Film Noir File: Welles’ magnum opus, Halloween nightmares

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

Touch of Evil” (1958, Orson Welles). Wednesday, Oct. 29. 10 p.m. (7 p.m.).

“A little old lady walked down Main Street last night and picked up a shoe. That shoe had a foot in it. I’m going to make you pay for that, boy.”
Detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

In two Hellish border towns, one in California, the other in Mexico, a grotesque and loony gallery of rogues, cops, narcs, city bosses, gangsters, juvenile delinquents, psycho motel clerks and ladies of the evening are thrown together, when a wealthy banker, Rudy Linnekar, is blown to smithereens at the border. We watch a bomb being planted in his car (from above, in one of cinema’s greatest long-take, moving-camera shots) by a shadowy, not-quite-seen killer.

On the killer’s trail, in what seems only minutes after that explosive opening, is the local star police detective, Hank Quinlan (writer-director-star Orson Welles), a mountainously fat, savagely cynical but brilliant cop, who specializes in cracking the most mysterious crimes and nailing the wiliest killers. In this case, Quinlan fingers a good-looking Mexican shoe clerk (Victor Millan) who was sleeping with Linnekar’s daughter (Joanna Moore) and who has a shoebox full of dynamite in their motel room.

Only one problem: An upright, unshakably honest narcotics-cop named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, at his most righteous) – who’s visiting the town with his gorgeous blonde wife Susie (Janet Leigh, at her liveliest) – knows that the dynamite was planted. And if Quinlan planted the evidence on this murder, maybe he, and his hero-worshipping partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) have been faking things for years.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

What follows is a war of nerves (and of guts and morality) between two great cops, one of whom may be a murderer.

Around them is the rest of one of film noir’s greatest casts: Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi, the local sawed-off Little Caesar, Valentin de Vargas as Uncle Joe’s lady-killing leather-jacketed nephew, Dennis Weaver as the nervous “night man” at the local motel, Mercedes McCambridge as the most blood-freezing lesbian biker ever, and a couple of salty old pros from “Citizen Kane” (Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins). And, in one of her (and our) favorite performances, Marlene Dietrich as Tana, the sultry, sardonic madame who plays the pianola at her high-style whorehouse and makes great chili. She tells her old flame Quinlan, “You’re a mess, honey.”

The Universal studio execs of 1958 made a mess of “Touch of Evil,” in its original release, ordering reshooting and recuts. But it’s long since assumed classic status and been put back in the shape it’s believed writer-director-star Welles wanted.

We actually owe the existence of “Touch of Evil” to Charlton Heston. He was hired to play the hero, Vargas, in an initially unpromising adaptation of Whit Masterson’s paperback thriller “Badge of Evil,” after Welles was already cast as Quinlan. Heston then insisted that Welles direct it as well.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Welles was still in his prime when he made “Touch of Evil” and he did it with a flair, panache and unflagging invention. He displays a mastery of  staging, of camera placement and of bravura acting from the incredible cast that has seldom been matched in the canon of noir. (Russell Metty photographed it and Henry Mancini wrote the score.)

The movie is a masterpiece of pulp and expressionism. Just as with “Citizen Kane,” you can watch it over and over again, and still find surprises. The ending is both melancholy and exhilarating.

It’s wonderful that Welles got this last big studio chance. But it’s sad too, because we know that he was never able to make a go-for-broke super-Hollywood studio film like this again. No one was better at it.

Some aficionados think “Touch of Evil” is the very pinnacle of film noir. Even if it isn’t, it’s a movie that takes the whole notion of noir (the melding of hard-boiled crime stories and expressionist high style technique) to one of its craziest, wildest, most brilliant extremes.

“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Tana (Marlene Dietrich)

Act of Violence posterWednesday, Oct. 29

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Psycho” (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). With Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam. Reviewed in FNB, on July 7, 2011.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Act of Violence” (1948, Fred Zinnemann). With Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh. Reviewed in FNB, on Aug. 4, 2012.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). With Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall and Julie Harris. Reviewed in FNB, on Dec. 4, 2012.

Friday, Oct. 31

Horror Halloween Marathon

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

11 a.m. (8 a.m.): “Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur). With Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway. Reviewed in FNB, on July 20, 2014.

