Stanwyck shines in ‘Crime of Passion’

Today is Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday! Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – Jan. 20, 1990) ranks as one of film noir’s most important actresses, having played perhaps the greatest femme fatale of all, Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.”

Always popular with audiences and admired by colleagues for her uncommon intelligence, versatility and professionalism, she also starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The File on Thelma Jordon,” “No Man of Her Own,” “The Furies,” “Clash by Night,” “Jeopardy,” “Witness to Murder” and “Crime of Passion.”

Crime of Passion/1957/United Artists/84 min.

Aah, how often has Film Noir Blonde fantasized about giving up her dreary day-job. If only she had a lackadaisical husband whose career needed a jumpstart, she’d quite happily quit writing and meddle in his affairs full time. In director Gerd Oswald’s “Crime of Passion” (1957), Kathy Ferguson Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) makes that noble sacrifice for her hubby.

Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) is go-along, get-along, but that’s OK. His wife Kathy (Barbara Stanwyck) has more than enough ambition for both of them.

Kathy is a tough, high-profile advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. She’s also a singleton who’s stylish, smart and openly defiant to the male chauvinists in her social circle. She loves dishing out wisdom and doesn’t consider herself lovelorn or lonely-hearted, dismissing marriage and family as “propaganda not for me.” (An interesting turn of phrase from writer Jo Eisinger.)

That’s before Kathy meets her blonde Adonis, aka Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), who comes to town with the Los Angeles police as they expand their search for a criminal. Kathy helps them by putting a plea for surrender in her column. The cops nail the killer and Kathy gets a job offer from a New York paper. Alas, she never makes it to NYC because she’s fallen head over heels for Bill. The idea of them moving east for her career doesn’t occur to anyone, even Kathy.

Shortly into their relationship, Kathy has an OMG-what-did-I-do-last-night? moment and asks Bill: “Who are you? Who are you?” Next she peppers him with questions, like “What are your favorite colors?” In fact, what she did was get married. Yep, just like that.

Kathy can barely contain her frustration with the dim-witted convo.

Kathy quits writing, moves to LA and tries to become a dutiful wife. “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours and hours darning them,” she gushes to Bill.

Unfortunately, however, Kathy seriously overrated the appeal of darning socks for hours at a time (shocker) and becomes darn bored.

At social gatherings, she gets stuck chatting with the ladies about cream cheese and olives, and 36-inch TVs. Not exactly thrilling stuff and Kathy starts to go a little crazy. OK, a lot a crazy. (Note to self: Before ditching my drivel-writing, check that husband has cool friends to hang with or at least lives near good shopping and spa treatments.)

To occupy her brain, Kathy engineers a series of stunts to accelerate Bill’s ascent on the career ladder. She befriends the police inspector’s wife Alice Pope (Fay Wray) and does her best to sabotage Bill’s competition, captain Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano). His annoying wife Sara (Virginia Grey) relentlessly promotes her mate, but she’s no match for Kathy.

That just leaves the job of getting the big cheese, police inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), to rally behind Bill. So, she has a fling with Tony, natch. The only problem is that when Tony decides he’s made a mistake, the unlikely lovers don’t see eye to eye, and she grabs a gun …

German-born Gerd Oswald, the son of director Richard Oswald, made his first foray into the noir genre with 1956’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and worked with Anita Ekberg on three noir movies. He also directed “The Outer Limits” and “The Fugitive” TV shows. “Crime of Passion” may not be the director’s finest film, but it’s still strong storytelling – well paced with compelling performances and visually engaging cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Stanwyck was 50 and Hayden 41; it’s fun to watch these two old pros reeling off their lines and riffing with Burr, of “Perry Mason” TV fame.

I’ve seen some harsh online assessments of “Crime of Passion.” Sure, it has its flaws (55 years later, parts of it might seem stilted and corny) but it’s still a lot of fun and has some pretty biting social commentary to boot.

