Enchanté: COLCOA film fest hits LA

coloca-logo5[1]The City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Film Festival, a fixture in Los Angeles for 18 years, shows new and classic French films at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles. The fest runs April 21-28.

This year’s fest offers another prime schedule of French motion pictures. “We Love You, You Bastard” (or Salaud, on t’aime, to be French about it), the latest film by Claude Lelouch, is the opening night film.

Lelouch, a New Wave writer-director (auteur), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with his 1966 “A Man and a Woman” (or Une Homme et un Femme). He conquered movie art-houses and has been active ever since. This new Lelouch movie stars two venerable French rock stars Johnny Hallyday and Eddy Mitchell in a story about sowing wild oats and dealing with the results.

What is showing to tempt noiristas? Well, 1960’s “Purple Noon,” one of the great film noirs, starring Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. This gripping thriller was directed by Rene Clement, based on a novel by the American expatriate crime writer Patricia Highsmith and dazzlingly shot by Henri Decae. It screens at 1:45 p.m., on Tuesday, April 22.

our-heroes[1]le-dernier-diamant[1]Then, there’s the highly popular Film Noir Series on Friday, April 25. Can’t wait! At 5:30 p.m. is the North American premiere of “Our Heroes Died Tonight” (Nos héros sont morts ce soir). Set in early-1960s Paris, this minimalist noir, written and directed by David Perrault, plunges into the seedy world of semi-professional wrestling where backroom dives smell of Gauloise and sweat, and the fights are all rigged.

At 7:30 p.m. Eric Barbier’s heist thriller “The Last Diamond,” makes its international premiere. Starring Bérénice Bejo and Yvan Attal, the film follows in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” The carrot for the crooks is mighty pretty: the fabled Florentine, a 137-carat yellow diamond last seen in 1918, which has resurfaced and is up for sale in an exclusive Antwerp auction house.

amourcrime[1]

venus-in-fur[1]The Larriere Brothers’ crime drama “Love is a Perfect Crime” plays at 10:30 p.m. Adapted from “Incidences by Philippe Dijan, whose other novels inspired the films “Betty Blue and “Unforgivable,” this chilly thriller revolves around a University of Lausanne student who goes missing. The top suspect? Her professor and lover, natch. “Love is a Perfect Crime” stars Mathieu Almaric, Karin Viard, Maiwenn and Sara Forrestier. This is the film’s West Coast premiere.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

The late, great François Truffaut will be honored Friday.

There are two other enticing events on Friday. The massively influential but too mortal (and gone too soon) French auteur François Truffaut will be remembered at a 1:30 p.m. screening of his very personal 1977 tale of a femme-chaser “The Man Who Loved Women,” starring Charles Denner as the Man, and Brigitte Fossey, Nathalie Baye and the supremely piquant Leslie Caron as some of the Women. There will be a talk on Truffaut after the movie.

At 8:30 p.m., that brilliant and elusive Polish-American-French cineaste, Roman Polanski will be represented by his latest film “Venus in Fur,” based on the masochistic novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch and David Ives’ play from it. “Venus” stars Polanski’s muse-mate Emmanuelle Seigner as an extroverted actress who shows up after hours to read for a part.

la-belle-et-la-bete[1]the-murderer-lives[1]On Saturday, at 11 a.m., the one French film of this year’s glittering menu that you absolutely don’t want to miss: the 1946 fairytale treasure “Beauty and the Beast,” written and directed by Jean Cocteau. Josette Day stars as Belle and Jean Marais as Bete. The film was photographed (lustrously) by Henri Alekan, scored (hauntingly) by Georges Auric and technically advised by Rene Clement, who we suspect, had more to do with the film‘s impeccable, fantastic technique than just advice.

If fairytales aren’t your tray of gateaux, there’s a brutally real alternative: “Abuse of Weakness,” a fierce semi-autobiographical drama by auteur Catherine Breillat about her own fleecing by a famous conman. “Abuse” screens at 7:45 p.m.

“We Love You, You Bastard” rescreens at 1:15 p.m.

