The Film Noir File: Howard Hawks and Raymond Chandler, Bogie & Bacall: As good as noir gets

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

It doesn't get any better than Bogie and Bacall in "The Big Sleep."

It doesn’t get any better than Bogie and Bacall in “The Big Sleep.”

The Big Sleep” (1946, Howard Hawks). Tuesday, May 20, 12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.) With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Click here to read the FNB review.

Thursday, May 15

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton). With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Reviewed in FNB on Feb. 3, 2011.

Saturday, May 17

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “Each Dawn I Die” (1939, William Keighley). With James Cagney, George Raft, Jane Bryan, George Bancroft and Victor Jory. Reviewed in FNB on March 10, 2012.

8:45 a.m. (5:45 a.m.): “Johnny Angel” (1945, Edwin L. Marin). With George Raft, Claire Trevor, and Signe Hasso. Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.); “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). With Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. Reviewed in FNB on Oct. 29, 2013. [Read more...]

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There’s only one ‘Maltese Falcon’ and this is it

The Maltese Falcon/1941/Warner Bros./100 min.

Maltese Falcon poster“The Maltese Falcon,” a spectacularly entertaining and iconic crime film, holds the claim to many firsts.

It’s a remarkable directorial debut by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s considered by many critics to be the first film noir. (Another contender is “Stranger on the Third Floor” see below.) It was the first vehicle in which screen legend Humphrey Bogart and character actor Elisha Cook Jr. appeared together – breathing life into archetypal roles that filled the noir landscape for decades to come.

It was veteran stage actor Sydney Greenstreet’s first time before a camera and the first time he worked with Peter Lorre. The pair would go on to make eight more movies together. Additionally, “Falcon,” an entry on many lists of the greatest movies ever made, was one of the first films admitted to the National Film Registry in its inaugural year, 1989.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, Huston’s “Falcon” is the third big-screen version of the story (others were in 1931 and 1936) and it’s by far the best. Huston follows Hammett’s work to the letter, preserving the novel’s crisp, quick dialogue. If a crime movie can be described as jaunty, this would be it. Huston’s mighty achievement earned Oscar noms for best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor (Greenstreet) and best picture.

According to former New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther: “The trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school – a blend of mind and muscle – plus a slight touch of pathos.”

A few more of Huston’s tricks include striking compositions and camera movement, breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting, and a pins-and-needles atmosphere of excitement and danger. (Arthur Edeson was the cinematographer; Thomas Richards served as film editor.)

For the few who haven’t seen “Falcon,” it’s a tale of ruthless greed and relentless machismo centered around the perfect marriage of actor and character: Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade – the ultimate cynical, streetwise, I-did-it-my-way ’40s alpha-male. As famed noir author Raymond Chandler once put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.” Bogart appears in just about every scene in “Falcon.”

As Raymond Chandler  put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Raymond Chandler put it: “All Bogart has to do to dominate a scene is to enter it.”

As Spade, he sees through the malarkey, cuts to the chase and commands every situation, even when the odds are stacked against him. At one point he breaks free of a heavy, disarms him and points the guy’s own gun at him, all while toking on his cig. He’s equally adept at using wisecracks and one-liners to swat away the cops, who regularly show up at his door.

Mary Astor plays leading lady Brigid O’Shaughnessy to Bogart’s Sam Spade and it is she who sets the story in motion when she walks into Spade’s San Francisco office. Brigid asks Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to trail a man named Thursby who, she says, is up to no good with her sister. They accept the job and Archer takes the first shift of following Thursby. Next morning, Archer’s dead. Turns out that Brigid doesn’t have a sister and Archer’s widow (Gladys George) has the hots for Spade.

Spade’s ultra-reliable and resourceful secretary, Effie (Lee Patrick) is the one gal he can trust and it’s clear she means the world to him. At one point he tells her, “you’re a good man, sister,” which in Spade-speak is a downright gushfest. He might like the look of Brigid and her little finger, but he won’t be wrapped around it anytime soon.

Humphrey Bogart owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade owns the movie, but he has a stellar support cast. From left: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.

