New York’s Ziegfeld Theater celebrates film collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

Few actor-director collaborations have generated more cinematic excitement and sheer brilliance than the team of director Martin Scorsese and star actor Leonardo DiCaprio – two kings of neo-noir. In their five films together, they have left an indelible stamp on our movies and on our pop culture.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio around the time of "Shutter Island." Photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Staff

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio publicize the release of “Shutter Island.” Photo by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

DiCaprio was first recommended to Scorsese by the director‘s other long-term actor-collaborator Robert De Niro, who was impressed by Leonardo after playing his father in the 1993 family drama “This Boy’s Life.” DiCaprio and Scorsese joined up in 2002 for the explosive period gangster saga “Gangs of New York” and the rest is neo-noir history.

DiCaprio and Scorsese and their chemistry will be celebrated this Thursday and Friday (Feb. 13 and 14) in New York City at Bowtie Cinema’s storied Ziegfeld Theater, with a five-film retrospective.

The retrospective begins on Thursday with afternoon screenings of “The Aviator” (2004) with DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and their Oscar-winning all-star gangster drama “The Departed“ (2006).

The program also includes a live panel discussion at 7 p.m. Thursday with DiCaprio and two other key Scorsese collaborators on “The Wolf of Wall Street“: screenwriter Terence Winter and longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Their talk will be followed by a screening of “Wolf of Wall Street,” one of the most controversial of all 2013 American movies, and a multiple Oscar nominee. The discussion will be moderated by critic-filmmaker Kent Jones, a Scorsese collaborator as well.

On Friday, the retrospective continues with showings of the psychological thriller “Shutter Island” (2010) and “Gangs of New York” (2002).

DiCaprio is one actor who’s used his stardom well. And we can’t think of another director who has done more for film noir appreciation and history than Scorsese. The guy has been watching noirs since his Little Italy boyhood and making neo-noirs since 1973’s classic “Mean Streets” (and, arguably, since 1968’s “Who’s That Knocking at my Door”). He also shares his love for the genre with lectures, introductions for box sets and in his “Scorsese Screens” column for TCM’s Now Playing. All that and “Boardwalk Empire” too.

For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.bowtiecinemas.com. The Ziegfeld Theater is located at 141 W. 54th St. in Manhattan.

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Bleak but stylish ‘The Grifters’ lets Anjelica Huston sparkle

Grifters posterThe Grifters/1990/Miramax Films/119 min.

“I’m lucky,” actress Anjelica Huston once said. “The people who tell me they like my work tend to be the kind of people I might be friends with anyway. I have a really nice audience.”

She definitely had a really nice audience last month at the book-signing party at Bookmarc in West Hollywood for her new memoir, “A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York.”

The FNB team got off the sofa for this one and we had a lovely time. It made us think of our favorite Anjelica Huston roles and “The Grifters” from 1990 (Yikes! Was it really that long ago?) was at the top of the list. Director Stephen Frears’ bleak but very stylish neo-noir about a family that grifts together and sticks together is a far cry from all that holiday/togetherness stuff, which can sometimes be a tad saccharine for our tastes.

The cold and cut-throat mother here is Lilly Dillon as played by the incomparable Ms. Huston (daughter of John Huston, who directed the classic noirs “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Asphalt Jungle.”) Rail thin, hard as fake nails and damaged as her ash blonde locks, Lilly works for the mob by wedging bad bets at the racetrack.

Her estranged son Roy Dillon (John Cusack) is a small-time con artist who says he can quit the grift any time he wants. Sure, Roy, whatever you say. Feeling a little guilty about never winning Mother of the Year and hoping she might help to set him straight, Lilly starts by paying Roy’s hospital bill after he’s in a dust-up that leaves him with internal hemorrhaging.

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.[/

Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening play the members of a sordid trio.

Roy’s not rushing back into her arms – at least not right away. He’s busy with his girlfriend Myra Langtry (Annette Bening). Myra used to be a “roper” for big-time money-bilking schemes, meaning she’d lure victims into parting with chunks of cash, falsely promising a big payoff down the line. But the roping biz has slow for Myra so she makes a living any way she can.

