Light & Noir at the Skirball Cultural Center tells a spellbinding story of immigration and innovation, set in Hollywood

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

Joan Bennett entraps Edward G. Robinson in 1944’s “The Woman in the Window,” directed by Fritz Lang. The film will screen at the Skirball Cultural Center as part of Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950.

“Making movies is a little like walking into a dark room,” said legendary director Billy Wilder, who made more than 50 films and won six Academy Awards. “Some people stumble across furniture, others break their legs but some of us see better in the dark than others.”

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

“Sunset Blvd.” won three Oscars: writing, music and art direction. Shown: Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder.

By the time the Austrian-born journalist, screenwriter and director came to America in 1934, he’d seen more than his share of darkness, on screen and off. Wilder left Europe to escape the Nazis; his mother died in Auschwitz.

He joined many other prominent Jewish artists (such as directors Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann, composer Franz Waxman, and writers Salka Viertel and Franz Werfel) as they left their homes and careers in German-speaking countries to build new lives and find work in Hollywood.

Starting on Thursday, Oct. 23, a new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 highlights the experiences of these émigré actors, directors, writers and composers.

They came to California at a pivotal time in the world’s history and in the evolution of the movie-making capital, greatly contributing to Hollywood’s Golden Age and raising the artistic bar for its productions.

In particular, film noir was born when the talents of these European émigrés merged with the hard-boiled stories of American pulp crime fiction and the subtle sensibilities of French Poetic Realism.

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in “Pitfall.”

Films, concept drawings, costumes, posters, photographs and memorabilia will help tell the story of Hollywood’s formative era through the émigré lens. Accompanying the show is a plethora of events: film screenings, readings, talks, tours, courses (photography and cooking with a Café Vienne installation), comedy, family programs, a holiday pop-up shop and more.

Organized by the Skirball Cultural Center and co-presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition will run through March 1, 2015.

Running in conjunction with the show is The Noir Effect, which explores how the film noir genre gave rise to major contemporary trends in American popular culture, art and media. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

Of course, I’m especially looking forward to the impressive lineup of films. On Oct. 30, Jan-Christopher Horak, a German-exile cinema historian and director of the UCLA Film and Television Archives, will describe how Hollywood became the prime employer of European émigré filmmakers as Nazi persecution grew. The lecture will be followed by a screening of Austrian émigré Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die!”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster play doomed lovers in “Criss Cross,” (1949, Robert Siodmak). The movie will play in January.

(Additionally, continuing through April 26, 2015, at the Los Angeles County Museum is Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s. The series explores approximately 25 masterworks of German Expressionist cinema, a national style that had international impact.)

At the Skirball Cultural Center, on Dec. 7, fashion expert Kimberly Truhler will discuss the effect of World War II on film costume design and American fashion in the 1940s. Gabriela Hernandez, founder of Bésame Cosmetics, will share the history of make-up and tips on achieving the film noir look.

And in January, the Skirball Cultural Center will host the film series “The Intriguante: Women of Intrigue in Film Noir,” which will feature: “The Woman in the Window,” “Pitfall,” “Criss Cross,” “The File on Thelma Jordon” and the 2008 documentary “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood.”

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Extolling virtues of ‘Dark Passage’: Bogie, Bacall and more

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

“Dark Passage” was the third of four films Bogart and Bacall made together.

I recently wrote about 1947’s “Lady in the Lake,” a Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe tale, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. Its chief claim to fame is the experimental subjective camera – the story is told entirely from Marlowe’s point of view.

In that review, I noted that “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, also from 1947, uses a subjective camera as well, though just for the first half-hour of the movie. The limited use of the technique in “Dark Passage” pays off much better than the full-on treatment in “Lady.” Though “Dark Passage” wasn’t a huge hit in its day – audiences weren’t crazy about being deprived of Bogart – it’s a film noir treasure that rarely gets its due.

