The Film Noir File: Belafonte and Ryan bet it all on ‘Odds’

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

“Odds Against Tomorrow”
(1959, Robert Wise). 1 a.m. (10 p.m.) Monday, Jan. 20

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a stellar cast in "Odds Against Tomorrow."

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a stellar cast in “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose reputation and stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Based on a novel by suspense specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat”), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a social/political allegory that’s pointed and powerful. With Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame. Read the full review here.

Thursday, Jan. 16

Joan Crawford plays a crime boss in this remake of a 1939 Swedish thriller.

Joan Crawford plays a crime boss in this remake of a 1939 Swedish thriller.

12:30 a.m. (9:30 p.m.): “A Woman’s Face” (1941, George Cukor). A crime boss (Joan Crawford) with a ruined face has her physical damage repaired by plastic surgery. Embarking on another crime, she must decide whether to pursue the evil she knows or the good that beckons. Remade from the 1939 Swedish thriller by director Gustaf Molander, with Ingrid Bergman in Crawford’s part. The original was better, but the remake is good. The supporting cast includes Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt (in his Hollywood specialty, a smooth sadistic villain), Reginald Owen, Marjorie Main and Henry Daniell. Script by Donald Ogden Stewart and mystery writer Elliot Paul.

4:15 a.m. (1:15 a.m.): “These are the Damned” (1963, Joseph Losey). Expatriate American director Losey, a Black List victim, was still in Britain when he made this scintillatingly shot mix of neo-noir, juvenile delinquent thriller, and “Village of the Damned”-style anti-war science fiction. MacDonald Carey is the boat enthusiast/ businessman at a coastal British city, who falls for a Teddy Girl (Shirley Anne Field). Her gang-boss brother (played by sullen young Oliver Reed) is touchy, jealous and dangerous. Chased by the gang (whose signature song is the bizarrely uncatchy psychotic-sounding pseudo-rock ballad “Black Leather! Black Leather! Kill! Kill! Kill!”), the couple escapes to an island in the grip of a doomsday scientific experiment with irradiated children, run by Alexander Knox. It’s a pretty crazy show, but it really grips you, and it looks great. Written by Losey regular Evan Jones (“Eva” and “King and Country”).

Saturday, Jan. 18

The one and only Tallulah Bankhead stars in "Lifeboat."

The one and only Tallulah Bankhead stars in “Lifeboat.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lifeboat” (1944, Alfred Hitchcock). During World War II, an American ocean liner is torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. The survivors – now trapped in the lifeboat and in the vast waters – have to decide whether to trust the only person among them who knows how to navigate the boat: the Nazi captain of the sub that sunk them (Walter Slezak). This anti-Fascist parable/thriller and character study, the most political and left-wing movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made, was originally written by John Steinbeck; Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling also had hands in it. Shot basically in one studio tank and in the lifeboat, this underrated flick features a shocker of an ending and a first-rate cast, including Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, William Bendix, Canada Lee, Hume Cronyn and Henry Hull.

Sunday, Jan. 19

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (1947, Peter Godfrey). With Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Reviewed in FNB on June 27, 2012. [Read more...]

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Robert Wise casts a spell with subtlety, smarts, superb acting

The Haunting posterBy Michael Wilmington

The Haunting/1963/Argyle Enterprises, MGM/112 min.

From Shirley Jackson’s eerie, intellectual ghost story “The Haunting of Hill House” director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding weave a classic supernatural thriller, a shocker without gore, a ghost movie seemingly without ghosts. Or is it?

In “The Haunting,” poltergeist investigator John Markway (Richard Johnson) and his group of spook watchers (Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris) are ensconced in a notorious old dark house together. Harris gives a movie-stealing performance as repressed spinster Nell Lance, who succumbs to Hill House’s shivery spell and terror-laced eroticism. Like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,Harris makes you feel the story’s terror – the menace and the entrapment of Hill House as Nell is pulled into the evil of the haunted domicile’s very dark past.

The cast is well nigh perfect, from Johnson’s enthusiastic and charming investigator, Bloom’s ambiguous, fancily severe Greenwich Village lesbian, Julie, to Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny of the James Bond series) as Mrs. Markway.

