Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)

Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in the director’s chair, fresh from directing oaters at Universal and East Side Kids pics at Monogram. Lewis had made some critics take notice with his 1941 psychological horror INVISBLE GHOST starring Bela Lugosi, that is what few critics bothered to see the low-budget Monogram effort.

Lewis took the somewhat derivative script by Muriel Roy Bolton and created a noir mood aided by his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who later worked on noirs like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR and IN A LONELY PLACE , and won Oscars for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE. The opening scene of Julia Ross, returning to her rooming house in the rain, is vintage film noir. Budget restrictions helped give the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Julia is set up, drugged out, and awakened in unfamiliar new surroundings. The scene of her coming down the staircase, her plan to escape thwarted by “husband” Ralph Hughes, is framed to heighten that sense of oppressiveness, and the denouement , taking place on the rocky sea-shore, is a tense little masterpiece of noir filmmaking. Only the tacked-on happy ending ruins what could have been a gripping scene.

Nina Foch as Julia Ross is great in a role that would’ve been terrible in the hands of a lesser Columbia starlet, say Jeff Donnell or Lynn Merrick. Foch’s acting ability was such that you believe this improbable scenario could happen, and your sympathy lies with her and her plight all the way. It’s too bad Columbia czar Harry Cohn didn’t think she had enough “sex appeal” to be a star, and kept her in a slew of ‘B’ movies until her contract ended. Granted, she’s no Rita Hayworth (no one is!), but Foch was quite an attractive woman, and her acting was head and shoulders above most of the Hollywood starlets toiling at the time. Nina Foch would move on to supporting roles in prestige pictures, and was a respected acting coach right up until her death in 2008.

George Macready makes a convincing, civilized psychopath as Ralph Hughes, who along with his mother (Dame May Whitty) tries to ‘gaslight’ Julia into believing she’s really Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marian Hughes. Macready, the consummate screen villain, is all restrained rage, his eyes bugging when angered, his fondness for knives a giveaway into his dark soul. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS isn’t a perfect film, but it’s perfectly constructed by Lewis and his cast. While it didn’t help poor Nina Foch’s bid for Hollywood success, Macready would go on to portray Ballin Mundson in GILDA the next year, and a long film career. Director Lewis made more films noir, including SO DARK THE NIGHT and the essential noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. It’s here with JULIA ROSS that he made his reputation as an auteur to be reckoned with, a brisk ‘B’ programmer that’s poor in budget but rich in atmosphere.


Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3

To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest DA who pumps the brakes when the politicians, fearing the wrath of the voters demanding action, pressure the police chief (Lee J. Cobb ) into arresting somebody – anybody – for the murder. But it’s Arthur Kennedy who steals the show as a down on his luck WWII veteran caught up in the hysteria, put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit so political hacks can save (as Mel Brooks would say ) their phoney-baloney jobs. The cast is loaded with marvelous actors, including Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife, Cara Williams as Kennedy’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Ed Begley as a shady pol, Sam Levene as a muckraking reporter, and a young Karl Malden as one of Cobb’s detectives. Cobb sums the whole thing up best: “Never did like politicians”. Amen to that, Lee J! BOOMERANG is a noir you won’t want to miss.

Director Nicholas Ray contributed a gem to the noir canon with IN A LONELY PLACE (Columbia 1950) . Noir icon Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a hat check girl. Steele has a violent history well-known to the police, but new neighbor Laurel Grey (another noir icon, Gloria Grahame ) provides him with an alibi. Bogart, as the obviously off-center writer who may or may not have killed the girl, goes deep into his dark side, giving one of his best screen performances – and that’s saying a lot! The viewer is never quite certain if Dixon Steele did the deed until the very end, as Bogart’s psycho scenarist keeps everyone off-balance.

Grahame is one cool customer at first, but as things progress and Bogart’s rage rises to the surface, she becomes more and more frightened of him. Grahame and Ray were married while making IN A LONELY PLACE, but the union was becoming unraveled by this time, and they would soon separate. Frank Lovejoy, whom I’ve always thought was a very underrated actor, plays Steele’s former Army buddy, now a cop on the case. I especially enjoyed Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, the alcoholic former screen star who relies on Steele for handouts. Other Familiar Faces include Carl Benton Reid, Morris Ankrum , Jeff Donnell, and famous restaurateur ‘Prince’ Michael Romanoff, a friend of Bogie’s playing (what else?) a restaurateur. If you love movies about the dark side of Hollywood, IN A LONELY PLACE is for you!

Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER (United Artists 1951) gives us Van Heflin as an obsessed cop who falls for married Evelyn Keyes after responding to a peeping tom call. Heflin delivers a dynamite performance as the narcissistic ex-jock turned officer, unhappy with his lot in life, who has most everyone fooled he’s a “wonderful guy”. Keyes is alone most nights because her husband works the overnight shift as a disc jockey. After he tries (and fails) to put the make on her, he returns to apologize. The lonely housewife dances with him while the song “Baby” plays on the radio, cozying up cheek to cheek, and then… well, you know!

Heflin resorts to anything to get what he wants, including setting up Keyes’ hubby and shooting him. After being found innocent in a coroner’s inquiry, literally getting away with murder, he convinces her of his innocence and the two get married. Heflin buys a motel in Vegas, and is ready to live the American dream, but there’s a hitch to his plans when Keyes discovers she’s already four months pregnant, and her deceased hubby was impotent! Realizing questions will be re-raised regarding their relationship while she was married, the two take off to a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the desert to have the child, away from prying eyes. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it packs a wallop! THE PROWLER is essential viewing for film noir lovers, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under the name of “front” Hugo Butler (and as an inside joke, Losey hired Trumbo to provide the radio voice of Keyes’ disc jockey husband, without the knowledge of anyone involved!).

Last but certainly not least, we come to WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (RKO 1956), directed by the legendary Fritz Lang , who knew a thing or two about crafting film noir! Casey Robinson’s extremely cynical script shows us the power struggle at a New York newspaper, with whoever discovers the identity of “The Lipstick Killer” terrorizing the town being named Executive Director. The characters are sleazy and unlikable, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and only the top-notch cast makes them palatable, led by Dana Andrews as a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV broadcaster, Thomas Mitchell as the sly old-school pro, George Sanders at his smarmy, sarcastic best, Vincent Price as the dilettante son who inherits a media empire, Rhonda Fleming as his slutty wife (who’s banging art director James Craig on the side), Sally Forrest as Sanders’ secretary in love with Andrews, Ida Lupino as a gossip columnist Sanders sics on Andrews to seduce him, and Howard Duff as the lead cop on the case. You can’t get much better than that cast!

As the sex-killer with mommy issues, John Drew Barrymore (billed a John Barrymore, Jr.) looks more like Elvis than he does his famous father. Barrymore’s career never reached the heights of his dad, mainly due to his excesses, and his was a tragic life. Towards the end, he was cared for by daughter Drew, who’s had quite a career of her own. WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is arguably Lang’s last great film, with moody cinematography by the great Ernest Laszlo (DOA, KISS ME DEADLY ). With that cast, Robinson’s pessimistic script, and Lang’s deft direction, it’s another must-see for film noir fans. Oh yes, before I forget, if that stylized ‘K’ for Kyne, Inc. looks familiar, it’s because it’s leftover from another RKO film:

That’s right, CITIZEN KANE! Who says RKO didn’t get the most for their money?


Five Films From Five Decades

Five Films From Five Decades 2

Those Swingin’ Sixties!

B-Movie Roundup!

Fabulous 40’s Sleuths

All-Star Horror Edition!

Film Noir Festival

All-Star Comedy Break

Film Noir Festival Redux

Halloween Leftovers

Five From The Fifties

Too Much Crime On My Hands

All-Star Western Roundup!

Sex & Violence, 70’s Style!

Halloween Leftovers 2

Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the charges being swept under the rug as “in the line of duty”. Nolan hides his ill-gotten gains under the porch of a model suburban dream home he’s thinking of buying for himself and fiancé Patty Winters.

The 25 G’s belong to gangster Packy Reed, who of course wants his dough back. Reed’s two menacing goons threaten Patty, but are stopped by Nolan’s partner Mark Brewster. Then Nolan learns there was a witness, a deaf mute old man, and goes to try and bribe the old geezer, but accidentally kills him instead. Mark is called to investigate and finds a note the geezer wrote implicating Nolan in the bookie’s death. Nolan now becomes a hunted man, with the squad leader putting all cops on the lookout, leading to Barney Nolan’s unavoidable date with destiny.

