THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.

Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)

Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He also hires a sharpshooter (Timothy Carey ) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) to create diversions in order to insure the heist’s success.

And indeed the robbery does go off without a hitch… but there’s a proverbial fly in the ointment. Seems timid Cook has a bitchy wife (Marie Windsor ) who constantly berates him for being such a loser, so he spills the beans to her about his upcoming good fortune. She in turn gives the info to her young stud lover (Vince Edwards ), who gets ideas of his own. I won’t say anymore for those of you who haven’t seen this marvelously malevolent movie, among the finest films noir you’ll ever see, with an unforgettable final line delivered to perfection by Hayden.

Kubrick’s photographic eye captures every detail, from the mundane day-to-day lives of these people to the audacity of the crime itself. He sometimes repeats scenes to show them from different character perspectives, giving them added depth. Kubrick began as a photographer for LOOK Magazine, and then got into films directing several documentary shorts. He wanted to be his own cinematographer for this film, but the union wouldn’t have it, and the veteran Lucian Ballard was hired, but make no mistake, every shot in THE KILLING is pure, unadulterated Kubrick!

The cast is perfect, but Elisha Cook and Marie Windsor absolutely steal the show as the weak, mousey husband and his unfaithful wife. Cook, unquestionably the Crown Prince of Film Noir, adds to his Rogue’s Gallery of weaselly types as a schlemiel who only wants to please his rotten wife. And Windsor is rotten indeed, the ultimate Queen of Mean, a beautiful package on the outside that masks an ugly black soul. Their scenes together are sheer dynamite, and Kubrick allows both actors to shine.

The oddball Timothy Carey gives yet another oddball performance here, but it’s brief and it works. Kubrick’s chess playing friend from New York Kola Kwarianai, a real-life professional wrestler and promoter, plays the goon hired to create a distraction. Under Kubrick’s watchful eye, Kwarianai does well with his dialog, and excels in the wrestling-inspired scene at the track. There’s so much going on in THE KILLING at all times (something that definitely caught my eye: a poster for a Burlesque show MC’d by Lenny Bruce) it takes more than one viewing to take it all in. And I’m OK with that; THE KILLING is worth watching over and over again.

Marlowe at the Movies Returns!: Bogie & Bacall in THE BIG SLEEP (Warner Brothers 1946)

It’s been a long time since we last visited with Raymond Chandler’s fictional “knight-errant”, PI Philip Marlowe. Way too long, so let’s take a look at THE BIG SLEEP, starring Humphrey Bogart as the definitive screen Marlowe. This 1946 Howard Hawks film was a follow-up to 1944’s hit TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, which introduced audiences (and Bogie) to luscious Lauren Bacall . The pair was dynamite together onscreen, and off as well, marrying a year later. Their May/December romance was one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories, lasting until Bogart’s death from cancer in 1957.

For me to try and explain the plot here would be futile, as it takes more twists and turns than a “Balinese belly dancer”. Marlowe is hired by elderly General Sternwood, whose sexy young daughter Carmen is being blackmailed. The General’s other daughter Vivien, a sexy divorcee, is also in trouble. This takes Our Man Marlowe through a maze involving murder, money, and sexy dames by the truckload, all of whom seem to want the sleuth. It’s tough to tell all the players without a scorecard, but that doesn’t really matter. Hawks’ take on Chandler is all about noir style, and the film has it in spades! The hard-boiled, hard-bitten dialog by screenwriters William Faulkner, Jules Furthman , and Leigh Brackett is delivered in that trademark “rat-a-tat” Warner Brothers style by the cast, the dark, moody photography by Sidney Hickox perfectly captures the noir world inhabited by the characters, the studio-bound fog-shrouded streets look marvelous, and everybody’s hiding some sort of secret. Even the opening credits literally scream noir, with Bogie and Bacall smoking cigarettes in silhouette, then placing the burning butts in an ashtray as Max Steiner’s sweeping music plays under the credits.