Meanwhile, while this strange version of a love triangle does its stuff, there’s another fly in the ointment: Lilly’s boss Bobo (Pat Hingle) who doesn’t write his staffers up – he prefers to inflict intense physical pain. When questioning Lilly after she slips up, he asks: “Do you want to stick to that story, or do you want to keep your teeth?” What a charming guy.

But charming is not what you’d associate with the mind behind “The Grifters” novel, on which the film is based. Writer Jim Thompson (1906-1977) was a troubled alcoholic who recorded his desolate vision of life on the pages of his pulpy but powerful novels. Thompson has been described as a dimestore Doestyevsky and as bringing Greek tragedy to the underclass.

“The Grifters” screenwriter Donald E. Westlake initially turned down the offer to write the script because he thought the novel was “too gloomy. … the characters all go to hell.” Director Frears (an English talent who directed Judi Dench in the terrifically funny and moving “Philomena” and directed Helen Mirren to an Oscar for 2006’s “The Queen”) talked Westlake into it, arguing that the crux of the story was not the son’s defeat, but the mother’s survival.

Lilly's long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Lilly’s long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

Westlake accepted the challenge and wrote a sparkling, if sad and twisted, script. (“You really do like B movies,” Westlake told Frears, after hearing which scenes from the book Frears wanted in the movie. Well, the film’s producer Martin Scorsese is certainly a huge fan of B’s.)

Frears, who refers to the film as an “eccentric melodrama” said he was surprised at the film’s popularity, given its grim tone. The popularity surely stems from the fact that Frears still manages to entertain on some level and the leads all deliver searing performances. There are lots of funny one-liners, such as when Lilly addresses Roy’s doctor as they enter the hospital. She matter-of-factly informs him: “My son is going to be all right. If not, I’ll have you killed.”

Huston’s performance will make your skin crawl – Myra has long resigned herself to a lonely life that includes giving and taking violence as an inevitable part of the bargain. She’s tough, sometimes desperate, but also regal with the odd glimpse of warmth.

Bening lets her natural smarts show through, whether she’s coyly conning or clowning around in the nude. Frears says that while making the flick, he turned Bening on to the work of Gloria Grahame, gangster moll extraordinaire, and that Bening “went mad about her.” Bening brings Grahame gals into the ’90s in her own fresh, provocative way. Though Huston and Bening share only two scenes, their rivalry infuses the whole film.

The Grifters got four Oscar nods: Huston for best actress, Bening for best supporting actress, Frears for best director, and Westlake for adapted screenplay. (They lost to: Kathy Bates in “Misery,” Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost,” Kevin Costner for “Dances With Wolves,” and Michael Blake for “Dances With Wolves.”) Huston and Bening did, however, win honors from several critics’ groups.

Cusack, who previously had played mainly all-American types, relished the chance to play a perverse cheater, who’s not above hitting women. Look out for his Chicago chum: actor Jeremy Piven in the scene with the sailors on the train.

Set mostly in sunny Southern California, the film looks glossy and glaring, just like its heroines. The movie is not a period piece, but Frears plays with time elements – we see Art Deco buildings and a ’50s-era motel. The characters drive ’70s cars like big old Caddys. The Elmer Bernstein score also deftly draws from a number of musical styles.

Cusack wears ’80s suits and rips people off at a Bennigans. Myra and Lilly wear a mixture of ’40s eveningwear, shift dresses, skin-tight animal prints and mini-skirts. Lilly’s wardrobe has special significance: the color red tracks her slide into total wretchedness. Frears says her long ride down the elevator, swathed in scarlet, symbolizes her descent into hell.

You know, maybe motherhood just isn’t for every woman.

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Film noir classics now on DVD for the first time from TCM

Film Noir Classics IVFive film noir classics from Columbia Pictures are coming to DVD for the first time ever in the latest home video collection from Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the Film Foundation and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Film Noir Classics IV includes five feature films – “So Dark the Night” (1946), “Johnny O’Clock” (1947), “Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948), “Between Midnight and Dawn” (1950) and “Walk East on Beacon” (1952) – each of which has been fully restored and remastered.

The collection features a video introduction by Academy Award®-winning director and Film Foundation founder Martin Scorsese.

