Light & Noir at the Skirball Cultural Center tells a spellbinding story of immigration and innovation, set in Hollywood

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

“Making movies is a little like walking into a dark room,” said legendary director Billy Wilder, who made more than 50 films and won six Academy Awards. “Some people stumble across furniture, others break their legs but some of us see better in the dark than others.”

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

By the time the Austrian-born journalist, screenwriter and director came to America in 1934, he’d seen more than his share of darkness, on screen and off. Wilder left Europe to escape the Nazis; his mother died in Auschwitz.

He joined many other prominent Jewish artists (such as directors Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann, composer Franz Waxman, and writers Salka Viertel and Franz Werfel) as they left their homes and careers in German-speaking countries to build new lives and find work in Hollywood.

Starting on Thursday, Oct. 23, a new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 highlights the experiences of these émigré actors, directors, writers and composers.

They came to California at a pivotal time in the world’s history and in the evolution of the movie-making capital, greatly contributing to Hollywood’s Golden Age and raising the artistic bar for its productions.

In particular, film noir was born when the talents of these European émigrés merged with the hard-boiled stories of American pulp crime fiction and the subtle sensibilities of French Poetic Realism.

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Films, concept drawings, costumes, posters, photographs and memorabilia will help tell the story of Hollywood’s formative era through the émigré lens. Accompanying the show is a plethora of events: film screenings, readings, talks, tours, courses (photography and cooking with a Café Vienne installation), comedy, family programs, a holiday pop-up shop and more.

Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition will run through March 1, 2015.

Running in conjunction with the show is The Noir Effect, which explores how the film noir genre gave rise to major contemporary trends in American popular culture, art and media. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

Of course, I’m especially looking forward to the impressive lineup of films. On Oct. 30, Jan-Christopher Horak, a German-exile cinema historian and director of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, will describe how Hollywood became the prime employer of European émigré filmmakers as Nazi persecution grew. The lecture will be followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die!”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

(Additionally, continuing through April 26, 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum is Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. The series explores approximately 25 masterworks of German Expressionist cinema, a national style that had international impact.)

At the Skirball Cultural Center, on Dec. 7, fashion expert Kimberly Truhler will discuss the effect of World War II on film costume design and American fashion in the 1940s. Gabriela Hernandez, founder of Bésame Cosmetics, will share the history of make-up and tips on achieving the film noir look.

And in January, the Skirball Cultural Center will host the film series “The Intriguante: Women of Intrigue in Film Noir,” which will feature: “The Woman in the Window,” “Pitfall,” “Criss Cross,” “The File on Thelma Jordon” and the 2008 documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood.”

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Burt Lancaster on the big screen: ‘The Killers’ and ‘Criss Cross’

UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater will present a terrific double bill on Saturday, May 4: two works from film-noir master Robert Siodmak, starring Burt Lancaster.

Burt Lancaster made his screen debut in “The Killers,” co-starring Ava Gardner.

In addition to being handsome and lithe, Lancaster projected intelligence, sensitivity and depth. He made his screen debut in “The Killers” (1946), adapted from an Ernest Hemingway short story and co-starring Ava Gardner. Lancaster can’t break Yvonne De Carlo’s spell in “Criss Cross” (1949), a brooding narrative of betrayal set in the back alleys of post-war downtown Los Angeles.

The evening is part of the Lancaster centennial celebration presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program. The celebration of Lancaster’s movies runs through June 30. The Film Noir Foundation’s Alan K. Rode is the special guest on May 4.

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A few of FNB’s fave posts from 2012

Happy 2013, all! Here’s a look at FNB highlights from 2012.

Marilyn Monroe shot by Bert Stern

Top 10 FNB posts (misc.)

Remembering Beth Short, the Black Dahlia, on the 65th anniversary of her death

TCM festival in Hollywood

Interview with Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster”

Marilyn Monroe birthday tribute

Marilyn Monroe exhibit in Hollywood

Film noir feline stars: The cat in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

Famous injuries in film noir, coinciding with my fractured toe, or broken foot, depending on how dramatic I am feeling

Panel event on author Georges Simenon with director William Friedkin

History Channel announcement: FNB to curate film noir shop page

Retro restaurant reviews: Russell’s in Pasadena

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REVIEWS: 2012 neo-noirs or films with elements of noir

Crossfire Hurricane” documentary

Hitchcock

Holy Motors

Killing Them Softly

Momo: The Sam Giancana Story” documentary

Polisse

Rust and Bone

Searching for Sugar Man” documentary

Unforgivable

Wuthering Heights

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REVIEWS: Classic film noir

Anatomy of a Murder

Criss Cross

Decoy

Gilda

Gun Crazy

Murder, My Sweet

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Possessed

Sunset Blvd.

