreshadow the sexual power play between Garfield’s Frank and Turner’s Cora.

The godless-like Cora, with her platinum hair, pouty lips and gorgeous curves, is arguably Turner’s most memorable role. One of film noir’s most famous femmes fatales, she is by turns a come-hither, passionate seductress and an icy blonde who likes to be the boss. Notice how often she wears white, sometimes from head to toe.

Lana Turner as Cora and John Garfield as Frank cook up trouble in the restaurant Cora runs with her husband.

Garfield as Frank gives her a run for her money, both in looks and attitude. Ephraim Katz writes of Garfield (born Julius Garfinkle, the son of a poor immigrant Jewish tailor): “[His] screen character was … not much at variance with his own personality – that of a cynical, defiant young man from the other side of the tracks, a resilient rebel with a chip on his shoulder who desperately tries to charm and muscle his way onward and upward.

“Despite the mediocrity of many of his films, Garfield’s boyish virility and his ability to project a soulful interior underneath a pugnacious façade made him an attractive star to many filmgoers. When given a proper vehicle, he proved himself a sensitive and solid interpreter.” (Garfield was later blacklisted for refusing to name friends as Communists in response to a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation.)

“Postman” more than qualifies as a proper vehicle. Frank, a hitchhiker at loose ends, stops at a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of LA and sees the MAN WANTED sign, posted by the owner, Cora’s chubby, cheerful, and much older, husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway). Nick persuades Frank to stay and work; not a bad deal considering that he also gets room and board.

Love on the rocks: Notice how often Cora wears white.

Before long, Nick and Cora become lovers and decide to do away with Nick so that they can start their new life together with a fat pile of cash. From there, things get darker and more diabolical. They botch their first attempt (death by electrocution) and their second try (they fake a car crash) results in charges being brought against them, which may or may not stick.

“Postman,” based on the James M. Cain novel and directed by Tay Garnett, is about as jet-black and unrelentingly bleak as they come. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch wrote the script. There is no comic relief or guy-buddy subplot of the kind that you get in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” also based on a Cain novel and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Also, the character of Nick gets a fair amount of screen time and, far from being a dire wretch of a husband (like the husband in “Double Indemnity,” played by Tom Powers), he’s affable and kind. He knows she doesn’t love him and even seems inclined to turn a blind eye if Cora and Frank want a romp in the hay. The dour vision of their betrayal, ill-fated reconciliation and their dogged determination to kill him feels far more uncomfortable – queasy even.

Because Garnett isn’t as visually stylish as many of the noir directors, “Postman” is a more blunt rendering than other essential noirs. But it’s also possible that Garnett, who was also a writer, was more interested in exploring the nuances of Cain’s book. Garnett and Cain grapple with the deepest issues of noir – for example, upending the myth that America is a classless society.

Cecil Kellaway (left) plays Nick, Cora’s husband, who is not bad as portly older husbands go. This lends his murder much gravity.

Only slightly less chilling than the violence perpetrated by the waitress and the manual worker, Garnett suggests, is the cavalier, snarky attitude of these two bourgeois buddies on the “right” side of the law (Leon Ames as district attorney Kyle Sackett and Hume Cronyn as defense lawyer Arthur Keats).

The case is nothing more than a game to them and they place a $100 bet on who will win. They’re not above using questionable methods to yield their desired results. Yet, they are considered upstanding members of society, whereas Cora and Frank are common criminals who must be punished.

Another point in Garnett’s favor: He gets excellent work from the leads and supporting players (also look out for noirista Audrey Totter). Cora and Frank are complicated parts that require range, depth and the ability to project irony.

Their love may be twisted, it’s true, but it goes through many incarnations and we sense that they are drawn to each other from mutual desperation and shared disappointment. As Frank tells her: “We’re chained to each other, Cora.”

Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange made a steamier version of the story in 1981, directed by Bob Rafelson.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of gloom. But, with leads as gorgeous and sexy as Garfield and Turner, every minute makes compelling viewing.

When Bob Rafelson remade the movie in 1981 with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, replete with raunchy sex scenes, Frank and Cora sizzled once more.

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‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ quick hit

The Postman Always Rings Twice/1946/MGM/113 min.

“Postman” is from that strain of noir that prizes stark realism above all else, particularly humor and visual style. Based on a James M. Cain novel and directed by Tay Garnett, it’s a grim story of two lovers – blonde-bombshell temptress Lana Turner and earthy, streetwise super-hunk John Garfield – who bump off Lana’s wealthy husband, get away with it, but then face a whole new set of problems.

Hard-as-nails Turner makes a splendid femme fatale and Garfield matches her beat for beat. The great supporting cast includes Cecil Kellaway, Leon Ames, Hume Cronyn and Audrey Totter. Dour and dire, yes, but also sexy and compelling. Required viewing for any noir aficionado.

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Noir City: Chicago starts Friday at the Music Box

Chicago’s Music Box Theatre will host the third annual Noir City: Chicago starting Friday and running through Aug. 18. Presented by the Film Noir Foundation, the fest features 16 noirs, all in 35 mm.

Opening night is a double feature: 1947’s “High Wall” by director Curtis Bernhardt, starring Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter, and “The Dark Mirror” (1946, Robert Siodmak) in which Olivia de Havilland plays twin sisters, one of whom is deranged. Shocker!

Other highlights include: “Sorry Wrong Number” (1948, Anatole Litvak) and “The Glass Key” (1942, Stuart Heisler) as well as lesser-known films like “Loophole” (1954, Harold D. Schuster) and “The Hunted” (1948, Jack Bernhard), recently saved from extinction by the foundation.

Authors Alan K. Rode and Foster Hirsch will be on hand to discuss these classic noirs.

Having worked at the Chicago Tribune for many years before heading to the West Coast, I always remember this sage editing adage: “If your mother says she loves you, you’d better doublecheck.”

Speaking of checking, you can see the full Noir City: Chicago 3 lineup here.

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