Edgar G. Ulmer films to screen at the Academy

Detour poster 214A double-bill of “Detour” and “The Strange Woman” on Friday, Nov. 6, will launch the Academy’s Edgar G. Ulmer screening series. A production designer and director, Ulmer worked in many genres and, as the “King of Poverty Row” in Hollywood, was underrated in his lifetime. We, of course, adore his film noir titles.

The six-film series is running in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma). The films will be shown at Lacma’s Bing Theater.

 

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Film Noir File: A Day with Ulmer, the King of Poverty Row Noir

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

A Dark Day with Edgar G. Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

Edgar Ulmer

The French call him an auteur. The Americans call him The King of Poverty Row. And no cultish filmmaker of the classic Hollywood era, not even the infamous Ed Wood, Jr., has a stranger, more offbeat, more off-the-wall filmography than Edgar G. Ulmer. He’s the man who made “The Black Cat,” “Bluebeard” and “The Strange Woman” as well as a picture shot for a song that eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry, that legendary 1945 no-exit low-budget classic of fate, despair and sudden death, “Detour.”

Ulmer, born in Olmutz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary in 1904, started his career in Germany, in the heyday of German Expressionism, working, he claimed (some dispute it), on classics such as “Metropolis,” and “The Last Laugh” for film geniuses like Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. He received his first directorial credit on “People on Sunday,” with fellow filmmakers Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.

While Wilder and the others became A-list directors and even Oscar-winners in Hollywood, Ulmer was exiled to “Poverty Row.” There he labored for the rest of his career on an amazing potpourri of low-budget titles, including westerns, film noir and science fiction.

The Black Cat posterThe reason: While he was directing the 1934 horror hit, “The Black Cat” starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Ulmer made the mistake of having an affair with his producer’s wife, Shirley Alexander. Shirley later divorced her husband Max, married Ulmer and worked beside him, as script supervisor or scenarist, from then on.

Ulmer’s Hollywood career lasted from the early ’30s to the mid ’60s, largely because he doesn’t seem to have ever turned down a script. He shot on bare-bones sets, with actors usually (though not always) on the B or C or D lists, from scripts for which the adjective “clichéd” would be a compliment. And though his movies may have been shot for peanuts, in his hands, they often looked like caviar.

A healthy percentage of Ulmer’s movies were film noir – or close to film noir. They took place in a world of fear and darkness, sometimes because the characters were swallowed up in impending doom, and sometimes, one suspects, because the electricity bill hadn’t been paid. Whatever the job though, Ulmer was one of the real masters of the noir form and style.

And why shouldn’t he be? His whole life and career, in a way, were film noirs – dark stories of infidelity, betrayal, paranoia and persecution, enacted in an Ulmerworld that was lost in shadows of menace and dread.

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ann Savage is one fierce femme in “Detour.”

Ulmer died in 1972, but he lived to see his work revived and his name made famous – cultishly famous, it’s true, but renowned nonetheless. He and Shirley are buried near each other. And they now have Ulmerfests near his Austrian-Hungarian birthplace.

Here is your own Ulmerfest from TCM. So, take the detour. You won’t find cheaper, better, crazier, more cultish, shadowy, mesmerizing (or should we say “Ulmerizing“) Poverty Row classics anywhere.

The Ulmerfilmen (Tuesday, Oct. 21)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Her Sister’s Secret” (1946, Edgar Ulmer). A weepy soaper, starring Nancy Coleman and Margaret Lindsay as sisters with a secret (an illegitimate child). Not quite in Douglas Sirk’s class, but better than most cheapo tear-jerkers.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Edgar G. Ulmer The Man Off-Screen” (2004, Michael Palm). A 2004 Ulmer documentary. Interviewees include Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Corman. Also shown at 5 a.m. (2 a.m.) on Wednesday, Oct. 22.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

“Detour” eventually made it into the U. S. National Film Registry.

