Hugo Hass & Cleo Moore: Bargain Basement Noir.

One Girls Confession 1

I’m starting to appreciate the MOVIES! channel’s two nights per week of back-to-back noir showcases, “Noir To Die For” and “Sunday Night Noir”, no longer griping about the loss of TCM’s carefully curated classics hosted by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller, or even complaining about the MOVIES! channel’s frequently re-run well-known’s from a mighty short list of noir faves. Instead, I’m learning to enjoy some of the oddball unknowns and rarely viewed films aired there, those not-quite-B-movies that maybe don’t even qualify for cult status.

Example: Hugo Haas’ films, at least two of which (maybe more) are currently in rotation on MOVIES!.

Hass (1901 – 1968) was an Austrian expatriate who’d been acting and directing in Prague theater and films in the 1930’s, but after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he fled Europe (his father and brother who remained were killed in Auschwitz in 1944). Haas made it to Hollywood, where he found frequent work as a character actor. After WWII, he directed (and usually starred in) a series of low budget melodramas and crime films, typically focused on the story’s female leads, which almost always were predatory femmes fatales of one sort or another. Cleo Moore (1924 – 1973), one of the 1950’s many ‘blonde bombshells’ looking to ride Marilyn Monroe’s coattails to fame and as much a pinup model as an actor, starred in no less than six of Haas’ films (bleaching her brunette tresses the entire time, at the studio’s insistence).

One Girls Confession 3

The first Hass-Moore collaboration I saw on MOVIES! was Columbia’s One Girl’s Confession (1953), written, directed and produced by Hugo Haas…with him in the male lead. But it’s really Cleo Moore’s film all the way, “the kind of girl every man wants…but shouldn’t marry”, as the poster touted. Here she’s a bitter waterfront tavern barmaid nursing a grudge against her boss, the man who swindled her family out of their life’s savings years before. Her chance for revenge comes when she steals twenty-five grand, but is caught, convicted and sent to prison, though the money’s never retrieved. Once paroled, she finds herself in the same job in yet another harbor dive, working for another less than honorable boss, but snagging a handsome hunk along the way. It gets a little confusing here, but she’s double-crossed once more, the new boss gets his mitts on the stolen loot, and now she’s really out for vengeance.

The sets, costumes, editing, everythingare pure bargain basement, but it moves along at a steady clip, perfect for a drive-in, a double feature, or in my case, something to chase away the blues after viewing the cable news shows.

More about some of these not-quite-B and not-quite-noir films (and Cleo Moore too) to follow soon…

One Girls Confession 2

Destination Murder.

Destination Murder 1

Continuing to make do for my cable TV noir fix via the Movies! network, having lost TCM months ago, I’m getting used to commercials intruding on the few classics they air (and air and re-air and…) but more importantly, getting a chance to see some largely forgotten films too. That some of these deserve to be consigned to the B-movie graveyard can be argued over by the true film buffs.

RKO’s Destination Murder from 1950 is a low budget affair that clearly aspires to more, managing to achieve some brief glimpses of genuinely noir-ish brilliance here and there, but sadly mired in too much stagey direction, working with a needlessly convoluted script, and performed by a cast that is clearly not going to earn any Oscar nominations.

Destination Murder 2

Dutiful good-girl daughter Laura Mansfield, played by Joyce MacKenzie, witnesses her beloved father’s murder, but is frustrated by the small city’s detective bureau and its obstinate refusal to follow her tips. Good ol’ Dad stood in the way of the burg’s local underworld kingpins, and Laura decides to take matters into her own hands, insinuating herself among the small-time crooks and mobsters to uncover the killer. Eventually she goes undercover as a cigarette girl at “The Vogue”, a glitzy mob nightclub. There, her demure demeanor gets a makeover in a skimpy cigarette girl costume that grabs the attention of suave gang lieutenant Stretch Norton (Hurd Hatfield). Stretch may have his eye on Laura’s seamed fishnets, but she’s got her eye on her prime suspect, Stretch’s boorish boss. The problem is, Laura has no idea that the boss is just a front man, Stretch is the real mob kingpin and the one who gave the order to have her old man murdered.

Naturally, they fall in love.

Destination Murder 3

Bodies pile up till the climactic gun play and ineptly staged fisticuffs, but the bad guys all get it in the end. Director Edward L. Cahn does what he can with the material (and I’m leaving out a lot…it really is convoluted). B-movie and poverty row regulars Alice Wentworth and Stanley Clements brighten things up as a gold-digging gun moll and a wannabe blackmailer (and the man who actually pulled the trigger on Laura’s dad). Destination Murder is no noir classic. But I’m glad the Movies! channel is digging up flicks like this — the crime melodramas, B’s and low budget noirs whose posters and film stills we so often browse, even though the films themselves are rarely seen.

Destination Murder 4

Bonnie Parker…With Electric Guitars.

Bonnie Parker 1

When you go for the free movies on your cable provider’s on-demand menu, you can’t complain. And I wouldn’t anyway, even though American International Picture’s 1958 The Bonnie Parker Story starring Dorothy Parker (1935 – 2010) in the title role as the ‘better half’ of the notorious Depression era outlaw duo bears little resemblance to their real-life escapades…or even the now-mythical Arthur Penn-Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway 1960’s anti-hero film classic.

