‘Our Man in Havana’ offers wit, savvy and suspense

By Michael Wilmington

Our Man in Havana/1959/Kingsmead Productions, Columbia Pictures Corp./111 min.

Our Man in Havana,” a dark 1959 comedy starring Alec Guinness,  was the third and final film that British thriller writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed made together. Their first was 1948’s “The Fallen Idol.” Their masterpiece was “The Third Man” (1949).

“Our Man in Havana,” about spying and murder and vacuum cleaners in pre-revolutionary Cuba, is not as suspenseful as “The Third Man” and, even as a comedy, it’s not all that funny. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film or even a mediocre one.

“Our Man” is just not as good as we want it to be, not as good as the deliciously tense, scathingly witty and beautifully sad “The Third Man,” which boasts a wonderful cast, gorgeous cinematography by Robert Krasker and that haunting zither music by Anton Karas. At least one group of British critics selected “The Third Man” as the finest British picture of all time.

But perhaps we expect too much from “Our Man” and miss what’s there: a good amount of intelligence, wit, suspense, romance, political savvy, elegant Havana-location photography by Oswald Morris and a pretty wonderful, if uneven, cast. Guinness, as Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned reluctant spy, joins Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward as the maladroit spymasters who hire and employ him; Maureen O’Hara, as his affair-minded assistant spy; Burl Ives as Wormold’s best friend, Dr. Hasselbacher; and Ernie Kovacs as the urbane, sadistic Cuban head cop, Captain Segura, who’s in love with Wormold’s daughter Milly (Jo Morrow).

The time of “Our Man in Havana” is the 1950s, with Cuba under the Batista regime. Wormold is a typical guilt-ridden Greene character and Guinness plays him with some of the introverted whimsy he put into the role of the fussy inventor in “The Man in the White Suit.” Light on cash, Wormold allows himself to be recruited by a local MI6 agent named Hawthorne (Coward). Hawthorne asks Wormold to put together a spy team for MI6, which is run back in England by the dithering “C” (Richardson). Wormold, who has no experience and no contacts, hits on the stratagem of simply making up an agent list and writing phony reports – along with the plans for what looks like fictional weaponry but is actually one of his vacuum cleaners.

So convincing are all Wormold’s fantasies and absurd inventions that MI6 wants more and sends him a helper (O’Hara), to gather more of his non-intelligence. But there is a real world of spies and killers operating in Batista’s Cuba, and soon some of them are after Wormold, with real murder on their minds. Like “The Third Man,” the plot plunges a naïve but imaginative amateur into a political game that turns deadly serious in a dark, corrupt city that is filled with criminals and deceptions.

A masterpiece? Not so much. But “Our Man” knows how to have a good time.

The movie was shot on location in Havana, in Castro’s post-revolutionary Cuba although the novel, published in 1958, was set in Batista’s Cuba and that may have created a problem. Greene’s and Reed’s Havana never seems as real or as sinister as their Vienna in “The Third Man.”

There are two bits of miscasting. Burl Ives doesn’t have the accent for Hasselbacher and he plays his one mournful note too dolorously. And Jo Morrow can’t make you think she’s a British teenager (even when Wormold “explains” that she picked up her accent in America).

Most of this unusually talented cast, though, seems to be having fun, especially Guinness, Coward and Richardson – and, more surprisingly, Ernie Kovacs, who’s so good he makes you forget he isn’t Cuban and doesn’t seem at first to belong in a Graham Greene movie.

The biggest joke of Greene and Reed’s last film though, is that the plot is based on real life. Greene (a WWII spy before he became a writer) heard a story about a Spanish spy for the Nazis named Garbo who did exactly what Wormold did: invented a whole fictional spy team and submitted fictitious reports to his gullible employers. That tale clearly appealed to Greene, master of thrillers and deception – a good Catholic, albeit with sins on his conscience.

Sony Pictures recently released “Our Man in Havana” on DVD.

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The Noir File: Wilder’s dark favorite is an American nightmare

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

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

Ace in the Hole” (1951, Billy Wilder). Friday, May 17, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.).

