More Burt on the big screen at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater

The Billy Wilder Theater at UCLA will present a choice double bill on Sunday, June 2, at 7 p.m.: two film-noir titles starring Burt Lancaster. First is the prison drama “Brute Force” (1947, Jules Dassin), in which Lancaster plays an angry inmate desperate to escape his sadistic captors.

Variety’s review of “Brute Force” noted that “Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby are the women on the ‘outside’ whose machinations, wiles or charms accounted for their men being on the ‘inside.’ ” Natch. (Lancaster and De Carlo were paired again in 1949’s “Criss Cross,” directed by Robert Siodmak.)

“Brute Force” will be followed by “Kiss the Blood Off My Hands” (1948, Norman Foster). Lancaster plays a traumatized and violent ex-prisoner of war living in London and trying, unsuccessfully of course, to get his life together. Co-starring Joan Fontaine.

The evening is part of the Lancaster centennial celebration presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program. The celebration of Lancaster’s movies runs through June 30. Author Kate Buford is the special guest on June 2.

Additionally, on Monday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m., the Archive’s look at emerging voices in Czech cinema comes to a close with director David Ondříček in person for his taut neo-noir police thriller, “In the Shadow” (2012), which was the Czech Republic’s official Oscar entry for 2013.

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The Noir File: Truffaut’s choice as the greatest film noir: ‘Rififi’

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). This week, there’s a trio of great heist films on Tuesday, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific): “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Rififi” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

PICK OF THE WEEK

Rififi” (1954, Jules Dassin). Tuesday, Jan. 1, 12 a.m. (9 p.m.). Midway through director Jules Dassin’s French crime classic “Rififi” (“Trouble”), Dassin stages a 33-minute-long masterpiece of suspense: a sequence the most critics regard as the most perfect of all movie heist scenes. It’s a brilliantly designed set-piece of excruciating tension and the only sound is the thieves at work.

Probably no one who sees that scene ever forgets it. Here it is: In the early morning hours, a small band of crooks – which include legendary bank robber Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), his young married friend Jo Jo (Carl Mohner), a good thief named Mario (Robert Manuel) and the loose-lipped safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself, under the stage name Perlo Vita) – break into an exclusive Parisian jewelry store by drilling though the floor of the room above. They work carefully, quietly, methodically. For the entire scene, there is not a word of dialogue, not a note of background music. A tour de force of moviemaking technique, it helped win Dassin the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, François Truffaut called “Rififi” the greatest of all film noirs.

That heist scene also sets up the grim, fatalistic last act of “Rififi,” which is about how thieves fall apart, set in a Paris that seems shrouded in perpetual clouds and drizzling rain. “Rififi” was regarded as an almost instant classic, and it wiped out the stigma of Dassin’s blacklisting by Hollywood. If you’ve never seen this movie and that scene, you won’t forget them either. (In French, with subtitles.)

Tuesday, Jan. 1

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). With Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn in one of her first important roles.

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958, Mario Monicelli). An inept gang of burglars, played by front-rank Italian movie stars Vittorio Gassmann, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Toto, try in vain to break into and rob a store. This is perhaps, along with the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers “The Ladykillers,” the funniest crime comedy ever made: often remade, endlessly copied, never equaled. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

Saturday, Jan. 5

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Whistler” (1944, William Castle). The first and probably best of the macabre “Whistler” series, based on the popular radio program. Richard Dix, as The Whistler, tries desperately to call off the hit men (Including J. Carroll Naish) he’s hired to kill himself.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 a.m.): “M” (1931, Fritz Lang). With Peter Lorre and Gustaf Grundgens.

Sunday, Jan. 6

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “The Wrong Man” (1957, Alfred Hitchcock). With Henry Fonda and Vera Miles.

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The Noir File: Dark treats from Preminger, Dassin and Lang

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are one of film noir’s great couples.

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

Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950, Otto Preminger). Thursday, Dec. 27, 1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.).
While investigating a murder, a smart but sometimes savage Manhattan police detective named Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) accidentally kills an innocent suspect (Craig Stevens). Dixon tries to cover it up, but his relentless new boss Lt. Thomas (Karl Malden) keeps pushing the evidence toward an affable cabbie named Jiggs (Tom Tully). And Dixon has fallen in love with Jiggs’ daughter, model Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney). Gary Merrill plays a crook/gambler.

