TCM Classic Film Festival dazzles Hollywood once more

Get your Kleenex ready.

The theme of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival is Moving Pictures and, according to senior vice president of programming Charlie Tabesh, that means movies that make you cry. Speaking at Wednesday’s press conference, Tabesh added that he was particularly looking forward to “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Cinema Paradiso.”

Tabesh was joined on the panel by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, general manager Jennifer Dorian and festival managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy. The fest runs Thursday through Sunday in Hollywood.

The hottest film-noir ticket is “The Manchurian Candidate” on Friday night. Angela Lansbury will attend the screening.

The hottest film-noir ticket is “The Manchurian Candidate” on Friday night. Angela Lansbury will attend the screening.

While films about religion, sports and animals fit nicely with that emotional theme, film noir doesn’t mesh quite as naturally. But our friends at TCM would never leave noiristas out in the cold.

Fresh from the Film Noir Foundation’s recent Noir City Hollywood is the Foundation’s restoration of the 1956 Argentine noir “Los tallos amargos” (“The Bitter Stems,” 1956, Fernando Ayala). There’s also a screening of 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” a rare gem, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Doris Day as real-life torch singer Ruth Etting, married to a gangster, played by James Cagney.

Director John Berry’s son Dennis Berry is scheduled to attend Friday’s screening of the 1951 film noir “He Ran All the Way,” starring John Garfield as a thief on the run holding Shelley Winters hostage. Dalton Trumbo wrote the script. Another essential noir is “Private Property” (1960, Leslie Stevens), a twisted lust triangle, starring Warren Oates.

On Friday afternoon, photographer and writer Mark Vieira will sign copies of his new book, “Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950.”

Friday’s film-noir fare finishes with “Repeat Performance” (1947, Alfred Werker), newly restored by the Film Noir Foundation.

Dean Men Don't Wear Plaid posterNoir master Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951) starring Kirk Douglas and 1982’s noir spoof “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” starring Steve Martin, screen on Saturday. Carl Reiner, who wrote and directed “Dead Men,” will be interviewed after the movie.

Representing the neo-noir contingent is “The Conversation” (1974, Francis Ford Coppola, who will get his star on Hollywood Boulevard during the fest), Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), with Jack Nicholson in one of his finest hours, and “The Long Goodbye” (1973, Robert Altman) in which Elliott Gould brings Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to life in the ‘70s, as a scruffy loner. Gould will be interviewed at the fest. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” (1964), a French New Wave reinterpretation of classic Hollywood crime movies, must not be missed.

John Huston’s “Fat City,” from 1972, screens Sunday. This great, gritty boxing drama stars Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges.

But perhaps the hottest film-noir ticket is “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer), showing Friday night. Special guests are Angela Lansbury (can’t wait!) and Alec Baldwin.

These are just a few highlights of a festival that is packed with events, discussions and fun things to do. Thanks, TCM, for another great year.

Additionally, TCM is excited to announce the launch of Backlot, the network’s first fan club. Backlot will offer exclusive content, never-before-seen talent interviews, archival videos from the TCM vault, an exclusive TCM podcast, as well as opportunities to win visits to the TCM set, attend meet and greets with TCM hosts and the opportunity to influence programming through online votes. TCM Backlot can be accessed at tcmbacklot.com for an $87 annual fee.

And, coming this fall, TCM is teaming up with Criterion to launch FilmStruck, an art-house lover’s streaming service. Stay tuned for more details.

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‘Courted’ touts top acting, but its stories disappoint

In “Courted,” writer/director Christian Vincent transports us to the professional and private world of Michel Racine, a fussbudget French judge in the criminal courts. Racine is a memorable characterization, beautifully played by Fabrice Luchini, who received last year’s Best Actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival for this performance.

“Courted” (“L’Hermine” in French) had its West Coast premiere at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles Wednesday night, the same night as its North American premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York.

Courted posterThe movie, which almost instantly recalls Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic, “Twelve Angry Men,” shows Racine presiding over a brutal murder case, in which a 7-month-old child has died. The child’s surly father (Victor Pontecorvo) is the defendant. As the mechanics of the trial unfold, we meet the lawyers, the jury and a key witness, the child’s mother (Candy Ming). The jurors are a chatty bunch and one of them tells the group she has heard through the grapevine that Racine is known around the courthouse for his arrogance.