3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m.): “Dementia 13” (1963, Francis Ford Coppola). With William Campbell, Luana Anders and Patrick Magee. Reviewed in FNB, on June 12, 2014.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Carnival of Souls” (1962, Herk Harvey). An anguished young woman (Candace Hilligoss) nearly drowns and then makes her way to a small city. It’s mysteriously inhabited by ordinary-looking but strange people who seem to be the citizens of some other, more dangerous place. (The eerie, smiling little man who follows her all around is played by the writer-director, Herk Harvey.) This is a legendary low-budget horror classic, and few films of its type are scarier.

Repulsion Criterion poster6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski). With Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux and Ian Hendry. Reviewed in FNB, on Oct. 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Night of the Living Dead” (1968, George Romero). With Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea. Reviewed in FNB, on March 27, 2012.

5:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m.): “Eyes Without a Face” (1959, Georges Franju). With Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli and Edith Scob. Reviewed in FNB, on Nov. 4, 2011.

Saturday, Nov. 1

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Point Blank” (1967, John Boorman). With Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. Reviewed in FNB, on Jan. 28, 2013.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969, Leonard Kastle). With Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco. Reviewed in FNB, on July 21, 2011.

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The Film Noir File: Orson Welles taps Kafka in ‘The Trial’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Film Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). All movies below are from the schedule of TCM, which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

The Trial posterThe Trial” (1962, Orson Welles). 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Friday, Aug. 8.

Director-writer-actor Orson Welles presents an extremely faithful film adaptation of novelist Franz Kafka’s darkly comic and ultimately terrifying tale set in the Byzantine legal system of a nameless European country. A jittery, bumptious, unlikable guy (Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, who may be Kafka’s surrogate and dream self) wakes up one morning to find that he has been plunged into a bad dream: two tough cops invading his bedroom and accusing him of crimes they refuse to detail or explain.

He is persecuted by poker-faced nameless agents and subject to totalitarian police tactics as well as the brutal whims of an utterly arbitrary court. Defended by a sybarite lawyer (played by Welles), who rarely gets out of bed, K seems caught in an inescapable trap, facing inevitable punishment. But K keeps arguing with his accusers, protesting his innocence (which is clearly irrelevant) and trying to make sense out of a situation that is defiantly senseless from first moment to last.

“The Trial” translates Kafka’s masterpiece into eloquent words and icy, shadowy images of dread, underscored by a melancholy Baroque dirge, the Adagio in G by Albinoni. The movie is hampered by its low budget, much of which evaporated during shooting, and by its lack of Welles’ usual brilliant sound. But it has great visuals – shot by cinematographer Edmond Richard (“The Red Balloon”) in wide-screen black and white on mostly real Parisian locations.

And the film boasts a great cast: Perkins, Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Akim Tamiroff, Elsa Martinelli, Madeleine Robinson, Katina Paxinou, Gert Frobe and Michael Lonsdale.

“The Trial” is sometimes dismissed as a Welles failure. But it’s actually one of his most underrated movies, one of the most faithful of all adaptations of great 20th century literature, and a classic tale that, as Welles says in the prologue, has “the logic of a nightmare.”

Friday, Aug. 8: Jeanne Moreau Day

Jeanne Moreau

Jeanne Moreau

10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “Elevator to the Gallows” (“Frantic!”) (1958, Louis Malle). Louis Malle’s mesmerizing thriller about a desperate couple (Moreau, Maurice Ronet), trying to murder her husband and cover their tracks in a nearly empty office building at night. It’s no “Double Indemnity,” but it’s close. With a score by jazz master Miles Davis. (In French, with subtitles.)

Saturday, Aug. 9: William Powell Day

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Thin Man” (1934, W. S. Van Dyke). With William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Cesar Romero. Reviewed in FNB on July 28, 2012.

9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.): “After the Thin Man” (1936, W. S. Van Dyke). With William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart and Joseph Calleia. Reviewed in FNB on June 6, 2013.

Monday, Aug. 11: Marlon Brando Day

Marlon Brando redefined the art of acting.

Marlon Brando redefined the art of acting.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951, Elia Kazan). Kazan’s peerless staging of Tennessee Williams’ play showcases Marlon Brando’s brilliant, massively influential lead performance as the brutal but charming Stanley Kowalski. Set in steamy New Orleans where Eros and death (“Flores para las muertos!”) dance their tango, this movie has one of the all-time great casts (three of whom, though not Brando, won Oscars).

