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.

What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Netflix 2018)

The day has finally arrived. November 2, 2018. I ordered a free trial of Netflix specifically so I could watch the completed version of Orson Welles’ final film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . Welles worked on this project for over a decade, and the footage sat for decades more before finally being restored and re-edited. A film buff’s dream come true – perhaps. There were questions I needed answered. Was there enough salvageable material to make a coherent movie? Does it follow Welles’ vision? Would it live up to the hype? Was it worth the wait?

The answer: OH, HELL YEAH!!

Welles shot over ten hours of film, utilizing different film stocks (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm), switching back and forth from color to classic black and white, to create his movie, which is a documentary about the movie-within-the-movie’s director – a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It took six years (from 1970-76) to shoot due to financial problems and his own perfectionism, and Welles had about a third of the film edited himself before his death in 1985. Legal battles have kept THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND unfinished and in limbo ever since, until at last producer Frank Marshall (who appeared in it as an young filmmaker) and Netflix stepped in earlier this year. A team was assembled to put the whole thing together, notably editor Bob Murawski, who (I think) painstakingly captured the vision of Welles and makes this 40+ year old film really come alive.

The film itself centers around Jake Hannaford, an Old Hollywood director attempting to reach a new audience by making a youth oriented film called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Hannaford has just perished in a car crash (was it an accident or suicide?), and what we get is a cinema verite-style mockumentary of Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, where he’s to unveil his latest masterpiece. The film jumps all over the place with it’s multiple cast members, and Welles takes the opportunity to skewer some of his bugaboos: Old vs New Hollywood, cineastes and pretentious film school types, his critics, auteur theory (though a case could be made for Welles being the original film auteur!), studio honchos only out for a buck, macho men, sycophants and hangers-on. Using dazzling and innovative techniques coupled with some truly stunning imagery, Welles made a film way ahead of its time, and perhaps it’s just as well that it sat so long, when it can finally be appreciated.

John Huston  is incredible as the dissipated, tortured genius Hannaford, trying his damnedest to get his film made his way. Huston, one of Old Hollywood’s greatest directors himself, is at turns charming and cutting as the Welles stand-in Hannaford, who may or may not be bisexual, but is definitely misogynistic, alcoholic, and at the end of his rope. Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich plays Hannaford acolyte Brooks Otterlake, and does his mentor proud in the part. Susan Strasberg gives what I think is her best performance ever as acidic critic Julie Rich, patterned on Welles’ bete noir Pauline Kael. Edmond O’Brien , ill and already suffering the devastating memory loss of the Alzheimer’s disease that killed him, delivers a great performance as Hannaford actor Pat Mullins in his final role. Paul Stewart , CITIZEN KANE’s butler, plays another of Hannaford’s cronies, Matt Costello. My God, you could have a field day just spotting Familiar Faces in roles large and small: Stephane Audran, John Carroll , Claude Chabrol, Norman Foster , Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper , Henry Jaglom, George Jessel, Rich Little, Paul Mazursky, Mercedes McCambridge,  Cameron Mitchell , Lilli Palmer, Stafford Repp, Angelo Rossitto , Benny Rubin , Gregory Sierra, Dan Tobin, and so many more.

Hannaford’s film within the film stars Welles’ mistress Oja Kador (who also gets a  co-screenwriting credit) and actor Bob Ransom in the pivotal part of John Dale. This is where Welles truly shines, making it a comment on the pretentiousness of New Wave Cinema by having it look in some scenes (to my eyes, anyway) like some kind of AIP hippie or Crown-International sexploitation flick. I’m sure Welles was familiar with the low-budget work of people like Roger Corman and Richard Rush , and in one shot taken in a moving car I noticed a drive-in advertising a double feature of I EAT YOUR SKIN and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. Principle cinematographer Gary Graver (who also appears as the documentarian) toiled for years in exploitation cinema, particularly with Al Adamson. Graver (who directed porn in his spare time, and actually managed to get Welles to edit one of his Triple-X efforts!) worked side by side with Welles, and his work here is nothing short of brilliant.

Hardcore film buffs will be totally blown away by THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Orson Welles’ last movie. It’s a heady experience, and I thought it well worth the wait. It may not be The Great Man’s best, but as a lifelong movie lover I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos to all involved in bringing this historic piece of art to life. The question I must ask myself now, as I do with all films, is would I watch it again?

The answer: OH HELL YEAH!!

 

Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)

John Huston’s film noir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out to expose a human trafficking ring in HUMAN CARGO (1936). Claire’s turn in the small part of Francie, gangster Baby Face Martin’s ex-girlfriend turned syphilitic prostitute in 1937’s DEAD END, earned her the first of three Oscar nominations.