Sunday brings the closing session of the competition, but there are two more major French classics on Monday, April 28. At 2 p.m., you can see the great director Patrice Chereau’s 1994 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ breathless historical novel “Queen Margot” (La Reine Margot). Chereau’s film stars Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil.

And at 3:30 p.m. there’s another film noir, a black-and-white ‘40s classic: “The Murderer Lives at No. 21” by Henri-Georges Clouzot. French stage and screen actor Louis Jouvet stars as the relentless detective Wens.

The COLCOA screenings are at the Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90046.

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Film Noir File: Deneuve, Buñuel cast spell with ‘Belle de Jour’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

PICK OF THE WEEK: Two by Luis Buñuel as part of Catherine Deneuve Day

Tristana” (1970, Luis Buñuel). Monday, Aug. 12, 10 p.m., (7 p.m.).

Belle de Jour” (1967, Luis Buñuel ). Monday, Aug. 12, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.).

Icy, ravishing Catherine Deneuve stars in “Belle de Jour.”

The most beautiful movie actress alive paired with the most brilliantly rebellious filmmaker.

That was the incendiary match-up of star Catherine Deneuve and director Luis Buñuel – who were most famous for their 1967 French erotic drama “Belle de Jour.” In that great film, Deneuve – so lovely and so classically, radiantly, sexily blonde that she took up residence in male dreams forever – played Severine, a Parisian wife, who becomes a prostitute during the day to escape her boring bourgeois life and her handsome but boring husband (Jean Sorel). Severine then falls into a world of crime, hypocrisy, dreamlike perversity and peril. It was the most popular, and the best-remembered, film of Buñuel’s entire career.

But they made another film that Buñuel preferred and is one of his most personal: “Tristana (1970). Shot in Spain, based on a novella by famed author Benito Perez Galdos (adapted by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro), this not underrated but definitely underseen film starred Deneuve in a role just as alluring and frightening as the wayward Severine: Tristana, the young orphan seduced, exploited and virtually imprisoned by her guardian Don Lope (Fernando Rey). Don Lope, worldly and egocentric, is an aristocrat of radical political beliefs, whose desire for his ward undermines his ethics – even as Tristana, a seeming victim, turns exploiter herself and exacts a terrible revenge.

“Tristana” earned the admiration of Alfred Hitchcock.

“Tristana” is a masterpiece, but it’s also a grimmer, sadder, more psychologically disturbing picture than “Belle de Jour.” Buñuel, notorious for his audacity, has directed some of the cruelest scenes in cinema, in films like “Un Chien Andalou,” “Los Olvidados” and “Viridiana.“ But he never filmed a more wounding scene than Tristana on the balcony: a sequence that delighted no less an epicure of sadism than Alfred Hitchcock. “Tristana! That leg! That leg!” Hitch exclaimed when the two directors met at a party. Buñuel probably only smiled.

Other Deneuve Day highlights include: “Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski), “Mississippi Mermaid” (1969, François Truffaut) and “Un Flic” (1972, Jean-Pierre Melville). See TCM for the full list. Films are in French (“Tristana” in Spanish) with English subtitles. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: A toast to Truffaut’s elegant, edgy dark side

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

PICK OF THE WEEK: François Truffaut Film Noir on Fridays

As a movie loving juvenile delinquent – the life that he later fictionalized in “The Four Hundred Blows” – the young François Truffaut was an aficionado of all kinds of movies.

But his favorite genre was film noir. Truffaut, the “most feared” French film reviewer of the ‘50s, star critic of the famed film magazine Cahiers du Cinema and an international directorial sensation after he premiered “Four Hundred Blows” at the Cannes Film Festival, was a noir devotee. He especially liked films made by director-auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Max Ophuls and Nicholas Ray.

Truffaut was also partial to the genre as a moviemaker. He made all kinds of movies himself, mostly romances in various keys, but he was obviously very inspired by the dark side of cinema.

He adapted two noir novels by Cornell Woolrich, one by Charles Williams and one by David Goodis (“Shoot the Piano Player”), giving each of them his special romantic spin. Tonight on TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight, David Edelstein looks at the work of this influential filmmaker.

