Guilty Pleasures, And Not A Noir: Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love With The Proper Stranger 1

No, not a film noir or even a crime melodrama, Love With The Proper Stranger is one of my guilty pleasure movies. I suppose we’d call it a romance, and though there are multiple scenes that are — if not downright comedic, then certainly played for laughs – it’s hard to think of it as a period rom-com. This is the story of young Angie Rossini, a Macy’s store clerk eager to spread her wings and escape the crowded family apartment shared with an overbearing mother and two vigilant older brothers, all of them anxious to lock her into marriage with a bumbling neighbor. But Angie’s recent one-night stand with roving jazz musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen) leaves her pregnant, so she tracks him down for the name of a doctor and money for a backroom abortion. Doesn’t actually sound like the setup for a light-hearted romance, does it?

Directed by Robert Mulligan from an Arnold Schulman script, the film is unrelentingly gritty and claustrophobic, capturing mid-twentieth century big city life beautifully…beautifully grim, that is. Released on Christmas Day in 1963 (and often listed as a 1964 release), the film may not have been a huge financial success, but did snag five Oscar nominations, including one for Natalie Wood. Schulman penned a novelization of the film, which may have been an expanded version of the original treatment, including some scenes handled differently or not even in the movie, the story told more from Rocky Papasano’s POV.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that a late 1950’s/early 1960’s Natalie Wood became the model for my imaginary ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character, and specifically, it’s her performance in Love With The Proper Stranger – her look, wardrobe, demeanor, and the neatly crafted juxtaposition of assertiveness and vulnerability.  Natalie Wood is stunning here in an incredibly real everyday person kind of role, one that countless young women surely could relate to back in 1963. If you get a chance to see this one, check it out.

Poster

Remembering Natalia (11.29.1981)

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Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco, the Russian emigre family name later changed to Gurdin, but we knew her as Natalie Wood, first appearing on film at age 4, lighting up the screen in the original Miracle On 34th Street at only 8, later to create memorable screen roles in Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor In The Grass, West Side Story, This Property Condemned, and my personal favorite, Love With The Proper Stranger from 1963/1964…earning three Oscar nominations along the way.

Sadly, it was on this date, November 29th in 1981, that Natalie Wood drowned off the Catalina coast in a boating accident that’s still shrouded in mystery.

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To say I’m a fan isn’t quite enough. Of course, Wood never played a true ‘femme fatale’, much less a gun moll, film noir heroine or even a real crook, unless you want to count the silly mid-sixties farce Penelope. But for some reason, it was always Natalie Wood that I pictured when envisioning my own creation, ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ – Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz, changed for obvious reasons), a 22-year old trying to make her way in the gritty brown-bricked bungalow rows of Chicago’s ethnic southwest side in 1959. Specifically, it’s the look of Natalie Wood from the early 1960’s, and her Angie Rossini character from Love With The Proper Stranger, like the NYC publicity shots shown above from that film. As Sharon Gardner herself relates, surveying the crowd from her all-too-familiar perch on a barstool in Silky’s cocktail lounge:

“…A decent looking type out for a few snorts after work on a Thursday evening was more likely to go for the loudmouthed lushes squeezed into their sparkly cocktail dresses. But enough liquor can turn me into Natalie Wood, when a fellow wants to believe it. Minus a few curves. And if it’s dark. Which Silky’s usually is.”

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Maybe she got screwed by producers when it came to showcasing obvious singing and dancing talents. Maybe it took a while for her to acquire well-deserved cred for her acting ability and to overcome the child-star label. No question that her prime years included some silly roles, the kind every star was arm-twisted into during the waning days of the studio system. But I just refer anyone unfamiliar with Wood’s work to some of those key films listed above. ‘Nuff said.

Natalie Wood: July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981. Gone at only 43. We can only imagine the work she left undone at such a young age, but will always have the work she left us with. Yeah, I’m a fan, and always will be.

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Blues In The Dark

Blues in The Dark

L.A. indie film producer Karissa Glover is in the final stages of a messy divorce from a B-grade action film star and needs a new place to live. Like now. Coincidence (or is it?) leads her to an old mansion in West Adams Heights, available at a ridiculously low rent. The house has remained vacant since its prior owner, Ultimate Studio’s overnight star and film noir femme fatale Blair Kendrick, was murdered in the late 1940’s.  The now forgotten star’s furniture and mementoes all remain, and Karissa soon uncovers one mystery after another, all related to Kendrick’s then-taboo relationship with an African-American jazz musician. Obsessed, Karissa begins developing a film based on the actress’ life story, attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her death. And some mighty dangerous people definitely do not want anyone digging into Blair Kendrick’s death or the mysterious disappearance of her lover.

