Welcome the New Year with a glass from the past

Looking to add retro flair to your New Year’s Eve entertaining? Here are a few ideas to keep your bartender busy.

The LA Fizzy Blonde has a nice kick, sans alcohol.

The LA Fizzy Blonde
8 ounces ginger ale (don’t use diet)
2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Mix soda and juice. Add ice and lime slice to garnish.
From FNB’s own fridge

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The Biltmore’s Black Dahlia cocktail

The Biltmore’s Black Dahlia
This concoction is named after the mysterious Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, who was allegedly seen at the Biltmore Hotel on the evening of Jan. 9, 1947. She disappeared that night and her mutilated body was found several days later.
3 ½ ounces Grey Goose Le Citron vodka
¾ ounce Chambord black raspberry liqueur
¾ ounce Kahlua
Ice
Shake ingredients in a shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with orange zest.
From the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and www.imbibemagazine.com
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The Hummingbird: perfection in a glass.

The St.-Germain Hummingbird
2 parts brut champagne or dry sparkling wine
1 ½ parts St.-Germain elderflower liqueur
2 parts club soda
Stir ingredients in a tall ice-filled Collins glass, mixing completely. Think of Paris circa 1947. Garnish with a lemon twist.
From St.-Germain

The classic Pink Lady cocktail has a mere three ingredients.

The Pink Lady
1 ½ ounces gin
2-4 dashes of grenadine
White of one egg
Shake well with cracked ice; strain into cocktail glass
From various sources; variations call for the addition of the juice of half a lemon, ½ ounce cream, ¾ ounce applejack and Maraschino cherry as garnish. Photo from www.tipsytexan.com
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This retro manual is available at LA’s Dragon Books.

The Ward 8
Juice of one lemon
½ jigger of grenadine
1 jigger of Fleischmann’s Preferred gin
Shake well with cracked ice. Strain into 8 ounce glass. Decorate with slice of orange and Maraschino cherry
From Fleischmann’s Mixer’s Manual, 1948
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The French Breeze is from 1961.

The French Breeze
2 ounces Calvados
2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1-2 dashes orange-flower water
¼ teaspoon fine granulated sugar
Chilled Champagne
Pour Calvados and juice into a cocktail shaker one-third full of cracked ice. Add orange-flower water and sugar. Shake the drink well and pour it into a chilled 12-ounce highball glass. Fill the glass with chilled Champagne and stir lightly to blend.
From Gourmet July 1961; posted this month by Brie Schwartz for Gourmet Live
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Eureka Lake poster

The Manhattan
2 ounces rye or Canadian whisky
½ ounce sweet vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry to garnish
Pour the ingredients into a mixing glass with ice, stir well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass and add cherry.
From www.cocktails.about.com

Choose your Fireman’s Brew by hair color.

If you’d rather keep the drinks list simple, try a pretty pale, such as Fireman’s Brew Blonde Beer, a Pilsner lager brewed and bottled in Southern California. The guys also make Fireman’s Brewnette and Redhead Ale.

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Warming up to the ‘Big Heat’ all over again

In honor of Gloria Grahame’s birthday, November 28, 1923, we are watching “The Big Heat.” Again.

Fritz Lang

The Big Heat/1953/Columbia Pictures/89 min.

“When a barfly gets killed, it could be for any one of a dozen crummy reasons,” says Police Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) in “The Big Heat.” Fritz Lang’s grim but gratifying crime drama from 1953 is laced with violence that’s still a bit shocking even by today’s standards.

Barflys don’t get much sympathy in the fictional city of Kenport, an upstanding community full of white-picket fences and happy homemakers that also harbors a flourishing criminal empire and rampant police corruption.

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford star in “The Big Heat.”

Wilks is talking to an upright cop, Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (easy on the eyes Glenn Ford), about the torture and murder of Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green). Lucy was the girlfriend of police sergeant Tom Duncan, also dead; his suicide is the film’s opening scene.

Tom’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) is not what you’d call crushed at her husband’s demise and she’s martini-dry as she answers questions from Bannion. Bertha claims her husband was ill, hence the suicide. Bannion got a rather different story from Lucy Chapman.