If you judge a work of art (or entertainment) from the past by contemporary standards, it’s easy for it to fail. A girdle from 1957 didn’t have Lycra; that doesn’t mean it didn’t do the job.

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Film Noir File: Classic so-good sleepers ‘The Narrow Margin,’ ‘The Locket’ and ‘Angel Face’

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). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). All films without a new review have been covered previously in Film Noir Blonde and can be searched in the FNB archives (at right).

Pick of the Week: TCM’s Summer of Darkness continues to delight

Friday, July 24

The next-to-last chapter of TCM’s deluxe film-noir binge-a-thon Summer of Darkness commences today. It’s another feast for film noir buffs. As we know by now, Turner Classic Movies has been sharing its great shadowy treasure trove of classic film noir on Friday nights.

Marie Windsor

Marie Windsor

This week’s dark list includes Richard Fleischer’s terrific low-budget death-rides-the-train sleeper, “The Narrow Margin,“ starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor — one of director Billy Friedkin’s faves. You’ll also see Hollywood expressionist John Brahm’s stylish triple-flashback thriller, “The Locket” with Robert Mitchum. And don’t even think about missing Otto Preminger’s French critical favorite “Angel Face“ (one of Jean-Luc Godard’s picks for his all-time Best American Talkies list). This time Mitchum is smitten with Jean Simmons. Bitch-slap trivia: “Angel Face” is the movie where Mitchum punched Preminger for being mean to Jean.

Also on Friday’s all-day bill of noir: highlights with ace actors like Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Mickey Rooney, Evelyn Keyes, Jane Russell, Jeanne Moreau, Vincent Price, John Payne and Raymond Burr, and directors like Nick Ray, Josef von Sternberg (on the same show), Louis Malle, Phil Karlson and Fritz Lang.

Curated and hosted in the evening by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation and the Noir City film festivals, TCM’s Summer of Darkness is a standout fest of classic killings, broken dreams and movie nightmares. All that and Marilyn Monroe (in “Clash by Night”) too.

We don’t want this summer to end!

6:45 a.m. (3:45 a.m.): “Roadblock” (1950, Harold Daniels). Charles McGraw and Joan Dixon in a poor man‘s “Double Indemnity.”

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “The Strip” (1951, Leslie Kardos). Mickey Rooney is a luckless jazz drummer who gets in a bad fix trying to help Hollywood hopeful Sally Forrest. The great guest musical stars here include Louis Armstrong, and Satchmo’s longtime friends and sidemen Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “Beware, My Lovely” (1952, Harry Horner). Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan strike sparks in an icy domestic suspenser.

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe are bored with small-town life in “Clash by Night.”

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe are bored with small-town life in “Clash by Night.”

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Clash by Night” (1953, Fritz Lang). Barbara Stanwyck is an independent woman in 1950s America. Trouble, here we come! She can’t keep a man, but then who’d want to when edgy Robert Ryan is around to get in trouble with? Marilyn Monroe is splendid as a small-town factory girl.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Kansas City Confidential” (1952, Phi Karlson). A good crisp Karlson heist, pulled off by a mob that includes Preston Foster and Colleen Gray.

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray).

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Talk About a Stranger” (1952, David Bradley). Gossipers wreak havoc in a talky small town. A look at U. S. Senator George Murphy and First Lady Nancy Davis (Reagan) in their movie days.

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Split Second” (1953, Dick Powell). In this nerve-racking thriller, outlaw Stephen McNally and hostages Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling and others are trapped together in a desert nuclear bomb testing site.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.): “His Kind of Woman” (1951, John Farrow).

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm).

1:30 a.m. (10:30 p.m.): “Angel Face” (1953, Otto Preminger).

3:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958, Louis Malle).

[Read more…]

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Film Noir File: A star-studded week of Oscar darkness

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). The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). Films listed without a review can be searched in the FNB archive on the right side of the page.