Vivien Leigh plays Blanche DuBois, Stanley’s fragile, sensual, haunted prey. Kim Hunter is Stanley’s wife and Blanche’s sister, the screamed-over Stella. Karl Malden is Blanche’s kind and respectful suitor, mom-dominated Mitch. This is Kazan’s preferred cut, with the more downbeat ending, which gives full power to Blanche’s wrenchingly poignant last line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” A masterpiece.

The Wild One poster10:15 p.m. (7:15 p.m.): “The Wild One” (1953, Laslo Benedek). With Brando, Lee Marvin and Mary Murphy. Reviewed in FNB on May 1, 2013.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.). “On the Waterfront” (1954, Elia Kazan). With Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger. Reviewed in FNB on June 5, 2014.

Tuesday, Aug. 12: Alexis Smith Day

10:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m.): “Split Second” (1953, Dick Powell). With Stephen McNally, Alexis Smith and Jan Sterling. Reviewed in FNB on March 5, 2013.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Conflict” (1945, Curtis Bernhardt). Marriage and murder, with Humphrey Bogart in one of his villain roles. Lesser Bogey; but still worth a look. With Sydney Greenstreet.

Wednesday, August 13: Cary Grant Day

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “His Girl Friday” (1940, Howard Hawks). With Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy and Gene Lockhart. Reviewed in FNB on Jan. 22, 2013.

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Shady lady delight: ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ at Lacma

As part of the Essential Orson Welles series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “The Lady from Shanghai” and “Mr. Arkadin” will play Saturday, May 24, starting at 7:30 p.m.

The Lady from Shanghai/1948/Columbia Pictures/87 min.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

The Lady from Shanghai poster“Citizen Kane” is hallowed cinematic ground, I know, but my favorite Orson Welles film is “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, playing opposite his real-life wife Rita Hayworth, one of the most popular entertainers of the 1940s.

In “The Lady from Shanghai” Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish merchant seaman, in between ships in New York. By chance, or so he thinks, he meets the wily blonde operator Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and saves her from being mugged in the park. Elsa invites Michael to join her as she sets sail for Acapulco.

The boat belongs to her husband, a wizened, creepy criminal lawyer named Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and he’ll be on the trip too. So will his partner, the moon-faced and sinister George Grisby (Glenn Anders).

O’Hara agrees regardless. “Once I’d seen her,” he says, “I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.” On their voyage (the yacht belonged to Errol Flynn), Elsa and Michael flirt every chance they get; Arthur gets touchy and calls her “Lovah,” in a most unloving way; Grisby is generally unpleasant.

The tension builds, then breaks when they reach San Francisco. But not for long. Grisby has a plan to cash in on an insurance policy by faking his own murder and bribes Michael to help him. Need I say the plan doesn’t quite work out as they’d hoped? This is film noir, you know. “The Lady from Shanghai” is richly surreal and haunting in its intensity.

Welles and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. use staggering angles and startling black shadow almost to the point of abstraction. Two of the most famous sequences are the aquarium and the funhouse hall of mirrors at the end. Of the latter, Time Out notes that “it stands as a brilliant expressionist metaphor for sexual unease and its accompanying loss of identity.”

The script, based on the Sherwood King novel “If I Die Before I Wake,” crackles with noir attitude (“Everybody’s somebody’s fool,” says O’Hara). Hayworth, the perfect femme fatale, looks contemporary and sexy whether in her chic nautical garb or the filigree hat she wears in the courtroom.

Welles had to endure tremendous interference from Columbia Pictures execs, particularly studio chief Harry Cohn. Though the film was shot in 1947, Cohn delayed the release until 1948 in order to “fix” it. Welles’ original 155-minute cut was chopped to 87. Cohn also insisted that the movie have more closeups of Hayworth and that Welles film a scene of her singing. Welles was displeased with the score by the studio-appointed composer who disregarded Welles’ guidelines for the music; the mirror scene, for example, was to be unscored to heighten the sense of terror.

“The Lady from Shanghai” did not do well in the U.S. upon its release, though it was admired in France. Welles’ decision to have Hayworth cut her long red hair and bleach it blonde caused a controversy, and many in Hollywood believed it contributed to the film’s poor box-office returns. Watch this film for its serpentine plot twists, stunning images and as a testament to the fact that you should never underestimate the power of a good-hair day.