Unlike Tom Duncan, Bannion seems to have a perfect wife, the golden-haired Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister), and a cute little daughter, named Joyce. As Mr. and Mrs. Bannion share smokes, sips of drinks and steaks, they banter easily and make each other laugh.

In addition to questioning barflies and ungrieving widows, Bannion noses into the business of an oily mobster named Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a vicious operator whose right-hand man is the lithe and snarling Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

The incomparable Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, Stone’s inamorata. Debby spends most of her time shopping, drinking and looking at herself in the mirror. What’s not to like? As she tells Bannion: “I’ve had it rich and I’ve had it poor. Believe me, rich is better.”

(In, 1954, Ford and Grahame starred in another Lang noir, “Human Desire,” a film version of Émile Zola’s novel “La Bête Humaine”/“The Human Beast.”)

Grahame and Ford have sizzling chemistry.

Shortly after the exchange in Lagana’s living room, a car bomb meant for Bannion kills the lovely Katie. Bannion doesn’t take much time to mourn; instead, with eyes glazed, he’s hellbent on proving the link between the police and Lagana’s mob. Suspended from the force, he seeks vengeance on his own, setting the pace for ’70s vigilante cops such as Clint Eastwood‘s Dirty Harry. As Bannion obsesses over hate and revenge, in a chilling transformation of character, he becomes the moral equivalent of the gangsters he despises.

Known for stark, intense visuals, here director Lang contrasts gloomy, barlike shadows that bind the characters to their destiny with shocks of scouring white light suggesting revelation. Lang was also known for being difficult with cast and crew, but Ford for one never saw Lang’s tyrannical side.

In “Glenn Ford: A Life” by Peter Ford, the famed actor describes his experience: “Fritz Lang came out of the old German studio system, where the director was like a dictator, barking commands and making people jump. He had a pretty nasty reputation in some quarters. There were people in Hollywood who had worked with him who hated his guts, especially some of the crew guys down the line. I mean, there were stories of people throwing lights at him and threatening to kill him for the way he treated them.

“So I head into this picture wondering how bad it’s going to be. And then Fritz and I met and had a couple of cocktails, and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He treated me with great respect. A wonderful friend, and I learned so much from him. We’re talking about one of the real geniuses of the movie business.”

Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin: a couple with, um, a problem or two.

“The Big Heat” drew inspiration from real-life events a few years before the film was made. When the U.S. Senate set up the Kefauver Committee to probe organized crime, televised hearings brought the Mafia into the consciousness of the American public. Sydney Boehm wrote the script from a serial by William P. McGivern in the Saturday Evening Post.

And of course, any time crime’s on the rise, you know loose women are involved, which brings me to the pièce de résistance: Grahame as Debby. Though she doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, she’s funny and fresh, and brims over with sexpot charm – striking the perfect balance between waifish, wide-eyed vulnerability and pleasure-seeking sophistication.

Once Debby realizes the depth of Vince’s depravity – burning a young woman’s hand with his cigarette is small potatoes to this guy – she switches her loyalty to the righteous but rigid Bannion. And when Vince learns of her betrayal, she gets burned, literally, with a pot of boiling coffee. We hear, but don’t see, Debby’s wounded reaction in one of the most famous moments in the movies.

With her looks gone, Debby tells Bannion everything she knows and commits the murder that will bring down the syndicate. Oh, and throwing coffee? Two can play at that game. I’d like to see a Starbucks barrista do better.

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Highly anticipated ‘The Girl on the Train’ ultimately derails

By Mike Wilmington

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is a chic romantic crime thriller in the “GONE GIRL” mode — but not as engrossing or gripping, nor as packed with interesting characters and wicked plot twists. Mainstream audiences should like it, but most of them probably won’t love it (as they did with the book) or become obsessed with it, the way they might with, say, Hitchcock‘s train-riding masterpiece, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Unlike the Gillian Flynn-penned bestseller TRAIN tends to resemble, or the David Fincher-directed suspenser based on Flynn’s book, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN tends to be more ordinary and less icily compelling.

