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    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Sherman’s March 

    Vincent Sherman had a solid career as a director, making melodramas (Mr. Skeffington, The Hasty Heart) and films of a darker, noirish hue (The Hard Way, Nora Prentiss, The Damned Don’t Cry). But he should be remembered for his autobiography Studio Affairs, one of the most honest and therefore best books about Hollywood ever written.

    Let’s get the prurient stuff out of the way, shall we? Sherman slept with several of his leading ladies and details those relationships. The dalliances strangely parallel each actress’s films; Bette Davis’ is histrionic with a tragic ending, while Joan Crawford’s is brazen and tawdry. (His one night stand with Rita Hayworth is simply sad.) What emerges from the telling is an astonishing portrait of a lasting marriage; Sherman’s wife Hedda knew of his affairs and even became friends with Crawford.

    Sherman is every bit as meticulous when it comes to recounting his professional life. Studio Affairs lays bare how many compromises are necessary for a career in Hollywood, how frequently opportunities fade away. Sherman never forgot his training in the B-movie unit at Warner Brothers, where previous years’ prestige projects were repurposed into programmers. (The first half of The Mayor of Hell plus the end of San Quentin became Crime School, Sherman’s first writing credit.) When a projected adaptation of James M. Cain’s Serenade fell apart, he reworked The Letter into The Unfaithful.

    After reading the book, I caught up with a few Sherman films on DVD. All Through the Night (1941) was of particular interest; Humphrey Bogart in an anti-Nazi action comedy? He plays gambler Gloves Donahue, whose efforts to find out what happened to his favorite cheesecake – I am completely serious – lead him to a ring of fifth columnists. Bogart’s gang includes Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. And yet somehow, the movie is leaden from the jump. Honestly, it’s dreadful. I only kept watching because I was convinced it had to get funnier.

    Still, it does produce my favorite story in Sherman’s book. Peter Lorre, as one of the Nazi spies, has to shoot a lock off a door while Judith Anderson hollers in German behind him. When Sherman requested a second take, Lorre says, “That’s all, brother Vince. I can only do this kind of crap once a day. Besides, it’s six o’clock. Time to go home.” (Can’t you just hear Lorre saying that?) Sherman asks how, if that’s true, Lorre could have made all those Mr. Moto pictures. Lorre retorts, “I took dope!” Later, Sherman learns that Lorre wasn’t joking.

    Next up was the movie that cemented Sherman’s reputation. Underground (1941) was meant to be a B-picture, but a strong script and Sherman’s direction made it a surprise hit. A wounded Nazi soldier, loyal to the party, returns home, not realizing that his older brother is a leader of the resistance. They are quickly set on a collision course.

    Propaganda? You bet. Effective? And how, especially that ending. The idea that this movie was in theaters months before Pearl Harbor boggles the mind. First and foremost, though, Underground functions as a gripping thriller.

    Another good Sherman story: the role of an elderly man who aids the resistance was reconceived for the gorgeous Mona Maris because she was “friends” with the film’s producer – and if he didn’t cast her, she was going to cut up all of his suits. Maris is terrific in the movie, but Sherman never bought her in the part.

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    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) 

    This year’s festival came to a close with a salute to the man Eddie Muller called not a noir actor but a noir artist: Richard Widmark.

    I’d been itching to see Slattery’s Hurricane since reading Eddie’s article about it in the Noir City Sentinel, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. It’s the least known of Widmark’s films from this era, and is also the only original screenplay by novelist Herman Wouk.

    Here’s your slambang opening: Widmark’s Slattery coldcocks a guy, steals a plane, and flies directly into the titular windstorm. The ex-Navy pilot then reflects back on the life that brought him to this point. Think of it as a borderline psychotic version of The Spirit of St. Louis. The long chain of circumstance involves Slattery’s fragile girlfriend Veronica Lake; his ex-lover Linda Darnell, now married to an old pal; and a “candy” company that didn’t hire Slattery to fly to the Caribbean to pick up cocoa leaves.

    Very adult stuff, so naturally it ran head-on into opposition from the censors. Eddie correctly called this “a wounded film,” with much of the strongest material excised or heavily edited. Still, those phantom limbs are felt. You can see the movie that Slattery’s Hurricane was meant to be, even though it doesn’t play out onscreen. Widmark’s bristling performance holds the enterprise together, as do the harrowing flight sequences; director André De Toth was a pilot, even though he only had one eye. Lake, then married to De Toth, appears without her trademark hairstyle and is shockingly vulnerable. She would never star in a major studio film again.

    Next: Pickup on South Street, one of the best B movies ever made and one that lost its FBI seal of approval because of writer/director Samuel Fuller’s affection for characters scrabbling out an existence in the margins of society.

    We’ve seen Pickup several times, so we skipped the screening to have one last round (or two) of drinks with the Czar of Noir and settle up. Rosemarie and I sold hundreds of dollars worth of FNF merchandise during the run of the festival, and were down to the dregs by closing night. It may not be as impressive as the haul the Foundation takes down during Noir City San Francisco, but that festival is in the 1400-seat Castro Theater and has cigarette girls moving the merch in the aisles. Seattle had two people at a table, and that cigarette girl costume chafed something fierce.

    My thanks again to Eddie, the FNF, and SIFF Cinema for what has been the most successful Noir City Northwest yet. Great films and strong turnouts all week long. It’s an amazing feeling to watch rarities like Slattery’s Hurricane or Wednesday’s Fly-By-Night and realize that the only people in the world seeing that movie on that day are in the room with you.

    Noir City rolls into Los Angeles in April, and elsewhere later this year. Do yourselves a favor: watch The Endless Night, which received an encore screening yesterday, then go to the Film Noir Foundation website and kick in a few bucks. (UPDATE: Or buy the swag that Rosemarie and I were selling, including Annual #2 in which I appear.)

    Time for me to catch up on some more current movies.

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    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Deported (1950)/Fly-By-Night (1942) 

    Few names are more revered in the annals of film noir than that of Robert Siodmak. He directed some of the classics of the form: Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross. Last night Eddie Muller showed a pair of rarities that bookend the noir and Hollywood phases of Siodmak’s career. Neither one is exactly noir, but both are fascinating.

    The German expatriate was considering a return to Europe when he was offered Deported. One of the few studio films to be shot overseas at the time, it’s a fictional account of Lucky Luciano’s forced return to Italy following his cooperation with the U.S. government during World War II. From prison, Charley Lucky used his control of the waterfront rackets to shut down Axis spies, and his contacts in Italy provided intelligence during the run-up to the invasion.

    “Vic Smith,” aka Victor Sparducci, (Jeff Chandler) isn’t a player at Lucky’s level, but he did do his bit to help Uncle Sam during the war. Now he’s being sent back to the country he barely remembers, watched by the police and hounded by an ex-partner. As he falls for a beautiful contessa (the Swedish actress Märta Torén), he hatches a brilliant plan to bring the hundred grand he stashed in New York into the country.

    Deported is an authentic curio, and I liked it quite a bit. It feels like a European film, moving at a different rhythm. There are some striking scenes of Italy shot by William Daniels, and a sense of the deprivation there after the war. I must mention Marina Berti, bewitching as Gina. The apocryphal story is that Luciano, a die-hard movie fan, met with Siodmak during production to tell him how much he loved The Killers ... and that Siodmak used him as an extra in a movie based on his own life. I didn’t spot him, but then I wasn’t looking for him.

    Siodmak burst of the B movie ghetto with Fly-By-Night, a blatant attempt to cash in on Alfred Hitchcock’s success The 39 Steps. Here the innocent man caught up in espionage is played by Richard Carlson, who would go on to be a ‘50s sci-fi stalwart in It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Nancy Kelly, mother of The Bad Seed, is the gal along for the ride.