They Drive By Night

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REVIEWS: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder

The Lady Vanishes

Marnie

Notorious

The 39 Steps

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Seeking ‘recline’ inspiration from film noir’s injured characters

I recently experienced a little setback: I fractured my toe (one in from the pinkie on the right foot). I didn’t teeter as I tried on Loubou’s or tumble on a treacherous chunk of pavement. Nor was I hang-gliding or training for a 5k run. Please. Have we met? No, in typical femme fatale fashion, à la Mae West, I tripped over a pile of men.

Sporting hideous footwear.

Of course I don’t mind being ordered by doctors to rest and relax. In fact, I relish the opportunity. And if ever there were a time to be waited on hand and foot, bark out orders and be completely catered to, honey this is it! I’m also grateful that the toe (underrated little body part that it is) wasn’t broken or more severely damaged – it should heal nicely as long as I’m patient.

But the thing I really miss is going to yoga. Feeling a little blue and kicking myself (pun intended) for not being more careful, I called my friend Anne who pointed out that what’s bad in life is good on the page. She suggested that as I recuperate I commiserate with noir characters – like nostril-impaired Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in “Chinatown” – who sustain and recover from injuries. (You can always trust a Gemini to come up with a creative approach.)

As I lounge on my sofa, I also find myself pondering existential questions, such as: Can I now fulfill my long-held fantasy of going to yoga and resting in child’s pose for the entire class? Will wine and ice cream provide the same benefits as shavasana? What about cupcakes? Does Susie Cakes deliver? Is it possible to dance while using crutches? How long can a girl go without shaving her legs?

Aah, more than my peabrain can process right now. So, with many thanks to Anne, here are my favorite mending moments of film noir.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe is temporarily blinded in “Murder, My Sweet.”

 

Phony, schmony. The dude still hobbled around on crutches: Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.”

 

Decoy”’s Frank Armstrong recovers from the ultimate “accident.” Cold-hearted Jean Gillie sees a way to get her hands on a wad of cash by bringing her criminal boyfriend back to life following his visit to the gas chamber. Absurd? Absolutely. Still, it’s all in a day’s work for film noir’s toughest femme fatale.

 

“Dark Passage”: Unjustly sentenced prison escapee Humphrey Bogart undergoes plastic surgery to alter his looks. He co-stars with real-life wife Lauren Bacall.

 

Burt Lancaster sustains major injuries after a heist gets fouled up in “Criss Cross.” (In “The Killers” Lancaster plays a boxer whose career folded after hurting his hand.)

 

The Big Heat” contains one of film noir’s most famous violent scenes. Lee Marvin throws a pot of boiling coffee at Gloria Grahame and disfigures her face. She gets even in the end.

 

Jimmy Stewart is a photojournalist who watches his neighbors to pass the time (with gorgeous Grace Kelly for company) while his leg heals in “Rear Window.”

 

Jack Nicholson wears his bandage for most of “Chinatown.” Director Roman Polanski plays the menacing punk who cuts Nicholson’s nose.

 

“Misery”’s Kathy Bates is the nurse-from-hell to wounded writer James Caan.

 

Viggo Mortensen gets stabbed in his foot after fending off two thugs in “A History of Violence.”

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‘Criss Cross,’ a stellar noir, screens Thursday at TCM fest

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

What would film noir be without obsessive love? (Or “amour fou” as the French would say.) Just a bunch of caring and sharing among equal partners with no cause for discontent? How frightfully dull.

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949 by director Robert Siodmak. This film is somewhat neglected so I’m very happy that the TCM Classic Film Festival is screening it this Thursday with an intro from the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller. Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Steve (Burt Lancaster) find it impossible to say goodbye.

“Criss Cross” tells the story of a nice guy from a modest background who, try as he might, just cannot break ties with his sexy but venal ex-wife. They are one of noir’s most stunningly gorgeous couples.

Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson takes your breath away with his arresting features and beautiful build. Equally captivating is exquisite Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster on the ’60s TV show, “The Munsters”) as Anna.

Lancaster and De Carlo were also paired in Jules Dassin’s prison film “Brute Force” from 1947. And in 1946, Siodmak helped catapult Lancaster and Ava Gardner to stardom in “The Killers,” another seminal film noir. Miklós Rózsa wrote original music for both Siodmak films.

Back to “Criss Cross.” Having returned to his native Los Angeles after more than a year of roaming around the country, working odd jobs, Steve’s convinced that he’s over Anna and can move on from their failed marriage.

He gets his old job back (as a driver for Horten’s, an armored car service) and reconnects with his family (a very unusual touch – most noir heroes are total loners). There’s Mom (Edna Holland), brother Slade (Richard Long) and his brother’s fiancée Helen (Meg Randall). They’re all anti-Anna, natch, and so is Steve’s childhood friend Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally).

Anna likes the perks that her sugar daddy Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) can provide.

It’s only a matter of time (and fate, of course) before Steve sees Anna again, only to learn she has a new love interest, an unctuous gangster and sugar daddy named Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), whom she abruptly marries.

But Anna can’t quite tear herself away from Steve – he is Burt bloody Lancaster, after all. When Slim catches the pair together, Steve stays calm and says he’s figured out a way to pull a heist – an inside job at Horten’s – but he needs some help to carry it out. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however, and the caper turns into a smoke-filled shootout, which lands Steve in the hospital and launches Slim on the lam.