Admittedly, the plausibility police would have a field day with this one. From the moment we meet Bogart as escaped San Quentin prisoner Vincent Parry and Bacall as Irene Jansen, his mysterious helper/wealthy benefactor, the phrase “never gonna happen” pops into your mind and lingers as the rather bizarre plot unfolds. This is not a realistic movie. So sue director/writer Delmer Daves and novelist David Goodis, who provided the source material.

Bogart has an awful lot to account for in “Dark Passage.”

I don’t think the filmmakers’ aim was to tell a story that’s relatable in a literal sense. The idea was to explore ideas about trust, identity, revenge, isolation and paranoia in the shell of an entertaining thriller that’s also infused with the famous Bogie-Bacall chemistry. At the same time, the sometimes-unwieldy narrative has depth and intelligence – it’s not merely a slapdash concoction of the outlandish and absurd. Goodis was a particularly pessimistic writer and a harsh social critic.

Here Bacall’s Irene is calling the shots, outwitting the cops and doling out shrewd suggestions to Vincent in her singular husky voice. Irene is the only person who believes in Vincent’s innocence –that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Dressed to elegant perfection in every scene, she spurs Vincent to spruce up his wardrobe as well. But Vincent needs more than a fashion overhaul if he is to avoid recapture.

Besides the leads, “Dark Passage” has a tremendous cast – Bruce Bennett shines as Irene’s solid, decent friend and the inimitable Agnes Moorehead sparkles as Madge, the ultimate conniving shrew, with a penchant for animal prints, no less. Houseley Stevenson is unforgettable as the unsavory but highly skilled Dr. Walter Coley. The creepy doctor proves pivotal in Vincent’s quest to remake himself. Even the small parts –a small-time crook, a chatty cabbie and a diner waiter (played by Clifton Young, Tom D’Andrea and Tom Fadden) – are great fun to watch.

The Franz Waxman score, along with San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox, result in a noir rapture – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later. Every detail of this strange little work, though not a great film, feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic.

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‘Dark Passage’ quick hit

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

The sometimes-neglected “Dark Passage,” by writer/director Delmer Daves, has ingredients that result in a noir rapture: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall leading a terrific cast (Agnes Moorehead shines as a shrew with a penchant for animal prints), a bizarre story, Franz Waxman’s score, San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later.

Every detail of this little film feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic. A subjective/first-person camera is used for the first half-hour of the movie. Based on a David Goodis novel.

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WWJD? Taking a leaf, or not, from Joan Crawford’s book

‘Possessed’ will play at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, which starts on Thursday, May 10, and runs through the weekend.

Possessed/ 1947/Warner Bros. Pictures/108 min.

A dazed and confused Louise (Joan Crawford) wanders the streets of LA.

WWJD? What Would Joan Do is an acronym I use to remind myself that in times of trial, or just dreary old doubt, I can always conjure some outrageous guidance in the spirit of the indomitable Miss Joan Crawford.

“You see?” Joan would purr in her low, silky voice, were she still alive. “It sounds severe, but it’s really rather effective.”

Work woes? If you’ve patiently kept your nose to the grindstone and still haven’t received a promotion, it might be time to march into the boardroom and shout: “Don’t mess with me, fellas!”

Slovenly roommate? Never underestimate the effect of throwing a few hangers around to drive home the point that the apartment is not likely to start cleaning itself.

Man trouble? A quick jab with your stiletto to his foot or chin every 10 minutes or so should ensure that the rapscallion not only listens but also hangs on your every word over dinner.

When Carol (Geraldine Brooks) and David (Van Heflin) start a romance, Louise is less than pleased.

Admittedly, actually doing any of the above or generally taking cues from the Queen of the Ankle-Strap Shoe would likely lead to disastrous results. But the point is that imagining WWJD is nearly as entertaining as watching the many movies in which she played tough strong women who made up their minds to go after what they wanted. And. Didn’t. Stop. Until. They. Got. It.

