The Noir File: Widmark is unforgettable as Tommy Udo

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).


Grinning gangster Tommy Udo was a career-defining role for Richard Widmark.

Kiss of Death” (1947, dir. Henry Hathaway). Tuesday, May 14; 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). One of the most memorable, and scariest, of all film noir villains is Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death,” as played by the young Richard Widmark. Tommy was a constantly grinning, giggling gunman with a pale, thin, deadly-looking face, topped by a trim fedora – a face and a chuckle that carried the promise of cold-blooded murder.

In “Kiss of Death” – another of director Henry Hathaway’s semi-true crime movies, this time co-scripted by the great Ben HechtVictor Mature plays Nick Bianco, an ex-crook trying to go straight, for his sweet wife Nettie (Coleen Gray). To escape his past, Nick becomes a mole recruited by the cops (including Brian Donlevy and Karl Malden) to infiltrate Udo’s mob and get the goods on this gangster. Udo falls for his new mob-mate, giggling, like a ton of bricks. Obviously, something very bad will happen when this psychopathic hood discovers that his new gun buddy is a traitor.

“Kiss of Death” is a classic, vintage Hollywood crime thriller, one of the film noirs that everyone has to see – to savor Hecht’s smart script and Hathaway’s taut direction, and to enjoy the terrific work of the entire killer cast and company. But mostly, you have to see it for Widmark. His Tommy Udo is an impersonation of pure evil so right-on that it almost freezes your blood to watch and hear him – and so convincing that a real-life member of the Mob, the notorious killer “Crazy Joey” Gallo, patterned his entire public personality after Widmark’s performance.

“Crazy Joey” Gallo

The role made Widmark a star, and, though he tried never to repeat it, and played mostly good guys for the rest of his career, he could never really get away from Tommy Udo and his pale, cold eyes, and what James Agee called his “falsetto baby talk, laced with tittering laughs.”

Tommy Udo is the last guy in the world you want to have his eye on you, the last guy whose laugh you want to hear on a dark street. And he’s the last guy you want to see standing behind a sick old lady, in a wheelchair, at the top of a staircase. Giggling.

Friday, May 10

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Informer” (1935, John Ford). With Victor McLaglen, Preston Foster and Heather Angel. Reviewed on FNB December 12, 2012.

11 p.m. (8 p.m.): “Under Capricorn” (1949, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Margaret Leighton. Reviewed on FNB November 17, 2012. [Read more…]

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The Noir File: TCM highlights include Henry Hathaway and the divine Ms. Davis

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).

Thursday, March 14

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “13 Rue Madeleine” (1947, Henry Hathaway). One of Hathaway’s signature true-crime thrillers. (See “House on 92nd Street” below.) Stark and tense, set in wartime France, with O.S.S. spy guy James Cagney trying to uncover a Nazi infiltrator. With Annabella, Richard Conte and Red Buttons.

9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.): “The House on 92nd Street” (1945, Henry Hathaway). New York FBI Agents try to crack a WWII Nazi spy ring, which is bent on stealing A-bomb secrets. This is the first of director Hathaway’s innovative docu-dramas, based on fact and often filmed on the actual locations.

These excellent true-crime noirs (including “Call Northside 777,” “13 Rue Madeleine,” and “Kiss of Death” ) were Hathaway’s personal favorites of his entire career. Along with post-war Italian neo-realism, they blazed a trail for greater cinematic realism. Starring Lloyd Nolan, William Eythe, Signe Hasso, and Leo G. Carroll.

Bette Davis

Friday, March 15

OK, so maybe an old maid isn’t quite the vibe a femme fatale wants to channel. But so many delightful Bette Davis moments in one day surely warrant a mention. Start your weekend with a bang and check out the lineup for the day.

Our faves are: “Front Page Woman” (1935, Michael Curtiz), “Jezebel” (1938, William Wyler), “Dark Victory” (1939, Edmund Goulding), “The Old Maid” (1939, Edmund Goulding), “In This Our Life” (1942, John Huston).

There is also a 1984 doc: “Bette Davis: The Benevolent Volcano.”

