Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs kicks off with ‘Three Strangers,’ a cynical tale of a trio bonded by fate

Three Strangers” (1946, Jean Negulesco) will open the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs on Thursday, May 16. The fest, which runs through Sunday, May 19, will close with “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston); a total of 12 films is scheduled. The lineup is a mix of landmark and obscure vintage movies from the classic film noir era.

Negulesco’s “Three Strangers” tells the cynical tale of a trio bonded by fate and a winning lottery ticket: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Geraldine Fitzgerald star. To read more about this film, I recommend this piece by my friend, writer/producer Barry Grey.

In addition to the screenings, the festival will include special guests and receptions. Ticket and festival information are available online or by calling 760-325-6565. Producer and host Alan K. Rode will be there to introduce films and make sure everyone is having a dark and decadent good time. Having attended in 2011, I can highly recommend this fest.

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The Noir File: Truffaut’s choice as the greatest film noir: ‘Rififi’

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). This week, there’s a trio of great heist films on Tuesday, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific): “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Rififi” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

PICK OF THE WEEK

Rififi” (1954, Jules Dassin). Tuesday, Jan. 1, 12 a.m. (9 p.m.). Midway through director Jules Dassin’s French crime classic “Rififi” (“Trouble”), Dassin stages a 33-minute-long masterpiece of suspense: a sequence the most critics regard as the most perfect of all movie heist scenes. It’s a brilliantly designed set-piece of excruciating tension and the only sound is the thieves at work.

Probably no one who sees that scene ever forgets it. Here it is: In the early morning hours, a small band of crooks – which include legendary bank robber Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), his young married friend Jo Jo (Carl Mohner), a good thief named Mario (Robert Manuel) and the loose-lipped safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself, under the stage name Perlo Vita) – break into an exclusive Parisian jewelry store by drilling though the floor of the room above. They work carefully, quietly, methodically. For the entire scene, there is not a word of dialogue, not a note of background music. A tour de force of moviemaking technique, it helped win Dassin the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, François Truffaut called “Rififi” the greatest of all film noirs.

That heist scene also sets up the grim, fatalistic last act of “Rififi,” which is about how thieves fall apart, set in a Paris that seems shrouded in perpetual clouds and drizzling rain. “Rififi” was regarded as an almost instant classic, and it wiped out the stigma of Dassin’s blacklisting by Hollywood. If you’ve never seen this movie and that scene, you won’t forget them either. (In French, with subtitles.)

Tuesday, Jan. 1

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). With Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn in one of her first important roles.

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958, Mario Monicelli). An inept gang of burglars, played by front-rank Italian movie stars Vittorio Gassmann, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Toto, try in vain to break into and rob a store. This is perhaps, along with the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers “The Ladykillers,” the funniest crime comedy ever made: often remade, endlessly copied, never equaled. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

Saturday, Jan. 5

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Whistler” (1944, William Castle). The first and probably best of the macabre “Whistler” series, based on the popular radio program. Richard Dix, as The Whistler, tries desperately to call off the hit men (Including J. Carroll Naish) he’s hired to kill himself.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 a.m.): “M” (1931, Fritz Lang). With Peter Lorre and Gustaf Grundgens.

Sunday, Jan. 6

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “The Wrong Man” (1957, Alfred Hitchcock). With Henry Fonda and Vera Miles.

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The Noir File: Monroe, Welles, Heflin and more

By Michael Wilmington

A noir-lover’s guide to classic film noir on cable TV. All the movies listed below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK: “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Lady from Shanghai”

“The Asphalt Jungle” has a near-perfect cast.

The Asphalt Jungle
(1950, John Huston)
Saturday, Aug. 4. at 6 a.m. (3 a.m.): Huston’s classic heist movie, scripted by Ben Maddow from W. R. Burnett’s novel, has a near-perfect cast: Sterling Hayden (the muscle), Jean Hagen (the moll), Sam Jaffe (the brains), James Whitmore (the lookout), Anthony Caruso (the safe man), Marc Lawrence (the backer), Brad Dexter (the torpedo), John McIntire (the cop), Louis Calhern (the double-crosser) and Marilyn Monroe (the mistress). One of Jean-Pierre Melville’s three favorite films.