Available only through TCM’s online store, Film Noir Classics IV will be released as part of the TCM Vault Collection on Sept. 16. The films in the collection showcase the work of Joseph H. Lewis, Robert Rossen, Gordon Douglas and Alfred L. Werker, directors who were masters at creating taut and atmospheric visions from morally complex, hard-boiled stories.

The collection also highlights the genre-defining cinematography of Burnett Guffey and George E. Diskant and iconic performances by such film noir mainstays as Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, Lee J. Cobb, Dennis O’Keefe and Edmond O’Brien, who each excelled at revealing the raw heart that beat beneath noir’s tough exteriors.

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Film noir gem ‘Murder by Contract’ highlighted in new book

This summer, my friend Rob Elder released a new book (his sixth): The Best Film You’ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love.

As Roger Ebert put it: “How necessary this book is! And how well judged and written! Some of the best films ever made, as Robert K. Elder proves, are lamentably all but unknown.”

It’s a great read and an invaluable reference tome for any serious film lover. To give you an idea of the treasures you will discover, Rob has kindly agreed to let me run an excerpt of the chapter in which he discusses “Murder by Contract” (a taut and chilling film noir) with director Antonio Campos.

Murder by Contract
1958, Directed by Irving Lerner. Starring Vince Edwards, Phillip Pine and Herschel Bernardi.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is an unusual hit man. He wasn’t born to the life, but instead he made himself a resourceful, calculating contract killer with an existentialist worldview. “He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that,” says Antonio Campos, who champions Murder by Contract. Campos praises the stylized off-camera hits, the economy of shots, and Edwards’s lead performance in this B-level noir film, shot in eight days.

That’s not to say he thinks it’s a perfect film. “What’s also charming about the film is that it is kind of a diamond in the rough,” Campos says. “Whatever rough edges Murder by Contract has are ultimately completely overshadowed by the brilliant dialogue and the commitment to a tone that was so ballsy.”

Antonio Campos, selected filmography:
Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012)

Robert K. Elder: How would you describe Murder by Contract to someone who’s never seen it?
Antonio Campos: It’s a faithful noir film about a contract killer, from a time when not many films were made like that.

What made it special?
Campos: I remember vividly, I’d seen it at the Film Forum, and I remember feeling like I hadn’t seen anything like that in the program, and also I’d never seen anything like that outside of even contemporary film. Obviously there are contract-killer films now, but there was something about it, and the lightness, the light touch that it had, that really struck me as something very unique.

Let’s talk about the star, Vince Edwards, who was best known as the lead in TV’s hospital drama Ben Casey. Can you talk about him as a leading man?
Campos: The first time I ever saw Vince Edwards was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). And I think he’s one of these B actors from that period. I was thinking about Vince Edwards and I was thinking about Timothy Carey in The Killing—they’re very specific kind of actors but could never be the classic leading man. Vince Edwards could be the leading man in that film, but he couldn’t be—he would never be—the movie star that he probably wanted to be. And I find those kinds of actors fascinating.

What does Edwards do in this role that makes him so magnetic, that pulls us through the film?
Campos: It’s his charisma as an actor. As a character, it’s the fact that he believes in something. As fickle as it may be, he has this amazing control. He is so committed to his point of view and his philosophy that he’s developed—you respect that.

If the film was made today, you’d have a little bit more violence to make the character a little more complex. You’re kind of rooting for him from the beginning.

Claude (Vince Edwards) is misanthropic but he has a heart and certain principles.

This is Edwards’s first film with Irving Lerner, a former documentarian, and shot in eight days.
Campos: What I find really interesting is that it isn’t a perfect film. It’s not a film that you watch and you think, “This guy is some brilliant unknown director!” What’s interesting is, for example, the first scene where Claude meets the character of Mr. Moon, that long shot that plays out. That felt like a very strong choice. It felt like Irving Lerner was in complete control of the way this film was made.

In Afterschool, many of your characters are also kept out of frame, especially in that first twenty minutes. Am I right to draw that parallel to Murder by Contract?
Campos: It wasn’t necessarily a direct influence. There was a certain kinship, I felt, with the way that he was approaching his composition.

