It’s been months, but I’m still grumbling about losing Turner Classic Movies and its Noir Alley feature. Oh, I manage to get by (sort of) with Movies! Sunday Night Noir, which offers a mix of genuine classics alongside lesser known and oddball crime melodramas. But I get the feeling that the network’s definition of “Noir” demands no more than coming from the 1940’s/50’s and being in black & white.
Not everyone’s a fan of George Raft (1901 – 1980), many considering him too wooden a performer who was understandably eclipsed by Humphrey Bogart and others as one of the studios’ main tough guys. But I do like him, though I’d be the first to concede that in Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films/United Artists release, Raft was woefully miscast as Ava Gardner’s former lover, being more than twenty years older (and that’s if you believe Raft’s ‘official’ 1901 birth date, which many contend was actually 1895).
As for Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990), she’d been toiling away in walk-ons, bit parts and uncredited roles since arriving in Hollywood in 1941. But 1946 would be her year, starting with Whistle Stop and ending with the much more memorable The Killers alongside Burt Lancaster. For me, Gardner’s like Ida Lupino or Lizabeth Scott: I’d buy a ticket and happily watch them read the dictionary, file their nails or do absolutely nothing at all for an hour and half. Gardner acquits herself well in this, her first starring role, playing Mary, a girl with a reputation returning to her small ‘whistle stop’ hometown far outside Detroit after a two year absence. Mary’s not just returning for a family visit, but yearns to rekindle a steamy affair with Kenny Veech (George Raft), and when that doesn’t quite work out, she takes up with a shady nightclub owner. There’s already some bad blood between Raft and the sleazy gambler, and soon enough someone will have to die.
Screenwriter Philip Yordan claimed he was faithful to the source material…what little of it he could actually use, that is, since it was much too sexually explicit for 1946 audiences. That would be Maritta Wolff’s 1941 first novel by the same name. Wolff (1918 – 2002) actually wrote the seamy tale of small-town violence, vulgarity and sex as a book-length assignment for her senior year composition class at the University Of Michigan. It went on to be published in multiple hardcover and paperback editions, earn rave reviews and lead to a successful writing career. Maritta Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, was also made into a film, The Man I Love (1947) starring Ida Lupino. Intensely private, Wolff refused to do publicity for her books, and her final manuscript was discovered hidden in her refrigerator after her death (Sudden Rain posthumously published to great success).
Whistle Stop’s okay, though mostly because we get to watch Ava Gardner assume the mantle of a lead actress, alternately seductive, manipulative and vulnerable from scene to scene. The film was interesting enough to prompt me to look for Maritta Wolff’s novels so I could find out more about this adventurous college kid cranking out a provocative hit novel in college. Whistle Stop and Night Shift are en route right now.