THE BIG SLEEP was filmed in 1945, but when TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT lit up the screen (and the box office) like a comet, the studio decided to take advantage of its newfound star team and shoot additional scenes featuring Bogie and Bacall. The couple’s pairing was steamier than General Sternwood’s orchid-filled hothouse, their sexually charged banter flowing freer than bootleg gin (check out their “horse racing” metaphors for example!).  I loved the way Bogart tugs at his ear whenever he’s in deep thought, and Bacall’s still sexiness covers the fact she’s fairly new to the acting game at this point in her career. Tongues are placed firmly in cheek as they trade repartee, and if their first film together established them as a force to be reckoned with, THE BIG SLEEP certainly seals the deal.

The supporting cast is more than up to the task of keeping up with Bogie and Bacall’s star power. Twenty year old Martha Vickers (whose noir bona fides include RUTHLESS, THE BIG BLUFF, and THE BURGLAR) is the sexy (there’s that word again!) Carmen, a babyish bimbo constantly biting her thumb like a pacifier (or more likely, an oral fixation!). John Ridgley (who appeared with Bogart on eleven other occasions) has the pivotal role of gambling joint owner Eddie Mars. You can’t have a film noir without inviting Elisha Cook Jr. to the party, and he’s here in a small role as (what else?) a weasel trying to sell Marlowe some information. Young Dorothy Malone made a splash as a book store owner sharing rye (and whatever else gets left to the imagination!) with the shamus. Cowboy star Bob Steele plays ice-cold killer Canino, an archetype he’d return to in Bogart’s 1951 THE ENFORCER. Familiar Faces dotting the dark landscape include Trevor Bardette , Tanis Chandler (no relation to Raymond!), Joseph Crehan, Bess Flowers , Louis Jean Heydt, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey (as Marlowe’s cop friend), Theodore von Eltz, and Ben Welden.

Howard Hawks mastered any film genre he worked in, from screwball comedy (HIS GIRL FRIDAY) to wild Western ( RIO BRAVO ), during his fifty-four year Hollywood career. In THE BIG SLEEP, Hawks injects the dark world of film noir with his personal artistic vision, and paints a black & white masterpiece with shadows and light. Bogart inhabits the character of Philip Marlowe like a well-worn trench coat, Bacall is the quintessential Hawks “hard dame”, and the overlapping staccato dialog is filled with a sly, sexy sense of humor. Don’t worry about following the story, just sit back and enjoy Hawks and his stars at the top of their game!

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B-Girls and B-Movies: CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (United Artists 1957)

CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL is just a routine ‘B’ crime drama, one of many churned out in the 50’s. Yet the performances of stars Brian Keith Beverly Garland , and an above-average supporting cast helped elevate the by-the-numbers material into something watchable. It’s those Familiar Faces we all know and love from countless movies that made CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL work for me.

The story revolves around racketeers muscling in on the Worker’s National Union so they can bring their “numbers rackets and ‘B’ girls” to the city. Politically ambitious State’s Attorney Jim Fremont is dead set on busting them up, and when the union’s treasurer is murdered, the finger of suspicion is pointed at honest Union President Artie Blane. Blane’s been framed by his rival, VP Ken Harrison, who takes his orders from “disbarred attorney” Alan Dixon, “one of the masterminds of the old Capone gang”. Blane is brought to trial and, thanks to some chicanery by an “old derelict” with the improbable name of Candymouth Duggan and a dummied-up tape recorder, is convicted of murder in the first degree.

Blane’s fiancée Laura Barton just won’t let the case go; she knows Blane was with her the night of the killing and is determined to prove his innocence. When the tape recording of Blane’s voice is found to be bogus, the case is reopened. Candymouth gets iced by Harrison’s “goons, and a nightclub impressionist named Kerry Jordan is also rubbed out. Fremont tracks down Laura’s former neighbor Sylvia, now living at a clip joint run by the mob called the Shanghai Low. He takes a brutal beating from the goons, and Laura and Sylvia are about to be shanghaied themselves on a plane bound for the Philippines before the cops come to rescue, getting into a car chase with the gangsters (“They’re gaining on us!”, one goon exclaims), and a shootout that leaves the three racketeers dead, but not before Harrison confesses everything and Dixon gets busted, putting an end to their reign of terror.