Pick of the Week

A Place in the Sun” (1951, George Stevens). Friday, Feb. 13, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.).

Elizabeth Taylor as Angela and Montgomery Clift as George are one of the most ravishing star couples of the American cinema.

Elizabeth Taylor as Angela and Montgomery Clift as George are one of the most ravishing star couples of the American cinema.

George Stevens’ adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s classic crime novel “An American Tragedy.” It’s a melancholy look at a rising young working-class guy named George Eastman, who seems on the path to riches and romance, but whose dark impulses bend him toward destruction.

A great critical favorite in its time and still highly influential, “Place in the Sun” is a moody masterpiece about the wayward side of the American dream. Stevens’ movie also showcases one of the most ravishing (and ultimately sad) star couples of the American cinema: Montgomery Clift as George and Elizabeth Taylor as his dream, Angela. Also in the cast: film noir mainstays Shelley Winters and Raymond Burr.

Taylor and Clift were close friends off the screen as well.

Taylor and Clift were close friends off the screen as well.

Among the picture’s six Academy Awards were Oscars for Stevens’ direction and to screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown.

Thursday, Feb. 12
9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.) “The Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed).

5:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m.): “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951, Charles Crichton).

Friday, Feb. 13
9 a.m. (6 a.m.): “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945. Albert Lewin).

11 a.m. (8 a.m.): “The Bad Seed” (1956, Mervyn LeRoy).

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich).

3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.): “The Birds” (1963, Alfred Hitchcock).

Saturday, Feb. 14
8:45 p.m. (5:45 p.m.): “The Harder They Fall” (1956, Mark Robson).
2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.): “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955, Richard Brooks).
4:45 a.m. (1:45 a.m.): “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955, Otto Preminger).

Sunday, Feb. 15 (Film Noir Day)
7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “Johnny Eager” (1941, Mervyn LeRoy).
9 a.m. (6 a.m.): “T-Men” (1948, Anthony Mann).
10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): “The Naked City” (1948, Jules Dassin).
12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston).
2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m.): “The Blue Dahlia” (1946, George Marshall).
4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston).
6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).
11 p.m. (8 p.m.): “The Defiant Ones” (1958, Stanley Kramer).

Susan Hayward with her Oscar.

Susan Hayward with her Oscar.

1 a.m. (10 p.m.): “I Want to Live!” (1958, Robert Wise). Susan Hayward won her Oscar for playing Barbara Graham, a real-life hard-nosed San Francisco prostitute. Graham was convicted of murder and facing the gas chamber.

But, according to Frisco crime reporter Ed Montgomery (played in this movie by “Psycho’s” psychiatrist Simon Oakland), she was innocent, the framed victim of a faulty justice system.

This riveting chronicle proves that Wise, a great favorite of French noir expert and Hollywood film aficionado Jean-Pierre Melville, was an absolute master of crime movies. The images are searing black and white. The acting is tough, smart, pungent. The jaunty modern jazz score is by Johnny Mandel, with the formidable Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax.

The ending is wrenching, unforgettable. So is Hayward.

Monday, Feb. 16
8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

Psycho poster 214Tuesday, Feb 17 (Crime Day)
7:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m.): “Fury” (1936, Fritz Lang).
9:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m.): “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947, Charles Chaplin & Robert Florey).
11:30 a.m. (8:30 a.m.): “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958, Mario Monicelli).
1:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m.) “In Cold Blood” (1967, Richard Brooks).
4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968, Norman Jewison).
6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Bullitt” (1968, Peter Yates).
12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Psycho” (1960, Alfred Hitchcock).

Wednesday, Feb. 18
8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Apartment” (1960, Billy Wilder).
12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “The Hustler” (1961, Robert Rossen).
5:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick).

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Skirball Cultural Center offers a double dose of intrigue on the big screen this Sunday

The Intriguante—Women of Intrigue in Film Noir series at the Skirball Cultural Center continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, with an excellent double feature.

Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott face Raymond Burr in “Pitfall.”

Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott face Raymond Burr in “Pitfall.”

The first film is “Pitfall” (1948, André de Toth), featuring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Jane Wyatt in a classic noir love triangle. Just a few years before, Powell, a song and dance man, reinvented his screen persona when he played detective Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk). Powell then became a regular on the film noir slate.

In “Pitfall,” he plays John Forbes, a happily married husband and father with a good job. Problem is, John is bored and it’s not long before he risks everything by getting tangled up with an irresistible femme fatale named Mona Stevens (Scott).

Further complicating the situation is Raymond Burr as a private investigator who also covets Ms. Stevens. Powell and Wyatt are spot-on, Scott lends humanity to what could be a two-dimensional role and this is one of Burr’s best performances.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster can’t stay away from each other in “Criss Cross.”

Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster can’t stay away from each other in “Criss Cross.”

Next up: “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak) is a spare, chilling story that zooms along at breakneck speed with characters you’ll never forget.

Here, the stunning Yvonne De Carlo (whom you might remember from TV’s “The Munsters”) lures her ex-husband Burt Lancaster into a high-stakes heist. The sleazy bad guy is played perfectly by Dan Duryea.

Lancaster’s Steve is essentially a good guy who just can’t get his ex-wife out of his system. Some would call him crazy. The French would term it “amour fou.” But what would film noir be without obsessive love? This somewhat neglected movie completely holds its own with any other title from the film noir canon. “Criss Cross” plays particularly well on the big screen and it’s great fun to see the Los Angeles locales. The opening shot is tremendous and look out for a young Tony Curtis.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Admission is $10 general; $7 seniors and full-time students; $5 members.

The exhibitions Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950 and The Noir Effect will remain open until 8 p.m.

The File on Thelma Jordon posterThe Intriguante series concludes on Feb. 12 with “The File on Thelma Jordon” (1950, Robert Siodmak), a crime drama starring the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck.

Additionally, there are two more free Tuesday matinees at the Skirball Cultural Center. On Feb. 3 is 1939’s “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Edward G. Robinson as an FBI investigator. On Feb. 10, “Act of Violence” (1948, Fred Zinnemann) looks at the plight of returning World War II vets in a captivating film noir brimming with dark secrets, betrayal and revenge. Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh lead the cast.

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The Film Noir File: Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott fall into a deadly De Toth ‘Pitfall’

TCM goes all Audrey on Friday and we can't wait!

TCM goes all Audrey on Friday and we can’t wait!

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

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in ‘Pitfall.’

Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell star in ‘Pitfall.’

Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth). 4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.) Monday, Aug. 25. De Toth was a sometime master at exposing the swamps of terror that could lie beneath the routines of everyday middleclass life. In this scary little noir quadrangle thriller, Dick Powell, who was one of the better Philip Marlowes, is a sort of lower echelon Walter Neff – an insurance man leading an apparently happy (if slightly dull) life who gets involved with a criminal’s sultry girlfriend (Lizabeth Scott). Jane Wyatt is Powell’s sweet bourgeois wife and Raymond Burr is an evil, lecherous private eye, who pulls all of them onto the dark side. That’s a terrific cast, noir to the hilt, and De Toth’s grim, methodical style is ideal for the cynical, unsparing James Cain-ish subject matter.

This pungent little film noir sleeper is part of Dick Powell Day. (Also showing on the big screen Friday night in Westwood: see previous post.)

Friday, Aug. 22: Audrey Hepburn Day

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Wait Until Dark” (1967, Terence Young). With Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna and Jack Weston. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 12, 2012.

Saturday, Aug. 23: Ernest Borgnine Day

1 p.m. (10 a.m.): “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955, John Sturges). With Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. Reviewed in FNB on April 7, 2012.