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The Noir File: Stewart gets the story in true-crime gem

By Michael Wilmington

A guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the movies listed 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

James Stewart plays a journalist on hunt for the truth in "Call Northside 777."

Call Northside 777” (1948, Henry Hathaway) Sunday, Sept. 9, 10 a.m. (7 a.m.)

The first major studio movie to be shot on location in Chicago, “Call Northside 777” is one of the best true-crime noirs of the ’40s, packed with postwar punch and atmosphere, made by the master of the form, Henry Hathaway (“Kiss of Death”). It’s based on the story of a persistent Chicago Times reporter (James Stewart) – initially skeptical, but finally convinced – who digs into an 11-year-old murder case to find out if a man (Richard Conte) convicted of murdering a policeman is really guilty of the crime, or is the victim of overzealous prosecutors and dishonest politicians.

Stewart is excellent in his role as fictitious journalist P. J. McNeal: a character reminiscent of Stewart’s great part as wily lawyer Paul Biegler in “Anatomy of a Murder.” He’s backed by Lee J. Cobb (as the Times’ editor), Helen Walker and, in his first movie role, John McIntire. Movie buffs sometimes argue about whether “Call Northside 777” should be considered a noir, since the main characters, including Conte’s crusading mother, are good people. But why try to put noir in a straitjacket? There are bad guys here too: namely, the prosecutors and the politicians who put the real-life Joseph Majczek in jail and tried to keep him there.

Friday, Sept. 7

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.): “Boomerang!” (1947, Elia Kazan). See 8-29-12 Noir File

Sunday. Sept. 9

Spencer Tracy stars in “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges). In a barren-looking desert town, a lawman and WW2 vet with only one arm (Spencer Tracy) tries to investigate an act of violence that may be a racially motivated murder. The town tries to stop him.

A great melodrama with a memorable Tracy performance; he is harassed by three of the American cinema’s great villains: Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine (in the same year Borgnine won an Oscar as the gentle Marty). The rest of the superb cast includes Walter Brennan, Dean Jagger and Anne Francis.

Monday, Sept. 10

6:45 p.m. (3:45 p.m.): “Criminal Court” (1946, Robert Wise). A shrewd lawyer (Tom Conway) defends a woman (Martha O’Driscoll) for the murder he himself committed. One of the neat little RKO B-movies made by one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s favorite directors: Robert Wise.

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Lauren Bacall

8 p.m. & 3:15 a.m. (5 p.m. & 12:15 a.m.). Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall (2005). Two chances to watch Bacall interviewed by Robert Osborne.

9 p.m. (6 p.m.): “Confidential Agent” (1945, Herman Shumlin). From a novel by Graham Greene (“The Third Man”): an anti-Fascist thriller set during the Spanish Civil War. With Charles Boyer, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre and Katina Paxinou.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “Passage to Marseille” (1944, Michael Curtiz). This post-Casablanca re-teaming of Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and director Curtiz, has Bogie as a French patriot, Michele Morgan (“Port of Shadows”) as his love, and a complex flashbacks-within-flashbacks story structure that carries him to Devil’s Island and back.

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Silver and Ursini reflect on the mighty influence of film noir

Alain Silver (left) and James Ursini discuss their book, “Film Noir: The Directors.”

Historians/authors/editors Alain Silver and James Ursini discussed and signed their new work, “Film Noir: The Directors” (Limelight Editions, $24.99, multiple contributors) on Saturday afternoon at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood.

James Ursini

Ursini maintains that film noir is the most important artistic movement Hollywood has produced, and one that’s perfectly capable of jumping genres from Westerns to sci-fi to the traditional women’s picture.

Said Ursini: “Film noir is the overwhelming influence on directors today, in film, TV, comic books … in America and worldwide. Though it went into a sort of remission in the late ’50s, by the ’70s it was back and it never stopped. It’s an incredibly vibrant movement that’s as influential today as it was in the ’40s and ’50s.”