    The script, by one of my heroes Jay Dratler, manages to hit all the comic suspense notes in diabolically inventive ways. And Siodmak stages some impressive stunts on a limited budget. It’s easy to understand why he was earmarked for bigger things. Fly-By-Night is a treat, one of the best faux-Hitchcock films ever made.

    Alas, there is exactly one (1) print of the movie in existence. Last night, it unspooled in Seattle.

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    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Red Light (1949)/Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) 

    It was a hoarse Eddie Muller who took to the stage on Tuesday night. SIFF, working him like a government mule, has sent him out to preach the gospel of noir at area schools this week. During his visit to Reel Grrls, he showed The Endless Night. First question: “Why is everyone so angry?”

    And thus is the next generation of noirheads born.

    Eddie billed Red Light as biblical noir. He meant this in every sense. A copy of the Good Book is integral to the plot, and there is divine intervention. Trucking magnate George Raft goes on the warpath after his chaplain brother is murdered. It was tough for me to feel his pain because li’l bro is Arthur Franz, who played the title role in The Sniper.

    Red Light is a truly odd duck of a film, a tough melodrama shot through with schmaltz and religious undertones. It uses Ave Maria as its action theme. The Coen Brothers must have seen it because Stanley Clements, aka Mr. Gloria Grahame, plays a hotel bellhop who clearly influenced Buzz in The Hudsucker Proxy. There’s also a bizarre flashback featuring a blind veteran and a window washer with no sense of personal space. The script is something of a shaggy dog story; you know exactly how the bible business is going to pay off. But Raft is surprisingly effective within his limited range, and veteran studio hand Roy Del Ruth stages a vigorous ending.

    Walk a Crooked Mile was made semi-documentary style, and you know what that means: location shooting and stentorian voiceover. Dennis O’Keefe, joining Dick Powell and John Payne in the parade of song-and-dance men who remade themselves as hard cases, is an FBI agent investigating security leaks at a government energy facility. He teams up with Scotland Yard’s Louis Hayward to smash a red spy ring. A minor but solid suspense film. Director Gordon Douglas also made Frank Sinatra’s Tony Rome movies and Zombies on Broadway starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney, the utterly destitute man’s Abbott & Costello.

    Both of last night’s movies were partly filmed in San Francisco and feature Raymond Burr as a villain. Burr’s best known for playing heroic leads in Perry Mason and Ironside, but those TV shows were before my time. I’ve never seen an episode of either one. I’ll always think of Burr as an overweight, sweaty psychosexual lunatic from movies that are even more before my time.

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    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Inside Job (1946)/Human Desire (1954) 

    So about Sunday ... the double feature was devoted to John Garfield. I’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice a time or three, and I watched He Ran All the Way not all that long ago – and didn’t particularly care for it. (Great opening 20 minutes, but it gets very stagy very quickly.) Consequently, I chose to forego them both and dine with the czar instead. But I was on hand to sell merch and hear Eddie’s introduction, which touched on how the former Julius Garfinkle spearheaded the Group Theater-born school of naturalistic acting that prefigured Clift, Brando and Newman; Postman’s transformation from the definitive work of noir fiction to high-class women’s picture; and the blacklist’s effect on the careers of everyone involved with He Ran All the Way. When Eddie wrapped up by noting that he’s in regular contact with Garfield’s daughter and she asked him to tell the audience, “Julie sends his love,” I almost regretted my decision. I’ll revisit Postman again soon.

    Monday’s movies? Both brand new to me.

    The authentic B picture Inside Job was aptly described by Eddie as “67 minutes of craziness.” Ex-con Alan Curtis, coerced by his old boss into robbing the department store where he’s working a straight gig, opts to hit the joint himself with wife Ann Rutherford. Sounds noir, right? Well, it ain’t. I don’t know what to call Inside Job other than baffling. Featuring a photo of a Robert Benchley lookalike in a bathing suit and the most annoying child actor in screen history. Curtis is the target of a police dragnet, but when he goes out in broad daylight – to buy a radio, yet – he doesn’t bother to shave off his distinctive mustache. Which I can understand; without the ‘stache, even the camera wouldn’t notice him. The truly downbeat ending makes it the weirdest Christmas movie ever. Tod Browning is credited with the story, the last time the legendary horror director’s name appeared on a film.

    It was unfair of Eddie to show a Fritz Lang movie next. The opening sequence of Human Desire, showing train engineers at work, is more suspenseful than all of Inside Job ... and nothing is happening. The film is based on Émile Zola’s 1890 novel La Bête Humaine, previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938. Glenn Ford, an actor Noir City has taught me to appreciate, is a Korean war vet returning to his railway job. He falls for the wife of colleague Broderick Crawford, unaware that her interest in him is spurred by the need to cover up a murder Crawford has committed.

    Human Desire is another showcase for Gloria Grahame and her stiletto vulnerability. The psychology of her character is so dark that the movie itself seems frightened of it. The beautiful quality of the print only emphasized the truncated scenes and abrupt ending. For its occasional skittishness, however, Human Desire has intensity and atmosphere to spare. From Fritz Lang, I would expect no less.

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    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Cry Danger (1951)/The Mob (1951) 

    It’s good to see your money at work.

    The Film Noir Foundation takes its mission seriously, funding restorations of movies that would otherwise be lost. Organization capo Eddie Muller explained the many hurdles in the process before the Northwest premiere of the Foundation’s latest effort, done in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Because Cry Danger was produced independently by star Dick Powell, it was at genuine risk of disappearing. The FNF’s intervention has given this underrated film – and VKDC favorite – a new lease on life.

    Powell’s Rocky Mulloy is released from prison after serving five years on a robbery charge when a witness resurfaces to back up Rocky’s claim of innocence. That the witness has never seen Mulloy before and alibis him only in the hope of making a few bucks is the first indication that Cry Danger isn’t going where you expect. Rocky looks up Rhonda Fleming, his ex-flame/current wife of his still-in-stir pal, and sets his sights on the man behind the frame, the “now 60% legit” Louie Castro (William Conrad).

    William Bowers’ script is a marvel of construction, especially as it was written with producer Powell looming over his shoulder. (“We just lost another fifty grand from the budget. Cut something.”) Cry Danger’s greatest asset is the character of Powell’s unlikely savior DeLong, a bibulous one-legged Marine and thinly-veiled self-portrait of Bowers. Richard Erdman gives what I rank as one of the greatest supporting performances of all time, abetted by classic dialogue. (“Occasionally, I always drink too much.”) Erdman is not only still acting, he has a recurring role on NBC’s Community as one of Greendale CC’s more mature students. Amazing considering his career began with Mr. Skeffington in 1944. Cry Danger is a terrific film well worth saving.

    Bowers and director Robert Parrish next collaborated on The Mob. I saw this film for the first time last year and was floored by it. Eddie explained why it’s not better known: when Columbia’s On The Waterfront became a hit, their earlier, lower-budgeted effort about corruption on the docks was forgotten.

    Time for some blasphemy: The Mob is better than On The Waterfront. It’s faster, funnier, more suspenseful and less ... psychological.

    Broderick Crawford is a cop sent undercover to investigate the rackets. (“I gotta go underground. You know, like gophers and Communists.”) On his way to identifying mysterious kingpin Blackie Clegg he’ll tussle with an authentic rogue’s gallery: Neville Brand, Ernest Borgnine, John Marley. A young Charles Bronson turns up for a scene. And Bowers’ treatment of Richard Kiley’s character, a too-friendly longshoreman, is an object lesson in screenwriting. A sensational double-bill.

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    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Larceny (1948) 

    A capacity crowd was on hand for the opening night of the fourth Noir City Northwest. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller gave the new converts the full spiel on the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to “preserving America’s noir heritage” and rescuing films from the “poor stewardship” of the conglomerates that own them.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny, and the kick-off double bill summed it up nicely. The first four films are also a mini-tribute to screenwriter William Bowers, a longtime VKDC favorite whom Eddie described as the Robert Towne of his day, brought in regularly to punch up scripts.