My feeling about offscreen action and that fragmentation of characters is that you heighten the mystery and the tension because you’re holding back someone who feels very important to the story. Those moments in which the characters are offscreen or, for lack of a better word, decapitated by the frame, you almost make the universe of the film larger. In terms of Afterschool, you always felt like there was a bigger world outside of the frame that you wanted to see and also a bigger world outside of the frame that you couldn’t see. That, to me, is one of the things that can make a smaller film or a lower-budget film feel bigger.

Claude’s solitary nature is similar to Travis Bickle’s loner life in “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese.

And one of the other parallels is the solitary nature of Vince’s character, especially inside his room—something it shares with the protagonist in Afterschool. Was that sequence influential?
Campos: Murder by Contract definitely could’ve played a sort of subconscious influence on me. I find that there are the filmmakers whose body of work I’ve become very familiar with, but then I’m aware of them influencing me. And then there are those one-off films that I see that subconsciously have made a greater effect on me that I don’t realize.

That particular sequence also influenced Martin Scorsese. Lerner’s austere training montage is reflected in Taxi Driver.
Campos: For Claude, it’s a job, and he’s had to train himself. He says many times that this is not the way he was born. He’s developed a certain coldness intentionally so that he can be a contract killer. Obviously, film noir was so much about antiheroes, and this is about someone who is a very cold-blooded killer and so calculated. The other thing that struck me is his point of view of the world that was quite misanthropic and quite cynical, but at the same time, he had a heart and he had certain principles that he was struggling with.

Why do you think we, as viewers, are drawn to the charismatic psychopath or sociopath?
Campos: We’re drawn to them when they’re done a certain way. Taxi Driver, for example, has Travis Bickle, and Bickle is the charismatic sociopath. At first, you sympathize with the fact that he is so disconnected and confused.

I don’t feel like they’re completely sociopaths. They have sociopathic tendencies or something, but deep down inside, there is a heart and humanity. [Read more...]

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Pitch-black ‘Seven Psychopaths’ charms, then disappoints

About halfway through “Seven Psychopaths,” I remembered this old joke: What’s an Irish seven-course dinner? A six pack and a potato. It’s an apt comparison for this a pitch-black, neo-noir comedy written, co-produced and directed by Martin McDonagh (acclaimed playwright and writer/director of 2008’s “In Bruges”). Watching “Seven Psychopaths” lures you with some great lines and foamy laughs. Great!

And we get to see a terrific cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Linda Bright Clay, Abbie Cornish, Gabourey Sidibe and Olga Kurylenko. Even better!

When we want to sink our teeth into something really satisfying, though, McDonagh disappoints with this fare. Clearly, in his movie-within-a-movie, he wants to riff on crime movie clichés, point out that Hollywood is a fatuous land and pay tribute to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, the story becomes skimpy and yet annoyingly tangled. As for McDonagh’s direction, he’s either trying too hard or not trying hard enough, I’m not sure which. But, if it’s a banquet you’re after, beware: this plate is both messy and meager.

For a more extensive review, read Stephanie Zacharek’s take here.

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‘Murder by Contract,’ ‘Nightfall’ and ‘The Prowler’ close LACMA Mid-century California Noir series

Van Heflin

Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” – Van Heflin

I’m glad he did. Heflin, one of my favorite ’40s/’50s actors, had charisma and presence to spare, even if he wasn’t classically handsome. A case in point is 1951’s “The Prowler” by Joseph Losey, which played Saturday night at LACMA, after “Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall,” the last in the Mid-century California Noir series.

My favorite was “The Prowler,” recently restored by UCLA and the Film Noir Foundation. Here, Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a sleazy cop who’s called to a posh, Spanish-style Los Angeles home by lovely and lonely Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) after she has a vague suspicion that an intruder is lurking in the garden. Turns out, there’s no one there, but Webb and Susan hit it off and soon begin an affair. Susan’s nights are often free because her DJ husband, John, is at the radio station broadcasting his show.

Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell and Van Heflin in "The Prowler."

It’s a love triangle in the vein of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” though here it’s Webb, not the femme fatale, who seizes the opportunity to do away with the wealthy husband and snag some money. Webb shoots John, apparently in the line of duty, leaving him free to marry Susan, ditch police work and move to Vegas.