Astor, a Hollywood wild child of her time, who left a long string of husbands and lovers in her wake and generated much fodder for the tabloids, was brilliant casting for the part of bad-girl Brigid O. True to form, Astor allegedly was having an affair with Huston during the making of the film.

There is no doubt that Bogart owns this guy’s-guy male-fantasy picture, but Astor and the stellar support cast are unforgettable in their roles. As a good-luck gesture to his son, John, actor Walter Huston plays the part of the old sea captain. Peter Lorre drips malevolence as the effeminate and whiny Joel Cairo, and he has a foreign accent, which in Hollywood is usually shorthand for: he’s a bad’un.

Making his film debut at 61, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman is both debauched and debonair, a refined reprobate with a jolly cackle and tubby physique (he was more than 350 pounds!). Warner Bros. had to make an entire wardrobe for Greenstreet; Bogart wore his own clothes to save the studio money. One more Bogart contribution was adding the line: “The stuff that dreams are made of” at the end of the film, paraphrasing a line in “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

Tough-guy Sam Spade (Bogart) and wimpy Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.) are perfect foils.

And honing the sort of performance that would become his trademark, Elisha Cook Jr. stamps the character of warped thug Wilmer Cook with code for “psycho” (darting eyes, bubbling rage, edgy desperation) as if it were a neon light attached to his forehead.

Much has been written about the homosexual subtext of the Cairo, Gutman and Cook characters – I will just say they’re all part of the flock that covets and vies for possession the falcon, a jewel-laden statue of a bird that’s the treasure at the core of this tense and serpentine story. When it’s suggested that Wilmer Cook be sacrificed for the good of the gang, Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman explains that, though Wilmer is like a son, “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Though there were two other celluloid versions of Hammett’s story, in my view, there’s only one “Maltese Falcon” and this is it.

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On Valentine’s Day: 14 reasons we love ‘Double Indemnity’

Double Indemnity poster

Yes, we’re still gushing about “Double Indemnity,” the film noir classic from 1944. Deal with it. Oh, and happy Valentine‘s weekend, btw!

Billy Wilder‘s great prototype film noir turns 70 this year and yet it never gets old. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson, the movie boasts a screenplay that Wilder co-wrote with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain‘s novel, which was inspired by actual events.

Here’s why we hold the picture dear to our hearts, dearies.

14. As film noir historian and author Foster Hirsch put it, at a recent screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, “It’s the quintessential film noir. This is the mother lode, primary source film noir. It’s the basis for every film noir you’ve ever loved.”

13. Someone with the name Walter Neff turns out to be a tough guy.

12. All Walter has to do to escape punishment is sit tight. Yet, his ego drives him toward a final confrontation with his lover/partner in crime.

11. Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson is a fashion victim. If you need convincing, read the piece below re: her awful wig.

10. The first time Phyllis shows up at Walter’s apartment, she says she is returning his hat (which he supposedly left at her house) but the previous scene clearly shows him taking his hat as he leaves. Still, there’s so much tension between them, who cares?!

9. The door to Walter’s apartment opens the wrong way (it shields Phyllis on one of her visits) but you’re so caught up in the story you hardly notice.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

As Billy Wilder acknowledged, no door in the world would open this way.

8. You could buy Phyllis Dietrichson’s house for $30,000, even if that took a lifetime to pay off.

7. You could have a beer at a drive-in restaurant, served by a car-hop, no less.

6. The look of supreme satisfaction on Phyllis’s face at the moment her husband is murdered.

5. Stanwyck and MacMurray both took a risk and played against type.

4. Edward G. Robinson almost steals the show and it’s really a bromance between his character and MacMurray’s Walter Neff.

3. Raymond Chandler makes a cameo appearance, about 16 minutes into the movie, at Walter’s office building.

2. It’s perfectly paced – you can watch it over and over and it moves along lickety split every time, leaving you wanting more.

1. It truly ranks as a classic flick – it’s as fresh, sexy and funny today as it was in 1944. The writing, acting, directing cinematography, lighting, art direction are matchless.

Do you love “Double Indemnity” as much as we do? Then let us know!

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Lake, Ladd and Chandler script help ‘Blue Dahlia’ bloom

Blue Dahlia posterThe Blue Dahlia/1946/Paramount/96 min.

