Film noir flourishes at TCM film festival in Hollywood

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a prime location at the TCM fest. Photo by John Nowak

From Marie Windsor’s character in “The Killing” telling her wounded husband (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) to cab to the hospital because she doesn’t feel like calling an ambulance to Grace Kelly fending off her attacker and foiling the eponymous plot in “Dial M for Murder,” on-screen femmes fatales claimed their power at the TCM Classic Film Festival April 25-28 in Hollywood.

Marie Windsor

The film noir slate was particularly rich as was the experience of seeing these film on the big screen – the lighting, the compositions, the close-ups all popped in a way that just doesn’t happen when you watch these titles on TV. Additionally, the festival does a splendid job of finding guests to introduce the films.

At Thursday’s screening of “The Killing,” actress Coleen Gray shared memories of working with director Stanley Kubrick on what would turn out to be his break-though movie. “I knew he was good,” she said. “The cast is wonderful. The story, the director and the actors are in tune. And look at the cutting – it was cut to create a masterpiece. You go and see it and you bow to Mr. Kubrick.” She added that Kubrick spent much of his directorial energy working with Marie Windsor on her hard-as-nails dame Sherry Peatty.

There was film noir aplenty at the TCM festival as well as special guests, panels, a poolside screening and parties. Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

Fans of Ms. Windsor’s got another chance to connect with her at Friday’s screening of “The Narrow Margin.” The special guest was actress Jacqueline White. Also during that time slot producer Stanley Rubin reminisced about Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Otto Preminger before a showing of 1954’s “River of No Return,” a stunning example of CinemaScope’s capabilities.

“[Marilyn] and Otto didn’t like each other and so we became very friendly. She was a perfect lady,” he said, adding that she was friendly and professional with Mitchum as well.

Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return.”

Watching Monroe and Mitchum, at the height of their physical radiance in this picture, ignited in me a newfound passion for Westerns. (Believe me, this is quite a feat.)

It’s always a toss-up when deciding between a beloved classic and a little-screened rarity. We at FNB decided to mix it up a little and forgo “Notorious,” which I often liken to a glass of Veuve Clicquot, for the chance to see a 1956 Jean Gabin black comedy “La Traversée de Paris.” Gabin is always good, but the film is uneven, without much tension or humor, a bit like a flabby claret.

A much better rare treat was the definitive British film noir “It Always Rains on Sunday,” (1947, Robert Hamer), set in London’s East End, featuring a Jewish family and starring John McCallum as prison escapee Tommy Swann and tough yet oddly dainty Googie Withers as his ex-gf. The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller introduced the film, noting that it was less a crime flick than an effective portrayal of the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

We watched this with our friend Debra Levine of artsmeme.com. Our verdict: It’s a good, engaging film but what makes it great is the sleek, striking cinematography. “Tommy made some poor choices,” Ms. Levine overheard someone saying as we left the theater. Aah, but we all know that “choice” is but a futile joke in the world of film noir!

Eva Marie Saint discussed “On the Waterfront” with Bob Osborne on Friday night. Photo by John Nowak

Another Friday highlight: the lovely and gracious Eva Marie Saint discussing “On the Waterfront.”

The next morning, early birds were rewarded with a talk by Polly Bergen at the screening of “Cape Fear,” one of Robert Mitchum’s most menacing roles. Later-risers could head to the Egyptian Theatre for the West Coast restoration premiere of 1929’s “The Donovan Affair” with live actors (from Bruce Goldstein and company) and sound effects to recreate the lost soundtrack.

Eddie Muller interviewed Susan Ray at the screening of “They Live by Night.” Photo by John Nowak

Next up was a film noir must-see: “They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray), the quintessential young-lovers-on-the-run story, with an appearance by his widow Susan Ray and introduction by Eddie Muller. Commenting on Ray’s exploratory directing style, she said: “He did not go in with a preconceived idea of what should happen in a scene. He would set it up, light a fuse and watch. He would prod or provoke if necessary. He didn’t impose truth, he looked for it.”

