Long-awaited Curtiz book hits Hollywood; Egyptian Theatre hosts signing and screening

Alan K. Rode

Film noir expert Alan K. Rode has released “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” published by the University Press of Kentucky. To mark the book’s launch, the American Cinematheque is hosting a book signing and screening of two Curtiz gems on Thursday night in Hollywood at the Egyptian Theatre.

The Sea Wolf” (1941) stars Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Gene Lockhart and Barry Fitzgerald in a tense and moody adaption of Jack London’s anti-fascist adventure novel. Robert Rossen (“The Hustler”) wrote the screenplay.

The Breaking Point” (1950) takes Ernest Hemingway’s tragic novel “To Have and Have Not” as its source material. Though the setting is changed from Key West to Newport Beach, Calif., Curtiz delivers a more faithful version of the book than the famous Howard Hawks vehicle starring Bogart and Bacall.

Here, John Garfield expertly plays Skipper Harry Morgan. Gravel-voiced Patricia Neal is the alluring vamp; Phyllis Thaxter, Wallace Ford and Juano Hernandez round out the cast.

Rode set himself quite the task when he decided to write about this master director. Uncommonly prolific across many genres (including Westerns, swashbucklers and musicals), Hungarian-born Curtiz made more than 60 movies in Europe and more than 100 in Hollywood, arriving in 1926 at the behest of Warner Bros. Studio.

He won the Best Director Oscar for 1942’s noir-tinged “Casablanca” and for a short called “Sons of Liberty” from 1939. He was nominated for Oscars five times and directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations. James Cagney and Joan Crawford received their only Academy Awards under Curtiz’s direction.

Crawford won for her comeback role, “Mildred Pierce,” a domestic film noir from 1945. With a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, the movie improves and heightens the drama of James M. Cain’s novel.

Co-starring Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott, Jack Carson, Eve Arden and Bruce Bennett, “Mildred Pierce” ranks as one of our all-time favorite films.

For tonight, however, we’ll just have to swoon over John Garfield. Life’s rough.

Rode will sign his book in the lobby at 6:30 p.m. He will also introduce the films, slated to start at 7:30 p.m.

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Noir City Hollywood kicks off with Ann Sheridan double bill

Woman on the Run posterNoir City Hollywood starts Friday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The famed fest, now in its 17th year, kicks off with an Ann Sheridan double feature: “Woman on the Run” (1950, Norman Foster) and “The Unfaithful” (1947, Vincent Sherman).

In “Woman on the Run,” police believe Sheridan can lead them to a key witness in a San Francisco gangland killing. The snag is she doesn’t want to feed them info. The witness is her husband (Ross Elliott), but she’s done with him. To hell with helping out! Dennis O’Keefe plays an enterprising (is there any other kind?) newspaperman.

In “The Unfaithful,” Sheridan has a dalliance that leads to death. Not hers, natch. David Goodis and James Gunn wrote the script (based on W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter”) and set the story in Los Angeles. Featuring Zachary Scott, Lew Ayres and the always-delightful Eve Arden.

The Unfaithful posterNoir City Hollywood will screen 26 films over 12 nights! The fest, which is presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation, runs through April 19. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation will introduce the movies.

Woman on the Run” was restored in 2014 by the Film Noir Foundation in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restoration funding for “Woman on the Run” was provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust through the Film Noir Foundation. “The Unfaithful” screens in a 35mm print.

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Film noir and shoulder pads spur Crawford’s comeback

Wanted to share my talk on “Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz) on Saturday, Sept. 20, at the West Hollywood Library. The library’s Corey Roskin introduced me. Hope you enjoy!

The movie was popular with critics and audiences, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations including best picture. Joan Crawford won for best actress. The superb cast members (Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott) balance Crawford beautifully. Arden and Blyth both got Oscar nods for supporting actress.

The screening was part of WeHo Reads, a noir-themed month-long literary program.

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The Film Noir File: Crawford at her finest, one of Lang’s best

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir 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

Mildred Pierce posterMildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz). Tuesday, Nov. 19; 10 p.m. (7 p.m.). With Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott and Ann Blyth.

