The Noir File: Belafonte and Ryan in ‘Odds Against Tomorrow’

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).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte lead a top cast in “Odds Aganist Tomorrow.”

Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959, Robert Wise). Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.). Here is one of the great, underrated film noirs – a movie whose reputation and stature was recognized early on by French critics and has continued to grow over the past half century.

Directed by Robert Wise, and based on a novel by suspense specialist William McGivern (“The Big Heat“), “Odds Against Tomorrow” boasts a riveting and exciting story, unforgettable characters and a social/political allegory that’s pointed and powerful.

Three mismatched New Yorkers – genial, corrupt ex-cop Dave (Ed Begley), brutal ex-con Earl (Robert Ryan) and reckless Johnny (Harry Belafonte), a nightclub entertainer with huge gambling debts – join forces for an upstate bank robbery, a well-planned heist that will supposedly solve all their money problems. But the problems are just beginning. Earl is a racist who hates Johnny on sight and Johnny has a short fuse as well. Things begin to unravel, then explode.

Gloria Grahame plays an extra-friendly neighbor.

Ryan’s performance is a scorcher; he‘s a perfect villain, bad to the bone. Belafonte’s is compelling and non-clichéd. (He was also one of the producers.) Begley’s is jovial but poignant, a Willy Loman-like salesman peddling his own destruction. The women in the case, a pair of bad blondes – Shelley Winters as Earl’s whining wife and Gloria Grahame as his slutty neighbor – are top-notch.

French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville named “Odds Against Tomorrow” as one of his three all-time favorite movies; the other two were: “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Along with the 1949 boxing classic “The Set-Up” (which had Ryan in a sympathetic role, as the aging fighter) this is the best of Wise’s crime movies. The screenplay was mostly by the uncredited and blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (“Force of Evil“). The original jazz score is by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The atmospheric black and white cinematography is by Joseph C. Brun (“Edge of the City”).

Tuesday, Jan. 15

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Deadline at Dawn” (1946, Harold Clurman). With Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas.

Wednesday, Jan. 16

8 p.m. (5 p.m.) : “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish). Fast, breezy revenge yarn, with Dick Powell looking for payback, and Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad and William Erdman standing by.

12:45 a.m. (9:45 a.m.): “The Breaking Point” (1950, Michael Curtiz). With John Garfield and Patricia Neal.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey). With Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman

Friday, Jan. 18

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Notorious” (1946, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Reins.

Saturday, Jan. 19

10:45 a.m. (7:45 a.m.): “The Big Knife” (1955, Robert Aldrich). Clifford Odets’ backstage Hollywood shocker of a play is like a faceful of acid, and director Aldrich pulls no punches. Jack Palance is the beleaguered movie star Charlie Castle; surrounding him in an infernally corrupt studio system are Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Everett Sloane.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Lolita” (1962, Stanley Kubrick). With James Mason, Sue Lyon and Peter Sellers.

3 a.m. (12 a.m.): “I Died a Thousand Times” (1955, Stuart Heisler). Color and Cinemascope remake of the Raoul Walsh-Humphrey Bogart-Ida Lupino gangster saga “High Sierra,” with the original stars replaced by Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. Inferior, but not awful. With Lee Marvin in his snarl mode.

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Film Noir Foundation announces schedule for Noir City 11

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City film festival, coming to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre in January, will present its most expansive schedule yet – 27 films – including three new 35mm restorations.

This festival kicks off with a tribute to actress Peggy Cummins, legendary for her ferocious performance in “Gun Crazy” (1950, Joseph H. Lewis). As always, Noir City will feature classics and rarities. Opening weekend will feature the world premiere of two of the FNF’s latest film restoration projects: “Try and Get Me!” (1950, Cy Endfield) and “Repeat Performance” (1947, Alfred L. Werker).

The San Francisco festival runs Jan. 25-Feb. 3, 2013. The festival (with variations on the program) travels to several other cities throughout the year. On Thursday, Jan. 17, Eddie Muller and Robert Osborne will co-host “A Night in Noir City” on Turner Classic Movies. The five-film program of rare film noir includes two of the FNF’s restorations, “Cry Danger” (1951, Robert Parrish) and “The Prowler” (1951, Joseph Losey).

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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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‘Murder by Contract,’ ‘Nightfall’ and ‘The Prowler’ close LACMA Mid-century California Noir series

Van Heflin

Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” – Van Heflin

I’m glad he did. Heflin, one of my favorite ’40s/’50s actors, had charisma and presence to spare, even if he wasn’t classically handsome. A case in point is 1951’s “The Prowler” by Joseph Losey, which played Saturday night at LACMA, after “Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall,” the last in the Mid-century California Noir series.