Sitting here waiting for the Tigers game to start and for the bf to make dinner, I keep thinking of food metaphors. For instance: watching “The Blue Dahlia” is like ordering a blue-cheese burger at a steakhouse – tasty fare, but not quite as satisfying as filet mignon. So I have a one-track mind. I’m hungry.

That does, however, sum up “The Blue Dahlia” – it’s a pretty good yarn and in the hands of a more stylish director, instead of comedy specialist George Marshall, it might have been a true gem. In Marshall’s hands, the visuals are ho-hum, there’s not much atmosphere and there are several moments where the pace seems to idle. Overall, it feels a bit dated.

On the plus side, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd lead a strong cast and Raymond Chandler received an Oscar nom for his original screenplay. (It lost to the British psychological drama “The Seventh Veil” by Muriel and Sydney Box.) Also, “The Blue Dahlia” has several famous location shots, such as the Brown Derby, and in 1947 the film’s title gave rise to the name of one of Hollywood’s most nefarious real-life mysteries.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's third movie together.

This was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s third movie together.

Ladd plays an ex-Navy bomber pilot named Johnny Morrison, who arrives in Los Angeles with two pals from the Navy. The three jump off the bus at Hollywood Boulevard and head to the nearest bar. Buzz (William Bendix) has sustained war injuries (he has a plate in his skull) and isn’t thinking too clearly; his foil is calm and level-headed George (Hugh Beaumont, aka Ward Cleaver on “Leave it to Beaver.”)

Next up for Johnny is a reunion with his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) at her bungalow apartment on Wilshire Boulevard. Not exactly a picture of wifely devotion, raven-haired, rye-chugging Helen is hosting a raucous party that night. (Doris Dowling’s real-life older sister Constance Dowling played shady lady Mavis Marlowe in the film noir “Black Angel,” also from 1946, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and directed by Roy William Neill.)

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

Johnny (Alan Ladd) watches out for fellow vet Buzz (William Bendix).

After Helen confesses that her drinking led to the death of their son, Johnny pulls his gun out and considers using it, but changes his mind. Instead he drops the gun on an armchair, next to a blue dahlia flower from Helen’s, um, companion, slick and sleazy Eddie Harwood (Howard Da Silva). Harwood owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub, hence he hands out flowers.

Johnny heads out into the rainy night and hitches a ride with Joyce Harwood (Lake), a chilly blonde goddess with an air of mystery. She’s also Eddie Harwood’s estranged wife.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Helen (Doris Dowling) would rather drink a beer than win Mother of the Year. Her chum Eddie (Howard Da Silva) owns the Blue Dahlia nightclub.

Well, as you know, no good deed goes unpunished in film noir and leaving the gun behind wasn’t the wisest decision on Johnny’s part. The next morning Helen is dead and Johnny tops the list of suspects. Others on the list include disloyal Eddie Harwood, the oft-confused and easily excited Buzz, who paid Helen a visit the night of her death, and ‘Dad’ Newell (Will Wright), the seedy house detective at Helen’s apartment complex.

In Chandler’s original script, Buzz did the deed but painting a vet in bad light would be courting disaster with the censors so Chandler had to revamp the story and find a new villain. Reportedly, Chandler, who was fond of drinking like a fish, locked himself away one weekend and got even more smashed than usual in order to cobble together the revised script, which the studio needed in a hurry because Ladd was called for military service.

A highlight of the flick is the wry banter between Ladd and Lake – this was the third of four films they made together (preceded by “This Gun for Hire” and “The Glass Key,” and followed by 1948’s “Saigon”) and by this time they have it down. Ladd snarls and pushes her away, Lake purrs and turns her nose up, aloof and amused.

Elizabeth Short became known as the Black Dahlia.

Elizabeth Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia after her death.

“The Blue Dahlia” also played a part in the aftermath of Hollywood’s most famous unsolved murder: Elizabeth Short, a pretty girl from a Boston suburb who came to Hollywood looking for adventure or a husband, whichever came first. Short was brutally killed; her mutilated body was found on Jan. 15, 1947.