Tamblyn, who will be present for discussion at the 7 p.m. Tuesday screening of “The Haunting” in Westwood, plays smart-alecky nonbeliever Luke Sanderson. Tamblyn was reteaming here with director Wise, who had guided the actor to the highlight of his career, as Jet gangleader Riff in the 1961 Best Picture Oscar winner “West Side Story.”

Wise’s movie is quite faithful to Jackson’s acclaimed novel. The dialogue is literate and tense. The movie’s tasteful production design and the crystal-sharp black and white cinematography (by Davis Boulton) give this picture, shot in England, a classic look. It’s the kind of brainy, spooky cinematic treat Wise might have whipped up for producer Val Lewton in the ’40s, in their RKO prime time of “The Body Snatcher” and “The Curse of the Cat People” if they’d only had this kind of budget.

Roman Polanski once named Wise’s “The Haunting” as one of his favorite movies. It’s a shame that Polanski didn’t direct the 1999 remake of “The Haunting,” which was messed up by the producers and director Jan De Bont, and not helped by its big budget and gaudy effects. Subtlety, intelligence and superb acting are what cast the spell for Wise and company. Polanski probably would have brought all that back and made the movie sexy to boot – something the 1963 “Haunting” doesn’t really need.

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‘The Haunting’ marks 50 years with screening in Westwood

The Haunting posterCelebrating its 50th anniversary, “The Haunting” will screen at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Regent Theatre in Westwood.

Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) is psyched to spend a few weeks at a 19th Century New England mansion – need I say haunted? – in order to study its creepiness. As you might suspect, things don’t go to plan. Also starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn, who will attend Tuesday’s screening as a special guest. The evening is also a chance to pay tribute to Julie Harris, who died this summer.

At the time of its release, critic Judith Crist called the film “a thoroughly satisfying ghost story for grownups … completely contemporary in its psychological overtones and implications.”

Nelson Gidding wrote the script based on a Shirley Jackson novel; Robert Wise directs. Jan de Bont remade “The Haunting” in 1999, starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson.

You can buy tickets here.

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The Noir File: ‘The Set-Up’ is a highlight of Robert Ryan Day

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of 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

Robert Ryan plays the role of Stoker Thompson with dignity rather than sentimentality, with realism rather than melodrama.

The Set-Up” (1949, Robert Wise). Wednesday, April 10, 2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.). Boxing was a sport that the quintessential film noir tough guy Robert Ryan knew very well. Ryan was a four-year college boxing champion at Dartmouth, and later, when he became a Hollywood star, one of his finest roles and movies came in Robert Wise’s low-budget gem “The Set-Up,“ where Ryan played a seemingly washed-up prizefighter named Stoker Thompson – he’s been set up to lose what will probably be his last fight. Stoker’s craven manager Tiny (George Tobias) has been paid to insure Stoker throws the fight, by a crooked gambler (Alan Baxter), who has a big bet against the veteran. Tiny thinks it’s a sure defeat anyway. But Stoker still has his pride, still has his memories of what it was like when he was almost great and he doesn’t want to lie down in the ring, even if the mob will punish him severely if he doesn’t.

The film, which is based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, plays out in real time, beginning shortly before the fight, ending shortly after it. Wise, who is at his best as a director, gives “The Set-Up” relentless pace, tension, compassion and a marvelously seedy low-life atmosphere of matter-of-fact corruption and impending doom. Audrey Totter (in an untypical sympathetic role for this classic film noir dame) plays Stoker’s worried wife Julie. Wallace Ford is a salty old ring guy and Alan Baxter is Little Boy, the natty gambler who has the bet down and the muscle to back it up.

Ryan, one of the great film noir heavies, could play sociopathic bad guys like few other actors on screen. But here, he endows Stoker with the humanity and the grace under pressure that this great actor always had, but that we rarely see in his classic noir villain roles. Ryan plays this proud, beleaguered, supposedly over-the-hill fighter with dignity rather than sentimentality, with realism rather than melodrama, and with an intimate knowledge of the ways men can inflict bodily harm on each other for money.