The Bride Wore Black” (1968, François Truffaut). Friday, July 12: 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). One of Truffaut’s favorite actresses, Jeanne Moreau (“Jules and Jim”) is at her most sullenly sexy and mercurial here. Moreau plays Julie, a bereaved bride in black whose husband was unintentionally killed by five men, all of whom she intends to track down and murder. The men include those splendid French film actors Jean-Claude Brialy, Claude Rich, Charles Denner, Michel Lonsdale and Michel Bouquet. The music is by Hitchcock’s maestro of terror Bernard Herrmann. The source is one of Cornell Woolrich’s best known novels.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve star in “Mississippi Mermaid.”

Confidentially Yours” (1983, François Truffaut), Friday July 12: 10 p.m. (7 p.m.). Jean-Louis Trintignant is a businessman suspected of murder, hiding from the flics. Fanny Ardant (Truffaut‘s last lover) is his smart, love-bitten secretary, who is trying to find the real murderer. The plot may sound like Woolrich’s “Phantom Lady,” but the treatment is light and comic, like a “Thin Man” movie. Based on Charles Williams’ novel “The Long Saturday Night.”

Mississippi Mermaid” (1969, François Truffaut). Friday, July 12, 12 a.m. (9 p.m.). Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve are a plantation owner and his mail order bride, who get involved in murder and become lovers-on-the-run. Strange casting for two of the sexiest French stars, but the movie grows on you. It’s adapted from a first-rate Cornell Woolrich novel, “Waltz into Darkness,” which would have been a much better title for the movie.

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me” (1972, François Truffaut). Friday, July 12, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.). A saucy, dark little comedy about the romance of an unrepentant murderess named Camille Bliss (played by Bernadette Lafont, who’s wonderful) and a smitten sociology student named Stanislas (Andre Dussollier), who wants to figure her out. (Fat chance.) The men Camille entices are Charles Denner, Philippe Leotard, Claude Brasseur and Guy Marchand.

Shoot the Piano Player” (1960, François Truffaut). Saturday, July 13, 4 a.m. (1 a.m.). With Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois and Nicole Berger. Reviewed on FNB June 13, 2013.

Saturday, July 13

7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” (1948, St. John Legh Clowes). With Jack La Rue and Linden Travers. Reviewed on FNB October 6, 2012. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: ‘The Big Heat’ tells a searing story

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

PICK OF THE WEEK

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

The Big Heat” (1953: Fritz Lang). Tuesday, July 9: 9:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m.).

“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.

Lee Marvin plays Gloria Grahame’s gangster boyfriend.

Easy on the eyes Glenn Ford, the incomparable Gloria Grahame and ever-glowering Lee Marvin star in this unforgettable noir.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Friday, July 5

2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m.): “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943, Fritz Lang). With Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan and Anna Lee. Reviewed on FNB Feb. 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Four Hundred Blows” (1959, François Truffaut). Noir-lover Truffaut’s astonishing Cannes prize-winning feature film debut: the semi-autobiographical tale of the write-director’s boyhood life of parental neglect, explorations of Paris, street play, movie-going and petty crime, with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the young Truffaut character, Antoine Doinel. Truffaut and Doinel made four more Doinel films, and they might be making them still, but for the great French filmmaker’s untimely death in 1984. (In French, with English subtitles.)

The beginning of a month-long Friday night Truffaut retrospective, hosted by New York Magazine movie critic David Edelstein.

Saturday, July 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1958, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Reviewed on FNB August 10, 2012.

Sunday, July 7

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955, Nicholas Ray). With James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Reviewed on FNB April 18, 2013.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Fugitive” (1947, John Ford). With Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio and Ward Bond. Reviewed on FNB July 28, 2012. [Read more...]

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Kim Novak, natural-born star, honored with TCM tribute

One way to Kim Novak’s heart was through first editions.

Airing tonight: Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. Here, Michael Wilmington shares his appreciation for this actress.

My favorite Kim Novak line comes in “Pal Joey,” Columbia’s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great musical classic. Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, “You’re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I’m stacked.”

Kim Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).

Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with short-cropped platinum hair and a 37-inch bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That’s right!” her “Vertigo” director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to François Truffaut. “She’s particularly proud of that!”)

Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker’s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954’s film noir “Pushover” directed by her lover Richard Quine.

She then became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic,” directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which – as playwright William Inge’s small-town Kansas princess Madge – Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden’s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.

Her movies of course capitalize on the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.

Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while Sammy Davis Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ’50s.)

Kim Novak became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic.” By 1964, she was considered past her prime.

By 1964, she was considered past her prime and, when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me, Stupid,” she shared in the movie’s lousy notices.

Today “Kiss Me” is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!”)

But maybe she was too much a creation of the ’50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

She perhaps wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she’s stacked.

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‘Purple Noon’ marked milestone for Clément and Delon

“Purple Noon,” recently released by Criterion, is the prize for FNB’s January-February reader giveaway. Michael Wilmington reviews.                                                                          

Purple Noon/1960/Robert and Raymond Hakim/118 min.

“Plein Soleil,” or “Purple Noon” is a classic thriller and an exceptionally riveting and beautiful movie about desire and cruelty, murder and malice. It’s a smoke-and-mirrors game of make-believe played by a psychopathic killer, a villain from a classic of 20th Century crime fiction – 1955’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by the brilliant American novelist Patricia Highsmith.

Alain Delon (right) plays Tom Ripley, a conman who fools a reckless playboy named Philippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt). The movie was adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel.

Shot in Italy, we first meet Ripley in the Bay of Naples, on a sailboat, surrounded by blazing sunlight (“plein soleil”). Two good-looking young men are laughing and smiling. The joke is that one of them, a handsome, penniless hanger-on named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), will kill the other one, a rich, reckless playboy named Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), assume his identity, take his money, and maybe seduce his girl, Marge (Marie Laforêt).

They are both laughing (but Philippe’s eyes are wary, Tom’s predatory), smiling with the special joie de vivre and cruel merriment of the young and careless – the high giddy spirits of, say, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony planning his criss-cross murder with Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” But then Tom really kills Philippe. A knife thrust. A scream. “Marge!” cries the victim, the knife stuck in his chest. When the murder comes, it’s so swift, so effortless, so unexpected, yet so oddly inevitable, that it’s hard to believe we’ve seen what we’ve seen.

Ripley (Alain Delon) is a man trying to live a life that isn’t his.

Released in 1960, the same year as “Psycho” and “La Dolce Vita,” “Purple Noon” was an off-type movie for French filmmaker René Clément, a gifted and highly regarded director, who, by 1960, had won two major Cannes Film Festival awards, two Oscars (for 1949’s “The Walls of Malapaga” and 1952’s “Forbidden Games”) and two Golden Lions at Venice. In 1946, Clement had served as Jean Cocteau’s “technical adviser” (his co-director, some think) on the romantic fantasy masterpiece “Beauty and the Beast.”

Clement was a technical genius who chose challenging subjects. But he had been famously attacked in an influential article by the young François Truffaut. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut accused Clement and other filmmakers of being pretentious, over-praised mediocrities. Truffaut was a great filmmaker and a great film critic, but he sometimes said nasty and unfair things (as he admitted in later years) to draw attention to himself and kick up controversy. His dismissal of Clement was one of his bigger critical injustices.

Did Clement take it to heart? Most tellingly, “Purple Noon” is obviously influenced by Hitchcock, whom all the young Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors loved (they called themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”). “Purple Noon” is a film that most of them would probably have liked to have directed, but didn’t. Couldn’t?

Delon plays a love scene with his reflection in a mirror.

There is, however, a notable deviation from the Hitchcock thematic pattern. “Purple Noon” is not a movie about a wrong man falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” or Robert Donat in “The 39 Steps.”

In “Purple Noon,” Ripley is guilty. He’s a man trying to live a life that isn’t his, a life that belonged to the man he killed. “Purple Noon” is about the idle rich, and Ripley is a conman who wants to be idle and rich. Both Highsmith and Clement are unusually successful in getting us immersed in a story where most of the people are rich and selfish, where the leading man is irredeemably evil and the only really likeable character is Philippe’s abused girlfriend Marge, a writer with bad taste in men.