Brian Keith exhibits his natural ease before the cameras as Fremont. The actor had good parts in THE VIOLENT MEN, 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE, and THE PARENT TRAP, but that one role that would’ve put him on top always eluded him. Keith fared better on the small screen, starring in Sam Peckinpah’s seminal THE WESTERNER, the popular but saccharine sitcom FAMILY AFFAIR, and the comedy-actioner HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK. He became a respected character actor in the 70’s and 80’s with films like THE WIND AND THE LION (as Teddy Roosevelt), THE MOUNTAIN MEN, and SHARKEY’S MACHINE.

Beverly Garland (Laura) was the 1950”s Queen of the ‘B’ Girls (as in ‘B’ movies, not the other kind!), a fan favorite for her quickies with Roger Corman (SWAMP WOMEN, GUNSLINGER, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, NOT OFTHIS EARTH) and the silly horror THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE.  Bev really puts her all into the role, like she’s auditioning for juicier parts. It didn’t happen, but she certainly proves here she’s not just another pretty face, and later did get some good roles in both PRETTY POISON and AIRPORT 1975.

A slew of Familiar Faces appear in the movie, starting with former Universal leading man Dick Foran (THE MUMMY’S HAND, RIDE ‘EM COWBOY ) as the wronged Blane. Our favorite weasel Elisha Cook Jr.   does his usual fine job as the rum-soaked “old derelict” Candymouth. Character actor Douglas Kennedy is the crooked Harrison, ex-Garbo costar Gavin Gordon plays Dixon, sexy Beverly Tyler (VOODOO ISLAND, TOUGHEST MAN IN TOMBSTONE) is Sylvia, and the two goons are pretty-boy Anthony George (TV’s CHECKMATE, DARK SHADOWS) and mean-mugged noir vet Jack Lambert . Not to mention SUPERMAN’S Phyllis Coates as Keith’s wife and John Hamilton as the defense attorney.

Sidney Salkow isn’t given much to work with in either script or budget, but he guides his players along smoothly. You won’t find CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL on any “best-of” or “Top Ten” lists, but for fans of well acted ‘B’s and Familiar Face spotters it’s an enjoyable way to spend 75 minutes of your time.

 

 

 

 

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Outside the (Hat) Box: PHANTOM LADY (Universal 1944)

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Interested in a Hitchcockian 40’s thriller full of suspense and noir style? Then PHANTOM LADY is the film for you, a small gem based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and  directed by the talented Robert Siodmak. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film noir like many do, but it certainly contains many of the stylistic elements of the genre in its gripping murder mystery story. Pretty damn close, though!

The Hitchcock influence clearly comes from Joan Harrison , former secretary and screenwriter for The Master of Suspense, who became one of only three female producers working during Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s Hitchcock’s famed McGuffin to be found in the form of a “crazy hat” worn by the mysterious woman of the title that’s crucial to the film’s plot. Add the tension ratcheted up by screenwriter Bernard Schoenfeld and you’ve got a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock.

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The noir elements come directly from the German Expressionist school courtesy of Robert Siodmak , soon to become one of the most influential directors in the noir canon. Working hand in hand with the brilliant cinematographer Woody Bredell, Siodmak creates a dark atmosphere loaded with shadows and light, best realized when the protagonist Kansas follows the suspicious bartender down the mean streets of New York, mostly silent until the scene’s nerve-rattling end. Another scene finds Kansas finally realizing who the killer is, now trapped alone with him in his spacious apartment. These scenes (and others in the film) are noir filmmaking all the way.

The reason I don’t consider PHANTOM LADY true noir isn’t the stylistic elements, but the film’s plot as written. The main character, Kansas, isn’t on a downward spiral, though her boss is certainly in trouble, sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s straightforward “find-the-killer”, well done for certain, but not in the category of other noirs produced that year, like LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. In 1944, what we now call film noir was just beginning to emerge, and though this movie is definitely filmed in the noir style, I consider it more of a straightforward suspense drama.