Of all those tough and perceptive movies that show the dark side of professional boxing – “Body and Soul,” “Champion,” “Fat City,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and the others – “The Set-Up” may be the best. Once you hear the final bell, you’ll never forget it.

Wednesday, April 10: Robert Ryan Day

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). With Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame. Reviewed on FNB November 20, 2012. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: Belafonte and Ryan in ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

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

PICK OF THE WEEK

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a top cast in “Odds Aganist Tomorrow.”

Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise). Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.). Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose reputation and stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Directed by Robert Wise, and based on a novel by suspense specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat“), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a social/political allegory that’s pointed and powerful.

Three mismatched New Yorkers – genial, corrupt ex-cop Dave (Ed Begley), brutal ex-con Earl (Robert Ryan) and reckless Johnny (Harry Belafonte), a nightclub entertainer with huge gambling debts – join forces for an upstate bank robbery, a well-planned heist that will supposedly solve all their money problems. But the problems are just beginning. Earl is a racist who hates Johnny on sight and Johnny has a short fuse as well. Things begin to unravel, then explode.

Gloria Grahame plays an extra-friendly neighbor.

Ryan’s performance is a scorcher; he‘s a perfect villain, bad to the bone. Belafonte’s is compelling and non-clichéd. (He was also one of the producers.) Begley’s is jovial but poignant, a Willy Loman-like salesman peddling his own destruction. The women in the case, a pair of bad blondes – Shelley Winters as Earl’s whining wife and Gloria Grahame as his slutty neighbor – are top-notch.

French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville named “Odds Against Tomorrow” as one of his three all-time favorite movies; the other two were: “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Along with the 1949 boxing classic “The Set-Up” (which had Ryan in a sympathetic role, as the aging fighter) this is the best of Wise’s crime movies. The screenplay was mostly by the uncredited and blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (“Force of Evil“). The original jazz score is by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The atmospheric black and white cinematography is by Joseph C. Brun (“Edge of the City”).

Tuesday, Jan. 15

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Deadline at Dawn” (1946, Harold Clurman). With Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas.

Wednesday, Jan. 16

8 p.m. (5 p.m.) : “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish). Fast, breezy revenge yarn, with Dick Powell looking for payback, and Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad and William Erdman standing by.

12:45 a.m. (9:45 a.m.): “The Breaking Point” (1950, Michael Curtiz). With John Garfield and Patricia Neal.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey). With Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

Friday, Jan. 18

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Notorious” (1946, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Reins.

Saturday, Jan. 19

10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): “The Big Knife” (1955, Robert Aldrich). Clifford Odets’ backstage Hollywood shocker of a play is like a faceful of acid, and director Aldrich pulls no punches. Jack Palance is the beleaguered movie star Charlie Castle; surrounding him in an infernally corrupt studio system are Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Everett Sloane.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick). With James Mason, Sue Lyon and Peter Sellers.

3 a.m. (12 a.m.): “I Died a Thousand Times” (1955, Stuart Heisler). Color and Cinemascope remake of the Raoul Walsh-Humphrey Bogart-Ida Lupino gangster saga “High Sierra,” with the original stars replaced by Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. Inferior, but not awful. With Lee Marvin in his snarl mode.

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Noir greats Trevor and Tierney flirt with doom in ‘Born to Kill’

Trevor and Tierney are perfectly matched.

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

Most men are turnips.

So says soigné and sassy femme fatale Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) in RKO’s “Born to Kill” from 1947, directed by Robert Wise.

Most men, perhaps, but not the homme fatale she falls for. No, strapping tough-guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) isn’t a turnip. What’s the word I’m looking for? Parsnip? Potato? I know: Psycho! And in Helen he finds his ideal match.

This damned and dirty pair meet on a train from Reno to San Francisco. Helen’s just gotten a divorce (as her lawyer puts it, the bonds of matrimony can weigh heavily on one’s soul). Sam’s a little stressed as well, having just murdered his girlfriend du jour Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell) and her date in a fit of jealousy.

Look good or report some “messy” murders? Helen knows what’s important.