Getting what she wants is certainly central to her character in director Curtis Bernhardt’s “Possessed” from 1947. Joan plays Louise Howell Graham, a determined gal who doesn’t take it very well when her boyfriend David Sutton (Van Heflin) dumps her. Louise is convinced that if she tries hard enough, David will come to his senses and realize that he does love her, after all.

She even marries wealthy widower Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) as a ploy to win David back. (Need I say the ploy doesn’t work?) When Louise’s stepdaughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks) also falls for David, things get sticky. Or perhaps shaky is a better word because Louise goes off the deep end into a full-fledged psychotic state, though when she eventually pulls the trigger of a gun, her hand is rock steady.

You realize in the opening scene that Louise is in La La Land, literally and figuratively, as she wanders the streets of LA calling David’s name. In a drab dress, hideous shoes, no lipstick and her hair a mess? She needs new medication or an emergency shopping trip to Rodeo Drive. Someone help this woman, please! And mercifully someone does. Louise’s story comes to us in flashback as she tells her doctors in the hospital psycho ward.

The movie is director Bernhardt’s exploration of an unhinged mind. A German Jew well-schooled in the tenets of Expressionism, his visual techniques to show us Louise’s inner torment include high-contrast light and shadow as well as stunningly extreme camera angles to create a sense of emotional chaos.

Steady and wealthy husband Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) adores Louise and, more importantly, believes her lies.

Crowded, asymmetric compositions reveal her sense of entrapment and imbalance. Particularly famous, and beautifully lit, is Louise’s disaster-fantasy scene where she confronts Carol near a flight of stairs – essentially a distorted dream sequence that reflects Louise’s anguish. Joseph Valentine and Sidney Hickox (uncredited) were the cinematographers.

A sweeping score by Franz Waxman highlights Louise’s subjective point of view, particularly her splintered personality. (On the DVD release, film historian Drew Casper offers an informative, if gushy, commentary that details Bernhardt’s methods.)

The intense script came from Ranald MacDougall, Silvia Richards and Lawrence Menkin; it was based on a Rita Weiman story. MacDougall was a favorite of Joan’s. He was the lead writer of “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz) based on James M. Cain’s novel. MacDougall also adapted and directed 1955’s “Queen Bee.”

It’s Joan’s movie, to be sure, but there’s a terrific chemistry among these well cast players. Heflin plays a douche bag like no other, Massey fairly radiates standup sincerity and goodness, and Brooks shines as his sweet and sexy daughter.

Crazy or not, Louise is still a straight shooter.

By today’s standards, Joan’s acting is a little over the top, but it’s hard to think of another actress who could’ve pulled off this part (it’s a crazy lady, after all) any better. As James Agee sagely noted, “Miss Crawford performs with the passion and intelligence of an actress who is not content with just one Oscar.”

Her performance in “Possessed” was nominated for a best-actress Oscar but, having won for “Mildred Pierce,” her chances were slim; she lost to Loretta Young in “The Farmer’s Daughter.” (She was also nominated for “Sudden Fear,” from 1952, but the award went to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”)

The genius of Joan is that she while she might’ve overplayed it a tad, she always retained a sense of dignity and backbone that made you admire her a little, even if she was nuts. My favorite scene is when hubby Dean asks her why she lied to him. She answers, in a blasé tone, “Because I felt like it. I wanted to lie and I lied. Let me alone.”

This reminds me of a story my mother told me once. She and her best friend, both newly married, attended a bridal shower where the guests were asked to write down a piece of advice for a happy marriage. The two of them suggested the following: “Tell one lie every day.” When it came time to read each item aloud, the other guests were aghast at this exhortation to fib. Still, my mother and her friend got quite a good chuckle out of it.

I think Joan would have too.

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Billy Wilder superbly skewers Tinseltown in ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is found dead in Norma Desmond’s pool.

Without a doubt, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” is one of the greatest movies ever made about Hollywood, perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made.

Aging Hollywood star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is admittedly a little cut off from reality. She fawns over her pet monkey, has rats in her pool, autographs pile after pile of 8 x 10 glossies for her fans, even though she hasn’t made a picture in years. But, like so many women of film noir, the “Sunset Blvd.” heroine was ahead of her time. She was a veteran movie star who wanted to create her own roles, look her best and date a younger, sexy man. Anything wrong with that?