Sunday, Nov. 17

10:15 a.m. (7:15 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang). With Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Johnny Eager” (1941, Mervyn LeRoy). With Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Van Heflin. Reviewed in FNB on August 4, 2012.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Johnny Apollo” (1940, Henry Hathaway). Tyrone Power and Edward Arnold undergo father-and-son traumas and reversals as two wealthy Wall Street family members gone bad. Directed with Hathaway’s usual tough expertise. Co-starring Dorothy Lamour, Lloyd Nolan and Charley Grapewin.

Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir.

In “The Big Heat” from 1953, Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame create one of the most iconic scenes in all of film noir. It plays Sunday morning.

Tuesday, Nov. 19

4:30 p.m. (1:30 p.m.): “Man in the Attic” (1953, Hugo Fregonese). With Jack Palance and Constance Smith. Reviewed in FNB on March 5, 2013.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.). See “Pick of the Week.”

8 p.m. (5 p.m.). “The Maltese Falcon” (1941, John Huston). With Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed in FNB on November 10, 2012.

Thursday, Nov. 21

3:45 p.m. (12:45 p.m.): “Jeopardy” (1943, John Sturges). With Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan and Ralph Meeker. Reviewed in FNB on July 21, 2012.

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The Noir File: ‘Mask of Dimitrios’ is an underseen ’40s gem

By Mike Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir 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

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944, Jean Negulesco). Tuesday, June 4, 1:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.)

Tracking down an elusive international criminal named Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachary Scott) becomes the obsession of a Dutch writer named Cornelius Weyden – a prime Peter Lorre role and the mild-mannered hero of the neglected but first-rate “The Mask of Dimitrios.”

Weyden learns of Dimitrios and his sordid career when a corpse is washed up near Istanbul and a talkative Turkish police colonel (Kurt Katch) tells colorful stories of the great swindler’s crimes. The inquisitive little scribe thinks he can use this material for a book.

When Weyden meets one of Dimitrios’ victims in the (ample) flesh – the genial Mr. Peters, played by Lorre’s usual partner-in-crime Sydney Greenstreet – the two join forces to try to unearth the villain’s trail through war-threatened Europe.

“The Mask of Dimitrios” was one of nine movies Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet appeared in together.

They piece together Dimitrios’ dark history as they cross paths with his other partners and/or victims, including blonde intriguer Faye Emerson, Victor Francen, Steven Geray, Eduardo Ciannelli and the irrepressible Florence Bates. As Lorre and Greenstreet close in on their prey, dark questions loom. Is Dimitrios really still alive? And who are his next victims?

If you’ve never seen “Dimitrios” (from the novel known as “A Coffin for Dimitrios” in the U.S.), you’re in for a surprise and a treat. Faithfully adapted from master spy novelist Eric Ambler’s classic thriller by pulp fictionist/screenwriter Frank Gruber, shot in high noir style by cinematographer Arthur Edeson (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca”) and artfully directed by Romanian émigré and Warner Brothers’ “melodrama king” Jean Negulesco (in what is probably his best film), “Dimitrios” is an underseen gem of ’40s noir. It’s what used to be called a corker.

(Another Ambler adaptation with Lorre and Greenstreet, “Background to Danger,” immediately follows “The Mask of Dimitrios.” See below.) [Read more…]

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In ‘Ruthless,’ director Edgar G. Ulmer moves (temporarily) from Poverty Row to Paradise

Ruthless/1948/ Producing Artists/105 min.

“Ruthless” was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

By Michael Wilmington

The Czech-born émigré film director Edgar G. Ulmer, as noir as they come, was called the King of Poverty Row by some of his cultish admirers.

Pictures like Ulmer’s 1945 low-B film noir “Detour,” his 1939 African-American ultra-indie “Moon Over Harlem,” the 1951 low-fi sci-fi “The Man from Planet X” and the 1955 cheapo Western “The Naked Dawn” stretch the limits of cinematic ingenuity stimulated by minuscule budgets. In Ulmer’s undisputed masterpiece “Detour,” the director shows buildings lost in the night and fog – a spine-chilling effect – because there was no money for a street set.