10:45 p.m. (7:45 p.m.): “Carnegie Hall” (1947, Edgar Ulmer). Marsha Hunt is a faithful Carnegie Hall music lover determined that her son (William Prince) will be a great classical pianist. While she drives him onward and upward, director Ulmer –  a classical music buff of the first degree – beautifully stages and photographs some incredible performances by such legendary classical virtuosi as pianist Artur Rubinstein, violinist Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregor Piatagorsky, conductors Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner (Ulmer’s personal friend and the godfather of his daughter), opera singers Lily Pons, Ezio Pinza and Rise Stevens, and, for variation, pop music stars Harry James and Vaughn Monroe.

Few musical movies have ever boasted a lineup like that – and this movie probably had a special place in music-lover Ulmer’s heart.

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

Paul Langton and Barbara Payton star in “Murder is My Beat.”

1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.): “Murder is My Beat” (1955, Edgar Ulmer). Two cops chase a killer. One of Ulmer’s pure noirs. With Paul Langton, Robert Shayne and Barbara Payton.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.): “Detour” (1945, Edgar Ulmer). With Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Esther Howard. Read the full review here.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Amazing Transparent Man” (1960, Edgar Ulmer). A gangster and a mad scientist with an invisibility formula team up for a crime wave. There is no truth to the rumor that the producer told Ulmer to make the entire cast invisible to save on salaries. With Marguerite Chapman and Douglas Kennedy.

Saturday, Oct. 18

Assault poster2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Assault on Precinct 13” (1976, John Carpenter). Trapped in a local Los Angeles precinct station and lock-up, with communication cut off and a gang of vicious delinquents and criminals besieging them from outside, a group of cops and convicts try to make it through the night. Director-writer John Carpenter, inspired by one of his favorite movies (the 1959 Howard Hawks Western “Rio Bravo”) gives us one of the quintessential entrapment thrillers. With Austin Stoker and Darwin Joston.

Sunday, Oct. 19

5:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m.): “Foreign Correspondent” (1940, Alfred Hitchcock). With Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, George Sanders and Herbert Marshall. Reviewed in FNB on March 26, 2014.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Marnie” (1964, Alfred Hitchcock). With Sean Connery, Tippi Hedren and Martin Gabel. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 30, 2012.

10:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.): “Julie” (1956, Andrew L. Stone). The same year she sang “Que Sera, Sera” for Hitchcock as the menaced mom in Hitch’s remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Doris Day played a comely stewardess stalked by her psycho ex-husband, Louis Jourdan, in this lady-in-distress thriller from the poor man’s Hitchcock, Andrew Stone. It’s an okay movie with a good cast: Barry Sullivan, Frank Lovejoy, Jack (“Maverick”) Kelly, Jack Kruschen and one of D. W. Griffith’s great threatened ladies, Mae Marsh of “Intolerance.” Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012.

Monday, Oct. 20

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock). Robert Cummings plays one of the classic Hitchcockian “wrong men,” falsely accused of World War II era sabotage, racing cross country to try to find and expose the real saboteurs. In the tradition of “The 39 Steps“ and “North by Northwest,“ it’s full of sometimes astonishing suspense set-pieces, including the breathtaking, vertigo-inducing scene with Cummings and Norman Lloyd at the top of the Statue of Liberty.

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The Noir File: Edgar Ulmer’s ‘Detour’ and Friday Night with Dashiell Hammett

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir 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

Ann Savage and Tom Neal star in the ultra low-budget “Detour.”

Detour” (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Tuesday, June 11: 2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.).

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Friday, June 7

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). With Peter Lorre, Margaret Tallichet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed on FNB Nov. 3, 2012.

NOIR WRITERS SERIES: DASHIELL HAMMETT

Dashiell Hammett

All this month, on its Friday Night Spotlight screenings, TCM will show a series of classic film noirs – with each Friday devoted to movies based on or written by (or both) one of four top-notch noir authors – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich.