Scripted by Ben Hecht from William Stuart’s book “Night Cry.” If you want to know what film noir is all about, check this one out.

Thursday, Dec. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Black Widow” (1954, Nunnally Johnson). Crime among the Broadway elite, from one of Patrick Quentin’s mystery novels. Not much style, but the cast includes Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). In shadow-drenched, dangerous London, crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) double-crosses everyone he encounters as he tries to outrace the night. The night is faster. This is a top film noir, a masterpiece of style and suspense. From Gerald Kersh’s novel; with Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers.

Sunday, Dec. 30

8:15 a.m. (5:15 a.m.): “Bunny Lake is Missing” (1965, Otto Preminger). Bunny Lake is an American child kidnapped in London, Carol Lynley her terrified mother, Keir Dullea her concerned uncle, Anna Massey her harassed teacher, Noel Coward her sleazy landlord, and Laurence Olivier the brainy police detective trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The most important of those pieces: Was Bunny ever really there at all? A neglected gem; based on Evelyn Piper’s novel.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “Ministry of Fear” (1944, Fritz Lang). Ray Milland, just released from a British mental institution, wins the wrong cake at a charity raffle and becomes ensnared in a nightmarish web of espionage and murder. The source is one of novelist Graham Greene’s “entertainments.” Co-starring Marjorie Reynolds and Dan Duryea.

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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.)

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The Noir File: Young lovers on the run in ‘They Live by Night’

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).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger play the beautiful young couple.

They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray). Wednesday, Dec. 5, 10:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m.). “Gentle” and “romantic” might seem odd words to apply to film noir. But Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night” is one of the gentlest, saddest and most romantic of all noirs, and an inarguable classic as well. It’s the familiar but potent story of two naïve young outlaw lovers-on-the-run: Bowie, a kid with a gun and Keechie, a girl with a heart to be broken (played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, an unusually beautiful young movie couple). Bowie and Keechie are two nice, ordinary kids who‘ve fallen in with the crookedly paternal T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and his violent partner Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) to form a gang of traveling thieves.

Ray was a famous American film outlaw romantic. He and producer John Houseman and screenwriter Charles Schnee derived their legendary gangster love story from Edward Anderson’s harder-bitten Depression novel “Thieves Like Us.” Robert Altman later remade “They Live By Night,” in 1974, under its original title, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as Bowie and Keechie (and Louise Fletcher as the two-faced Mattie). That was one of his neo-noir ’70s gems, but “They Live By Night” – often cited, with “Gun Crazy,” as a direct precursor of “Bonnie and Clyde” – has a tenderness and poetic quality that are unique for the crime movie genre. And never more so than in the remarkable nocturnal wedding-on-the-run of Bowie and Keechie, with Ian Wolfe as the wily justice of the peace reeling off a ceremony, paid witnesses, and the sense of a disappointed but wildly loving heart beating beneath it all.

Tuesday, Dec. 4

4 a.m. (1 a.m.):“Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). Crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) tries to outrace the night. One of the all-time best film noirs, from Gerald Kersh’s London novel. With Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom and Googie Withers.

Wednesday, Dec. 5

12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.): “Gun Crazy” (1949, Joseph H. Lewis).

Thursday, Dec. 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed).

Saturday, Dec. 8

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich). Cougar Joan Crawford falls for an unstable younger man (Cliff Robertson); co-starring Vera Miles.

Sunday, Dec. 9

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.” One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Lady in the Lake” (1947, Robert Montgomery).

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Noir City festival returns to Chicago with darkness aplenty

The Music Box Theatre will host Noir City: Chicago.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City festival returns for the fourth time to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, from Aug. 17-23.

The FNF’s Alan K. Rode and noted writer/historian Foster Hirsch will share hosting duties. All titles are presented on the big screen in glorious 35mm prints.

This year’s lineup looks great! Highlights include:

William Castle’s “Undertow” (1949), which was shot on location in the Windy City.

Alan Ladd x 2: “The Great Gatsby” (1949, Elliot Nugent) and “This Gun for Hire” (1942, Frank Tuttle).

Jean Negulesco’s “Three Strangers” (1946) starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Screenplay by John Huston and Howard Koch.

