Who’ll Shoot First?

Often as not, I’ll gravitate towards a European market film poster art over the tamer U.S. versions, particularly with 1940’s and 1950’s films noir and crime thrillers (kind of the opposite of how I react to U.S. paperback cover illustrations vs. European versions form the same era). And while I adore the poster art below for L’Ombra Del Passato (translating as The Shadow of The Past, I think) shown below, I have to hand this one to the dueling revolvers above for Edward Dmytrik’s seminal 1944 noir Murder, My Sweet, the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely that rebranded crooner Dick Powell as one of film noir’s go-to leads.

Not-Quite Noir, But All-Fun With Mitchum & Greer.

The script’s by Daniel Mainwaring and his novelist pen name Geoffrey Homes (which is a neat trick), the names behind the source novel and Jacques Tourner’s infamous film noir Out Of The Past from two years earlier. But, it’s also credited to Gerald Drayson Adams, the writer for James Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning. I mention all this not to suggest that postwar film noirs were made in a creatively incestuous community (they kind of were) as much as to give the often overlooked 1949 RKO crime thriller The Big Steal its well-deserved cred. Since it also re-teams noir icons Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, it ought to be a must-see.

The Big Steal isn’t the dark, provocative and soul-searching kind of noir that Tourneur’s Out Of The Past was. This is more of twisty-turny thrill ride. Here Mitchum’s a soldier wrongly accused of a payroll theft. Greer’s the screwed-over ex of the real thief, and they reluctantly team up to track down the culprit, with Mitchum’s superior officer hot on their trail. Good guys turn out to be bad guys (which keeps the viewer wondering about our two stars as well) and all is resolved through lots of fast-paced chases, abductions, fights and shoot-outs, managing a lot of story and action in just a little over an hour.

A B-movie? Yes, it is. But it’s put together by crime and noir pro’s, stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (never looking lovelier with her bouncy short hair) and the bottom line is, The Big Steal is 100% fun to watch. 

Noir Princesses.

RKO’s 1951 The Company She Keeps probably doesn’t belong at the top of any of the key players’ resumes. Still, it was directed by James Cromwell, who helmed one of my favorite postwar film noir classics, Dead Reckoning (1947), with Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. And Scott stars here, alongside fellow film noir icon, Jane Greer. 

Greer plays a check forger just released from prison, while Scott is her helpful parole officer. Generosity is repaid when Greer steals Scott’s boyfriend, which could be a nifty setup for a nasty revenge tale. Instead, there’s some business with a workplace theft frame job and things working out just fine (more or less) in the end. A deep, dark or hard-boiled film noir this isn’t. A well-done crime melodrama led by two of noir’s best actresses? Oh, it’s that, all right.

But, it is an opportunity to watch two of film noir’s best-known actors paired together on screen. Lizabeth Scott is credited with starring in more postwar films noir than any other actress. And if Jane Greer’s iconic femme fatale performance in Jacques Tourner’s 1947 Out Of The Past was the only entry on her resume, it’d still be impressive. So, look for this one for the two stars, if not for the story.

A side-note: Brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges (sons of actor Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in a noir-ish B-movie or two himself) appear in the film as an infant and toddler. 

Bettejane Was No Sissy.

Born Bettejane Greer in 1924, Jane Greer legally changed her name in 1945, deciding that Bettejane was “a sissy name. It’s too Bo-Peepish for the type of role I’ve been playing”. RKO promoted her as “the woman with the Mona Lisa smile”, but in fact, teenage Greer suffered from a condition that paralyzed the left side of her face. Even after recovering, she relied on facial exercises to overcome the paralysis, which contributed to her enigmatic expression. 

Teen beauty pageants led to modeling jobs and a big band singing gig in the Washington D.C. area till Hollywood discovered her from a Life magazine modeling spread. Greer appeared in a long list of MGM and RKO films playing everything from crooks to cowgirls and continuing to work in both movies and television into her seventies. This even included a parody of her iconic role as Kathie Moffat, one of film noir’s most iconic femmes fatales, in a 1987 Saturday Night Live skit alongside her Out Of The Past costar Robert Mitchum. Now that I’d like to see!

