The Film Noir File: Crawford at her finest, one of Lang’s best

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

Mildred Pierce posterMildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz). Tuesday, Nov. 19; 10 p.m. (7 p.m.). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott and Ann Blyth.

Sunday, Nov. 17

10:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang). With Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Johnny Eager” (1941, Mervyn LeRoy). With Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Van Heflin. Reviewed in FNB on August 4, 2012.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Johnny Apollo” (1940, Henry Hathaway). Tyrone Power and Edward Arnold undergo father-and-son traumas and reversals as two wealthy Wall Street family members gone bad. Directed with Hathaway’s usual tough expertise. Co-starring Dorothy Lamour, Lloyd Nolan and Charley Grapewin.

Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir.

In “The Big Heat” from 1953, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir. It plays Sunday morning.

Tuesday, Nov. 19

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Man in the Attic” (1953, Hugo Fregonese). With Jack Palance and Constance Smith. Reviewed in FNB on March 5, 2013.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.). See “Pick of the Week.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed in FNB on November 10, 2012.

Thursday, Nov. 21

3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1943, John Sturges). With Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Ralph Meeker. Reviewed in FNB on July 21, 2012.

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The Noir File: ‘The Big Heat’ tells a searing story

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford star in “The Big Heat.”

The Big Heat” (1953: Fritz Lang). Tuesday, July 9: 9:15 a.m. (6:15 a.m.).

“When a barfly gets killed, it could be for any one of a dozen crummy reasons,” says Police Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) in “The Big Heat.” Fritz Lang’s grim but gratifying crime drama from 1953 is laced with violence that’s still a bit shocking even by today’s standards.

Lee Marvin plays Gloria Grahame’s gangster boyfriend.

Easy on the eyes Glenn Ford, the incomparable Gloria Grahame and ever-glowering Lee Marvin star in this unforgettable noir.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Friday, July 5

2:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m.): “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943, Fritz Lang). With Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan and Anna Lee. Reviewed on FNB Feb. 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Four Hundred Blows” (1959, François Truffaut). Noir-lover Truffaut’s astonishing Cannes prize-winning feature film debut: the semi-autobiographical tale of the write-director’s boyhood life of parental neglect, explorations of Paris, street play, movie-going and petty crime, with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the young Truffaut character, Antoine Doinel. Truffaut and Doinel made four more Doinel films, and they might be making them still, but for the great French filmmaker’s untimely death in 1984. (In French, with English subtitles.)

The beginning of a month-long Friday night Truffaut retrospective, hosted by New York Magazine movie critic David Edelstein.

Saturday, July 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Key Largo” (1958, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Reviewed on FNB August 10, 2012.

Sunday, July 7

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955, Nicholas Ray). With James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Reviewed on FNB April 18, 2013.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Fugitive” (1947, John Ford). With Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio and Ward Bond. Reviewed on FNB July 28, 2012. [Read more...]

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The Noir File: Five greats include ‘M,’ ‘Repulsion,’ ‘D.O.A.’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies 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).

In one of the best film noir weeks ever, TCM offers five noir greats: “M,” “Diabolique,” “D. O. A.,” “The Big Heat” and “Repulsion.”

CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK

Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski). Wednesday, Oct. 31, 11 a.m. (8 a.m.)

In Roman Polanski’s shiveringly erotic horror-suspense film “Repulsion,” the 22-year-old Catherine Deneuve plays Carol: a blonde French beauty, with a disarmingly lost-looking, childlike face – a girl who begins to go frighteningly mad when her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) leaves her alone a week or so. Soon, the beautiful, naïve and sexually skittish young Carol, the object of mostly unwanted desire from nearly every man in the neighborhood, starts sinking into alienation and insanity. When the outside world begins to intrude, Carol, repulsed, strikes back savagely, with a soon-bloody knife.

Catherine Deneuve’s nightmare becomes our own in “Repulsion” from 1965.

“Repulsion,” Polanski’s first English language movie and the first of his many collaborations with the reclusive, brilliant French screenwriter Gerard Brach (“Cul-de-Sac”), is one of the great ’60s black-and-white film noirs. It’s also one of the more frightening films ever made. Ultimately, “Repulsion” scares the hell out of us, because Polanski makes Carol’s nightmare so indelibly real, and so inescapably our own.

M” (1931, Fritz Lang) Sunday, Oct. 28, 2:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m.)

Fritz Lang’s great, hair-raising 1931 German crime thriller “M” is the masterpiece of his career, a landmark achievement of German cinema and a film that marks Lang as one of the most important cinematic fathers of film noir. “M” is a work of genius on every level.