In San Fran, Sam shows up uninvited (well, sort of) at her place. Helen neglected to mention that she’s engaged to boring but wealthy and well-bred Fred Grover (Phillip Terry, married to Joan Crawford from 1942 -46 and stepfather to Christina Crawford). So Sam pursues Helen’s upper-crust foster sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long).

They’re joined in San Francisco by Sam’s sidekick, Marty Waterman (the ever-eerie Elisha Cook Jr.). Also stirring things up is delightfully sleazy private eye Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak) who’s been hired by Laury’s friend, Mrs. Kraft (the always-great Esther Howard as the hard-drinking floozy), to investigate the murders.

Helen and Sam make no pretense of actually loving Fred and Georgia – they want to share their partners’ wealth and keep their secret lust alive. “Your roots are down where mine are,” Sam tells Helen. So they flirt, fight, and play games, natch. For example, after Helen figures out that Sam killed poor Laury and her hapless date, they share a passionate embrace in which they exchange grisly details from the crime, clearly a turn-on for them both. Of course, a relationship this demented is bound to burn out sooner rather than later and their road to self-destruction makes a pretty good yarn.

Cook and Howard round out a great cast.

Produced by Dore Schary and written by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay from James Gunn’s novel “Deadlier than the Male,” the movie failed to impress American critics upon its release. Wise, who also directed the noirs “The Set-Up” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” along with many other films (most notably Oscar winners “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”) started as an editor (“Citizen Kane”). He does not show enormous visual flair in “Born to Kill.”

But on the plus side, the characters and cast along with a sharp dialogue, make this worth watching. (It’s also a good example of a film noir title that explores American class tensions, something that most Hollywood movies consistently overlooked.)

Noir stalwart Trevor (perhaps most famous for her similar role in “Murder, My Sweet”) shines here as Helen, lavishing her lines with comely cynicism. Tierney’s a bit one-note as the cold-blooded killer but he brings a riveting intensity and realness to the part. Apparently, Brooklyn-born Tierney, son of an Irish cop, was known as a bit of a thug offscreen as well, prone to heavy drinking and fighting, which damaged his career. On the DVD commentary, director Wise describes him as a “good actor but a rough character.”

Still, Tierney didn’t vanish into the Hollywood mist and he continued to act in smaller roles. Quentin Tarantino recruited him for “Reservoir Dogs” and he showed up on “Seinfeld” as Elaine’s father. Time didn’t do much to mellow him – he was reportedly difficult and belligerent.

But it’s Esther Howard who steals the show. My favorite scene comes when Marty tries to put her out of the picture by luring her out to a remote sand dune. Mrs. Kraft might be sloshed a lot of the time but Marty learns the hard way that she’s no pushover.

At a mere 83 minutes, “Born to Kill” is crisp, fast and fun.

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‘Born to Kill’ quick hit

Born to Kill/1947/RKO/83 min.

When the sole witness to a double murder, Claire Trevor as Helen Brent, decides not to report the crime because it would be “messy and a lot of bother,” you know you’re dealing with a chilly lady. She’s looking for a man who can match her heartlessness and finds him in mixed-up tough guy Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney).

They sizzle in their own warped way, but Esther Howard as the beer-chugging landlady steals the show in this early work by director Robert Wise. Also stars noiristo Elisha Cook Jr.

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The Noir File: Tracy is tops in Lang’s anti-lynching classic ‘Fury’

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

Fury” (1936, Fritz Lang). Monday, Oct. 8, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

Spencer Tracy stars in “Fury,” one of the most Germanic of Fritz Lang’s American movies.

The two great American anti-lynching movies are Fritz Lang’s 1936 classic “Fury,” and William Wellman’s great 1943 Western “The Ox-Bow Incident.” “Fury” is the more powerful of the two, the more effective, the more memorable. Lang’s film, which he also co-wrote, is an explosive saga of a Depression-era small city descending into lynch hysteria. Spencer Tracy, at his youthful naturalistic best, is Joe Wilson, a decent, ordinary, working-class guy who stops his car in the town and is mistaken for a kidnapper. Locked in jail despite his desperate protestations of innocence, Joe is then subject to a terrifying nocturnal assault by the maddened townspeople, who drive away the craven police guards and burn the jail down, killing Joe – they think.