Jane Greer left us in 2001 at the age of 76.

“All The Things I Never Told You”: Out Of The Past (1947).

It was a dreary weekend, saddled with a long list of chores and plagued by cold, drizzly weather. By the time the Sunday evening dinner plates were tucked in the dishwasher, and with few prospects ahead except prime-time cable news shows desperately trying to digest the ongoing national nightmare, I was ready for a double dose of ZzzQuil, Monday’s 5:15 AM alarm the next stop.

That is, till I noticed that Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 RKO noir masterpiece Out Of The Past was on the Movies! network “Sunday Night Noir” feature at 7:00 PM CST. Sure, commercial interruptions and all that. But it’s Robert Mitchum. It’s Jane Greer. It’s Out Of The F—ing Past. 

I love Robert Mitchum. I’ll happily watch Hollywood’s 1940’s-50’s bad boy as a cop, a killer, a sheriff, a soldier or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Mitchum’s deep, resonant voice laced with a knowing cynicism, the hulking build buried inside voluminous postwar era suits and impossibly huge topcoats, those sleepy bedroom eyes barely peeking out from beneath a wide-brimmed fedora…it’s just pure dark magic come to life on screen. Newcomer Kirk Douglas? Oh, he’s suitably slimy throughout, even if his offscreen demise is a little frustrating. And Jane Greer? Well, what can anyone say about Greer’s iconic Kathie Moffat, surely one of the classic film noir era’s preeminent femmes fatales? Here she’s a vision in white, then later, the most dangerous of dames, mysterious throughout, her grim backstory always implied but never revealed. Within the postwar era’s limitations, Greer’s violent end is as riveting as the bloody slo-mo shootout capping Arthur Penn’s 1968 Bonnie And Clyde.

But her memorable femme fatale is no mere schemer. Like many great protagonists, antagonists and antiheroes from the classic film noir era, this villainess has some baggage we never get to hear about. But we know there’s much more to Greer’s Kathie Moffat than just greed or lust. Near the film’s end, when Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey/Markham realizes that any chance at redemption and a new life is irrevocably gone, Kathie Moffat tells him:

“We’re starting all over. I wanna walk out of the sun again and find you waiting. I wanna sit in the same moonlight and tell you all the things I never told you…until you don’t hate me. Until sometime you love me again. “

“They’ll always be looking for us,” Mitchum replies. “They won’t stop till we die.”

“I don’t care. Just so they find us together.”

“All the things I never told you…” That’s the key, isn’t it? We fill in the blanks throughout the film, certain that in addition to being a crook, Kirk Douglas’ gambling kingpin was a sexual sadist and abuser, but unsure if his mistress, Greer’s Kathie Moffat, endured the pain and humiliation out of fear, avarice or…what? The great film noir femmes fatales are much more than succubi with a snubnose. Scriptwriters and directors left details, backstories and motivations murky, times being what they were. But the viewer knows. We all know. They were who they were because of what they’ve seen, done and endured. 

Out Of The Past was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel Build My Gallows High…his last novel (writing as Geofffrey Homes), in fact, Mainwaring switching to scriptwriting full-time thereafter. In fact, the film went by the novel’s title in the UK, so you’ll see some posters and lobby cards online with that name. (The gorgeous illustration at the top of this post is from an Italian poster by Marino.) I’m embarrassed to admit that Mainwaring/Homes’ novel is one classic that’s still on my to-be-read list, a mistake I’ll remedy soon. It’s my understanding, though, that it’s a real textbook example of colorful hard-boiled banter. As is the film’s screenplay. Yet I’ve read that Mainwaring shared little of the dialog from his own source novel.

The film has too many accolades to list, but famed film critic Roger Ebert called Out Of The Past “the greatest cigarette smoking movie of all time”. See for yourself if that isn’t true during your next (or first) viewing. Vintage Hollywood films are often a smoking orgy, but you’ll never see characters smoke so much and so purposefully as you will here. Ebert explained, “the trick, as demonstrated by Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman Nicholas Musuraca (the talented team on 1942’s Cat People) is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke that express their moods, their personalities and their energy levels. There are guns in Out Of The Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other”. 