As the police investigation progressed, Short became widely known as the Black Dahlia. Some say a Long Beach bartender dubbed her the Black Dahlia in 1946 because of her sometimes-theatrical appearance (acquaintances said she liked wearing heavy makeup and flowers in her hair when she dressed up); others attribute the moniker to journalists covering the grisly case. Either way, “The Blue Dahlia” movie triggered the nickname.

“The Blue Dahlia,” with its smart writing and solid acting, is required film noir viewing, despite its flaws. And I almost forgot  – there’s a great dry moment when the maid finds Helen’s body. No screaming or wringing of hands for this hard-living broad, just an “Oh brother” and a long sigh.

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The Noir File: Edgar Ulmer’s ‘Detour’ and Friday Night with Dashiell Hammett

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

Ann Savage and Tom Neal star in the ultra low-budget “Detour.”

Detour” (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Tuesday, June 11: 2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.).

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Friday, June 7

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). With Peter Lorre, Margaret Tallichet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed on FNB Nov. 3, 2012.

NOIR WRITERS SERIES: DASHIELL HAMMETT

Dashiell Hammett

All this month, on its Friday Night Spotlight screenings, TCM will show a series of classic film noirs – with each Friday devoted to movies based on or written by (or both) one of four top-notch noir authors – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich.

Tonight the spotlight is on the matchless hard-boiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett – who, along with Ernest Hemingway, was probably one of the most influential American writers of the decades after World War I, and since. Terse, lean and brutally direct, empty of flourish, cliché or artifice, Hammett’s style owed a lot to his own years as a Pinkerton detective.

He decisively reveals a world of greed, murder, illicit sex, gangsterism, corruption and treachery among the rich and the crooked, telling it all with a flair and a punch that was copied endlessly but rarely recaptured. (The “Noir Writers” films were curated and will be introduced by film noir expert Eddie Muller.)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Maltese Falcon” (1931, Roy Del Ruth). The first movie adaptation of Hammett’s classic dark private-eye novel, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale and Dudley Digges as Gutman – all chasing the priceless black bird. It pales beside John Huston’s great version of course (see below). But it’s not bad, in a raunchy pre-Code way.

9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.): “City Streets” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian). Hammett’s only original movie story: an underworld romance stylishly directed by Mamoulian, who was in his most innovative period. With Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as lovers caught in a vicious world of big-city crime, and Paul Lukas and Guy Kibbee as off-type bad guys. [Read more...]

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A Raymond Chandler story, an all-star cast and a powerhouse director: ‘The Big Sleep’ works like a sexy dream

The Big Sleep/1946/Warner Bros. Pictures/114 min.

Howard Hawks added romance and comedy to the dark tone of Raymond Chandler’s novel. Every scene with Bogie and Bacall sizzles.

“The Big Sleep,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is almost too much fun to be pure noir. Actually, it’s not pure in any way because under the thriller surface, it’s all about sex. The women in this movie especially are thinking a lot about the bedroom.

(That’s pretty much the case with most of the film noir canon, but this movie is an outstanding example.)

“The Big Sleep” was released in 1946, the year after World War II ended. Having been man-deprived for four long years while their guys were all over the globe fighting battles, all of a sudden, everywhere the ladies looked, Men, Glorious Men! For the vets, being welcomed home and hailed as heroes by women, who likely weren’t playing all that hard to get, was not too shabby a deal.

Based on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name, “The Big Sleep” stars Humphrey Bogart as Chandler’s legendary private eye Philip Marlowe. Cynical, stubborn and streetwise, Marlowe is impervious to the trappings of wealth and power, though, given his line of work, he often finds himself dealing with the ultra rich. Marlowe flings sarcastic barbs as casually as they drop cash, even when his companions are slinky, sharp-tongued women, like spoiled society girl Vivian Sternwood Rutledge, played by Lauren Bacall.

Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) is a rich party girl who constantly courts trouble.

Vivian’s Dad, a wise and way-old patriarch known as General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), has hired Marlowe to get a blackmailer named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) off his back and to track down a missing chum: Sean Regan (a character we never see onscreen).

Fueling Brody’s scheme are the, uh, antics of Sternwood’s other daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), a sexy party girl who sucks her thumb and likes posing for cameras with very little on. Snapping the pics is seedy book dealer Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz), whose snippy clerk Agnes (Sonia Darrin), has, as her “protector,” feisty little Harry Jones, played by film noir’s number one patsy, Elisha Cook Jr.