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The cast is outstanding, especially Ella Raines as ‘Kansas’ Richman, working diligently to prove her boss’s innocence. This was the beautiful Miss Raines first starring role, and the actress uses her versatility and range to maximum advantage. She also appeared in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, TALL IN THE SADDLE (with John Wayne), the aforementioned UNCLE HARRY, and two true Siodmak noirs, THE SUSPECT and BRUTE FORCE . Raines also starred in the early TV drama JANET DEAN, REGISTERED NURSE, which was produced by Harrison. Ella Raines was never a major star, but made important contributions to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and deserves recognition for her efforts.

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The veteran actor Franchot Tone gets top billing, even though he doesn’t appear until the film’s second half. His Jack Marlow is a chilling figure, seemingly a friend to Kansas’s boss before revealing his true, psychotic nature. The way the camera and lighting focus on his hands, seemingly having a murderous mind of their own, is effective and chilling. Universal leading man Alan Curtis is Raines’ boss, falsely accused of murdering his wife, and character actor Thomas Gomez portrays Inspector Burgess, the cop who arrests him based on the evidence at hand, yet believes in his story about the mysterious Phantom Lady. Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) plays a key role as an entertainer, and old friend Elisha Cook Jr. is his weaselly little self. Familiar Faces in the film include Virginia Brissac, Joseph Crehan, Theresa Harris, Fay Helm , Doris Lloyd, Matt McHugh, Jay Novello, Regis Toomey, and the uncredited voices of Milburn Stone and Samuel S. Hinds during the court proceedings.

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PHANTOM LADY may not completely fall into the noir genre, but whatever you want to label it, it’s a well-made, suspenseful tale from a cast and crew of professionals guaranteed to keep you entertained. It doesn’t fit neatly into a category box, and I’m okay with that. Give it a chance and make your own judgement call, either way I think you’ll be more than satisfied.

Halloween Havoc: THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (Allied Artists 1959)

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William Castle was The King of the Gimmick Films. A natural born showman, Castle got his start grinding out B pictures for companies like Columbia and Monogram. By the late 1950s, television dominated the country’s entertainment audiences, and box offices suffered. Castle made the film MACARBRE in 1958, handing out $1,000 life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London to patrons “in case they died of fright” while watching the movie. MACARBRE drew money, and for his next flick, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle had a plastic skeleton wired up to float over moviegoers heads during a crucial scene.

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THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is your basic “haunted house” movie, with seven disparate characters forced to spend the night at the gloomy house. Vincent Price plays ultra-rich Frederick Loren, host of the party, who offers five strangers $10,000 dollars to stay at the supposed “murder house”. His wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart at her bitchy best) is at odds with Loren, refusing to divorce him. The house is owned by Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr), whose brother and sister-in-law were murdered here, and who claims seven ghosts of murder victims walk the halls. The rest of the guests are pilot Lance (Richard Long), secretary Nora (Carolyn Craig), Dr. Trent (Alan Marshal), and columnist Ruth (June Bridges).

Strange things begin happening, as Lance is knocked out in a secret room, and Nora shrieks after seeing a hideous old hag (more on her later!) The house is locked tight at precisely midnight. When Annabelle is found hanging from the ceiling, everyone suspects each other of the foul deed. A storm is brewing outside the house, while inside unexplainable phenomena drive Nora to hysteria. It’s revealed to the audience Annabelle is alive, and with her lover Dr. Trent they plan to push Nora over the edge and Annabelle’s husband. But Loren’s on to their scheme, and he ends up killing Trent and driving Annabelle to her doom with the help of a mechanical skeleton (which is where Castle’s gimmick came in).

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With the success of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Castle continued his spook shows. For THE TINGLER (also starring Price), he had theater seats rigged with electric buzzers to give the filmgoer a jolt! 13 GHOSTS offered special glasses to “see” the spooks in the film. HOMICIDAL had a “nurse” stationed at each theater for “cowards”. After leaving his gimmick days behind, Castle made some suspense films with Joan Crawford (STRIGHT-JACKET, I SAW WHAT YOU DID) and produced Roman Polanski’s 1968 hit ROSEMARY’S BABY. The talented Mr. Castle, his ballyhoo days behind him, passed away in 1977.

