Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged, but I could do without Trevor’s sporadic narration. Fun Fact: Whit Bissell (BRUTE FORCE ) has a brief role as a killer on the run.

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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (RKO 1947, D: Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first film tells the tale of two young lovers (Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell) on the run who try to but can’t escape his life of crime. Ray’s directorial flourishes aid tremendously in making this a good, but not quite great, movie. It bogs down about halfway through, and probably could’ve used some editing, but producer John Houseman gave Ray free rein to create his feature debut. Ray would go on to direct some great films (IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR, and of course REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and influence a generation of filmmakers. Character actors Howard DaSilva, Jay C. Flippen, Byron Foulger, Ian Wolfe, and Will Wright offer fine contributions, and lead actress O’Donnell gives an outstanding, subdued performance as Keechie. Fun Fact: Remade in 1974 by Robert Altman as THEIVES LIKE US, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the young lovers.

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BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (Columbia 1950, D: Gordon Douglas)

Programmer following two squad car cops (Edmond O’Brien, Mark Stevens) out to get the goods on gangster Garris (Donald Buka). The cops are also rivals for Gale Storm’s affections, and who can blame them…. I’ve had a crush on the sweet Miss Storm since adolescence! Not really a noir though it usually gets lumped with to the genre. A good cast can’t quite over come the hokey, clichéd script. Fun Fact: Be on the lookout for Madge Blake (BATMAN’s Aunt Harriet), Roland Winters (the last Monogram Charlie Chan), and Phillip Van Zandt (nemesis in countless Three Stooges shorts).   

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THE STRIP (MGM 1951, D: Laszlo Kardos)

You’d think a film noir with a jazz club setting would be perfect, and you’d be right… but this isn’t it (it’s 1941’s BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which I’ll be reviewing at a later date!). Mickey Rooney stars here as a jazz drummer fresh from the Korean War who gets involved with an aspiring actress ( Sally Forrest) and a gangster (Clark Gable wanna-be James Craig). The movie’s saving graces are it’s location scenes inside L.A nightclubs of the era, and some jazz numbers from legends Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vic Damone, and Monica Lewis (the “Chiquita Banana” girl). Otherwise, pretty disappointing. Fun Fact: THE STRIP was nominated for (but didn’t win) an Oscar for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”.

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INFERNO (20th Century Fox 1953, D: Roy Ward Baker)

Red haired sexpot Rhonda Fleming and lover William Lundigan leave her husband Robert Ryan to die out in the desert with a broken leg. They think they’ve committed “the perfect murder”, but didn’t count on Ryan’s sheer willpower and McGyver-like ingenuity. INFERNO was 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D movie (in Technicolor), and DP Lucien Ballard’s location shots in the Mojave Desert lend it a rugged feel (I would love to see this one on the big screen as intended). Director Baker also made the Marilyn Monroe noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK , and went on to direct some chilling Hammer films later in his career. Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) appears as an old desert rat, and the climactic fight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin will definitely hold your interest, as indeed will the whole movie. A neat film about survival and revenge, well worth watching! Fun Fact: Remade twenty years later as the TV Movie ORDEAL with Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, and James Stacy in the Ryan/Fleming/Lundigan roles.

I’ll leave you with wonderful Louis Armstrong and his all-star band swingin’ the tune “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo” from THE STRIP:

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.