‘Life’ is rough when you look for the film noir elements

It’s a Wonderful Life/ 1946/ Paramount/130 min

Michael Wilmington provides a fresh look at essential Christmas Eve viewing: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve dismissed this film as sappy, watch the last act one more time and you’ll likely appreciate anew its noir mood and atmosphere.

Michael Wilmington

Scenario for Christmas: A whimsical guardian angel shows a good-hearted small-town guy, on the brink of suicide, what would have happened if he’d never lived and what a difference his life really made to everyone around him. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Frank Capra‘s holiday masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exhilarating mix of angelic fantasy and small-town comedy, of political fable and poetic license, of Norman Rockwell and film noir.

The last act of this beloved Christmas classic — where George Bailey (James Stewart, in his favorite role) sees his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls turned into a dark semi-urban nightmare, as it would have been if it were run by George’s rich, greedy nemesis, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — is a pure film-noir nightmare, with a tormented protagonist, a world bent into bad-dreams-come-true and a fate that (temporarily) can’t be escaped.

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There are lots of real film-noir mainstays in the cast, people who fit easily into the noir universe — notably Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat”) as the town’s blonde bombshell Violet; Thomas Mitchell (“Dark Waters,” “The Dark Mirror,” “While the City Sleeps”) as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy; Barrymore (“Key Largo”) as the evil banker Potter; and Sheldon Leonard (“Decoy”) as tough Nick the bartender.

The movie’s crack Capra ensemble also boasts Ward Bond (“The Maltese Falcon,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Frank Faylen (“The Blue Dahlia,” “Detective Story,” “The Sniper”) as cop and cabbie (and “Sesame Street” namesakes) Bert and Ernie. And of course there’s the great, shy, stammering Stewart himself, who went on to make such classic noirs as “Call Northside 777,” plus, for Hitchcock, “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

It's a Wonderful Life posterThe script, by turns witty and sentimental, was adapted from a Christmas fable by poet Philip Van Doren Stern. “Life” had a raft of A-list writers, namely Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-wife team who adapted Dashiell Hammett‘s “Thin Man” for the movies. On “Life,” they received uncredited assistance from such stalwart noir writers as Jo Swerling (“Leave Her to Heaven”), Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), Clifford Odets (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right).

Lead cinematographer Joe Biroc (“Cry Danger,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”) gives the movie a distinctly nightmarish look.

The point of cataloging “Life’s” noir vets is that most of the talent in the movie were known more for film noir than the simplistic goody-two-shoes stuff people mistakenly feel is the essence of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Capra-corn. Capra wanted smart, sophisticated collaborators who knew what happened when the lights went off. Noir people.

Capra had already experimented with a mixture of humor, sentiment and noir in his 1944 comedy of murders, with Cary Grant, “Arsenic and Old Lace” but “Wonderful Life” has the style down pat. We see George’s kindness, generosity and sometimes-antic humor shining throughout his difficult but rewarding life as recounted up above to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). But then we see him in a downpour of terror and anguish when he suddenly faces financial ruin, flees his family, wrecks his car, stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide. And finally at the “Auld Lang Syne” end, we get the Bailey family pride and joy when the nightmare ends. Well, some great noirs have happy endings too …

In many ways, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” in reverse. (Barrymore was famous for his interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge, which he reprised every year at Christmas on radio and which he probably would have played for the 1938 MGM movie, had he not been wheelchair-bound by the time of its production.)

Anyway, it all jelled into a movie and an experience, both spinetingling and heartwarming, that nobody ever forgets: On a magical Christmas Eve, a good man understands the meaning of his life and the effects of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge sees the consequences of his own selfishness.

Most importantly, “Life” had Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences deeply and also make them laugh, like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra always thought this was his best movie, even though it was a horrible disappointment to him financially and professionally. The original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, that Capra was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Largely because of “Life,” they lost their Liberty.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” takes you right over the edge. Almost. It’s a wonderful picture: a very funny, often charming, but also terrifying movie about life’s most horrible disappointments, about all your nightmares coming true and all your dreams being torn apart. And that was echoed in real life. George Bailey failed (for a while), and Frank Capra failed (for a while) too.

But Capra was right. This is his best movie. I can’t keep a dry eye when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) toasts him under the Christmas tree as “the richest man in town,” the Bedford Falls crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” and they find Zuzu’s petals. I don’t even want to.

If you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when Harry raises that glass, everybody sings and George hears the bell — well, the hell with you. “Bah, Humbug,” as Potter would say. But the Bedford Falls folks are still going to shout: “Merry Christmas everyone!”

Noir people too.

You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.

Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski

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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/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, Vincente 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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