    Bowers’ work isn’t credited on Pitfall, but his fingerprints are all over it. Crackling dialogue, sharply-etched supporting players, tight plotting. Married insurance executive Dick Powell is no longer settled with being settled, chafing at his perfect life. A claim brings him in contact with Lizabeth Scott, a good-hearted girl who’s a magnet for men of poor character. Like shady shamus Raymond Burr, who found her for Powell and wants to make his connection with her permanent.

    I first saw Pitfall at Noir City several years ago and had a reservation or two about it. That’s because I went in with certain expectations. Revisiting it, I could appreciate Pitfall for the gem that it is. Burr’s character is a stalker plain and simple, played with a modern edge. Lizabeth Scott’s Mona, who does the right thing at every opportunity to no avail, breaks your heart. And Jane Wyatt as Powell’s pragmatic wife may be the hardest nut of them all.

    The more light-hearted Larceny is the movie Rosemarie was most interested in because it pairs up two of her favorite actors, John Payne and Dan Duryea. The twosome are part of a ring of con men who set out to fleece grieving war widow Joan Caulfield. There are only two problems: inside man Payne starts falling for Caulfield, and Duryea’s girl, who carries a torch for Payne, arrives to gum up the works. She’s played by Shelley Winters at her brassy best, delivering one Bowers zinger after another. Throw in noir favorite Percy Helton and a slew of lookers pining after Payne, and a good time is had by all.

    All that plus the FNF’s beautifully produced 2009 memorial reel and Serena Bramble’s extraordinary The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. For an amazing price of ten bucks, people. How can you go wrong?

    Rosemarie and I are selling FNF merch in the lobby before each show. (She’s the eye candy, I’m the numbers man.) We did land-office business yesterday. Our most popular item is the second edition of the Noir City Sentinel Annual, collecting the best of the pieces that appeared in the FNF’s subscriber newsletter. Eddie’s in there, as is Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott and other luminaries – plus several pieces by yours truly.

    Last night, I was asked to sign a copy of the book. That is a personal first that I won’t soon forget.

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    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Your Reminder 

    This post is basically an excuse to run that banner.

    It starts tonight. Here’s the program. You know where I’ll be. If you’re in Seattle, come on out and see two movies for ten bucks. Movies that in many cases aren’t available on video and rarely if ever air on television. Movies presented by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller. Movies brought to you courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Movies the way they were meant to be seen.

    And if you’re not in Seattle, I will, in spite of multiple deadlines and an abnormally high tree pollen count, endeavor to bring you the coverage that this website is known for.

    Into the shadows we go.

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    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Movies: The Red Riding Trilogy (U.S. 2010) 

    For several reasons, I will keep what had been planned as a lengthy post brief.

    See these movies.

    OK, not that brief.

    David Peace wrote a quartet of novels weaving together a decade’s worth of true crime in the north of England with his own fevered imaginings of corruption, guilt, and the merest glimmers of redemption. Those four books have been condensed into a remarkable trio of films. Each one scripted by Tony Grisoni but helmed by a different director. Characters drift between them, their roles transforming. Loose ends ravel. Mysteries resolve.

    You really should see these movies.

    1974 (Julian Jarrold) focuses on a hotshot young reporter who didn’t cut it in London and is back on his old stomping grounds. He’s convinced he’s onto the case of a serial murderer of young girls, and equally certain that this story will return him to the top. The poor sod has no idea he’s stumbled into a nest of tangled motives and vice that has pulled better men down.

    1980 (James Marsh) sees an outsider arrive, a straight arrow cop (the brilliant Paddy Considine) called on to determine why the local police haven’t apprehended the Yorkshire Ripper. He thinks his history in this neck of the woods will aid him in his endeavors. He is wrong.

    1983 (Anand Tucker) finds chickens coming home to roost, sinners struggling to the light, and Shakespeare being proven right: at the length, truth will out.

    The series, which aired on U.K. television last year, has been compared to Twin Peaks, The Wire, the collected works of James Ellroy, and Zodiac. All somewhat valid, none truly accurate.

    What Grisoni and company have crafted here is an epic vision of evil. Of the domestic variety, petty and insidious, dwelling in institutions, the hearts of men, the landscape itself. It’s a haunting, harrowing piece of work. It’s noir for the 21st century. Yes, you’ll like one film more than the others (I’d opt for 1980 myself). Granted, it’s not perfect. What is? But in its ambition, its execution, its belief in the power of the accretion of detail, its faith in the audience, its sheer fucking adultness, it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve watched in ages.

    The movies are being screened around the country, including at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, in the coming weeks, often back-to-back-to-back. I pity those who absorb them that way; priests and publicans should be on call. Right now the entire trilogy is available via IFC On Demand, which is how I watched them over the course of three days. It made it easier to weep for my fellow man and rage at an indifferent God. Plus, no parking problems!

    Clear your schedule. See these movies. Thank me later.

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    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Movies: Race Street (1948)/Scene of the Crime (1949) 

    Noir City Northwest kicks off this coming Friday – if you’re in Seattle, come on out and say hello to yours truly at the Film Noir Foundation table in the lobby – and the time has come to get into shape. I’ve been on a vigorous training regimen, running wind sprints, downing extra cocktails. I’ve also got to keep those blogging muscles limber, so here’s a practice post on a pair of films noir.

    You know you’re in trouble when William Bendix is the most charismatic member of your cast. That’s where we find ourselves in Race Street. The stolid George Raft is a bookie aiming to go legit in the nightclub business. But close pal Harry-then-Henry Morgan is bumped off when he refuses to pay protection money, and Raft decides to track down the killers himself. Bendix is his childhood friend turned police detective. The story’s no great shakes, and there are some odd directorial choices. Morgan’s potent death scene – a tumble down a brutally long flight of stairs – is ruined by a slow push-in at the end, and there’s a bizarre musical number featuring Raft’s torch singer sis filmed Spike Jonze style without explanation. I have higher hopes for another Raft noir, Red Light, scheduled for the festival.

    Sometimes actors can surprise you. Van Johnson gained fame as MGM’s all-American boy, but in Scene of the Crime he’s surprisingly plausible as big city cop Mike Conovan. When his former partner is gunned down under suspicious circumstances Mike sets out to clear his name, even if it means cozying up to former gangster’s moll Gloria DeHaven. All while long-suffering wife Arlene Dahl lobbies him to quit the force altogether, even conspiring with an old beau to land him a cushy private sector job.

    Charles Schnee’s script features pungent dialogue (DeHaven is described thusly: “Figure like champagne, heart like the cork”), still-shocking violence, and a nice mix of authentically shady characters, like Norman Lloyd’s stoolie Sleeper. Plus there’s a richness of detail at the margins. The killers are knocking over Syndicate joints, so the Outfit starts staging its own lineups. Moments like that lift Scene of the Crime a rung or two above the ordinary.

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    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Book: Fast One, by Paul Cain (1933) 

    Clearly the universe is urging me forward in my quest to read the novelistic equivalents of the twenty-minute egg. Fast One had been on my radar for some time. I finally acquire a copy only weeks after finishing Richard Rayner’s A Bright and Guilty Place, which lays bare the miasma of Los Angeles vice that inspired Paul Cain; all Cain did was change the names. Then I pick up Max Décharné’s book to learn that Raymond Chandler called Fast One “some kind of a high point in the ultra hardboiled manner.” Décharné, naming Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home (filmed as Get Carter) a spiritual descendant, dubs Fast One a “masterpiece ... another nihilistic train-wreck of a book where virtually every character comes to a bad end.”

    Believe me, those two are not kidding.

    Fast One is the story of Gerry Kells, an East Coast gambler ensconced in L.A. Local kingpin Jack Rose, seeing a gang war coming, wants Kells on his side. Kells is content to stay neutral, so Rose frames him for murder. Kells then decides to seize control of the city’s rackets himself. The only problems are Rose, L.A.’s other crooks, some interested out-of-town players, the deeply bent police department, the equally suspect power structure, a woman he can’t trust, and his own appetites. And he still damn near pulls it off.