But he’s also a human being with very human problems. Indeed, it’s a bit jarring to see Racine, at the end of the day, sans his regal ermine robe, ordering soup in the tacky hotel where he lives, a result of his pending divorce.

By coincidence, another juror (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an empathetic Danish-born doctor, has crossed paths with Racine in the past, and this connection plays out as a budding romance.

A novel premise, “Courted” has much to offer – it’s well written and well acted all around. Luchini removes Racine’s pompous, curmudgeonly veneer to reveal his wistful vulnerability. Knudsen shines as the woman who attracts him, a lonely divorced mom who has devoted herself to her kids and career.

Crisply shot and nicely paced, the film’s tonal changes between drama and romcom are gracefully handled. But, at the same time, this mix of genres creates some problems. While it’s fascinating to see the French judicial system at work, shown with some of the same engrossing detail as Lumet’s great films and Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order,” the trial scenes lack the crackling tension that would have completely hooked us voyeurs.

Similarly, there’s a shortage of subtle chemistry between Luchini and Knudsen – both are sympathetic but there is an awkward flatness between them that never lifts. Even if this is intentional, it’s hard to care much about this fledgling couple. There’s a pivotal moment in the trial that would seem to clinch their relationship and oddly that moment is glossed over, a small but significant flaw.

Also strangely lost in the shuffle is any authentic reaction or concern about an unusually dire and depressing murder case. The characters’ jaded detachment is puzzling.

The fact that veteran writer/director Christian Vincent’s point of view remains rigidly superficial limits the film – the merged storylines should pulse with riveting intensity on two fronts, but instead “Courted” retreats disappointingly into bland disengagement.

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Enchanté, Monsieur Sy … COLCOA opens with a deftly performed drama, ‘Monsieur Chocolat’

Omar Sy

Omar Sy

France’s hottest export right now just might be actor/writer/producer Omar Sy. His new film “Monsieur Chocolat,” was the opening selection at the City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival Monday night in Hollywood.

The 38-year-old, easy-on-the-eyes French actor attended the fest reception and stayed after the film for a Q&A with director Roschdy Zem.

Monsieur Chocolat” is based on a true story of two circus clowns – one black and one white – who change the dynamics of comic performance in turn-of-the-century France, clearly no small task, given society’s hard-wired and rampant racism, not to mention the hardscrabble and precarious life of on-the-road entertainers. James Thierrée co-stars.

Sy’s most famous film is 2011’s “The Intouchables,” where he played a streetwise caregiver to a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet). Enormously popular in France, the movie became the best selling French film of all time, but was less well received in the U.S.

A gifted comic actor, Sy’s engaging performance is the highlight of this flick. Thierrée, too, is at the top of his game. In fact, these are two of the best actors in contemporary French cinema.

Enchanté, Monsieur Sy! Let’s hope he stays all nine days of this truly charming and delightful festival.

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‘The Adderall Diaries’ story-within-a-story is an entry to skip

Father-son dynamics come to the fore of “The Adderall Diaries” along with true crime, drug abuse, S&M, and the blurred boundaries between art, real life and editorial license. Director Pamela Romanowsky’s ambitious drama is based on Stephen Elliott’s memoir of the same name. Romanowsky and Elliott co-wrote the sprawling script.

Adderall Diaries posterIn the film, Elliott (James Franco) is the author of a semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his father, now deceased. Hailed as a major literary talent, Elliott has a generous advance for his next book and the encouragement of his agent (Cynthia Nixon). But, behind the scenes, Elliott struggles – he can’t focus and is using the drug adderall in an attempt to relieve his writer’s block.

He decides he wants to write about a real-life murder trial, in which a computer programmer named Hans Reiser (Christian Slater) is accused of murdering his wife. Reiser was found guilty and sentenced in 2008. (The actual murder and trial took place in California, but is reset in New York.) During the trial, Elliott meets a New York Times reporter (Amber Heard) and the two start a relationship; she also has been abused. An extra wrench in the works comes when Elliott’s father (Ed Harris), rough around the edges but in fact alive and sort of well, confronts Elliott about the accusations in his book.

