Noir greats Trevor and Tierney flirt with doom in ‘Born to Kill’

Trevor and Tierney are perfectly matched.

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

Most men are turnips.

So says soigné and sassy femme fatale Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) in RKO’s “Born to Kill” from 1947, directed by Robert Wise.

Most men, perhaps, but not the homme fatale she falls for. No, strapping tough-guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) isn’t a turnip. What’s the word I’m looking for? Parsnip? Potato? I know: Psycho! And in Helen he finds his ideal match.

This damned and dirty pair meet on a train from Reno to San Francisco. Helen’s just gotten a divorce (as her lawyer puts it, the bonds of matrimony can weigh heavily on one’s soul). Sam’s a little stressed as well, having just murdered his girlfriend du jour Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and her date in a fit of jealousy.

Look good or report some “messy” murders? Helen knows what’s important.

In San Fran, Sam shows up uninvited (well, sort of) at her place. Helen neglected to mention that she’s engaged to boring but wealthy and well-bred Fred Grover (Phillip Terry, married to Joan Crawford from 1942 -46 and stepfather to Christina Crawford). So Sam pursues Helen’s upper-crust foster sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long).

They’re joined in San Francisco by Sam’s sidekick, Marty Waterman (the ever-eerie Elisha Cook Jr.). Also stirring things up is delightfully sleazy private eye Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak) who’s been hired by Laury’s friend, Mrs. Kraft (the always-great Esther Howard as the hard-drinking floozy), to investigate the murders.

Helen and Sam make no pretense of actually loving Fred and Georgia – they want to share their partners’ wealth and keep their secret lust alive. “Your roots are down where mine are,” Sam tells Helen. So they flirt, fight, and play games, natch. For example, after Helen figures out that Sam killed poor Laury and her hapless date, they share a passionate embrace in which they exchange grisly details from the crime, clearly a turn-on for them both. Of course, a relationship this demented is bound to burn out sooner rather than later and their road to self-destruction makes a pretty good yarn.

Cook and Howard round out a great cast.

Produced by Dore Schary and written by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from James Gunn’s novel “Deadlier than the Male,” the movie failed to impress American critics upon its release. Wise, who also directed the noirs “The Set-Up” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” along with many other films (most notably Oscar winners “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”) started as an editor (“Citizen Kane”). He does not show enormous visual flair in “Born to Kill.”

But on the plus side, the characters and cast along with a sharp dialogue, make this worth watching. (It’s also a good example of a film noir title that explores American class tensions, something that most Hollywood movies consistently overlooked.)

Noir stalwart Trevor (perhaps most famous for her similar role in “Murder, My Sweet”) shines here as Helen, lavishing her lines with comely cynicism. Tierney’s a bit one-note as the cold-blooded killer but he brings a riveting intensity and realness to the part. Apparently, Brooklyn-born Tierney, son of an Irish cop, was known as a bit of a thug offscreen as well, prone to heavy drinking and fighting, which damaged his career. On the DVD commentary, director Wise describes him as a “good actor but a rough character.”

Still, Tierney didn’t vanish into the Hollywood mist and he continued to act in smaller roles. Quentin Tarantino recruited him for “Reservoir Dogs” and he showed up on “Seinfeld” as Elaine’s father. Time didn’t do much to mellow him – he was reportedly difficult and belligerent.

But it’s Esther Howard who steals the show. My favorite scene comes when Marty tries to put her out of the picture by luring her out to a remote sand dune. Mrs. Kraft might be sloshed a lot of the time but Marty learns the hard way that she’s no pushover.

At a mere 83 minutes, “Born to Kill” is crisp, fast and fun.

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‘Born to Kill’ quick hit

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

When the sole witness to a double murder, Claire Trevor as Helen Brent, decides not to report the crime because it would be “messy and a lot of bother,” you know you’re dealing with a chilly lady. She’s looking for a man who can match her heartlessness and finds him in mixed-up tough guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney).

They sizzle in their own warped way, but Esther Howard as the beer-chugging landlady steals the show in this early work by director Robert Wise. Also stars noiristo Elisha Cook Jr.

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The Noir File: ‘Top of the World, Ma!’ and more classic Cagney moments

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the movies listed below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

James Cagney in 1939

White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh): Tuesday, Aug. 14, 10 p.m. (7 p.m.) “Top of the world, Ma!” James Cagney screams, in one of the all-time great noir performances and last scenes. Cagney’s character (one of his signature roles) is Cody Jarrett, a psycho gun-crazy gangster with a mother complex, perched at the top of an oil refinery tower about to blow.

