Highlights from the next Sunday with Hitch on TCM

Sundays with Hitch smaller sizeTCM’s monthlong celebration of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and his stellar filmmaking continues on Sunday, Sept. 15.

Here’s what we at FNB are especially looking forward to. Must pop copious quantities of corn. Yum!

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)

Vertigo

“Rear Window”

“To Catch a Thief”

You can see the full schedule here.

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Kim Novak, natural-born star, honored with TCM tribute

One way to Kim Novak’s heart was through first editions.

Airing tonight: Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. Here, Michael Wilmington shares his appreciation for this actress.

My favorite Kim Novak line comes in “Pal Joey,” Columbia’s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great musical classic. Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, “You’re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I’m stacked.”

Kim Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).

Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with short-cropped platinum hair and a 37-inch bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That’s right!” her “Vertigo” director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to François Truffaut. “She’s particularly proud of that!”)

Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker’s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954’s film noir “Pushover” directed by her lover Richard Quine.

She then became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic,” directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which – as playwright William Inge’s small-town Kansas princess Madge – Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden’s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.

Her movies of course capitalize on the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.

Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while Sammy Davis Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ’50s.)

Kim Novak became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic.” By 1964, she was considered past her prime.

By 1964, she was considered past her prime and, when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me, Stupid,” she shared in the movie’s lousy notices.

Today “Kiss Me” is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!”)

But maybe she was too much a creation of the ’50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

She perhaps wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she’s stacked.

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Happy 80th birthday, Kim Novak!

Lovely Kim Novak in a still from “Vertigo,” one of her most famous movies.

One of our all-time favorite film noir blondes, Kim Novak, turns 80 today. She was born Marilyn Pauline Novak in Chicago, where as a young woman she found work as a model. She moved to Los Angeles to continue modeling but instead became an actress.

Among her many screen credits, she is perhaps best known for her work in “Picnic” (1955), “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955), “Pal Joey” (1957), “Vertigo” (1958) and “Bell Book and Candle” (1958).

“For every answer,” Novak once said, “I like to bring up a question. Maybe I’m related to Alfred Hitchcock or maybe I got to know him too well, but I think life should be that way.”

TCM will honor Novak with a tribute night and screening of four films on March 6. The evening will open with the premiere of Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival, a one-hour interview special hosted by TCM’s Robert Osborne and taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood.

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Highly entertaining ‘Hitchcock’ lacks inherent drama

For me, the much-awaited “Hitchcock,” which had its world premiere at AFI Fest 2012 presented by Audi, is the cinematic equivalent of the curate’s egg: parts were good. And the actors were quite good (Oscar-worthy some say) in their parts: Anthony Hopkins as director Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville and Scarlett Johansson as actress Janet Leigh.

We meet the Hitchcocks in 1959, enjoying the success of “North by Northwest,” Hitch and Alma having made the critical flop “Vertigo” the year before. At 60, the great auteur was at the height of his fame and yet was unable to convince Paramount to finance his next film, “Psycho,” a story based on Robert Bloch’s lurid novel about a serial killer. So the couple decide to finance it themselves – a huge gamble that paid off nicely at the box office and with critics. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.

Against this backdrop, director Sacha Gervasi depicts the artist as a brilliant, shrewd, canny and compulsive man with no end of personal peccadilloes (overeating and obsessing over elegant blondes top the list) and renders a portrait of a marriage that was at times strained but resilient enough to last 54 years.

Upon accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, Hitchcock said: “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.”

Arguably, their ultimate bond was the work – making movies that masterfully blend high art, humor and entertainment in a way that has been often repeated and only rarely rivaled.

With its luscious looks, meticulous period details and engaging performances (even if Hopkins sometimes veers into a slightly mannered impersonation), Gervasi’s “Hitchcock” entertains, to be sure. The opening sequence and the scenes where we see Hitch directing Leigh are especially memorable.

But as I watched this glossy yarn, I couldn’t help wondering why this story was being told, what it was adding or subtracting to the legacy of Alfred and Alma. In other words, because “Hitchcock” lacks an inherent drama and an editorial stance by Gervasi, it also fails to involve us deeply or move us. That said, there’s an intrigue to the back story of a film as famous as “Psycho” and, to that end, “Hitchcock” doesn’t disappoint.

“Hitchcock” opens today in limited release.