My favorite was “The Prowler,” recently restored by UCLA and the Film Noir Foundation. Here, Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a sleazy cop who’s called to a posh, Spanish-style Los Angeles home by lovely and lonely Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) after she has a vague suspicion that an intruder is lurking in the garden. Turns out, there’s no one there, but Webb and Susan hit it off and soon begin an affair. Susan’s nights are often free because her DJ husband, John, is at the radio station broadcasting his show.

Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell and Van Heflin in "The Prowler."

It’s a love triangle in the vein of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” though here it’s Webb, not the femme fatale, who seizes the opportunity to do away with the wealthy husband and snag some money. Webb shoots John, apparently in the line of duty, leaving him free to marry Susan, ditch police work and move to Vegas.

When Susan announces she’s preggers, it crimps the plan rather a lot because the birth will reveal the true timing of their relationship. (This is actually a shocking plot turn because it reveals beyond a doubt that their relationship was sexual – other noirs hint at this, of course, but I can’t think of another example where it is so explicitly established. Not sure how they got that past the censors.) The two take off for a remote mountain town so she can secretly bear the child with no witnesses around. Once there, however, Webb reveals his knavish, venal nature and Susan takes action of her own.

Heflin perfectly inhabits this deeply flawed character, lending him charm and complexity, even making you sort of like him at times. He could play a snake so memorably – he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a gangster’s pal in “Johnny Eager” and he was excellent in both “Possessed” with Joan Crawford and “Act of Violence,” where he played an Army traitor. Another noir highlight was playing Philip Marlowe on NBC radio in the late 1940s.

Heflin was just as adept at playing average Joes and good guys, most notably in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (a film noir with Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas), “Shane” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

Keyes’ Susan is no vampy seductress. Instead, she plays the character as written – bland, bored and slightly feckless. Perhaps a fish out of water in the big city; she and Webb bond because they both hail from Terra Haute, Ind., albeit from different sides of the tracks. Keyes conveys that Susan is more than just bored – she yearns for children and perhaps something more than she finds in her cushy but unhappy marriage. And to her credit Keyes completely abandons her glamorous exterior when she’s sweating it out in the mountains.

Dalton Trumbo relaxes in Cannes, 1971.

Blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler produced the script based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm. Trumbo provided the voice for Susan’s DJ husband; he is completely uncredited on the film.

It’s a movie that grabs you quickly and doesn’t let go – a testament to Losey’s marvelous direction. Cahiers du cinema pointed to “The Prowler” as the moment Losey became a true auteur. And Losey, who suffered professionally because of his supposed ties to the Communist Party, put it this way: “‘The Prowler’ to me is, and always has been, a film about false values. About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. $100,000 bucks, a Cadillac and a blonde were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn’t matter how you got them.”

For me, “The Prowler” was the hit of the LACMA triple-bill, though “Murder by Contract” (1958, Irving Lerner) and “Nightfall” (1957, Jacques Tourneur) also made compelling viewing. In “Murder,” written by Ben Maddow and Ben Simcoe, luscious Vince Edwards gives a thoroughly haunting performance as a smart, precise, driven hitman; slick cinematography by the brilliant Lucien Ballard and original guitar music by Perry Botkin add to the mood of tension and doom. The film was a key influence on Martin Scorsese and “Taxi Driver.”

Evocative visuals and location shooting in LA and Wyoming, courtesy of Tourneur and first-rate cinematographer Burnett Guffey, make “Nightfall” easy on the eyes. Given that the movie is based on a David Goodis novel (Stirling Siliphant wrote the script), I was disappointed that I found myself drifting in and out of the slightly thin story. Perhaps a dynamic lead actor, like Van Heflin, could have injected more drama, but Aldo Ray as an innocent man on the run just didn’t do it for me. His one-note realization lacked depth and nuance.

That said, I liked Brian Keith as his bad-guy nemesis (Keith probably could have played Ray’s part quite well) and Anne Bancroft as Ray’s romantic interest, a model and sometime bar-fly. Chris Fujiwara, author of “The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur,” calls her “one of Tourneur’s most distinctive heroines.”

And any film noir that features a sumptuous fashion show at the Beverly Hills Hilton is more than all right by me.

“Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall” are available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in the Film Noir Classics series; “The Prowler” from VCI Entertainment.

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