Undercover Girl (Well, One Of Them)

Alexi Smith 3

An Academy Award nominee it wasn’t, and labeling Universal’s 1950 Undercover Girl a ‘film noir’ might be broadening the genre’s parameters a bit. Or not, depending on where you draw the line between ‘noir’ and postwar crime melodrama. Pretty sure there’s no connection to the popular comic character Starr Flagg – Undercover Girl from right around the same period, which was created by that human writing machine Gardner Fox with art by Ogden Whitney, first appearing in Manhunt starting in 1947, graduating to her own short-lived comic title in 1952.

Starr flagg Undercover Girl

Still, Canadian born actress Alexis Smith, perhaps best known to noir and crime film fans for The Two Mrs. Carrolls alongside Humphrey Bogart in 1945, wields a revolver pretty well in this postwar era crime-action film as a rookie cop out to nab the narcotics gang responsible for her father’s death. Or at least, she does it handily in the film’s publicity stills.

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Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss - Hnd Colored

Not sure if I’ll be home in time for TCM’s 11:00 PM CST Noir Alley with host, noir maestro Eddie Muller. Tonight it’s Vincent Sherman’s 1947 Warner Brothers film Nora Prentiss, shot by James Howe Wong with a Franz Waxman score, starring one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, Ann Sheridan. I’ve never seen the film and would like to, particularly with Muller’s always insightful opening and closing remarks.

You like your film noirs with syndicate bosses, mobsters, dirty cops and gun fights? Who doesn’t? But there’s an equally essential subset of classic film noir and crime melodrama focused on smaller stories that are equally dark and fatalistic, Nora Prentiss among them, considered by some as one of the best “women’s noir”.

Nora Prentiss - MontageKent Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, bored with his humdrum life and marriage, who begins an affair with seductive nightclub singer Nora Prentiss, played by Ann Sheridan. He fakes his own death in order to run away with her, relocating from the west coast to New York, where she goes back to work in the clubs. But it can’t go well, and Dr. Talbot grows increasingly paranoid once he leans that his faked death is now a murder investigation. Soon he’s bitter, jealous, combative and drinking too much, finally crashing his car. Disfigured from the accident, unable to identify himself, he’s actually accused of his own murder.

Nora Prentiss still

Though the film sounds like it’s Talbot’s story more than Ann Sheridan’s, it’s really not, at least based on what I’ve read. And Ann Sheridan rarely disappoints, especially when she gets a meaty role where she can play street smart with an undercurrent of vulnerability (though I suspect her husband-stealing songbird might not be particularly vulnerable). Well, in or out, that’s what DVR’s are for. I’m catching this movie one way or another.

Nora Prentiss poster

8 (Not ‘Eight’) Million Ways To Die

8 Million Ways To Die Poster

(See the preceding post about Lawrence Block and John K. Snyder III’s excellent graphic novel of Eight Million Ways To Die.)

The way to look at 8 Million Ways To Die, Hal Ashby’s 1986 film adaptation of Lawrence Block’s hard-boiled Matthew Scudder novel Eight Million Ways To Die, is simply to forget that the movie has anything at all to do with Block’s novel. Which is pretty easy to do, since so little of the book was retained. The Oliver Stone script (with an assist by Robert Towne) transplants an ode to 1980’s New York to Los Angeles. Oh, some character names are retained, former cop Scudder struggles with his drinking, and there is still a prostitute who comes to the unlicensed P.I. to help her escape the life, yet winds up dead. But that’s about where it ends. As Lawrence Block has noted in interviews, he did cash the check, and film studio dollars can pay mortgages the same as publisher’s royalty checks. All writers can learn from Block’s experience, and he’s not the only big name to offer wise counsel about the perils and pluses of dealing with Hollywood.

Montage

8 Million Ways to Die can be lumped together with a whole series of neon-lit and sun-drenched So-Cal neo-noir-ish action and crime thrillers, like To Live And Die In L.A., Tequila Sunrise and others from the 1980’s-90’s. The film was done by top-notch talent, and featured excellent actors, including Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia in his first major role. Block’s dark and brooding murder mystery is gone, as are the shadowy Manhattan streets, dingy bars and grimy walkups.