“Ruthless,” by comparison, is a fairly lush production, with a multitude of richly detailed sets, high production values and a cast that ranks just below A-level. The film has that sense of impending evil and doom that also marked Ulmer’s 1934 Boris KarloffBela Lugosi horror classic “The Black Cat.” Even when “Ruthless” becomes absurd – as in the fervidly ludicrous climax – it’s always fun to watch.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig who cheats, double-crosses and sleeps his way to the top, then shrugs it off when a one-time ally commits suicide. Louis Hayward is his often-abused and appropriately named best friend Vic Lambdin.

Sydney Greenstreet is Buck Mansfield, a fellow businessman and rival who’s not quite ruthless enough. Diana Lynn, double-cast, is the love (or loves) of Horace’s life. And that ace noir heavy of heavies Raymond Burr pops up as well. All this for a director who usually counted himself lucky if he got actors like Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the doomed couple in “Detour.”

Scott, a sometimes underrated actor (he was tremendous in both “Mildred Pierce” and in Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner”), manages to show the warmer, more seductive qualities beneath the ruthlessness of Vendig. Greenstreet seems miscast playing a guy named Buck. But he has a good time as the vengeful ex-tycoon, as does Diana Lynn (twice) and Burr, who can occasionally, though not here, seem like a second-string Greenstreet.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Vendig’s rival who’s not quite ruthless enough.

The subject of “Ruthless” is wealth, its hypocrisies and the price it ultimately exacts from the soul of the taker. The obvious inspiration for “Ruthless,” which was based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart (I know, I’ve never heard of him either), is the film of films, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” From Kane, Ulmer and his screenwriters borrow the multiple flashback structure, the deep-focus camera virtuosity, the theme of the sins behind great fortunes, the foil of the humanistic best friend (Hayward) and the main character with three names.

Edgar G. Ulmer

As for Ulmer – the low-rent auteur who persevered through often threadbare productions, including “Damaged Lives,” a low-budget 1933 cautionary drama about venereal disease – “Ruthless” must have made him feel as if he’d migrated temporarily from Poverty Row to Paradise. While “Ruthless” is not as good as “Detour,” it does show that Ulmer could have functioned very well, if the powers that be let him move more often to the right side of the tracks. (The rumor is that the director was banished to the likes of Producers Releasing Corp. and Eagle Lion because he’d seduced the wife of a major studio bigwig.)

But almost anybody can be better with better stuff and the one big advantage of working on Poverty Row is that you’re left alone if you can get it done on time and on (you’ll excuse the word) budget. Ulmer and his charmingly disreputable and penny-wise films will always be special treats to devotees of black and white Hollywood.

Now let’s go watch 1960’s “The Amazing Transparent Man.” I hear the reason the Man was transparent is that there was no money for another actor.

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The Noir File: Jaunty Joan Crawford is a goddess of domestic noir in the matchless ‘Mildred Pierce’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of 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

Ann Blyth is the venal daughter opposite Joan Crawford (and her shoulder pads) in “Mildred Pierce.” Blyth is slated to attend the TCM film fest later this month.

Mildred Pierce” (1945, Michael Curtiz). With Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth and Jack Carson. Friday, April 5, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). Read the full review here.

Sunday, April 7

3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m.): “Double Indemnity” (1944, Billy Wilder). With Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Spellbound” (1945, Alfred Hitchcock). With Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Diabolique” (1955, Henri-Georges Clouzot). With Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel. (In French, with subtitles.)

