Film Noir File: Welles’ magnum opus, Halloween nightmares

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

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

Pick of the Week

Touch of Evil” (1958, Orson Welles). Wednesday, Oct. 29. 10 p.m. (7 p.m.).

“A little old lady walked down Main Street last night and picked up a shoe. That shoe had a foot in it. I’m going to make you pay for that, boy.”
Detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston lock horns in “Touch of Evil.”

In two Hellish border towns, one in California, the other in Mexico, a grotesque and loony gallery of rogues, cops, narcs, city bosses, gangsters, juvenile delinquents, psycho motel clerks and ladies of the evening are thrown together, when a wealthy banker, Rudy Linnekar, is blown to smithereens at the border. We watch a bomb being planted in his car (from above, in one of cinema’s greatest long-take, moving-camera shots) by a shadowy, not-quite-seen killer.

On the killer’s trail, in what seems only minutes after that explosive opening, is the local star police detective, Hank Quinlan (writer-director-star Orson Welles), a mountainously fat, savagely cynical but brilliant cop, who specializes in cracking the most mysterious crimes and nailing the wiliest killers. In this case, Quinlan fingers a good-looking Mexican shoe clerk (Victor Millan) who was sleeping with Linnekar’s daughter (Joanna Moore) and who has a shoebox full of dynamite in their motel room.

Only one problem: An upright, unshakably honest narcotics-cop named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, at his most righteous) – who’s visiting the town with his gorgeous blonde wife Susie (Janet Leigh, at her liveliest) – knows that the dynamite was planted. And if Quinlan planted the evidence on this murder, maybe he, and his hero-worshipping partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) have been faking things for years.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (as Mike and Susie Vargas) have much to fear.

What follows is a war of nerves (and of guts and morality) between two great cops, one of whom may be a murderer.

Around them is the rest of one of film noir’s greatest casts: Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi, the local sawed-off Little Caesar, Valentin de Vargas as Uncle Joe’s lady-killing leather-jacketed nephew, Dennis Weaver as the nervous “night man” at the local motel, Mercedes McCambridge as the most blood-freezing lesbian biker ever, and a couple of salty old pros from “Citizen Kane” (Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins). And, in one of her (and our) favorite performances, Marlene Dietrich as Tana, the sultry, sardonic madame who plays the pianola at her high-style whorehouse and makes great chili. She tells her old flame Quinlan, “You’re a mess, honey.”

The Universal studio execs of 1958 made a mess of “Touch of Evil,” in its original release, ordering reshooting and recuts. But it’s long since assumed classic status and been put back in the shape it’s believed writer-director-star Welles wanted.

We actually owe the existence of “Touch of Evil” to Charlton Heston. He was hired to play the hero, Vargas, in an initially unpromising adaptation of Whit Masterson’s paperback thriller “Badge of Evil,” after Welles was already cast as Quinlan. Heston then insisted that Welles direct it as well.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Marlene Dietrich as Tana plays the pianola and makes great chili.

Welles was still in his prime when he made “Touch of Evil” and he did it with a flair, panache and unflagging invention. He displays a mastery of  staging, of camera placement and of bravura acting from the incredible cast that has seldom been matched in the canon of noir. (Russell Metty photographed it and Henry Mancini wrote the score.)

The movie is a masterpiece of pulp and expressionism. Just as with “Citizen Kane,” you can watch it over and over again, and still find surprises. The ending is both melancholy and exhilarating.

It’s wonderful that Welles got this last big studio chance. But it’s sad too, because we know that he was never able to make a go-for-broke super-Hollywood studio film like this again. No one was better at it.

Some aficionados think “Touch of Evil” is the very pinnacle of film noir. Even if it isn’t, it’s a movie that takes the whole notion of noir (the melding of hard-boiled crime stories and expressionist high style technique) to one of its craziest, wildest, most brilliant extremes.

“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Tana (Marlene Dietrich)

Act of Violence posterWednesday, Oct. 29

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Psycho” (1960, Alfred Hitchcock). With Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and Martin Balsam. Reviewed in FNB, on July 7, 2011.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “Act of Violence” (1948, Fred Zinnemann). With Van Heflin, Robert Ryan and Janet Leigh. Reviewed in FNB, on Aug. 4, 2012.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 p.m.): “Harper” (1966, Jack Smight). With Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Lauren Bacall and Julie Harris. Reviewed in FNB, on Dec. 4, 2012.

Friday, Oct. 31

Horror Halloween Marathon

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

“Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur) is a purrfect choice for Halloween.

11 a.m. (8 a.m.): “Cat People” (1942, Jacques Tourneur). With Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Tom Conway. Reviewed in FNB, on July 20, 2014.

3:15 p.m. (12:15 p.m.): “Dementia 13” (1963, Francis Ford Coppola). With William Campbell, Luana Anders and Patrick Magee. Reviewed in FNB, on June 12, 2014.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Carnival of Souls” (1962, Herk Harvey). An anguished young woman (Candace Hilligoss) nearly drowns and then makes her way to a small city. It’s mysteriously inhabited by ordinary-looking but strange people who seem to be the citizens of some other, more dangerous place. (The eerie, smiling little man who follows her all around is played by the writer-director, Herk Harvey.) This is a legendary low-budget horror classic, and few films of its type are scarier.