That’s just one piece of a very complicated puzzle, full of false leads and red herrings, bad guys and blind alleys, and more plot twists than I can count. By the time Marlowe puts it all together, seven are dead. But the best part of the movie for me is the dry humor and that sexy subtext I was talking about. Even the title, “The Big Sleep,” referring to death, could be a play on the French phrase for sexual climax: “le petite morte” (the little death).

Bogart’s Marlowe charms a bookstore clerk (Dorothy Malone).

By the film’s end, Marlowe’s had propositions aplenty. For example, as Marlowe gathers info on Geiger, he strolls into the Acme Bookstore and meets a bespectacled brunette clerk(Dorothy Malone, later more famous as a blonde). They chat, she provides a description of Geiger, and Marlowe tells her she’d make a good cop. It starts to rain and he suggests they have a drink. Next thing you know, she removes her glasses, lets down her hair and says, “Looks like we’re closed for the rest of the afternoon.”

Then there’s the perky female cab driver who tells Marlowe to call her if he can use her again sometime. He asks: Day and night? Her answer: “Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Apparently, all Marlowe has to do is get out of bed in the morning to be inundated with offers to climb back in. Most importantly, of course, is Marlowe’s innuendo-heavy badinage with Vivian Sternwood. They’re attracted from the moment they meet and, with each subsequent encounter, they turn flirting and verbal sparring into an art form. Here’s a quickie (sorry, I couldn’t resist):

Marlowe and Vivian discuss horse-racing and other amusements.

“You go too far, Marlowe,” says Vivian.

He replies: “Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially when he’s walking out of your bedroom.”

Perhaps their most famous exchange occurs when they trade notes about horse-racing – with Vivian comparing Marlowe to a stallion.

Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but, uh…I don’t know how – how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don’t know it, you’re doing all right.

Marlowe: There’s one thing I can’t figure out.

Vivian: What makes me run?

Marlowe: Uh-huh.

Vivian: I’ll give you a little hint. Sugar won’t work. It’s been tried.

The horsy banter was added after the 1945 version was completed and shown overseas to audiences of U.S. soldiers; several other changes were made for the 1946 stateside release. In the late 1990s, the original version of the movie turned up. Though the original made the plot points more clear, most critics and viewers prefer the altered (second) version.

Whichever version you prefer (both are available on the Warner Brothers DVD), “The Big Sleep” is full of all kinds of pleasure, thanks to director Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers. Hawks was known for being a master of all genres, garnering great performances from stars like Bogart, John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Marilyn Monroe, and for perfecting the bromance, long before the term came into currency.

In “The Big Sleep,” the pace is brisk, the characters are richly drawn, there’s loads of action and the scenes with Bogart and Bacall truly sizzle. Though the cinematography by Sid Hickox doesn’t bear the expressionistic stamp of the more Germanic noir directors, the film certainly holds its own in terms of visual panache. And Max Steiner’s original music lends sonic verve.

Marlowe gets details from his client, the wealthy and weak Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron).

Also brilliant, and not just for its subtext, is the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. The dialogue, much of which comes straight from Chandler’s novel, is both colorful and economical, as shown by this exchange between Gen. Sternwood and Marlowe:

Sternwood: You are looking, sir, at a very dull survival of a very gaudy life – crippled, paralyzed in both legs, very little I can eat, and my sleep is so near waking that it’s hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider. The orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?

Marlowe: Not particularly.

Sternwood: Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.

Flesh, perfume, sweetness and corruption permeate “The Big Sleep,” my favorite of Bogart and Bacall’s great noirs. (The others are “To Have and Have Not” 1944, also directed by Hawks, “Dark Passage” 1947, and “Key Largo” 1948.) What’s not to love, or at least lust after, for 114 minutes?

Too bad Lauren Bacall never made a guest appearance on “Sex and the City.” She could have taught Carrie and the girls a thing or two.

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‘The Big Sleep’ quick hit

The Big Sleep/1946/Warner Bros. Pictures/114 min.

