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

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 21

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

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The Noir File: French style from Jean Gabin in ‘Grisbi’

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). Lots of Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame this week!


Legendary, stylish Jean Gabin plays a legendary, stylish gangster named Max le Menteur.

Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954, Jacques Becker). Friday, Nov. 30, 11:15 p.m. (8:15 p.m.): Film noir is a French term and the masters of the form include major French filmmakers as well as Americans. One of those masters is New Wave favorite Jacques Becker (“Casque d’Or“). And Becker’s noir masterpiece is “Touchez pas au Grisbi.” The film takes a wonderfully atmospheric and psychologically acute look at the Parisian underworld: at a legendary, stylish old gangster named Max le Menteur (played by the legendary, stylish Jean Gabin), at the spoils of Max’s last big job and at the unbreakable ties of friendship that entrap him. Adapted by Becker and Albert Simonin from Simonin’s novel, with two later noir mainstays in small roles: Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura. The title translates as “Don’t Touch the Loot.” (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 26

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Steel Trap” (1952, Andrew L. Stone). In a neat twist from writer-director Stone, Joseph Cotten plays a bank employee/embezzler, desperately trying to return the loot he filched. With Teresa Wright. A favorite of noir expert Foster Hirsch.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Brighton Rock” (1947, John Boulting). From Graham Greene’s classic novel about a babyfaced killer on Brighton beach named Pinkie (Richard Attenborough), smartly co-scripted by Greene.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Unsuspected” (1947, Michael Curtiz). Lesser-known but strong noir about a radio true crime show, whose producer (Claude Rains) becomes a murderer. With Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield and Audrey Totter.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Woman on the Beach” (1947, Jean Renoir). Renoir’s U.S. noir: A disturbed guy (Bob Ryan) gets involved with a blind painter (Charles Bickford) and his sexy wife (Joan Bennett).

Wednesday, Nov. 28

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). The famous postwar thriller about an anti-Semitic murder, co-starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray). Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell strike sultry sparks in this exotic thriller from Howard Hughes’ RKO. Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, with uncredited reshooting by Nick Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

Friday, Nov. 30

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh).

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm). Flashbacks within flashbacks adorn this stylish psychological noir about a troubled seductress (Laraine Day). With Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne.

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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).


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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Bribes, brawls and bullets, and sultry Marie Windsor

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

“She haunts my dreams and some of my nightmares as well,” says an ardent fan of actress Marie Windsor in 1952’s “The Narrow Margin,” directed by Richard Fleischer.

Billy Friedkin

The fan in question is Chicago-born Billy Friedkin – director of “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), among many others – and his comments come in the form of DVD commentary for “The Narrow Margin,” a definitive film noir. Maybe Windsor had that mysterious-older-woman vibe going on too, since Friedkin was only 17 when this B-movie came out.

In it, she plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, a gangster’s wife. She’s a bribable beauty with a sharp tongue. The story takes place almost entirely on a train from Chicago to LA, where Mrs. Neall is scheduled to testify against the mob. Making sure she doesn’t bail on the way is her police escort Walter Brown (Charles McGraw).

Charles McGraw

One snag is that the mob is less than thrilled about the prospect of her naming names when she takes the stand. So two heavies board the train hoping to rub her out; their earlier attempt resulted in the death of Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe). They’ve got their work cut out for them, though – they don’t know what she looks like. And they’re up against Charles McGraw.

It’s a great yarn, fast and lean, where every second counts. The visuals are richly lurid – the stark shadows of Mrs. Neall’s apartment building when the cops come to get her are standouts. As Friedkin puts it: “Lighting is a character in these films.”

Fleischer also manages to convey a sense of realism despite the fact that “The Narrow Margin” was primarily shot on a train set. One way he accomplished that was by employing a hand-held camera, using it to simulate a sense of motion. Cramped compositions and claustrophobic camera angles heighten the mood of entrapment. Shot in less than a month, the film was a big hit at the box office.

We also meet some memorable fellow passengers such as the curious and tubby Jennings (Paul Maxey) who declares: “Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.”

And of course Windsor exudes streetwise strength every time she makes one of her barbed comments or acidic rejoinders. When Brown tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach,” she barks: “Well use your own sink.” Upon seeing him put on his gun one morning, she asks: “What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?”

“The Narrow Margin” garnered an Oscar nomination (rare for noirs) for the story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote the story and screenplay for another famous noir: “Detour,” made in 1945 by director Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. [Read more…]

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Quick hit: ‘The Narrow Margin’

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

No wonder Marie Windsor’s a little cranky. As a mobster’s wife, she’s used to the cushy life and here she is stuck on a train from Chicago to LA with a tiresome police escort (Charles McGraw) who’s making sure she’ll testify against the mob. Or will she? It’s a fast ride full of sharp turns. Richard Fleischer directs this Oscar-nominated story; the low-budget gem was a big money maker for the studio (RKO).

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Earthy, sexy and wry, Marie Windsor was born to play fatales

Let’s be fair. Marie Windsor as femme fatale Sherry Peatty in “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick may seem venal, treacherous and manipulative. And yes she hatches a scheme to feather her nest that’s a bit dangerous. But is it right that she’s punished for being as smart, decisive and daring as the men?

Sherry is married, need I say unhappily, to George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a nervous, Milquetoast cashier at a racetrack. Through George, she gets wind of a heist taking place at the track by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang. Sherry tips off her lover Val (Vince Edwards) and comes up with this idea: let George and his friends do the heavy lifting, then she and Val can take off with the stolen cash, about $2 million.

In "The Killing," Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty is so over her dreary husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Of course, you could argue that the deeply flawed Sherry is downright immoral. And so are the men. But Sherry only gets as far as she does because of George’s colossal ego. Or perhaps it’s his tremendous capacity for denial. Clearly, she’s been after money all along and she’s tired of George not coming through with it. C’mon, George, did you really think she was into your swagger? (Offscreen, Windsor and Cook were chums. She said of him in a 1992 interview, “Elisha Cook was a darling and full of the devil.”)

Earthy, sexy and wry, Windsor was an actress born to play femmes fatales – with her huge, restless eyes, slightly cynical smile and lean but curvy body. Regardless of how many lines or how many scenes Windsor was in, she had a quality both luminous and tawdry, an expressiveness bordering on vulgarity that meshed perfectly with noir sensibility.

Windsor won an award from Look magazine for her role in "The Killing."

Born and raised in Utah, Windsor was especially popular with directors of Westerns and of noirs (in particular, “Force of Evil,” 1948, by Abraham Polonsky; “The Narrow Margin,” 1952, by Richard Fleischer; and “The Sniper,” 1952, by Edward Dmytryk). Once Windsor had been cast, the director had one less thing to worry about, knowing that she’d nail the character.

Kubrick so wanted Windsor for “The Killing” that he delayed filming until she had wrapped up 1955’s “Swamp Women” by Roger Corman. She was worth the wait; for playing Sherry in “The Killing,” Windsor was rewarded with a 1956 Best Supporting Actress award from Look magazine, a prestigious honor at the time.

Windsor worked steadily in movies and TV through the early 1990s. She was married to Jack Hupp for 46 years, from 1954 until her death in 2000.

Despite Sherry’s, um, blemished character, I prefer her gumption to Johnny’s girlfriend, the desperately needy Fay (Coleen Gray). As Fay tells Johnny: “I’m not very pretty and I’m not smart so please don’t leave me alone any more. I’ll go along with anything you say, Johnny. I always will.”

Ever heard of a spine, lady? Well, Sherry has.

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