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

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

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

PICK OF THE WEEK

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

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

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

Tuesday, Dec. 4

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

Wednesday, Dec. 5

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

Thursday, Dec. 6

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

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

Saturday, Dec. 8

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

Sunday, Dec. 9

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

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

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

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The Noir File: Hitchcock, Grant, Fontaine fill us with ‘Suspicion’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

A guide to classic film noir and neo-noir on cable TV. All the movies 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

Suspicion” (1941, Alfred Hitchcock). Thursday, Sept. 27, 8 a.m. (5 a.m.):

Cary Grant bringing the glass of milk is an unforgettable moment.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s glossy, shivery 1941 domestic thriller, British provincial wallflower Joan Fontaine marries the gorgeous but irresponsible Cary Grant and begins to suspect, more and more strongly, that he intends to murder her. Hitchcock builds the suspicion, and the suspense, beautifully.

And the lovely might-be victim Fontaine, whom Hitch had made a first-rank star the year before by casting her as the shy, nameless heroine of his Best Picture Oscar winner “Rebecca,” this time won the Best Actress Oscar herself.

“Suspicion” is one of Hitchcock’s most polished and well-executed thrillers, and there are scenes and shots in the film – such as the sinister, glowing glass of milk Grant carries upstairs to his sick wife – that have become famous. But the movie has one big flaw, dictated by the culture of the time and by the Production Code. You’ll know what it is by the end of the film.

The classy British émigré cast includes Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Dame May Whitty, Nigel Bruce and Leo G. Carroll. The screenwriting team – Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville – adapted “Suspicion” from Francis Iles’ classic suspense novel “Before the Fact,” and they should have kept Iles’ shocking original ending.

Friday, Sept. 21

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “10 Rillington Place” (1971, Richard Fleischer). Noir expert Richard Fleischer specialized in true-crime movies (“Compulsion,” “The Boston Strangler”) and this is one of his best: a chilling realistic thriller modeled on the famous case of British serial killer Dr. John Christie (brilliantly underplayed by Richard Attenborough), and the hapless man he frames for one of his murders, (a brilliant job by John Hurt). Also with Judy Geeson, Andre Morell and Bernard Lee.

Saturday, Sept. 22

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Gilda” (1946, Charles Vidor).

Tuesday, Sept. 25

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “Nightfall” (1956, Jacques Tourneur).

Paul Newman as Lew Harper

Wednesday, Sept. 26

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.”

One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

Thurs., Sept. 27

9:45 a.m. (6:45 a.m.): “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk).

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Edith, Head of her class: A shrewd woman with a sharp eye and unprecedented success in Hollywood

Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.

Edith Head

Actress Susan Claassen

A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.

In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.

One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”

Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

The show recreates Head's cocktail dress for Bette Davis (far left) and a gown for Elizabeth Taylor (far right).

The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. ;)

But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.

A closer look at the recreated dress for Bette Davis in "All About Eve" from 1950.

Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.

Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”

Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.

Opening night fell on Head's birthday. Cake and champagne were in order, natch.

Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.

Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.

“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055; www.edithhead.biz.

Photos from the production are copyright of Film Noir Blonde.

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Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound

Having received good feedback from the winner of April’s giveaway – the prize was Criterion’s rerelease of “Blow Out” – I realized it was high time to run the review. ;)

Brian De Palma/1981/ Filmways Pictures/107 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

“Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called “Trash, Art and the Movies.” We get all three of them here, in a film that sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound.

“Blow Out” probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” which is about a swinging ’60s London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia sound-effects man, who is working on a sleazy slasher horror movie.

The director is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims. The movie within the movie is a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of “Halloween” and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.

Nancy Allen

That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for president of the United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen).

Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next president.

Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to. The police, reporters and some political people, visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.

Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.

If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts. And “Blow Out” as well as “Raising Cain” and “Femme Fatale” (and 1968’s “Murder a la Mod,” which is included in this Criterion package) are good demonstrations why. “Blow Out” is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.

So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on Travolta, as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.

The style is what we remember about “Blow Out” – not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence. [Read more...]

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