Film noir delights in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema

"Another Dawn" will play Saturday night at the LA County Museum of Art.

“Another Dawn” will play Saturday night at the LA County Museum of Art.

I am greatly looking forward to seeing the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibition and film program Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film.

Mexico was home to a vibrant, commercially stable film industry in the early 1930s through the 1950s. The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema series will explore Figueroa’s contributions as a groundbreaking cinematographer, a master of light and contrast.

Figueroa spent time on the set of Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein’s “¡Que Viva México!,” had an apprenticeship with Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland, and was friends with painters such as Diego Rivera. (The series is co-presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.)

"Autumn Days" will screen first on Saturday.

“Autumn Days” will screen first on Saturday night.

This weekend, two film noir delights are screening: “Dias de Otoño” (Autumn Days, 1963, Roberto Gavaldón) and “Distinto Amanecer” (Another Dawn, 1941, Julio Bracho). You can read the museum’s synopses here.

Upcoming film series will highlight Figueroa’s work with Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel, the Hollywood films that the cinematographer shot over his 50-year career for directors such as John Huston and John Ford, the films of the early 1930s that spurred Figueroa, and contemporary Mexican filmmakers whose work invokes Figueroa’s legacy.

Meanwhile, the New York Film Festival opened today with “Captain Phillips.” Manohla Dargis of the New York Times gives her assessment here.

 

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

The Noir File: John Ford’s ‘The Informer’ is a great precursor

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

The Informer” (1935, John Ford). Friday, Dec. 14, 6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.). Gypo Nolan – a hulking, good-natured, almost childlike brute of a Dubliner (played by Victor McLaglen) – has betrayed his I.R.A. friend to the British police. Now, with the reward in his pocket, he prowls the dark, fog-shrouded streets of his city.

Victor McLaglen plays Gypo, a hulking, good-natured, almost childlike brute of a Dubliner.

At first Gypo pushes aside his anxiety and remorse, and spends the blood money, carousing and drinking with his instant new “friends.”

But gradually, fate and darkness, along with Gypo’s old comrades and his conscience, begin to close in – as the I.R.A. and their just but relentless commander (Preston Foster) track down the informer.

Of all the great film noir precursors of the ’30s – “M,” “The 39 Steps,” “You Only Live Once,” “Scarface,” “Le jour se lève” and “Public Enemy” – John Ford’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, “The Informer,” is one of the darkest, most powerful and most noirish.

Based on the much-admired Irish novel by Liam O’Flaherty, “The Informer” won Oscars for Ford’s superb direction, for Dudley Nichols’ taut, dramatic script, for Max Steiner’s haunting music and for McLaglen’s unforgettable performance as Gypo – a doomed man alone, surrounded by danger, tormented by his own guilt-ridden, fear-lashed soul. (In 1968, Jules Dassin remade “The Informer,” not as effectively, as “Up Tight.”)

Wednesday, Dec. 12

Barbara Stanwyck as Dixie Daisy in “Lady of Burlesque.”

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “The Man I Love” (1947, Raoul Walsh). Jack Warner once said “Raoul Walsh’s idea of a tender love scene is to burn down a whorehouse.” Here is Walsh’s idea of a tender love story: the tough, racy tale of a sultry, wised-up night club singer (Ida Lupino) and the man who loves her: slick gangster Robert Alda.

5 a.m. (2 a.m.): “Lady of Burlesque” (1943, William Wellman). A salty murder mystery set in the world of strip-tease shows, with Barbara Stanwyck as the stripper-sleuth. Based on the best-seller “The G-String Murders,” a book credited to legendary peeler Gypsy Rose Lee, ghosted by crackerjack comedy/mystery writer Craig Rice (“Home Sweet Homicide”).

Friday, Dec. 14

1:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m.): “Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles).

Saturday, Dec. 15

8:45 a.m. (5:45 a.m.): “Impact” (1949, Arthur Lubin). Infidelity and murder plots, with Brian Donlevy, Ella Raines, Helen Walker, Anna May Wong and Charles Coburn.

Sunday, Dec. 16

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young). From the hit stage play by Frederick (“Dial M for Murder”) Knott. Blind woman Audrey Hepburn sees no evil and tries to stave off Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Unholy Three” (1925, Tod Browning). A shivery thriller about three crooks who meet at the circus and form an unholy gang: a strong man (Victor McLaglen), a midget (Harry Earles) and a cross-dressing ventriloquist (Lon Chaney). One of the eeriest of all Browning’s macabre collaborations with Chaney (Silent with music track.)

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

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.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

‘Naked Kiss’ crowns queen of beautiful bald leading ladies

The Naked Kiss/1964/F & F Productions/90 min.

What better way to celebrate hump day than with a Sam Fuller double feature?

As part of the UCLA Wednesdays Classic Film Series, the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles will show “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964) at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday, Jan. 18. The Million Dollar Theater is at 307 S. Broadway Ave., Los Angeles, 90013; tickets are $10.

By Michael Wilmington

This Sam Fuller movie begins with one of the great shocker low-budget opening scenes: Kelly, a beautiful bald prostitute (played by Constance Towers) beating the crap out of her procurer, losing her wig, pulling out the cash he owes her, and dumping the rest on his whimpering chest. Fuller, freed of any strictures of big studio propriety, has Kelly aiming her purse at the camera and battering us movie voyeurs right along with her ex-pimp.