Written by Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou (who also scripted “Metropolis”), and directed by Lang, “M” stars the amazing young Peter Lorre as the compulsive child-murderer Hans Beckert aka “M.” Beckert is a chubby little deviate who throws Berlin into turmoil with his string of slayings – a sweet-faced serial killer modeled on the real-life Dusseldorf Strangler. It is a role and a performance that plunges into the darkest nights of a lost soul.

Young Peter Lorre is unforgettable in Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece.

Lang shows us both the murders and the social chaos triggered by the killer’s rampage. When M’s string of murders causes the police to clamp down on organized crime too, the outlaws strike back. Led by suave gentleman-thief Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens), they pursue the murderer relentlessly through the shadowy, mazelike world of Berlin at night. Just as relentlessly, the cops, with cynical detective Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in charge, pursue him by day.

“M,” in its own way, is as much a creative movie milestone as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” It’s one of the main progenitors of film noir and remains an all-time classic of suspense. (In German, with English subtitles.)

Saturday, Oct. 27

8 p.m. (5 p.m.) “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.) “Games” (1967, Curtis Harrington). An American semi-remake of Clouzot’s “Diabolique,” with Simone Signoret starring again here, as an enigmatic interloper who moves in on New York married couple James Caan and Katharine Ross, unleashing a string of increasingly deadly games.

Sunday, Oct. 28

6: 30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.) “D.O.A.” (1950, Rudolph Maté).

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949, Robert Hamer). From Ealing Studio with love: One of the best of the high-style British dark comedies of manners and murder. Silken schemer Dennis Price is the vengeful climber trying to kill his way to the Dukedom of D’Ascoyne. Alec Guinness plays all eight of his aristocratic victims or victims-to-be. Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood are the fetching ladies whom the would-be Duke is torn between. The peerless cinematographer was Douglas Slocombe.

Tuesday, Oct. 30

In 1932′s “Freaks,” by Tod Browning, Olga Baclanova plays a trapeze artist.

9:15 p.m. (6:15 p.m.): “Freaks” (1932, Tod Browning). Tod (“Dracula”) Browning’s macabre classic features a troupe of real-life circus freaks, all of them unforgettable camera subjects, in the bizarre story of a heartless trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) who seduces a lovelorn midget (Harry Earle), marries him, and has to face the consequences.

Wednesday, Oct. 31

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Body Snatcher” (1945, Robert Wise). Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell fight over corpses and medical experiments in this gripping adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson tale.

Thursday, Nov. 1

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

9:45 p.m. (6:45 p.m.); “Bullitt” (1968, Peter Yates). One of the more stylish cop-movie thrillers. With Steve McQueen at his coolest, Jacqueline Bisset at her loveliest, Robert Vaughn at his slimiest – plus the car chase to end all car chases.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “The Racket” (1951, John Cromwell, plus Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer and Tay Garnett, the last three uncredited). A battle of two Bobs, both film noir giants: good cop Robert Mitchum vs. gangster Robert Ryan, with Lizabeth Scott watching. From Howard Hughes’ RKO studio-head tenure, “The Racket” is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1928 mobster movie, based on Bartlett Cormack’s play, and also produced by Hughes.

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Aero Theatre offers straight-up noir delight with Sam Fuller mini-fest, Fritz Lang night, Barry Sullivan tribute

Sam Fuller

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica has some terrific noir offerings, starting this weekend. First up, an homage to a master: Underworld U.S.A.: The Pulpy Heart of Sam Fuller Cinema. Highlights of the series include: “Shock Corridor,” “Pickup on South Street,” “Underworld U.S.A.” and “The Naked Kiss.”

As part of Monday Night Mysteries, on Aug. 27, there’s a Fritz Lang double feature, starting with a new 35mm print of “The Big Heat,” starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin, followed by “The Woman in the Window,” in which Edward G. Robinson risks his cozy life as a college professor to have an affair with Joan Bennett.

If you missed Alan Ladd’s noir-tinged take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” at this year’s Film Noir Festival, you have a second chance to see the film on Wednesday, Aug. 29. “Gatsby,” which, in addition to Ladd, stars Barry Sullivan as Tom Buchanan, is paired with another Sullivan vehicle, “The Gangster,” to mark the centennial of the actor’s birth. Special guests scheduled to attend on Wednesday are the actor’s daughter Jenny Sullivan and the Film Noir Foundation’s Alan K. Rode.