Tonight the spotlight is on the matchless hard-boiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett – who, along with Ernest Hemingway, was probably one of the most influential American writers of the decades after World War I, and since. Terse, lean and brutally direct, empty of flourish, cliché or artifice, Hammett’s style owed a lot to his own years as a Pinkerton detective.

He decisively reveals a world of greed, murder, illicit sex, gangsterism, corruption and treachery among the rich and the crooked, telling it all with a flair and a punch that was copied endlessly but rarely recaptured. (The “Noir Writers” films were curated and will be introduced by film noir expert Eddie Muller.)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Maltese Falcon” (1931, Roy Del Ruth). The first movie adaptation of Hammett’s classic dark private-eye novel, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale and Dudley Digges as Gutman – all chasing the priceless black bird. It pales beside John Huston’s great version of course (see below). But it’s not bad, in a raunchy pre-Code way.

9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.): “City Streets” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian). Hammett’s only original movie story: an underworld romance stylishly directed by Mamoulian, who was in his most innovative period. With Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as lovers caught in a vicious world of big-city crime, and Paul Lukas and Guy Kibbee as off-type bad guys. [Read more...]

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In ‘Ruthless,’ director Edgar G. Ulmer moves (temporarily) from Poverty Row to Paradise

Ruthless/1948/ Producing Artists/105 min.

“Ruthless” was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

By Michael Wilmington

The Czech-born émigré film director Edgar G. Ulmer, as noir as they come, was called the King of Poverty Row by some of his cultish admirers.

Pictures like Ulmer’s 1945 low-B film noir “Detour,” his 1939 African-American ultra-indie “Moon Over Harlem,” the 1951 low-fi sci-fi “The Man from Planet X” and the 1955 cheapo Western “The Naked Dawn” stretch the limits of cinematic ingenuity stimulated by minuscule budgets. In Ulmer’s undisputed masterpiece “Detour,” the director shows buildings lost in the night and fog – a spine-chilling effect – because there was no money for a street set.

“Ruthless,” by comparison, is a fairly lush production, with a multitude of richly detailed sets, high production values and a cast that ranks just below A-level. The film has that sense of impending evil and doom that also marked Ulmer’s 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi horror classic “The Black Cat.” Even when “Ruthless” becomes absurd – as in the fervidly ludicrous climax – it’s always fun to watch.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig who cheats, double-crosses and sleeps his way to the top, then shrugs it off when a one-time ally commits suicide. Louis Hayward is his often-abused and appropriately named best friend Vic Lambdin.

Sydney Greenstreet is Buck Mansfield, a fellow businessman and rival who’s not quite ruthless enough. Diana Lynn, double-cast, is the love (or loves) of Horace’s life. And that ace noir heavy of heavies Raymond Burr pops up as well. All this for a director who usually counted himself lucky if he got actors like Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the doomed couple in “Detour.”

Scott, a sometimes underrated actor (he was tremendous in both “Mildred Pierce” and in Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner”), manages to show the warmer, more seductive qualities beneath the ruthlessness of Vendig. Greenstreet seems miscast playing a guy named Buck. But he has a good time as the vengeful ex-tycoon, as does Diana Lynn (twice) and Burr, who can occasionally, though not here, seem like a second-string Greenstreet.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Vendig’s rival who’s not quite ruthless enough.

The subject of “Ruthless” is wealth, its hypocrisies and the price it ultimately exacts from the soul of the taker. The obvious inspiration for “Ruthless,” which was based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart (I know, I’ve never heard of him either), is the film of films, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” From Kane, Ulmer and his screenwriters borrow the multiple flashback structure, the deep-focus camera virtuosity, the theme of the sins behind great fortunes, the foil of the humanistic best friend (Hayward) and the main character with three names.