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Now about that “old hag” who pops up in the movie…she still creeps me out!! Doing some research, I found out she was an silent film actress named Leona Anderson, sister of cowboy star Bronco Billy Anderson. Leona made a comeback of sorts in the 1950s, billing herself as “the world’s most Horrible singer”. She appeared on TV with funnyman Ernie Kovacs, and even released an album titled MUSIC TO SUFFER BY. Here’s the one and only (Thank God!) Miss Anderson warbling “Rats in My Room”:

Little Girl Lost: Marilyn Monroe in DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (20th Century Fox, 1952)

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Marilyn Monroe’s status as America’s #1 Sex Symbol saw her cast in lots of light, fluffy roles during the course of her career. But when given the chance, she proved she was more than just another pretty face. Marilyn’s acting chops shine like a crazy diamond in the 1952 film noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK.

Marilyn plays Nell Forbes, a young woman new to New York. She’s obtained a babysitting job through her uncle, an elevator operator at a ritzy hotel. Nell’s an attractive woman, but right from the start we can tell there’s something slightly off about her. She seems haunted, her voice and mannerisms have a wounded quality. After putting her little charge Bunny to bed, Nell begins trying on the mother’s jewelry and kimono. She goes to the window when she hears a plane fly by, strangely attracted to the sound.

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In the hotel lounge, singer Lyn Leslie has broke off her relationship with pilot Jed Towers. Lyn wants more than Jed’s willing to give. Jed is a commitaphobe, the kind of guy who wants to have his cake and eat it, too. She calls him cold and callous, and she’s right. Jed’s a humorless, uptight male, and a bit of a prick. He goes to his room to drink alone, when he spies Nell across the way. Feeling frisky, Jed calls the room and strikes up a conversation, finally wrangling an invitation from her. As Nell applies lipstick, we see the scars on her wrists from an apparent suicide attempt. Jed goes over, and Nell tries to act sophisticated. She becomes infatuated when he tells her he’s a pilot. Bunny wakes up ,and Nell’s ruse is spoiled.

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Things go steadily downhill, as Jed leaves, and Nell becomes more and more unhinged. Her boyfriend had been a pilot that was killed on a flight to Hawaii. The suicide attempt led her to three years in an institution, and we discover she’s only recently been released. Nell’s tenuous hold on reality comes crashing down after Jed rebuffs her, and the film kicks into high gear as Nell sinks deeper and deeper into her madness.

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I won’t spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it. Instead, I’ll just tell you Marilyn Monroe is outstanding as Nell. Her vulnerable qualities at the film’s beginning give way to a creepy yet heartbreaking performance that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. Nell is in turn clingy, violent, a practiced liar, and ultimately pitiable. Her loose grip on reality, coupled with her obvious bipolar traits, make Nell a danger to both herself and those around her. It’s a bravura showcase for Marilyn, one she rarely got, and she takes the ball and runs with it as the tragic Nell.

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Richard Widmark (The Swarm) is unlikable at first as Jed, but softens during the events of the movie. It’s a tricky role, but Widmark pulls it off. His ex-girlfriend Lyn is played by Anne Bancroft in her film debut. Elisha Cook Jr (Born to Kill, Blacula) is back in noir territory as Nell’s Uncle Eddie, giving another fine performance. The supporting cast features Jim Backus, Lurene Tuttle, Verna Felton, Don Beddoe (The Face Behind The Mask), and Donna Corcoran as Bunny. British director Roy Ward Baker is better known for his Hammer horrors (THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, SCARS OF DRACULA, DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE) than film noir, but does a good job leading the cast through a solid script by David Taradash (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY), based on the novel Mischief  by mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong.