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a star reporter exiled from his big-city paper.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood and film noir, no one was better than Kirk Douglas at playing anti heroes, heels and villains. In movies like “Champion,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “I Walk Alone” and “Out of the Past,” he channeled the amoral climber who knifes you with a smile, or steps on almost everyone on his way to the top. The best (or worst) of all Douglas’s movie heels is Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” – a slick-operator star newspaper reporter who messes up, gets exiled from his big-city paper and is now stuck in Albuquerque, N.M., in a desert dead-end.

When Chuck learns of a local miner named Leo Mimosa trapped in a cave-in in a Native American holy area, he sees a chance to ratchet up the drama and revive his career. A master manipulator, Chuck talks Leo and his rescuers into taking a longer, more dangerous escape route, then plays the story to the hilt, planning to sell it to the big outlets back east. With Leo’s life on the line and the clock ticking, this master of hype and hoopla turns the story into a circus and the circus into a nightmare.

A master manipulator, Chuck ratchets up the drama in an effort to revive his career.

Chuck Tatum, brought to stinging life by Douglas, was the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who had just dissolved his decades-long writing partnership with Charles Brackett after their hit, “Sunset Blvd.” Walter Newman, who later wrote “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “Cat Ballou,” was one of Wilder’s new co-writers and, though they never collaborated again, Wilder must have liked some of what they did.

Many times, Wilder cited “Ace in the Hole” as one of his favorites among his films, “the runt of my litter” as he affectionately called it. The runt is one of the darkest of all Wilder’s films: a portrait of American society, culture and media, a ruthless exposé of Tatum and his fellow opportunists.

The more conservative Brackett (who had refused to work with Wilder on “Double Indemnity”) had been something of a brake on Billy’s cynicism, which is fully unleashed here. Perhaps Brackett had a point. Many critics and audiences in 1951 didn’t much care for the acrid darkness and lacerating social indictment of Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” which was such a flop that it had to be pulled and re-released as “The Big Carnival.”

It didn’t come to be regarded as a classic of American cinema and social criticism until years later. Maybe the picture was just too noir for ’50s moviegoers. But it’s not too noir for us.

Friday, May 17

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Where Danger Lives” (1953, John Farrow). Love on the run, with infatuated Bob Mitchum falling for dangerous Faith Domergue, and the two of them heading for Mexico. A standard but engrossing “femme fatale” noir, from the director of “The Big Clock.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Ace in the Hole” (1951, Billy Wilder). See PICK OF THE WEEK.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Our Man in Havana” (1960, Carol Reed). The third of the three film thriller collaborations between writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed. (The others are “The Third Man” and “The Fallen Idol.”) It’s also the least admired by critics, and the team’s only comedy, with Alec Guinness playing a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba inexplicably involved in a batty spy intrigue. The crack cast also includes Maureen O’Hara, Ralph Richardson, Ernie Kovacs, Noel Coward and Burl Ives.

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson star in “Autumn Leaves.”

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich.) With Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson and Vera Miles. Reviewed on FNB December 4, 2012.

Sunday, May 19

12 p.m. (9 p.m.): “Johnny O’Clock” (1947, Robert Rossen). Rossen’s directorial debut: a solid noir with a gambling backdrop and a vintage tough Dick Powell performance.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945, John M. Stahl). With Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price. Reviewed on FNB April 18, 2013.

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Night Must Fall” (1937, Richard Thorpe). Emlyn Williams’ famed suspense play about a seductive young psycho (Robert Montgomery) and his rich lady target (Dame May Whitty) is given a plush MGM treatment. With Rosalind Russell. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: Dark treats from Preminger, Dassin and Lang

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are one of film noir’s great couples.

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).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950, Otto Preminger). Thursday, Dec. 27, 1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.).
While investigating a murder, a smart but sometimes savage Manhattan police detective named Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) accidentally kills an innocent suspect (Craig Stevens). Dixon tries to cover it up, but his relentless new boss Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) keeps pushing the evidence toward an affable cabbie named Jiggs (Tom Tully). And Dixon has fallen in love with Jiggs’ daughter, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney). Gary Merrill plays a crook/gambler.

Scripted by Ben Hecht from William Stuart’s book “Night Cry.” If you want to know what film noir is all about, check this one out.