And on Ray’s interest in telling the stories of young people, often loners or societal outcasts, she noted: “He saw the juice, potential, openness and flexibility of youth and he loved it.” Nick Ray’s gift as a visual poet is never more apparent than when you see “They Live by Night” on the big screen.

Continuing the noir mood was “Tall Target” (1951, Anthony Mann), a period noir, starring Dick Powell, Paula Raymond and Ruby Dee, based on an actual plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before he could take the oath office in 1861. Film historian Donald Bogle gave an insightful introduction.

Bob Osborne chats with Ann Blyth before Saturday night’s screening of “Mildred Pierce.” Photo by John Nowak

Then it was back to the Egyptian, where the line for “Mildred Pierce,” snaked down a busy side street of Hollywood Boulevard. Special guest actress Ann Blyth said of Joan Crawford, the film’s mega-star: “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. She was kind to me during the making of the movie and she was kind to me for many years after.”

Popcorn, Coke, Raisinets and watching Crawford pull out all the shoulder-padded stops – what more could a noirista wish for?

Sunday morning kicked off with a choice between “Badlands,” “Gilda,” or sleeping in a bit and we hit snooze. Sorry. They don’t call me Lazy Legs for nothing. Our first movie was 1973’s “Scarecrow,” starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman – it was one of the best and most resonant films we’ve seen in a long time. The acting is tremendous in this great-looking film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Director Jerry Schatzberg discussed his work in a pre-film chat with Leonard Maltin.

Anthony Dawson and Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder.”

Afterward, we managed to catch the very noirish “Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman), starring Dorothy Mackaill as a streetwise blonde who holds her own among a slew of unsavory men while she’s hiding out in the Caribbean. Donald Bogle introduced the movie and William Wellman, Jr. answered questions afterward.

A great way to wrap up the fest, before heading to the after-party at the Roosevelt Hotel, was a 3-D presentation of “Dial M for Murder.” Leonard Maltin and the always-entertaining actor-producer-director Norman Lloyd, 98, discussed 3-D and the working methods of Alfred Hitchcock. This Hitchcock gem, a perfect example of his subversive casting, is often underrated so we particularly enjoyed seeing it; we noticed that just about every seat was taken.

Hats off to TCM for another superb film festival! The staff does an excellent job running every aspect of this event and it is much appreciated.

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The Noir File: Young lovers on the run in ‘They Live by Night’

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).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger play the beautiful young couple.

They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray). Wednesday, Dec. 5, 10:30 a.m. (7:30 a.m.). “Gentle” and “romantic” might seem odd words to apply to film noir. But Nicholas Ray’s “They Live By Night” is one of the gentlest, saddest and most romantic of all noirs, and an inarguable classic as well. It’s the familiar but potent story of two naïve young outlaw lovers-on-the-run: Bowie, a kid with a gun and Keechie, a girl with a heart to be broken (played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, an unusually beautiful young movie couple). Bowie and Keechie are two nice, ordinary kids who‘ve fallen in with the crookedly paternal T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and his violent partner Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) to form a gang of traveling thieves.

Ray was a famous American film outlaw romantic. He and producer John Houseman and screenwriter Charles Schnee derived their legendary gangster love story from Edward Anderson’s harder-bitten Depression novel “Thieves Like Us.” Robert Altman later remade “They Live By Night,” in 1974, under its original title, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as Bowie and Keechie (and Louise Fletcher as the two-faced Mattie). That was one of his neo-noir ’70s gems, but “They Live By Night” – often cited, with “Gun Crazy,” as a direct precursor of “Bonnie and Clyde” – has a tenderness and poetic quality that are unique for the crime movie genre. And never more so than in the remarkable nocturnal wedding-on-the-run of Bowie and Keechie, with Ian Wolfe as the wily justice of the peace reeling off a ceremony, paid witnesses, and the sense of a disappointed but wildly loving heart beating beneath it all.