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Happy Halloween, everyone!

Here’s a shot of one of my fave costumes – a Hitch/Tippi homage.

Speaking of Hitchcock, this topic came up last night at a Writers Bloc Presents discussion with film critic and historian David Thomson. “Vertigo,” which flopped upon its release in 1958, recently ousted “Citizen Kane” for the No. 1 spot on the BFI’s Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time.

The question: Does “Vertigo” work with an audience or is it best appreciated at home/without a crowd?

Thomson, whose latest book is “The Big Screen,” was enthralling and I particularly enjoyed his assessment of why film noir continues to captivate. Said Thomson: “It’s about the lonely hero who may be going crazy. Many men have had that feeling in the last 60 years.”

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Film noir feline stars: The cat in ‘Bell, Book and Candle’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “Bell, Book and Candle” 1958

Name: Cy A. Meese

Character Name: Pyewacket

Kim Novak catches James Stewart with help from her cherished pet.

Bio: Kim Novak and James Stewart starred in two movies together in 1958. One was the classic Hitchcock neo noir “Vertigo.” The other, now lesser known, was the lighter-toned “Bell, Book and Candle” by director Richard Quine, based on the hit Broadway romantic comedy by John Van Druten. In the film, Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stylish New Yorker and successful store owner with a knack for witchcraft.

But, despite her busy schedule and relentlessly chic wardrobe, Gillian is tired of spending her nights, especially Christmas Eve, talking shop at the campy Zodiac nightclub in the Village with her fellow sorcerers (witch Elsa Lanchester and warlock Jack Lemmon). You know, eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog. Blah, blah, blah.

Gillian much prefers the company of her lovely cat Pyewacket (Cy A. Meese) and flirting with her tall, gray and handsome neighbor Shepherd Henderson (Stewart). After Gillian learns that Shep is engaged to her rival (Janice Rule), she calls on her blue-eyed, gray-furred companion for help in turning the romantic tables.

As the witch’s “familiar,” the role of Pyewacket is pivotal to the film and surely one of the most significant feline roles in Hollywood history. Not only is Gillian’s beloved Pye the agent for casting a spell on Shep, this stunning and eminently self-assured kitty manages to reunite the lovers after they hit a few bumps on the road to bewitchment.

The real-life puss who played Pyewacket later became a Manhattan legend. A life-long New Yorker from a prominent family, Cy was a classically trained actor and had worked steadily in theater before trying his paw at movies. Still, despite his success on stage and screen, Cy’s first love was reading and in 1960 he left acting to open a shop on Greenwich Avenue named “Book, Bell and Candle.”

Besides his excellent taste in titles, he was known for his uncommonly cushy sofas and for encouraging customers to nap in between browsing the aisles. (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and John Cheever were regular snoozers.) In 1968, Cy opened a second location on London’s Cheshire Street and divided his time between the cities until he died peacefully in his sleep in 1982.

Need a bigger Jimmy Stewart fix? Don’t forget the Christmas Eve classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which offers a healthy dose of noir amid the heartwarming joy.

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Edith, Head of her class: A shrewd woman with a sharp eye and unprecedented success in Hollywood

Famed costume designer Edith Head knew that clothes should underscore an actor’s character, not upstage it. And she applied the same discipline to dealing with Hollywood’s elite, putting every ounce of effort into making them look their absolute best while deflecting attention from herself.

Edith Head

Actress Susan Claassen

A shrewd approach along with her natural talent for design, a gift for navigating studio politics and a tremendous amount of hard work made her one of the movie industry’s most successful women.

In her 60-year career, at Paramount and Universal, she worked on more than 1,131 films, received 35 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, more than any other woman. (Walt Disney, with 26 Oscars, holds the record for a man.)

This savvy lady with her tailored suits, neat little bun and statement specs comes out of the shadows and into the spotlight in “A Conversation With Edith Head,” which opened Friday night at LA’s Odyssey Theatre. And she’s spirited, strong, funny and flawed as played by actress Susan Claassen.

One of her peccadilloes was a disdain for modesty. “I’m not different from other designers, I’m the best,” Claassen tells the audience matter of factly. Another memorable Head aphorism: “You can have anything you want in life, if you dress for it.”