But Joe is alive, having fled back to the big city and his family and fiancée (Sylvia Sidney). And he is now consumed with obsessive dreams of fiery revenge and awful retribution. What happens in the course of that revenge may be unlikely, but “Fury” is still gripping, frightening and hypnotic. It’s one of the most Germanic of Lang’s American movies, one of the strongest social message dramas of the ’30s, and as obvious a precursor of ’40s film noir as Lang’s1931 masterpiece “M.” With Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, Walter Abel and Frank Albertson. Screenplay by Lang and Bartlett Cormack, from a story by Norman Krasna.

Saturday, Oct. 6

“Party Girl” is pure Nick Ray: romantic, moody and violent. Shown: John Ireland, Cyd Charisse.

6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “Party Girl” (1958, Nicholas Ray). In Nick Ray’s lusciously colorful and nervy gangland tale, Robert Taylor is a handsome mob attorney who milks sympathy from juries by walking on his crutches. Cyd Charisse is the leggy nightclub dancer/party girl he loves and Lee J. Cobb is Cyd’s other lover: Rico, the Chicago mob boss who carries a little vile of acid for anyone who double-crosses him. Set in 1930s Chicago, this is pure Ray: romantic, moody and violent. With John Ireland and Kent Smith.

Sunday, Oct. 7

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” (1948, St. John Legh Clowes). A real oddity: British novelist James Hadley Chase’s bizarre take on American crime fiction, complete with a twisted gang boss, a kidnapped heiress, a cynical newsman, gunsels galore and pink gin. (Later remade quite well by Robert Aldrich in 1971 as “The Grissom Gang.”) With Jack LaRue and Linden Travers.

John Garfield

Tuesday, Oct. 9

1:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m.): “The John Garfield Story” (2003, David Heeley). Documentary-bio of the great, sensitive tough guy and New York City-born film noir star.

Wednesday. Oct. 10

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Haunting” (1963, Robert Wise). From Shirley Jackson’s shivery, intellectual, supernatural novel “The Haunting of Hill House” – about a group of mostly amateur spook watchers (Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and movie-stealer Julie Harris) in an “old dark house” – noir and horror master Robert Wise (“The Body Snatcher,” “Born to Kill”) and screenwriter Nelson Gidding weave a classic ghost movie, seemingly without ghosts. (Or is it?)

Thursday, Oct. 11 (Robert Aldrich Night)

(Robert Aldrich Night begins at 8 p.m. (5 p.m.) with a great adventure movie: Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough and Peter Finch in 1965’s “The Flight of the Phoenix.”)

10:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m.): “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962, Robert Aldrich).

1 a.m. (10 p.m.): “The Legend of Lylah Clare” (1968, Robert Aldrich). Perverse backstage thriller about an obsessive Hollywood movie director (Peter Finch) trying to recreate the image of his dead wife, film legend Lylah Clare, in the body of a new blonde bombshell actress (Kim Novak). Echoes of “Vertigo” and “Baby Jane” abound. With Ernest Borgnine.

3:15 a.m. (12:15 a.m.): “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, Robert Aldrich).

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Raymond Chandler on the big screen: ‘Brasher Doubloon’ and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ to play this Thursday at the Aero

I’ve never seen “The Brasher Doubloon” but I love the name! This 1947 film, directed by John Brahm and starring George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe, is based on a Raymond Chandler novel (“The High Window”). “The Brasher Doubloon,” on a double bill with “Murder, My Sweet,” starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, 1328 Montana Ave.

Also, three excellent neo noirs are coming up in Los Angeles. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) in a double bill with “Blood Simple” (1984) by the Coen brothers plays at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Aero. Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) will show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

Murder, My Sweet/1944/RKO/95 min.

Dick Powell as Marlowe tells the story, in flashback, to police.

One of these days, I’ll get around to compiling my list of the Top 10 classic film noir movies. When I do, “Murder, My Sweet” (1944, RKO) will be on the roster because it’s a superb flick and a defining work of the genre, thanks to Edward Dmytryk’s directorial flair, top-notch acting and a terrific script (based on Raymond Chandler’s novel “Farewell My Lovely”) full of choice one-liners.

