There’s only one ‘Maltese Falcon’ and this is it

The Maltese Falcon/1941/Warner Bros./100 min.

Maltese Falcon poster“The Maltese Falcon,” a spectacularly entertaining and iconic crime film, holds the claim to many firsts.

It’s a remarkable directorial debut by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s considered by many critics to be the first film noir. (Another contender is “Stranger on the Third Floor” see below.) It was the first vehicle in which screen legend Humphrey Bogart and character actor Elisha Cook Jr. appeared together – breathing life into archetypal roles that filled the noir landscape for decades to come.

It was veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet’s first time before a camera and the first time he worked with Peter Lorre. The pair would go on to make eight more movies together. Additionally, “Falcon,” an entry on many lists of the greatest movies ever made, was one of the first films admitted to the National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, Huston’s “Falcon” is the third big-screen version of the story (others were in 1931 and 1936) and it’s by far the best. Huston follows Hammett’s work to the letter, preserving the novel’s crisp, quick dialogue. If a crime movie can be described as jaunty, this would be it. Huston’s mighty achievement earned Oscar noms for best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor (Greenstreet) and best picture.

According to former New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther: “The trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school – a blend of mind and muscle – plus a slight touch of pathos.”

A few more of Huston’s tricks include striking compositions and camera movement, breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting, and a pins-and-needles atmosphere of excitement and danger. (Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer; Thomas Richards served as film editor.)

For the few who haven’t seen “Falcon,” it’s a tale of ruthless greed and relentless machismo centered around the perfect marriage of actor and character: Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade – the ultimate cynical, streetwise, I-did-it-my-way ’40s alpha-male. As famed noir author Raymond Chandler once put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Bogart appears in just about every scene in “Falcon.”

As Raymond Chandler  put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Raymond Chandler put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Spade, he sees through the malarkey, cuts to the chase and commands every situation, even when the odds are stacked against him. At one point he breaks free of a heavy, disarms him and points the guy’s own gun at him, all while toking on his cig. He’s equally adept at using wisecracks and one-liners to swat away the cops, who regularly show up at his door.

Mary Astor plays leading lady Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Bogart’s Sam Spade and it is she who sets the story in motion when she walks into Spade’s San Francisco office. Brigid asks Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to trail a man named Thursby who, she says, is up to no good with her sister. They accept the job and Archer takes the first shift of following Thursby. Next morning, Archer’s dead. Turns out that Brigid doesn’t have a sister and Archer’s widow (Gladys George) has the hots for Spade.

Spade’s ultra-reliable and resourceful secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick) is the one gal he can trust and it’s clear she means the world to him. At one point he tells her, “you’re a good man, sister,” which in Spade-speak is a downright gushfest. He might like the look of Brigid and her little finger, but he won’t be wrapped around it anytime soon.

Humphrey Bogart owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Astor, a Hollywood wild child of her time, who left a long string of husbands and lovers in her wake and generated much fodder for the tabloids, was brilliant casting for the part of bad-girl Brigid O. True to form, Astor allegedly was having an affair with Huston during the making of the film.

There is no doubt that Bogart owns this guy’s-guy male-fantasy picture, but Astor and the stellar support cast are unforgettable in their roles. As a good-luck gesture to his son, John, actor Walter Huston plays the part of the old sea captain. Peter Lorre drips malevolence as the effeminate and whiny Joel Cairo, and he has a foreign accent, which in Hollywood is usually shorthand for: he’s a bad’un.

Making his film debut at 61, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman is both debauched and debonair, a refined reprobate with a jolly cackle and tubby physique (he was more than 350 pounds!). Warner Bros. had to make an entire wardrobe for Greenstreet; Bogart wore his own clothes to save the studio money. One more Bogart contribution was adding the line: “The stuff that dreams are made of” at the end of the film, paraphrasing a line in “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

And honing the sort of performance that would become his trademark, Elisha Cook Jr. stamps the character of warped thug Wilmer Cook with code for “psycho” (darting eyes, bubbling rage, edgy desperation) as if it were a neon light attached to his forehead.

Much has been written about the homosexual subtext of the Cairo, Gutman and Cook characters – I will just say they’re all part of the flock that covets and vies for possession the falcon, a jewel-laden statue of a bird that’s the treasure at the core of this tense and serpentine story. When it’s suggested that Wilmer Cook be sacrificed for the good of the gang, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman explains that, though Wilmer is like a son, “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Though there were two other celluloid versions of Hammett’s story, in my view, there’s only one “Maltese Falcon” and this is it.