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In this half of a drive-in double feature (paired with Machine Gun Kelly), Dorothy Provine’s Bonnie Parker is a broke, bitter, take-no-sass small town waitress saddled with a husband doing life in the pen. She teams up not with Clyde Barrow, but for some reason, ‘Guy Darrow’, played by Jack Hogan. Bonnie doesn’t set her eyes on him so much as the very lethal Thompson submachine gun he drags around in an enormous wooden tool box. After an exciting (albeit frustrating) series of small-time armed robberies, the duo briefly join up with Guy Darrow’s brother Chuck Darrow (not Buck Barrow) and his wife, the gang on the run now from Texas Ranger Tom Steel (a stand-in for Frank Hamer). After busting Bonnie’s husband, Duke, out of prison, an ill-conceived armored car robbery goes bad, Mister Bonnie Parker’s gunned down, and soon the outlaws are brought down in a hail of bullets by the Texas Ranger and his posse in a Louisiana backroads ambush.

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This is strictly an AIP B-movie (if that) production, obviously made fast, on a tight budget, with a script that could’ve used a revisit or two, and visibly aimed at the studio’s drive-in teenage audience, right down to the out-of-place twangy Rockabilly electric guitar and saxophone film score (which is really pretty cool, albeit out of place). Swap out the 1930’s automobiles for fifties cars with fins and it would play like a pair of doomed juvenile delinquents aiming for the big time, right down to Dorothy Provine’s long blonde tresses, snug pencil skirts and slender heels.

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She’s really something to see in this film, and the director makes sure we see a bunch (for the time), from the opening credits to several other scenes in which the camera lingers on Bonnie getting dressed or undressed. If she’s not shooting someone, Bonnie’s likely in a slip and rolling her nylons off or putting them on. We’ll leave that stuff for the horny teenage boys in the 1958 audience, and focus instead on Provine’s wicked performance. Small-time crook Guy Darrow and jailbird husband Duke Jefferson might be lusting after Bonnie (without success), but this femme fatale’s all about shooting back at an ugly world and the useless men in it…with a big, noisy and very lethal Tommy Gun.

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Death On The Cheap

Death On The Cheap - Cover Scan to Use

Death On The Cheap – The Lost B Movies of Film Noir: There’s a quote from Robert Mitchum, surely one of the postwar era film noir icons, that appears in this book’s introduction, and understandably makes it into most online reviews I’ve seen. Mitchum told the author, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts”.

Fans of the genre tend to forget that while a handful of classics were big budget A films, most of what we now lump together as ‘Film Noir” weren’t scripted by James Cain or William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, William Wyler or Fritz Lang, and didn’t star Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart or Gene Tierney. For every Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia or Laura, there were a dozen B-movie mysteries and crime melodramas with miniscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and second tier casts comprised of stars who no longer shined so bright and newcomers still learning their craft. Often as not, the dark, gritty locations and sets were service corridors behind the studio sound stages, while left-over interior sets were hastily redressed and left in shadow partly to look ominous, partly to hide the fact that they were so sparsely propped.

Arthur Lyons (1946-2008) was the author of over 20 books, including the L.A. private eye Jacob Asch series, as well as a co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival Of Film Noir, a former Palm Springs city councilman, and considered a film noir expert…in particular, those low-budget and B-movies made between 1939 and 1959. This 250+ page book takes a closer look at some films you’d be familiar with, but also many you never heard of and might have a hard time locating, even now when darn near everything seems to be available on DVD/Blue Ray, cable, YouTube or streaming somewhere. Lyons may be an ardent fan, but he wasn’t looking at these films through rose colored glasses, and is quick to point out that some are real stinkers. But some definitely are not, and their no-name casts, first-take-is-the-only-take filming, murky nighttime back lot exteriors, questionable scripts rewritten on the fly while the cameras rolled all somehow came together serendipitously to create real works of noir art. (Then again, some didn’t.)

The book includes a detailed filmography with titles, alternate titles (and there are many), credits, plot summaries and commentary. Nearly 20 years old, Lyons’ Death On The Cheap is still available new, though I’ve seen really inexpensive copies available online. If you’ve already read everything you care to read about The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning and Out Of The Past, maybe it’s time to brush up on some lesser-known and altogether forgotten films. But good luck tracking a few of them down if you want to watch them for yourself.

Glenda Farrell’s Torchy

Glenda Farrell - Torchy Blane

Torchy Blane, “The Lady Bloodhound With A Nose For News”…not to be confused with Torchy Todd, Bill Ward’s Good Girl Art comic series. Warner Brothers’ Torchy Blane  was based on detective novelist Frederick Nebel’s MacBride & Kennedystories, changing the a-bit-too-saucy Kennedy character to a woman named Teresa ‘Torchy’ Blane – strong-willed, hard-nosed and nosy, wisecracking but a little less sizzling, in keeping with the constraints of the Hays Code.Torchy Blane In CHinatown

The series started in 1937 with Smart Blonde, with Glenda Farrell (director Frank MacDonald’s only choice for the Torchy role) paired with Barton MaClane playing partner Steve McBride. The two made 7 of the 9 Torchy films, all of which were produced between 1937 and 1939.  Glenda Farrell had already played hard-nosed reporters in a couple of films, and was determined to portray the character based on real women reporters she’d met, instead of the more broadly comic approach the studio intended. Pretty pleased to see TCM recently running a string of Glenda Farrell’s films, and getting the chance to enjoy some of these Torchy flicks.  The films are available on a DVD boxed set…Hmmm, do I still have time to drop hints with friends and family for Xmas gifts?

Torchy Gets Her Man 1938

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