Ripley is in Italy at the behest of Philippe’s parents to talk Philippe into coming home. Instead, the guys become carousing hell-raising buddies. After the murder, Ripley takes Philippe’s bank records, fakes a passport, forges Philippe’s signature, imitates his voice on the phone, and lays a paper trail of hotel receipts to pretend that the dead man is still alive, still joy-riding somewhere around Italy.

Ripley is the real killer, constantly being mistaken for his own victim. It’s a brilliant Highsmith idea, and one that generates near-constant suspense, especially in the great scene when Ripley, disguised as Philippe, is confronted by Philippe’s suspicious friend Freddy Miles (Bill Kearns). That Tom-and-Freddy chase was also the only great scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 American movie version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” with Matt Damon miscast as Ripley. And the only reason that scene was great was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvelously snide performance as Freddy.

There’s a great performance in “Purple Noon” too: the tigerishly seductive Alain Delon, in his first important part. Delon is one of those impossibly good-looking actors who get careers they seemingly don’t really deserve (and that Delon said he initially didn’t want), but whose looks the movies feed on, and whom, it is said, the camera loves.

Delon, a working-class Adonis, is one of the few actors who could play, as he does here, a believable love scene with his own reflection in the mirror. We may not want Ripley to escape, but he generates unusual simpatico for a cold-blooded swindler and killer. And Maurice Ronet, with his haunted eyes and bedazzled smile, is just right as the irresponsible Philippe.

Delon, of course, was wrong for the part of Ripley in one major respect. It is impossible to believe that he (or Ronet) is an American. But in other respects, he’s an apt choice, and once you see him in the part, it’s hard to discard his image. (Damon, by contrast, though he’s played some movie villains, seems inherently too nice a guy for Ripley.)

Clement made the kind of thriller Truffaut would have loved to have made, but never did. And for the rest of Clement’s career, he was often typed as a thriller specialist, because of “Purple Noon,” which became one of the most influential of all French crime/suspense movies.

It deserves to be. “Purple Noon” still plays beautifully, especially in the scenes where Ripley battles the elements after the murder. Two years later, in 1962, a talented young Polish film director, Roman Polanski, made a thriller, set on a sailboat, that reminds you greatly of the bay scenes in “Purple Noon.” (“Knife in the Water” became an international hit and eventually brought Polanski to Hollywood where he made superb mass-audience thrillers like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown.”)

I wish Clement had had a few more opportunities like Polanski did. Maybe Truffaut wished it as well. Maybe the maker of “The Four Hundred Blows” wished he hadn’t been so quick to thrust in the knife.

Extras: Interviews with Patricia Highsmith, Alain Delon and Clement scholar Denitza Bantcheva; Trailer; Booklet with a fine essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1981 interview with René Clément.

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The Noir File: Truffaut’s choice as the greatest film noir: ‘Rififi’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). This week, there’s a trio of great heist films on Tuesday, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific): “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Rififi” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

PICK OF THE WEEK

Rififi” (1954, Jules Dassin). Tuesday, Jan. 1, 12 a.m. (9 p.m.). Midway through director Jules Dassin’s French crime classic “Rififi” (“Trouble”), Dassin stages a 33-minute-long masterpiece of suspense: a sequence the most critics regard as the most perfect of all movie heist scenes. It’s a brilliantly designed set-piece of excruciating tension and the only sound is the thieves at work.

Probably no one who sees that scene ever forgets it. Here it is: In the early morning hours, a small band of crooks – which include legendary bank robber Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), his young married friend Jo Jo (Carl Mohner), a good thief named Mario (Robert Manuel) and the loose-lipped safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself, under the stage name Perlo Vita) – break into an exclusive Parisian jewelry store by drilling though the floor of the room above. They work carefully, quietly, methodically. For the entire scene, there is not a word of dialogue, not a note of background music. A tour de force of moviemaking technique, it helped win Dassin the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, François Truffaut called “Rififi” the greatest of all film noirs.