When Susan announces she’s preggers, it crimps the plan rather a lot because the birth will reveal the true timing of their relationship. (This is actually a shocking plot turn because it reveals beyond a doubt that their relationship was sexual – other noirs hint at this, of course, but I can’t think of another example where it is so explicitly established. Not sure how they got that past the censors.) The two take off for a remote mountain town so she can secretly bear the child with no witnesses around. Once there, however, Webb reveals his knavish, venal nature and Susan takes action of her own.

Heflin perfectly inhabits this deeply flawed character, lending him charm and complexity, even making you sort of like him at times. He could play a snake so memorably – he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a gangster’s pal in “Johnny Eager” and he was excellent in both “Possessed” with Joan Crawford and “Act of Violence,” where he played an Army traitor. Another noir highlight was playing Philip Marlowe on NBC radio in the late 1940s.

Heflin was just as adept at playing average Joes and good guys, most notably in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (a film noir with Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas), “Shane” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

Keyes’ Susan is no vampy seductress. Instead, she plays the character as written – bland, bored and slightly feckless. Perhaps a fish out of water in the big city; she and Webb bond because they both hail from Terra Haute, Ind., albeit from different sides of the tracks. Keyes conveys that Susan is more than just bored – she yearns for children and perhaps something more than she finds in her cushy but unhappy marriage. And to her credit Keyes completely abandons her glamorous exterior when she’s sweating it out in the mountains.

Dalton Trumbo relaxes in Cannes, 1971.

Blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler produced the script based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm. Trumbo provided the voice for Susan’s DJ husband; he is completely uncredited on the film.

It’s a movie that grabs you quickly and doesn’t let go – a testament to Losey’s marvelous direction. Cahiers du cinema pointed to “The Prowler” as the moment Losey became a true auteur. And Losey, who suffered professionally because of his supposed ties to the Communist Party, put it this way: “‘The Prowler’ to me is, and always has been, a film about false values. About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. $100,000 bucks, a Cadillac and a blonde were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn’t matter how you got them.”

For me, “The Prowler” was the hit of the LACMA triple-bill, though “Murder by Contract” (1958, Irving Lerner) and “Nightfall” (1957, Jacques Tourneur) also made compelling viewing. In “Murder,” written by Ben Maddow and Ben Simcoe, luscious Vince Edwards gives a thoroughly haunting performance as a smart, precise, driven hitman; slick cinematography by the brilliant Lucien Ballard and original guitar music by Perry Botkin add to the mood of tension and doom. The film was a key influence on Martin Scorsese and “Taxi Driver.”

Evocative visuals and location shooting in LA and Wyoming, courtesy of Tourneur and first-rate cinematographer Burnett Guffey, make “Nightfall” easy on the eyes. Given that the movie is based on a David Goodis novel (Stirling Siliphant wrote the script), I was disappointed that I found myself drifting in and out of the slightly thin story. Perhaps a dynamic lead actor, like Van Heflin, could have injected more drama, but Aldo Ray as an innocent man on the run just didn’t do it for me. His one-note realization lacked depth and nuance.

That said, I liked Brian Keith as his bad-guy nemesis (Keith probably could have played Ray’s part quite well) and Anne Bancroft as Ray’s romantic interest, a model and sometime bar-fly. Chris Fujiwara, author of “The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur,” calls her “one of Tourneur’s most distinctive heroines.”

And any film noir that features a sumptuous fashion show at the Beverly Hills Hilton is more than all right by me.

“Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall” are available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in the Film Noir Classics series; “The Prowler” from VCI Entertainment.

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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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Holiday movie magic: A brand-new black and white, the blonde bombshell, a bad cop, Cronenberg and Scorsese

It’s that time again … Oscar season is here. Starting Wednesday, Nov. 23., there is much to see at the movies; these films surely will appeal to noir fans. (Check your local listings for details.) Enjoy!