Noir master Daniel Fuchs adapted “Criss Cross” from a Don Tracy novel. While the script’s references to Steve’s imminent doom are a little over the top, the movie is still an excellent showcase for the talents of German-émigré Siodmak, an auteur largely underrated in postwar Hollywood, as well as for his cast and crew. “Criss Cross” is both a tense, lean crime thriller and a textured, haunting story about relationships and human nature.

Much as I like “The Killers,” I prefer “Criss Cross” and its probing into questions of fate, our inherent human capacity for perversity and self-destruction, our tendencies toward paranoia, greed and guilt, and our willingness to trust, trick and manipulate others and ourselves. Basically, everything we hate to think about and try to repress.

We see romantic relationships that run the gamut from sweet to steamy to sadistic, with Siodmak and Fuchs reminding us of the violence that can lurk just under a tranquil surface. It’s also interesting to speculate, upon repeat viewings, just how far back Steve might have been hatching his plan and to what extent it grew out of Slim’s wider and stickier web of deceit.

When Slim and his gang invade Steve’s place, Steve outlines his plan.

Beginning with a magnificent shot that lands us in the middle of the story, we witness a clandestine meeting, a few minutes in a parking lot, of lovers Steve and Anna.

Then, as Siodmak backtracks to fill us in on their story, it’s one ravishing chiaroscuro composition after another, often shot from high above and suggesting a sense of encroaching peril or shot low to create a feeling of dominance, danger and power. Entrapping shadows abound.

Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer were at the top of their game in “Criss Cross. “ It’s hard to beat the panoramic opening scene and the pieta-like closing shot. Another striking scene: when Steve sees Anna dancing the rhumba (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) as Esy Morales’ band gives it their all. I also love the alternating high and low shots as Anna and Steve discover that Slim and his gang have infiltrated Steve’s place, quiet as cats, save for the refrigerator that pounds shut as they help themselves to beers. “You know,” says Dan Duryea’s Slim, in a cool, silky voice, “it don’t look right. You can’t exactly say it looks right now can you?”

Was there anyone better in 1940s than Duryea as the cheap, sleazy, misogynistic gangster-type who never failed to be dressed to the nines in the flashiest and gaudiest of garb?

Steve and Anna hope to reunite after she extricates herself from Slim.

Additionally, it’s a testament to Lancaster’s power of expression – his graceful physicality, measured, calm voice and what seems to be an innate kindness and intelligence – that you continue to root for him knowing that every step he takes is the wrong one.

And you can see how De Carlo as Anna could sear a man’s heart. (De Carlo later starred as the quirky matriarch in TV’s “The Munsters,” 1964-66.) While some would write Anna off as a conniving shrew who causes Steve’s downfall, and it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise, she at least never plays too coy – she wants him, yes, but she wants money too and she’s entirely clear that she’ll get it with or without him. It’s his choice (as much as you have a choice in film noir) to execute a heist to get a bunch of cash. As for the heist, particularly the planning of, I think there is much here that influenced John Huston when he made “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950).

Also memorable in their performances are Percy Helton as the bartender, Alan Napier as Finchley, the stately, dignified crook consultant who works for liquor and Griff Barnett as Pop, the co-worker whom Steve betrays. “Criss Cross” also features Raymond Burr, uncredited, as a gangster.

Steven Soderbergh remade “Criss Cross” as “The Underneath” in 1995 and it’s a good film. But just as Lancaster’s Steve likens his love to getting a bit of apple stuck in his teeth, “Criss Cross” similarly lodges in your psyche. Like a lurking temptation, it’s hard to let go.

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‘Criss Cross’ quick hit

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

Before she was Lily Munster of TV fame, Yvonne De Carlo was a ’40s hottie and the object of Burt Lancaster’s eternal lust in “Criss Cross,” director Robert Siodmak’s and writer Daniel Fuchs’ tale of love, obsession and betrayal. To win her love once and for all, Lancaster cooks up a daring heist with gangster Dan Duryea. What could go wrong? Only everything. Noir filmmaking at its finest.

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Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘Criss Cross’ and a TCM mug!

This month, I am giving away a copy of Robert Siodmak’s “Criss Cross” from 1949. Quintessential noir viewing, the film stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea. “Criss Cross” plays on the big screen next Thursday in Hollywood at the TCM Classic Movies Festival, kicking off a fine slate of noir films.

So, in addition to the movie, I am adding a souvenir TCM coffee mug as part of the prize. (More on the TCM fest’s noir lineup and a review of “Criss Cross” in upcoming posts.)

(Marya is the winner of the March reader giveaway, a Criterion DVD set of “Anatomy of a Murder.” Congrats to Marya and thanks to all who entered!)

To enter the April giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from April 1-30. Or, if you are on twitter, retweet one of my giveaway posts. We welcome comments and RTs, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment/RT.

The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early May. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

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