Edgar G. Ulmer

As for Ulmer – the low-rent auteur who persevered through often threadbare productions, including “Damaged Lives,” a low-budget 1933 cautionary drama about venereal disease – “Ruthless” must have made him feel as if he’d migrated temporarily from Poverty Row to Paradise. While “Ruthless” is not as good as “Detour,” it does show that Ulmer could have functioned very well, if the powers that be let him move more often to the right side of the tracks. (The rumor is that the director was banished to the likes of Producers Releasing Corp. and Eagle Lion because he’d seduced the wife of a major studio bigwig.)

But almost anybody can be better with better stuff and the one big advantage of working on Poverty Row is that you’re left alone if you can get it done on time and on (you’ll excuse the word) budget. Ulmer and his charmingly disreputable and penny-wise films will always be special treats to devotees of black and white Hollywood.

Now let’s go watch 1960’s “The Amazing Transparent Man.” I hear the reason the Man was transparent is that there was no money for another actor.

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Jean Gillie in ‘Decoy’ is classic noir’s hardest, greediest and most daring femme fatale

Decoy/1946/Monogram Pictures/76 min.

Jean Gillie as Margot is tougher than any American femme fatale of the era.

Talk about raw deals. The hardest, greediest, most daring femme fatale in all of classic film noir – England’s Jean Gillie in “Decoy” – is not widely known today, beyond a fervent cult following.

But rest easy, fatale fans, I am joining the charge to get the word out on Ms. Gillie. I may even become motivated to get off my famously comfy sofa and take to the streets to spread the word. Though that seems a tad drastic, especially since I’ve just achieved the perfect arrangement for my pillows …

Well, let me start by telling you about it. Made in 1946 by director Jack Bernhard, who also directed “Blonde Ice,” this is another hard-core noir story with a totally heartless seductress, a wildly improbable plot and a grimly pessimistic take on human nature.

First, the dame: Dainty, devious and always dressed to a T, Margot Shelby (Gillie) wants the $400,000 that her jailed boyfriend, an old codger named Frank (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong”), has hidden in a buried suitcase. But Frank is awaiting execution and he’s squirreled away the map to the treasure.

Gangster Jim (Edward Norris), Margot and prison doctor Lloyd (Herbert Rudley) band together to find the $400,000 in cash that Frank has buried.

Hmm, that’s a drag. What to do? Margot figures, after he gets the lethal gas, my pals and I will just bring him back to life. Then, he can lead us to the cash. Margot’s helpers are gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and prison doctor Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), both of whom are crazy about her. So is nosy police sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) or Jo-Jo as Margot calls him when she’s flirting with him.

Like any good ringleader, Margot keeps abreast of all kinds of news, and she learns about a chemical called methylene blue, which can be used as an antidote to gas poisoning. So, all they have to do is grab Frank after the execution, pop another body in the hearse and hightail it to the doctor.

Selling Jim, a fully oozing sleaze-atron, on her absurd plan is easy. Earnest and upright Dr. Lloyd is a bit trickier. “I had to smash that shield of ideals,” says Margot. Helping people, healing the sick and making the world a better place? Puhleeze. As she points out, how could they possibly be happy on Lloyd’s paltry $75/week salary when one bottle of Margot’s fave perfume costs $75?

By the time Margot is digging for dollars under the moonlight, her motley gang has dwindled to one, ie Margot. Nothing makes Margot laugh more than bumping somebody off. Her gleeful chortling punctuates the action throughout, but it’s most memorable as a defiant final gesture toward Jo-Jo the cop. She may get what’s coming to her but she also gets the last laugh. Sorry? Penitent? Remorseful? Not a chance!

As the take-no-prisoners Margot, Jean Gillie is amazing to watch – tougher than Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Joan Bennett or even snarling Ann Savage in “Detour.” In neo noir, her closest equivalent is diabolical Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction.”

“There are very few femmes fatales who don’t have a little time for love and seduction, and she really doesn’t,” says critic Molly Haskell in the Warner Bros. DVD featurette. “Not to any man who comes across her path is she loyal. The only thing she wants is the money.”

