A few of FNB’s fave posts from 2012

Happy 2013, all! Here’s a look at FNB highlights from 2012.

Marilyn Monroe shot by Bert Stern

Top 10 FNB posts (misc.)

Remembering Beth Short, the Black Dahlia, on the 65th anniversary of her death

TCM festival in Hollywood

Interview with Tere Tereba, author of “Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster”

Marilyn Monroe birthday tribute

Marilyn Monroe exhibit in Hollywood

Film noir feline stars: The cat in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers”

Famous injuries in film noir, coinciding with my fractured toe, or broken foot, depending on how dramatic I am feeling

Panel event on author Georges Simenon with director William Friedkin

History Channel announcement: FNB to curate film noir shop page

Retro restaurant reviews: Russell’s in Pasadena


REVIEWS: 2012 neo-noirs or films with elements of noir

Crossfire Hurricane” documentary


Holy Motors

Killing Them Softly

Momo: The Sam Giancana Story” documentary


Rust and Bone

Searching for Sugar Man” documentary


Wuthering Heights


REVIEWS: Classic film noir

Anatomy of a Murder

Criss Cross



Gun Crazy

Murder, My Sweet

The Postman Always Rings Twice


Sunset Blvd.

They Drive By Night


REVIEWS: Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder

The Lady Vanishes



The 39 Steps

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Hitch’s 1935 love-on-the-run spy story stands the test of time

The ever-resourceful Hannay (Robert Donat) manages to dodge the police repeatedly.

The 39 Steps/1935/Gaumont British Picture Corp./86 min.

This month’s reader giveaway is the Criterion rerelease of “The 39 Steps.” Michael Wilmington reviews.

Movie thrillers come and go, but, after more than three quarters of a century, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” still reigns supreme. And not only for the breathless excitement of the story, the seamless construction, the chilling, beautifully realized atmosphere and the startling stream of plot twists. Nor for its historical importance, though almost every chase and spy thriller since 1935 copies it.

Nor for its actors – despite a truly excellent ensemble: Madeleine Carroll as Pamela, the cool Hitchcockian blond; Lucie Mannheim as a seductive lady of mystery; Godfrey Tearle as an urbane master criminal; Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie as a moody farming couple on the barren Scottish moors; Wylie Watson as that Proustian prodigy, Mr. Memory; and, at the center of the action, Robert Donat as the endlessly suave and resilient Richard Hannay, a fugitive who keeps his quiet wit and brilliant resources, no matter what dangerous curve Fate (and Hitchcock) manage to throw him.

After spending the night at his London flat, the mysterious spy (Lucie Mannheim) warns Hannay that the criminal mastermind whom she betrayed is missing part of a finger.

More than anything else, the film keeps its preeminent place because this is the movie in which Hitchcock became “Hitchcock,” earning the reputation he never relinquished as “The Master of Suspense.”

Well into the 1960s, “The 39 Steps” was still commonly called his best movie. André Bazin: “It remains indubitably his masterpiece and a model for detective comedies.” And Pauline Kael: “This suave, amusing spy melodrama is . . . charged with wit; it’s one of the three or four best things Hitchcock ever did.”

Hitchcock had major successes before, but “The 39 Steps” was the first with major international impact. No previous Hitchcock so gripped, amused or thrilled audiences from Europe to America, Australia to Asia. More than any of his previous 19 British films, or the five that followed, “The 39 Steps” was responsible for his emigration to America as a first-rank filmmaker.

Madeleine Carroll as Pamela is just as appealing today as she was 75 years ago. She makes a point of being stroppy with Hannay while slyly flirting with him.

The Hitchcock of 1935 was no neophyte. He was a director of a decade’s experience, the master of his craft, adapting a novel by one of his favorite authors, John Buchan.

And Hitchcock was telling a story of strong personal appeal – so strong that he used bits and pieces of it throughout his career.

In “Young and Innocent” (1937), “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), “Saboteur” (1942), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “North by Northwest” (1959), “Torn Curtain” (1966) and “Frenzy” (1972), we get part of the basic situation. The “wrong man,” accused of a crime he did not commit, flees through dangerous or colorful locales – sometimes engages in erotic sparring with a woman – and tries desperately to find the evil doppelganger who has committed the sin.

In discussing the film with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said: “What I like best about ‘The 39 Steps’ are the swift transitions.” The lightning transitions and ingenious editing keep the film fresh and bewitching. The landlady’s scream, on discovering a corpse in Hannay’s flat, becomes the shriek of the train whistle as Hannay escapes. We race at breakneck speed from London’s Portland Place to the forbidding Scottish moors, under eternal, glowering skies, and back to London, where another performance at the Palladium completes the circle.

Pamela and Hannay on the run in Scotland.

But the swift transitions are more than geographic. Hitchcock, as he would many times again, offers a dizzying set of moral alterations: a world where love and death, fear and desire are in constant, nerve-wracking and sometimes acidly humorous juxtaposition.

Hannay begins his perilous odyssey with what seems an innocuous peccadillo: meeting and taking home a woman who calls herself “Mrs. Smith.”