Cornell Woolrich x 3: Noir master Robert Siodmak directs Ella Raines and Elisha Cook Jr. in “Phantom Lady” (1944). Based on a Woolrich novel. “Black Angel” (1946, Roy William Neil) More suspense from Woolrich, this time starring Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Broderick Crawford and Peter Lorre. “The Window” (1949) Ted Tetzlaff directs an adaptation of Woolrich’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney star in "White Heat," directed by Raoul Walsh.

Phil Karlson’s “99 River Street” (1953) Evelyn Keyes comes to the rescue when her buddy John Payne, a washed-up boxer, is framed for the murder of his wife.

Robert Ryan x 2: “Caught” (Max Ophuls, 1949) and “On Dangerous Ground” (Nicholas Ray, 1952).

Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich) Screenwriter A. I. Bezzerides adapted Mickey Spillane’s detective novel to create this film noir classic. Ralph Meeker stars.

White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh) James Cagney is unforgettable in one of noir’s greatest roles, outlaw and killer Cody Jarrett. The superb cast also includes Edmond O’Brien, Virginia Mayo, Steve Cochran and Margaret Wycherly as the bad-ass mama at the core of it all.

Also, be sure to check out the FNF’s Marsha Hunt interview. The actress joined Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode at the 14th annual Noir City: Hollywood for a rare screening of “Mary Ryan, Detective” (1950, Abby Berlin). Hunt discussed her work with Fred Zinnemann, Jules Dassin, Orson Welles and others. I watched the event live and it’s terrific – it’s hard to believe she is 94! You can watch the interview at the FNF Video Archives.

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The Noir File: Lusty? Low-budget? We’re in!

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noirs (and neo-noirs) on cable TV. Just Turner Classic Movies (TCM) so far, but we’ll add more stations as more schedules come in. The times are Pacific Standard (listed first) and Eastern Standard.

Friday, July 13: Sam Fuller Day

Samuel Fuller

The following four films were all written and directed by noir master Fuller.

5 p.m. (8 p.m.): “I Shot Jesse James” (1949, Samuel Fuller). Western noir, with Preston Foster and John Ireland (as the “dirty little coward … who laid poor Jesse in his grave”). (TCM)

6:30 P.M. (9:30 p.m.): “Park Row” (1952, Samuel Fuller). Fuller’s personal favorite of all his movies was this lusty low-budget period film, set in the 1880s, about newspapering in New York. With Gene Evans (“The Steel Helmet”) as a two-fisted editor and Mary Welch as a femme fatale of a publisher. (TCM)

8 p.m. (11 p.m.): “Shock Corridor” (1963, Samuel Fuller). Aggressive, Pulitzer-hunting reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) feigns madness and gets himself committed to a mental institution to track down a murderer. Constance Towers is the stripper masquerading as his sister. Quintessential Fuller. (TCM)

Constance Towers plays in “Naked Kiss” (shown here) and “Shock Corridor.”

9:45 p.m. (12:45 a.m.): “The Naked Kiss” (1964, Samuel Fuller). A hooker, a pervert, and a sleazy cop get involved in small-town scandal and murder. Stanley Cortez (“Night of the Hunter”) photographs noirishly, both here and in “Shock Corridor.” (TCM)

Also on Friday:

3 a.m. (6 a.m.) “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964, British, Bryan Forbes). Acting fireworks from Oscar nominee Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough as a crooked spiritualist and her meek husband, tangled up in crime. Based on Mark McShane’s novel. (TCM)

3 p.m. (6 p.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. (TCM)

Saturday, July 14

4 a.m. (7 a.m.): “The Black Book” (“Reign of Terror”) (1949, Anthony Mann). French Revolution noir, with Robert Cummings, Arlene Dahl, Richard Basehart and Beulah Bondi. Photographed by John Alton. (TCM)

Sunday, July 15

Richard Widmark is unforgettable in “Night and the City,” set in London.

5:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m.): “Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). Crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) tries to outrace the night. One of the all-time best film noirs, from Gerald Kersh’s London novel. With Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom and Googie Withers. (TCM)

7:30 a.m. (10:30 a.m.): “The Reckless Moment” (1949, Max Ophuls). Blackmail and murder invade a “happy” bourgeois home. Based on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel, “The Blank Wall,” and directed by one of the cinema’s greatest visual/dramatic stylists, Max Ophuls (“Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Lola Montes,” “The Earrings of Madame de…”) With James Mason, Joan Bennett and Shepperd Strudwick. (TCM)

11 p.m. (2 a.m.): “Sawdust and Tinsel” (“The Naked Night”) (1953, Swedish, Ingmar Bergman). Film master Ingmar Bergman once said that his major early cinematic influences were “the film noir directors, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Michael Curtiz.” Here is one of the most noir of all Bergman’s films (along with “Hour of the Wolf” and “The Serpent’s Egg”): a German Expressionist-style nightmare of a film about life at a circus, in three rings of adultery, jealousy and torment. (In Swedish, with English subtitles.) (TCM)

Thursday, July 19

Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten star in “Citizen Kane.”

8:15 a.m. (11:15 a.m.): “Caged” (1950, John Cromwell). One of the best and grimmest of the “women’s prison” pictures. A grim look at life locked up, with Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Hope Emerson, Jan Sterling and Jane Darwell. (TCM)

11:15 p.m. (2:15 a.m.): “Citizen Kane” (1941, Orson Welles). A dark look at the sensational, profligate life of one of the world’s most powerful and egotistical newspaper magnates, the late Charles Foster Kane (modeled on William Randolph Hearst and acted by George Orson Welles). Still the greatest movie of all time, it’s also a virtual lexicon of film-noir visual and dramatic style, as seminal in its way as “The Maltese Falcon” or “M.” Scripted by Welles and one-time Hearst crony Herman Mankiewicz, photographed by Gregg Toland, with music by Bernard Herrmann and ensemble acting by the Mercury Players: Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, George Coulouris, Ruth Warrick, Paul Stewart, et al. (“Rosebud? I tell you about Rosebud…”) (TCM)

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‘Criss Cross,’ a stellar noir, screens Thursday at TCM fest

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

What would film noir be without obsessive love? (Or “amour fou” as the French would say.) Just a bunch of caring and sharing among equal partners with no cause for discontent? How frightfully dull.

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949 by director Robert Siodmak. This film is somewhat neglected so I’m very happy that the TCM Classic Film Festival is screening it this Thursday with an intro from the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller. Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) and Steve (Burt Lancaster) find it impossible to say goodbye.

“Criss Cross” tells the story of a nice guy from a modest background who, try as he might, just cannot break ties with his sexy but venal ex-wife. They are one of noir’s most stunningly gorgeous couples.

Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson takes your breath away with his arresting features and beautiful build. Equally captivating is exquisite Yvonne De Carlo (Lily Munster on the ’60s TV show, “The Munsters”) as Anna.

Lancaster and De Carlo were also paired in Jules Dassin’s prison film “Brute Force” from 1947. And in 1946, Siodmak helped catapult Lancaster and Ava Gardner to stardom in “The Killers,” another seminal film noir. Miklós Rózsa wrote original music for both Siodmak films.

Back to “Criss Cross.” Having returned to his native Los Angeles after more than a year of roaming around the country, working odd jobs, Steve’s convinced that he’s over Anna and can move on from their failed marriage.

He gets his old job back (as a driver for Horten’s, an armored car service) and reconnects with his family (a very unusual touch – most noir heroes are total loners). There’s Mom (Edna Holland), brother Slade (Richard Long) and his brother’s fiancée Helen (Meg Randall). They’re all anti-Anna, natch, and so is Steve’s childhood friend Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally).

Anna likes the perks that her sugar daddy Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) can provide.

It’s only a matter of time (and fate, of course) before Steve sees Anna again, only to learn she has a new love interest, an unctuous gangster and sugar daddy named Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), whom she abruptly marries.

But Anna can’t quite tear herself away from Steve – he is Burt bloody Lancaster, after all. When Slim catches the pair together, Steve stays calm and says he’s figured out a way to pull a heist – an inside job at Horten’s – but he needs some help to carry it out. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however, and the caper turns into a smoke-filled shootout, which lands Steve in the hospital and launches Slim on the lam.

Noir master Daniel Fuchs adapted “Criss Cross” from a Don Tracy novel. While the script’s references to Steve’s imminent doom are a little over the top, the movie is still an excellent showcase for the talents of German-émigré Siodmak, an auteur largely underrated in postwar Hollywood, as well as for his cast and crew. “Criss Cross” is both a tense, lean crime thriller and a textured, haunting story about relationships and human nature.

