Merry Christmas!

I hope your holidays are joyous and that Santa Baby showered you with lovely gifts and rapt attention. Here are a few film favorites of the season. Enjoy!

“Holiday Affair” from 1949 stars Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. It’s not film noir but Mitchum lends his bad-boy charm nonetheless. Don Hartman directs.

James Stewart co-stars with the enchanting Kim Novak in 1958′s “Bell, Book and Candle,” directed by Richard Quine. Of course, they both bow to the real star, Siamese kitty Pyewacket.

Film Noir Blonde reveals Pyewacket’s offscreen capers here.

The dark dream sequence in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is pure film noir.

Michael Wilmington reviews “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

And, in case you missed it earlier this month, FNB wrote about “Lady in the Lake,” an experimental film noir with a Christmas setting.

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Happy Gloria Grahame Day from FNB

FNB is a big fan of film-noir great Gloria Grahame. Photo by Halstan Williams, www.halstan.com

For the second year running, we at Film Noir Blonde are celebrating one of film noir’s great treasures, Gloria Grahame (Nov. 28, 1923 – Oct. 5, 1981). Why? Because we feel like it. Though she played a number of iconic parts in the late 1940s and 1950s, and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952, Vincente Minnelli), co-starring with Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas and Dick Powell, Grahame typically wasn’t considered a top-tier actress in her day.

Gloria Grahame

“I don’t think I ever understood Hollywood,” she once said. Nevertheless, in addition to her film résumé, she worked regularly in TV and theater.

No stranger to scandal (she married her stepson several years after her divorce from director Nicholas Ray), Grahame was unconventional and liked to do things her way. Whether she was flirtatious and tough (remember good girl/bad girl Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?) or the ultimate victim (“The Big Heat”), her parts are often informed by her playful intelligence and sly sense of humor. Maybe that’s why we like her so much.

Anyway, here’s to singular, sexy, supremely talented Ms. Grahame! To read more and to see reviews of her films, click here.

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Film noir feline stars: The cat in ‘Bell, Book and Candle’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “Bell, Book and Candle” 1958

Name: Cy A. Meese

Character Name: Pyewacket

Kim Novak catches James Stewart with help from her cherished pet.

Bio: Kim Novak and James Stewart starred in two movies together in 1958. One was the classic Hitchcock neo noir “Vertigo.” The other, now lesser known, was the lighter-toned “Bell, Book and Candle” by director Richard Quine, based on the hit Broadway romantic comedy by John Van Druten. In the film, Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stylish New Yorker and successful store owner with a knack for witchcraft.

But, despite her busy schedule and relentlessly chic wardrobe, Gillian is tired of spending her nights, especially Christmas Eve, talking shop at the campy Zodiac nightclub in the Village with her fellow sorcerers (witch Elsa Lanchester and warlock Jack Lemmon). You know, eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog. Blah, blah, blah.

Gillian much prefers the company of her lovely cat Pyewacket (Cy A. Meese) and flirting with her tall, gray and handsome neighbor Shepherd Henderson (Stewart). After Gillian learns that Shep is engaged to her rival (Janice Rule), she calls on her blue-eyed, gray-furred companion for help in turning the romantic tables.

As the witch’s “familiar,” the role of Pyewacket is pivotal to the film and surely one of the most significant feline roles in Hollywood history. Not only is Gillian’s beloved Pye the agent for casting a spell on Shep, this stunning and eminently self-assured kitty manages to reunite the lovers after they hit a few bumps on the road to bewitchment.

The real-life puss who played Pyewacket later became a Manhattan legend. A life-long New Yorker from a prominent family, Cy was a classically trained actor and had worked steadily in theater before trying his paw at movies. Still, despite his success on stage and screen, Cy’s first love was reading and in 1960 he left acting to open a shop on Greenwich Avenue named “Book, Bell and Candle.”

Besides his excellent taste in titles, he was known for his uncommonly cushy sofas and for encouraging customers to nap in between browsing the aisles. (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and John Cheever were regular snoozers.) In 1968, Cy opened a second location on London’s Cheshire Street and divided his time between the cities until he died peacefully in his sleep in 1982.

Need a bigger Jimmy Stewart fix? Don’t forget the Christmas Eve classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which offers a healthy dose of noir amid the heartwarming joy.

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One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

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FNB proclaims Gloria Grahame Day: July 13

Lately I find myself compulsively watching “Sudden Fear” from 1952 starring Joan Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame. It’s on as I write, in fact.

Directed by David Miller, the movie has a lot going for it (regular readers know I adore Joan Crawford) but at the top of the list is Grahame, playing a femme fatale nonpareil who’s also rather skilled at mingling in high society.

Gloria Grahame shined in '50s noir classics.

With her feline face, flirty smile and hour-glass figure, Grahame was a stalwart of film noir. Besides “Sudden Fear,” she was in “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk), “In a Lonely Place” (1950, Nicholas Ray), “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg), “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang), “Human Desire” (1954, Fritz Lang), “Naked Alibi” (1954, Jerry Hopper) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise).

Commenting on her seductive powers, she once said, “It wasn’t the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it.” (Though she often played the bad girl, she was a Los Angeles native from a comfortable family.)

She had acting chops, too, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952, Vicente Minnelli). Her breakthrough role was Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1947, Frank Capra).

Her career faltered, though, when on “Oklahoma” (1955, Fred Zinnemann) she acquired a reputation as being difficult to work with. Her big number in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.” Natch. Also harmful to her public image was the fact that in 1960 she married Anthony Ray, her former stepson from her marriage (1948-1952) to director Nicholas Ray. Nonetheless, she worked on the stage, in TV and occasionally in films until she died at 57 in 1981. She was married four times and had four children.

So, because I can, I am declaring July 13 Gloria Grahame Day on FNB and will be posting reviews of her noir classics in the coming weeks. (If you are in LA, try to catch “In a Lonely Place” at LACMA on Friday, July 22.)

OK, time to restart “Sudden Fear” and break it to my friend – who stopped by tonight, took one look at the alluring Grahame and asked if he could get a date with her – that request, alas, will have to remain in the realm of fantasy. Ah, men and their fantasies; it’s a kingdom Grahame ruled perhaps not wisely but well.

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