Sunday, Aug. 24: Gladys George Day

Maltese Falcon poster10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Flamingo Road” (1949, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and Gladys George. Reviewed in FNB on Oct. 19, 2012.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “The Roaring Twenties” (1939, Raoul Walsh). Ace newsman Mark Hellinger produced this punchy chronicle of three World War I vets, (explosive outlaw James Cagney, bad guy Humphrey Bogart and good guy Jeffrey Lynn) and their lives during Prohibition times and the gangster era after the war. It’s engrossing, exciting and salty as the best Walsh, Bogart and Cagney always are. Also with Priscilla Lane and Gladys George.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). With Bogart, Mary Astor, Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond and George.

1:15 a.m. (10:15 a.m.). “He Ran All the Way” (1951, John Berry). With John Garfield, Shelley Winters and Wallace Ford. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 4, 2013.

Monday, Aug. 25: Dick Powell Day

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth). See Pick of the Week.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk). With Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley and Mike Mazurki.

3 a.m. (12 a.m.): “The Tall Target” (1951, Anthony Mann). With Powell, Adolphe Menjou, Paula Raymond and Ruby Dee. Reviewed in FNB on My 6, 2013.

Wednesday, Aug. 27: Edmond O’Brien Day

D.O.A poster8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953, Ida Lupino). With Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman. Reviewed in FNB on June 6, 2013.

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh). With Cagey, Virginia Mayo, O’Brien and Steve Cochran. Reviewed in FNB on March 10, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté). With O’Brien, Pamela Britton and Luther Adler.

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Film noir today on TCM: André De Toth’s ‘Pitfall’

Showing Monday, Sept. 2, at 1:15 p.m. PST: “Pitfall” (1948, André De Toth)

Murder is the last thing on John Forbes’ mind when he starts an affair with model Mona Stevens. He’s just bored with the insurance biz and married life. But this is film noir and things get complicated quickly, especially since Mona’s also involved with an embezzler.

“Pitfall” stars Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott as the leads as well as Jane Wyatt as Mrs. Forbes and Raymond Burr as MacDonald, a nosy, lecherous ex-cop. MacDonald is one of noir’s slimiest villains and this is one of Burr’s best performances.

Happy Labor Day, all!

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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 KarloffBela 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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‘Crime of Passion’ a burst of Stanwyck brilliance

Today is Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday! Stanwyck (July 16, 1907 – Jan. 20, 1990) ranks as one of film noir’s most important actresses, having played perhaps the greatest femme fatale of all, Phyllis Dietrichson in “Double Indemnity.”

Always popular with audiences and admired by colleagues for her uncommon intelligence, versatility and professionalism, she also starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “The File on Thelma Jordon,” “No Man of Her Own,” “The Furies,” “Clash by Night,” “Jeopardy,” “Witness to Murder” and “Crime of Passion.”

Crime of Passion/1957/United Artists/84 min.

Aah, how often has Film Noir Blonde fantasized about giving up her dreary day-job. If only she had a lackadaisical husband whose career needed a jumpstart, she’d quite happily quit writing and meddle in his affairs full time. In director Gerd Oswald’s “Crime of Passion” (1957), Kathy Ferguson Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) makes that noble sacrifice for her hubby.

Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden) is go-along, get-along, but that’s OK. His wife Kathy (Barbara Stanwyck) has more than enough ambition for both of them.

Kathy is a tough, high-profile advice columnist for a San Francisco newspaper. She’s also a singleton who’s stylish, smart and openly defiant to the male chauvinists in her social circle. She loves dishing out wisdom and doesn’t consider herself lovelorn or lonely-hearted, dismissing marriage and family as “propaganda not for me.” (An interesting turn of phrase from writer Jo Eisinger.)

That’s before Kathy meets her blonde Adonis, aka Police Lt. Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden), who comes to town with the Los Angeles police as they expand their search for a criminal. Kathy helps them by putting a plea for surrender in her column. The cops nail the killer and Kathy gets a job offer from a New York paper. Alas, she never makes it to NYC because she’s fallen head over heels for Bill. The idea of them moving east for her career doesn’t occur to anyone, even Kathy.

