The Noir File: French style from Jean Gabin in ‘Grisbi’

By Michael Wilmington and 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). Lots of Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame this week!

PICK OF THE WEEK

Legendary, stylish Jean Gabin plays a legendary, stylish gangster named Max le Menteur.

Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954, Jacques Becker). Friday, Nov. 30, 11:15 p.m. (8:15 p.m.): Film noir is a French term and the masters of the form include major French filmmakers as well as Americans. One of those masters is New Wave favorite Jacques Becker (“Casque d’Or“). And Becker’s noir masterpiece is “Touchez pas au Grisbi.” The film takes a wonderfully atmospheric and psychologically acute look at the Parisian underworld: at a legendary, stylish old gangster named Max le Menteur (played by the legendary, stylish Jean Gabin), at the spoils of Max’s last big job and at the unbreakable ties of friendship that entrap him. Adapted by Becker and Albert Simonin from Simonin’s novel, with two later noir mainstays in small roles: Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura. The title translates as “Don’t Touch the Loot.” (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 26

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Steel Trap” (1952, Andrew L. Stone). In a neat twist from writer-director Stone, Joseph Cotten plays a bank employee/embezzler, desperately trying to return the loot he filched. With Teresa Wright. A favorite of noir expert Foster Hirsch.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Brighton Rock” (1947, John Boulting). From Graham Greene’s classic novel about a babyfaced killer on Brighton beach named Pinkie (Richard Attenborough), smartly co-scripted by Greene.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Unsuspected” (1947, Michael Curtiz). Lesser-known but strong noir about a radio true crime show, whose producer (Claude Rains) becomes a murderer. With Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield and Audrey Totter.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Woman on the Beach” (1947, Jean Renoir). Renoir’s U.S. noir: A disturbed guy (Bob Ryan) gets involved with a blind painter (Charles Bickford) and his sexy wife (Joan Bennett).

Wednesday, Nov. 28

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). The famous postwar thriller about an anti-Semitic murder, co-starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray). Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell strike sultry sparks in this exotic thriller from Howard Hughes’ RKO. Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, with uncredited reshooting by Nick Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

Friday, Nov. 30

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh).

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm). Flashbacks within flashbacks adorn this stylish psychological noir about a troubled seductress (Laraine Day). With Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne.

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Bribes, brawls and bullets, and sultry Marie Windsor

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

“She haunts my dreams and some of my nightmares as well,” says an ardent fan of actress Marie Windsor in 1952’s “The Narrow Margin,” directed by Richard Fleischer.

Billy Friedkin

The fan in question is Chicago-born Billy Friedkin – director of “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), among many others – and his comments come in the form of DVD commentary for “The Narrow Margin,” a definitive film noir. Maybe Windsor had that mysterious-older-woman vibe going on too, since Friedkin was only 17 when this B-movie came out.

In it, she plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, a gangster’s wife. She’s a bribable beauty with a sharp tongue. The story takes place almost entirely on a train from Chicago to LA, where Mrs. Neall is scheduled to testify against the mob. Making sure she doesn’t bail on the way is her police escort Walter Brown (Charles McGraw).

Charles McGraw

One snag is that the mob is less than thrilled about the prospect of her naming names when she takes the stand. So two heavies board the train hoping to rub her out; their earlier attempt resulted in the death of Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe). They’ve got their work cut out for them, though – they don’t know what she looks like. And they’re up against Charles McGraw.

It’s a great yarn, fast and lean, where every second counts. The visuals are richly lurid – the stark shadows of Mrs. Neall’s apartment building when the cops come to get her are standouts. As Friedkin puts it: “Lighting is a character in these films.”

Fleischer also manages to convey a sense of realism despite the fact that “The Narrow Margin” was primarily shot on a train set. One way he accomplished that was by employing a hand-held camera, using it to simulate a sense of motion. Cramped compositions and claustrophobic camera angles heighten the mood of entrapment. Shot in less than a month, the film was a big hit at the box office.

We also meet some memorable fellow passengers such as the curious and tubby Jennings (Paul Maxey) who declares: “Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.”

And of course Windsor exudes streetwise strength every time she makes one of her barbed comments or acidic rejoinders. When Brown tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach,” she barks: “Well use your own sink.” Upon seeing him put on his gun one morning, she asks: “What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?”

“The Narrow Margin” garnered an Oscar nomination (rare for noirs) for the story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote the story and screenplay for another famous noir: “Detour,” made in 1945 by director Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. [Read more...]

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Quick hit: ‘The Narrow Margin’

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

No wonder Marie Windsor’s a little cranky. As a mobster’s wife, she’s used to the cushy life and here she is stuck on a train from Chicago to LA with a tiresome police escort (Charles McGraw) who’s making sure she’ll testify against the mob. Or will she? It’s a fast ride full of sharp turns. Richard Fleischer directs this Oscar-nominated story; the low-budget gem was a big money maker for the studio (RKO).

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