‘The Artist’

Bérénice Bejo

“The Artist,” set in 1927 Hollywood, is writer/director Michel Hazanavicius’ visually resplendent ode to the vivacious beauty of silent cinema. Debonair heartthrob and household name George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) coasts from movie to movie and lives in high style – posh home, trophy wife (Penelope Ann Miller), loyal valet (James Cromwell) and faithful companion, a Jack Russell terrier.

Ambitious actress and dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) has talent, looks and perfect timing – the introduction of sound is reshaping the way films are made. She’s drawn to George but, at first, he doesn’t pay her much attention beyond an admiring glance. George’s idyllic world starts to collapse when he sees that his style does not work with the latest and greatest technical advance, talkies. Can he find a way to keep up with the times and salvage his career?

The story, though a bit of a stretch, is delightful. The era is fastidiously recreated and Hazanavicius draws fine work from his cast. Dujardin neatly balances pomposity with humility and Bejo dazzles as Peppy. Her high energy nearly sparks off the screen and it’s a joy to watch her marvelously expressive face. And John Goodman is spot on as blustery producer Al Zimmer. The film has won several awards from festivals, including best actor for Dujardin at Cannes.

“The Artist” is a tender-hearted, near-perfect pastiche of a classic art form.

‘My Week with Marilyn’

Kenneth Branagh

Manipulative, desperate, vulnerable. Funny, gifted, magical. Never dumb. In “My Week with Marilyn,” Simon Curtis’ portrait of ’50s screen icon Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), we see her multiple sides and many problems through the prism of chaste voyeurism and our jaded, tell-all modernity.

“They like to keep her doped up, she’s easier to control. They’re terrified their cash cow will slip away,” says one observer, during the shoot, in England, of 1957’s “The Prince and the Show Girl.” Her co-star and director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) takes issue with her erratic behavior, but he also envies her raw, intuitive talent.

Adrian Hodges wrote the screenplay, based on “The Prince, the Showgirl and Me,” a memoir by Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Clark was an assistant director on the film and the son of art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (of “Civilisation” fame). Dame Judi Dench plays actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Dougray Scott plays Arthur Miller.

Curtis creates a beguiling visual confection with tour-de-force Oscar-caliber performances.

‘Rampart’
In “Rampart,” directed by Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson plays a corrupt cop in early 1990s Los Angeles. Moverman wrote the screenplay with James Ellroy. Also stars Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Brie Larson, Anne Heche and Ice Cube.
Note: “Rampart” is out for one week only in Los Angeles and New York; wider release hits in January 2012. We at FNB are looking forward to seeing it!

‘A Dangerous Method’

David Cronenberg speaks at a press conference last week.

David Cronenberg brings his consummate eye to a remarkable historical drama in “A Dangerous Method.” Flawlessly photographed, the story is rendered with intelligence, austerity and precision. Though the chilly, almost clinical, tone undermines the film’s emotional buildup, it’s nevertheless a gripping saga.

Under Cronenberg’s lens is the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) in the pioneering days of psychoanalysis when ethical boundaries had yet to be drawn. Jung’s intent on helping a young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), who enters his clinic flailing, wild and barely able to speak.

Beaten by her father as a child, Sabina is emotionally shattered as an adult. She makes rapid progress with Jung and the two begin an illicit, intimate relationship. Eventually Sabine decides to become an analyst and in the course of her study challenges some of Freud’s work.

Vincent Cassel plays psychiatrist Otto Gross; Canadian newcomer Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s wife. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay from his play “The Talking Cure,” which was based on the book “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr.

“We’ve all been influenced by Freud whether we know it or not,” said Cronenberg at a press conference last week in Beverly Hills. Cronenberg added that though Freud fell out of favor, his professional stature has recovered lost ground in the last 15 years. “Some of his theories have been absolutely confirmed.”

He pointed out that despite his stern and uptight reputation, Freud was in fact “handsome, charming, witty and funny.” That called for “slightly oblique, non-traditional casting” so Cronenberg said he talked Mortensen into the part. This is their third collaboration, following “History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”

Of Knightley’s portrayal of Sabine, Cronenberg said, “I’ve always thought she was an underrated actress. … It’s a really beautiful performance.”