Thursday, Dec. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Black Widow” (1954, Nunnally Johnson). Crime among the Broadway elite, from one of Patrick Quentin’s mystery novels. Not much style, but the cast includes Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). In shadow-drenched, dangerous London, crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) double-crosses everyone he encounters as he tries to outrace the night. The night is faster. This is a top film noir, a masterpiece of style and suspense. From Gerald Kersh’s novel; with Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers.

Sunday, Dec. 30

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.): “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965, Otto Preminger). Bunny Lake is an American child kidnapped in London, Carol Lynley her terrified mother, Keir Dullea her concerned uncle, Anna Massey her harassed teacher, Noel Coward her sleazy landlord, and Laurence Olivier the brainy police detective trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The most important of those pieces: Was Bunny ever really there at all? A neglected gem; based on Evelyn Piper’s novel.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Ministry of Fear” (1944, Fritz Lang). Ray Milland, just released from a British mental institution, wins the wrong cake at a charity raffle and becomes ensnared in a nightmarish web of espionage and murder. The source is one of novelist Graham Greene’s “entertainments.” Co-starring Marjorie Reynolds and Dan Duryea.

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The Noir File: French style from Jean Gabin in ‘Grisbi’

By Michael Wilmington and 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). Lots of Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame this week!

PICK OF THE WEEK

Legendary, stylish Jean Gabin plays a legendary, stylish gangster named Max le Menteur.

Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954, Jacques Becker). Friday, Nov. 30, 11:15 p.m. (8:15 p.m.): Film noir is a French term and the masters of the form include major French filmmakers as well as Americans. One of those masters is New Wave favorite Jacques Becker (“Casque d’Or“). And Becker’s noir masterpiece is “Touchez pas au Grisbi.” The film takes a wonderfully atmospheric and psychologically acute look at the Parisian underworld: at a legendary, stylish old gangster named Max le Menteur (played by the legendary, stylish Jean Gabin), at the spoils of Max’s last big job and at the unbreakable ties of friendship that entrap him. Adapted by Becker and Albert Simonin from Simonin’s novel, with two later noir mainstays in small roles: Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura. The title translates as “Don’t Touch the Loot.” (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 26

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Steel Trap” (1952, Andrew L. Stone). In a neat twist from writer-director Stone, Joseph Cotten plays a bank employee/embezzler, desperately trying to return the loot he filched. With Teresa Wright. A favorite of noir expert Foster Hirsch.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Brighton Rock” (1947, John Boulting). From Graham Greene’s classic novel about a babyfaced killer on Brighton beach named Pinkie (Richard Attenborough), smartly co-scripted by Greene.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Unsuspected” (1947, Michael Curtiz). Lesser-known but strong noir about a radio true crime show, whose producer (Claude Rains) becomes a murderer. With Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield and Audrey Totter.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Woman on the Beach” (1947, Jean Renoir). Renoir’s U.S. noir: A disturbed guy (Bob Ryan) gets involved with a blind painter (Charles Bickford) and his sexy wife (Joan Bennett).

Wednesday, Nov. 28

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). The famous postwar thriller about an anti-Semitic murder, co-starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray). Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell strike sultry sparks in this exotic thriller from Howard Hughes’ RKO. Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, with uncredited reshooting by Nick Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

Friday, Nov. 30

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh).

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm). Flashbacks within flashbacks adorn this stylish psychological noir about a troubled seductress (Laraine Day). With Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne.

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The Noir File: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, dueling noir queens in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’

By Michael Wilmington

A noir lover’s guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the following movies are 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

Saturday, July 28

Bette Davis earned an Oscar nom for this role; Crawford was overlooked. When Anne Bancroft won but was not there to accept, Crawford was poised to stand in and accept on her behalf.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich) Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, rivals for most of their careers, got two of their greatest roles when they were cast by director Robert Aldrich as the house-bound Hudson sisters, Blanche (Crawford) and Baby Jane (Davis) – two ex-film-stars turned eccentric recluses – in this mesmerizing, darkly funny, sometimes-touching suspense classic. Together with Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.,” it’s the cinematic definition of Hollywood Grand Guignol. With Victor Buono as the fat mama’s boy pianist, Marjorie Bennett as mama, Maidie Norman as the good housekeeper and Anna Lee as the kind neighbor.