Unfortunately, though, she spins out of control and winds up shooting this boy toy in a jealous pique. There’s always a downside to being a visionary, I guess. By mentioning the murder, I’m not spoiling anything because the movie opens with Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating lifelessly in Norma’s pool, having stumbled in after she plugged him. He then narrates the movie via flashback, a favorite film-noir technique, but Wilder was the first to let the voice belong to a dead guy. In fact, there are two (perfectly merged) narratives – dead Joe reflecting on the past and in-the-moment Joe, unaware of his fate.

Norma (Gloria Swanson) tries to keep Joe entertained.

An Ohio newspaperman, Joe has come to LA to be a screenwriter but his career has stalled and he’s short on money. Looking for a place to stash his car so that the finance company won’t repossess it, he spots an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

It’s an old home, but it’s not deserted – Norma lives there with her butler and former director, Max von Mayerling (real-life director Erich von Stroheim). Once she learns Joe is a writer – a tall, buff, gorgeous writer – she asks him to collaborate on a screenplay that she hopes will relaunch her career. They seal the deal over a glass of champagne and Norma decides he should move in with her. Joe agrees but occasionally sneaks away to slum it with his young, aspiring movie-maker friends, including earnest, ambitious and fresh-faced Betty Schaefer (Wisconsin-native Nancy Olson).

Aspiring writer Betty (Nancy Olson) connects with Joe at a party.

Betty and Joe decide to co-write a script in their free time, but Norma isn’t one to share her man. In her final dramatic encounter with Joe, Norma ironically achieves her long-held dream of hearing “Lights, camera, action!” once more.

“Sunset Blvd.” is rich with irony. Von Stroheim is just one of many Hollywood greats playing parts that were very close to their own lives. (Von Stroheim, a major silent-film director most renowned for “Greed” from 1924, directed Swanson in 1929’s “Queen Kelly,” a few frames of which are shown in “Sunset Blvd.”) Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves as do actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s friends from her glory days.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Sunset Blvd.” but each time I view, it seems fresh, funny and contemporary, which is the mark of a truly classic film. From the rich, shadow-laden visuals (I love the first time we see Norma – coiled like a viper, clutching her antique cigarette holder, peeking out from behind Venetian blinds) to the perfect, snappy pacing to the outstanding score by Franz Waxman, Wilder left not one detail to chance.

Butler and driver Max (Erich Von Stroheim) takes Norma and Joe to a meeting at Paramount with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Most importantly, Wilder elicited tremendous performances from his actors – Swanson is not only deluded and desperate and vain, she’s funny (especially when she impersonates Charlie Chaplin) and determined and strangely endearing. Holden wins us over, even though there’s very little to like about his character. Of course, a big part of great acting is precise casting and Wilder was lucky on that front.

There was of course no way he could have foreseen how indelibly Swanson and Holden would stamp their parts on the pop-culture landscape. Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri reportedly turned down the Norma role. Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray passed on the chance to add Joe Gillis to their list of credits. (Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly were also considered.)

Wilder and his longtime creative partner Charles Brackett wrote the first-rate script with help from D.M. Marshman, Jr. Relentlessly cynical and unforgiving of Hollywood’s callous, cruel and exploitative side, the story ruffled studio- exec feathers but resonated with critics and audiences.

“Sunset Blvd.” received Oscar noms for best picture, director, actor (Holden), actress (Swanson), supporting actor (Von Stroheim) and supporting actress (Olson) as well as for editing and cinematography (John F. Seitz). It won three – for story/screenplay, art direction and score.

Though perhaps not quintessential film noir, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is nonetheless an unforgettable femme fatale, whose life might’ve unfolded very differently had she but Botox enough and time.

“Sunset Blvd.” plays tonight at 7:30 p.m. (in a double bill with David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

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