There’s a smorgasbord of titillating storylines here and for the first half of the film, Romanowsky’s direction feels capable and confident, eliciting solid performances from her cast and creating a tense mood, edged with darkness (despite the frequent flashbacks, which were overdone and heavy-handed). But then she seems to lose her way, letting narrative threads unravel and dangle clumsily. The story doesn’t end as much as sputter to a halt – as if the project just became overwhelming.

Perhaps it was increasingly difficult to deal with two major intertwined deficits. First, many details of the story (altered from the book) don’t feel authentic. Nixon’s character is referred to as an editor, instead of an agent. I never got a sense that Heard’s NYT reporter was actually filing stories. Her primary objective seems to be pleasing Elliott in bed, until his kinky requests get too weird for her.

Second, Heard and to a certain extent Franco are miscast in this piece. I didn’t buy Heard as an adrenaline-fueled, deadline-driven, fact-checking writer and Franco’s existential suffering was undercut by a cute, cuddly vibe that he can’t quite shake.

Elliott’s father and his alternate version of their past should have been meaty and moving but instead felt trite and by the numbers, even though Harris is a fine actor. And Elliott doesn’t offer any particular insight into the Reiser case (that might have been covered more thoroughly in the memoir, which I haven’t read.) By the time the film ended, or rather expired, it left me deflated, frustrated, a little confused and, worst of all, bored.

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Noir City Hollywood kicks off with an Argentine noir

Noir City Hollywood starts Friday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The famed fest is presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation.

The provocative series opens with the Foundation’s restoration of the 1956 Argentine noir “Los tallos amargos” (“The Bitter Stems,” 1956, Fernando Ayala), followed by 1947’sRiff-Raff” (Ted Tatzlaff). A reception will take place between the films.

The fest runs through April 24. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation will introduce the movies.

Paul Henreid and Bette Davis try to recapture their love in “Deception.”

Paul Henreid and Bette Davis try to recapture their love in “Deception.”

For the double feature of “Deception” (1946, Irving Rapper), starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, and “Hollow Triumph” (1948, Steve Sekely) on Saturday, April 23, Paul Henreid’s daughter, Monika Henreid, will join Muller for a discussion of her dad’s work in both films.

On the closing day, Sunday, April 24, the Film Noir Foundation and its media publishing partner Flicker Alley will host a reception celebrating the Blu-ray/DVD releases of two FNF 35mm restorations: “Too Late for Tears” (1949, Byron Haskin) and “Woman on the Run” (1950, Norman Foster). Stay for an encore screening (in 35mm) of “Too Late for Tears.”

Deep Valley posterOther highlights include:

Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster star in “All My Sons” (1948, Irving Reis), based on Arthur Miller’s play.

William Powell flexes his film noir muscle in “Take One False Step” (1949, Chester Erskine).

The work of French poetic realist/film noir specialist Julien Duvivier gets a double feature—“Flesh and Fantasy” (1943) and “Destiny” (1944). Also notable: the Jazz Noir double feature, and the Anthony Mann double feature: “Side Street” (1949) and “Dr. Broadway” (1942).

Tony Curtis doubtless does some fine-ass lip snarling in 1952’s “Flesh and Fury.”

Ida Lupino in “Deep Valley” (1947, Jean Negulesco) and the usual suspects—Virginia Mayo, Zachary Scott, Elisha Cook Jr. and Dorothy Malone—in “Flaxy Martin” (1949, Richard L. Bare). Note to self: Check if @FlaxyMartin is taken.

Dead Reckoning” (1947, John Cromwell), a good little yarn starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. Read more here: Dead Reckoning review.

So get your pencil skirts pressed and your fedoras flashing as you gear up for some twisty, chewy badness, guaranteed to trigger your existential angst and your black-and-white nostalgia but not before giving you some wry laughs, sexy camerawork, sizzling chemistry and boundless charisma.

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COLCOA celebrates 20th anniversary with a superb lineup

The COLCOA French Film Festival turns 20 this year!

The Franco-American Cultural Fund’s City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival, now in its 20th year, will run April 18-26 at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.

COLCOA’s executive producer and artistic director François Truffart has announced that a record 70 films and television series will be shown at the fest. This includes four world premieres, seven international premieres, 19 North American or U.S. premieres, 17 West Coast premieres and 21 new shorts. Fest organizers say COLCOA is the world’s largest event dedicated to French films and television.