Adapted by Lukas Heller from Henry Farrell’s novel; shot and edited by two masters, Ernest Haller (“Gone with the Wind”) and Michael Luciano (“Kiss Me Deadly”). A grisly, poignant masterpiece. If you aren’t both chilled and moved by Baby Jane’s line “You mean all these years we could have been friends?” you may have a heart of stone.

Sunday, July 29

10:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m.): “Boomerang!” (1947, Elia Kazan) True-crime drama thrillers, shot in real locations (“Kiss of Death,” “Naked City“) , are among the gems of film noir. Here’s a top-notch example, based on fact, about a prosecutor (Dana Andrews) and his crusade for justice for a defendant he’s convinced is wrongly accused. Scripted by Richard Murphy.

The superb cast of Kazan regulars includes Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden and Ed Begley, Jane Wyatt and Sam Levene.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Fugitive” (1947, John Ford) John Ford usually isn’t ranked among noir directors, though 1935’s grim I.R.A. film “The Informer,” is definitely a noir precursor. “The Fugitive” – based on Graham Greene’s great novel “The Power and the Glory” and one of Ford’s own favorites of his work – qualifies as Western noir just as much as Raoul Walsh’s “Pursued” or William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident.”

Henry Fonda stars as an alcoholic, conflicted priest fleeing the police in “The Fugitive,” which is based on Graham Greene’s novel “The Power and the Glory.” John Ford directs.

With Henry Fonda as a sinful and alcoholic man of God fleeing the police in a tyrannical, anti-clerical Latin American state, Pedro Armendariz as his relentless pursuer, Dolores Del Rio as their mutual love (a point fudged in this censor-bound film), and Ward Bond as the gringo outlaw.

The sublime monochrome cinematography is by Mexican genius Gabriel Figueroa (“Los Olvidados”). The script is by Ford regular, master dramatist and occasional noir scribe Dudley Nichols (“Scarlet Street,” “The Informer,” “Stagecoach”).

Incidentally, the other Fords I would classify as Western noir are “Stagecoach” (1939), “The Searchers” (1956), “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers” are on TCM on Wednesday, Aug. 1, as part of the John Wayne tribute.

Thursday, Aug. 2

11 p.m. (8 p.m.): “The Thin Man” (1934, W. S. Van Dyke) The first and best of all the plush M.G.M. films in which William Powell and Myrna Loy impersonated Nick and Nora Charles, the slightly pixilated and urbanely witty couple who alternated screwball romps with tough, brainy detective work, solving murders and finishing champagne bottles with equal flair. That golden couple was inspired by the relationship between Dashiell Hammett and his longtime companion, playwright/screenwriter Lillian Hellman.

This is the only one of the Thin Man movies actually based on a Hammett novel. The adaptor/scenarists were another witty couple, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (“It’s a Wonderful Life”). The supporting cast includes Maureen O’Sullivan and Cesar Romero.

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‘Brighton Rock’ is eye candy with an entertaining cast

Brighton Rock/2010/IFC Films/111 min.

“Brighton Rock” opens with a shot of oil-black ocean waves. Like the moonlit water, the film is beautiful but turgid and at times untamed in the hands of first-time feature film director Rowan Joffe.

Based on a Graham Greene novel, it’s a classic crime story first made into a movie in 1947 with a script by Greene and Terence Rattigan. This time around, Joffe, a scribe whose credits include “The American” and “28 Weeks Later” wrote the screenplay, changing the setting from the 1930s to 1964.

Helen Mirren and John Hurt

Young, ruthless and 100 percent pure psychopath, Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) has risen to the top ranks of a gang in Brighton, a seaside resort town (the title is a reference to the souvenir sticks of hard candy sold there). Avenging a betrayal to his gang, Pinkie sets out to kill a man named Fred Hale (Sean Harris), who happens to be friendly with a working-class grande dame, Ida Arnold (Helen Mirren).