Writer Paula Hawkins’ bestseller is about a woman whose life falls apart and who becomes a hard-drinking, train-riding voyeur, spying on what she imagines to be the perfect lives lived by the two couples she regularly watches from her commuter train windows. Rachel Watson (played by the eye-catchingly beautiful Britisher Emily Blunt), has lost her husband Tom (played by the disturbing Justin Theroux) to a pretty little blonde, Anna (played by Swedish stunner Rebecca Ferguson).

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Macho man Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) sees his world fall apart when his wife Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing.

Rachel, besides drinking herself silly, also spies on another couple, just a few houses down from Tom and Anna, two others she imagines are leading lives of golden joy: macho man Scott Hipwell (Welshman Luke Evans) and another pretty little blonde, Megan (Haley Bennett).

Also involved in this peeping Tom’s delight of a tale is Megan’s sexy shrink, Dr. Kamal Abdic (played by Edgar Ramirez) – and Rachel’s friend Kathy (Laura Prepon), who’s putting her pal up and forgives all her rotten behavior. Soon Rachel has plunged into what might be a nightmare of infidelity and possible murder.

GONE GIRL was an incredibly clever thriller with an incredibly tricky plot. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is not too clever, not too tricky. Director Tate Taylor (who made the humanistic Southern family drama THE HELP) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY), have changed the background from London (in the book), to New York and the Westchester suburbs, and maybe they’ve lost something in the switch.

Emily Blunt is a real camera-stealer, but her character has been written (at first) as such a pain-in-the-ass, that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her. The surprise ending isn’t very surprising. Only Danny Elfman’s Bernard Herrmanneque score (justly praised by Hollywood reporter’s Todd McCarthy), achieves excellence in the style department. And only Allison Janney, in a fine sardonic “Law and Order-ish” turn (she’d be a good match for the late Jerry Orbach’s Lenny Brisco) has crafted much of an engaging character.

The screenplay is just about what you’d expect and Taylor’s direction doesn’t rise above the ordinary either. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN may have been a great read on the airplane (or on the train), but the movie made me want to watch something else, out the window.

Unfortunately, I was in a theater at the time.

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We love us some Edmond O’Brien, especially on his birthday

Edmond O’Brien, a film noir stalwart who appeared in more than 100 films, was born Sept. 10, 1915, in New York City. He died on May 9, 1985, in Inglewood, Calif.

D.O.A./1950/United Artists/83 min.

“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow,” says a doctor to his shocked patient, “you’ve been murdered.”

Edmond O’Brien is doomed in “D.O.A.”

This is the premise for 1950’s “D.O.A.,” directed by Rudolph Maté, a classic noir about a standup, solid guy from Banning, Calif., named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who, while on a trip to San Francisco, learns he has been poisoned with a time-released fatal toxin. He has just a few days to find his murderer. And here he thought it was just a hangover.

It’s particularly bad luck because Bigelow hasn’t served time, he doesn’t play the horses, he’s not eyeing easy money. He is a self-employed accountant in a small town near Palm Springs minding his own business. True, he does like hard liquor, is a bit of a skirt chaser and he’s on the fence about committing to doting girlfriend Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but those are minor flaws in the noir scheme of things.

D.O.A posterEven though Bigelow is dying, his genetic tough-guy instinct kicks as he abandons his ledger book and adding machine to follow clues, talk tough, tote a gun and chase his prey. Clearly, he missed his calling as a macho gumshoe who could give Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade a run for their money.

Checking in via phone calls to Paula, who also happens to be his secretary, he learns that a Mr. Phillips, an importer-exporter in Los Angeles, has been urgently trying to contact him. Bigelow returns to LA but, before he can probe for info, Phillips takes a flying leap from a tall building. So, Bigelow taps Phillips’ inner circle: his brother Stanley (Henry Hart), his wife (Lynn Baggett), his secretary Miss Foster (Beverly Garland, credited as Beverly Campbell), and co-worker Halliday (William Ching).