12 a.m. (9 p.m.)” “Blackmail” (1929, Alfred Hitchcock). Hitchcock’s first talkie: a thriller about a young London woman (Anny Ondra) who kills her would-be rapist (Cyril Ritchard), and then is blackmailed. The film was originally planned (and partially shot) as a silent movie and the transition to sound is sometimes a little clumsy. But the chills and invention and the fascination with perverse psychology are all recognizably Hitchcock.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.) “The Murderer Lives at Number 21” (1942, Henri-Georges Clouzot). Clouzot, one of the kings of French noir, grips and thrills and teases us with this dark-hued, very cynical and very smart murder mystery about a suave inspector (Pierre Fresnay of “Grand Illusion”) pursuing a serial killer. It’s also a stinging portrait of life in wartime Paris. With Suzy Delair. (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, April 8

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Roxie Hart” (1942, William Wellman). If there’s such a thing as comedy noir, here’s one of the classics: the breezy, cynical tale of a loose-moralled Chicago showgirl (Ginger Rogers) who tries to parley a highly publicized murder trial into song-and-dance stardom. This is the movie, remade from a 1927 Cecil B. DeMille silent picture, that was later refashioned into the Tony-winning Bob Fosse show, which became the Oscar-winning 2002 Rob Marshall movie musical “Chicago.” (“He had it coming!”) With Adolphe Menjou, George Montgomery and Phil Silvers; written by Nunnally Johnson. [Read more…]

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‘Mildred Pierce’ by Haynes savors subtext of Cain’s novel

Crawford and Blyth

HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” mini-series, directed by Todd Haynes and based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, starts this Sunday.

In director Michael Curtiz’s 1945 movie version of the book, Joan Crawford won the Oscar for her portrayal of the title role in the ultimate story of a self-sacrificing mother and her ungrateful child, Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred’s hard-earned success as a restaurateur allows her to support not only her family but also her aristocratic and cash-poor love interest Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott).

In Haynes’ mini-series, Kate Winslet stars as Mildred, Guy Pearce plays Monty and two actresses share the Veda role: Morgan Turner as the girl and Evan Rachel Wood as the young woman. Haynes and Jon Raymond wrote the teleplay.

In many ways, the series, which follows the book more faithfully than the 1945 movie and covers nearly 10 ten years in the characters’ lives, is a delight to watch. Depression-era Southern California is beautifully recreated and shot by Edward Lachman. Carter Burwell’s original music is spot-on as is Ann Roth’s costume design. And the acting is excellent, particularly the leads.

Whereas Crawford’s Mildred is stoic and dignified, Winslet’s is sensitive, wistful, often tentative and unsure of herself. Her expressive features suggest her mounting anger, guilt and desperation as her business grows but her relationships deteriorate.

Early on in the series, Winslet’s Mildred identifies in her daughter a “pride or nobility I thought I had” and we glimpse the complexity and closeness of her bond with Veda. The mother-daughter relationship in Haynes’ five-hour version is perhaps more nuanced than in Curtiz’s film.

Pearce easily inhabits the playboy scoundrel Monty and Wood sizzles as the junior miss femme fatale. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mildred and Veda also have very similar taste in men. This year’s supporting actress Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham are quite good as Mildred’s friends.

A disappointment, however, is James LeGros’ insipid performance as Pierce family “friend” Wally Burgan. In Curtiz’s version, the role as played by Jack Carson – conniving and sly, but charming – was one of the movie’s many strengths.

Another downside is the pacing, which is far too slow. It would have benefited from shaving about an hour, especially in the beginning. But then if Haynes’ aim was to be true to every page of the book, he has succeeded.

I prefer Curtiz’s original because it is canonical film noir, in tone, look and story. Granted, Cain’s book was altered because in 1940s Hollywood, immorality was never allowed to triumph. Instead of the evil-doers leaving California to begin a new life in New York, one is fatally shot and the other eventually is punished. The murder sets the story, told via flashback, in motion and lends an edgy suspense.

Still, Haynes did not set out to make a noir; apparently his aim is to explore the subtext and subtleties in Cain’s novel. Cain was, arguably, sympathetic toward his feisty protagonist (what choice does she have but to establish independence and security, given the weak and deceitful men she has to choose from?). But she pays a dreadful price for doing so and the book decries materialism, the class system and social climbing. As for Cain’s ultimate take on Mildred’s power, in Hayne’s work, there is fodder for both sides of the argument.

Warner Bros. image of 1945 “Mildred Pierce”

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