    Originally serialized in Black Mask, Fast One is terse almost to the point of incomprehensibility; Cain not only omits needless words, he skimps on a few of the useful ones as well. I had to turn back a few pages on a regular basis. That didn’t diminish the blazing speed with which the book moved, and the fever dream of corruption that it creates. Fast One may not be a good book, but it is a singular one, and it deserves its reputation.

    Cain was born George Carrol Sims but called himself Peter Ruric when he worked as a screenwriter. He had an affair with actress Gertrude Michael, a Chez K favorite, basing the character of the duplicitous and dipsomaniacal Miss Granquist on her. Knowing that only enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

    Update: The Rap Sheet paired this post in its Friday’s Forgotten Books round-up along with another take on Fast One from Evan Lewis at Davy Crockett’s Almanack. More good information over there.

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    Sunday, February 07, 2010

    Book: Hardboiled Hollywood, by Max Décharné (U.S. 2010) 

    My first problem? This new reprint of a 2003 No Exit book is called Hardboiled Hollywood, yet two of the eleven movies in it – Hell is a City and Get Carter – are as English as Bobby Charlton eating crisps at a snooker match.

    The bigger problem? It’s subtitled The True Crime Stories Behind the Classic Noir Films. Which led me to believe that it would be about the true crime stories behind the classic noir films. Silly Vince. In truth not even half the movies covered have specific historical antecedents, and those are dispensed with in cursory fashion. Some prime candidates are overlooked; despite numerous references to James M. Cain there are no chapters on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, both inspired by an actual murder. Instead the focus is on the well-trod ground of the making of the films themselves.

    (ASIDE: In the interests of completeness I’ll also say that it’s appalling publisher W.W. Norton would release a book with jacket copy citing “Anthony Perkin’s” performance in Psycho. Here’s the rule: if you’re not sure where the apostrophe goes, leave it out. Better we think you forgot it.)

    That said ... misleading title aside I enjoyed Hardboiled Hollywood. Décharné knows the terrain, writes with passion, and consistently turns up overlooked perspectives. Here’s a great quote from the Spectator on Nicholas Ray and They Live By Night: “If the director had taken the trouble to be French, we would be licking his boots in ecstasy.” The Get Carter material is particularly strong, with Décharné rightly taking director Mike Hodges to task for his misinterpretation of the word “nails” in Ted Lewis’ source novel Jack’s Return Home. Décharné correctly points out that the Parker in Richard Stark’s The Hunter is smarter and more ruthless than Lee Marvin’s incarnation in Point Blank. And it’s good to be reminded that Bonnie and Clyde were not folk heroes but venal small-time killers.

    There’s some bait and switch involved, but Hardboiled Hollywood is worth reading.

    Miscellaneous: Golden Boot Link

    Author and noir historian Alan K. Rode attends the Golden Boot Award ceremony for legendary stuntman Bob Hoy.

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    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Upcoming: Noir City 8 

    San Francisco at the end of this month, Seattle in February. First warning: yours truly will be working the SIFF Cinema lobby. Also, I’ll be selling FNF goodies.

    Here’s the promo, featuring 2009’s Miss Noir City Alycia Tumlin and the man himself, Eddie Muller.

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    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    Book: L.A. Noir, by John Buntin (2009) 

    John Buntin started with a real-world question steeped in fiction: how did the LAPD of L.A. Confidential become the LAPD of Dragnet? Answering it produced a rich, lively work of history that reads like a pulp novel from the era it covers.

    L.A. Noir is a joint biography of William H. Parker, the chief who made the department what it is today, and Mickey Cohen, the kind of gangster who could only flourish in Southern California. But it’s also a portrait of what Buntin calls “America’s Most Seductive City” from the 1920s through the Watts riots. Like any first-rate Hollywood production it features a slew of cameos, including Billy Graham and Ben Hecht, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato.

    Some of the most interesting material involves Dragnet and how Parker used the show in all its forms to remold the LAPD’s image. It’s hard to overstate Dragnet’s popularity; at one point it was the most watched TV series in America after I Love Lucy while still drawing a huge radio audience. The next step, obviously, was a feature film. At the time of production, the LAPD’s more invasive tactics were being challenged in the courts; in instances where the department couldn’t get permission to place wiretaps, it would simply break into a suspect’s home, install a dictograph, and record conversations that way. Parker offered Dragnet’s Jack Webb a sensational case file to serve as the basis for the film, which ended up defending the techniques then under siege. The 1954 Dragnet movie, by the way, is uncommonly grim and brutal. Even for Jack Webb. It’s kind of great. It’s not currently on video, but it is available via streaming on Netflix.

    If you’re a fan of Chandler, Chinatown, or Ellroy, L.A. Noir is essential reading. It’s one of the best books of the year.

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    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Movie: He Ran All The Way (1951)

    The last John Garfield post started an interesting exchange with fine novelist/friend of the site Ed Gorman. Ed suggested that Garfield’s persona might not have worn as well as other noir stars because it can’t be easily reduced. Think of Robert Ryan and you think of that peculiar combination of rage and sorrow. Dana Andrews is melancholy. Bogart is coolness under pressure. Lee Marvin is menace.

    As usual, Ed’s onto something. Garfield’s mercurial presence was used well in a number of strong films – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil – but not one that you could point to and say, “That is John Garfield.” Plus there’s something boyish about him. Ryan, Bogart, Marvin – these are men, fully grown and set in their ways. Garfield still seemed malleable. I meant it when I said Garfield cast a long shadow, because in an era with far too few men onscreen, Garfield is the best model we’ve got.

    His youthful energy allowed him to play a role he was too old for in what would be his final film, He Ran All The Way. He’s a smalltime, slow-witted criminal still living with his mother (the pitiless Gladys George). After panicking during a payroll heist and killing a police officer, he picks up Shelley Winters, goes home with her, and takes her family hostage.

    The movie is a forerunner of the home invasion genre that took root during the post-war suburban boom. Like other films of the type, there are moments that strain credulity. (“Rush him now! Take the gun!”) But it’s also charged with an uncommon mood of paranoia, even doom. Director John Berry and cinematographer James Wong Howe keep the camera uncomfortably close to Garfield’s desperate face, using scenery to trap him in the frame. The actor takes care of the rest, right up to the closing shot. It’s our last image of John Garfield. He died of a heart attack at age 39, haunted by charges of being a Communist sympathizer.

    The latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Sentinel includes a terrific article by Jake Hinkson that looks at He Ran All The Way as a blacklist case study. You can read it online now.

    Upcoming: Noir City Northwest

    Looks like I’ll be seeing He Ran All The Way again shortly, the way it was meant to be seen. The schedule for 2010’s Noir City Northwest is up. Eddie Muller’s dark carnival hits SIFF Cinema after its run in San Francisco.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny. It’s a doozy of a line-up. I’ve seen six of the fourteen films before, only one of them (Pitfall) on the big screen. I’m eager to catch the newly restored print of the crackling Cry Danger, while Rosemarie can’t wait for the aptly titled Larceny, starring John Payne and Dan Duryea as dandy grifters. Come that week in February you know where I’ll be, endeavoring to bring you the coverage you’ve come to expect.

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    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    On The Web: Crimespree Cinema

    The gang over at Crimespree Cinema has asked some big names to contribute 5 favorites for 2009 – film, TV or DVD. Somehow I slipped through their defenses. My picks are up now.

    Sort Of Related: The Fallen Sparrow (1943)/Nobody Lives Forever (1946)

    John Garfield may not have the same level of recognition as noir icons like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, and the rediscovery of other names from the era like Richard Conte has allowed him to get lost in the cracks. But Garfield’s shadow may extend the furthest. The type of character he often portrayed – streetwise but fundamentally decent, a boyish tough guy who could be tamed – is a standard today. Put it this way: alone among his contemporaries, Garfield could have played either Matt Damon’s role or Leonardo DiCaprio’s in The Departed, and been brought back to read for Mark Wahlberg’s into the bargain. Watching two lesser known Garfield films with serious crime fiction pedigrees brought home the potency of that persona.