“Romance” leads to danger. The woman is not a pickup; she is a hunted spy, fearful for her life. The next morning, after she is murdered by the spies on her trail, Hannay escapes from his London flat by pretending to a milkman that he is a philanderer ducking a vengeful husband – something he nearly becomes when, still dodging the police, he stays a night with a dour Scottish farmer and his much younger wife.

The innkeeper mistakes Pamela and Hannay for a couple madly in love.

Earlier, fleeing the London murder scene by train, he tries to elude the police by embracing a total stranger (to her fury).

He winds up manacled to that same stranger, Pamela, taking refuge at an inn where the beaming landlady, impressed at their constant togetherness, exclaims: “They’re so terribly in love with each other!” Love and death, sex and slaughter – these are the poles of the universe so playfully presented here: reversing and replacing each other, becoming a shadowy, disturbing double mirror.

“The 39 Steps” is that rarity: a cinematic masterpiece that has stood the test of time, a great work that is also a great crowd-pleaser. Hitchcock liked to remark, with what may have been a sly touch of self-deprecation: “Most films are slices of life. Mine are slices of cake.” This particular cake is one of his most luscious: dark, savory, a richly compulsive treat.

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Free stuff from FNB: Win Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’

I have notified the winner of the WHV/TCM Greatest Gangster Films: Humphrey Bogart set, featuring “High Sierra,” “The Petrified Forest,” “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” and “All Through the Night.”

The September giveaway is one of my fave Alfred Hitchcock films: “The 39 Steps,” recently put on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion. First released in 1935, it’s a prototypical Hitchcockian story of a wrong man (falsely accused) on the run.

I think the reason I love this movie is that it has aged so nicely and works for a contemporary audience as well as it did 77 years ago. And its stars, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are fresh, sexy and very funny. It’s a very charming love story as well as a murder mystery.

To enter this month’s giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Sept. 1-30. We welcome your participation, but please remember that, for the purposes of the giveaway, there is one entry per person, not per comment.

The September winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early September. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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In ‘The Lady Vanishes,’ Hitch pushes form to near perfection

The Lady Vanishes/1938/GB Pictures/96 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood are an utterly beguiling English couple.

In “The Lady Vanishes,” his marvelous 1938 mystery classic set aboard a train racing though the Balkans, Alfred Hitchcock pushes the romantic-comedy-thriller form to near perfection. It’s one of the most purely entertaining movies he ever made, and it can be watched over and over again with no diminution of pleasure.

Arguably funnier than Hitchcock’s other train classics – “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “North By Northwest” (1959) – “The Lady Vanishes” offers one of Hitchcock’s greatest assemblies of characters and actors: Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Catherine Lacey, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Hitchcock loved trains, in life as well as in his movies. In “The Lady Vanishes” we can see why. Though shot mostly on a sound stage, this locomotive is somehow supremely convincing – with its cozy yet menacing cars, jiggling tables, rushing train-sounds, compartments full of strangely cool or deceptively amiable passengers and that wonderful dining car, where so much tea is sipped, so much suspense generated and where the final crackerjack gun battle takes place.

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (“The Rake’s Progress,” “Night Train to Munich,” “Green for Danger”) wrote the script from a novel called “The Wheel Spins,” by Ethel Lina White. But the Gilliat-Launder stamp, a special brand of breezy and irreverent class-puncturing humor, is all over this film, almost as much as Hitchcock’s flair for tension, perverse romance, dark humor and similar irreverence toward class.

“The Lady Vanishes” offers one of Hitchcock’s greatest assemblies of actors.

The ingenious story is in line with brainy mysteries by writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. What happens? A congenial old lady named Miss Froy (played by the irresistible Dame May Whitty) disappears from the train and, when her pretty and saucy fellow passenger Iris (Margaret Lockwood) tries to find her, everyone who saw Miss Froy denies she existed.

Only Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, an amorous young musicologist, believes her. As Iris and Gilbert put their nimble wits together, love and melody and mystery bloom, even as the vanished lady remains peculiarly elusive. The train’s odd-lot passengers – including a suave doctor (Paul Lukas), a philandering politico and his inamorata (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers), a nun in high heels (Catherine Lacey) and those ineffable cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (played by the immortal Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) – keep denying Miss Froy was ever there. Things get progressively stranger, faster, funnier and more dangerous.

Besides human passengers, a magician’s bunnies are aboard this mystery-filled train.

If Hitchcock loved trains, he makes us fall in love with this one, too – and with many of the people aboard, including some of the villains. And non-villains like Caldicott and Charters, who became so popular that they began making appearances, as the same characters, in other films (“Night Train to Munich” and “Crook’s Tour”). And Miss Froy, who looks a bit like Agatha Christie, or the way we envision Miss Marple to look. And of course Gilbert and Iris, an intrepid, utterly beguiling, English couple if ever there was one.

As I said, “The Lady Vanishes” is one movie classic that most audiences are sure to enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Maybe what you need is a long train ride in the Balkans.

“The Lady Vanishes” plays on the big screen this Wednesday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica.

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