Though appreciated by French critics, most film noir titles (especially low-budget B movies) were widely snubbed by America’s cinematic elite. Ursini recalled that as a UCLA film-school student in the late ’60s, he had to push hard to be allowed to write a paper on director Henry Hathaway.

Alain Silver

Silver pointed out that though the two most frequently cited factors in film noir’s development are the exodus of European filmmaking talent to the U.S. starting in the 1930s and the canon of hard-boiled American literature by authors such as James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the real story is more complicated.

Specifically, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what inspired these very different directors (the book covers 30) to pursue this unique aesthetic, often self-consciously borrowing and sharing ideas. One certainty, though: Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) was the prototype for the genre.

He added that because of World War II, the production code loosened and the American public developed a taste for realism. Were audiences of the ’40s and ’50s shocked by these cynical, gritty, fateful stories on the screen? It’s hard to say. Silver said the most interesting contextual endeavor now would be to compare the audiences’ expectations against their reactions.

Photos copyright of Film Noir Blonde

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‘Anatomy of a Murder:’ Preminger’s crowning achievement

Anatomy of a Murder/1959/Columbia Pictures/160 min.

Criterion’s DVD rerelease of “Anatomy of a Murder” is this month’s giveaway prize. To be entered in the draw to win, just make a comment on any post this month.

By Michael Wilmington

Lee Remick is sexy and flirtatious Laura Manion, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. Laura's dog Muff is frequently at her side.

One of the best and most true-to-life of all courtroom dramas, “Anatomy of a Murder” is also the best film producer-director Otto Preminger ever made. And he was a master – of film noir (“Laura,” “Fallen Angel,” “Whirlpool,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Angel Face”), of urban drama (“The Man with the Golden Arm”), of romance (“Bonjour Tristesse,” “Daisy Kenyon”), of historical epics (“Exodus”), of spy dramas (“The Human Factor”), of musicals (“Carmen Jones”) and, most characteristically, of dramas that examine big, complex institutions: “Advise and Consent,” “The Cardinal,” “In Harm’s Way.”

“Anatomy” is a great, realistic film on a great subject, with writing that cuts to the bone. It also has one of the most famous title sequences (by Saul Bass) in movie history. And one of the most influential scores, original jazz, composed and played by Duke Ellington.

The film’s source material was a best-selling book by John D. Voelker, a Michigan State Supreme Court Justice, using the pen name Robert Traver. He based the book on an actual murder case in which he’d been the prosecuting attorney. In that trial, an Army man shot and killed a popular small-town bar-owner who, he said, had raped his wife.

From left: James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) with help from his old friend and fellow lawyer (Arthur O'Connell).

Voelker/Traver and Wendell Mayes adapted the book and a phenomenal cast brought the story to the screen. We see Jimmy Stewart at his best as the wily and ingenious old-school defense lawyer Paul Biegler, Ben Gazzara as his cocky murder-trial defendant/client Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, Lee Remick as Manion’s sexy wife Laura, George C. Scott as the icily astute prosecutor Claude Dancer, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell as Paul’s sharp-tongued secretary Maida Rutledge and Paul’s amiably soused fellow counsel Parnell McCarthy. The trial’s owlish, chatty but punctiliously fair Judge Weaver is played unforgettably by famed attorney Joseph Welch. Kathryn Grant is also memorable as the sweet but mysterious Mary Pilant.

If Paul is going to get Manion off, the only defense that is likely to work is Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity – an “irresistible impulse” that drove Manion to kill his wife’s rapist. The movie makes clear that Paul is not necessarily seeking the truth, but a victory for his client. So the trial becomes, in some sense, a piece of theater. Paul is creating a dramatic scenario that we know is a slanted one. Judge Weaver is there to mediate, but also to be a kind of commentator and chorus.

At the same time, Preminger (the son of a Viennese trial lawyer and a law school graduate who never practiced law himself) gives us a course in what happens during a trial and why the American legal system, for all its seeming flaws, is a model of both legal science and human compassion.