Writer/producer Stanley Rubin

In the DVD commentary, historian Glenn Erickson and writer Stanley Rubin note that as an English actress, Gillie was new to Hollywood and didn’t have to worry that by being a total bitch she would lose favor with her fan base. So, she’s a total bitch and then some. (Rubin conceived the “Decoy” story; Ned Young wrote the script.)

Gillie’s is the standout performance, but the guys certainly hold their own, especially Sheldon Leonard as the conflicted cop. (Leonard also played Nick the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) I love the part in “Decoy” when Leonard’s Jo-Jo sits on a bar stool munching a snack – not a burger or fries, but a hard-boiled egg. Mmm, what could be better than a beer and a yolk? Another great moment is when he bums a “stay-awake” pill  from Dr. Lloyd.

Like most B-movies, “Decoy” was cheap and churned out quickly, yet director and co-producer Jack Bernhard’s artistic style distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill, mediocre B-fare. “Decoy” was out of commission for several decades after its release; a screening at the American Cinematheque about 10 years ago earned fresh appreciation for the film and director.

Bernhard discovered Gillie in England while he was serving in World War Two. They married, made this film and split up. Sadly, Gillie died of pneumonia in 1949, at age 33. Bernhard disappeared from the Hollywood scene shortly after and little is known about the rest of his life.

So, have I convinced you – are you going to give Jean Gillie a chance? If I haven’t, guess I’ll have to pry myself off the sofa and hit the pavement. Just as soon as I finish my nap and book my massage.

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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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‘Detour’ quick hit

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Hard as nails Ann Savage is hell on wheels, literally. As a hitchhiker with a taste for fraud, she pulls unlucky traveler Tom Neal into her sticky web of treachery and deceit.

A searing, seminal noir from often-unappreciated director Edgar Ulmer, known for performing minor miracles on a shoestring budget.

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Bribes, brawls and bullets, and sultry Marie Windsor

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

“She haunts my dreams and some of my nightmares as well,” says an ardent fan of actress Marie Windsor in 1952’s “The Narrow Margin,” directed by Richard Fleischer.

Billy Friedkin

The fan in question is Chicago-born Billy Friedkin – director of “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), among many others – and his comments come in the form of DVD commentary for “The Narrow Margin,” a definitive film noir. Maybe Windsor had that mysterious-older-woman vibe going on too, since Friedkin was only 17 when this B-movie came out.

In it, she plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, a gangster’s wife. She’s a bribable beauty with a sharp tongue. The story takes place almost entirely on a train from Chicago to LA, where Mrs. Neall is scheduled to testify against the mob. Making sure she doesn’t bail on the way is her police escort Walter Brown (Charles McGraw).

Charles McGraw

One snag is that the mob is less than thrilled about the prospect of her naming names when she takes the stand. So two heavies board the train hoping to rub her out; their earlier attempt resulted in the death of Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe). They’ve got their work cut out for them, though – they don’t know what she looks like. And they’re up against Charles McGraw.

It’s a great yarn, fast and lean, where every second counts. The visuals are richly lurid – the stark shadows of Mrs. Neall’s apartment building when the cops come to get her are standouts. As Friedkin puts it: “Lighting is a character in these films.”

Fleischer also manages to convey a sense of realism despite the fact that “The Narrow Margin” was primarily shot on a train set. One way he accomplished that was by employing a hand-held camera, using it to simulate a sense of motion. Cramped compositions and claustrophobic camera angles heighten the mood of entrapment. Shot in less than a month, the film was a big hit at the box office.

We also meet some memorable fellow passengers such as the curious and tubby Jennings (Paul Maxey) who declares: “Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.”

And of course Windsor exudes streetwise strength every time she makes one of her barbed comments or acidic rejoinders. When Brown tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach,” she barks: “Well use your own sink.” Upon seeing him put on his gun one morning, she asks: “What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?”

“The Narrow Margin” garnered an Oscar nomination (rare for noirs) for the story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote the story and screenplay for another famous noir: “Detour,” made in 1945 by director Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. [Read more...]

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