There’s some shocking violence in the scene where Nolan, getting drunk at an Italian restaurant with a local floozie, spots the goons who threatened Patty, and savagely pistol whips them both. The final scenes, where the hunted Nolan engages in a gun duel with a goon at a high school swim meet, then is ferociously gunned down himself by his police brethren, are also well staged. O’Brien directed one other feature, 1961’s MAN TRAP, while Koch went on to a long career as a director (BIG HOUSE USA, UNTAMED YOUTH , FRANKENSTEIN 1970 , BADGE 373), producer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FOUR FOR TEXAS , THE ODD COUPLE, AIRPLANE!), and a stint as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The cast is terse and tough, and includes John Agar as Nolan’s partner Mark, Emile Meyer as the no nonsense precinct captain, Claude Akins as one of the goons, and a blonde Carolyn Jones as the floozie. Sexy Marla English plays Patty; she’s best known for a pair of chillers, THE SHE CREATURE and VOODOO WOMAN. The rest of the cast list features Familiar Faces from the world of episodic TV: John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL), William Boyett (ADAM-12), Robert Bray (LASSIE), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Stafford Repp (BATMAN), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, STAR TREK’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”) and Vito Scotti, who was on just about every TV show made from the 50’s to the 70’s!

SHIELD FOR MURDER offers noir buffs a darkly good time, although I feel it’s definitely second-tier stuff. O’Brien and the cast make it worth watching, as does the intermittent outbursts of violence. Would I watch it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. You Dear Readers will have to decide for yourselves.


Roomful of Mirrors: Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia 1947)

For my money, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is the perfect film noir, a tour de force by producer/writer/director/star Orson Welles that assaults the senses and keeps the viewer enthralled at all times. All this despite the meddling of Columbia Pictures czar Harry Cohn, who demanded Welles reshoot scenes and ordering its 155 minute running time cut down to 87. The version we see today, released in the states in 1948 (it was first run in France six months earlier), is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking thanks to the immense talents of Welles and his cast and crew.

Orson Welles scared the pants off American radio listeners with his Oct. 30, 1938 “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcast of H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS. Signed to an unprecedented contract by RKO, Welles’ first feature was of course CITIZEN KANE (1941), now considered by many the greatest film ever made. The film didn’t light up the box office at the time though, and ruffled the feathers of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whose life KANE is based. It lost the Oscar to John Ford’s sentimental HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, then Welles’ second production, 1942’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, was butchered by RKO. No longer the boy wonder of motion pictures, Welles made JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943) and THE STRANGER (1946) before taking on a stage project, a musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS.

Strapped for cash, Welles offered his services to Cohn for the money he needed to launch his play. Legend has it he saw the cover of the book his theater cashier was reading and told the mogul he had it in mind for his film. The truth is Columbia contractee William Castle  owned the rights to Sherwood King’s novel “If I Die Before I Wake”, and asked Welles to pitch it to Cohn, hoping to direct it himself. Welles decided to direct himself, leaving Castle with an Associate Producer credit, as well as having an (uncredited) hand in the screenplay and some 2nd Unit work.

Welles also narrates the tale (complete with Irish brogue!) as sailor Michael O’Hara, who spots beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister riding through Central Park in a coach. She’s played by Rita Hayworth , Welles’ estranged (at the time) wife, with a short ‘do and hair dyed blond, another detail that went up Cohn’s ass. The girl is abducted by some ruffians and Michael stops a rape attempt. In gratitude, she offers him a job… on her husband’s yacht. Disappointed, Michael rips up her card and walks away, as two as-yet unidentified men watch from afar.

Next day the woman’s husband, disabled lawyer Arthur Bannister, comes calling at the union hall. Bannister, “the world’s greatest criminal lawyer”, insists Michael take the job. Reluctant but still attracted to Elsa, Michael accepts, and the crew set sail on The Circe from New York to San Francisco. We now meet the two men, one of whom is Sidney Broome, a sleazy PI working for Bannister’s divorce cases. The other is Bannister’s partner George Grisby, who makes Michael an unusual offer… five thousand dollars to commit murder. The victim: Grisby himself!

Things spiral out of control quickly for Michael from here, as he’s caught in a web of lies, deceit, and an elaborate frame-up that finds him being defended by Bannister for Grisby’s murder. These people to Michael are sharks feeding on themselves, and he’s trapped in their cesspool of wickedness with seemingly no way out. Welles performs wonders with this film, using close-ups, odd camera angles, and deep shadows to create this unholy world of the rich and powerful. The overlapping dialog injects the film with a sense of realism, as does the location footage. The Aquarium scene, the circus-like courtroom atmosphere, the Chinese theater scene, all are breathtaking, but take a backseat to the finale set in a Twilight Zone-ish funhouse Hall of Mirrors, a dazzling cinematic piece de resistance that has been often imitated but never duplicated. It is a masterpiece in every way, and has been rightly hailed as true work of art.