Turns out that Bigelow’s connection to these Angelinos is that six months prior, he notarized a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium. Phillips bought the stuff from a mysterious man named George Reynolds.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

Marla (Laurette Luez) gives Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) trouble in D.O.A.

While working to track Reynolds down, Bigelow encounters a sultry and sullen model Marla Rakubian (Laurette Luez), a man known only as Majak (famed stage actor Luther Adler) – clad all in white and with an indeterminate foreign accent, which instantly makes him suspect in Tinseltown terms – and a trio of heavies led by raging psychopath Chester (Neville Brand, in his first movie). Though Brand might seem like a miscreant plucked from a dingy alley, he was in fact a WW2 vet, who had received numerous awards, including the Purple Heart.

As he narrows down the suspects, Bigelow also realizes that Paula is The One and the scene where he professes his love is touching. He eventually busts the bad guy in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way, but, as we knew from the start, Bigelow is a goner. No plot spoilers here.

Director Maté, who was the cameraman on foreign classics “Vampyr” and “The Passsion of Joan of Arc” as well as “Foreign Correspondent” and “Gilda,” tells a riveting story. Aided by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography, Maté creates a mood that is both hard-boiled and slightly surreal. The storyline becomes so lusciously serpentine, with perilous curves and hairpin turns, it rivals Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” from 1946 for the most convoluted plot in all of film noir.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Edmond O'Brien some more trouble. O'Brien is definitely not having a good day.

Chester (Neville Brand) gives Frank (Edmond O’Brien) some more trouble. Frank is definitely not having a good day.

I especially like the scenes in which Bigelow leaves the comfort of dancing the rhumba and downing a few drinks in the upscale St. Francis Hotel to visit the noisy, smoky Fisherman club, where he watches a bebop jazz band play its all and chats with “jive-crazy, high-society” Jeannie (Virginia Lee), an elegant blonde who turns out to be a mere red herring.

O’Brien, with his good looks and strapping self-confidence, plays the determined Bigelow as every man’s take-charge fantasy. Britton as Paula is the kind of girl next door that bad-ass femmes fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Bennett would eat for breakfast. Her innocence is nicely countered by a rich array of dastardly, devious characters.

Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse wrote the original screenplay, perhaps inspired by a 1931 German film “Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht”/ “Looking For His Murderer” directed by master noir creator Robert Siodmak with writing help from the great Billy Wilder. (In “D.O.A.” Rouse’s name, along with Laszlo and assistant director Marty Moss, appears on the guest register of the Allison Hotel in Los Angeles.)

The movie was remade in 1969 as “Color Me Dead” and in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Charlotte Rampling. The original is the best of the lot. Watch it and you’ll see why.

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Remembering Marilyn’s charm, talent, happiness and heartbreak

Marilyn Monroe (June 1, 1926-Aug. 5, 1962) will be honored at a memorial service on Monday, Aug. 5, in Westwood.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Marilyn modeled to support herself.

Bugs. Dogs. God. Since childhood, she was quick to ask questions about the everyday and the esoteric. This little girl named Norma Jean, as curious and proud as she was lonely and neglected, grew up to be Marilyn Monroe, the world’s most iconic and enduring sex symbol. Her love affair with the public still burns bright more than 50 years after her death on Aug. 5, 1962. She was 36.

Perhaps she sought answers and collected facts as a distraction from the grinding poverty and desperate uncertainty she faced as a kid. Her mother, Gladys, who fought bouts of mental illness, was unable to take care of her and her father had long been absent from their lives.

Norma Jean bounced between friends’ places and foster homes in Los Angeles. She was treated poorly for the most part, made to bathe in dirty water, molested by a man named Mr. Kimmel, pushed into marriage at 16 to Jim Dougherty, whom she barely knew, to avoid returning to the orphanage.

She was physically as well as intellectually precocious, fully developed by 12, and she knew her looks would open doors for her. There was a way, she believed, she could parlay her games of make believe into something refined, meaningful and artistic. If she got training and made the right connections, she could escape from her harrowing childhood.