“The Lady from Shanghai” plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

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Film Noir fills screens in Palm Springs, at Lacma and on TCM

Noiristas are spoiled for choices yet again! The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival starts Thursday night, May 8, in Palm Springs and runs through Sunday, May 11.

Deadline USA posterThe lineup includes: “The Window” (1949, Ted Tetzlaff), “Roadblock” (1951, Harold Daniels), “Too Late for Tears (1949, Byron Haskin), “Sunset Blvd.” (1950, Billy Wilder), “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948, Anatole Litvak), “Southside 1-1000” (1950, Boris Ingster), “Storm Warning,” (1951, Stuart Heisler), “The Killers” (1946, Robert Siodmak), “Shack Out on 101” (1955, Edward Dein), “Deadline U.S.A.(1952, Richard Brooks), “Laura” (1944, Otto Preminger) and “Out of the Past” (1947, Jacques Tourneur).

Special guests are: Barbara Hale, Nancy Olson, author Victoria Wilson, Susie Lancaster, author Kate Buford, Terry Moore and Susan Andrews.

Orson Welles and his oeuvre are honored at Lacma.

Orson Welles and his oeuvre are honored at Lacma.

Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the stellar “Essential Orson Wellesseries continues until June 7.

Says the museum: “Screen legend Orson Welles was a pioneering filmmaker and raffish public personality best known for the remarkable achievement of ‘Citizen Kane.’  Focusing on Welles as a trailblazing director, this series, presented by the Academy, showcases nine of the 12 films completed in his lifetime (several of them screening in brand-new restorations).

And, as always, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) offers plenty of retro darkness and debauchery. TCM times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Murder, My Sweet
(1944, Edward Dmytryk). Saturday, May 10, 11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.), With Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Mike Mazurki and Anne Shirley.

Sunday, May 11

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Eve Arden.

Tuesday, May 13

11:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m.): “Pitfall” (1948, Andre De Toth). With Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr and Jane Wyatt.

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The Noir File: Superb sizzle in ‘The Lady from Shanghai’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and  pre-noir 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

Stars Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles were married from 1943 to 1948.

Stars Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles were married from 1943 to 1948.

The Lady from Shanghai  (1948, Orson Welles). Sunday, Dec. 29. 12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.). With Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles and Everett Sloane.

“Citizen Kane” is hallowed cinematic ground, I know, but my favorite Orson Welles film is “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, playing opposite his real-life wife Rita Hayworth, one of the most popular entertainers of the 1940s.

In “The Lady from Shanghai” Welles plays Michael O’Hara, an Irish merchant seaman, in between ships in New York. By chance, or so he thinks, he meets the wily blonde operator Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) and saves her from being mugged in the park.

Elsa invites Michael to join her as she sets sail for Acapulco. The boat belongs to her husband, a wizened, creepy criminal lawyer named Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), and he’ll be on the trip too. So will his partner, the moon-faced and sinister George Grisby (Glenn Anders). O’Hara agrees regardless. “Once I’d seen her,” he says, “I wasn’t in the right frame of mind.”

Read the full FNB review here.

Friday, Dec. 27

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Across the Pacific” (1942, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet. Reviewed in FNB on June 6, 2012.

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “We Were Strangers” (1949, John Huston). Intrigue and rebellion, long before Castro, in ’40s Cuba. With John Garfield, Jennifer Jones, Gilbert Roland and Pedro Armendariz. Co-scripted by Huston and  Peter Viertel (who later dissed his boss in the tell-all novel (about the shooting of “The African Queeen,”  “White Hunter, Black Heart”).

9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.): “Out of the Past” (1947, Jacques Tourneur). With Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Klute” (1971, Alan Pakula). Jane Fonda as a brainy hooker (her first Oscar-winning performance) being pursued by a psycho killer. Donald Sutherland plays Klute, the cop who tries to help and save her. A classy, first-class neo-noir.

Saturday, Dec. 28

Boyer drives Bergman nuts in "Gaslight."

Boyer drives Bergman nuts in “Gaslight.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Gaslight” (1944, George Cukor). With Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton and Angela Lansbury. Reviewed in FNB on Aug. 25, 2012.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Suspicion” (1941, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Nigel Bruce. Reviewed in FNB on Sept. 21, 2012.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945, John M. Stahl). With Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain and Vincent Price. Reviewed in FNB on Aug. 8, 2013.