We want Paul Biegler to win, but mostly because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart – who brilliantly manipulates his movie persona as the stammering, sincere, dryly funny hero, while also showing us a somewhat devious side beneath the mask. It’s an incredibly adroit performance, as good as Stewart’s signature roles as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” and Jeff Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

And Stewart anchors an eminently satisfying cast. Remick is wonderful as Manion’s flirtatious, cheerfully brazen and narcissistic wife Laura, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. The prosecution’s arrogant head lawyer Claude Dancer is played with nerveless intensity by Scott. Stewart, O’Connell and Scott got Oscar noms for their work.

Preminger shot the movie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Marquette, Ishpeming, Big Bay and Michigamme). The streets, the bar and the courthouse are real. And the scenes in Paul’s home (with its books, fishing gear and record collection) were shot in Voelker’s own house. “Anatomy” has the flavor of a semi-documentary, or of one of those Henry Hathaway crime dramas/noirs of the ’40s: “The House on 92nd Street,” “Call Northside 777” (with Stewart as a crusading Chicago reporter) and “Kiss of Death.”

Laura (Lee Remick) and her husband share pathology as well as passion.

Preminger’s filmmaking style is often called “objective.” He doesn’t try to force reactions on us, instead leaving us free to observe and judge. “Anatomy of a Murder” is especially ripe for such analysis, since the audience is essentially the jury.

But there’s a catch. Does anyone really watch a Preminger movie without knowing who the good guys and bad guys are? Even in “Anatomy of a Murder” we sense Paul might be defending a guilty client, but we also know he’s upholding the law, and his vision of it: the depth, mercy and grandeur of the law in which he deeply believes.

The fact is that Preminger is never completely objective. A lawyer as well as a man of the theater, he is always arguing a viewpoint, letting us know whom he likes and whom he doesn’t. He just does it in a subtler, more stylish, less forced manner than most other directors.

What’s special about Preminger’s cinematic style is his propensity for long takes and single shots with an unobtrusively moving camera. Preminger once said that, ideally, every scene should be done in a single shot. And that’s often what he often tries to do, for the sake of the actors (who don’t get their performances chopped up) and to preserve the feel of realism.

Lee Remick, Eve Arden and James Stewart appear in a courtroom scene.

To some in 1959, “Anatomy” looked like an opportunistic and deliberately sensational shocker, with a script that contained words such as “rape,” “bitch” and panties.” The film was even banned temporarily in Chicago. But Preminger played anti-censorship battles with such shrewd facility that it sometimes seemed he had gulled the censors into being his unofficial P.R. team.

“Anatomy of a Murder” may have raised hackles in its day, but it’s survived as a movie treasure and is one of the top films from 1959 – a year that also saw the release of classics like Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running.”

Preminger’s trial drama can stand with any of them.

“Anatomy” will play Friday and Saturday at the New Beverly in LA.

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Lucille Ball turns her talents to crimestopping in ‘Dark Corner’

The Dark Corner/1946/Twentieth Century Fox/99 min.

Lucille Ball

If you know Lucille Ball from “I Love Lucy” and other TV shows, she may seem an unlikely noir actress. But before she played the zany wife of Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Ball was the Queen of B Movies. In “Dark Corner,” she stars as Kathleen, a perky secretary with a crush on her boss, NYC private eye Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). It’s a solid noir with spot-on direction from Henry Hathaway and superb cinematography from Joseph MacDonald, both of whom were A-list talent.

Brad, equal parts Marlowe and Milquetoast, is appealingly human because we see chinks of weakness under his tough-guy exterior. Like many noir heroes, his past comes back to haunt him. Fittingly, his “ghost” is a heavy in a white suit named Stauffer (William Bendix) who seems to be on the payroll of Brad’s ex-partner, lusciously Nordic-looking Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).

Clifton Webb

There’s bad blood with Tony because he framed Brad for a crime he didn’t commit, which led to jail time. But Tony, now more gigolo than gumshoe, is merely a puppet; pulling the strings is an effete, silver-haired art dealer named Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). The lovely Mrs. Cathcart (Cathy Downs) is a patron of many arts, including a dalliance with Tony.