The festival will open on Monday, April 18, with the North American premiere of “Monsieur Chocolat,a biopic about the first French black clown, directed by Roschdy Zem, and starring Omar Sy. The fest will close with a romantic comedy called “Up for Love,” starring Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin and Virginie Efira.

COLCOA will celebrate the 11th anniversary of its Film Noir Series with a three-title series to run Friday night, kicking off with “A Decent Man,” a dark drama about a feckless dude (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who falls into a dire trap of dishonesty. Emmanuel Finkiel directed and co-wrote.

Kalinka film posterThe next film in the series is director and co-writer Vincent Garenq’s “Kalinka” (“Au nom de ma fille”), the story of a father’s  27-year fight for justice in the name of his murdered daughter, starring the always-magnificent Daniel Auteuil.

The final movie is “Fast Convoy,” which the fest calls a “slick, turbo-charged road thriller.” It was co-written and directed by Frédéric Schoendoerffer and stars Benoît Magimel.

All other series are back as well: COLCOA Shorts, Classics, and Documentaries as well as Happy Hour Talks, World Cinema Produced by France, the After 10 series and the French NeWave 2.0 series.

Bon anniversaire, COLCOA !

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Happy St. Pat’s! ‘Odd Man Out’ by Carol Reed is a great Irish drama and a great thriller

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

Odd Man Out” (U.K.; 1947, Carol Reed).

Carol Reed’s 1947 British thriller “Odd Man Out” is one of the great suspense dramas and one of the great film noirs. It’s an Irish odyssey that wrings every drop of tension from its subject. It’s also a story of love and death that plunges you into deepest night, and cracks your heart as you watch it.

James Mason always considered Johnny his best performance,

James Mason always considered Johnny his best performance.

The film revolves around Irish revolutionary Johnny McQueen, played by James Mason in a near-perfect performance.

As the film follows its dying protagonist – shot during an I. R. A. bank robbery and desperately trying to make his way to safety while being hunted by both the police and his friends – it creates an indelible portrait of a city at night, populated by a gallery of unforgettable characters.

That city is Belfast, though it’s never named as such. It’s a metropolis torn into bloody fragments, yet also seething with humanity, humor, embattled faith, bloody conflict and mad poetry. The city is stunningly photographed in rich blacks and ivory whites by cinematographer Robert Krasker in nearly the same palette he and Reed later used for 1949’s “The Third Man.”

Mason’s Johnny is not a naturally violent outlaw, but an idealist who is simply trying to hold onto life. The wounded IRA man runs a gauntlet of terror, escaping from the bank where he was shot, wandering from place to place, from homes to bars to city scrapheaps, constantly a fugitive, sometimes helped, often recognized, safe only for fleeting moments.

Kathleen Ryan plays Johnny’s love interest.

Kathleen Ryan plays Johnny’s love interest.

Johnny’s main contacts are his lover Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), also loved by the stern police inspector (Denis O’Dea) on Johnny’s trail; the elderly, frail, art fancier Father Tom (W. G. Fay); and an opportunistic little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick), who lives in an attic with two fellow eccentrics – Robert Newton as the alcoholic painter Lukey, and Elwyn Brooke-Jones as the failed medical student Tober.

Johnny’s suffering keeps bringing out the best and the worst in the people he encounters. The first act of “Odd Man Out” is a near-Hitchcockian masterpiece of suspense. The final act hits a mixture of irony, poignancy and terror that few films reach.

Mason always considered Johnny his best performance, and it may well be – though other Mason performances are in the same class: Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” Norman Maine in “A Star is Born,” Ed Avery in “Bigger Than Life,” Trigorin in “The Sea Gull” and Sir Randolph in “The Shooting Party.” McCormick’s Shell is a magnificent portrayal as well – beautifully restrained and sly, full of fallibility, weakness and a near-demonic will. You’ll never forget Shell even if you didn’t know or won’t remember this superb actor’s name.

The script, a gem, was adapted from his bestselling novel by F. L. Green, who was born in England and died (in 1949) in Belfast, and playwright R. C. Sherriff (“Journey’s End”). It was produced and directed by Reed, then at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker.

If you’ve never seen “Odd Man Out,” try to catch it this time: a great Irish drama and film noir, a great Carol Reed film and James Mason performance, and a great story of suffering and redemption, while running and hiding in Belfast, city of night.