Knowing his life is in danger, Hale parries along the pier, looking for a way to escape, and gloms onto a stranger – a shy, frumpy teenage waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). But this just delays the inevitable and soon Hale is dead at Pinkie’s hands. The last person to be seen with Hale, however, is Frank Spicer (Philip Davis), a booze-weary senior member of Pinkie’s gang. And, by chance, Hale, Spicer and Rose are captured by a touristy photographer; Rose gets the claim ticket for the photo.

Though Pinkie’s overarching objective is to join forces with a rival gang led by Colleoni (Andy Serkis), his immediate priority is to nab that claim ticket and seduce Rose in order to keep her quiet. While it’s easy to keep Rose under his thumb, keeping the feisty Ida from investigating Hale’s death proves to be a spot of bother. As the moral driver of the story, Ida stands in contrast with the young couple who ironically cling to their identities as Roman Catholics.

Joffe’s film is gorgeous to look at – stunning cinematography by John Mathieson matched with superb art direction by Paul Ghiradani and Kellie Waugh, especially the slightly surreal scenes at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. And for the first two acts, Joffe creates a darkly moody atmosphere and balances the storylines deftly.

But as the plot progresses, Pinkie’s dealings with Colleoni essentially dissolve as the focus shifts entirely to Pinkie, Rose and Ida. The strange couple seems an awkward transplant to the ’60s – how does the time change serve the storytelling? [Read more...]

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‘The Third Man’ delivers stellar suspense, performances both haunting and dazzling

TCM’s Classic Film Festival starts tomorrow and I’m fretting about packing in all the viewing and events. Definite draws are the classic noirs “The Third Man,” which screens at 9 a.m. Saturday; Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, screening at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday; and “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) showing at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Other must-sees: Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil is a Woman” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935) at 10:15 p.m. Friday and “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten

If a city could be a femme fatale, it might be Vienna in “The Third Man” from 1949. The voiceover at the beginning of the film refers to “old Vienna with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” But new Vienna, a war-torn metropolis split into four Allied zones after World War Two, is a city living by its wits, host to a thriving black market. Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow.

The voiceover also introduces us to a slightly naïve and completely broke newcomer to the hallowed city: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulpy Western novels, who has come to visit his old friend and fellow Yank Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a sly operator.

Instead of a buddy reunion, though, Martins ends up at his friend’s funeral: Turns out Harry was hit by a car and has died. Also at the burial is the distinguished Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suggests they get a drink.

As they sip, Martins starts asking questions about Lime’s death and eventually suspects foul play. So, Martins hunts for more info and, along the way, he meets a handful of vaguely nefarious characters who traveled in Lime’s orbit: his porter (Paul Hoerbiger), “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), the Romanian known as Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto). One source he particularly likes is Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sultry, cynical Czechoslovakian actress, who was also Lime’s lover.

What troubles Martins is learning that there were three men who carried Harry’s body from the street after he died, but he can only find two. Finding the mysterious third man drives the action, ultimately leading to a chilling chase through the dank sewers of underground Vienna.

Director/producer Carol Reed, working from a Graham Greene novel, draws us into a perfectly rendered world where tension and trouble pulse just beneath the surface, where anxiety and disillusion are tempered with fleeting pleasures and faded love. I love the details of everyday Viennese life: a moonfaced boy, an ancient balloon seller, a haggard landlady, a prowling cat and the forlorn-looking Teddy bears of the children’s hospital. The lecture hall scene reminds me of a similar passage in Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” from 1935. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to his visit his school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in Vienna after World War Two. But he discovers that his pal is dead and the city is a hub for black-market corruption. Cotten digs for more details with help from various jaded denizens, including Welles’ girlfriend (Alida Valli) and a British major (Trevor Howard). First-rate fare from director Carol Reed working from a Graham Greene novel; brilliant zither music from Anton Karas.

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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more...]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ quick hit

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

This role hardly qualifies Veronica Lake as a femme fatale. She’s loyal to her man, works for a living and helps out Uncle Sam. Shocker! That said, this movie is still full-on noir and Lake, who blazes a trail with hitman Alan Ladd, completely captivates. Laird Cregar delights, as always, as the peppermint-popping heavy. Based on a Graham Greene novel; directed by Frank Tuttle.

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