But it’s Marilyn Monroe’s show all the way. DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is, along with 1953’s NIAGRA and 1960’s THE MISFITS, a chance to see her in a rare dramatic role. As much as I love her in musicals and comedies, I admire her even more in films that show her depth as an artist. It’s no wonder that, over fifty years after her untimely death, Marilyn is still popular from one generation to the next. She was THAT talented, and DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK is a must-see for fans of both her and the film noir genre.

That’s Blaxploitation 2: BLACULA (AIP, 1972)

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The distinguished actor William Marshall starred on Broadway, played Shakespeare’s Othello on the London stage, sang operas, and later became beloved by 80s kids as “The King of Cartoons” on PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE. But he’s best remembered today as Prince Mamuwalde in the first Blaxploitation/horror film, 1973’s BLACULA. It’s the late 1700s, and the Prince and his wife have traveled to Transylvania on a diplomatic mission protesting the European slave trade. When their host, Count Dracula (Charles Macauley) insults them, they get up to leave. But Dracula has other ideas, putting the bite on Mamuwalde and damning him to a fate “torn by an unquenchable thirst. I curse you and give you my name. You shall be called….BLACULA!!” With that, Dracula locks the Prince in his coffin, and leaves his wife Luva to rot to death in their cell.

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After a cool animated title sequence (by designer Sandy Dvore), we’re in 1973. Two (flamboyantly stereotyped) gay antique dealers purchase Count Dracula’s estate. Bringing their treasures back to Los Angeles, they open up a coffin, and…out pops Blacula! He dispatches the two dudes and returns to his bed, his hunger satisfied. Dr. Gordon Thomas, his girlfriend Michelle, and her sister Tina were friends with the guys, and when they visit the funeral parlor, Thomas, who happens to be a police pathologist, notices two puncture marks on his neck. Blacula is there behind a curtain, waiting for his new servant to arise. He lays eyes on Tina, and she’s a dead ringer for his long-dead wife! Blacula follows her, but she runs, dropping her purse along the way.

Continue reading “That’s Blaxploitation 2: BLACULA (AIP, 1972)”

Beyond Redemption: 1947’s BORN TO KILL

The darker side of man (and woman) is on full display in 1947’s BORN TO KILL. Sex, violence, greed, blackmail, lust, and murder abound in this mean little film. It’s loaded with crackling hard boiled dialogue (example: “You’re the coldest iceberg of a woman I ever saw, with the rottenest insides”) by screenwriters Eve Green and Richard Macauley. BORN TO KILL shows the RKO film noir style at it’s moodiest peak. It’s hard to believe the director is the same man who helmed the sticky sweet Oscar winning THE SOUND OF MUSIC!

Robert Wise got his start in RKO’s sound editing room, graduating to film editor in 1939. He was nominated for Best Editing for Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE and was soon promoted to the director’s chair, working with producer Val Lewton on psychological horror gems like CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER (with the great terror tandem of Karloff and Lugosi). His resume includes bonafide classics like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, I WANT TO LIVE!, WEST SIDE STORY, THE HAUNTING, and the aforementioned saga of the Von Trapp Family. But without a shadow of a doubt, his toughest movie is BORN TO KILL.

We begin in Reno, where Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) has just obtained a divorce. She’s been staying at a rooming house run by Mrs. Kraft, a blowsy, boozy old coot who lives vicariously through her next door neighbor, loose woman Laury Palmer (an ancestor of TWIN PEAK’s Laura, perhaps?). Laury’s got her eye on a new hunk, and plans on going out with another man to get him jealous. She describes him as “the quiet sort…yet you get the feeling if you step out of line, he’ll kick your teeth in”.

Helen goes to a casino that night and catches the eye of handsome brute Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). She bumps into Laury and her date, and Sam’s face turns stone cold. When Laury and the young buck go to her place for a nightcap, Sam is there waiting. He mercilessly beats them both to death. Leaving the house, he sees Helen coming down the street, and ducks into a back alley. Helen notices Laury’s dog wandering outside, and she brings him home, where she discovers the murdered couple. Instead of calling the cops, she calls the train station to buy a ticket back to San Francisco.