The marvelous Everett Sloane almost steals the picture as Bannister, the egotistical, cruel attorney. His bit cross-examining himself in the courtroom is a work of acting art in itself. Broadway star Glenn Anders is strange indeed as Grisby, and this is his best known of the ten films he was in. Ted de Corsia, the brutish Willie Garzah of THE NAKED CITY , adds his brand of menace to the role of Broome. Other Familiar Faces include (besides Sloane) CITIZEN KANE alumni William Alland, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, and Harry Shannon. Errol Flynn’s yacht The Zaca stood in for Bannister’s Circe, and the actor can be spotted in a scene hanging out in front of a Mexican cantina (which wasn’t much of a stretch for Flynn!).

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI is perfect in every way, as film noir and as filmic art. Even with the cuts and extensive retakes, Welles’ talent shines through; in fact, they may have even helped the film. We’ll never know, as the trimmed footage is apparently lost, yet what remains is an electrifying piece of cinematic magic you don’t want to miss!

Familiar Faces #3: Esther Howard, Grand Dame of Film Noir

Esther Howard (1892-1965) graced the screen in over 100 appearances, but it’s her work in the shadowy world of film noir for which she’s best remembered. A deft comedienne, Esther was also a member in good standing of Preston Sturges’ stock company, cast in seven of his films. Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.

Esther in 1931’s “The Vice Squad” (w/Judith Wood)

She was already an established stage actress when she entered movies in 1930. Talkies were all the rage, and Esther began her screen career appearing in Vitaphone shorts opposite the likes of Franklin Pangborn. Her first feature was 1931’s THE VICE SQUAD, a Pre-Code drama starring Kay Francis and Paul Lukas, with Esther billed sixth. More movies found her down in the cast lists, or sometimes unbilled: MERRILY WE GO TO HELL (1932), THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE (’35), DEAD END (’37), and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (’38) were among her many credits.

Esther’s got her eyes on Ollie in 1944’s “The Big Noise”

Esther’s flair for comedy found her supporting many classic comics of the era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS (’34) places her square among the team’s medieval mirth. The short THE MISSES STOOGES (’35) has Esther hosting a swanky society party ruined by Thelma Todd & Patsy Kelly. The bawdy KLONDIKE ANNIE (’36) pairs her with the inimitable Mae West. 1939’s THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE sees her briefly as a florist. In MY FAVORITE BLONDE (’40), she’s involved with Bob Hope’s zany shenanigans. Laurel & Hardy’s THE BIG NOISE (’44) has Esther on the make for Ollie. She has a bit in the Three Stooges short IDLE ROOMERS (’44), and played Andy Clyde’s wife in seven of his Columbia shorts.

As Miz Zeffie in Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)

Her association with writer/director Preston Sturges began with his first in the director’s chair, 1940’s THE GREAT MCGINTY. From there, Esther went to  appear in six more Sturges classics. SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS   (’41) casts her as a man-hungry farm widow setting her sights on Joel McCrea. THE PALM BEACH STORY (’42) finds Esther married to the wealthy “Wienie King”. She had three Sturges films released in 1944: MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK has Esther embroiled in the saga of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), she serves as a dentist’s guinea pig in THE GREAT MOMENT, and plays Mayor Raymond Walburn’s wife in HAIL THE CONQUORING HERO. Her last with Preston Sturges was also his last American-made film, 1949’s THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND.

As boozy Mrs. Kraft in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

Despite all this, it is her roles in film noir for which Esther Howard is most closely associated. In 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET , she plays a key role as the duplicitous drunk Jessie Florian, who tries to throw Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) off Velma’s trail. Her part as the waitress in Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945) is small, but her presence adds much to this low-budget masterpiece. In DICK TRACY VS CUEBALL (’46), she has a meaty role as Filthy Flora, proprietor of the Dripping Dagger. My favorite Esther Howard noir is Robert Wise’s BORN TO KILL , where she plays nosy boarding house owner Mrs. Kraft, menaced by Lawrence Tierney and his sneaky sycophant Elisha Cook Jr. She closed out her film noir career with a pair of 1949 films: Mark Robson’s CHAMPION (as boxer Kirk Douglas’s mother) and THE CROOKED WAY (a bit as a hotel proprietor).