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Seeking ‘recline’ inspiration from film noir’s injured characters

I recently experienced a little setback: I fractured my toe (one in from the pinkie on the right foot). I didn’t teeter as I tried on Loubou’s or tumble on a treacherous chunk of pavement. Nor was I hang-gliding or training for a 5k run. Please. Have we met? No, in typical femme fatale fashion, à la Mae West, I tripped over a pile of men.

Sporting hideous footwear.

Of course I don’t mind being ordered by doctors to rest and relax. In fact, I relish the opportunity. And if ever there were a time to be waited on hand and foot, bark out orders and be completely catered to, honey this is it! I’m also grateful that the toe (underrated little body part that it is) wasn’t broken or more severely damaged – it should heal nicely as long as I’m patient.

But the thing I really miss is going to yoga. Feeling a little blue and kicking myself (pun intended) for not being more careful, I called my friend Anne who pointed out that what’s bad in life is good on the page. She suggested that as I recuperate I commiserate with noir characters – like nostril-impaired Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in “Chinatown” – who sustain and recover from injuries. (You can always trust a Gemini to come up with a creative approach.)

As I lounge on my sofa, I also find myself pondering existential questions, such as: Can I now fulfill my long-held fantasy of going to yoga and resting in child’s pose for the entire class? Will wine and ice cream provide the same benefits as shavasana? What about cupcakes? Does Susie Cakes deliver? Is it possible to dance while using crutches? How long can a girl go without shaving her legs?

Aah, more than my peabrain can process right now. So, with many thanks to Anne, here are my favorite mending moments of film noir.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe is temporarily blinded in “Murder, My Sweet.”

 

Phony, schmony. The dude still hobbled around on crutches: Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.”

 

Decoy”’s Frank Armstrong recovers from the ultimate “accident.” Cold-hearted Jean Gillie sees a way to get her hands on a wad of cash by bringing her criminal boyfriend back to life following his visit to the gas chamber. Absurd? Absolutely. Still, it’s all in a day’s work for film noir’s toughest femme fatale.

 

“Dark Passage”: Unjustly sentenced prison escapee Humphrey Bogart undergoes plastic surgery to alter his looks. He co-stars with real-life wife Lauren Bacall.

 

Burt Lancaster sustains major injuries after a heist gets fouled up in “Criss Cross.” (In “The Killers” Lancaster plays a boxer whose career folded after hurting his hand.)

 

The Big Heat” contains one of film noir’s most famous violent scenes. Lee Marvin throws a pot of boiling coffee at Gloria Grahame and disfigures her face. She gets even in the end.

 

Jimmy Stewart is a photojournalist who watches his neighbors to pass the time (with gorgeous Grace Kelly for company) while his leg heals in “Rear Window.”

 

Jack Nicholson wears his bandage for most of “Chinatown.” Director Roman Polanski plays the menacing punk who cuts Nicholson’s nose.

 

“Misery”’s Kathy Bates is the nurse-from-hell to wounded writer James Caan.

 

Viggo Mortensen gets stabbed in his foot after fending off two thugs in “A History of Violence.”

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Happy Gloria Grahame Day from FNB

FNB is a big fan of film-noir great Gloria Grahame. Photo by Halstan Williams, www.halstan.com

For the second year running, we at Film Noir Blonde are celebrating one of film noir’s great treasures, Gloria Grahame (Nov. 28, 1923 – Oct. 5, 1981). Why? Because we feel like it. Though she played a number of iconic parts in the late 1940s and 1950s, and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952, Vincente Minnelli), co-starring with Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas and Dick Powell, Grahame typically wasn’t considered a top-tier actress in her day.

Gloria Grahame

“I don’t think I ever understood Hollywood,” she once said. Nevertheless, in addition to her film résumé, she worked regularly in TV and theater.

No stranger to scandal (she married her stepson several years after her divorce from director Nicholas Ray), Grahame was unconventional and liked to do things her way. Whether she was flirtatious and tough (remember good girl/bad girl Violet Bick in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?) or the ultimate victim (“The Big Heat”), her parts are often informed by her playful intelligence and sly sense of humor. Maybe that’s why we like her so much.

Anyway, here’s to singular, sexy, supremely talented Ms. Grahame! To read more and to see reviews of her films, click here.

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Non-stop film noir on the big screen in Los Angeles

The enduring appeal of film noir shows no signs of waning – there are scads of noir screenings in and around LA over the next several weeks.