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Stylish sleeper ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ deserves a little love

IWUS 1I Wake Up Screaming/1941/Twentieth Century-Fox/82 min.

In the Neglected Works of Noir department, “I Wake Up Screaming” from 1941 is just crying out for attention.

Director H. Bruce Humberstone made a fun and taut whodunit that’s also a treat for the eyes. The film stars Betty Grable (singer, dancer and pin-up legend in her first dramatic role) and Carole Landis as sisters Jill and Vicky Lynn, who quickly shed their homespun sensibilities as they fend for themselves in New York City, Jill working as a stenographer and Vicky waiting tables.

IWUS 2Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the fine-boned fair-haired creatures are discovered. Vicky’s in the spotlight first after PR guru Frankie “Botticelli” Christopher (Victor Mature) stops into the diner one night with some friends and decides, as he puts it, to make her The Next Big Thing. (At one point, Frankie asks how expensive she is; she replies he couldn’t afford her. To circumvent censors, that risqué line was reportedly added while shooting.)

Frankie’s pals Jerry (William Gargan), Robin (Alan Mowbray) and Larry (Allyn Joslyn) also jockey for her attention and lend their support to her quest to be a model/actress. But, just as she’s about to jet off to Hollywood for a screen test, Vicky is murdered, and all her pals are under suspicion as is the creepy clerk at her apartment building, Harry, played by noir great Elisha Cook Jr.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Matching Cook’s seediness is hefty Police Insp. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Cregar caught critics’ attention with his dark, skulking, mysterious presence; his name is probably a hat-tip to writer Cornell Woolrich.

Also, look out for “Black Mask,” the famous pulp magazine, for sale on a newsstand.

As the story unfolds, a romance develops between Frankie Christopher and Jill, and the movie proceeds at a nice clip, clocking in at 82 minutes. “I Wake Up Screaming” makes significant strides in noir style and technique, though it rarely gets credit for its achievements. One of the films that eclipsed it was director John Huston’s mightily famous “The Maltese Falcon,” also from 1941. A big-budget release from Warner Bros., the now classic movie is often cited as the first film noir.

IWUS 5“I Wake Up Screaming,” a much smaller project than “Falcon,” was the first film noir made at Twentieth Century-Fox. Humberstone incorporated arresting compositions and lighting – note the dramatic, single-source lighting in the police interrogation room scenes. The scene in which Cornell pays Christopher a night-time visit virtually defines noir, with its exaggerated shadows, grim faces, a black cat and a neon sign in the distance. Edward Cronjager was director of photography. Noir czar and author Eddie Muller points out in his excellent DVD commentary that, in visual terms, “The Maltese Falcon” is pedestrian compared with the creativity in “I Wake Up Screaming.”

Additionally, scriptwriter Dwight Taylor conceived the story as a series of flashbacks – a hallmark of film noir storytelling – though Steve Fisher’s pulpy novel is not structured that way. And, long before it became common for actors, Cregar hung out with L.A. police to lend realism to his performance. The score is interesting too – featuring “Over the Rainbow” as well as “Manhattan Street Scene,” which was also used in “The Dark Corner.” (“I Wake Up Screaming” was remade in 1953 as “Vicki,” starring Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters and Elliott Reid; it was directed by Harry Horner.)

"I Wake Up Screaming" is visually spectacular.

“I Wake Up Screaming” is visually spectacular.

So why did “Screaming” get such short shrift? Well, it wasn’t a prestige picture and, while Humberstone made the best of this low-budget B movie, it’s tough to compete with John Huston, one of Hollywood’s finest talents ever. Also, “I Wake Up Screaming” contains a generous dollop of fluffy romantic comedy, which pairs a bit uneasily with the sly, wry humor and cynical entanglements of film noir at its grittiest. Btw, I love the scene where Frankie and Jill take a dip in a public pool – both flaunting their great shape, of course – Frankie puffing away merrily on a cigarette.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that “I Wake Up Screaming” has a happy ending. Sadly, though, two of its actors died not long after the movie was released. In 1944, Cregar’s promising career was cut short at age 30 when the Philly-born actor had a heart attack, likely spurred by crash dieting for a part. Four years later, Wisconsin native Carole Landis, 29, died of a drug overdose. Her career had dead-ended and she was in bad shape, having been dismissed by the industry as a pretty airhead.