Rosanna Arquette

Still, Garcia is delightfully slimy (his little pony tail a constant visual treat), no one does troubled-but-stoic like Jeff Bridges, and Rosanna Arquette…well, lets just say there’s kind of a crush there. A good movie? Apparently reviewers didn’t think so, nor did movie-goers, since it was a box office flop. That said, if it popped up unexpectedly late at night during a final once-around-the-channels with the cable remote, I’d stay up and watch it again.

City of Fear: Patricia Blair And My Manuscript’s 1959 Reference Manual.

Patricia Blair City Of Fear 1959

Maybe you could call it a ‘noir’, or perhaps a post-noir, though it’d be a stretch, but more likely most would consider Columbia’s 1959 City Of Fear another so-so thriller with an inexplicable cult following. I refer to it periodically because it’s set in the same year as the projects I’m working on: 1959.

City of Fear 1959 Poster

Despite the Los Angeles setting, this film really captures the look and ‘feel’ of much of what I’m doing (which commences in the Spring of ’59, but far away in Chicago’s bungalow belt). Trying to capture that ‘feel’ for an era sixty years gone is a challenge. When we think ‘fifties’, we tend to think of malt shops, poodle skirts, ponytails and leather jacketed juvies. But the late fifties, like the very early sixties, share a slightly different look that I’m determined to get right. Skip the occasional palm tree and the mountains in the background, and a lot of City Of Fear’s exterior locations and even the low-rent interiors just seem to nail it for me – the clothes, the cars, the buildings and so many little details.

City of Fear Montage 1959

Directed by Irving Lerner with a script by Robert Dillon and Steven Ritch (a sometimes actor best known to horror fans as the star and titular monster in the not-that-bad The Werewolf from 1956), City of Fear stars Vince Edwards (TV’s Ben Casey) as escaped convict Vince Ryker, who busted out with a fellow inmate and what they think is a canister of pure heroin that’ll soon be their bankroll. But the container’s actually filled with radioactive Cobalt-60, and Vince’s pal is already dying from exposure. Sneaking past police roadblocks in disguise, Vince gets to his girl, played by Patricia Blair, who does an excellent job in this flick, and was probably thrilled to be playing something other than a frontier woman for once, much of her career spent as ‘the wife’ or love interest in retro TV westerns like Daniel Boone, The Rifleman and Yancy Derringer.

City of Fear

In City Of Fear, Blair could be a character right in my own material. Not the hero, but definitely one of the secondaries, and any one of multiple characters in the now-on-hold sequel’s manuscript. She’s a real treat in this film, and much more fun to watch than Vince Edwards.

The movie’s mostly a race against time, the police desperate to track down Vince and the lethal canister (which goes missing) which could knock off all of L.A. I’m not suggesting you download or race to buy City of Fear unless you’re also in the middle of a project set in 1959. But for me, this film works like a reference manual.

City of Fear Lobby Card

 

No, Not That Falcon…

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Only a ‘Tumblr Refugee’ these days, I still keep tabs on several Tumblrs to see what I’ve missed. Gentleman Loser – Gentleman Junkie posted a lobby card from 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, which got me thinking about the one time I’d seen this oldie. Film Noir? Not quite. But it’s a rousing piece of retro crime melodrama nonetheless.

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It was either during college or right after that I saw The Maltese Falcon the one and only time. No, not the the classic John Huston Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor ‘proto-noir’ film, but a 1931 pre-code version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, which had been published just a year earlier. Here, Latin-lover matinee idol Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz) plays Hammett’s iconic private eye Sam Spade as more of a well-groomed philanderer than the tough, hard-boiled P.I. Bogart made all his own ten years later. Bebe Daniels plays Ruth Wonderly, the Mary Astor Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy role. Take away Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr., and obviously everything’s going to be quite different from The Maltese Falcon we know and love. But then, we do get Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, as small-framed but big-talking Wilmer Cook.

Maltese Falcon 1931 1

Like the 1941 version, this 1931 film follows Hammett’s novel pretty closely, but with random alterations for typical book-to-film condensation, screenwriter conceit and some who-knows-why modifications/additions. Huston-Bogart fans will be unpreprared for the convenenient Asian merchant who tips off Spade about partner Miles Archer’s murder, or the private eye’s new career revealed at the film’s end.

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Some folks get all revved up about pre-code cinema, looking for lurid decadence and peekaboo thrills. There are websites, books and journal articles aplenty brimming with naughty film stills to support that expectation. Myself, I’ve learned not to expect too much. Along with the stage bound blocking, overacting and general ‘creakiness’ of some of the films, there’s rarely quite as much naughtiness as promised. It may be that pre-code cinema wasn’t really all that provocative, but merely seems so when compared to the subsequent two decades of over-sanitized Hollywood filmmaking.