‘Hugo’

From a champion of film noir and master neo-noir director Martin Scorsese comes “Hugo,” an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” It is one of Scorsese’s most accomplished productions ever (stunning 3D color cinematography; gorgeous production design by Dante Ferretti) and one of the year’s very best films.

Georges Méliès

In 1930s Paris, a boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a railway station and keeps all the clocks running. He clashes with an over-zealous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), flirts with a pretty young girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and meets her family, including the great but forgotten filmmaker, Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).

The movie is Scorsese’s Valentine to the cinema, and few more sumptuous love-notes have been made. Filled with clips from silent classics, including Méliès’ 1902 masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon,” this is a jewel no genuine movie lover should pass by.

“Hugo” review by Michael Wilmington

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A deadly duo and classic of ’70s noir: ‘Honeymoon Killers’

The Honeymoon Killers/1970/107 min.

Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco star in "The Honeymoon Killers."

Based on a notorious real-life murder case, shot in striking black-and-white, and scored to the ominous strains of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”), this is one of the true classics of ’70s neo noir: a low-budget masterpiece about a couple of ruthless killers who make the murderous lovers of “Double Indemnity” look almost normal.

Hefty Shirley Stoler unforgettably plays Martha Beck, a deadly nurse who joins with sleazy Lothario Ray Fernandez (the equally unforgettable Tony Lo Bianco) to seduce, kill and rob her wealthy women patients. Crime doesn’t play, but not before your blood is thoroughly chilled.

The movie was both written and directed by Leonard D. Kastle, and despite consistent rave reviews for “The Honeymoon Killers“ from François Truffaut and many others, Kastle never made another movie. A young director who was fired from the project earlier on did slightly better. His name was Martin Scorsese.

– Michael Wilmington

“The Honeymoon Killers” plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

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‘Cape Fear’ shows Mitchum at his most menacing, most noir

Cape Fear/1962/Universal Pictures/105 min.

From the moment Robert Mitchum appears in “Cape Fear” with his slow swagger, Southern drawl and serious mean spirit, there’s no doubt he’s a tour-de-force bad guy. In fact, he is one of cinema’s greatest psychos. His character Max Cady ranks No. 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 villains of all time.

Gregory Peck

The plot is straightforward but it’s a story that simmers with tension. Ex-con Max Cady puts the blame for his recent stint in jail squarely on the man who testified against him: Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, who also helped produce), a prominent lawyer in a small Southern town. Seeking revenge for the eight years he spent behind bars, Cady launches a campaign of terror against Bowden and his family that culminates in a life-and-death struggle in a moonlit swamp.

The 1962 film, still chilling today, had all the ingredients for success: accomplished director J. Lee Thompson (who also made Peck’s 1962 adventure classic, “The Guns of Navarone”), a near-perfect cast, top-notch material (James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on John D. MacDonald’s novel “The Executioners”), a Bernard Herrmann score, cinematography by Sam Leavitt, art direction by Robert Boyle and editing by George Tomasini.

Herrmann, Boyle and Tomasini were frequent collaborators with Alfred Hitchcock. Of shooting in black and white, director Thompson said, “I thought the black and the shadows would enhance the story and color might spoil it.”

The cast includes TV comedienne Polly Bergen as Sam’s wife Peggy, Lori Martin as their daughter, Martin Balsam (“Psycho’s” ill-fated detective) as police chief Mark Dutton, Telly Savalas as gumshoe Charlie Sievers and Barrie Chase as Diane, a goodtime girl victimized by Cady.

To Peck’s credit, he understood that Mitchum’s character was more dynamic than steadfast and respectable Sam Bowden. Mitchum makes even a quick line, such as, “You sweatin’ a little, huh counselor?” glow with burning malice.

Thompson says in the making-of feature in the DVD, “Greg was conscious the whole time that the villain was the colorful part and that Mitchum was playing it beautifully. And he let him run with it. … The way [Peck] played the part and the strength he showed, it became a very good battle between the two men. It was wonderful teamwork between the two.”

Thompson also recalls the way Mitchum embraced the role. “This part is a drunk, a rapist and a violent man, and I live my parts,” Mitchum told him. “It was sort of a warning that we might have some stormy passages during the making of the film … and we did have some stormy passages,” laughs Thompson. [Read more...]

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