Sam goes back to the hotel room he shares with his pal Marty ( Elisha Cook, Jr of THE MALTESE FALCON), and coldly relates the night’s events. Marty tells Sam to high-tail it out of town until the heat dies down. Sam strikes up a conversation with Helen at the railroad station. The two recognize each other from the casino. The sexual tension between them is so thick  you could cut it with a switchblade. When Helen tells him she’s headed back to San Fran, Sam decides that’s where he’s going, too.

Down on his heels private detective Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak) is hired by Mrs. Kraft to investigate the murder of her friend Laury. Arnett’s a verse-spouting weasel looking to make a fast buck off the old dame. He snoops around and spots Marty at various places connected to the crime. When Marty goes to join his pal in San Francisco, Arnett follows.

Helen is back home with her rich fiancé Fred and rich step-sister Georgia. She herself doesn’t have a dime, and connives her way through life on their money. Sam drops by Georgia’s mansion, and the four of them go out to a swanky nightclub. Sam sees right through Helen’s façade regarding Fred. When he discovers that Georgia is loaded, he quickly turns his charm on her. Helen sits there seething while Sam and Georgia dance a little TOO close.

Sam and Georgia marry, with Helen as the green-eyed maid of honor. Arnett slips into the wedding party washing dishes for food, and asking a lot of nosy questions about Sam. Helen has him thrown out, and announces to the happy couple she’ll be moving in with a friend. Georgia won’t hear of it, and insists she stay. So does Sam, who’s still hot for his new sister-in-law. While they’re on their honeymoon, Helen meets with Mart, and persuades him to move into his best friend’s new digs.

The honeymoon doesn’t last long, as the couple return arguing about Sam wanting to take over the family newspaper. He’s voted down, and storms out of the room. Later, Helen and Sam meet in the kitchen for  secret rendezvous. She tells him she knows about the killings, which seems to turn them both on. (Helen: “You’re adventure, excitement, depravity. There’s a kind of corruptness inside you”) Mart walks in on them as they lock lips, and Helen leaves the room in silent ecstasy.

She calls Arnett and they clandestinely meet in the shadows of the Golden Gate bridge. She offers him five grand to get off the case, but Arnett, knowing Helen has rich connections, won’t settle for less than fifteen (“Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair”). Helen states she’ll need some time. Meanwhile, drunken old Mrs. Kraft has come to the city for an update. Arnett tells her the trail has gone cold, knowing he can make more by blackmailing Helen, but milks her for expense money anyway.  Mart has followed Arnett to Kraft’s room, and sweet talks her into meeting him later to give her the identity of Laury’s killer. He lays the smooth talk on her and the old sot is willing to take a chance.

Mart confronts Helen at the house, warning her to steer clear of Sam, and she throws him out of her room. Sam spots him coming out, and can barely contain his rage. Mart and Sam discuss what to do about nosy Mrs. Kraft, and the plan is for Mart to kill her. Mart meets her in a deserted part of town and attempts to stab her, but Sam comes up from behind and murders his friend for his perceived betrayal with Helen.

Things get really juicy from there, as Fred dumps Helen, Helen tells Georgia about Sam, the police pound on the door, Sam chases Helen up the stairs, he shoots through the bedroom door at her, the cops blast Sam, and find Helen with a gunshot right in her devious gut. As Arnett is about to leave town, he picks up a newspaper and reads about the grisly demise of Sam and Helen. Shaking his head, he quotes from Provebs 12:15. “The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity, more’s the pity”.

Lawrence Tierney is terrific as the sociopathic Sam. He shot to fame in 1945’s DILLINGER. He had an up and down career, mostly down due to his excesses, but made a small comeback later in life as the boss in Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS, and as Elaine’s father in a hilarious episode of SEINFELD. Claire Trevor was called “Queen of Film Noir” for her roles in MURDER MY SWEET, RAW DEAL, and her Academy Award winning performance in John Huston’s KEY LARGO. BORN TO KILL is filled with great character actors like Cook, Slezak, Esther Howard, Isabel Jewell, and Phillip Terry, and a must see movie for fans of lowdown and dirty film noir at it sleazy best!

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