That heist scene also sets up the grim, fatalistic last act of “Rififi,” which is about how thieves fall apart, set in a Paris that seems shrouded in perpetual clouds and drizzling rain. “Rififi” was regarded as an almost instant classic, and it wiped out the stigma of Dassin’s blacklisting by Hollywood. If you’ve never seen this movie and that scene, you won’t forget them either. (In French, with subtitles.)

Tuesday, Jan. 1

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). With Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn in one of her first important roles.

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958, Mario Monicelli). An inept gang of burglars, played by front-rank Italian movie stars Vittorio Gassmann, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Toto, try in vain to break into and rob a store. This is perhaps, along with the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers “The Ladykillers,” the funniest crime comedy ever made: often remade, endlessly copied, never equaled. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

Saturday, Jan. 5

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Whistler” (1944, William Castle). The first and probably best of the macabre “Whistler” series, based on the popular radio program. Richard Dix, as The Whistler, tries desperately to call off the hit men (Including J. Carroll Naish) he’s hired to kill himself.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 a.m.): “M” (1931, Fritz Lang). With Peter Lorre and Gustaf Grundgens.

Sunday, Jan. 6

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “The Wrong Man” (1957, Alfred Hitchcock). With Henry Fonda and Vera Miles.

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Hitch’s 1935 love-on-the-run spy story stands the test of time

The ever-resourceful Hannay (Robert Donat) manages to dodge the police repeatedly.

The 39 Steps/1935/Gaumont British Picture Corp./86 min.

This month’s reader giveaway is the Criterion rerelease of “The 39 Steps.” Michael Wilmington reviews.

Movie thrillers come and go, but, after more than three quarters of a century, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” still reigns supreme. And not only for the breathless excitement of the story, the seamless construction, the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere and the startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it.

Nor for its actors – despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory; and, at the center of the action, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.

After spending the night at his London flat, the mysterious spy (Lucie Mannheim) warns Hannay that the criminal mastermind whom she betrayed is missing part of a finger.

More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became “Hitchcock,” earning the reputation he never relinquished as “The Master of Suspense.”

Well into the 1960s, “The 39 Steps” was still commonly called his best movie. André Bazin: “It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.” And Pauline Kael: “This suave, amusing spy melodrama is . . . charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.”

Hitchcock had major successes before, but “The 39 Steps” was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five that followed, “The 39 Steps” was responsible for his emigration to America as a first-rank filmmaker.

Madeleine Carroll as Pamela is just as appealing today as she was 75 years ago. She makes a point of being stroppy with Hannay while slyly flirting with him.

The Hitchcock of 1935 was no neophyte. He was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan.

And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal – so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career.

In “Young and Innocent” (1937), “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), “Saboteur” (1942), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “North by Northwest” (1959), “Torn Curtain” (1966) and “Frenzy” (1972), we get part of the basic situation. The “wrong man,” accused of a crime he did not commit, flees through dangerous or colorful locales – sometimes engages in erotic sparring with a woman – and tries desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sin.

In discussing the film with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “What I like best about ‘The 39 Steps’ are the swift transitions.” The lightning transitions and ingenious editing keep the film fresh and bewitching. The landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse in Hannay’s flat, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed from London’s Portland Place to the forbidding Scottish moors, under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another performance at the Palladium completes the circle.

Pamela and Hannay on the run in Scotland.

But the swift transitions are more than geographic. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition.

Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith.”

“Romance” leads to danger. The woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. The next morning, after she is murdered by the spies on her trail, Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a philanderer ducking a vengeful husband – something he nearly becomes when, still dodging the police, he stays a night with a dour Scottish farmer and his much younger wife.

The innkeeper mistakes Pamela and Hannay for a couple madly in love.

Earlier, fleeing the London murder scene by train, he tries to elude the police by embracing a total stranger (to her fury).

He winds up manacled to that same stranger, Pamela, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: “They’re so terribly in love with each other!” Love and death, sex and slaughter – these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, disturbing double mirror.

“The 39 Steps” is that rarity: a cinematic masterpiece that has stood the test of time, a great work that is also a great crowd-pleaser. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: “Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat.