You’d have to turn in your ‘I-Read-Mysteries’ I.D. card if you don’t see where this one’s going. But that’s not intended as a criticism. Like a fun road trip, sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And I don’t mean that I anticipated all the twists, turns and details in Raymond Benson’s tale, only that I guessed at its ultimate resolution early on. But that just made me all the more eager to learn how we’d get there. No surprise; Benson’s a good storyteller, done here in chapters that alternate between modern day Karissa Glover’s efforts to learn more about the mysterious 1940’s star, and Blair Kendrick’s postwar Hollywood milieu, in which she tries to avoid the casting couch, falls hard for a handsome jazz pianist, and their desperate attempts to elude period prejudices, lethal studio enforcers and even the mob. Benson knows how to handle this alternating chapter structure well. His multi-book Black Stiletto series (each of which I literally gobbled up) about a 1950’s costumed vigilante employed the technique skillfully.

It bears mentioning that Blues In The Dark’s Karissa Glover is an adoptee, her birth parents unknown, only that she is of mixed racial heritage. Like maybe a beautiful blue-eyed blonde film noir actress and an African American jazz musician. Hmmm…

If you like retro Hollywood settings, a good mystery and a well-told tale, it’d be hard not to like Raymond Benson’s Blues In The Dark.

3 Days To Kill

3 Days To Kill

Luc Bresson’s 2014 3 Days To Kill was Kevin Costner’s movie, but sometimes it’s not the film’s lead that sticks with you. And though talented actors like Connie Nielsen and Hailee Steinfeld co-star, it’s Amber Heard’s portrayal of lethal CIA assassin Vivi Delay that really lingered with me.

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Costner plays aging CIA agent Ethan Renner, skilled but no longer at the top of his game, especially when he misses the chance to take out a ruthless international arms trafficker. Diagnosed with a terminal disease, Costner hopes to use his remaining days to reconnect with his wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who’ve never known the truth about his dangerous double-life, only that their husband and father was never there for them. But Heard’s Vivi Delay presents Costner with a bargain: A potentially life-saving experimental drug in exchange for his help to finally take down the criminal arms trafficking network.

3 Days To Kill 3Fun action-thriller chases, shootouts and explosions ensue, with Costner’s wife and daughter in jeopardy, all leading to a climactic kill-the-bad-guy scene…that chore finally falling to Heard’s Delay. Once the dust settles, it looks like Costner’s reconciled to spending his final days making amends with his wife and daughter. But Heard’s Vivi Delay looks on as he receives the final dose of the life-saving drug.

3 Days To Kill 4

Silly stuff? Sure it is. But 3 Days To Kill managed to make money even though it was far from a critical favorite. It’s not a ‘big’ film and employs many bigger-budgeted action films’ setups and tricks, and it may even leave you wondering where Liam Neeson is.

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But as I noted, it’s Amber Heard that stuck with me, even if I’m not exactly sure what made CIA assassin Vivi Delay who she is. Heard’s dedicated trainee, then cool and methodical operative, then decadent femme fatale and, finally, lethal killer (but with a soft spot?) sports various looks and sometimes may not make a lick of sense. But each of her character’s personas were a treat to watch, for me at least, and thus, so was the film, critics be damned.

3 Days To Kill 63 Days To Kill 73 Days To Kill 8

Debutante To Derelict: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Reading Steve Kronenberg’s excellent “Handle With Care – The Ordeals Of Gene Tierney” in the new Noir City issue number 27 was bound to send me flipping through DVD’s for a Tierney film. You’d just assume I’d go for Laura. And while not a noir, as it happens, I’m quite partial to The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. (Call me a softie.) But Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture offered a Tierney performance which, while not necessarily echoing the specifics of the actress’ troubled life, certainly portrays a woman destined for (or determined to find) her share of troubles.

This 1941 proto-noir is one truly weird movie. Based on John Colton’s risqué 1920’s Broadway play of the same name, the story’s controversial themes had to be severely diluted to make it onscreen. In fact, Hollywood studios and producers already tried to make a film version of the play many times, and the Breen Office censors demanded more than 30 revisions before the script was acceptable.

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Phyllis Brooks & Victor Mature Lobby Card

Despite hefty bribes to the authorities, “Dragon Lady” Gin Sling’s (Ona Munson) casino is being forced to shut down and relocate to Shanghai’s seedy Chinese sector by a wealthy English developer (Walter Huston) with grand designs on her location. While Victor Mature’s (looking ridiculous in a fez) ‘Doctor’ Omar and down-on-her-luck American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks) try to cook up something to thwart the developer’s plans before the impending Chinese New Year deadline, Gin Sling’s joint is visited by stunning and refined Victoria Charteris (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European boarding school but currently going by ‘Poppy Smith’, eager for thrills and swiftly seduced by liquor and gambling. It doesn’t take long for her to turn into a lush, wind up in debt to Gin Sling, and then fall in love with charlatan ‘Doctor’ Omar (despite the fez). Things get a little soap-opera-ish then, revealing that Gin Sling once had a fling with the wealthy Brit who’s destroying her casino. Abandoned and destitute, she was forced to leave their baby behind…who grew up to be none other than Victoria Charteris/Poppy Smith/Gene Tierney. If all of these revelations aren’t bad enough, particularly since the lovely Victoria has turned into the deep-in-debt drunk Poppy now, things can always get worse, climaxing when Gin Sling ends up shooting Tierney, her own daughter.