Unfortunately, that’s a story that’s been told and retold in Hollywood.

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Film noir flourishes at TCM film festival in Hollywood

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a prime location at the TCM fest. Photo by John Nowak

From Marie Windsor’s character in “The Killing” telling her wounded husband (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) to cab to the hospital because she doesn’t feel like calling an ambulance to Grace Kelly fending off her attacker and foiling the eponymous plot in “Dial M for Murder,” on-screen femmes fatales claimed their power at the TCM Classic Film Festival April 25-28 in Hollywood.

Marie Windsor

The film noir slate was particularly rich as was the experience of seeing these film on the big screen – the lighting, the compositions, the close-ups all popped in a way that just doesn’t happen when you watch these titles on TV. Additionally, the festival does a splendid job of finding guests to introduce the films.

At Thursday’s screening of “The Killing,” actress Coleen Gray shared memories of working with director Stanley Kubrick on what would turn out to be his break-though movie. “I knew he was good,” she said. “The cast is wonderful. The story, the director and the actors are in tune. And look at the cutting – it was cut to create a masterpiece. You go and see it and you bow to Mr. Kubrick.” She added that Kubrick spent much of his directorial energy working with Marie Windsor on her hard-as-nails dame Sherry Peatty.

There was film noir aplenty at the TCM festival as well as special guests, panels, a poolside screening and parties. Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

Fans of Ms. Windsor’s got another chance to connect with her at Friday’s screening of “The Narrow Margin.” The special guest was actress Jacqueline White. Also during that time slot producer Stanley Rubin reminisced about Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Otto Preminger before a showing of 1954’s “River of No Return,” a stunning example of CinemaScope’s capabilities.

“[Marilyn] and Otto didn’t like each other and so we became very friendly. She was a perfect lady,” he said, adding that she was friendly and professional with Mitchum as well.

Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return.”

Watching Monroe and Mitchum, at the height of their physical radiance in this picture, ignited in me a newfound passion for Westerns. (Believe me, this is quite a feat.)

It’s always a toss-up when deciding between a beloved classic and a little-screened rarity. We at FNB decided to mix it up a little and forgo “Notorious,” which I often liken to a glass of Veuve Clicquot, for the chance to see a 1956 Jean Gabin black comedy “La Traversée de Paris.” Gabin is always good, but the film is uneven, without much tension or humor, a bit like a flabby claret.

A much better rare treat was the definitive British film noir “It Always Rains on Sunday,” (1947, Robert Hamer), set in London’s East End, featuring a Jewish family and starring John McCallum as prison escapee Tommy Swann and tough yet oddly dainty Googie Withers as his ex-gf. The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller introduced the film, noting that it was less a crime flick than an effective portrayal of the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

We watched this with our friend Debra Levine of artsmeme.com. Our verdict: It’s a good, engaging film but what makes it great is the sleek, striking cinematography. “Tommy made some poor choices,” Ms. Levine overheard someone saying as we left the theater. Aah, but we all know that “choice” is but a futile joke in the world of film noir!

Eva Marie Saint discussed “On the Waterfront” with Bob Osborne on Friday night. Photo by John Nowak

Another Friday highlight: the lovely and gracious Eva Marie Saint discussing “On the Waterfront.”

The next morning, early birds were rewarded with a talk by Polly Bergen at the screening of “Cape Fear,” one of Robert Mitchum’s most menacing roles. Later-risers could head to the Egyptian Theatre for the West Coast restoration premiere of 1929’s “The Donovan Affair” with live actors (from Bruce Goldstein and company) and sound effects to recreate the lost soundtrack.

Eddie Muller interviewed Susan Ray at the screening of “They Live by Night.” Photo by John Nowak

Next up was a film noir must-see: “They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray), the quintessential young-lovers-on-the-run story, with an appearance by his widow Susan Ray and introduction by Eddie Muller. Commenting on Ray’s exploratory directing style, she said: “He did not go in with a preconceived idea of what should happen in a scene. He would set it up, light a fuse and watch. He would prod or provoke if necessary. He didn’t impose truth, he looked for it.”

And on Ray’s interest in telling the stories of young people, often loners or societal outcasts, she noted: “He saw the juice, potential, openness and flexibility of youth and he loved it.” Nick Ray’s gift as a visual poet is never more apparent than when you see “They Live by Night” on the big screen.