Tuesday, Dec. 4

4 a.m. (1 a.m.):“Night and the City” (1950, Jules Dassin). Crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) tries to outrace the night. One of the all-time best film noirs, from Gerald Kersh’s London novel. With Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom and Googie Withers.

Wednesday, Dec. 5

12:15 p.m. (9:15 a.m.): “Gun Crazy” (1949, Joseph H. Lewis).

Thursday, Dec. 6

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Third Man” (1949, Carol Reed).

Saturday, Dec. 8

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Autumn Leaves” (1956, Robert Aldrich). Cougar Joan Crawford falls for an unstable younger man (Cliff Robertson); co-starring Vera Miles.

Sunday, Dec. 9

3 p.m. (12 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). Paul Newman, at his most attractively laid-back, plays one of detective literature’s most celebrated private eyes, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, in this brainy thriller based on MacDonald’s novel “The Moving Target.” One catch: Archer has been renamed “Lew Harper,” so Newman could have (he hoped) another hit movie with an “H” title, like “The Hustler” and “Hud.” He got one. The stellar cast includes Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Arthur Hill, Robert Webber and Strother Martin. Scripted by William Goldman.

5:15 p.m. (2:15 p.m.): “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959, Otto Preminger).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Lady in the Lake” (1947, Robert Montgomery).

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Farley Granger (1925-2011): A face born for film noir and a movie immortal

By Michael Wilmington

Farley Granger

Farley Granger, who died at 85 on March 27, was the darkly handsome, sensitive-looking lead in four indisputable noir classics: Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1949), Anthony Mann’s “Side Street” (1950), and by Alfred Hitchcock: “Rope” (1948) and “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Blessed (or sometimes cursed) with pretty-boy looks, dark curly hair and an expression that could vary from bruised innocence and outright anguish to wary bemusement and dissolute sadism, Granger became a Hollywood movie star at 18, right out of North Hollywood High, when Samuel Goldwyn decided to sign him and groom him.

The teenager was cast in two Lewis Milestone World War II movies, “North Star” (1943) and “The Purple Heart” (1944). Goldwyn signed him again when Granger returned from WWII service in 1948.

It’s his noirs that make Farley Granger a movie immortal. We remember him best as the murderous but conscience-plagued college boy modeled on thrill-killer Nathan Leopold in “Rope”; as the desperate young husband caught in a web of crime in “Side Street”; as the bank-robbing outlaw, Bowie, part of a Bonnie-and-Clyde team with Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie in “They Live By Night” (O’Donnell also co-starred with him in “Side Street”); and as socially ambitious tennis star Guy Haines, bedeviled by the persistent “criss-cross” killer, Bruno Anthony (the magnificently deranged Robert Walker), in Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Strangers on a Train.”

After a minor noir “The Naked Street” and a lush period crime drama “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” (both 1955), Granger returned far less often to the big screen, though he remained a permanent part of Hollywood’s historical landscape.

And of the international film landscape. One of his finest performances was as the handsome, seductive and amoral Austrian Army officer, Lt. Franz Mahler, the wastrel who ruins Alida Valli’s life, in Luchino Visconti’s great operatic Italian period drama from 1954 “Senso” – a role that Marlon Brando had wanted and read for.

(“Senso” has just been released in a splendid Criterion edition, complete with a documentary, interviews and a bonus disc of the English-language version, “The Wanton Contessa,” with Granger’s voice.)

Farley Granger starred in "Side Street" from 1950 directed by Anthony Mann.

Sensitive or troubled in most of his famous parts, Granger may have suffered in ’50s Hollywood, a time and place where his bisexuality – hinted at in his “Rope” and “Strangers” roles – could be something of a career killer. (Among his lovers: “Rope’s” screenwriter Arthur Laurents, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, Shelley Winters and Ava Gardner.) [Read more...]

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