“The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves, I was as unsensual as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.” — MM on her school days

Groucho Marx described Marilyn as Mae West, Theda Bara and Little Bo Peep all rolled into one.

“In Hollywood a girl’s virtue is much less important than her hair-do.” — MM

“After a few months, I learned how to reduce the boredom [at a Hollywood party] considerably. This was to arrive around two hours late.” — MM

As a struggling model and actress, Marilyn would spend Sundays at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, watching people walk from the trains to be greeted, hugged and kissed, wondering what it would feel like to be cared about, to be missed and wanted.

“I could never be attracted to a man who had perfect teeth. I don’t know why, but I have always been attracted to men who wore glasses.” — MM

She got a few small parts in the pictures, studied acting and attended Hollywood parties, carefully crossing her legs to hide the holes in her nylons, quietly watching other guests play cards and win money.

“When the men laughed and pocketed the thousands of dollars of winnings as if they were made of tissue paper, I remembered my Aunt Grace and me waiting in line at the Holmes Bakery to buy a sackful of stale bread for a quarter to live on a whole week,” she recalled in her memoir (co-written with Ben Hecht), “My Story.”

The studio suits weren’t encouraging. Darryl Zanuck and Dore Schary told her that she was unphotogenic, that she didn’t have the right look. She persevered. Eventually, it was her enraptured fans (she garnered 7,000 letters a week) who fueled her fame and propelled her rise to the top. “I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anything or anyone else.”

“We were the prettiest tribe of panhandlers that ever overran a town.” — MM on her early years as a Hollywood actress.

One of her most important movies, early on, was a film noir: “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952, Roy Ward Baker) and “Niagara” (1953, Henry Hathaway) also showcased her talent for playing dark, dangerous women.

The studio pushed her toward lighter fare – musicals and comedies – where she played frothy flirts and bubble-headed gold diggers: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953, Howard Hawks), “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953, Jean Negulesco) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954, Walter Lang).

Marilyn pushed back, wanting more complex parts and sometimes she got them. She teamed up with some of Hollywood’s greatest directors: Huston, Hawks, Otto Preminger in “River of No Return” (1954), Joshua Logan in “Bus Stop” (1956), twice with Billy Wilder, in 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch” and four years later in the black-comedy classic “Some Like It Hot.”

In 1960, she worked with George Cukor in “Let’s Make Love.” Cukor also directed her in the unfinished “Something’s Got to Give” (1962). She co-starred with Sir Laurence Olivier (he also directed) in “The Prince and the Showgirl” (1957) and earned acclaim for her work, especially from European critics.

“In a daydream you jump over facts as easily as a cat jumps over a fence.” — MM

It was choreographer Jack Cole’s idea to pair pink and red in the color scheme of 1953’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Marilyn was the favorite movie actress of the French philosopher/novelist/playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, and he wrote the lead female part in his original script “Freud” (1962) for her. (Susannah York played it.)

“I’ve often stood silent at a party for hours listening to my movie idols turn into dull and little people.” — MM

Her boyfriends reportedly included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, Yves Montand, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy; her best girlfriend (and one-time roommate) was Shelley Winters. During the height of her fame, Marilyn married two more times – to Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio (January-October 1954) and to playwright Arthur Miller (1956-1961).

Miller wrote “The Misfits” (1961) for her. In that ill-fated film, Marilyn co-starred with Clark Gable, the movie star she’d so often pretended was her father, and was directed by Huston, whom she considered a genius. During the arduous shoot in the Nevada desert, the Monroe-Miller marriage came apart. Gable died from a heart attack days after the filming ended. Said Huston of Marilyn: “She went right down into her own personal experience for everything, reached down and pulled something out of herself that was unique and extraordinary. She had no techniques. It was all the truth, it was only Marilyn.”

Marilyn once implored a LIFE reporter: “Please don’t make me a joke.”

Her vulnerability and little-girl-lost quality, coupled with her stunning looks and glamour, are often cited as the reasons for her widespread, lasting appeal.