Sunday, Dec. 29

12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.): “The Lady from Shanghai.“  See Pick of the Week.

Monday, Dec. 30

1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.): “The Loved One” (1965, Tony Richardson). Novelist Evelyn Waugh’s (“Brideshead Revisited”) delicious dark comedy about a posh Los Angeles pet cemetery (modeled on Forest Lawn) and the vagaries and deadly eccentricities of the British community in Hollywood, — turned into a Strangelovian satire/farce by director Tony Richardson and screenwriter Terry Southern. One of the campiest casts imaginable is headed by Robert Morse as the Candidesque protagonist, and includes Rod Steiger, Jonathan Winters, Tab Hunter, Robert Morley and Liberace.

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The Noir File:‘The Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 memorably captures the contradictions of the Kennedy era

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir 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 Manchurian Candidate” (1962, John Frankenheimer). Thursday, July 18: 9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.)

In John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 movie thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” we will be plunged into one of the greatest nightmare sequences in American cinema.

After the “Korea, 1952” opening title, we see a squad of U. S. Army soldiers, led by their good-guy Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and brusque Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). They go out on a mission but are betrayed by turncoat guide Chunjin (Henry Silva), then handed over to Russian officers and helicoptered off. It’s a bit like a Sam Fuller scene.

Playing “war hero” Raymond was one of Laurence Harvey’s career highlights.

Next, we see a U. S. Air Force plane landing at a Washington airport, and a bustle of reporters and photographers swarming over it. A portentous narrator informs us that Sgt. Shaw has won the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Korea.

We also see that Raymond has an imperious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury), and a knuckleheaded sap of a stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), who also happens to be a U.S. senator and a well-financed presidential candidate – and that Raymond hates them both.

Now comes the nightmare. We are in Major Marco’s hotel room, and we see him tossing and sweating. Why the cold sweat? He’s remembering/dreaming, noir-style, both the days of the Korean War and one of the strangest club meetings ever seen. It’s a scene that probably only John Frankenheimer could have executed and shot.

Angela Lansbury as Raymond’s malevolent mother is one of many superb performances in this classic film.

The soldiers we met – some now shaggy and unshaven – are sitting on stage at a gathering of a New Jersey women’s horticultural society in a hotel lobby full of plants and flowers. The chairlady and speaker, a know-it-all named Mrs. Henry Whittaker (Helen Kleeb), is delivering a stupefyingly boring lecture on hydrangeas.

Suddenly the setting changes to an ominous bare stage in a medical theater; the walls are decorated with posters of Stalin and Mao. The speaker is a smiling Chinese doctor named Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who is delivering a lecture on brainwashing the enemy to an audience of Chinese, Russian and probably Korean military and political people. We are in Manchuria.

The scene shifts from the New Jersey hotel lobby to the Manchurian theater and back again. That revolving camera track before the scene splits into eerie, jarring fragments is still an all-time stylistic movie coup.

Frank Sinatra shines as Bennett Marco, a tormented good guy who reads, plays cards and courts love interest Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh).

As for the plot, “war hero” Raymond has been programmed by the Red Chinese to be the triggerman in a scheme to destabilize the American government by putting an idiot into the U.S. presidency. The candidate: Raymond’s addle-brained Commie-hunting stepfather.

Frankenheimer lent his terrific neo-noir vision to a fantastic cast: Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, an obligatory love interest, Laurence Harvey in the finest hour of a peculiar career, Henry Silva as one of the main traitors of a movie saturated with treachery and James Gregory a hoot as the reactionary U.S. Senator who can’t keep track of the number of Communists he’s exposing (he finally settles on the easy-to-remember Heinz Ketchup figure of 57). And, as one of the most evil mothers in the history of movies, giving one of the most darkly magnificent performances, Angela Lansbury, long may she reign.

All this is at the service of one of the most hypnotic, blood-chilling yarns ever to be put, mostly uncompromised, on screen: a movie whose twists and turns are brilliantly calculated, largely unexpected and beautifully anxiety-inducing. Few films reflect the Kennedy era, and all its contradictions so memorably and so well.

Frankenheimer was the key. In the 1950s he’d become famous as the enfant terrible of a great generation of TV drama directors – a generation that included Arthur Penn, Robert Mulligan, Franklin Schaffner, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer was the leader of that group: an instinctive master of live performance and especially, of camera movement.