Noir City Hollywood continues at the Egyptian Theatre through May 6. Tonight, actress Julie Adams will talk with Alan K. Rode between the films 1957’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (in which Adams co-stars with Richard Egan, Jan Sterling, Dan Duryea, Walter Matthau and Charles McGraw) and “Edge of the City” (1957).

And a must-see for me: Ida Lupino in “Private Hell 36” (1954) by director Don Siegel. Lupino also co-wrote this flick, which runs on Wednesday, May 2, after “Shield for Murder” (1954), co-directed by Howard Koch and star Edmond O’Brien.

In conjunction with the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition, running through Aug. 26 at the Getty Museum, a companion (free!) film series starts today. Ritts (1952–2002) was a top 1980s photographer and his preference for outdoor locations such as the desert and the beach helped to distinguish his work from his New York-based peers.

Admittedly, “Gilda” is the only true noir on the roster, but Ritts’ work taps retro Hollywood glamour. As the Getty puts it: “Ritts’ relationship with his subjects echoes certain director-actor relationships dating from the silent era and the eight films in this series showcase this special relationship.”

On Friday, May 4, the New Beverly Cinema is showing John Frankenheimer’s sci-fi neo-noir from 1966 “Seconds,” which stars Rock Hudson; cinematography by James Wong Howe. “Seconds” is paired with 1997’s “Face/Off” by director John Woo starring John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen, Dominique Swain and Nick Cassavetes. Screenwriters Mike Werb and Michael Colleary are scheduled to appear in person.

Also worth a watch: Universal Pictures celebrates its centennial with a series of screenings (“The Black Cat” and “The Birds” caught my eye) at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood from May 4 to June 24.

You’ll certainly get a full-on noir lineup at the 12th annual Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, which runs in Palm Springs from May 10-13.

Van Heflin and Joan Crawford star in “Possessed” from 1947.

Festival programmer and film historian Alan K. Rode has selected a great lineup, including Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” (1953), starring Glenn Ford, and “Possessed” (1947) by Curtis Bernhardt.

Ford’s son Peter will attend “The Big Heat” screening. “Possessed” earned Joan Crawford her second Oscar nom (she won for 1945’s “Mildred Pierce”); co-starring are Van Heflin, Raymond Massey and Geraldine Brooks.

Other titles, screened from new 35 mm prints, include: “Shield for Murder” (1954), “I Love Trouble” (1948), “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (1957) and “The Face Behind the Mask” (1941), starring Peter Lorre.

I’m also very much looking forward to The Sun Sets in the West: Mid-Century California Noir at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), from May 18-26.

Says LACMA: “Experience the dark side of modern living with this series of mid-century film noirs. Shot on location and set amid the bustle of major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco – as well as their sun-soaked periphery, beach cities, and desert oases – these 10 films inject the Golden State’s benign climate with a heady dose of postwar angst.”

The titles in the series are: “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955, by director Robert Aldrich); “The Crimson Kimono” (1959, Sam Fuller) “Experiment in Terror (1962, Blake Edwards); “Criss Cross” (1949, Robert Siodmak); “M” (1951, Joseph Losey); “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman); “Slightly Scarlet” (1956, Allan Dwan); “Murder by Contract” (1958, Irving Lerner); “Nightfall” (1957, Jacques Tourneur) and “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey).

The one and only Bogart

Additionally, UCLA’s Film & Television Archive and the Million Dollar Theater are presenting three interesting double bills in downtown Los Angeles:

Brian De Palma in the 1970s (“Sisters,” his first Hitchcockian thriller, and “Phantom of the Paradise”) on Wednesday, May 2.

“The hunted and the hunter” film-noir night, featuring “Mickey One” (1965, Arthur Penn) and “Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron) on Wednesday, May 16.

Nicholas Ray directs Humphrey Bogart in “Knock on Any Door” (1949) and “In a Lonely Place” (1950) on Wednesday, May 23.

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Grahame, Hayden, Sinatra: Highlights of Noir City Hollywood

I finally got to see Gloria Grahame vamping it up in “Naked Alibi” (1954) on Saturday night at the American Cinematheque’s Noir City Hollywood film fest, now in its 14th year. Grahame is one of my fave femme fatales and this film is hard to find, let alone see on the big screen – the new 35 mm print was introduced by fest organizers and noir experts Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode.

Gloria Grahame in “Naked Alibi”

Co-starring Gene Barry as Grahame’s gangster boyfriend and Sterling Hayden as a vigilante cop, “Naked” certainly has a great cast and a great name. Unfortunately, though, Jerry Hopper is not a great or even a good director. This film reminds of me Grahame playing similar roles in far better movies (“The Big Heat,” “Human Desire,” “In a Lonely Place,” “Sudden Fear”). Still, I always have a good time watching this ultimate good-time girl.