Repulsion Criterion poster6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Repulsion” (1965, Roman Polanski). With Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux and Ian Hendry. Reviewed in FNB, on Oct. 27, 2012.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Night of the Living Dead” (1968, George Romero). With Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea. Reviewed in FNB, on March 27, 2012.

5:15 a.m. (2:15 a.m.): “Eyes Without a Face” (1959, Georges Franju). With Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli and Edith Scob. Reviewed in FNB, on Nov. 4, 2011.

Saturday, Nov. 1

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “Point Blank” (1967, John Boorman). With Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Carroll O’Connor. Reviewed in FNB, on Jan. 28, 2013.

11:45 p.m. (8:45 p.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). With Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

4 a.m. (1 a.m.): “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969, Leonard Kastle). With Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco. Reviewed in FNB, on July 21, 2011.

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Film noir giants Ray, Welles, Wilder, Coppola highlighted at TCM Classic Film Festival 2014

The fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival opens Thursday night with “Oklahoma” (in which femme fatale Gloria Grahame forays into the musical genre) and runs through Sunday.

The central theme of this year’s festival is Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind. In keeping with this theme, organizers say, the fest will showcase on-screen clans of all types – big and small, happy and imperfect, musical and dramatic. Additionally, the festival will spotlight Hollywood’s first families and dynasties and will explore the kinship that connects close-knit groups of professionals behind the camera.

Johnny Guitar posterWe at FNB are excited about the film-noir slate: “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” “Johnny Guitar,” “The Thin Man,” “Touch of Evil,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Godfather II,” “The Naked City,” “Freaks” and “The Lady From Shanghai.” Also not to be missed: The Film Noir Foundation’s czar of noir Eddie Muller will interview neo-noir master director William Friedkin. These are just a few highlights – the fest is packed with cinematic treats and cool events.

Meanwhile, TCM came up with a terrific way to celebrate the network’s 20th birthday: the free (yes, free!) TCM Movie Locations Tour, running in Los Angeles. Created in Partnership with Starline Tours, the nifty bus rides started last month and will run through April 14, overlapping with the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

The tours use comfy new buses with stadium-style seating, skylight windows and a 65”-inch HDTV to show movie clips and commentary from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. (There’s also a Starline tour guide onboard.)

Featured sites include Echo Park (“Chinatown”), the 2nd Street Tunnel (“Blade Runner,” “The Terminator”), Bryson Apartments (“Double Indemnity,” “The Grifters”) and the Gilmore Gas Station (“L.A. Story”), the Bradbury Building (“Blade Runner,” “The Artist”) and Union Station (“The Way We Were,” “Silver Streak”).

This marks TCM’s second sightseeing bus tour. Last August, the network launched the “TCM Classic Film Tour” in New York.

We are told the Los Angeles trips are sold out but it’s possible the schedule will be expanded. Check here for more info: The FNB team attended the press trip last month and even as Los Angeles residents we were mightily impressed at what we saw and what we learned. Here are a few shots we snapped along the way:

TCM bus 1

The TCM bus is cool and breezy.

bus 2

Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue

The Bryson apartments, home to Walter Neff in "Double Indemnity."

The Bryson apartments, home to Walter Neff in “Double Indemnity.”

The Bradbury building,  304 Broadway, was built in 1893.

The Bradbury building, 304 Broadway, was built in 1893.

Los Angeles city hall, downtown

Los Angeles city hall, downtown

Union Station

Union Station

The Wiltern Theatre at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue

The Wiltern Theatre at Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue

Formosa Cafe was and is a popular hangout. It was founded in 1925 by prize-fighter Jimmy Bernstein.

Formosa Cafe, founded in 1925 by prize-fighter Jimmy Bernstein, was and is a popular hangout.

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On the radar: Revel in noir at the Aero, Egyptian and Lacma

There’s so much to see on the big screen this month in Los Angeles. See you at the movies!
1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica; shows start at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 3: A sneak preview of the thriller/horror flick “Silent House” starring Elizabeth Olsen followed by 2003’s “Open Water,” a nerve-wracking story about a couple left stranded in the Caribbean after a day of scuba diving. There will be a discussion between films with co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker in "Strangers on a Train"

Wednesday, March 7: One of my all-time favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, “Strangers on a Train” (1951) stars Robert Walker as a psycho playboy intent on committing a double murder with tennis champ Farley Granger. As Hitch shows us in the opening shot, never underestimate the importance of footwear.
Wednesday, March 14: Another Hitchcock work that draws on his lifelong love of trains, “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938 takes place on a train en route from the fictional country of Bandrika to Western Europe. Passengers Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave attempt to find a mysterious Miss Froy.
Thursday, March 15: In “The Night of the Hunter” (1955, Charles Laughton) the great Robert Mitchum gives an unforgettable performance as a warped preacher with a knack for seducing trusting souls. Also starring Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. At 6:30 p.m., author Preston Neal Jones will sign his book “Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter.”