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Here, for instance, the opening shots include a nifty bit of leering business with a woman adjusting her stockings. Sam Spade’s illicit affair with partner Miles Archer’s wife/widow, played by Thelma Todd, is more plainly evident. The fortune hunters’ homosexuality relied on vague, teasing references in the 1941 version, but gets more acknowledgment in this earlier film, in keeping with the novel. (I was surprised to learn that “gunsel” was actually retro code for an older fellow’s younger gay boy-toy. And here I thought I knew my vintage slang!) Bebe Daniels’ Ruth Wonderly spends the night in Spade’s bed (alone), is strip searched (sort-of), takes a bubbly bath, and she does lounge about in a negligee. But that’s about it for pre-code sizzle. Nonetheless, when the studio tried to re-release the film just a few years later, the Hays Office rejected it for ‘lewd content’.

The Maltese Falcon was shot under the early working title of A Woman Of The World. When the film finally was re-released for television in the mid-sixties, it was retitled Dangerous Female, so as not to be confused with the (by-then) 1941 classic. In between, the studio remade the movie in an even lighter-toned version starring Bette Davis and called Satan Met A Lady, with names changed and the iconic black bird now a jewel-filled horn.

Maltese Falcon 1931 Lobby Cards

In this 1931 version, a denouement includes Sam Spade visiting Ruth Wonderly in jail, where we learn he’s now the Chief Investigator for the San Francisco D.A.’s office. On his way out, he prompts a prison matron to look after Wonderly and at his expense. I’ll take Huston’s glorious closing shots with the powerful Warner Brother’s studio orchestra pumping out composer Adolph Deutsch’s score, a resigned Brigid O’Shaughnessy descending in a gated elevator, off to her fate in prison, the electric chair…or hell. Now that’s what dreams are made of.

Don’t Look In The Bag…

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When a nasty man tells you, “Don’t look in the bag,” just don’t look in the bag, damn it.

The Bag Man, a David Grovic film from 2014 (also titled Motel and The Carrier) gives John Cusack another turn as a really, really bad guy that we inexplicably find ourselves rooting for, just like we did in The Grifters, Gross Pointe Blank and The Ice Harvest. The film’s adapted from a John Russo screenplay with rewrites by the director, and based in part on Marie-Louise von Franz’ The Cat: A Tale Of Feminine Redemption. Joining Cusack are Robert De Niro, Crispin Glover and Rebecca Da Costa.

Cusack plays one of bigshot gangster DeNiro’s hitmen, assigned to pick up a bag and wait for his boss at a rundown rural motel, with very strict instructions not to look in the bag. Seems simple, almost too simple to Cusack, and indeed it is, since things quickly spiral out of control with the arrival of a hooker who’s much more than she appears to be, and an ever growing body count that includes FBI agents, crooked local cops and fellow gangsters.

the bag man - rebecca da costa

The film is unrelentingly dark and unsettling, punctuated by sudden (and frequent) bursts of bloody violence. It’d be totally unfair to even hint at what’s in ‘the bag’, only to encourage darkly noir-ish crime film fans to check it out for another good performance from John Cusack, who does weary-and-flawed-but-redeemable better than anyone, and from Rebecca Da Costa, who makes a memorable bad ass, though I haven’t seen much from her since this project.

And remember…don’t look in the bag.

Turner’s Warshawski

v i warshawski kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner as one of the 90’s best ‘stiletto gumshoes’, here in a publicity shot for the 1991 film V. I. Warshawski, the movie adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s award-winning hard-boiled Chicago private detective series.

Christmas Holiday

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A bit of a stretch to call it a holiday film, and despite some of the visuals, not what you’d call a film noir. Christmas Holiday(1944) might best be considered a romance-crime melodrama set at Christmas time. Gene Kelly leaves his dancing shoes in the studio locker, while Universal tries to rebrand their young cash-cow song-n-dance star Deanna Durbin as a dramatic actress. Directed by Robert Siodmak, it’s a bit dark, maybe even a little dreary, though not necessarily what you’d call ‘noir’. If you get to watch it, decide for yourself.

Christmas Holiday 3Christmas Holiday 1

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