As Brad’s life becomes more of a nightmare, chipper and ever-loyal Kathleen is there to help him get to the bottom of the mess. What’s in it for her? If she’s lucky, maybe some nylons and a trip to the altar at the end assuming Brad can get out from under his fate.

Destiny, darkness, persecution, paranoia, surface vs. reality, existential angst, the depravity of high society, ie rich, folk – all these classic noir concerns are nicely woven into “The Dark Corner.” Much of the unease and tension is conveyed by Hathaway’s crisp direction and MacDonald’s moody visuals, especially the intense shadows and high contrast MacDonald creates with one dominant light source, such as a lamp on a desk.

This master lensman also worked on “Call Northside 777” from 1948 and 1953’s “Niagara” (both directed by Hathaway) as well as “Panic in the Streets” (Elia Kazan, 1950), “Pickup on South Street (Sam Fuller, 1953) and John Ford’s 1946 Western masterpiece “My Darling Clementine.”

Jay Dratler and Bernard Schoenfeld wrote “The Dark Corner” script based on a story by Leo Rosten. As film noir writers James Ursini and Alain Silver point out in their fine DVD commentary, Dratler also worked on Fox’s 1944 noir hit “Laura” by director Otto Preminger. Webb acted in both films, in “Dark Corner” essentially reprising his earlier role, a wonderfully decadent uppercrust character obsessed with Gene Tierney as Laura.

These writers give us some classic noir lines, such as “I could be framed easier than Whistler’s mother” and “I feel all dead inside, backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.” [Read more…]

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‘The Dark Corner’ quick hit

The Dark Corner/1946/Twentieth Century Fox/99 min.

Before Lucille Ball starred in the mega-hit TV show “I Love Lucy” she dabbled in noir. Alas, she doesn’t get to be a femme fatale here, nor does she have any “splainin” to do. Instead, she’s a plucky secretary with a thing for her boss, private eye Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). Her pep talks and problem solving help him figure out who’s after him and why. Also starring William Bendix, Kurt Kreuger and the inimitable Clifton Webb. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

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Noir delights abound at TCM Classic Film Festival

"An American in Paris" opened the festival.

Four days of devouring big-screen classics has left me deliciously sated! At least until my next film fest.

About 25,000 people attended this year’s sold-out TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which featured more than 70 films and special events. Stars who made appearances included Julie Andrews, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Peter O’Toole, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.

Before the screening of 1940’s “Fantasia,” in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Sunday night, TCM’s Bob Osborne announced that there will be a third fest in 2012. He also announced a new event: the TCM Classic Cruise, Dec. 8-12, 2011, a five-day/four-night event aboard Celebrity Millennium. The cruise will sail from Miami to Key West and Cozumel.

Most important for me was getting my noir fix and, happily, dark delights abounded. For example, there was the chance to see Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” with James Mason as a teacher struggling with an addiction to prescription cortisone. As co-star Barbara Rush told Osborne before the screening, this 1956 psychological drama has been programmed in several film noir festivals “because it’s so dark and so scary.”

Bob Osborne talks with Barbara Rush.

As you’d expect from Ray, it’s very well done and the performances are excellent. Despite telling the audience that she was “very old,” Rush is very lively. When Osborne asked her to talk about her leading men, she replied, “I had them all!”

Another noir high point was meeting the charming Marya of Cinema_Fanatic and chatting with renowned author Foster Hirsch at the screening of 1953’s “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Marilyn Monroe (as a murderous wife), Joseph Cotten (as her off-kilter husband) and Jean Peters (as a plucky, pretty brunette). Hirsch told the audience that film noir can absolutely be in color, describing “Niagara” both as a “minor masterpiece” and a “pulp-fiction paperback come to life.”

He pointed out the contrast in lighting between the bright exteriors and dark interiors, ending with the comment: “If you’ve come for laughs and joyous uplift, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Also a treat was seeing “The Man with the Golden Arm” from 1955. Adapted from a Nelson Algren novel, it’s a story about drug addiction in a gritty urban setting, by master noir director Otto Preminger. I’d seen it before but, as with “Niagara,” the big screen really intensifies the storytelling. It is definitely Frank Sinatra’s best performance and one of Kim Novak’s finest as well. In attendance were Preminger’s daughter Vicki Preminger and Sinatra’s daughters Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra. Rounding out the noir programming were “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1950), “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) and “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976).