But “The Naked Kiss” is also a romance (of sorts) and a woman’s picture (of a particularly dark kind). And soon we see Kelly in a typical ’50s-early ’60s American small town, called Grantville, trying to escape her violent past by becoming a nurse’s aide: a care-giver specializing in adorable children, who sing sentimental songs. Kelly also happens to love Beethoven, especially “Moonlight Sonata.” Can she escape the past? Maybe not. The only movie playing in Grantville’s cinema is Fuller’s own previous Constance Towers picture, 1963′s “Shock Corridor.”

Kelly’s nemesis seems to be a salty cop named Griff (played growlingly by Anthony Eisley, of TV’s “Hawaiian Eye”). He beds her right off the incoming bus, pays $20, and then directs her to the nearest brothel (a bordello run by film-noir regular Virginia Grey).

Her salvation seems to be the strangely gentle playboy/philanthropist/Lothario (and Griff’s Korean War buddy) Grant (Michael Dante). Like Kelly, he loves Beethoven and Lord Byron. And something else. In the end, the appearances of her apparent nemesis and salvation prove to be deceiving. As it turns out, the naked kiss is the kiss of a pervert.

Like Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” the year before, “The Naked Kiss” was cheaply but strikingly art-directed by Eugène Lourié (Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”) and gorgeously shot in black and white by Stanley Cortez (“The Night of the Hunter”).

“The Naked Kiss” is a fine showcase for Constance Towers.

Full of sock and sensation, “The Naked Kiss” has qualities we don’t see as much in “Shock Corridor” – a bizarre tenderness, a tough romanticism, and something part way between schmaltz and weltschmerz. “The Naked Kiss” is also Fuller’s most stylishly soap-operatic work in the Douglas Sirk tradition, just as 1949’s “Shockproof” (co-written by Fuller) was Sirk’s most Fullerian movie.

“The Naked Kiss” is also a fine showcase for Constance Towers, an underrated leading lady who worked for John Ford (in “The Horse Soldiers” and “Sergeant Rutledge”), but whom Alfred Hitchcock unfortunately missed. She’ll never be forgotten for that opening scene, though. Among bald prostitute pimp-battering leading ladies, Constance Towers is the queen.

The movie is also available from Criterion and includes these extras: New interview with Constance Towers; 1967 and 1987 French television interviews with Sam Fuller; trailer. Booklet with Robert Polito essay, excerpt on “The Naked Kiss” from Fuller’s autobiography “A Third Face,” and illustrations by the great cartoonist and comic artist Daniel Clowes.

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

On the radar: Books, a blogathon and a bash; Billy Wilder, Bono and Bogart

Must-read material: The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh. Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher, a British student who died on Nov. 1, 2007 in Perugia, Italy. They are appealing their convictions. As Burleigh told Elle magazine: “She was investigated, arrested and convicted as part of a massive multicultural misunderstanding, abetted by her own quirky personality. … Your identity as a young, attractive woman does not belong to you.”

Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland invented the concept of a fashion editor, putting her indelible stamp on Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1962 and Vogue, where she became editor-in-chief, from 1962 to 1971. In the September issue of Harper’s, Lisa Immordino Vreeland conjures a portrait of the famous sartorial icon. When Carmel Snow offered her the Harper’s job, Diana Vreeland replied, “But Miss Snow, except for my little lingerie shop in London, I’ve never worked. I’ve never been in an office in my life. I’ve never dressed until lunch.”

Lauren Bacall

Immordino Vreeland’s book, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel will be published on Oct. 1. (I hope the copy editor for the book was better than the one at Harper’s; there were two glaring errors in that piece.) It was during Vreeland’s tenure at Harper’s that Lauren Bacall’s career was launched after appearing on the cover, shot by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, in March 1943.

Happy birthday, Mr. Ray: In honor of director Nicholas Ray, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 7, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder is running a Nicholas Ray Blogathon Sept. 5-8. Ray directed many noirs (“They Live By Night,” “Knock on Any Door,” “A Woman’s Secret,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Born to be Bad,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Bigger Than Life”). I look forward to submitting my piece and reading other contributors’ work.

Go on, it’s good for the economy: FNO returns on Sept. 8! Fashion’s Night Out is a global initiative created in 2009 as a partnership between American Vogue, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, NYC & Company, and the City of New York to celebrate fashion, restore consumer confidence, boost the industry’s economy, and put the fun back in shopping. Find out what’s going on in your city and check out the merch.

With love from USPS: Billy Wilder gets his own stamp starting next year. Wilder won Academy Awards for directing “The Lost Weekend” and “The Apartment.”

Other Wilder favorites include: “Some Like It Hot,” “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Irma la Douce,” “Sabrina” and “The Seven Year Itch.” Part of a four-stamp Great Film Directors series, Frank Capra, John Ford and John Huston will also be honored.

Doc takes center stage: The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Sept. 8-18. The opening night film is “From the Sky Down,” Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about Irish band U2. It’s the first time in 36 years that the festival will open with a documentary.

Bogey as Spade and Marlowe: The American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is showing on Sept. 8: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston) and “The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). Double crossing, dubious motives and dry wit abound.

Diana Vreeland photo by Horst P. Horst

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

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...]

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter

‘Taxi Driver,’ the ultimate big-city bad dream, screens Sunday at TCM Classic Film Festival

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.

One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.

And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)

Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver"

In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.

Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).

Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.

After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.

Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.

Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. [Read more...]

FacebookGoogle+PinterestRedditEmailTwitter