An ace at left wing social and psychological drama, he went on to make “All Fall Down,” “The Young Savages,” “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Train,” “Seconds,” “Grand Prix” and “The Fixer.” But “The Manchurian Candidate” was the project where he was able to work his virtuosity into the very texture of the film itself, where TV and the way it records real life becomes part of the drama, in this case, a hybrid of theatre and politics.

With “The Manchurian Candidate,” Frankenheimer created a style that was almost as original and exciting and unique as the young Orson Welles,’ and he remained one of the great American moviemakers throughout most of the ’60s. [Read more...]

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In ‘Ruthless,’ director Edgar G. Ulmer moves (temporarily) from Poverty Row to Paradise

Ruthless/1948/ Producing Artists/105 min.

“Ruthless” was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

By Michael Wilmington

The Czech-born émigré film director Edgar G. Ulmer, as noir as they come, was called the King of Poverty Row by some of his cultish admirers.

Pictures like Ulmer’s 1945 low-B film noir “Detour,” his 1939 African-American ultra-indie “Moon Over Harlem,” the 1951 low-fi sci-fi “The Man from Planet X” and the 1955 cheapo Western “The Naked Dawn” stretch the limits of cinematic ingenuity stimulated by minuscule budgets. In Ulmer’s undisputed masterpiece “Detour,” the director shows buildings lost in the night and fog – a spine-chilling effect – because there was no money for a street set.

“Ruthless,” by comparison, is a fairly lush production, with a multitude of richly detailed sets, high production values and a cast that ranks just below A-level. The film has that sense of impending evil and doom that also marked Ulmer’s 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi horror classic “The Black Cat.” Even when “Ruthless” becomes absurd – as in the fervidly ludicrous climax – it’s always fun to watch.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig who cheats, double-crosses and sleeps his way to the top, then shrugs it off when a one-time ally commits suicide. Louis Hayward is his often-abused and appropriately named best friend Vic Lambdin.

Sydney Greenstreet is Buck Mansfield, a fellow businessman and rival who’s not quite ruthless enough. Diana Lynn, double-cast, is the love (or loves) of Horace’s life. And that ace noir heavy of heavies Raymond Burr pops up as well. All this for a director who usually counted himself lucky if he got actors like Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the doomed couple in “Detour.”

Scott, a sometimes underrated actor (he was tremendous in both “Mildred Pierce” and in Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner”), manages to show the warmer, more seductive qualities beneath the ruthlessness of Vendig. Greenstreet seems miscast playing a guy named Buck. But he has a good time as the vengeful ex-tycoon, as does Diana Lynn (twice) and Burr, who can occasionally, though not here, seem like a second-string Greenstreet.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Vendig’s rival who’s not quite ruthless enough.

The subject of “Ruthless” is wealth, its hypocrisies and the price it ultimately exacts from the soul of the taker. The obvious inspiration for “Ruthless,” which was based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart (I know, I’ve never heard of him either), is the film of films, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” From Kane, Ulmer and his screenwriters borrow the multiple flashback structure, the deep-focus camera virtuosity, the theme of the sins behind great fortunes, the foil of the humanistic best friend (Hayward) and the main character with three names.

Edgar G. Ulmer

As for Ulmer – the low-rent auteur who persevered through often threadbare productions, including “Damaged Lives,” a low-budget 1933 cautionary drama about venereal disease – “Ruthless” must have made him feel as if he’d migrated temporarily from Poverty Row to Paradise. While “Ruthless” is not as good as “Detour,” it does show that Ulmer could have functioned very well, if the powers that be let him move more often to the right side of the tracks. (The rumor is that the director was banished to the likes of Producers Releasing Corp. and Eagle Lion because he’d seduced the wife of a major studio bigwig.)

But almost anybody can be better with better stuff and the one big advantage of working on Poverty Row is that you’re left alone if you can get it done on time and on (you’ll excuse the word) budget. Ulmer and his charmingly disreputable and penny-wise films will always be special treats to devotees of black and white Hollywood.

Now let’s go watch 1960’s “The Amazing Transparent Man.” I hear the reason the Man was transparent is that there was no money for another actor.