    In The Fallen Sparrow, based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (Ride the Pink Horse, In a Lonely Place), Garfield plays a veteran of the Spanish Civil War held prisoner by the Nazis. He’s freed in 1940 and returns to New York only to discover the Germans are still shadowing him while he delves into the murder of the childhood friend who delivered him from harm. The first third of the movie is rough sledding, a muddle with too many characters in a convoluted backstory. And may the gods of cinema take pity on you if you can’t figure out who the villain of the piece is. (Hint: The person it couldn’t be, because that’d be too obvious? Yeah, that’s who it is.)

    But Sparrow fascinates for several reasons. There’s a troika of interesting women, foremost among them Maureen O’Hara as an ice princess who only begrudgingly thaws. But it’s Garfield’s work as a proto-Manchurian Candidate, still suffering the effects of torture at the hands of his captors, that compels. The film’s MacGuffin is also just right, a mixture of nobility and stubbornness that suits Garfield to a T.

    By comparison, Nobody Lives Forever is light entertainment. W.R. Burnett is credited as writing the original screenplay, but it’s adapted from a story serialized in Collier’s in 1943. Garfield is Nick Blake, recovered from his WWII service and ready to resume his grifting career. He lights out for the coast and sets his sights on a rich widow, but when he falls for her for real he has to deal his partners out.

    Nothing in Nobody is even remotely surprising, but the machinery is so finely assembled by Burnett and director Jean Negulesco that you’re happy to take a ride to a familiar destination if only to enjoy the scenery. George Coulouris chafes nicely as an aging con man who can’t accept that he’s no longer a pretty boy. Retro crush Faye Emerson is on hand as a bad girl, matched forehead for lovely forehead by Geraldine Fitzgerald as the pigeon who becomes a swan. But Garfield gives the enterprise life, charming as hell in rogue mode, touching when he goes soft on his mark. I’ve got some other Garfield films kicking around. It may be time to dig them out.

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    Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Movies: A Phil Karlson Thanksgiving

    The Phil Karlson Thanksgiving Weekend wasn’t planned. It was an act of necessity.

    The problem is I’d become obsessed with that clip of John Payne and others performing “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” in Garden of the Moon. (Have you watched it yet? Go ahead. I’ll wait.) After repeated viewings of an impossibly young John Payne deftly tossing off Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, I needed to restore to my memory the older version. His face collapsed yet even more magnetic. In trouble and sinking deeper. The noir John Payne. That actor’s best collaborator was ex-prop man turned director Karlson. Time to revisit their finest hour.

    In Kansas City Confidential (1952), Payne plays an ex-con whose efforts to go straight mean nothing when he becomes the unintentional fall guy in a daring robbery. The simmering fury when he’s sprung from jail knowing that no one legit will ever trust him again is scorching. That bone-deep sense of betrayal, of hard work going for naught, charges the rest of the film, which despite the title is set mostly south of the border. Karlson as always keeps the action taut, and there’s the added bonus of what has to be the most badass crew in the annals of noir: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand.

    Appetite whetted, I craved more. And had it on hand, thanks to the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection. I’d wanted to see 5 Against the House (1955) for years, and not just for Karlson. It’s based on a Jack Finney story, adapted by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) and William Bowers (Cry Danger, The Mob). Imagine my surprise to discover it’s the rare Karlson film that’s a total misfire.

    5ATH begins as a tiresome college comedy then becomes a heavy-handed survey of the problems faced by returning Korean War vets taking advantage of the G.I. Bill before settling into a heist groove. The “perfect plan” posited by these aging students would be ridiculous under any circumstances, but on the heels of the ingenious scheme cooked up in Kansas City Confidential it’s downright embarrassing. There’s nice work by Brian Keith as the most damaged vet and a good climax set in an automated parking garage in Reno, but little else.

    ASIDE: Also in the Columbia collection is a superior Silliphant-scripted drama, 1958’s The Lineup (reviewed here), that features one of the greatest recent commentary tracks. My friend Eddie Muller and novelist James Ellroy tag-team on this one, Eddie providing a native San Franciscan’s view while Ellroy gives full vent to his obsessions. Eddie gave me a heads up after they recorded the track, saying, “It’s a wild one.” It lives up to that billing.

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, you can’t go this far and not go further. On to the Karlson films parked on the DVR.

    I’d seen 1955’s The Phenix City Story, but never with the reportorial prologue including interviews with several of the people involved in this true story. This segment made it easier to get scenes of still-shocking violence past the censors. Without it the movie opens with a haggard roadhouse number, ‘The Phenix City Blues,’ that swiftly presents the low-rent reality of life in an Alabama town choking on the vice aimed at soldiers in neighboring Fort Benning. Karlson and Georges Simenon make a natural match in The Brothers Rico (1957), with Richard Conte as an erstwhile Mafia accountant who thinks he’s made a clean break to become a cleaner, only to find himself doing the Organization’s bidding when his siblings go astray. With a dandy performance by Harry Bellaver as a local kingpin who orders hits and dinner in the same breath. They’re both tough-minded movies with a view of mobsters similar to the one articulated in Josh Bazell’s novel Beat the Reaper:

    Proudly ignorant, personally repellent, absolutely convinced that their willingness to hire someone to beat money out of someone who worked for a living constitutes some kind of genius and an adherence to a proud tradition.

    99 River Street, a John Payne/Phil Karlson film that screened at Noir City 2007, is currently available on Hulu and Fancast. You could be watching it right now! Here’s Ivan’s take at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. I look at Karlson’s final film Framed here.

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    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

    Hear that sound, kids? It’s issue #28 of the Noir City Sentinel, trade rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hitting in-boxes around the globe. Why not cough up a few shekels and get yourself a copy?

    Eddie Muller, Don Malcolm and company have truly outdone themselves this go-round. The issue focuses on the role that the blacklist played in film noir. Included for your entertainment and enlightenment:

    * Several perspectives on enigmatic expat Joseph Losey

    * Alan K. Rode on the extraordinary career of writer, producer, Oscar winner and con man Philip Yordan

    * A blacklist case study from Jake Hinkson on He Ran All the Way

    * An astonishing piece by film writer Ehsan Khoshbakht surveying noir in Iran

    All that plus a report on the first Noir City: Lyon, Elvis noir, and more, not to mention a tribute to the cinematic union of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth penned by yr. humble correspondent. Please note that my contribution leans heavily on a terrific, little seen 1966 film called The Money Trap. It’s finally available on DVD from the Warner Archive, but it will also be getting a rare television airing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, November 25 at 4:15PM EST, 1:15 PM PST. Schedule your travel plans and turkey consumption accordingly. This will be the first of several reminders.

    In the meantime, contribute to the Film Noir Foundation and get a Sentinel all your own. You won’t be disappointed.

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    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Movies: Programming Reminders

    An alert to all noir fans. Turner Classic Movies is turning over its primetime line-up this evening to the work of director Phil Karlson. After kicking around Hollywood for years in a variety of roles including gag writer for Buster Keaton, Karlson made his reputation in the 1950s with a series of hard-hitting crime dramas.

    TCM leads off with Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by Sam Fuller. It’s a wild one. I saw it earlier this year at Noir City. Next up is The Phenix City Story, a brutal small-town exposé that pulls no punches. The night wraps up with the gangster drama The Brothers Rico and the burlesque musical Ladies of the Chorus, featuring an early performance by Marilyn Monroe. Karlson Fest begins at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific.

