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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Raymond Chandler on the big screen: ‘Brasher Doubloon’ and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ to play this Thursday at the Aero

I’ve never seen “The Brasher Doubloon” but I love the name! This 1947 film, directed by John Brahm and starring George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, is based on a Raymond Chandler novel (“The High Window”). “The Brasher Doubloon,” on a double bill with “Murder, My Sweet,” starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, 1328 Montana Ave.

Also, three excellent neo noirs are coming up in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) in a double bill with “Blood Simple” (1984) by the Coen brothers plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Aero. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) will show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

Dick Powell as Marlowe tells the story, in flashback, to police.

One of these days, I’ll get around to compiling my list of the Top 10 classic film noir movies. When I do, “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, RKO) will be on the roster because it’s a superb flick and a defining work of the genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely”) full of choice one-liners.

“Murder, My Sweet” stars Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe, perhaps Chandler’s most famous character and one of the best-known screen detectives. The movie opens with Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) showing up at Marlowe’s office, wanting him to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Marlowe looks for clues at Florian’s, a dive bar, and at the home of widow Jessie Florian (Esther Howard). How to describe Mrs. Florian? Well, it’s hard to beat Marlowe’s take: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

Meanwhile, Marlowe agrees to act as a sort of bodyguard for another client, fussy and effete Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who must deliver a ransom for stolen jewels. The exchange doesn’t go well – Marriott is murdered and Marlowe takes a crack on the head. Once back at the office, Marlowe is visited by a reporter asking questions about a stolen jade necklace. The “reporter” turns out be Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a cute, feisty Girl-Scout type from a wealthy family. Pretty quickly, Marlowe meets Ann’s cootish Daddy (Miles Mander) and her femme fatale stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor).

The introduction of Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is one of film noir's great meetings.

And a great meeting it is, a bit like Stanwyck and MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” but here Trevor, dressed to the nines and sporting ankle-strap chunky heels, can’t really be bothered with coy flirtation. World-weary and blasé, she gives Marlowe the once-over without a word, just a great look of “another day, another guy.” A few minutes later she does fight the ennui enough to say pointedly, “Let’s dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?”

Besides drinking and shopping, Helen likes to dance and has no shortage of partners – guys who take her out on the town because Mr. G isn’t quite up to it. Turns out, Marriott was one of Helen’s companions and had been trying to help her buy back a stolen jade necklace. Now she thinks Marlowe might be up to the task.

But Marlowe isn’t easily seduced, even though he pretends to be if he thinks it will yield a clue or two. As he figures out who’s guilty of what, we meet Marriott’s suave, sinister chum Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) and the nefarious Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde).

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

With its constantly twisting plot, original music by Roy Webb and high-contrast, shadow-heavy visuals from cinematographer Harry J. Wild, “Murder, My Sweet” is awfully good fun to watch.

John Paxton’s sharp screenplay honors Chandler’s wit and many lines still seem fresh today. Ann rails against “big league blondes: beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got – all bubble bath and dewy morning and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold – cold like that, only not that clean.” Helen’s retort is simple: “Your slip shows, dear.”

The movie fared well with critics and audiences – the popular appeal was at least in part because leading man Powell was a matinée idol and musical comedy star. Financially strapped RKO signed him to a contract hoping he could pull in much-needed cash at the box office; Powell signed with the condition that he could first play a straight dramatic role. The studio changed the movie’s name from “Farewell, My Lovely” so that viewers wouldn’t mistake it for a musical.

Mike Mazurki

Edward Dmytryk

Though Dmytryk wasn’t thrilled with this casting decision, Powell did a near-flawless job, earning approval from both the director and Chandler. Trevor and Shirley match his fine work as do Howard, Walton, Mander and Kruger. And Mazurki was perfectly cast. Trevor was quite the celluloid bad girl; most notably as the cold-blooded temptress in “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise). She won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s moll in the classic “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

Dmytryk deftly balances cynicism and anxiety with acerbic humor and lighthearted romance. Gifted at creating suspense and edgy moods, he is an undisputed master of film noir. After “Murder, My Sweet,” he helmed “Cornered” (1945), “Crossfire” (1947), “The Hidden Room” (1949), “The Sniper” (1952) and “Mirage” (1965).

His career was sidetracked, however, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and its unconstitutional efforts to eradicate a perceived Communist influence in Hollywood. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC. But, after spending time in prison, Dmytryk changed his mind, testified before the committee and named names of supposed Communists.

Despite his decision to testify and the enmity it earned him, Dmytryk remains one of noir’s best directors.