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All of this might make a bit more sense (or not) if censors allowed the play’s real premise to be depicted: Gin Sling didn’t run a casino but a brothel/opium den. ‘Poppy’ didn’t get a taste for the booze and the dice, but became a drug addict, helped along by the fellow she fell for. ‘Poppy’. Get it?

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The Shanghai Gesture is far from a classic, not quite a ‘noir’ or even a crime melodrama, and wasn’t particularly successful with audiences or critics. Further, it’s packed full of utterly squirm-worthy ethnic stereotyping, like so many films of its era were.  Still, it’s worth it just to watch Gene Tierney go from refined to bar-room bad girl to drunken lush, her transition taking place in some decidedly uncensored and surreally decadent surroundings. The shift in delivery, body language and appearance is striking. Flanked by Phyllis Brooks and Ona Munson, the three women deliver the goods in a sometimes bizarre and sometimes pedestrian film. Sure, I’ll probably watch Tierney as Laura Hunt and Lucy Muir. I mean, how can you not if you’ve got Gene Tierney on your mind? But I’m glad I started here.

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Head To Noir City.

Noir City No 27

The new Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine arrived in my inbox this week. Issue number 27 is yet another sumptuously designed and info-packed treat for film noir aficionados.

Bittersweet but understandable news was Master-Of-All-Things-Noir (and Film Noir Foundation President and TCM’s Noir Alley host) Eddie Muller’s announcement that he’d be stepping aside from full-time editorial chores, handing off the Editor-In-Chief role to Vince Keenan. Ably assisted by Steve Kronenberg, I’ve no concerns, and am sure Mr. Keenan will maintain the publication’s level of content, visual and editorial superiority. If I sound all gushy, I am. Noir City is just that good.

Noir City Spread

Art Director/Designer Michael Kronenberg delivers another feast for the eyes with this issue, including the gorgeous cover illustration. Noir City’s a dark delight to read, of course, but is equally stunning to simply look at, some of the spreads deserving to be framed and up on a wall. Hmmmm…I’ve been thinking about a refresh for the writing cave’s walls. Just might have an idea there…

This issue includes over 90 pages with 15+ articles and features like Steve Kronenberg’s cover story “Handle With Care – The Ordeals Of Gene Tierney” and Jake Hinkson’s “Hungover – Booze And Blackouts In Film Noir”. If you already get Noir City, then you should be reading it right now instead of this site. If not, and you’re a visitor here, then I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the publication. Hightail it to The Film Noir Foundation’s site (link below) to find out more. Like, now.

http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/home.html

 

“A Ruthless Story Of Rackets And Redheads”

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DVD’s of the 1956 noir-in-color film Slightly Scarlet are supposed to come with extras, including a Max Allan Collins commentary. Mine may have been bought new, but from a closeout bin, and it came with nothing but a disk with the movie on it. Just a knock-off copy? Who knows? But I would’ve really liked that Collins commentary track.

Slightly Scarlett DVD

Call it a noir, call it a crime melodrama, call it what you will, but director Allan Dwan’s film of a Robert Blees’ screenplay – adapted (rather freely) from James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit — is an intriguing movie, and in more than one way.

Loves Lovely Counterfeit

The source novel isn’t Cain’s best, but less-than-perfect Cain can be better than some others’ best work, and being James M. Cain, the novel includes some scenes/themes that a mid-1950’s movie could never hope to get away with. Here, John Payne plays Ben Grace, who works for Bay City’s ruthless rackets boss Solly Caspar, and has been assigned to dig up dirt on a crusading mayoral candidate making trouble for the syndicate. Doing so might be easier than Ben Grace imagined, once he discovers that the reformer has a girlfriend, and she has a sister newly released from prison.

Rhonda Fleming plays ‘good girl’ June Lyons, who Ben Grace promptly falls for. Arlene Dahl plays ‘bad girl’ Dorothy, an unrepentant thief with an eye for the fellows — the badder the better — and Payne’s Ben Grace will do just fine. With the heat on and the mob boss forced to flee town, Ben Grace takes over the rackets while he falls for sister-the-good but is seduced by sister-the-bad, all in suitably 1950’s era levels of sex-i-fied sizzle. But then Solly the mob boss returns, with wads of dough that more than make up for his gruff ways as far as Dorothy is concerned. Soon, bullets start flying, bodies pile up till the law finally arrives, though not before Ben Grace goes down.