There’s no doubt she faced a litany of lingering problems: a family history of mental illness; emotional instability and physical maladies; a dependency on drugs and alcohol; endometriosis, abortions and miscarriages; difficulty remembering lines and showing up on time; broken marriages and failed affairs as well as frustration and fights with 20th Century-Fox (the studio refused to let her see scripts in advance of a shoot, then relented).

Some of her early work is slightly cloying – the breathy voice a little too mannered, her demeanor a little forced. And despite critical recognition for “Bus Stop,” “Prince” and “Some Like It Hot,” she remained pigeonholed as a blonde bombshell, a sexy joke.

“When you’re a failure in Hollywood – that’s like starving to death outside a banquet hall with the smells of filet mignon driving you crazy.” — MM

Orry-Kelly designed Marilyn’s clothes in “Some Like It Hot.”

“When you’re broke and a nobody and a man tells you that you have the makings of a star, he becomes a genius in your eyes.” — MM

Marilyn’s marriage to playwright Arthur Miller came apart while making “The Misfits.” Co-star Clark Gable died days after shooting ended.

Yet it was her precise and subtle comic timing that set her apart from other actresses. As Wilder put it: “She was an absolute genius as a comic actress, with an extraordinary sense for comic dialogue. … Nobody else is in that orbit; everyone else is earthbound by comparison.”

“To love without hope is a sad thing for the heart.” — MM

Humor was likely a coping mechanism she’d honed in an effort to ward off the crushing emptiness she’d known since childhood. Norma Jean saw movies again and again at Hollywood theaters; play-acting with other kids, she thought up the good stuff, the drama.

Marilyn liked her body and, some days, she enjoyed the attention she got from her looks. But she also gave the impression that her beauty could be swiftly forgotten, that she got bored too fast to dwell on her appearance. Underneath the surface, right alongside the troubled soul, was a well of pure bliss that wasn’t hard to reach, if she had a receptive audience, whether it was a likeminded bookworm friend or a movie palace packed with people.

When the fantasy was in full, giddy swing, she laughed sweetly and cynically, sometimes at herself. She could be funny with a look, a gesture or a makeshift prop – sparking joy from nothing at all.

Sir Laurence Olivier said of Marilyn: ”Look at that face – she could be five years old.”

Photographers include: George Barris, Richard Avedon, Philippe Halsman, Milton Greene, Sam Shaw and Bert Stern.

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Stanwyck shines in ‘Crime of Passion’

Today is Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday! Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – Jan. 20, 1990) ranks as one of film noir’s most important actresses, having played perhaps the greatest femme fatale of all, Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.”

Always popular with audiences and admired by colleagues for her uncommon intelligence, versatility and professionalism, she also starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The File on Thelma Jordon,” “No Man of Her Own,” “The Furies,” “Clash by Night,” “Jeopardy,” “Witness to Murder” and “Crime of Passion.”

Crime of Passion/1957/United Artists/84 min.

Aah, how often has Film Noir Blonde fantasized about giving up her dreary day-job. If only she had a lackadaisical husband whose career needed a jumpstart, she’d quite happily quit writing and meddle in his affairs full time. In director Gerd Oswald’s “Crime of Passion” (1957), Kathy Ferguson Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) makes that noble sacrifice for her hubby.

Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) is go-along, get-along, but that’s OK. His wife Kathy (Barbara Stanwyck) has more than enough ambition for both of them.

Kathy is a tough, high-profile advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. She’s also a singleton who’s stylish, smart and openly defiant to the male chauvinists in her social circle. She loves dishing out wisdom and doesn’t consider herself lovelorn or lonely-hearted, dismissing marriage and family as “propaganda not for me.” (An interesting turn of phrase from writer Jo Eisinger.)

That’s before Kathy meets her blonde Adonis, aka Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), who comes to town with the Los Angeles police as they expand their search for a criminal. Kathy helps them by putting a plea for surrender in her column. The cops nail the killer and Kathy gets a job offer from a New York paper. Alas, she never makes it to NYC because she’s fallen head over heels for Bill. The idea of them moving east for her career doesn’t occur to anyone, even Kathy.