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Film noir’s feline stars: The Siamese cat in ‘Hangover Square’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “Hangover Square” 1945

Name: Clawdette Montgomery

Character Name: Amaretto Sourpuss

Clawdette Montgomery led a very different offscreen existence from her character in "Hangover Square."

Bio: With all their scheming and double dealing, femmes fatales occasionally need a helping hand. Well, make that helping paw. A case in point is singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) in “Hangover Square,” directed by John Brahm.

Netta has a lot going on, trying to get noticed in the competitive field of 1900s London music halls. To advance her career, she calls on the talents of composer George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar).

Turns out, George is a pretty good cat-sitter too. So Netta relies on him to help her multi-task, ie George can stay home and have a cozy cocktail with high-strung and quick-to-claw Amaretto Sourpuss (Clawdette Montgomery) while ambitious and quick-to-claw Netta tackles the tasks of singing, schmoozing and staying out all night. Unfortunately, George has a tenuous relationship with reality and eventually both Netta and her feline counterpart succumb to George’s madness.

Offscreen, however, Clawdette Montgomery led an entirely different, and joy-filled, existence. Born to a wealthy litter in Siam, Clawdette’s parents saw that she and her twin sister Laurette traveled the world and enjoyed an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing. As an adult cat, Clawdette dabbled in acting, art collecting, philanthropy and yoga. In her third life, she invented her own form of yoga, Furvasana, which took the radical approach of resting in child’s pose for the entire session.

Though extremely popular with other felines and enlightened humans, Furvasana never gained widespread acceptance in the world of mainstream, Westernized yoga. Nevertheless, Clawdette’s teaching philosophy was respected and revered abroad. And secretly many Hollywood stars sought private consultations so that they might emulate her inner peace and calm.

Image from http://catsinsinks.com

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‘Hangover Square’ is a deliciously warped little gem

Hangover Square/1945/20th Century-Fox/77 min.

Linda Darnell

Last Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, I saw “Hangover Square” from 1945 and what a deliciously warped little gem it is! (It was on a double bill with “Psycho” as part of the series honoring composer Bernard Herrmann.) “Hangover Square” stars the spellbindingly sexy and exquisitely stunning Linda Darnell as Netta Longdon, an ambitious music-hall singer in need of good songs.

Enter Laird Cregar playing composer George Harvey Bone, a sweet, lumbering Teddy Bear of a guy. Both are residents of a fictitious square in London, a curious Hollywood-esque dwelling where almost every voice you hear has an American accent.

Femme fatale Netta easily wraps George Bone around her little finger, distracting him from writing more serious music and using him as a babysitter for her long-haired, evil-eyed cat. Of course she has a menacing, demanding cat – who else is going to make sure George gets the songs done by jumping into his lap and glaring at him? Not Netta, she’s out on the town every night.

There’s just one small snag. George has a strange condition, stemming from overwork, that causes him to black out and possibly become violent. Possibly not, but he doesn’t remember. We learn early on in the film that George is on Scotland Yard’s radar, having been examined by Dr. Allan Middleton (the delightfully smarmy George Sanders), but he’s not deemed to be a threat to anyone. Besides, George is adored by the upper crust Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier) and his pretty daughter Barbara (Faye Marlowe).

But that was before Netta and her cat entered the picture and insisted George work his chubby fingers to the, well, bone. Strain + strange condition does not bode well for this ill-fated pair. George takes advantage of a Guy Fawkes bonfire to cover up the crime he commits before blithely succumbing to the ravaging flames of another fire.

Skillfully directed by John Brahm (he also directed Cregar in “The Lodger,” 1944) and gorgeously shot by Joseph LaShelle, “Hangover Square” is full-on film noir, even though the story is set around 1900. The shadow-drenched urban nightscapes, themes of alienation and sexual obsession, and Herrmann’s edgy score draw us into the dark, ambiguous, dangerously skewed noir world.

Barré Lyndon wrote the screenplay, based on a 1941 novel by English writer Patrick Hamilton, who also wrote the plays “Gaslight” and “Rope,” which became Hollywood classics. “Gaslight” was directed by George Cukor (1944) and “Rope” by Alfred Hitchcock (1948). In the novel, George Bone was a borderline alcoholic and the story was set in 1939.

But perhaps most chilling is the off-screen story of the stars. [Read more...]

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‘Hangover Square’ quick hit

Hangover Square/1945/20th Century-Fox/77 min.

A music-hall singer in need of new material (Linda Darnell) charms a mild-mannered composer (Laird Cregar) into service. Service that includes him taking care of her cat, natch. But there’s a catch, of course. If he works too hard, he blacks out and can’t remember a damn thing the next day. There’s definitely trouble in paradise for this pair. John Brahm directs; based on a Patrick Hamilton novel.

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