    While I’m at it, I’ll also point out that on Monday, October 5 TCM has scheduled a mini-marathon of films from The Whistler series starting at 6AM Eastern, 3AM Pacific. Sadly, only six of the eight titles will air, with two of the better entries – Mark of The Whistler and The 13th Hour – going missing. Still, it’s a rare chance to see these odd, haunting movies on TV. Set those DVRs.

    For more on the Whistler films, read my pointlessly exhaustive coverage.

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    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Miscellaneous: All Thumbs Up

    Making up for the paucity of recent posts with a slew of recommendations.

    Noir City Sentinel. The latest issue of the house rag of the Film Noir Foundation is now available. This edition has several articles on director André de Toth, a roundup of some recent noir films, an appraisal of actor/wild man Timothy Carey, and more. Go. Give. Get.

    Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (2009). Libby Day is the sole survivor of the “Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas,” and it’s her testimony that sent her metal-obsessed brother Ben to prison for butchering their mother and two sisters. More than twenty years later, Libby has milked the tragedy dry. Desperate for cash, she agrees to investigate the murder on behalf of the Kill Club, a group of obsessives certain she got everything wrong.

    Some of the final plot turns strain credulity, and Flynn has a thing for coining hyphenated words. On a single page, Libby trance-drives past dusk-black elevators that she views with kitten-round eyes. This koala-cute authorial tic can be cough-syrup-cloying, but it’s a small price to pay for a supple voice that bounces between past, present and three distinctly different viewpoints to tell a haunting story of lives teetering on the precipice of disaster long before any blood is shed.

    The Ancient Rain, by Domenic Stansberry (2008). An elegiac Shamus Award nominee. Ex-cop and ex-spook Dante Mancuso is drawn into an investigation of a 1970s bank robbery staged by political activists, reawakened by and filtered through the paranoia of the months after September 11. Stansberry nails the mood of 2002 perfectly, as well as Dante’s sense of bearing witness to the slow-motion demise of San Francisco’s Italian community.

    The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone (2009). Europa Editions delivers again, with this posthumous novel by Pulitzer Prize nominee Stone. Retired Israeli state security agent Levin finds himself working as a private investigator when a sort-of friend asks him to shadow the wife he’s sure is being unfaithful. Again, the voice is the draw here, combining the world-weariness of Le Carré with the vinegar of Simenon. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tale told by God if He were in fact George Sanders. (For the record, that’s a universe I want to live in.) This brief novel is one of the best of the year.

    The Informant!, (2009). Proof that Hollywood does sometimes get it right. When I read Kurt Eichenwald’s book, I felt that he didn’t grasp how truly bizarre – and funny – the material was. But Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and company certainly do, nailing a tricky tone from the outset. Burns’ adaptation is a marvel, deploying voiceover to great effect and paying it off at the end. Extra points for the score by Marvin Hamlisch, the pride of Queens College.

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    Tuesday, September 15, 2009

    Movie: Shield for Murder (1954)

    The best film criticism compels the reader, through idiosyncratic perspective and felicitous turns of phrase, to seek out a movie destined to disappoint. To wit, from Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by my friend Eddie Muller:

    While THE PROWLER is subtle and complex, unwinding with a seductive rhythm, SHIELD FOR MURDER is a drum solo by a club-footed spastic.

    Brother, I am in.

    And I’m not even that big a fan of The Prowler, a movie more interesting to think about than to watch. But the comparison made Shield for Murder a must-see.

    Edmond O’Brien (who co-directed) is Detective Barney Nolan. Not bent but broken, cracking under the strain of too many hard hours for too little pay, Barney’s decided to make his move. He’s going to off a bookie, pinch his roll, and light out for suburbia with his girl. All he’s got to do is hoodwink his protégé. And handle a deaf-mute witness. And deal with his own lousy luck.

    Not exactly new ground, that story (from a novel by William P. McGivern). Still, it’s fertile B-movie terrain. Yet Shield limps out of the gate, inert from the first frame and devoid of suspense. It was clearly shot on the cheap; the opening sequence features the most egregious traveling boom shadow I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty.

    Marla English as Nolan’s girl is easy on the eyes but hard on everything else. John Agar is, well, John Agar-like playing Nolan’s partner. The usually reliable O’Brien must have read all those press clippings singling out his ability to convey sweaty desperation. Nothing else would explain the directorial choice to include multiple close ups of O’Brien looking sweaty and desperate. The grace notes come courtesy of a well-filmed shootout at a crowded high school pool and a few familiar faces in the supporting roles, most notably a blonde Carolyn Jones in the movie’s best scenes as a brave-face barfly.

    Verdict: I’m with Eddie. At least now I can cross "experience drum solo by club-footed spastic" off my bucket list.

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    Saturday, September 05, 2009

    Movie: Manhandled (1949)

    In the annals of film noir, surely no actress has made a greater impression than ... Dorothy Lamour?!?

    Hope and Crosby would be shocked to find Dottie on The Road to Ruin in this not-on-video rarity. Alan Napier, Alfred the Butler on TV’s Batman, looms Easter Island-like over the rest of the cast as a writer – the right kind, he thinks, not one of those blasted pulpsters – plagued by recurring dreams in which he murders his jewelry-bedecked unfaithful wife. He visits the office of a psychiatrist, where Dottie works, to figure out what these dreams might mean. Guess what happens next.

    Manhandled is the Patient Zero in an epidemic that has infected many contemporary thrillers. It suffers from ELS: Everybody’s Lying Syndrome. No one in this movie is on the level with the exception of Sterling Hayden, who turns up half an hour in as an insurance investigator (and is the only person who comes close to Napier in the height department). Even our Dottie stretches the truth to the breaking point. Once you realize you can’t trust any aspect of the story, the whole enterprise starts to feel insubstantial.

    In another ahead-of-its-time trope, each supporting player is given a specific bit of business to define his character, which is promptly run into the ground. This does, however, set up one of the lamest comic closing scenes in film history. Oh, and the cops behave like idiots throughout.

    So why did I like this movie? Two words: Dan Duryea. Sporting an unholy combination of loud bowtie, dark shirt and sweater vest, he’s at his sleazy best playing a shady-cop-turned-shamus. (And yes, he slaps Dorothy Lamour.) Duryea topped off his tank of ingratiating smarm for this one, and his engine keeps running long after the rest of Manhandled has gone into a ditch.

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    Sunday, August 30, 2009

    DVD: The Last Lullaby (2008)

    The Last Lullaby is a throwback, deliberately so. It’s a taut, low-key crime drama, more interested in character than chaos, with the feel of a Gold Medal paperback. That may be to its financial detriment; the filmmakers ultimately distributed the movie themselves after a long run on the festival circuit. An upcoming DVD release should allow Lullaby to find its audience.

    Max Allan Collins co-wrote the movie, based on his short story “A Matter of Principal.” Tom Sizemore plays a hit man settled into uneasy retirement who finds himself drawn back into the life, only to experience complicated feelings for the woman he’s meant to kill.

    Lullaby benefits from its deliberate pace. That’s not to say that it’s slow, but that it’s set in a world where actions have consequences and the movie has the confidence to allow them to play out. Sizemore gives a revelatory performance as a genuine tough guy who knows he doesn’t need to shout in order to make himself heard, and there’s a delicacy to his scenes with his target (Sasha Alexander). Lullaby could also be eligible as the Best Foreign Film entry from America, a nation of highways and chain restaurants, of small towns with their own rhythms. There’s a scene where Sizemore’s character meets the man who hires him at his lake house. It’s not Hollywood’s idea of a big spread, but in plenty of places it’s exactly what a rich man’s digs look like.

    Lullaby’s director Jeffrey Goodman has been chronicling the film’s release at Moviemaker magazine.

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    Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    On The Web: Ed Gorman

    Ed says far too many fine things about the Noir City Sentinel. Such as, “I’ve never read a book on noir that was as informative and just as much as downright fun” as the latest issue.

    Go read it for yourself. Then kick in a few bucks to the Film Noir Foundation and have the goodness delivered straight to your inbox.