Continuing the noir mood was “Tall Target” (1951, Anthony Mann), a period noir, starring Dick Powell, Paula Raymond and Ruby Dee, based on an actual plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before he could take the oath office in 1861. Film historian Donald Bogle gave an insightful introduction.

Bob Osborne chats with Ann Blyth before Saturday night’s screening of “Mildred Pierce.” Photo by John Nowak

Then it was back to the Egyptian, where the line for “Mildred Pierce,” snaked down a busy side street of Hollywood Boulevard. Special guest actress Ann Blyth said of Joan Crawford, the film’s mega-star: “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. She was kind to me during the making of the movie and she was kind to me for many years after.”

Popcorn, Coke, Raisinets and watching Crawford pull out all the shoulder-padded stops – what more could a noirista wish for?

Sunday morning kicked off with a choice between “Badlands,” “Gilda,” or sleeping in a bit and we hit snooze. Sorry. They don’t call me Lazy Legs for nothing. Our first movie was 1973’s “Scarecrow,” starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman – it was one of the best and most resonant films we’ve seen in a long time. The acting is tremendous in this great-looking film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Director Jerry Schatzberg discussed his work in a pre-film chat with Leonard Maltin.

Anthony Dawson and Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder.”

Afterward, we managed to catch the very noirish “Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman), starring Dorothy Mackaill as a streetwise blonde who holds her own among a slew of unsavory men while she’s hiding out in the Caribbean. Donald Bogle introduced the movie and William Wellman, Jr. answered questions afterward.

A great way to wrap up the fest, before heading to the after-party at the Roosevelt Hotel, was a 3-D presentation of “Dial M for Murder.” Leonard Maltin and the always-entertaining actor-producer-director Norman Lloyd, 98, discussed 3-D and the working methods of Alfred Hitchcock. This Hitchcock gem, a perfect example of his subversive casting, is often underrated so we particularly enjoyed seeing it; we noticed that just about every seat was taken.

Hats off to TCM for another superb film festival! The staff does an excellent job running every aspect of this event and it is much appreciated.

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A Raymond Chandler story, an all-star cast and a powerhouse director: ‘The Big Sleep’ works like a sexy dream

The Big Sleep/1946/Warner Bros. Pictures/114 min.

Howard Hawks added romance and comedy to the dark tone of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Every scene with Bogie and Bacall sizzles.

“The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is almost too much fun to be pure noir. Actually, it’s not pure in any way because under the thriller surface, it’s all about sex. The women in this movie especially are thinking a lot about the bedroom.

(That’s pretty much the case with most of the film noir canon, but this movie is an outstanding example.)

“The Big Sleep” was released in 1946, the year after World War II ended. Having been man-deprived for four long years while their guys were all over the globe fighting battles, all of a sudden, everywhere the ladies looked, Men, Glorious Men! For the vets, being welcomed home and hailed as heroes by women, who likely weren’t playing all that hard to get, was not too shabby a deal.

Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe. Cynical, stubborn and streetwise, Marlowe is impervious to the trappings of wealth and power, though, given his line of work, he often finds himself dealing with the ultra rich. Marlowe flings sarcastic barbs as casually as they drop cash, even when his companions are slinky, sharp-tongued women, like spoiled society girl Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, played by Lauren Bacall.

Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is a rich party girl who constantly courts trouble.

Vivian’s Dad, a wise and way-old patriarch known as General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), has hired Marlowe to get a blackmailer named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) off his back and to track down a missing chum: Sean Regan (a character we never see onscreen).

Fueling Brody’s scheme are the, uh, antics of Sternwood’s other daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), a sexy party girl who sucks her thumb and likes posing for cameras with very little on. Snapping the pics is seedy book dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), whose snippy clerk Agnes (Sonia Darrin), has, as her “protector,” feisty little Harry Jones, played by film noir’s number one patsy, Elisha Cook Jr.

That’s just one piece of a very complicated puzzle, full of false leads and red herrings, bad guys and blind alleys, and more plot twists than I can count. By the time Marlowe puts it all together, seven are dead. But the best part of the movie for me is the dry humor and that sexy subtext I was talking about. Even the title, “The Big Sleep,” referring to death, could be a play on the French phrase for sexual climax: “le petite morte” (the little death).

Bogart’s Marlowe charms a bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone).