Perhaps the most serpentine plot in all noir, a tour-de-force film, based on a Raymond Chandler novel and directed by Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated storytellers. The twists and turns are beside the point, which is: the divine writing and double-entendre exchanges between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He’s detective Philip Marlowe; she’s a socialite. She’s also his boss because her family hired him to snuff out a blackmail scheme involving her naughty little sister. So far, so good, until bodies start getting snuffed out too. Jolly good fun and wildly sexy!

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FNB holiday gift guide 2012: Part Two

I’m back today with more stuff to covet. First, a few classics that any film noir fan should own. These books have been out for a while but I wanted to mention them because the Library of America editions are particularly well done.

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s” (Vol. 1) includes The Postman Always Rings Twice, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Thieves Like Us, The Big Clock (Library of America), $35.

Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories” includes The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window (Library of America), $40.

Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings” includes The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, Playback, Double Indemnity screenplay, selected essays and letters (Library of America), $35.

And now for some newly released titles.

Film Noir Graphics: Where Danger Lives by Alain Silver and James Ursini, $40.

Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, $75.

The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced With the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence, $23.

W: The First 40 Years by Stefano Tonchi, Christopher Bagley and John B. Fairchild, $75.

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance by Marilyn Yalom, $16.

Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons by Peter Trachtenberg, $24.

The Rolling Stones 50 by The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, $60.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris by Stephanie LaCava, $24.

The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee by James Freeman, Caitlin Freeman and Tara Duggan, $25. Jeffrey Steingarten recommends this coffee; nuff said.

As a curator for the History Channel Shop, I’ve recommended 30 of my favorite film noir titles. You can’t go wrong with the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 1 (Warner Bros.). This essential set includes: The Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past, Murder My Sweet, Gun Crazy and The Set-Up. (You can read mini-reviews of the first four titles on the Shop page or search for full-length reviews on this site.)

Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 1, $50.

Last month, Paramount released “Sunset Blvd.” on Blu-ray, $27. Here’s a special-feature clip, a discussion of the mansion and pool in the film.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Universal), Blu-ray, $300.

New from Criterion: Purple Noon, Blu-ray, $32.

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Free stuff from FNB! Win Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers set

The winner of the November giveaway has been contacted. (The prize is “Sunset Blvd.”)

The December giveaway is terrific three-disc DVD collection from Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Universal Studios Home Entertainment (USHE). Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers highlights the work of legendary mystery writers Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler.

The set includes:

“The Glass Key” (1942, Stuart Heisler) – Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake star in this stylish remake of the 1935 film based on Hammett’s novel.

“Phantom Lady” (1944, Robert Siodmak) – A man arrested for murdering his wife is unable to produce his only alibi – a mysterious woman he met in a bar – in this adaptation of a Woolrich novel. Now his secretary must go undercover to locate her. Ella Raines, Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, Alan Curtis and Elisha Cook Jr. star.

“The Blue Dahlia” (1946, George Marshall) – A WWII veteran who has been accused of killing his unfaithful wife races against time to find the real murderer with the help of a sympathetic stranger. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix, Howard da Silva and Hugh Beaumont star. Chandler’s original screenplay earned an Oscar nomination.

Dark Crimes: Film Noir Thrillers, a great gift idea, is also available from TCM’s online store.

To enter this month’s giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Dec. 1-31. We welcome comments, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The December winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early January. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Also be sure to check your email – if I don’t hear from you after three attempts, I will choose another winner. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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Director takes a gamble in yuletide yarn ‘Lady in the Lake’

Lady in the Lake/1947/MGM/103 min.

Mistletoe and holly, egg nog and parties, guns and murder. In “Lady in the Lake,” based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, actor/director Robert Montgomery mixes Christmas traditions with ironic noir style.

After Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter) hires Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery), their relationship morphs from business to pleasure.

While sleigh bells are jingling, Montgomery’s Philip Marlowe, the famed private eye, is trying to find a mystery woman named Chrystal Kingsby. Chrystal is married to Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames), the owner of a book publishing company in Los Angeles; she was last seen at the Little Fawn Lake resort.