    Speaking of noir ...

    DVR Alert: Glenn Ford

    As part of their Summer Under the Stars festival, Turner Classic Movies is dedicating this Friday, August 7, to the films of Glenn Ford. Gilda understandably gets pride of place, with the original 3:10 to Yuma not far behind. (One of Ford’s best known noirs, The Big Heat, will air on August 13 as part of Gloria Grahame Day.) Among the lesser known Ford films are two that I can heartily recommend.

    The first is Framed (1947), airing at 4:45PM EST/1:45PM PST. I saw this one at Noir City. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to enjoy Janis Carter, all legs and cheekbones and wildly darting eyes, in her I’m-gonna-say glory.

    The other is 1949’s The Undercover Man (10PM EST/7PM PST). TCM ran this neglected film for the first time last month, and I’m glad they’ve got it on the schedule again already. Expert noir hand Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo) directs this account of Treasury agents scrambling to take down Al Capone, referred to throughout the film solely as “the Big Fellow.” Featuring a dandy performance by Barry Kelley as a Mob lawyer who’s got almost all the angles figured, a hair-raising foot chase scored to the plaintive cries of a little girl, and a scene with Esther Minciotti as an Italian immigrant whose speech about America, translated by her granddaughter, is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. Watch it and tell me I’m wrong.

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    Monday, July 27, 2009

    DVD: Golden Age Noir

    The role of television is an under-reported chapter in the evolution of film noir. The small screen supplemented and eventually supplanted the B movie, attracting talent from both sides of the camera. Many of these shows, episodes of various anthology series of the 1950s, no longer exist.

    Cultural impresario and freelance wild man Johnny Legend is doing his best to rectify the situation. His Raunchy Tonk Video label has released Golden Age Noir, a DVD containing seven blasts from the past. They’re from a variety of series, with an emphasis on name actors.

    Sound Off, My Love (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). Merle Oberon stars as a woman too vain to admit she requires a hearing aid. She relents only to discover that she hasn’t been fooling anyone – but several people have been fooling her. Starts slow but picks up thanks to direction by old noir hand Robert Florey (Danger Signal).

    Dark Stranger (the premiere of The Star and The Story, 1955). Edmond O’Brien is a pulp writer who falls in love with a woman (Joanne Woodward) who may be his own creation. It bears a resemblance to Stranger Than Fiction.

    The Squeeze (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). Gambling house owner Willie Dante (Dick Powell, who played the role several times) gets pressured by the ne’er-do-well son of a crusading D.A. Sharp script by Blake Edwards – have I mentioned I’m still on a Peter Gunn kick? – and direction by Robert Aldrich.

    F.O.B. Vienna (Suspense, 1953). Hooey about an American engineer caught up in European espionage. Director Robert Mulligan strains against the limitations of live TV. It’s a dud, but it stars Walter Matthau, so what are you gonna do?

    House For Sale (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). A house-hunting Ida Lupino encounters escaped lunatic George Macready. Minor fun.

    Counterpoint: The Witness (1952). A true rarity, the sole episode of a cop series starring Lee Marvin several years before M Squad. It’s about a botched robbery and the resulting murder of a burlesque clown. With some great gritty locations and a few odd David Lynch-style moments, but it’s easily the worst of the bunch. The show is set over three city blocks but features more walking than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    A Place of His Own (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). A mentally damaged WWII veteran is coerced by his family into taking the blame for a murder he didn’t commit. The winner, hands down, with a fine performance by Charles Boyer.

    The disc is a fascinating peak into a neglected era of film noir. Johnny’s already got a second volume set for release next month, along with a sex-and-drugs Dragnet compilation that I should order right now.

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    Friday, July 03, 2009

    Too Soon Gone: The Noir Legacy of Fabián Bielinsky

    An edited version of this article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of the Noir City Sentinel. To subscribe, become a member of The Film Noir Foundation.

    Two movies. That’s not much of a legacy. But the brief filmography of Argentina’s Fabián Bielinsky is enough to prove that, with his death in 2006, world cinema lost more than a gifted storyteller. After watching Nueve Reinas (2000) and the darkly glittering jewel El Aura (2005), Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller said he was “so miserably sure that Bielinsky would have been the greatest writer-director of contemporary noir.”

    Born in Buenos Aires in 1959, Bielinsky earned his stripes as an assistant director on over 400 commercials and numerous feature films. During this fifteen-year apprenticeship he worked on projects as varied as an ad directed by German auteur Wim Wenders and Eversmile, New Jersey (1989), an oddity about an itinerant dentist fated to be remembered as the other movie Daniel Day-Lewis made the year of his Academy Award-winning triumph in My Left Foot. In 1998, Bielinsky received his first above-the-line credit as one of three writers of the allegorical science fiction film La Sonámbula (Sleepwalker). He longed to make his own movies but felt hamstrung by an industry dominated by established names and prejudiced against genre fare. He ultimately made the transition to the director’s chair the way so many of the greats did – by winning a contest. The Patagonik Film Group selected his screenplay out of 350 entries in a 1998 competition, giving Bielinsky a green light and a modest $1.3 million budget. The resulting movie revolutionized Argentinean filmmaking.

    Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a con man caper with a distinctive Latin flavor, seasoned by the corruption endemic during Argentina’s fiscal crisis of the 1990s. Veteran grifter Marcos (Ricardo Darín) bails novice Juan (Gastón Pauls) out of trouble for his own selfish reasons; he needs a partner for the day, and his usual sidekick is unavailable. Marcos gives Juan a crash course in the art of the short con. Among his pearls is knowing when to act aggrieved. “The more offended you are, the less suspicious you look,” he advises his protégé. But plans change quickly when an aging confederate presents Marcos with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity – unloading a forgery of the title sheet of Weimar Republic stamps on a shady financier poised to flee the country. To make the score Marcos reaches out to his estranged sister, Juan risks his own nest egg, and each man will have to trust the other.

    Bielinsky’s film is ferociously entertaining. Breezy yet tense, packed with reversals and plot complications but never difficult to follow, culminating in a note-perfect ending. Much of the film’s impact can be traced to the bravura sequence when Marcos points out to Juan the countless “mustard chuckers ... operators, swindlers” hiding in plain sight on the streets of Buenos Aires, watching for any hint of vulnerability on which to pounce. Bielinsky’s on-the-fly technique, which Darín described as “almost as if we were carrying out a raid or pulling off a heist,” only adds credibility. Nueve Reinas posits a world of tricksters and thieves, leavened by the wounded insistence of all involved that they are not crooks. Even the acquaintance offering Marcos a motorcycle with minor damage, namely a “small caliber” perforation in the gas tank, bristles at the accusation. It’s all just business.

    Hollywood took note of Nueve Reinas’s international success, but Bielinsky resisted the call. An Americanized version happened without him. As remakes go, Criminal (2004) is not at all bad. It has a nice sense of scale, a game cast featuring John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a feel for the multicultural vibe of Los Angeles, beautifully shot by cinematographer Chris Menges. Producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney turn it into a scruffy, low-key cousin of their Ocean’s Eleven films. (Soderbergh cowrote the adaptation with director Gregory Jacobs under the name Sam Lowry, the Brazil-inspired pseudonym he used on The Underneath, his 1995 retooling of the classic noir Criss Cross.) Criminal’s primary problem is that it simply cannot compare with the movie that spawned it. It lacks the danger and unpredictability of Nueve Reinas. Some of the best beats and lines from Bielinsky’s film had to be cut because they were unique to the original’s setting. Take the ending. There’s no way it could be used in an American film. Actually, scratch that. It might work now.

    Nueve Reinas has a jaundiced view of human relations, but Bielinsky’s noir sensibility would not reach full pungent bloom until his follow-up effort. El Aura, known as Dawn in Argentina, is a singular achievement, a truly existential film that comes across as an unholy combination of Richard Stark and Oliver Sacks. Its cunning use of traditional genre elements – fate, choice and chronic blackouts – makes it one of the finest cinematic noirs of this decade.