The Lady from Shanghai” (1948, Orson Welles)Wednesday, Aug. 8. at 10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): Adventurer/sailor Welles gingerly woos a very blonde Rita Hayworth, wife of the wealthy, evil Frisco lawyer Everett Sloane, and victim of Glenn Anders as the very weird George Grisby. A flop in its day, now considered one of the greatest noirs and a Welles masterpiece. The highlights include an amazingly crooked trial scene and the wild chase and shoot-out in a hall of mirrors.

Richard Allan plays Marilyn’s lover in “Niagara.”

Sat., Aug. 4: Marilyn Monroe Day

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Clash by Night” (1952, Fritz Lang) Lang’s cool, underrated adaptation of Clifford Odets’ smoldering play. With Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas and Monroe.

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Niagara” (1953, Henry Hathaway) One of Monroe’s sexiest roles was as the faithless wife of tormented Joseph Cotten, the two 0f them trapped together in a cabin at Niagara Falls. Jean Peters is the good wife next-door.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Some Like It Hot” (1959, Billy Wilder) Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, two dance-band musicians in drag, flee the Chicago mob and George Raft after witnessing The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; Monroe is waiting for them aboard the Miami train. Only part film noir – the rest is gangster movie parody and screwball comedy – but noir can be proud to claim even a portion of the greatest American sound comedy. [Read more...]

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‘Criss Cross,’ a stellar noir, screens Thursday at TCM fest

Criss Cross/1949/Universal Pictures/88 min.

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

My favorite example is “Criss Cross” from 1949 by director Robert Siodmak. This film is somewhat neglected so I’m very happy that the TCM Classic Film Festival is screening it this Thursday with an intro from the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller. Siodmak helped define noir style and in this flick you can see what an unerring eye he had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kubrick creates his defining template with ‘The Killing’

The Killing/1956/United Artists/85 min.

A DVD copy of ”The Killing” from Criterion is this month’s Film Noir Blonde reader giveaway. Newly digitally restored, the two-disc set contains many extras, including Kubrick’s 1955 noir, “Killer’s Kiss,” also reviewed below.

By Michael Wilmington

It takes guts and brains to pull the perfect heist. Or to shoot the perfect heist movie.

In 1956, at the age of 28, Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, traveled to Hollywood and San Francisco to direct the movie that would not only make his reputation but would provide the template – the clockwork nightmare with humans caught in the machinery – that defines most of the films he made from then on.

A Kubrick self-portrait, 1950

Those later films include acknowledged masterpieces: “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). But none of them is more brilliantly designed or more perfectly executed than that inexpensive film, “The Killing.”

Kubrick and nonpareil pulp novelist Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”) wrote the script, based on Lionel White’s neatly plotted crime novel “Clean Break.” The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”) photographed the film.

That cast – a Who’s Who of noir types – includes Sterling Hayden (“The Asphalt Jungle”), Coleen Gray (“Kiss of Death”), Elisha Cook, Jr. (“The Maltese Falcon”), Marie Windsor (“The Narrow Margin”), Ted De Corsia (“The Naked City”), Timothy Carey (“Crime Wave”), James Edwards (“The Phenix City Story”), Joe Sawyer (“Deadline at Dawn”), Vince Edwards (“Murder by Contract”), Jay Adler (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and Jay C. Flippen (“They Live By Night”).

Perhaps inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 art-house classic “Rashomon,” Kubrick’s movie repeatedly circles back to the fictional Lansdowne race track (actually the Bay Meadows in San Francisco) during a fictional race. It’s a “jumbled jigsaw puzzle,” as one character calls it, that will supposedly end with a $2 million score of Lansdowne’s Saturday gambling receipts.

Immaculately orchestrated by a brusque criminal mastermind named Johnny Clay (Hayden), the heist kicks off when crack rifleman Nikki Arcane (Carey), shoots the favorite, Red Lightning, from a parking lot outside the track, at one of the turns. Thanks to Johnny, the robbery has been cleverly designed and planned to the last detail with each of the participants keenly aware of his part, executing it with precision and together getting away with the cash.