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‘Falcon’ still flies high at age 75

The Maltese Falcon,’ directed by John Huston and arguably the first film noir, turns 75 this year. To honor that milestone, the movie will screen in select cities nationwide on Sunday, Feb. 21, and Wednesday, Feb. 24. TCM and Fandango are presenting the Warner Bros. film. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

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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Happy birthday, Tippi Hedren! ‘Marnie’ is a marvelous yarn

By Film Noir Blonde

Marnie/1964/Universal Pictures/130 min.

In honor of Tippi Hedren’s 86th birthday on Jan. 19, we are running a review of “Marnie.” In 1983, Hedren, a Minnesota native of Scandinavian descent, founded the Roar Foundation to support abandoned exotic felines at the Shambala Preserve in Acton, Calif.

Most cynics have romantic souls and if there’s one Hitchcock film that works on this premise it’s “Marnie.” Though the legendary auteur frequently featured redemptive, romantic endings, here a pair of feuding lovers must work through many an issue before they hit happily ever after. It’s also a portrait of a wayward woman struggling with a tortured psyche, stemming from an unresolved childhood trauma.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and Mark (Sean Connery) must work through many an issue.

In the opening scene we meet impeccably dressed, raven-haired career girl Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) carrying a citron-colored handbag that’s as covetable today as it was in 1964. (Hedren starred in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” one year earlier.)

Marnie has just finished doing what she does best: stealing from her employer, then donning a new disguise so she can pull the same scam at another company.

Besides her sizable clothing and hair-color budget, Marnie wants money to give to her poor frumpy Mama (Louise Latham), telling her: “That’s what money’s for. To spend.” (Especially when it’s someone else’s cash.) But despite these handouts, which Marnie personally delivers, Mama’s uptight and hard to please, preferring to lavish her attention on a little girl from the neighborhood (Kimberly Beck) instead of on her daughter.

At her next job, Marnie sports auburn up-do’s and sensible shoes. It’s here that she meets devastatingly handsome businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Intense and domineering, Mark is quickly smitten but ice-queen Marnie has no interest in him or in any man, though she does weaken long enough to kiss him.

Diane Baker plays sassy Lil.

Not so impressed with Marnie is the sharp and sassy Lil (Diane Baker). Packed with interesting women, the cast also includes Mariette Hartley as Marnie’s office colleague and Melody Thomas Scott as young Marnie.

Marnie’s coldness just makes Mark more determined – he is used to getting what he wants – and once he finds out about her criminal past, he uses this info to hasten their marriage.

The fact that Marnie can’t stand his touch doesn’t make for the most romantic honeymoon. Perhaps if he were a tad less controlling …

Will Mark help Marnie confront her past before her spate of Dior-collar crime catches up with her? That’s the movie’s source of suspense. It’s loosely based on a novel by Winston Graham but Hitchcock typically used the literary source material as merely a starting point to create a tension-filled, sometimes terrifying, reality and render his unique vision. The script came from Jay Presson Allen, a former actress and writer, who also worked with Sidney Lumet.

Hitchcock enjoyed exploring psychosexual theory in his films, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes not. In this case, Dr. Hitch diagnoses frigidity, rescue fantasies, control issues bordering on obsession, repressed memories and of course a major power struggle.

The movie was trashed upon its release. Critics called Hitchcock sloppy and unfairly pounced on Hedren’s acting. The editing is occasionally choppy, some of the backdrops look fake, the screen goes red when Marnie sees the color red, there are thunderstorms aplenty. Though they might seem flawed or slightly old-hat, these noirish devices reflect Marnie’s off-kilter world, her confused and anguished psychological state.

And Hitchcock’s personality was too controlling and perfectionistic to have coasted through this movie. Conscious of every detail of every frame, he sometimes shopped for and selected accessories like hats and handbags because even these seemingly minor visual elements affected the color palette of each shot. He also wanted classic lines for the clothes so that in years to come they wouldn’t look dated.

Always engaging, sometimes thrilling, “Marnie” is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story.

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‘Life’ is rough when you look for the film noir elements

It’s a Wonderful Life/ 1946/ Paramount/130 min

Michael Wilmington provides a fresh look at essential Christmas Eve viewing: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve dismissed this film as sappy, watch the last act one more time and you’ll likely appreciate anew its noir mood and atmosphere.