Edmond O’Brien is the undercover cop in Cody’s gang, Virginia Mayo is Cody’s faithless wife, and Margaret Wycherly is Ma. One of the true noir masterpieces, “White Heat” boasts another classic, hair-raising scene: Cagney’s crack-up in prison when he hears of Ma’s death. Script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts; music by Max Steiner. At 7 p.m. (4 p.m.), preceding “White Heat” and “City for Conquest” is the documentary “James Cagney: Top of the World,” hosted by Michael J. Fox.

Friday, Aug. 10

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston) Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson are pitted against each other in this tense adaptation of the Maxwell Anderson play. Bogie is a WW2 vet held hostage (along with Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) during a tropical storm by brutal mobster Robinson and his gang. Claire Trevor, as a fading chanteuse, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Bogie is a vet held hostage (along with Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) by Robinson.

Saturday, Aug. 11

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick, U.S.-Britain) Kubrick’s superb film of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic comic-erotic novel – about the dangerous affair of college professor Humbert Humbert (James Mason) with nymphet Lolita (Sue Lyon), while they are nightmarishly pursued by writer/sybarite Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers). It has strong noir touches, themes and style. With Shelley Winters; script by Nabokov (and Kubrick).

Tuesday, Aug. 14

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.) “The Public Enemy” (1931, William Wellman) Quintessential pre-noir gang movie, with Cagney, Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke, booze, guns and a grapefruit.

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Each Dawn I Die” (1939, William Keighley) Cagney and George Raft in prison. Reportedly one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite movies.

Wednesday, Aug. 15

1 a.m. (10 p.m.): “The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton) The great noir with Robert Mitchum as evil Preacher Harry, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters.

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Film noir Friday on TCM kicks off a new feature on FNB

THE NOIR FILE
By Mike Wilmington

A noir-lover’s schedule of film noirs on cable TV. First up: Friday, June 29, an all-noir day on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Times: Eastern Standard and Pacific Standard.

Friday, June 29
6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Letter” (William Wyler, 1940) Bette Davis, in her Bad Bette mode, strings along Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson (but not Gale Sondergaard) in the ultimate movie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s dark colonial tale of adultery, murder and a revealing letter. Like most of Maugham’s stories, this one was based on fact. Script by Howard Koch.

Bogart and Ida Lupino play outlaw lovers in “High Sierra.”

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “High Sierra” (Raoul Walsh, 1941) “The ‘Gotterdammerung’ of the gangster movie,” according to Andrew Sarris. Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino (both great) as outlaw lovers in Walsh’s classic noir from the W. R. Burnett novel. Script by Burnett and John Huston; with Arthur Kennedy, Cornel Wilde, Barton MacLane, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull and Henry Travers. If you’ve never seen this one, don’t miss it: the last shot is a killer.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “The Fallen Sparrow” (Richard Wallace, 1943) John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak in an anti-Fascist thriller, with a Spanish Civil War backdrop. From the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (“In a Lonely Place”).

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Johnny Angel” (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) Night-life murder mystery with George Raft, Claire Trevor, Signe Hasso and Hoagy Carmichael. Too plain visually, but a nice script by Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner share a tense moment in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” directed by Tay Garnett.

12:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m.): “Deception” (Irving Rapper, 1946) Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid in a stormy classical music triangle. Script by John Collier (“Evening Primrose”), from Louis Verneuil’s play.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (Tay Garnett, 1946) John Garfield and Lana Turner make the screen blaze as the bloody, adulterous lovers in this hot-as-hell, cold-as-ice movie of the steamy James M. Cain classic noir sex-and-murder thriller. With Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway and Leon Ames. Script by Niven Busch.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Hollow Triumph” (aka “The Scar”) (Steve Sekely, 1948) Crime and psychology and doubles and scars, with two Paul Henreids, Joan Bennett and Eduard Franz. Script by first-rate Brooklyn novelist Daniel Fuchs (“Low Company”).

Ava Gardner tempts Charles Laughton in “The Bribe.”

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “The Bribe” (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949) Ace femme fatale Ava Gardner tempts Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton. Script by Marguerite Roberts (“True Grit”), from a Frederick Nebel story.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Woman in Hiding” (Michael Gordon, 1950) Marital tension with Ida Lupino, real-life hubby Howard Duff (as the wry love interest) and bad movie hubby Stephen McNally (the villain). Script by Oscar Saul (“The Helen Morgan Story”).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Julie” (Andrew L. Stone, 1956) Doris Day is terrorized by hubby Louis Jourdan. With Barry Sullivan and Frank Lovejoy. Stone scripted.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (Peter Godfrey, 1947) Humphrey Bogart, in Bad Bogie mode, has marriage problems with Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Nigel Bruce co-stars; Thomas Job scripted.

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Raymond Chandler on the big screen: ‘Brasher Doubloon’ and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ to play this Thursday at the Aero

I’ve never seen “The Brasher Doubloon” but I love the name! This 1947 film, directed by John Brahm and starring George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, is based on a Raymond Chandler novel (“The High Window”). “The Brasher Doubloon,” on a double bill with “Murder, My Sweet,” starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, 1328 Montana Ave.