(l to r) Claire, Elisha Cook Jr, & Lawrence Tierney in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

In John Ford’s STAGECOACH , (1939), Claire takes top billing as another prostitute, Dallas, who falls for John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. This was The Duke’s breakout role, and the two became lifelong friends, acting together again in ALLEGHENY UPRISING (’39), DARK COMMAND (1940), and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954), which garnered Trevor her third and final Oscar nomination as world-weary actress May Holst. Film buffs love her best for her many roles in the shadowy world of film noir, like the duplicitous Mrs. Grayle in 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET . Bad girls were her specialty, none badder than her turn as Helen Trent opposite Lawrence Tierney’s psycho Sam Wilde in 1947’s BORN TO KILL . She was the murderous Ruth Dillon in STREET OF CHANCE (1942), the greedy golddigging wife of Marvin Miller in JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), and escaped con Dennis O’Keefe’s girlfriend/accomplice in 1948’s RAW DEAL .

Gaye Dawn is a much more sympathetic figure than Claire’s usual bad girls. We first meet her sitting at the bar inside the nearly deserted Hotel Largo, already intoxicated and babbling about horse racing to Bogie’s ex-war hero Frank McCloud.  The hotel has been taken over by hoods in the employ of Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a preening, swaggering deported gangster who has snuck back into the country to pull off a counterfeit money scheme. Rocco uses and abuses his once glamorous girlfriend, now gone to seed and trapped in an alcoholic hell of her own sad devise.

The sadistic Rocco humiliates Gaye when, as she begs for a drink, he belittles her and forces her to sing for her booze. The ex-torch singer seems bewildered at first, then pathetically starts to croon the jazz standard “Moanin’ Low” in a decidedly off-key manner, obviously suffering from the pains of her addiction. Rocco then refuses to give her a drink, stating “You were rotten”, and the faded flower bursts into tears. McCloud, feeling sorry for the devastated Gaye, gets up and pours her a drink, only to receive a few quick slaps from Rocco. It is heart wrenching to watch Claire as Gaye be degraded so hatefully by the sociopathic Rocco, and this scene no doubt nailed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her.

Later, when Rocco forces McCloud to transport him and his mob back to Cuba via boat, he refuses to take the pitiful Gaye with him. She gets a measure of vengeance when, pretending to throw herself at Rocco in a last-ditch attempt to return to his good graces, she lifts his gun and surreptitiously gives it to McCloud. Her bravery sets the stage for the final denouement at sea, where McCloud singlehandedly takes on Rocco and his men. The woman scorned has become a woman redeemed, and Claire Trevor becomes just as much the hero of the piece as Bogart himself.

KEY LARGO was nominated only for Trevor’s marvelous performance, though cases could surely be made for Robinson’s Johnny Rocco, Huston’s taut direction and screenplay (with Richard Brooks ), Karl Freund’s moody cinematography, and Max Steiner’s fantastic score. The main reason behind this snubbing was that another Huston film of 1948, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, cancelled it out, gaining four nominations and winning Huston the Best Director and Screenplay that year, not to mention Best Supporting Actor for his father Walter Huston . KEY LARGO can certainly stand on its own merit as an all-time great movie, and Claire Trevor’s incandescent playing of the broken Gaye Dawn ranks as one of Oscar’s  most memorable screen performances.

(This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled , and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club . Join them for more exciting and informative Oscar posts!)

 

 

Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)

Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary. Seems Jay’s been stepping on some special interest toes South of the Border, including the CIA. Nick and his partner Hawk make several attempts to free Jay without success, and now it’s become personal. After all, he’s got a reputation to uphold!  Nick finally figures a way to pull it off by creating a diversion and landing a helicopter in the middle of the prison courtyard, and flies away, only to encounter trouble at customs with Grandpa’s murderous agent Cable in the film’s exciting conclusion.

Bronson’s actress wife Jill Ireland plays Ann in their 10th of 17 films together. They may not be Bogie & Bacall, but the couple did have good chemistry onscreen and off, and their marriage lasted until Ireland’s death from breast cancer in 1990. Ann’s husband Jay is Robert Duvall , another actor who came up through the ranks and hit it big in the 70’s starting with THE GODFATHER. Veteran director John Huston pulls the strings as grandfather Harris Wagner in what amounts to a glorified cameo. Another actor/director, Mexico’s Emilio Fernandez, plays the brutal prison jefe. A pre-legal woes Randy Quaid is Nick’s partner-in-crime Hawk, even getting to dress in drag at one point (and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Quaid in drag!). Sexy Sheree North still looks hot as she did in her heyday as Myrna, part of Nick’s diversion scheme. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sidney Clute, Roy Jenson, Paul Mantee (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Alejandro Rey , and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE).

BREAKOUT’s director Tom Gries isn’t a household name, but he made some good films, including the classic Western WILL PENNY with Charlton Heston,   100 RIFLES, LADY ICE, and BREAKHEART PASS (also starring Bronson). He was a prolific TV director, helming the TV movies THE GLASS HOUSE (another prison drama that won him an Emmy), the sci-fi saga EARTH II, and HELTER SKELTER, a two-parter about the Manson murder trial. Gries was also the creator of the 60’s WWII series THE RAT PATROL, starring drive-in favorite Christopher George.

BREAKOUT has no pretensions about it’s place as a drive-in movie, despite the cast and budget. In fact, that’s where I first saw it, at a local drive-in in Fairhaven, MA back in the day. It’s one of my favorite Charles Bronson films, and the star looks like he’s enjoying it as much as I did. I think you will, too!

 

Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!