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Hitchcock blends noir, Americana in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

A guide to classic film noir and neo-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

Shadow of a Doubt” (1943, Alfred Hitchcock). Thursday, Oct. 4, 3:15 a.m. (12:15 a.m.)

A bright and beautiful small town girl named Charlotte “Charlie” Newton (Teresa Wright) is bored, bored with her well-ordered home in her pretty Norman Rockwellish little city of Santa Rosa, Calif., – where trees line the sunlit streets, everyone goes to church on Sunday, and lots of them read murder mysteries at night. Charlie has more exotic dreams. She adores her globe-trotting, urbane Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) – for whom she was nicknamed – and is deliriously happy when he shows up in Santa Rosa for a visit.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright play kindred spirits, sort of, in “Shadow.”

But Uncle Charlie has some secrets that no one in his circle would guess – not Uncle Charlie’s adoring sister (Patricia Collinge), nor his good-hearted brother-in-law (Henry Travers), nor their mystery-loving neighbor Herbie (Hume Cronyn), nor Charlie herself. Uncle Charlie, who conceals a darker personality and profession beneath his charming persona, is on the run, pursued by a dogged police detective (Macdonald Carey), who suspects him of being a notorious serial killer who seduces rich old widows and kills them for their money. As handsome, cold-blooded Uncle Charlie, Cotten, who also called “Shadow” his personal favorite film, is, with Robert Walker and Anthony Perkins, one of the three great Hitchcockian psychopaths.

“Shadow of a Doubt,” released in 1943, was Hitchcock’s sixth American movie and the one he often described as his favorite. As he explained to François Truffaut, this was because he felt that his critical enemies, the “plausibles,” could have nothing to quibble about with “Shadow.” It was written by two superb chroniclers of Americana, Thornton Wilder (“Our Town”) and Sally Benson (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), along with Hitch’s constant collaborator, wife Alma Reville. The result is one of the supreme examples of Hitchcockian counterpoint: with a sunny, beguiling background against which dark terror erupts.

Saturday, Sept. 29

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Fallen Idol” (1948, Carol Reed). In 1948, a year before they made the nonpareil thriller “The Third Man,” director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene collaborated on another tilted-camera film-noir classic: this mesmerizing story of a little French boy (Bobby Henrey), a French diplomat’s son, who hero-worships the embassy butler (Ralph Richardson), but mistakenly comes to believe his idol has murdered his wife, and keeps unintentionally incriminating him. With Michele Morgan, Jack Hawkins and Bernard Lee – and stunning cinematography by Georges Perinal.

Sunday, Sept. 30

12 p.m. (9 a.m.): “Carmen Jones” (1954, Otto Preminger). From Georges Bizet’s great, tuneful, massively popular opera, based on Prosper Merimee’s novel about a lusty cigarette girl and the soldier who is obsessed with her, unwisely: A compelling noir musical, with an African-American cast (headed by Dorothy Dandridge as femme fatale Carmen and Harry Belafonte as soldier Joe), lyrics and libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, and direction by Otto Preminger. The rest of the cast includes Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters.

Monday, Oct. 1

2 p.m. (11 a. m.): “The Fortune Cookie” (1966, Billy Wilder). Billy Wilder, mastermind of that quintessential film noir “Double Indemnity,” comes up with another ingenious insurance swindle in this dark, very funny comedy noir. Jack Lemmon is Harry Hinkle, a likable pro- football TV cameraman who is run down before millions of spectators on a punt return. Walter Matthau won the Oscar playing Harry’s brother-in-law, a sneaky, cynical, loot-smelling lawyer.

Thursday, Oct. 4

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “Marked Woman” (1937, Lloyd Bacon). Bette Davis plays a feisty “hostess” and Humphrey Bogart plays a crusading D. A. Together with Bette’s pals, other “hostesses” (aka ladies of the evening), they go up against the mob, in this feminist pre-noir crime classic, co-scripted by Robert Rossen. Based on a famous real-life New York City prostitution case. The Bogart and Eduardo Ciannelli characters are modeled on Thomas Dewey and Lucky Luciano. With Lola Lane, Allen Jenkins and Mayo Methot (Mrs. Bogart).