    We meet the film’s nameless protagonist (Ricardo Darín again) lying amidst a swirl of ATM receipts, seemingly rehearsing for his own chalk outline. He’s not dead, just suffering from an epileptic fit. The character works as a taxidermist, bloodlessly applying logic to recreate the savagery of animals. As a colleague notes, he has “a weird fantasy for a taxidermist who’s never gotten in a fight with anyone,” and that’s plotting perfect heists he lacks the nerve to carry out. “It can be done neatly. It can be done well ... There’s no reason why anyone should die,” Darín insists. “Yes, there’s a reason,” his skeptical colleague replies. “There’s a load of guys with guns.”

    Darín gets an unlikely chance to put his theories to the test. While on a hunting trip he accidentally kills a man, only to discover that his victim was an underworld figure whose plan to rob the local casino is already in motion. The taxidermist can step into the dead man’s role and live the fantasy he has long imagined.

    Bielinsky’s growth as a filmmaker, from the effervescent charm of Nueve Reinas to the command on display in El Aura, is hugely impressive. Much of the latter movie plays with minimal dialogue, communicating information purely through images. Consider the sheer elegance of the way Bielinsky uses details in the background of shots to convey that the taxidermist’s wife has left him. He immediately follows this revelation with an extraordinary series of edits moving Darín from his apartment to the lush greenery of the Patagonian countryside. Darín suffers a seizure when he’s alone in the woods about to bring down a deer, and thanks to Bielinsky’s kinetic treatment of the incident we experience it right along with him.

    But it’s the robbery scenes that showcase Bielinsky’s mastery. Early in the film, Darín waits with a fellow taxidermist to cash his check. As Darín explains how he’d loot the place, his scheme comes to life. It’s beautifully choreographed mayhem, the sad sacks in line behind them abruptly transformed into icy professionals, Darín and his associate blithely commenting on the action. Contrast this with the botched factory job that occurs halfway through the movie. Darín is no longer conductor but bystander. The sequence deftly illustrates the power and the impotence of bearing witness as Darín reacts to every gunshot and cry of agony, trying to piece together what went wrong.

    El Aura has style to burn, but Bielinsky knew that true noir is about character. He has an able collaborator in Ricardo Darín. The actor shines playing a man who takes refuge in his intellect as he finds his masculinity constantly questioned. He’s at his best during a halting speech to the dead man’s wife in which he explains the not-altogether-unpleasant sensation (the aura of the title) that precedes one of his neurological episodes: “There’s a moment, a shift ... things suddenly change ... The fit is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing. It’s horrible ... and it’s perfect. Because during those few seconds, you’re free. There’s no choice. No alternative. Nothing for you to decide.”

    That sense of inevitability pervades the movie, ratcheting up the tension and coloring the taxidermist’s actions. Darín has ample opportunity to walk away from the situation, but his refusal to do so – or even to recognize those moments of opportunity – adds force to the ending, which is as bleak as can be. For the taxidermist everything has changed, but nothing is different. Chilling stuff.

    Special mention must be made of the dead man’s dog, who alone knows that Darín has disposed of his master. Easily noir’s greatest canine since Pard in High Sierra. And both of Bielinsky’s movies make reference to a shadowy figure known as “El Turco,” integral to each plot but never appearing onscreen. One can’t help but speculate that future Bielinsky films would have drawn us deeper into the Turk’s demimonde.

    El Aura did not achieve Nueve Reinas’s level of exposure in the United States. It was distributed via the Independent Film Channel’s First Take series, released on demand and in theaters simultaneously. This approach makes films available to a wider audience – your correspondent saw El Aura on TV on “opening night,” a full three months before its truncated big-screen run in Seattle – but at the expense of publicity. Even being named one of 2006’s best films by The New York Times’s A.O. Scott didn’t garner El Aura additional attention.

    Hollywood again made overtures to Bielinsky, but he continued to spurn them. He said it would take a different type of movie to tempt him to America. For crime dramas he would remain in his native Argentina, where he could “keep full control.” Bielinsky undoubtedly had the right idea. It’s unlikely that a studio would give him free rein to make a thriller as spare and unsettling as El Aura.

    On June 26, 2006, El Aura swept Argentina’s film awards, taking home prizes for best picture, Bielinsky’s script and direction, and Darín’s performance among others. Two days later, in a hotel room in São Paulo, Brazil where he was casting a TV commercial, Fabián Bielinsky died of a heart attack at age 47, leaving behind a wife and a young son.

    Two movies. That’s all we’re going to get. Considering the innate understanding of noir that Fabián Bielinsky showed, it’s nowhere near enough.

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    Wednesday, July 01, 2009

    Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

    The July/August issue of the house organ (keep your snickers to yourselves) of the Film Noir Foundation hit in-boxes around the globe this morning. At an epic 33 pages, it’s no longer a newsletter but a magazine.

    Including for your reading pleasure:

    * An extensive interview with writer/director Arnold Laven!

    * Eddie Muller’s profile of Belita, the figure skating Ice Queen of film noir!

    * Philippe Garnier’s astonishing article on a pair of jailbirds who found success as screenwriters in 1930s Hollywood!

    Plus, this issue of the Sentinel features the byline of yours truly not once but twice, on a survey of the Catholic noir of John Farrow and a book-versus-film comparison of Nightmare Alley.

    You know you want to read it. Kick in a few bucks to the Film Noir Foundation and enjoy.

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    Thursday, May 28, 2009

    DVD: Killshot (2008)

    The Elmore Leonard adaptation, on the shelf for years save for a brief theatrical run in Arizona in the wake of Mickey Rourke’s Oscar nod for The Wrestler, finally debuted on video this week. As was the case with another recent film based on the work of a high-profile crime writer, it deserves better.

    A feuding Michigan couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) is stalked by a half-Native American hit man (Rourke) and his hair-trigger sidekick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) following an attempted crime. Not even relocation under the auspices of the Witness Security Program can help them.

    The plot ambles along in the Leonard style, with a few lapses I found hard to swallow. But the movie is admirably terse and hard-boiled, shot in great gunmetal gray locations. Rourke does some subtle work, and Gordon-Levitt channels Warren Oates. It’s a solid film that’s more interesting than most of what will be in theaters this year.

    DVD: Peter Gunn

    Henry Mancini’s soundtrack album to the vintage Blake Edwards private eye series is in regular rotation on Rhapsody’s West Coast jazz channel. After listening to it day in and day out, I finally watched the show. And now I’m hooked.

    Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, is unlike any other P.I. He doesn’t have an office, instead hanging his hat at a swinging club called Mother’s. He spends most of his time making goo-goo eyes at chanteuse girlfriend Lola Albright. Each episode is a slick noir vignette, packed with prime hipster patois and always with a killer hook. Edwards was a man who knew how to grab the attention.

    Mancini’s music figures prominently. And you occasionally glimpse other West Coast jazz legends like Shorty Rogers. The best aspect of the show, hands down, is Herschel Bernardi as Gunn’s police contact Lt. Jacoby. Bernardi, doing more with less than anyone I’ve ever seen, plays the cop as if he’s a thousand years old and has seen it all twice. Pure minimalist genius.

    There are 32 episodes on DVD. I’m rationing them out carefully. Edwards made a Peter Gunn film without Albright and Bernardi, cowritten by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, that’s rarely screened and supposedly not very good. I still aim to track it down.

    Here’s Art of Noise’s cover of Mancini’s distinctive Gunn theme, featuring surf guitar god Duane Eddy and Rik Mayall as the shamus.

    Miscellaneous: The Rooster Crowed At Midnight

    China Miéville on the inevitable disappointment of crime novels. As for Miéville’s “only flawless” example of the form, Ray Banks offers both explanation and excerpt. My question: isn’t there an episode of M*A*S*H with the same plot?

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