But like almost all great movie heists, like the robberies in “Rififi” and “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” the one in “The Killing” has to unravel. And it does. The flaw in this system is the dysfunctional marriage between mousy cashier George (Cook, Jr., in his archetypal role) and George’s lazily sexy, unfaithful wife Sherry (Windsor, in hers).

Vince Edwards and Marie Windsor as the lovers.

George, desperate to keep his wayward wife interested, hints at an upcoming windfall. Sherry shares the leak with loverboy Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) – that has to be one of the great adulterous boyfriend movie names – and we can feel doom coming up fast on the outside.

The show clicked. It conquered audiences, especially critics. “The Killing” was immediately hailed by many as a classic of its kind, the very model of a high-style, low-budget thriller. “Kubrick is a giant,” said Orson Welles and it was the young Welles, of “Citizen Kane,” to whom the young Kubrick was most often compared.

If anything, his third feature’s reputation has grown over the years, as has the stature of the type of movie it embodies: the lean, swift, shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled crime genre we call film noir.

Also includes: “Killer’s Kiss”/1955/United Artists/67 min. This was Kubrick’s second feature and his first collaboration with producer James Harris. One of the most gorgeous-looking B movies ever, Kubrick shot in a style that effortlessly mixes the street-scene poetic realism of movies like “Little Fugitive” and “On the Waterfront” with film noir expressionism.

Jamie Smith plays a boxer in "Killer's Kiss."

But Kubrick’s script is subpar, mostly in the dialogue. It creaks, while his cinematography soars. A nearly washed-up boxer (Jamie Smith) falls in love with the woman across the courtyard (Irene Kane, aka Chris Chase), a dance hall girl who’s tyrannized by her obsessively smitten gangster boss (Frank Silvera).

The story sounds trite and that’s how it plays. But Silvera is good and the classy visuals give “Killer’s Kiss” a power that holds you. All Kubrick needed was a writer and a cast, and in “The Killing,” he got them.

Stanley Kubrick photo from Vanity Fair, courtesy of the Look Magazine Photograph Collection/The Library of Congress.

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Film noir’s feline fatales: The cat in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in the Diner in “The Asphalt Jungle” 1950

Name: Lola Pawsingham                                                

Character Name: Doris the Diner Cat

Bio: Unlike her “Asphalt Jungle” character Doris, who led a precarious and hardscrabble existence (stingy scraps and threats of harm from surly customers), feline actress Lola Pawsingham grew up in a secure and loving home, the daughter of Vaudeville’s Boots ‘n’ Hoots, a soft-shoe and comedy duo.

Lola Pawsingham

Lola and her parents were visiting relatives in Los Angeles when she ran into director John Huston at the Pig & Whistle in Hollywood; he immediately cast her in “The Asphalt Jungle.”

After filming wrapped, Huston invited her to join him on his next trip to Ireland. It was there, at the Owl & Pussycat pub in Galway, that she met the dashing, Sligo-born poet Seamus O’Haraball. Sparks flew and the pair embarked on a creative and romantic partnership that flourished for several years.

She inspired many of his works, perhaps most famously: “Lola and the Faun,” which was later turned into a play that premiered at the Tabby Theatre in Dublin. After that, they divided their time between Paris and Nice. But in 1959, tragedy struck and O’Haraball died in a plane crash on his way to London for the Eliot Awards, honoring feline-inspired verse and furry scribes. (O’Haraball was the favorite to win the highly coveted Jellicle lifetime-achievement award.)

Pawsingham was devastated, but a few years later met comedian Al E. Doode who managed to mend her broken heart and was by her basketside when she passed away peacefully in 1966.

Image from http://catsinsinks.com

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‘The Asphalt Jungle’ quick hit

The Asphalt Jungle/1950/MGM/112 min.

John Huston‘s classic heist movie, which earned four Oscar noms, broke new cinematic ground by humanizing the criminals rather than writing them off as one-dimensional cheats. A suspenseful ride with stellar performers. The top-notch cast includes Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and an up-and-coming young starlet named Marilyn Monroe.

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