Tinseltown anecdotes and stories of working with the stars are sprinkled throughout the play, which is set in 1981. Head died in October of that year at age 83, still under contract to Universal, having just completed the Steve Martin film “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”

The show recreates Head's cocktail dress for Bette Davis (far left) and a gown for Elizabeth Taylor (far right).

The format includes questions from the audience as well as free advice on your sartorial choices. Since Claassen called me stunning and asked if I was a model, naturally I think the woman is the greatest genius known to Western civilization. ;)

But, joking aside, Claassen is brilliant in this role, capturing the character’s gestures, mannerisms and demeanor without mimicry or impersonation. Claassen reveals the enormous power Head wielded through her sketch pad and pencil as well as the sacrifices (15-hour days, six days a week in her heyday), self-doubt and sadness that were facets of her extraordinary life.

A closer look at the recreated dress for Bette Davis in "All About Eve" from 1950.

Claassen, who recently received an Ovation nomination for Lead Actress in a Play for this part, co-wrote the work with Paddy Calistro, author of the book “Edith Head’s Hollywood.” The idea came to Claassen while watching a TV biography about Head.

Says Claassen: “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. … There are many myths about her, but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew whose hips needed clever disguising and made sure those legendary stars always looked the part.”

Head was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock and added élan to the wardrobe of film noir stars, dressing, for example, Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity,” Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.,” Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief,” Kim Novak in “Vertigo,” and Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.”

She also dressed Bette Davis as the glamorous actress Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and designed Elizabeth Taylor’s white ball gown in “A Place in the Sun.” In fact, she worked with nearly all the Hollywood greats, including Mae West, Clara Bow, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

When in 1967 Paramount chose not to renew her contract, she was hired by Universal, thanks to her friendship with Hitchcock, who perhaps really was her favorite director, despite her practical policy of naming her favorite director as the one for whom she was currently working.

Opening night fell on Head's birthday. Cake and champagne were in order, natch.

Though Head’s motto was to accentuate the positive and camouflage the negative, the chapter of her childhood spent in the Nevada desert was good training for holding her own in Hollywood. She was, she said, used to dealing with scorpions.

Opening night coincided with what would have been Head’s 114th birthday so, after the show, party guests sipped champagne and ate red-velvet birthday cake, donated by Susie Cakes.

“A Conversation With Edith Head” is a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, 90025. It runs Thursdays through Sundays through Nov. 13. (The play premiered in Tucson, Ariz., in 2002 and has since played in many US cities and abroad.) Tickets are $40. For more information: 310-477-2055; www.edithhead.biz.

Photos from the production are copyright of Film Noir Blonde.

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‘Diabolique’ is all surprise, all mystery, one twist after another

‘Diabolique’/1955/Cinédis/114 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

The worst kind of fictional horror, the kind that seeps into your psyche and stings into life your worst fears, sometimes springs from the seemingly mundane routines of life, when the placid world we know suddenly becomes a backdrop for darkness and evil.

In French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of suspense, “Diabolique,” a school near Paris turns into the site for a cold-blooded murder and a den of everyday nightmares. “Diabolique,” called “Les Diaboliques,“ (“The Devils”) in France, is a movie about the mystery and terror of appearances, and the ways that they can ensnare us, drive us mad or destroy us.

If there was ever a movie review that needed a “Spoiler Alert” it’s “Diabolique,” a film that doesn’t have one surprise up its sleeve, but many. It’s all surprise, all mystery, one twist after the other, going off like firecrackers until the end of the film.

Vera Clouzot

Simone Signoret

“Diabolique” takes place in a boarding school, an ugly, sprawling ex-chateau run by a ferret-faced brute of a headmaster, Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) and his weak, ill and persecuted wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). Delassalle viciously exploits and abuses his wife, and is openly unfaithful to her, with the school’s science and math teacher, a sultry, smart blonde named Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret, in one of her most famous roles).

Headmaster Delassalle is an awful man and the school is an awful but believable place, with bleak dormitory rooms, rotten food, dark hallways, and a dirty swimming pool in which something terrible, we feel, will happen. Or maybe not.

In the first of the movie’s string of shocks, we discover that Christina and Nicole, wife and mistress, have formed an unholy alliance. Both seemingly disgusted by the swinish Michel, they are plotting to kill him and disguise it as an accident.