Laura Harring, director David Lynch and Naomi Watts of "Mulholland Dr."

Saturday, March 24: A top-notch double feature, starting with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece noir and scathing look at Hollywood, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950). William Holden, Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim star in this must-see flick. Next up: Naomi Watts and Laura Harring lead the cast of David Lynch’s mesmerizing and surreal portrait of Tinseltown’s latent evil, “Mulholland Dr.” (2001).

Wednesday, March 28: Yet more Hitchcock! Joel McCrea plays reporter Johnny Jones, who encounters intrigue and danger in “Foreign Correspondent” from 1940.
Thursday March 29: “The Manchurian Candidate,” starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Superb direction from John Frankenheimer.
6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; shows start at 7:30 p.m. with multiple showings and one matinee for “The Snowtown Murders”

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man."

Wednesday, March 7: Carol Reed directs Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli and Orson Welles in 1949’s “The Third Man,” one of the finest thrillers ever made. Don’t miss it!
Wednesday, March 14: Orson Welles as auteur and actor. In “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948), an outstanding noir, he co-stars with Rita Hayworth and Everett Sloane. In “Confidential Report” (1955), Welles plays a dad in deep denial about his murky past.
Thursday, March 15-Sunday, March 18: Justin Kurzel makes his directorial debut with “The Snowtown Murders,” the story of Australia’s most infamous serial killer. Plays at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.
Wednesday, March 28: More brilliance from Orson Welles in this knock-out double feature. “Touch of Evil,” a tale of corruption, is widely considered the last great work of classic film noir. Its unbeatable cast: Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Mercedes McCambridge. “The Trial” (based on Franz Kafka’s novel about paranoia and conspiracy) also boasts amazing talent: Welles, Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Akim Tamiroff.
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 8: As a tribute to Wim Wenders, “The American Friend,” a stand-out neo noir from 1977 is paired with 1982’s “Chambre 666,” a doc with A-list directors about the future of filmmaking.
At 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 9: Film noir is partly rooted in French Poetic Realism and these two examples of the genre make an excellent night at the movies. To start: Cinematic genius and master of poetic realism Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939) followed by Jacques Becker’s “Casque D’Or” (1952). Becker assisted Renoir on “Rules” and “Grand Illusion” (1937).

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" from 1944.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 13: Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944) is one of the defining films of the noir genre. Femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck lures insurance agent Fred MacMurray into committing murder for a big payoff. Edward G. Robinson shines as MacMurray’s boss and friend.
At noon Saturday, March 24: Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Biennale, is a 24-hour single-channel montage constructed from thousands of moments of cinema and television history depicting the passage of time. Begins at noon Saturday and ends at noon on Sunday, March 25.
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 27: Another prime example of classic film noir, Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” put Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster on the track to super-stardom.
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Still crazy about iconic, scary ‘Psycho’ after all these years

Psycho/1960/Universal/109 min.

For a 51-year-old, “Psycho” looks fantastic.

The 1960 masterwork, perhaps the most famous of all Alfred Hitchcock‘s movies, is still smart, funny and beautiful to watch.

Janet Leigh

A low-budget, experimental film for Hitchcock (he was greatly influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Diabolique” from 1955), “Psycho” wasn’t well received by critics. But the movie was a huge hit with the public and has remained popular ever since. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, is No. 2 on the AFI’s list of greatest villains, second only to Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. “Psycho” singlehandedly spawned the slasher genre and, together with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” from 1958, also starring Janet Leigh, marks the end of classic film noir.

Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary at Lowery Real Estate in sunny Phoenix. On a whim, Marion leaves town with a load of cash – $40,000 from her firm’s client, wealthy good ole boy Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson). She’s hoping it will pave her way to the altar with her delectable but debt-laden boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin).

Not far into her road trip, she feels pangs of guilt, but before she can turn around and give the money back, she stops at The Bates Motel where she meets uber-polite proprietor Norman and hears his mother screeching from the old dark house next door. After sharing sandwiches with Norman, Marion takes a shower and Norman’s gray-haired mother suddenly appears, knife in hand. It’s one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history.

Later, Sam, Marion’s sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles), and Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) launch a search for Marion. Arbogast perishes as he puzzles over the secrets within the Bates Motel, but eventually Sam and Lila unravel the core of the family craziness. Here’s a hint: It was all Mommy’s fault. Still, she’s a survivor, you might say, who gets the last laugh.

Hitchcock took a chance with first-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano who worked from Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho.” The book was loosely based, many feel, on real-life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. Stefano, a psychoanalysis aficionado, borrowed liberally from Freud 101 to write his script. (Stefano later became the head writer for the classic TV horror show, “The Outer Limits.”)

Because he worried that the audience would get impatient with not seeing Norman’s mother for so long, Stefano peppered the dialogue with references to mothers so that at least the idea of Mrs. Bates was present. Sam refers to turning a picture of Marion’s mother to the wall; Marion’s office colleague Caroline (Patricia Hitchcock) mentions her mother twice in a brief conversation at the office. [Read more…]

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