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The Noir File: Welles burns up the courtroom in ‘Compulsion’

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

Compulsion” (1959, Richard Fleischer). Thursday, March 21, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Based on the Loeb-Leopold “thrill kill” murders and adapted from Meyer Levin’s best-selling novel on the grisly case, here is a true-crime drama to make your blood run cold, directed by a master of the form, Richard Fleischer (“The Boston Strangler,” “10 Rillington Place”). Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman admirably play two brilliant but immoral Chicago collegiate rich boys who take Nietzsche’s “superman” theories too seriously and decide to commit the perfect murder, simply to prove they can.

Shot in realistic yet eerie black-and-white, this movie is one of the screen’s most convincing portraits of pure evil. And it also contains one of the movies’ very best trial scenes: an astonishing tour de force by that sometimes amazing actor, Orson Welles.

The lead actors (Orson Welles is shown above) won honors at Cannes.

With only one big scene, Welles burns up the screen as defense attorney Clarence Darrow, delivering (in one take) Darrow’s legendary “plea for life” speech, and making every word and sentiment echo and re-echo through his magnificent voice, his grand hamming and his deep theatrical soul. All three of these actors shared the Best Actor prize for “Compulsion” at the Cannes Film Festival. And they deserved it.

Thursday, March 21

5 a.m. (2 a.m.): “Port of Shadows” (French. Marcel Carne, 1939). A moody French army deserter (Jean Gabin, in one of his prototypical roles) hides out in Le Havre – port city of shadows, sin and impending danger – and falls in love with a beautiful victim (Michèle Morgan), who is also pursued by a poseur (Michel Simon) and a crook (Pierre Brasseur). A dark destiny awaits them all. One of the godfathers of film noir was the ’30s French sub-genre called “poetic realism,” and “Port of Shadows” is a classic example. Directed and written by the great poetic realist stylists Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert, who went on to make together the immortal (and noirish) films “Le jour se lève” and “Children of Paradise.” (In French, subtitled.) [Read more...]

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The Noir File: ‘The Third Man’ ranks as one of Britain’s best

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir and neo noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current 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 Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed) Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

“The Third Man” is a noir masterpiece with a perfect cast and Oscar-winning cinematography.

Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” is one of the all-time film noir masterpieces. Greene’s script – about political corruption in post-World War II Vienna, a naïve American novelist named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) and his search for the mysterious “third man” who may have witnessed the murder of his best friend, suave Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – is one of the best film scenarios ever written. Reed never directed better, had better material or tilted the camera more often.

“The Third Man” also has one of the all-time perfect casts: Cotten, Welles (especially in his memorable “cuckoo clock” speech, which he wrote), Trevor Howard (as the cynical police detective), Alida Valli (as Lime’s distressed ladylove), and Jack Hawkins and Bernard Lee (as tough cops). Oscar-winner Robert Krasker does a nonpareil job of film noir cinematography – especially in the film’s climactic chase through the shadowy Vienna sewers. And nobody plays a zither like composer/performer Anton Karas.

Sunday, Oct. 14

6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.): “Deadline at Dawn” (1945, Harold Clurman). Bill Williams is a sailor on leave who has just one New York City night to prove his innocence of murder. Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas are the shrewd dancer and philosophical cabbie trying to help him. Clifford Odets’ script is from a Cornell Woolrich novel; directed by Group Theater guru Harold Clurman (his only movie).

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Crime in the Streets” (1956, Don Siegel). This streetwise drama of New York juvenile delinquents (John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo and Mark Rydell) and a frustrated social worker (James Whitmore) is an above-average example of the ’50s youth crime cycle that also included “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Blackboard Jungle.” Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men”) wrote the script based on his TV play. Punchy direction by Siegel and a lead performance of feral intensity by Cassavetes.

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “The Unknown” (1927, Tod Browning). One of Lon Chaney’s most sinister roles: as a traveling carnival’s no-armed wonder (really an escaped con). With the young Joan Crawford.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933, Fritz Lang). Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) bring back their famous silent-movie crime czar, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). This time, he’s a seeming lunatic, running his empire from an insane asylum. According to some, it’s an analogue of the Nazis’ rise to power.

Monday, Oct. 15

11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges).

Tuesday, Oct. 16

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Eyes in the Night” (1942, Fred Zinnemann). A good B-movie mystery with Edward Arnold as blind detective Duncan Maclain, co-starring Donna Reed, Ann Harding and Stephen McNally.

3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m.) “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young).