Shortly into their relationship, Kathy has an OMG-what-did-I-do-last-night? moment and asks Bill: “Who are you? Who are you?” Next she peppers him with questions, like “What are your favorite colors?” In fact, what she did was get married. Yep, just like that.

Kathy can barely contain her frustration with the dim-witted convo.

Kathy quits writing, moves to LA and tries to become a dutiful wife. “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours and hours darning them,” she gushes to Bill.

Unfortunately, however, Kathy seriously overrated the appeal of darning socks for hours at a time (shocker) and becomes darn bored.

At social gatherings, she gets stuck chatting with the ladies about cream cheese and olives, and 36-inch TVs. Not exactly thrilling stuff and Kathy starts to go a little crazy. OK, a lot a crazy. (Note to self: Before ditching my drivel-writing, check that husband has cool friends to hang with or at least lives near good shopping and spa treatments.)

To occupy her brain, Kathy engineers a series of stunts to accelerate Bill’s ascent on the career ladder. She befriends the police inspector’s wife Alice Pope (Fay Wray) and does her best to sabotage Bill’s competition, captain Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano). His annoying wife Sara (Virginia Grey) relentlessly promotes her mate, but she’s no match for Kathy.

That just leaves the job of getting the big cheese, police inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), to rally behind Bill. So, she has a fling with Tony, natch. The only problem is that when Tony decides he’s made a mistake, the unlikely lovers don’t see eye to eye, and she grabs a gun …

German-born Gerd Oswald, the son of director Richard Oswald, made his first foray into the noir genre with 1956’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and worked with Anita Ekberg on three noir movies. He also directed “The Outer Limits” and “The Fugitive” TV shows. “Crime of Passion” may not be the director’s finest film, but it’s still strong storytelling – well paced with compelling performances and visually engaging cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Stanwyck was 50 and Hayden 41; it’s fun to watch these two old pros reeling off their lines and riffing with Burr, of “Perry Mason” TV fame.

I’ve seen some harsh online assessments of “Crime of Passion.” Sure, it has its flaws (55 years later, parts of it might seem stilted and corny) but it’s still a lot of fun and has some pretty biting social commentary to boot.

If you judge a work of art (or entertainment) from the past by contemporary standards, it’s easy for it to fail. A girdle from 1957 didn’t have Lycra; that doesn’t mean it didn’t do the job.

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Start summer with a chilling classic …

Chinatown/1974/Paramount/130 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Noah Cross (John Huston) tells J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) what’s what.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those are the last words, chilling, evocative, cynical, of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown – that great dark tale of politics, murder and family secrets in ’30s Los Angeles. No matter what you think of Polanski and his arrest and extradition problems, the director’s 1974 private-eye classic “Chinatown” is still a masterpiece of neo-noir. The movie, one of the big commercial-critical hits of its era, was a career peak for director Polanski, the matchless screenwriter Towne and the superb star team of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.

It’s a picture that seems close to perfect of its kind and one of the ’70s films I love best. Gorgeous and terrifying and sometimes funny as hell, “Chinatown” tells a romantic/tragic/murder mystery tale of official crimes and personal depravity raging around the real-life Los Angeles water scandal, with private sin and public swindles steadily stripped bare by J. J. Gittes (one of Nicholson’s signature roles), a cynical, natty, smart-ass shamus, with a nose for corruption and a hot-trigger temper.

Gittes is an anti-Philip Marlowe detective. He’s proud of taking divorce cases (Marlowe disdained them), and he’s not too queasy about selling out. He’s also much less sexually reticent than Raymond Chandler’s knight of the mean streets, though he cracks just as wise. Fundamentally, Gittes is a survivor.

He likes his nose, he likes breathing through it. But he finds it increasingly hard to keep it unbloodied and out of rich L. A. people’s business as he keeps digging deeper into what starts as a simple infidelity investigation and then broadens to include a vast conspiracy, intertwined with the deadly history of immaculately evil nabob Noah Cross (played by the devilishly genial Huston) and his desperate, wounded daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway). It’s a nasty web that includes Polanski himself as the cocky little fedora-topped thug (with a Polish accent) who calls Gittes “Kitty-Kat” and slices up his proboscis for a memento mori.