Much as I like “The Killers,” I prefer “Criss Cross” and its probing into questions of fate, our inherent human capacity for perversity and self-destruction, our tendencies toward paranoia, greed and guilt, and our willingness to trust, trick and manipulate others and ourselves. Basically, everything we hate to think about and try to repress.

We see romantic relationships that run the gamut from sweet to steamy to sadistic, with Siodmak and Fuchs reminding us of the violence that can lurk just under a tranquil surface. It’s also interesting to speculate, upon repeat viewings, just how far back Steve might have been hatching his plan and to what extent it grew out of Slim’s wider and stickier web of deceit.

When Slim and his gang invade Steve’s place, Steve outlines his plan.

Beginning with a magnificent shot that lands us in the middle of the story, we witness a clandestine meeting, a few minutes in a parking lot, of lovers Steve and Anna.

Then, as Siodmak backtracks to fill us in on their story, it’s one ravishing chiaroscuro composition after another, often shot from high above and suggesting a sense of encroaching peril or shot low to create a feeling of dominance, danger and power. Entrapping shadows abound.

Siodmak and cinematographer Franz Planer were at the top of their game in “Criss Cross. “ It’s hard to beat the panoramic opening scene and the pieta-like closing shot. Another striking scene: when Steve sees Anna dancing the rhumba (with an uncredited Tony Curtis) as Esy Morales’ band gives it their all. I also love the alternating high and low shots as Anna and Steve discover that Slim and his gang have infiltrated Steve’s place, quiet as cats, save for the refrigerator that pounds shut as they help themselves to beers. “You know,” says Dan Duryea’s Slim, in a cool, silky voice, “it don’t look right. You can’t exactly say it looks right now can you?”

Was there anyone better in 1940s than Duryea as the cheap, sleazy, misogynistic gangster-type who never failed to be dressed to the nines in the flashiest and gaudiest of garb?

Steve and Anna hope to reunite after she extricates herself from Slim.

Additionally, it’s a testament to Lancaster’s power of expression – his graceful physicality, measured, calm voice and what seems to be an innate kindness and intelligence – that you continue to root for him knowing that every step he takes is the wrong one.

And you can see how De Carlo as Anna could sear a man’s heart. (De Carlo later starred as the quirky matriarch in TV’s “The Munsters,” 1964-66.) While some would write Anna off as a conniving shrew who causes Steve’s downfall, and it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise, she at least never plays too coy – she wants him, yes, but she wants money too and she’s entirely clear that she’ll get it with or without him. It’s his choice (as much as you have a choice in film noir) to execute a heist to get a bunch of cash. As for the heist, particularly the planning of, I think there is much here that influenced John Huston when he made “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950).

Also memorable in their performances are Percy Helton as the bartender, Alan Napier as Finchley, the stately, dignified crook consultant who works for liquor and Griff Barnett as Pop, the co-worker whom Steve betrays. “Criss Cross” also features Raymond Burr, uncredited, as a gangster.

Steven Soderbergh remade “Criss Cross” as “The Underneath” in 1995 and it’s a good film. But just as Lancaster’s Steve likens his love to getting a bit of apple stuck in his teeth, “Criss Cross” similarly lodges in your psyche. Like a lurking temptation, it’s hard to let go.

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‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is an icy thriller by an immaculate artist

“Le Cercle Rouge” plays Saturday, Nov. 6, at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

Le Cercle Rouge/1970/EIA, et al/140 min./in French with English subtitles

By Michael Wilmington

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) was, in some ways, the Vermeer of the heist movie. A master of classic noir and neo noir, Melville was a cool, sure-fingered expert and an immaculate artist. Like Vermeer, his pictures were deceptively simple and utterly haunting, punctilious and mysterious. And, like Vermeer, he didn’t leave many behind him.

One of the greatest of all Melville’s films, with one of his most spectacular heists, is “Le Cercle Rouge,” a neo-noir which has, as its centerpiece, a spine-chilling depiction of a jewel robbery at the Place Vendome in Paris.

The job is pulled off with rare skill by three strangely honorable thieves, played by three international film stars: ex-convict Corey (played by Alain Delon), escaped prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).

Alain Delon

The movie is about how these three come together, how they execute the robbery, and how they’re finally driven apart – largely through the quiet skill and determination of their relentless police antagonist. Deceptively lumpish, bourgeois-looking Inspector Mattei is played by comedy star André Bourvil.