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‘Gilda’ shows that if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it

“Gilda” is all about Gilda and that’s the way it should be – for any femme fatale and particularly for Rita Hayworth the most popular pinup girl of WWII, a talented entertainer and Columbia Pictures’ top female star in the mid-1940s. This 1946 movie by director Charles Vidor is essentially a vehicle for the drop-dead gorgeous Hayworth to play a sexy free spirit who lives and loves entirely in the present moment.

Longtime friends Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth had a brief affair during the making of “Gilda.”

Hayworth revels in the sexual power she wields over any man who crosses her path, despite the fact that in post-war America a woman with a mind (and body) of her own spelled nothing but trouble. As the Time Out Film Guide points out: “Never has the fear of the female been quite so intense.” That said, the “independent” Gilda is only briefly without a husband and has to endure a lengthy punishment from her true love.

She first appears, after a devastatingly dramatic hair toss, as the wife of husband Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Suave, but aloof and asexual, Ballin runs a nightclub in Buenos Aires. Gilda passes the time plucking out tunes on her guitar and propositioning other men. Nice work if you can get it.

Enter Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), an American gambler who runs Ballin’s club. Johnny’s job extends to keeping an eye on Gilda when she’s carousing on the dance floor. Ballin isn’t around much because he’s off trying to form a tungsten cartel with some ex-Nazi pals. But babysitting the boss’ wife (Ballin calls her a “beautiful, greedy child”) is especially tough for Johnny because he and Gilda used to be an item and endured a bitter breakup.

Ballin (George Macready) and Johnny (Glenn Ford) have a tense relationship.

The script is laced with taunts, barbs and innuendo. For example, Gilda tells him: “Hate is a very exciting emotion, hadn’t you noticed? I hate you, too, Johnny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.” (And some see homosexual undertones in Farrell and Ballin’s relationship.)

Director Vidor, whose other films include 1944’s “Cover Girl” (also starring Hayworth), “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Joker Is Wild” (both 1957), holds his own in the noir genre. “Gilda” is a dark tale (alluding to sexual perversion and repression) and there’s some moody cinematography, courtesy of Rudolph Maté. But Marion Parsonnet’s script, despite many sharp, clever lines, doesn’t hold together and that throws off the pacing. The first third meanders along too slowly while the ending seems abrupt and slapped together.

The plot is thin and vaguely confusing – Ballin is up to no good and at one point is thought to be dead, only to turn up later at a pivotal point in Johnny and Gilda’s romance. They reunite of course and their push-pull tension is the engine that drives the story. Luckily, that tension, combined with solid direction and acting, save the movie.

(The legendary Ben Hecht is an uncredited writer on “Gilda” and if the storyline rings a bell, you might be thinking of “Notorious” also from 1946, written by Hecht, which is another story of ex-Nazis up to no good in South America. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant play the wary, mistrustful lovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s superior rendering of similar material.)

The chemistry between Ford and Hayworth is about as real as it gets. Longtime friends, they had a brief affair during the making of the movie. In his book, “A Life,” Glenn Ford’s son Peter writes that Vidor coached Glenn and Rita with “outrageously explicit suggestions.” Peter Ford quotes his father as saying: “[Vidor’s] instructions to the two of us were pretty incredible. I can’t even repeat the things he used to tell us to think about before we did a scene.”

Hayworth performs “Put the Blame on Mame,” choreographed by Jack Cole.

According to Peter Ford, this off-screen fling stemmed from Hayworth’s unhappy marriage to Orson Welles. The romance also drew the ire of Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn, who reportedly lusted after Hayworth and whom Hayworth rejected. “Gilda” was the second film Hayworth and Ford appeared in together; they worked together three more times afterward as well.

“Gilda” wasn’t a critical hit, but it proved popular with audiences, especially the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” scene.

Choreographed by Jack Cole, a bold and brilliant innovator, the number is as close to a strip tease as was possible in 1946. Hayworth was dubbed by Anita Ellis in that number, though there is some debate as to whether it’s Hayworth’s voice when she runs through the song with Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) earlier in the movie.

Though “Gilda” cemented Hayworth’s celebrity status, her fame came at a price. “Every man I’ve known has fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me,” she said. But, despite her career ups and downs, five failed marriages and a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, she kept her sense of humor. In the 1970s, Hayworth was asked, “What do you think when you look at yourself in the mirror after waking up in the morning?” Her reply: “Darling, I don’t wake up till the afternoon.”

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