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Perfect, posh fodder for a Hitchcock mind game

Dial M for Murder/1954/Warner Bros. Pictures/105 min.

A streetwise femme fatale she’s not. Grace Kelly is too refined, too ladylike, too exquisitely beautiful. But in “Dial M for Murder,” her first movie with Alfred Hitchcock, she proves herself to be a smart and capable heroine in this film that’s nearly as ravishing to look at as she is.

Ray Milland as Tony Wendice brims with confidence and charm.

We first see her character Margot Wendice, in a demure white dress, as she reads the London Times over breakfast with her debonair husband Tony (Ray Milland). Tony’s a former tennis champ who now sells sports equipment. But it’s Margot’s family money that pays for their posh lifestyle and elegant flat in Maida Vale.

Minutes after her breakfast, we see Margot with her lover, a mystery writer named Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), this time in a bright red dress that signals where her real passion lies. Margot is fretting a bit because she’s received letters from an anonymous blackmailer who knows about her affair and threatens to tell Tony.

Turns out, though, the “blackmailer” is suave old Tony himself. He’s known for quite a while that Margot and Mark are an item and he’s hatched a plan to do away with his wife, get her money and use her lover as his alibi. It’s a very clever plan and Tony has worked out every detail. But as I mentioned Margot is no slouch. She proves quite skilled at surviving and improvising with weapons. A little trick she picked up at boarding school, I expect. Still, Tony sees a chance to achieve his goal using a new ploy.

Mark (Robert Cummings) is the writer with whom Margot (Grace Kelly) begins an affair.

Like most Hitchcock noirs, the story takes place in a world in which manners and titles and accents count for a great deal – in which fate is determined over champagne cocktails and glasses of brandy by a roaring fire. This chi-chi, upper-crust milieu is far removed from the gritty, urban, angst-ridden territory of much of the film noir canon. But a common thread of film noir, regardless of setting, is that its writers and directors were intensely aware of class differences and divisions, of society’s inequalities and injustices.

With a screenplay by Frederick Knott (based on his Broadway and West End hit), “Dial M for Murder” boasts a very civilized, very English, very cozy atmosphere, at least on the surface. Whereas Hitchcock often tended to use novels and short stories as gestalts for his own uniquely original narratives, when he chose to film a play, he left them virtually unaltered. In fact, he considered “Dial M” a minor work, something to do while he recharged his creative batteries.

That said, he shot the movie in 3-D, in vibrant color with extreme camera angles to keep us from getting too claustrophobic (the action takes places almost entirely in the Wendices’ well appointed flat). The lush look, upbeat mood, romantic music by Dimitri Tiomkin and charming characters all belie the darkness at the core of the story.

Milland is magnetic, confident, perfectly composed with just a shimmer of vulnerability. Kelly, the flawless incarnation of ’50s femininity, seems the perfect wife for him. (The supporting cast is splendid as well. Anthony Dawson plays the college acquaintance whom Tony ropes into his scheme. John Williams is urbane as ever as Chief Inspector Hubbard.) But, as sumptuous as these appearances are, they are nevertheless deceiving.

A pawn in the game: Anthony Dawson tries to strangle Margot (Grace Kelly).

“Dial M for Murder” is an excellent example of one of Hitch’s favorite mind games – inviting us to get swept up in this picture-perfect world and then upending our expectations and revealing his (and perhaps our) mistrust of the upper classes, particularly through the use of subversive casting.

For instance, Margot and Mark’s fling is surely one of the most tasteful and thoroughly dull affairs in movie history (despite the red dress). I reckon any woman would take sexy, athletic Tony over sweet but insipid Mark. Of course, Hitchcock knows this. He uses Milland’s humor and appeal to build the audience’s sympathy for the wrong person, to get us to identify with a would-be killer, to subtly underscore the moral ambiguities and deep flaws that make us human.

Hitch liked to play cat and mouse with the audience, to entice us with wit, gloss and visual flair, then slyly expose our delusions and hypocrisies. Or as Francois Truffaut put it: “Hitchcock loves to be misunderstood, because he has based his whole life around misunderstandings.”

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