And Michel is such a cad and sadist – a brilliant performance by Meurisse, who was later just as fine for both Jean Renoir (“Picnic on the Grass”) and Jean-Pierre Melville (“Le Cercle Rouge”) – that we don’t condemn the women. Another brilliant actor of astounding longevity, Charles Vanel, plays superlatively well the retired detective Fichet, who starts sniffing around when he runs into Christina at the morgue.

The man who made this astonishing and frightening movie, writer-director Clouzot, seemed to be many things himself: a cynic and a sometime sadist to his actors (especially his own wife, Vera), a friend/collaborator of artistic greats like Pablo Picasso, a WW2 opportunist who worked for a company run by the occupying Germans, and, above all, a genius at making movies that tightened the vise of anxiety like a noose around the audiences’ throats.

Clouzot was, in fact, the only specialist in suspense who was ever plausibly bracketed with Alfred Hitchcock – and Hitchcock was one of “Diabolique” ’s biggest admirers. The wry British master of movie fear wanted to buy the novel, “Celle qui n’etait plus,” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, on which “Diabolique” was based.

When “Diabolique” became an international hit, Hitchcock bought another Boileau-Narcejac novel, and turned it into his masterpiece “Vertigo.” Hitch then acquired a Robert Bloch novel called “Psycho” and essentially made it his own “Diabolique,” shooting in black and white, playing up similar scenes and themes (including the idea of murder in a bathroom), borrowing liberally from the earlier movie’s style and execution, even reworking some of its advertising gimmicks. [Read more...]

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Cinematheque honors Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann

You can always count on the American Cinematheque to give noiristas some love.

The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is running Suspense Account: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, featuring his Technicolor spectaculars, such as “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “To Catch a Thief.” Also showing are suspense thrillers “Notorious,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Suspicion,” “Spellbound,” “Saboteur” and “Psycho.” Now under way, the series runs through June 9.

Additionally, from June 23-30, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will host A Centennial Tribute to Composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), one of cinema’s most brilliant and influential artists. The series will screen “Cape Fear,” On Dangerous Ground,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Vertigo,” “Obsession,” “Marnie,” “Psycho,” and “Hangover Square.”

Check the schedule for more details. The Egyptian Theatre is at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7.

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THR on red-carpet beauty, what Head said, Zoe’s dough

The Hollywood Reporter’s recent style issue was packed with great stories. For instance, Meg Hemphill spotted four awards beauty trends that she predicts we’ll be seeing for months to come. They are:

Think bright pink for spring.

1. Bright pink lips: Who doesn’t love a flirty pink pout? Not Scarlett Johansson, who wore MAC’s Sheen Supreme in Behave Yourself, $14.50, on Oscar night, or Claire Danes, who dazzled at the SAGs with Joli Rouge in 709 Parisian Pink, $24, by Clarins. Shown here is MAC’s Full Fuchsia.

2. Messy side-dos: Let loose with a softly asymmetrical look. Hairstylist Laini Reeves, creator of Amy Adams’ up-do for the Globes, called the effect “1920s with a twist.”

3. Soft makeup: Nars Illuminating Cream, $29, was key to Olivia Wilde’s sheer glow at the Golden Globes. Makeup artist Spencer Barnes was going for “a soft, timeless look that wasn’t focused on trendy color schemes or any one bold application.”

4. Retro waves: Frederic Fekkai hairstylist Adir Abergel took a cue from old Hollywood and Rita Hayworth, then updated the look for Anne Hathaway on Globes night.

Edith Head

A must-read: Sam Wasson on the legacy of A-list costume designer Edith Head. The story is pegged to the release of two new books: “Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer” and “The Dress Doctor: Prescriptions for Style from A to Z,” an adaptation of Head’s best-selling tome from 1959.

The spread features pictures from “Vertigo,” “Rear Window,” “The Birds” and other movies. Love this quotation from Head: “Clothes not only can make the woman – they can make her several different women. There’s no one style; there’s a style for a mood.”

THR’s cover story by Shirley Halperin details the empire of Rachel Zoe Inc., “a multiplatform brand powerhouse.” A companion piece names Hollywood ’s 25 most powerful stylists. The top four, after Zoe, are: Kate Young, Petra Flannery, Jen Rade and Anna Bingemann.

Other exiting news: Zoe and husband Rodger Berman are parents to a baby boy. Their first child, Skyler Morrison Berman, was born March 24 in Los Angeles.

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