“Chinatown”– with splendid Richard Sylbert production design, gleaming John Alonso cinematography and a haunting Jerry Goldsmith score – wafts us back to LA’s downtown and Silverlake in the ’30s: the era of the Depression. It was also the heyday, of course, of the hard-boiled, high-style thrillers of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, fiction that Towne, at his absolute best, pastiches to a fine turn and that Polanski, at his best makes shatteringly alive.

Gittes puts in some extra time with client Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

The movie has great dialogue, great acting, great direction and an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism. The bleak ending (Polanski’s idea) cuts you to the heart. Temper-tantrum virtuoso Nicholson has some of his best blowups.

And the supporting cast members – Polanski, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, Dick Bakalyan, Roy Jenson, James Hong, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell and John Hillerman (at his smarmiest) – are wonderful too.

In fact, this is a movie that – not counting Gittes’ slit nose – has no perceptible flaws: a classic you can’t and won’t forget. “Chinatown” reminds you of how Nicholson almost single-handedly, shifted the ground of the movies, and changed our conception of what a movie star was. It reminds you of how vulnerable Dunaway could be, of what a sly old movie fox Huston was.

It reminds you how great films can be when they have really wonderful, beautifully crafted, verbally agile scripts (like Towne’s here). And it reminds you that Polanski is a filmmaker who’s maybe faced such terror, darkness and despair in his own life – from the Holocaust to personal tragedy – that he can, brilliantly and memorably, turn fear into art.

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Don’t Cry for Crawford: The truth is she’s pretty tough

The Damned Don’t Cry/1950/Warner Bros./103 min.

Joan Crawford was known for her gorgeous gams.

In “The Damned Don’t Cry,” which is full of sharp dialogue, this line cuts to the chase. Jacqueline DeWit asks Joan Crawford: “What else do we got to sell but a face and figure? And anyone who can make a peplum move like you do don’t need anything else.”

DeWit’s Sandra, a model by day and escort by night, briefly takes Crawford’s character, Ethel Whitehead, under her wing as Ethel learns to fend for herself in New York City. But, in addition to her modeling ability, Ethel has brains and ambition in spades and she soon surpasses Sandra to become the ultimate hard-as-nails femme fatale in this classic Crawford film noir.

Like many femmes fatales, Ethel has humble roots. A downtrodden housewife with a cranky husband (Richard Egan), she eventually rises to the top of a national crime syndicate and lives the high life – travel, the best restaurants, a great apartment, a closet full of swanky clothes. Key to her climb is cultivating contacts such as mild-mannered accountant Martin Blackford (Kent Smith). Ethel is impressed by the letters CPA after his name, even though she’s not quite sure what they mean.

Martin helps her gain entry into the world of tough but urbane George Castleman (David Brian), the leader of the syndicate. “I like men with brains,” Ethel tells George. Finding him far more impressive than number-crunching Marty, she shows up at his office the next day, proves she’s as gutsy as he is and gets a job with his racket. Never one to think twice about mixing business and pleasure, Ethel seals the deal with a kiss.

A quick study, Ethel devotes herself to the syndicate, then takes on a new identity. With polished and distinguished Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) guiding her, Ethel transforms herself into wealthy socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes. It’s Ethel’s equivalent of an MBA.

But her toughest assignment is when George asks her for some due diligence on gangster Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Despite her new name, old habits die hard and Ethel/Lorna falls for Prenta. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before George susses her out and decides to set things straight.

With its A-list performances, crackling script, crisp pace and striking cinematography by Ted McCord, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” is an ideal noir vehicle for Crawford. The movie is based on an original story by Gertrude Walker; Harold Medford and novelist Jerome Weidman and wrote the script. Also fodder for the story was the real-life affair of Virginia Hill and gangster Bugsy Siegel. The title comes from a line in “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill. [Read more…]

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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

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

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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