Lake and Ladd pack heat in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar star in “This Gun for Hire.”

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more…]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ opens Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre

The Veronica LakeAlan Ladd quintessential film noir “This Gun for Hire,” co-starring Laird Cregar, opens the Noir City: Hollywood Festival on Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. Directed by Frank Tuttle from a Graham Greene novel, the 1942 film helped shape many archetypes of the genre. Albert Maltz (one of the Hollywood Ten) and W.R. Burnett wrote the script, with an uncredited contribution from Tuttle. John F. Seitz shot it and Edith Head designed the costumes.

Noir City: Hollywood, the longest-running film noir festival in Los Angeles, is now in its 19th year. For 2017, the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque will present a program “replicating the movie-going experience of that time – 10 double bills, each featuring a major studio A picture paired with a shorter B movie … showcased exactly as it was back in the day.”

In Friday’s B-movie slot is the well regarded “Quiet Please, Murder” (1942, John Larkin), which stars the inimitable George Sanders as a con artist.

The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller will introduce the lineup. There’s a cocktail hour between films for all ticket buyers, sponsored by Clarendelle inspired by Haut-Brion and Teeling Irish Whiskey.

Compiled by Muller, Alan K. Rode and Gwen Deglise, the festival runs through April 2.

In honor of the film and the fest, we are re-running an earlier review of “This Gun for Hire.”

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Stylish sleeper ‘I Wake Up Screaming’ deserves a little love

IWUS 1I Wake Up Screaming/1941/Twentieth Century-Fox/82 min.

In the Neglected Works of Noir department, “I Wake Up Screaming” from 1941 is just crying out for attention.

Director H. Bruce Humberstone made a fun and taut whodunit that’s also a treat for the eyes. The film stars Betty Grable (singer, dancer and pin-up legend in her first dramatic role) and Carole Landis as sisters Jill and Vicky Lynn, who quickly shed their homespun sensibilities as they fend for themselves in New York City, Jill working as a stenographer and Vicky waiting tables.

IWUS 2Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before the fine-boned fair-haired creatures are discovered. Vicky’s in the spotlight first after PR guru Frankie “Botticelli” Christopher (Victor Mature) stops into the diner one night with some friends and decides, as he puts it, to make her The Next Big Thing. (At one point, Frankie asks how expensive she is; she replies he couldn’t afford her. To circumvent censors, that risqué line was reportedly added while shooting.)

Frankie’s pals Jerry (William Gargan), Robin (Alan Mowbray) and Larry (Allyn Joslyn) also jockey for her attention and lend their support to her quest to be a model/actress. But, just as she’s about to jet off to Hollywood for a screen test, Vicky is murdered, and all her pals are under suspicion as is the creepy clerk at her apartment building, Harry, played by noir great Elisha Cook Jr.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Laird Cregar spent time with cops to lend realism to his role.

Matching Cook’s seediness is hefty Police Insp. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Cregar caught critics’ attention with his dark, skulking, mysterious presence; his name is probably a hat-tip to writer Cornell Woolrich.

Also, look out for “Black Mask,” the famous pulp magazine, for sale on a newsstand.

As the story unfolds, a romance develops between Frankie Christopher and Jill, and the movie proceeds at a nice clip, clocking in at 82 minutes. “I Wake Up Screaming” makes significant strides in noir style and technique, though it rarely gets credit for its achievements. One of the films that eclipsed it was director John Huston’s mightily famous “The Maltese Falcon,” also from 1941. A big-budget release from Warner Bros., the now classic movie is often cited as the first film noir.

IWUS 5“I Wake Up Screaming,” a much smaller project than “Falcon,” was the first film noir made at Twentieth Century-Fox. Humberstone incorporated arresting compositions and lighting – note the dramatic, single-source lighting in the police interrogation room scenes. The scene in which Cornell pays Christopher a night-time visit virtually defines noir, with its exaggerated shadows, grim faces, a black cat and a neon sign in the distance. Edward Cronjager was director of photography. Noir czar and author Eddie Muller points out in his excellent DVD commentary that, in visual terms, “The Maltese Falcon” is pedestrian compared with the creativity in “I Wake Up Screaming.”

Additionally, scriptwriter Dwight Taylor conceived the story as a series of flashbacks – a hallmark of film noir storytelling – though Steve Fisher’s pulpy novel is not structured that way. And, long before it became common for actors, Cregar hung out with L.A. police to lend realism to his performance. The score is interesting too – featuring “Over the Rainbow” as well as “Manhattan Street Scene,” which was also used in “The Dark Corner.” (“I Wake Up Screaming” was remade in 1953 as “Vicki,” starring Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters and Elliott Reid; it was directed by Harry Horner.)

"I Wake Up Screaming" is visually spectacular.

“I Wake Up Screaming” is visually spectacular.