Other films with noir elements included Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Tingler” (1959), “The Mummy” (1932), “Went the Day Well (1942) and “Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (I saw all but “Kane,” which I’ve seen several times before.)

Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova of Cinemax's new series, "Femme Fatales," which starts May 13.

The festival also honored master composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored  “Citizen Kane” and “Taxi Driver” as well as “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Cape Fear” and many others.

On the neo-noir front, I’ll be excited to see Cinemax’s upcoming “Femme Fatales” anthology series “about powerful, sexy and dangerous women” starring Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova, both of whom walked the fest’s red carpet to promote show.

The first of 13 stand-alone episode starts May 13 and I hope to catch up with the actresses sometime soon.

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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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Marilyn Monroe takes noir plunge in ‘Niagara’

Niagara/ 1953/ 20th Century Fox/ 90 min

Marilyn tackles the role of devious vamp.

Screen legend and pop-culture icon Marilyn Monroe is known for many things (her amazing looks, bright talent and troubled personal life) but noir does not spring immediately to mind. And yet in “Niagara,” Monroe brilliantly tackles the role of devious vamp.

Directed by Henry Hathaway, this film is a bit hard to classify – the flashy Technicolor screams neo-noir while its 1953 release date puts it firmly in the classic noir camp. I suppose purists would argue that date trumps color and that neo noir doesn’t start until the 1970s, but I am nothing if not impure. Either way you want to label it, the characters, mood and color are irresistible, just like Monroe herself. We even get to see her sing.

In “Niagara,” we meet a wholesome good girl with a killer tan who’s on a “delayed” honeymoon (Jean Peters, as Polly Cutler) and a restless bad girl (Monroe as bored wife Rose Loomis), both staying at a Niagara Falls resort.

Polly and her husband Ray Cutler (Max Showalter, billed in this movie as Casey Adams) are the perky foils to Rose and her husband George Loomis (Joseph Cotten). George is fond of grousing about Rose’s slinky sartorial choices, especially the famous red dress with a bikini-esque bustline). Perhaps crabbing about Rose’s hemline gets his mind off darker problems. George spent some time in a psychiatric ward after the war.

Rose hopes that by returning to the site of their honeymoon, George can pop a few pills and chill. But that doesn’t seem to be working and everyone knows that a voluptuous blonde is easily distracted. 😉 Enter Rose’s delicious young lover and soon-to-be accomplice (Richard Allan) as she makes her bid for freedom by getting rid of cranky George.

It seems divorce would not be enough to permanently dissolve their union. If Rose walks, George will run after her. But the good news for Rose is: accidents happen, especially at Niagara Falls …

Essentially, “Niagara” warns The American Man: It might be fun to ogle a centerfold hottie, but she’ll burn you if you get too close. Sex equals sin, after all, in a puritanical worldview. Then there’s the tedious symbolism of the falls for passion’s highs and lows. Even the trailer hammers home the warning: Monroe is a “tantalizing temptress who lures men on to their eternal destruction.”

All right, already, we get it!

Still, “Niagara” is a fascinating product of its time. It was a box-office hit and fared reasonably well with critics. As the New York Times put it: “The producers are making full use of both the grandeur of the Falls and its adjacent areas as well as the grandeur that is Marilyn Monroe.”

Monroe, though not at the height of her dramatic power, sparkles as the femme fatale, a role that is a bit more complicated than arm candy or ditzy ingénue; Cotten is great, as always, as the brooding, war-torn vet. Monroe’s wardrobe is terrific, even her shiny yellow raincoat for visiting the falls, and it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. (According to’s trivia section, because Monroe was still under contract to 20th Century Fox as a stock actor at a fixed salary, she made less money than her make-up man Allan Snyder.) [Read more…]

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