By the film’s end, Marlowe’s had propositions aplenty. For example, as Marlowe gathers info on Geiger, he strolls into the Acme Bookstore and meets a bespectacled brunette clerk(Dorothy Malone, later more famous as a blonde). They chat, she provides a description of Geiger, and Marlowe tells her she’d make a good cop. It starts to rain and he suggests they have a drink. Next thing you know, she removes her glasses, lets down her hair and says, “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.”

Then there’s the perky female cab driver who tells Marlowe to call her if he can use her again sometime. He asks: Day and night? Her answer: “Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Apparently, all Marlowe has to do is get out of bed in the morning to be inundated with offers to climb back in. Most importantly, of course, is Marlowe’s innuendo-heavy badinage with Vivian Sternwood. They’re attracted from the moment they meet and, with each subsequent encounter, they turn flirting and verbal sparring into an art form. Here’s a quickie (sorry, I couldn’t resist):

Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse-racing and other amusements.

“You go too far, Marlowe,” says Vivian.

He replies: “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”

Perhaps their most famous exchange occurs when they trade notes about horse-racing – with Vivian comparing Marlowe to a stallion.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but, uh…I don’t know how – how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.

Marlowe: There’s one thing I can’t figure out.

Vivian: What makes me run?

Marlowe: Uh-huh.

Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work. It’s been tried.

The horsy banter was added after the 1945 version was completed and shown overseas to audiences of U.S. soldiers; several other changes were made for the 1946 stateside release. In the late 1990s, the original version of the movie turned up. Though the original made the plot points more clear, most critics and viewers prefer the altered (second) version.

Whichever version you prefer (both are available on the Warner Brothers DVD), “The Big Sleep” is full of all kinds of pleasure, thanks to director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers. Hawks was known for being a master of all genres, garnering great performances from stars like Bogart, John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Marilyn Monroe, and for perfecting the bromance, long before the term came into currency.

In “The Big Sleep,” the pace is brisk, the characters are richly drawn, there’s loads of action and the scenes with Bogart and Bacall truly sizzle. Though the cinematography by Sid Hickox doesn’t bear the expressionistic stamp of the more Germanic noir directors, the film certainly holds its own in terms of visual panache. And Max Steiner’s original music lends sonic verve.

Marlowe gets details from his client, the wealthy and weak Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron).

Also brilliant, and not just for its subtext, is the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The dialogue, much of which comes straight from Chandler’s novel, is both colorful and economical, as shown by this exchange between Gen. Sternwood and Marlowe:

Sternwood: You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life – crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?

Marlowe: Not particularly.

Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Flesh, perfume, sweetness and corruption permeate “The Big Sleep,” my favorite of Bogart and Bacall’s great noirs. (The others are “To Have and Have Not” 1944, also directed by Hawks, “Dark Passage” 1947, and “Key Largo” 1948.) What’s not to love, or at least lust after, for 114 minutes?

Too bad Lauren Bacall never made a guest appearance on “Sex and the City.” She could have taught Carrie and the girls a thing or two.

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The Noir File: Bogie as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, Meeker as Mike Hammer

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies 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

The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston) Wednesday, Nov. 14, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

Bogart leads an unbeatable cast in “The Maltese Falcon,” directed by John Huston.

Dashiell Hammett’s supreme hard-boiled detective novel, with Humphrey Bogart as private eye Sam Spade, and an unbeatable supporting cast that includes femme fatale Mary Astor, genial fat man Sydney Greenstreet, perfumed crook Peter Lorre, patsy Elisha Cook Jr., and tough cops Ward Bond and Barton MacLane – all turned by writer-director John Huston into “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Sunday, Nov. 11

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957, Billy Wilder).

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “Pickpocket” (1959, Robert Bresson). Bresson’s celebrated French art film borrows from Dostoyevsky to tell the story of an alienated young Parisian pickpocket (Martin LaSalle) who enters a shadow world of crime, punishment and strange redemption. With Marika Green (In French, with English subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 12

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “The Leopard Man” (1943, Jacques Tourneur). From a story by Cornell Woolrich: the nervous noir of a city plagued, it seems, by serial killings and a runaway wild leopard. Dennis O’Keefe, Margo and Abner Biberman.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955, Otto Preminger). As a man struggling to give up his heroin habit, Frank Sinatra leads a superb cast in this riveting adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel. Kim Novak plays his ex-girlfriend. Sinatra earned a Best Actor Oscar nom; the film’s music (by Elmer Bernstein) and art direction-set decoration also were considered for Oscars.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

Tuesday, Nov. 13

5 p.m. (2 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

Wednesday, Nov. 14

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks).