Also, three excellent neo noirs are coming up in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) in a double bill with “Blood Simple” (1984) by the Coen brothers plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Aero. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) will show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

Dick Powell as Marlowe tells the story, in flashback, to police.

One of these days, I’ll get around to compiling my list of the Top 10 classic film noir movies. When I do, “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, RKO) will be on the roster because it’s a superb flick and a defining work of the genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely”) full of choice one-liners.

“Murder, My Sweet” stars Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe, perhaps Chandler’s most famous character and one of the best-known screen detectives. The movie opens with Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) showing up at Marlowe’s office, wanting him to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Marlowe looks for clues at Florian’s, a dive bar, and at the home of widow Jessie Florian (Esther Howard). How to describe Mrs. Florian? Well, it’s hard to beat Marlowe’s take: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

Meanwhile, Marlowe agrees to act as a sort of bodyguard for another client, fussy and effete Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who must deliver a ransom for stolen jewels. The exchange doesn’t go well – Marriott is murdered and Marlowe takes a crack on the head. Once back at the office, Marlowe is visited by a reporter asking questions about a stolen jade necklace. The “reporter” turns out be Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a cute, feisty Girl-Scout type from a wealthy family. Pretty quickly, Marlowe meets Ann’s cootish Daddy (Miles Mander) and her femme fatale stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor).

The introduction of Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is one of film noir's great meetings.

And a great meeting it is, a bit like Stanwyck and MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” but here Trevor, dressed to the nines and sporting ankle-strap chunky heels, can’t really be bothered with coy flirtation. World-weary and blasé, she gives Marlowe the once-over without a word, just a great look of “another day, another guy.” A few minutes later she does fight the ennui enough to say pointedly, “Let’s dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?”

Besides drinking and shopping, Helen likes to dance and has no shortage of partners – guys who take her out on the town because Mr. G isn’t quite up to it. Turns out, Marriott was one of Helen’s companions and had been trying to help her buy back a stolen jade necklace. Now she thinks Marlowe might be up to the task.

But Marlowe isn’t easily seduced, even though he pretends to be if he thinks it will yield a clue or two. As he figures out who’s guilty of what, we meet Marriott’s suave, sinister chum Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) and the nefarious Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde).

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

With its constantly twisting plot, original music by Roy Webb and high-contrast, shadow-heavy visuals from cinematographer Harry J. Wild, “Murder, My Sweet” is awfully good fun to watch.

John Paxton’s sharp screenplay honors Chandler’s wit and many lines still seem fresh today. Ann rails against “big league blondes: beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got – all bubble bath and dewy morning and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold – cold like that, only not that clean.” Helen’s retort is simple: “Your slip shows, dear.”

The movie fared well with critics and audiences – the popular appeal was at least in part because leading man Powell was a matinée idol and musical comedy star. Financially strapped RKO signed him to a contract hoping he could pull in much-needed cash at the box office; Powell signed with the condition that he could first play a straight dramatic role. The studio changed the movie’s name from “Farewell, My Lovely” so that viewers wouldn’t mistake it for a musical.

Mike Mazurki

Edward Dmytryk

Though Dmytryk wasn’t thrilled with this casting decision, Powell did a near-flawless job, earning approval from both the director and Chandler. Trevor and Shirley match his fine work as do Howard, Walton, Mander and Kruger. And Mazurki was perfectly cast. Trevor was quite the celluloid bad girl; most notably as the cold-blooded temptress in “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise). She won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s moll in the classic “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

Dmytryk deftly balances cynicism and anxiety with acerbic humor and lighthearted romance. Gifted at creating suspense and edgy moods, he is an undisputed master of film noir. After “Murder, My Sweet,” he helmed “Cornered” (1945), “Crossfire” (1947), “The Hidden Room” (1949), “The Sniper” (1952) and “Mirage” (1965).

His career was sidetracked, however, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and its unconstitutional efforts to eradicate a perceived Communist influence in Hollywood. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC. But, after spending time in prison, Dmytryk changed his mind, testified before the committee and named names of supposed Communists.

Despite his decision to testify and the enmity it earned him, Dmytryk remains one of noir’s best directors.

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‘Murder, My Sweet’ quick hit

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

“Murder, My Sweet” is a superb flick and a defining work of the film noir genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific John Paxton script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell, My Lovely”). Musical star Dick Powell took a gamble by playing private eye Philip Marlowe and the risk paid off.

Tracking down a showgirl for an ex-con ignites the action in a complicated plot; Chandlerian weirdos, well dressed hustlers and eloquent thieves abound. Also starring Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Mike Mazurki, Esther Howard and Otto Kruger.

 

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