Michael Wilmington

Scenario for Christmas: A whimsical guardian angel shows a good-hearted small-town guy, on the brink of suicide, what would have happened if he’d never lived and what a difference his life really made to everyone around him. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Frank Capra‘s holiday masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exhilarating mix of angelic fantasy and small-town comedy, of political fable and poetic license, of Norman Rockwell and film noir.

The last act of this beloved Christmas classic — where George Bailey (James Stewart, in his favorite role) sees his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls turned into a dark semi-urban nightmare, as it would have been if it were run by George’s rich, greedy nemesis, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — is a pure film-noir nightmare, with a tormented protagonist, a world bent into bad-dreams-come-true and a fate that (temporarily) can’t be escaped.

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There are lots of real film-noir mainstays in the cast, people who fit easily into the noir universe — notably Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat”) as the town’s blonde bombshell Violet; Thomas Mitchell (“Dark Waters,” “The Dark Mirror,” “While the City Sleeps”) as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy; Barrymore (“Key Largo”) as the evil banker Potter; and Sheldon Leonard (“Decoy”) as tough Nick the bartender.

The movie’s crack Capra ensemble also boasts Ward Bond (“The Maltese Falcon,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Frank Faylen (“The Blue Dahlia,” “Detective Story,” “The Sniper”) as cop and cabbie (and “Sesame Street” namesakes) Bert and Ernie. And of course there’s the great, shy, stammering Stewart himself, who went on to make such classic noirs as “Call Northside 777,” plus, for Hitchcock, “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

It's a Wonderful Life posterThe script, by turns witty and sentimental, was adapted from a Christmas fable by poet Philip Van Doren Stern. “Life” had a raft of A-list writers, namely Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-wife team who adapted Dashiell Hammett‘s “Thin Man” for the movies. On “Life,” they received uncredited assistance from such stalwart noir writers as Jo Swerling (“Leave Her to Heaven”), Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), Clifford Odets (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right).

Lead cinematographer Joe Biroc (“Cry Danger,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”) gives the movie a distinctly nightmarish look.

The point of cataloging “Life’s” noir vets is that most of the talent in the movie were known more for film noir than the simplistic goody-two-shoes stuff people mistakenly feel is the essence of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Capra-corn. Capra wanted smart, sophisticated collaborators who knew what happened when the lights went off. Noir people.

Capra had already experimented with a mixture of humor, sentiment and noir in his 1944 comedy of murders, with Cary Grant, “Arsenic and Old Lace” but “Wonderful Life” has the style down pat. We see George’s kindness, generosity and sometimes-antic humor shining throughout his difficult but rewarding life as recounted up above to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). But then we see him in a downpour of terror and anguish when he suddenly faces financial ruin, flees his family, wrecks his car, stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide. And finally at the “Auld Lang Syne” end, we get the Bailey family pride and joy when the nightmare ends. Well, some great noirs have happy endings too …

In many ways, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” in reverse. (Barrymore was famous for his interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge, which he reprised every year at Christmas on radio and which he probably would have played for the 1938 MGM movie, had he not been wheelchair-bound by the time of its production.)

Anyway, it all jelled into a movie and an experience, both spinetingling and heartwarming, that nobody ever forgets: On a magical Christmas Eve, a good man understands the meaning of his life and the effects of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge sees the consequences of his own selfishness.

Most importantly, “Life” had Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences deeply and also make them laugh, like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra always thought this was his best movie, even though it was a horrible disappointment to him financially and professionally. The original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, that Capra was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Largely because of “Life,” they lost their Liberty.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” takes you right over the edge. Almost. It’s a wonderful picture: a very funny, often charming, but also terrifying movie about life’s most horrible disappointments, about all your nightmares coming true and all your dreams being torn apart. And that was echoed in real life. George Bailey failed (for a while), and Frank Capra failed (for a while) too.

But Capra was right. This is his best movie. I can’t keep a dry eye when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) toasts him under the Christmas tree as “the richest man in town,” the Bedford Falls crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” and they find Zuzu’s petals. I don’t even want to.

If you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when Harry raises that glass, everybody sings and George hears the bell — well, the hell with you. “Bah, Humbug,” as Potter would say. But the Bedford Falls folks are still going to shout: “Merry Christmas everyone!”

Noir people too.

You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.

Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski

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