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “In Cold Blood” (1967, Richard Brooks). From Truman Capote’s legendary true-crime novel: the shattering chronicle of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickok (Robert Blake and Scott Wilson), the Kansas family they destroyed, and the deadly destiny they shared. With John Forsythe, Charles McGraw and evocative black-and-white cinematography by Conrad Hall.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich).

Thursday, Nov. 15

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “The Mask of Dimitrios” (1944, Jean Negulesco). An engrossing thriller based on Eric Ambler’s classic novel of intrigue, espionage and crime, “A Coffin for Dimitrios.” With Zachary Scott, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Faye Emerson.

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956, Gerd Oswald). A charming psychopath (Robert Wagner) preys on two sisters (Joanne Woodward, Virginia Leith) in this tense adaptation of the novel by Ira Levin (“Rosemary’s Baby”). With Jeffrey Hunter and Mary Astor; directed by Gerd Oswald (“The Outer Limits”).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.) “Strangers on a Train” (1951, Alfred Hitchcock).

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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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Highs outweigh the lows in London-set ‘Pusher’

Pusher/2012/Radius TWC/87 min.

“Pusher,” by director Luis Prieto, is a fun romp through familiar territory. Maybe romp isn’t quite the right word, given that this is a drug dealer’s violent, watch-your-back world full of sketchy thugs with extremely bad teeth, gorgeous strung-out girls and vicious power-brokers with very short tempers.

Prieto’s movie is based on Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish film trilogy, also called “Pusher.” Winding Refn, who captivated American audiences last year with “Drive” starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, is executive producer here.

This “Pusher” follows a dealer named Frank (Richard Coyle) as he goes about his illegal business over the course of a week in his home base of London. (The original was set in Copenhagen.)

When a big sale is interrupted by the cops, Frank improvises and saves his skin. But now he owes a wad of cash to a supplier and he tries to cobble together the cash under a looming deadline.

The story, scripted by Matthew Read, is formulaic and doesn’t probe much beyond the surface. But there’s so much energetic camerawork and such assured performances that I had a good time immersing myself in the seedy, sleazy glitz of London’s SE1.

Coyle’s Frank likely tells himself that this too shall pass, that soon he’ll be done with dealing once and for all. Frank is exactly the kind of guy – smart, cocky, very cute and fully deluded – who thinks he can breeze through the badness and eventually live a different life. Emphasis on eventually. Did I mention he was very cute?

Just as interesting to watch is blonde glamazon Agyness Deyn as Flo, his dancer girlfriend; she brings a depth to the part that also signals mystery and muted pain. It is perhaps a little hard to buy that Frank would choose as his sidekick a chattery simpleton like Tony (Bronson Webb) but Tony comes from a long line of nervous, weasely, all-talk henchmen, most memorably played by classic film-noir great Elisha Cook, Jr.

Croatian-Danish actor Zlatko Burić plays Milo, the portly crime lord who happily juggles chats over buttery pastries with sending his boys to bash people’s knees in. Burić played the same role in the 1996 trilogy and he effortlessly nails the part.

“Pusher” isn’t the most original movie you could watch, but perfection isn’t everything. Look at the awkward, seemingly incompetent, sidekick thugs I mentioned above. Sometimes just being psycho is enough.

“Pusher” opens today in New York and LA (at the Sundance Sunset Cinema in West Hollywood). It is also available via video on demand.

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‘Fall Guy’ world premiere restoration a highlight of TCM fest

One of the strengths of the TCM Classic Film Festival is that you can watch timeless favorites on the big screen and discover rare gems that are difficult to see elsewhere.

That was the case with 1947’s “Fall Guy,” a little-known film noir whose world premiere restoration screened on Saturday morning. It’s a wonderful example of a low-budget B-movie that tackled dark topics, such as drug use and the struggle of World War II vets to readjust to civilian life.

Jerry Warner’s script is adapted from “Cocaine,” a short story by pulp-fiction master Cornell Woolrich. The action in “Fall Guy” revolves around a disaffected ex-soldier named Tom (Leo Penn, Sean’s dad, credited as Clifford Penn) who wakes up one morning with a hell of a hangover, bloodstains on his clothes and little memory of the night before. He doesn’t remember killing anyone but in his drug-addled state, anything’s possible.