“Murder, My Sweet” stars Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe, perhaps Chandler’s most famous character and one of the best-known screen detectives. The movie opens with Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) showing up at Marlowe’s office, wanting him to find his old girlfriend, Velma. Marlowe looks for clues at Florian’s, a dive bar, and at the home of widow Jessie Florian (Esther Howard). How to describe Mrs. Florian? Well, it’s hard to beat Marlowe’s take: “She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

Meanwhile, Marlowe agrees to act as a sort of bodyguard for another client, fussy and effete Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who must deliver a ransom for stolen jewels. The exchange doesn’t go well – Marriott is murdered and Marlowe takes a crack on the head. Once back at the office, Marlowe is visited by a reporter asking questions about a stolen jade necklace. The “reporter” turns out be Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a cute, feisty Girl-Scout type from a wealthy family. Pretty quickly, Marlowe meets Ann’s cootish Daddy (Miles Mander) and her femme fatale stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor).

The introduction of Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) and Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is one of film noir's great meetings.

And a great meeting it is, a bit like Stanwyck and MacMurray in “Double Indemnity,” but here Trevor, dressed to the nines and sporting ankle-strap chunky heels, can’t really be bothered with coy flirtation. World-weary and blasé, she gives Marlowe the once-over without a word, just a great look of “another day, another guy.” A few minutes later she does fight the ennui enough to say pointedly, “Let’s dispense with the polite drinking, shall we?”

Besides drinking and shopping, Helen likes to dance and has no shortage of partners – guys who take her out on the town because Mr. G isn’t quite up to it. Turns out, Marriott was one of Helen’s companions and had been trying to help her buy back a stolen jade necklace. Now she thinks Marlowe might be up to the task.

But Marlowe isn’t easily seduced, even though he pretends to be if he thinks it will yield a clue or two. As he figures out who’s guilty of what, we meet Marriott’s suave, sinister chum Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) and the nefarious Dr. Sonderborg (Ralf Harolde).

Dick Powell and Anne Shirley

With its constantly twisting plot, original music by Roy Webb and high-contrast, shadow-heavy visuals from cinematographer Harry J. Wild, “Murder, My Sweet” is awfully good fun to watch.

John Paxton’s sharp screenplay honors Chandler’s wit and many lines still seem fresh today. Ann rails against “big league blondes: beautiful, expensive babes who know what they’ve got – all bubble bath and dewy morning and moonlight. And inside: blue steel, cold – cold like that, only not that clean.” Helen’s retort is simple: “Your slip shows, dear.”

The movie fared well with critics and audiences – the popular appeal was at least in part because leading man Powell was a matinée idol and musical comedy star. Financially strapped RKO signed him to a contract hoping he could pull in much-needed cash at the box office; Powell signed with the condition that he could first play a straight dramatic role. The studio changed the movie’s name from “Farewell, My Lovely” so that viewers wouldn’t mistake it for a musical.

Mike Mazurki

Edward Dmytryk

Though Dmytryk wasn’t thrilled with this casting decision, Powell did a near-flawless job, earning approval from both the director and Chandler. Trevor and Shirley match his fine work as do Howard, Walton, Mander and Kruger. And Mazurki was perfectly cast. Trevor was quite the celluloid bad girl; most notably as the cold-blooded temptress in “Born to Kill” (1947, Robert Wise). She won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role as gangster Edward G. Robinson’s moll in the classic “Key Largo” (1948, John Huston).

Dmytryk deftly balances cynicism and anxiety with acerbic humor and lighthearted romance. Gifted at creating suspense and edgy moods, he is an undisputed master of film noir. After “Murder, My Sweet,” he helmed “Cornered” (1945), “Crossfire” (1947), “The Hidden Room” (1949), “The Sniper” (1952) and “Mirage” (1965).

His career was sidetracked, however, by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and its unconstitutional efforts to eradicate a perceived Communist influence in Hollywood. Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC. But, after spending time in prison, Dmytryk changed his mind, testified before the committee and named names of supposed Communists.

Despite his decision to testify and the enmity it earned him, Dmytryk remains one of noir’s best directors.

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