So why did “Screaming” get such short shrift? Well, it wasn’t a prestige picture and, while Humberstone made the best of this low-budget B movie, it’s tough to compete with John Huston, one of Hollywood’s finest talents ever. Also, “I Wake Up Screaming” contains a generous dollop of fluffy romantic comedy, which pairs a bit uneasily with the sly, wry humor and cynical entanglements of film noir at its grittiest. Btw, I love the scene where Frankie and Jill take a dip in a public pool – both flaunting their great shape, of course – Frankie puffing away merrily on a cigarette.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that “I Wake Up Screaming” has a happy ending. Sadly, though, two of its actors died not long after the movie was released. In 1944, Cregar’s promising career was cut short at age 30 when the Philly-born actor had a heart attack, likely spurred by crash dieting for a part. Four years later, Wisconsin native Carole Landis, 29, died of a drug overdose. Her career had dead-ended and she was in bad shape, having been dismissed by the industry as a pretty airhead.

Unfortunately, that’s a story that’s been told and retold in Hollywood.

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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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Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd are smokin’ in ‘This Gun for Hire’

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

Veronica Lake in “This Gun for Hire” from 1942 is an angel-food cake kind of femme fatale. Alan Ladd’s stone-faced, yet complex, hitman is a devil, but damn he’s debonair. He also likes cats and kids so it’s hard not to want to cut him some slack.

Veronica Lake

Lake plays a smart, svelte and stunning nightclub singer/magician named Ellen Graham who’s essentially engaged to amiable and solid cop Michael Crane (Robert Preston). Essentially but not officially engaged because there’s no ring or dress shopping, just some affectionate banter about getting domestic, which means darning his socks and cooking corned beef and cabbage.

But those scenes aren’t exactly sizzling with passion. That’s because of Ladd. It was his first major film and once he was aboard, director Frank Tuttle realized the actor was A-list material and changed the script to give Ladd more prominence. Even though you know Lake and Ladd aren’t going to end up together, there’s a mighty sexy undercurrent between them.

As Ephraim Katz of “The Film Encyclopedia” puts it: “She clicked best at the box office as the screen partner of Alan Ladd in a matchup of cool, determined personalities.” They went on to make six more flicks together, including noir fare “The Glass Key” (1942) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1946).

In this one, Ladd’s character, Philip Raven is on the trail of Los Angeles-based Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) a blubbery, unctuous exec at a chemical company who hires Raven to bump off his colleague, a blackmailing paymaster named Baker (Frank Ferguson). Gates then pays Raven off in stolen cash, a ploy to put him in the hands of the police.

But chemical formulas aren’t really Gates’ thing – on the side, he likes to chomp on peppermints, hang out in nightclubs in LA and San Francisco, and indulge his “vice,” as he calls it, as a part-time impresario. When he sees the head-turning Ellen perform in San Francisco, he’s hooked and invites her to perform at the Neptune Club in LA.

Ellen’s trying to get close to Gates, too, but not just because she craves the spotlight. She’s been recruited by a senator (Roger Imhof) who wants hard evidence that Gates is the Benedict Arnold of 1942, i.e., he’s suspected of selling chemical formulas to the Japanese. It is war time, after all.

So, as Raven tracks down his prey and eludes the police, Ellen juggles her high-minded snooping with sequin-drenched dress rehearsals. Before long, their paths are bound to cross, especially when they board the same train to LA …

Known primarily for musicals and crime dramas, and for naming names to HUAC during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror, director Tuttle wasn’t what you’d call an artist or a poet, but he managed to make a top-notch thriller, based on one of Graham Greene’s best crime novels. True, the movie doesn’t do the book justice, but for every one of its 80 minutes, the film is engaging and entertaining.

Tuttle easily balances moody suspense, wholesome romance, patriotic duty and the not-quite-jaded vibe of young performers trying to earn a living at a nightclub. Cinematographer John Seitz (of “Double Indemnity”) lends his elegant eye to the lighting; the scenes of Ladd and Lake on the train and on the run are especially beautiful. Crisp dialogue comes from writers Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, a Midwesterner whose stint as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel inspired the 1929 crime novel (and the 1931 film) “Little Caesar” as well as many other novels and screenplays.

Unrepentant and casual about killing for a living, Ladd’s performance is classic noir; it influenced Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” from 1967. Unlike most femme fatales, Ellen Graham isn’t motivated by money or revenge but by doing her part for the war effort. Still, Lake gives us bemused detachment and a glimmer of tenderness; she also helps humanize Raven. And how could you not love her musical numbers and surprisingly modern costumes, especially the sleek black “fishing” garb with thigh-high boots? [Read more…]

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‘This Gun for Hire’ quick hit

This Gun for Hire/ 1942/ Paramount Pictures/ 80 min.

This role hardly qualifies Veronica Lake as a femme fatale. She’s loyal to her man, works for a living and helps out Uncle Sam. Shocker! That said, this movie is still full-on noir and Lake, who blazes a trail with hitman Alan Ladd, completely captivates. Laird Cregar delights, as always, as the peppermint-popping heavy. Based on a Graham Greene novel; directed by Frank Tuttle.

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