Helping him piece together his fragmented recollections are his girlfriend Lois (Rita Hayworth-lookalike Teala Loring) and his brother-in-law, a tough cop named Mac (Robert Armstrong, of “King Kong” fame.) Elisha Cook Jr. and Virginia Dale spur his downward spiral; Iris Adrian is memorable as the brassy party girl.

Foster Hirsch (left) interviews producer Walter Mirisch. Photo by Adam Rose

In 2012, the rough and ready production values and pat story make “Fall Guy” a bit dated, it’s true. What’s fascinating about this release from Monogram Pictures, a quintessential Poverty Row studio, is the fact that because the budget was so limited, director Reginald Le Borg and the script could fly under the radar, exploring risqué and unsettling subject matter.

The censors still had their say, of course, and by today’s standards, the storyline is tame, but the creators of “Fall Guy” had a certain freedom and flexibility not found at glossy, high-end studios like MGM.

And though Monogram was small, it was smart about cross-branding. The studio’s 1946 noir classic “Decoy” is playing on a movie marquee in “Fall Guy.”

At Saturday’s screening, the film’s producer Walter Mirisch, now 90, talked with author Foster Hirsch. Mirisch offered an apology, noting that “Fall Guy” was the first film he produced and that he was still learning at the time, but the audience still gave the movie enthusiastic applause. Mirisch (and brothers Harold and Marvin) went on to produce “The Magnificent Seven,” “West Side Story,” “The Great Escape,” “The Pink Panther” and “In the Heat of the Night,” among many others.

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Earthy, sexy and wry, Marie Windsor was born to play fatales

Let’s be fair. Marie Windsor as femme fatale Sherry Peatty in “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick may seem venal, treacherous and manipulative. And yes she hatches a scheme to feather her nest that’s a bit dangerous. But is it right that she’s punished for being as smart, decisive and daring as the men?

Sherry is married, need I say unhappily, to George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a nervous, Milquetoast cashier at a racetrack. Through George, she gets wind of a heist taking place at the track by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang. Sherry tips off her lover Val (Vince Edwards) and comes up with this idea: let George and his friends do the heavy lifting, then she and Val can take off with the stolen cash, about $2 million.

In "The Killing," Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty is so over her dreary husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Of course, you could argue that the deeply flawed Sherry is downright immoral. And so are the men. But Sherry only gets as far as she does because of George’s colossal ego. Or perhaps it’s his tremendous capacity for denial. Clearly, she’s been after money all along and she’s tired of George not coming through with it. C’mon, George, did you really think she was into your swagger? (Offscreen, Windsor and Cook were chums. She said of him in a 1992 interview, “Elisha Cook was a darling and full of the devil.”)

Earthy, sexy and wry, Windsor was an actress born to play femmes fatales – with her huge, restless eyes, slightly cynical smile and lean but curvy body. Regardless of how many lines or how many scenes Windsor was in, she had a quality both luminous and tawdry, an expressiveness bordering on vulgarity that meshed perfectly with noir sensibility.

Windsor won an award from Look magazine for her role in "The Killing."

Born and raised in Utah, Windsor was especially popular with directors of Westerns and of noirs (in particular, “Force of Evil,” 1948, by Abraham Polonsky; “The Narrow Margin,” 1952, by Richard Fleischer; and “The Sniper,” 1952, by Edward Dmytryk). Once Windsor had been cast, the director had one less thing to worry about, knowing that she’d nail the character.

Kubrick so wanted Windsor for “The Killing” that he delayed filming until she had wrapped up 1955’s “Swamp Women” by Roger Corman. She was worth the wait; for playing Sherry in “The Killing,” Windsor was rewarded with a 1956 Best Supporting Actress award from Look magazine, a prestigious honor at the time.

Windsor worked steadily in movies and TV through the early 1990s. She was married to Jack Hupp for 46 years, from 1954 until her death in 2000.

Despite Sherry’s, um, blemished character, I prefer her gumption to Johnny’s girlfriend, the desperately needy Fay (Coleen Gray). As Fay tells Johnny: “I’m not very pretty and I’m not smart so please don’t leave me alone any more. I’ll go along with anything you say, Johnny. I always will.”

Ever heard of a spine, lady? Well, Sherry has.

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