Mrs. Florian (Esther) is wary of Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in 1944’s “Murder, My Sweet”

Esther Howard closed out her film career completely by returning to comedy as Joe Besser’s aunt in the 1952 short CAUGHT ON THE BOUNCE. She’s still remembered today for both the dark worlds of film noir and classic comedy. Actresses like Esther Howard are part of what makes watching these films so special, their small but memorable contributions enhancing our viewing experience. All hail Esther Howard!


Hot in Argentina: Rita Hayworth in GILDA (Columbia 1946)

If COVER GIRL made Rita Hayworth a star, then GILDA propelled her into the stratosphere. This 1946 film noir cast Rita at her smoking hot best as the femme fatale to end ’em all. Surrounded by a Grade A cast and sumptuous sets, GILDA gives us the dark side of CASABLANCA , moved to Buenos Aires and featuring star-crossed lovers who are at lot less noble than Rick and Ilsa ever were.

“Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me”, Hayworth is famously quoted as saying. Who could blame them, as Rita is absolutely stunning in this film. From our first glimpse of her, popping into view with that iconic hair flip…

…to her sultry faux striptease singing “Put the Blame on Mame”, Rita burns up the screen with her smoldering sexuality. Lines like “If I’d been a ranch,  they’d’ve named me the Bar Nothing” leave no doubt as to Gilda’s character, a woman unafraid using her feminine wiles to get her way. It’s an electrifying performance, and Hayworth plays up her erotic charms to the nth degree.

Glenn Ford  returned to the screen after his WWII stint in the Naval Reserve to play Johnny Farrell, Gilda’s ex-lover and narrator of the tale. He’s an American gambler down on his luck in Argentina who’s befriended by casino owner Ballin Mundson, becoming the latter’s right hand man. When Ballin returns from a trip with a new bride, Gilda, we know right off the bat there’s a history between the two. The sexual tension between Johnny and Gilda is so thick you could slice it with Ballin’s unique sword-cane, a weapon that becomes important to the denoument of the story.

Johnny’s job description now includes keeping close watch on Gilda, not an easy task as she flirts and frolics with every man she sets her sights on. Johnny and Gilda have an unhealthy love/hate relationship, spitting lines at each other with unbridled vitriol (Gilda to Johnny: “I hate you so much I would destroy myself to take you down with me”). Ballin’s involvement in a shady tungsten cartel results in murder, and he fakes his own death in a plane crash, but not before catching the locked in an embrace in his own bedroom.

After he’s declared dead, Ballin’s estate leaves everything to Gilda, with Johnny as the executor. Johnny takes over the cartel and marries Gilda, making her a canary in a cage out of spite. She runs away to Montevideo, but Johnny cleaverly retrieves her before she can file for divorce. The cartel is dismantled by the police, and Gilda and Johnny meet in an empty casino. She’s about to leave for America, and Johnny pleads to go with her, his defenses finally broken. Then Mundson returns from his watery grave, brandishing his sword-cane and demanding, “I want my wife back”…

Hayworth and Ford made five films together, beginning early in their careers with 1940’s THE LADY IN QUESTION, and continuing with THE LOVES OF CARMEN (’48), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (’52), and THE MONEY TRAP (’65), but GILDA outshines them all. Their onscreen chemistry probably had something to do with their decades-long on-and-off love affair, and it shows in the eyes of both stars. Standing out in support is suave George Macready as Ballin, one of the most elegant villains this side of George Sanders. Joseph Calleia has a pivotal part as Detective Obergon, always standing on the movie’s fringes until the ending. Also worth noting is Steven Geray as Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant loyal to Gilda and contemptuous of Johnny, calling him a “peasant”. Familiar Faces standing in the shadows are Joe Sawyer , Gerald Mohr, Symona Boniface, Eduardo Cianelli , Ludwig Donath, Bess Flowers (naturally!), John Tyrell , and Phillip Van Zandt.

Marion Parsonnett‘s biting, sophisticated script (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) surprisingly made it through the censors, given the era. Vidor’s direction is enhanced by Rudolph Mate’s brooding chiaroscuro photography. The costumes for Rita designed by Jean Louis make Rita luscious even in black and white, especially in the musical numbers “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amore Mio”, a two-piece outfit showing off her slinky hip-wiggle. GILDA is an indisputable classic of film noir and highlights Rita Hayworth at the peak of her movie-star power. What more could you ask for… go watch it!