As part of a tribute night to Hayden, “Naked” was paired with 1954’s “Suddenly,” in which Hayden plays a sheriff opposite Frank Sinatra as a psycho leading a plot to assassinate the president. Directed by Lewis Allen and written by Richard Sale, “Suddenly” has been hard to see until now because Sinatra did his best to buy all copies of this film after John F. Kennedy’s death. This digital restoration by Lobster Films featured crisp contrast, though there were many patches of white that looked iridescent. (Apparently, this was a problem with the projection, not the print.) It’s interesting as a B-movie rarity with Hayden letting a malevolent Sinatra steal the show.

The fest continues through May 6 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

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In ‘Human Desire,’ Gloria Grahame as a devious temptress gives us raw sexuality, a glimpse of tragedy

Human Desire/1954/Columbia/Sony/91 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Gloria Grahame

Gloria Grahame was a film noir doll and movie moll of the first rank – and in Fritz Lang’s 1954 “Human Desire,” she gave one of her most fetchingly sultry, and powerful, performances. As a tricky, trapped, unfaithful but resourceful railroad wife named Vicki, she seduces the camera, the audience and her co-stars (one in real life), in one of the two noir classics she made with Glenn Ford for noir master and reputed on-set tyrant, Fritz Lang.

1952’s “The Big Heat,” that great scalding saga of gangsterism and revenge, is the more famous Lang-Ford-Grahame collaboration, and rightly so. But “Human Desire” is a moody little classic as well, one of Lang’s last American films, and among the most complex and chilling roles ever for Grahame and Ford – who spiced up the movie this time with an offstage affair.

“Human Desire” is one of two Lang American remakes of French film classics directed by Lang‘s great colleague Jean Renoir, a generous-hearted, humanistic Frenchman who seems at first, the temperamental opposite of the icy-eyed Lang. But Lang’s 1945 noir masterpiece “Scarlet Street” was derived from Renoir’s 1931 “La Chienne,” and “Human Desire” is a remake (and a softening) of Renoir’s great dark, violent crime drama/romance “La Bête Humaine” (1938), a noir precursor adapted from the classic 19th century novel by Émile Zola.

Jean Gabin and Simone Simon in “La Bête Humaine”

“La Bete Humaine” and “Human Desire” are both set mostly in grim gray railroad yards, the shadowy surrounding cities and on the trains – and both Renoir and Lang get great mileage out of the hypnotic scenes they both shot of speeding trains, landscapes rushing past and train tracks merging and diverging inexorably below, echoing the characters’ headlong plunge into madness.

Ford, like “La Bete Humaine’s” Jean Gabin, plays an all-too-human train engineer: in Ford’s case, returning Korean War vet Jeff Warren, a good guy tormented by illicit, adulterous desire. (Gabin’s fireman and train sidekick was the ebullient Julien Carette, the imp of “Grand Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game.” Ford’s is crusty old westerner Edgar Buchanan.)

The desire of course, is for Grahame’s provocative, minx-eyed blonde Vicki, the persecuted wife of brutal, alcoholic, insanely jealous yard boss Carl Buckley, played by Broderick Crawford five years after his “All the King’s Men” best actor Oscar. (Another great French actor, Fernand Ledoux, played the equivalent part for Renoir.) And, as Vicki, Grahame touches many noir bases: tempting cutie-pie, disturbed and abused wife, haunted adulteress, lady in distress, and classic scheming femme fatale (a note she didn’t strike in “The Big Heat,” when she played coffee-scorched Debby, Lee Marvin’s tragic moll.)

Ford was a great brooder, as was “Bete Humaine’s” Gabin. And, when Jeff broods over Vicki, as she pulls him into her sexual web, the whole screen heats up and then darkens and goes cold. The original “Bete Humaine” adulteress was the legendary French sex kitten Simone Simon (in a role that made her an international star and eventually brought her to America for “Cat People”).

Grahame is scarier and deeper and more human (and desirable) than Simon – mostly because, in the beginning, we like Vicki. We sympathize with her, feel sorry for her because of her violent mistreatment by the obviously pathological Carl, whose jealousy drives him to murder and drink, and puts him on a collision course with Ford’s glowering, love-drunk Jeff. [Read more...]