Mattei is keeping watch over his prisoner, Vogel, on a train journey. But Vogel slips out of his handcuffs and escapes from the sleeper car of the speeding train. Mattei is humiliated, then obsessed with finding Vogel. The broken handcuffs become a psychological link.

Mattei has an invaluable source in Santi (François Périer), a double-dealer and underworld mole, who looks like a ferret in a suit. Santi owns a nightclub that seems to specialize in crooked assignations and ersatz ’50s American movie musical numbers, set to a cool jazzy score by Éric Demarsan. (The chorus girls in those numbers are almost the only women we see in the movie, except for one faithless lover and one cigarette girl.)

The title “Le Cercle Rouge” refers to a story of Buddha, who supposedly draws a red chalk circle and explains to his students that those who are destined to cross paths will do so within the circle, no matter what.

Melville made and released Le Cercle Rouge in 1970, one year after making his World War Two French Resistance masterpiece, “Army of Shadows” (1969) and two years before making his last film (with his last heist), the flawed “Un Flic” (Dirty Money), starring Delon, Catherine Deneuve and Richard Crenna. “Le Cercle Rouge” was his last masterpiece.

Back to Vermeer for a moment. There is one vital quality of Vermeer’s that Melville misses completely, probably never tries for: warmth. Melville’s films noirs are cold, especially when cinematographer Henri Decaë (of Melville’s “Le Samourai”) shoots them. His crooks are cool. They speak little, wear raincoats and fedoras, and smoke cigarettes, like Bogie. His cops are icy. His world is dark: noir to the brim.

Why was Melville so obsessed with criminals, with heists and with heist movies? Maybe because this underworld reminded him of the world that was the French Resistance, in which he had fought during the war.

And maybe it’s because of the one that got away. In the ’50s, Melville was hired to direct the movie that became one of the greatest of all heist movies (François Truffaut’s choice as the greatest of all film noirs), 1955’s “Rififi.” Melville was later fired and replaced by Jules Dassin, who chivalrously refused to take the job without Melville’s consent (which Melville gave). [Read more...]

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Huston explores ‘Asphalt Jungle’ with an unflinching eye

The Asphalt Jungle/1950/MGM/112 min.

Marilyn Monroe

“The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950 by director John Huston is rightly considered a masterpiece. Excellent storytelling and an outstanding cast, including Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe, have helped it stand the test of time.

But its stark, unwavering realism is not for everyone. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, where Huston made the movie, had this to say about the flick: “That ‘Asphalt Pavement’ thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.”

Um, did he not see luminous and fragile Monroe as mistress Angela Phinlay? Huston portrays a gang of thieves as flawed humans trying to make a living. “We all work for our vice,” explains menschlike mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Jaffe). Recently released from jail, Doc has planned every detail of a $1 million jewel robbery and seeks to round up the best craftsmen he can find for one last heist.

A fat wallet means Doc can head to Mexico and court all the nubile girls he can handle. Dix Handley (Hayden), a tough guy with swagger to spare, hopes to pay his debts and return to his beloved horses in Kentucky. Getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is sick of running his dingy diner. Bookie ‘Cobby’ Cobb (Marc Lawrence) covets booze. Safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) has a wife and kid to support. Alonzo ‘Lon’ Emmerich (Calhern) is a wealthy but overspent lawyer who wants to be solvent again.

“You may not admire these people, but I think they’ll fascinate you,” says Huston in an archive clip included on the DVD. They pull it off, but what heist would be complete without a doublecross and crossing paths with the police?

In this macho, man’s-world movie, there is alas no femme fatale. But rest assured there are flawed women aplenty. Hagen plays the neurotic Doll, a struggling performer, and her vice is Dix. Monroe, as Lon’s barely legal girlfriend, orders mackerel for his breakfast, flips through travel magazines and is fond of saying, “Yipes!” Lon’s bed-ridden wife May (Dorothy Tree) wishes Lon were home more often. Teresa Celli plays dutiful wife Maria Ciavelli.

The actors complement each other deftly. Jaffe, both sage and seedy (when he lusts after pretty young things) is particularly entertaining; he nabbed an Oscar nom for best supporting actor. Helping his rich characterization is the fact that he gets some terrific lines, for instance: “Just when you think you can trust a cop, he goes legit.” [Read more...]

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