Shortly into their relationship, Kathy has an OMG-what-did-I-do-last-night? moment and asks Bill: “Who are you? Who are you?” Next she peppers him with questions, like “What are your favorite colors?” In fact, what she did was get married. Yep, just like that.

Kathy can barely contain her frustration with the dim-witted convo.

Kathy quits writing, moves to LA and tries to become a dutiful wife. “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours and hours darning them,” she gushes to Bill.

Unfortunately, however, Kathy seriously overrated the appeal of darning socks for hours at a time (shocker) and becomes darn bored.

At social gatherings, she gets stuck chatting with the ladies about cream cheese and olives, and 36-inch TVs. Not exactly thrilling stuff and Kathy starts to go a little crazy. OK, a lot a crazy. (Note to self: Before ditching my drivel-writing, check that husband has cool friends to hang with or at least lives near good shopping and spa treatments.)

To occupy her brain, Kathy engineers a series of stunts to accelerate Bill’s ascent on the career ladder. She befriends the police inspector’s wife Alice Pope (Fay Wray) and does her best to sabotage Bill’s competition, captain Charlie Alidos (Royal Dano). His annoying wife Sara (Virginia Grey) relentlessly promotes her mate, but she’s no match for Kathy.

That just leaves the job of getting the big cheese, police inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr), to rally behind Bill. So, she has a fling with Tony, natch. The only problem is that when Tony decides he’s made a mistake, the unlikely lovers don’t see eye to eye, and she grabs a gun …

German-born Gerd Oswald, the son of director Richard Oswald, made his first foray into the noir genre with 1956’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and worked with Anita Ekberg on three noir movies. He also directed “The Outer Limits” and “The Fugitive” TV shows. “Crime of Passion” may not be the director’s finest film, but it’s still strong storytelling – well paced with compelling performances and visually engaging cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. Stanwyck was 50 and Hayden 41; it’s fun to watch these two old pros reeling off their lines and riffing with Burr, of “Perry Mason” TV fame.

I’ve seen some harsh online assessments of “Crime of Passion.” Sure, it has its flaws (55 years later, parts of it might seem a bit stilted and corny) but it’s still a lot of fun and has some pretty biting social commentary to boot.

If you judge a work of art (or entertainment) from the past by contemporary standards, it’s easy for it to fail. A girdle from 1957 didn’t have Lyrca; that doesn’t mean it didn’t do the job.

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Stellar ‘Criss Cross’ tells a riveting story of cursed love

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

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

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949. Director Robert Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Big Combo’ and ‘Pitfall’ to screen in downtown LA

The Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles will show two classics of film noir on Wednesday night.

“The Big Combo” (1955) by Joseph H. Lewis
Cornel Wilde plays Police Lt. Leonard Diamond, a cop on a mission to nail a badass gangster (Richard Conte). Jean Wallace (Wilde’s real-life wife) plays the woman they both love. Lewis, the auteur of  “Gun Crazy,” directed. Noir master John Alton (“T-Men”) was the cinematographer and David Raksin (“Laura”) composed the music. Leonard Maltin calls it “a cult item, stylishly directed.”

“Pitfall” (1948) by André De Toth
Murder is the last thing on John Forbes’ mind when he starts an affair with model Mona Stevens. He’s just bored with the insurance biz and married life. But this is film noir and things get complicated quickly, especially since Mona’s also involved with an embezzler.

“Pitfall” stars Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt as Mrs. Forbes and Raymond Burr as MacDonald, a nosy, lecherous ex-cop. MacDonald is one of noir’s slimiest villains and this is one of Burr’s best performances.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m. this Wednesday, Feb. 8. The theater is at 307 S. Broadway Ave., Los Angeles, 90013. Tickets are $10.

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