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One of Fritz Lang’s finest films, ‘The Big Heat’ is a lean, gripping suspense story

Fritz Lang

The Big Heat/1953/Columbia Pictures/89 min.

“When a barfly gets killed, it could be for any one of a dozen crummy reasons,” says Police Lt. Ted Wilks (Willis Bouchey) in “The Big Heat.” Fritz Lang’s grim but gratifying crime drama from 1953 is laced with violence that’s still a bit shocking even by today’s standards.

Barflys don’t get much sympathy in the fictional city of Kenport, an upstanding community full of white-picket fences and happy homemakers that also harbors a flourishing criminal empire and rampant police corruption.

Wilks is talking to an upright cop, Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (easy on the eyes Glenn Ford), about the torture and murder of Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green). Lucy was the girlfriend of police sergeant Tom Duncan, also dead; his suicide is the film’s opening scene.

Tom’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) is not what you’d call crushed at her husband’s demise and she’s martini-dry as she answers questions from Bannion. Bertha claims her husband was ill, hence the suicide. Bannion got a rather different story from Lucy Chapman.

Unlike Tom Duncan, Bannion seems to have a perfect wife, the golden-haired Katie (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister), and a cute little daughter, named Joyce. As Mr. and Mrs. Bannion share smokes, sips of drinks and steaks, they banter easily and make each other laugh.

In addition to questioning barflies and ungrieving widows, Bannion noses into the business of an oily mobster named Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), a vicious operator whose right-hand man is the lithe and snarling Vince Stone (Lee Marvin).

Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford in "The Big Heat."

The incomparable Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, Stone’s inamorata. Debby spends most of her time shopping, drinking and looking at herself in the mirror. What’s not to like? As she tells Bannion: “I’ve had it rich and I’ve had it poor. Believe me, rich is better.”

(In, 1954, Ford and Grahame starred in another Lang noir, “Human Desire,” a film version of Émile Zola’s novel “La Bête Humaine”/“The Human Beast.”)

Shortly after the exchange in Lagana’s living room, a car bomb meant for Bannion kills the lovely Katie. Bannion doesn’t take much time to mourn; instead, with eyes glazed, he’s hellbent on proving the link between the police and Lagana’s mob. Suspended from the force, he seeks vengeance on his own, setting the pace for ’70s vigilante cops such as Clint Eastwood‘s Dirty Harry. As Bannion obsesses over hate and revenge, in a chilling transformation of character, he becomes the moral equivalent of the gangsters he despises.

Known for stark, intense visuals, here director Lang contrasts gloomy, barlike shadows that bind the characters to their destiny with shocks of scouring white light suggesting revelation. Lang was also known for being difficult with cast and crew, but Ford for one never saw Lang’s tyrannical side.

In “Glenn Ford: A Life” by Peter Ford, the famed actor describes his experience: “Fritz Lang came out of the old German studio system, where the director was like a dictator, barking commands and making people jump. He had a pretty nasty reputation in some quarters. There were people in Hollywood who had worked with him who hated his guts, especially some of the crew guys down the line. I mean, there were stories of people throwing lights at him and threatening to kill him for the way he treated them.

“So I head into this picture wondering how bad it’s going to be. And then Fritz and I met and had a couple of cocktails, and he couldn’t have been sweeter. He treated me with great respect. A wonderful friend, and I learned so much from him. We’re talking about one of the real geniuses of the movie business.”

Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin: a couple with, um, a problem or two.

“The Big Heat” drew inspiration from real-life events a few years before the film was made. When the U.S. Senate set up the Kefauver Committee to probe organized crime, televised hearings brought the Mafia into the consciousness of the American public. Sydney Boehm wrote the script from a serial by William P. McGivern in the Saturday Evening Post.

And of course, any time crime’s on the rise, you know loose women are involved, which brings me to the pièce de résistance: Grahame as Debby. Though she doesn’t get a huge amount of screentime, she’s funny and fresh, and brims over with sexpot charm – striking the perfect balance between waifish, wide-eyed vulnerability and pleasure-seeking sophistication.

Once Debby realizes the depth of Vince’s depravity – burning a young woman’s hand with his cigarette is small potatoes to this guy – she switches her loyalty to the righteous but rigid Bannion. And when Vince learns of her betrayal, she gets burned, literally, with a pot of boiling coffee. We hear, but don’t see, Debby’s wounded reaction in one of the most famous moments in the movies.

With her looks gone, Debby tells Bannion everything she knows and commits the murder that will bring down the syndicate. Oh, and throwing coffee? Two can play at that game. I’d like to see a Starbucks barrista do better.

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