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John Payne may have gotten top billing, but this was Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl’s movie all the way, and they’re a delight to watch. Dahl, in particular, pushes the era’s boundaries in both subtle and then overt ways as an unapologetic crook whose sex drive is always in high gear, whether she’s pawing through wads of loot the mob kingpin tosses at her feet, or more provocative still, is sprawled on a sofa and apparently enjoying a little…uhm…’private time’. (Demurely shot from behind the sofa, of course…C’mon, it was 1956!) Bottom line: The two actresses get a workout in this film and turn in terrific performances. FYI, both Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl are still with us, I believe.

While Slightly Scarlet wasn’t a big budget production, it was filmed in Technicolor (and “Superscope”, whatever that is) and in many scenes and setups, seems to point the way toward the look of many “Neo-Noir” films to come decades later. Familiar film noir camera angles and deeply shadowed corners, backgrounds and overheads are evident throughout, but all in color instead of black & white. Visually, at least, much of the film looks ahead of tis time.

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Maybe you’ll spot Slightly Scarlet poking out of a bargain bin yourself. If you do, grab it. It won’t (and shouldn’t) replace Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice on your DVD shelf, but you’ll watch two 1950’s pro’s dialing some so-so material up a few notches, all of it shot in a nifty noir-in-color style that presages ominously dark visuals to come a few decades later.

And I Haven’t Read A Single Story Yet.

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It’s over a month ago that I reserved a copy of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book Of Reel Murders – Stories That Inspired Great Crime Films, warned at the time that it might not arrive till mid-November. In fact, I got it almost two weeks ago and have been burrowing through this nearly 1,200-page monster of a book since.

And yet – so far, I haven’t actually read a single story.

The Big Book Of Reel Murders

Each of the 61 stories by writers like Robert Bloch, Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Sinclair Lewis, Daphne du Maurier, W. Somerset Maugham, Budd Schulberg, Cornell Woolrich and others was the basis of a mystery/crime/noir film. Some you’d know, of course. Some, perhaps not. (I’d never heard of a few!) The movies inspired by the anthology’s tales include Woman In The Dark (1934), The Big Steal (1949), Fear In The Night (1947), Gun Crazy (1950), Tip On A Dead Jockey (1957), Mr. Dynamite (1951) and many others — some stills, publicity shots and posters for those shown here with this post.

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Many anthologies seem to be hastily put together, with little more than a brief genre celebrity preface, editor intro and — if the reader’s lucky — author bio’s. Not this book. Each of the 60+ stories are preceded by a two or three-page introduction providing author, story or publication background info, plus details and anecdotes about the film inspired by that story. Add it up: These intro’s almost form a book on their own, with the insights into familiar films being informative treats, the others being prompts to hunt up the movies as yet unseen.

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Oh, I’ll go back and read the stories, of course. The Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie tales I already have elsewhere and have read more than once might be skipped, but there’s some choice material in this big book. And though it might seem a little weird, some of the choicest content is actually the story introductions, as much as the stories themselves.

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Blurred Lines.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943)

Crime Reads may not be the first place you’d turn to for talk about horror, even at Halloween time. But it’s definitely worth a visit to read Zach Vasquez’ look at 20 essential films which blur the line between horror and noir (link below). Myself, I’ve always been surprised that more films do don’t do precisely that, the two ‘genres’ sharing some common roots and any number of familiar tropes and stylistic cues. Want to quibble with some of Vasquez’ choices, or toss in your own instead? Go right ahead. I fully concur with several of the article’s selections.

Crime Reads

After all, anything produced by Val Lewton might qualify, and Vasquez’ chooses 1943’s The Leopard Man. Similarly, while the article singles out David Lynch’s 1997 Lost Highway, most anything in Lynch’s body of work will likely merge something horrific with the vaguely noirish, the possibly anachronistically retro, and certainly the just-plain-weird. Vasquez also points to The Eyes of Laura Mars from 1978, that Helmut Newton fashion-kink photo suite brought to life on the big screen, its screenplay adapted from a spec script penned by John Carpenter (Halloween). Or there’s Mickey Rourke and Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart from 1987, and of course, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 dark classic Les Diaboliques.

Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques (1955)

Some can argue that many films billed as horror are really just particularly gruesome serial killer thrillers. And others might assert that the moment a film (or story or novel) includes anything remotely supernatural, it no longer qualifies as ‘noir’. But then some people get too hung up on genres and classifications, and I’m not getting into those arguments. Rather, I’ll just encourage you to read Zach Vasquez’ 10.29.19 Crime Reads article “20 Essential Films That Blur The Line Between Horror And Noir” and see for yourself if you don’t find a film you might want to watch come Halloween night.

 

https://crimereads.com/20-essential-films-the-blur-the-line-between-horror-and-noir/

 

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