Marlowe’s been hired by one of Derace Kingsby’s employees: uptight and bossy Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), a sharp-tongued executive editor with designs on her boss and his money. She chooses her detective not from the yellow pages but from a crime-caper manuscript Marlowe submits for publication – some effective multitasking she’ll no doubt include on her performance review. Though Adrienne’s all about business and bank balances at first, she softens as sparks fly between her and Marlowe.

Heading to Bay City (based on Santa Monica), Marlowe checks in with Chris Lavery (Dick Simmons), a Southern-transplant playboy with whom Chrystal was having an affair. But a punch from Lavery lands Marlowe in jail and he wakes up to questioning from Capt. Kane (Tom Tully) and Lt. DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan). After his release, Marlowe learns that a woman’s body has been recovered from the lake and that the caretaker has been charged with murdering his wife, Muriel (Jayne Meadows). He also finds Lavery’s dead body.

From there, as Marlowe puts together the pieces of the puzzle – a multiple-identity scam, another murder, several soured love affairs, Chrystal’s part in the proceedings – Adrienne realizes that Marlowe, not Derace Kingsby, is the man for her. (Look out for blonde actress Lila Leeds as a receptionist at the publishing company. Leeds was arrested with Robert Mitchum on Aug. 31, 1948, for possession of marijuana.)

More interesting than the plot is way the movie was shot. Montgomery plays Marlowe but we see very little of him in character because Montgomery as director took a stylistic risk by using a subjective/first-person camera and telling the story from Marlowe’s point of view.

The audience sees Marlowe in the mirror when he pays Adrienne a visit.

First-person camera had been used before – briefly in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian) and “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, Edward Dmytryk) and most notably for about 30 minutes in “Dark Passage” (1947, Delmer Daves, starring Bogart & Bacall). But this was the first time the whole movie (other than a few times when Marlowe speaks directly to the audience) unspooled in this manner.

It’s a daring experiment and a bigger deal than you might think, involving a number of technical, staging and acting challenges. In their excellent commentary on the Warner Home Video DVD, Alain Silver and James Ursini provide insight as to what this artistic decision meant for Montgomery.

For example, the film has very long takes and far fewer cuts than most movies of its time – this serves to build suspense but is tough to execute. For the actors as well (other than Montgomery) this presented hurdles. They were required to address the camera directly (something they’d been trained to avoid) and they faced the pressure of knowing that if they goofed toward the end of the take, the whole lengthy shot would have to be redone.

Bad girl Muriel (Jayne Meadows) corners the unseen Marlowe.

Additionally, Silver and Ursini point out that because “Lady in the Lake” was an MGM production (as was “The Postman Always Rings Twice” the year before), it had to conform somewhat to the studio’s preferred look: high production values and high-key lighting – unlike most noirs, which used low-key light and featured richer shadows, more intense chiaroscuro.

So, did the shooting experiment work? Chandler, who drafted a script that Steve Fisher rewrote, thought Montgomery made a mistake. And having watched “Lady in the Lake: a few times, I’m inclined to agree. First, despite the marketing gimmick of putting the viewer in the detective’s shoes and urging him/her to solve the crime, “Lady” feels artificial and stilted, perhaps because the long takes lend a slightly stagey feel to the performances.

Lila Leeds, who plays the receptionist at the publishing company, was arrested with Robert Mitchum in 1948 for possession of marijuana.

Not seeing much of Montgomery/Marlowe makes it hard to connect to the story (typically Chandlerian in its twists and turns) and puts too much weight on the shoulders of the other players. While Totter and the rest are very capable, they can’t quite pull off such a distorted view for the duration of the movie. It’s too big a hole for any cast to fill.

And Marlowe isn’t particularly sympathetic because we only glimpse him here and there instead of seeing him interact with the others – especially Totter. For their romance to work, we need to see them together!

That said, I don’t want to get all Bah-Humbug about this yuletide yarn. “Lady in the Lake” is fun to watch just for the novelty value and I love to picture Adrienne sprawled on a sofa and whipping out her red pen to shape Marlowe’s manuscript as he mixes her a martini, garnished with a candy cane, natch.

“Lady in the Lake” will show in 35 mm at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Wednesday, Dec. 19, as part of Noir City Xmas 3. The evening will also feature the unveiling of the full schedule for the Noir City 11 film festival.

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