Film noir Friday on TCM kicks off a new feature on FNB

By Mike Wilmington

A noir-lover’s schedule of film noirs on cable TV. First up: Friday, June 29, an all-noir day on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Times: Eastern Standard and Pacific Standard.

Friday, June 29
6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Letter” (William Wyler, 1940) Bette Davis, in her Bad Bette mode, strings along Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson (but not Gale Sondergaard) in the ultimate movie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s dark colonial tale of adultery, murder and a revealing letter. Like most of Maugham’s stories, this one was based on fact. Script by Howard Koch.

Bogart and Ida Lupino play outlaw lovers in “High Sierra.”

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “High Sierra” (Raoul Walsh, 1941) “The ‘Gotterdammerung’ of the gangster movie,” according to Andrew Sarris. Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino (both great) as outlaw lovers in Walsh’s classic noir from the W. R. Burnett novel. Script by Burnett and John Huston; with Arthur Kennedy, Cornel Wilde, Barton MacLane, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull and Henry Travers. If you’ve never seen this one, don’t miss it: the last shot is a killer.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “The Fallen Sparrow” (Richard Wallace, 1943) John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak in an anti-Fascist thriller, with a Spanish Civil War backdrop. From the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (“In a Lonely Place”).

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Johnny Angel” (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) Night-life murder mystery with George Raft, Claire Trevor, Signe Hasso and Hoagy Carmichael. Too plain visually, but a nice script by Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner share a tense moment in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” directed by Tay Garnett.

12:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m.): “Deception” (Irving Rapper, 1946) Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid in a stormy classical music triangle. Script by John Collier (“Evening Primrose”), from Louis Verneuil’s play.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (Tay Garnett, 1946) John Garfield and Lana Turner make the screen blaze as the bloody, adulterous lovers in this hot-as-hell, cold-as-ice movie of the steamy James M. Cain classic noir sex-and-murder thriller. With Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway and Leon Ames. Script by Niven Busch.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Hollow Triumph” (aka “The Scar”) (Steve Sekely, 1948) Crime and psychology and doubles and scars, with two Paul Henreids, Joan Bennett and Eduard Franz. Script by first-rate Brooklyn novelist Daniel Fuchs (“Low Company”).

Ava Gardner tempts Charles Laughton in “The Bribe.”

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “The Bribe” (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949) Ace femme fatale Ava Gardner tempts Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton. Script by Marguerite Roberts (“True Grit”), from a Frederick Nebel story.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Woman in Hiding” (Michael Gordon, 1950) Marital tension with Ida Lupino, real-life hubby Howard Duff (as the wry love interest) and bad movie hubby Stephen McNally (the villain). Script by Oscar Saul (“The Helen Morgan Story”).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Julie” (Andrew L. Stone, 1956) Doris Day is terrorized by hubby Louis Jourdan. With Barry Sullivan and Frank Lovejoy. Stone scripted.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (Peter Godfrey, 1947) Humphrey Bogart, in Bad Bogie mode, has marriage problems with Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Nigel Bruce co-stars; Thomas Job scripted.

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In ‘The Letter,’ Bette Davis captivates as a woman both elegant and evil

The Letter/1940/Warner Bros. Pictures/95 min.

“Strange that a man can live with a woman for 10 years and not know the first thing about her,” says Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) in 1940’s “The Letter,” directed by William Wyler. The woman in question is Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), vivacious, charming, self-assured and willful. The man is her husband Bob (Herbert Marshall), sweet, gentle, kind and trusting, and apparently not the sharpest tool in the shed. Or maybe he’s just too busy with work – he runs a rubber plantation in British Malaya. Leslie runs the house and occupies her free time with lace work, tennis parties and gin slings.

Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall play a married couple in "The Letter" from 1940 by director William Wyler.

Howard, a lawyer and friend of the couple, makes his comment in the course of defending Leslie after their tranquil existence suddenly becomes threatened. While Bob is away on business, Leslie receives a late-night visit by an acquaintance, Geoff Hammond, who professes his love for her and tries to force himself on her. So, she shoots him dead; a clear case of self-defense to hear her tell the story. And who doesn’t believe Bette Davis when she’s holding court?

It’s an unpleasant matter, “horrible,” as she says, to be dispensed with as quickly and neatly as the British colonial justice system will allow. And that’s pretty quickly and neatly as these are white, upper-middle-class, upstanding citizens of the empire. It’s smooth sailing, until the appearance of a letter, in Leslie’s handwriting, demanding that Hammond come over the night of the murder and noting that Bob would be away all night.

The letter is in the possession of Hammond’s wife (Gale Sondergaard), a Eurasian native, and she’s willing to let it go for $10,000. But keeping it away from the prosecution and keeping it away from Bob are two different things.

While “The Letter” predates the most prolific period of classic American film noir and its femme fatale is a patrician, married Englishwoman, it is nevertheless a fine example of the form. Just look at the dark, moody, high-contrast lighting, courtesy of cinematographer Tony Gaudio. Nearly every interior scene contains shadowy black bars suggesting confinement. Exterior scenes of lush moonlit landscapes and close-ups of those Bette Davis eyes (the opening scene is particularly memorable) convey the surfacing of the wild, devilish impulses we all struggle to contain.

Then there’s the taut direction by Wyler and sterling acting all round. Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most admired directors, demanded subtlety from Davis, knowing that her strength would resonate on its own. As Leslie Crosbie, she’s an extremely complex femme fatale, equal parts supreme elegance and base evil, one minute winning our sympathy, the next minute making us feel like utter fools for liking her.

Known for being a perfectionist, the German-born Wyler earned the nicknames “90-take Willie” and “Once Again Wyler.” He and Davis had worked together on 1938’s “Jezebel” (for which she won her second Oscar; the first was for “Dangerous” from 1935, directed by Alfred E. Green). Wyler and Davis had an affair that lasted through the production of “Jezebel.” He remained one of her favorite directors. Wyler won three best director Oscars, for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver, “The Best Years of Our Lives” from 1946 and 1959’s “Ben-Hur.” [Read more…]

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‘The Letter’ quick hit

The Letter/1940/Warner Bros. Pictures/95 min.

Some things never change. Whether you are talking via texts or parchment paper and feather pens, femmes fatales should always take care to destroy any incriminating evidence of the “Dear So and So,” variety. If in doubt, just watch the formidable Bette Davis in “The Letter” directed by William Wyler, a masterful director and the perfect match for Davis.

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Noir greats at LACMA; a Nicholson noir night at the Aero

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has a particularly good lineup of classic and neo noirs this month.

“Rear Window” (1954) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 12

“Pickpocket” (1959) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“Bay of Angels” (1963) 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“The Letter” (1940) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 19

“The Honeymoon Killers” (1970) 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21

Bette Davis stars in "The Letter" by director William Wyler.

“In a Lonely Place” (1950) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22

“The Long Goodbye”(1973) 9:15 p.m. Friday, July 22

“Mulholland Dr.” (2001) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23

“The Lady from Shanghai” (1948) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29

“The Conformist” (1971) 9:10 p.m. Friday, July 29

Tickets range from $2 for the matinees to $10 for evening double features ($5 for one film only). Discounts for LACMA members and seniors. For tickets, call 323-857-6010 or visit the web site; there is a $2 charge to buy online. For synopses of the movies, see LACMA’s listings. LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90036.

Additionally, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is running a “Jack Nicholson Noir” double bill on Saturday, July 23, starting at 7:30. The films are Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes,” which Nicholson directed. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7. Visit the American Cinematheque for the complete schedule.

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