And Jane Greer, I might add.

Confession: I still downed a shot of the ZzzQuill Sunday night. But by the time I started snoring, I was already deep in dark dreams about “all the things she never told us“.

Shadow Play.

What broadcast TV series hassn’t tried a retro episode? Pretty Little Liars, the ABC series based on Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels of the same name, included a 2014 episode titled “Shadow Play” in which (if I got this right) Spencer Hastings – played by Trojan Bellisario and one of the titular clique of pretty little liars – is transported to a drama and danger filled 1940’s film noir world after too many sleepless nights and prescription pills. And if it shows that I’m not a Pretty Little Liars expert by that description, then you’re absolutely right.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some good visuals that do their best to capture the ‘look’.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of…

Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade may or may not have known he was paraphrasing Shakespeare at the time, but it was seventy-nine years ago today, on October 3, 1941 that John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon premiered in New York City. Just to go all English Lit teacher on you (not that I am one), it was Prospero in The Tempest who said “We are such stuff, as dreams are made on”. 

Methinks The Maltese Falcon will definitely be playing down in the writing lair tonight. That’s what dreams are made of for me.

Nancy Guild.

I can’t call Nancy Guild (1925 – 1999) a Noir Princess, but she did star alongside George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window (see the preceding post). Guild may not have had the shortest Hollywood career, but close it, and her eight-movie resume’s a peculiar mix of a truly good films and real clunkers like Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Francis Covers The Big Town (Francis being Universal’s popular talking mule). Basically, she knocked out one film per year between 1946 and 1953, then simply left tinsel town for wedded life, only occasionally appearing on television in the late 1950’s and doing one final film role in the early 1970’s.

But check out The Brasher Doubloon, a darn good postwar noir and a respectable Chandler adaptation. Nancy Guild (her last name rhymes with ‘wild’) acquits herself well as a sometimes fetching — sometimes frightening secretary to a wealthy woman seeking the return of a valuable collectible coin from her deceased husband’s collection. Some consider The Brasher Doubloon the most ‘gothic’ of the Phillip Marlowe movies, and both of its often overlooked stars, George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, deserve to be seen. 

When Dark Is Beautiful, And Gritty Is Glamorous.

Deadline At Dawn 1

What better way to (intentionally or not) achieve the look and feel of what we now consider ‘classic’ film noir then to have the entire thing set at night? One single night, as a matter of fact.

RKO’s Deadline At Dawn (1946) was famous stage director Harold Clurman’s only film (and some claim that assistant director and production designer William Cameron Menzies actually handled much of the work). It’s an adaptation of William Irish’s novel by the same name (Irish being Cornell Woolrich, of course), who may have been responsible for more postwar film noir and crime melodrama story sources than any other author.

Deadline At Dawn 4

Despite her better judgement, Susan Hayward’s street-smart and world-weary New York dance hall girl hooks up with a hunk of a sailor who emerges from a drinking binge with a mysterious wad of cash in hand. And that dough may have belonged to a girl who’s been murdered. Is he a killer? Was he framed? The duo only have a few fright-filled hours to find out before he’s due back from leave, so the entire tale unfolds during one eventful night as they prowl shadowy apartment buildings, smoky nightclubs and eerie rain-soaked streets, mixing it up with various nefarious types and guided along the way by a philosophical old cabbie played by Paul Lukas. All of this speeds along (somewhat confusingly at times) towards a “Gotcha” resolution, this dark and moody film wrapping up on an unexpected positive note.

Deadline At Dawn 3

Damn near every shot’s a frameable fine art noir photo, with twisty camera angles, elongated shadows and one ominous room, hallway and stairwell after another. The big city never looked more menacing, or more darkly beautiful, for that matter. Susan Hayward’s cynical but vulnerable character is as gritty as the city she calls home, but she never looked more beautiful, even though she’s ‘dressed down’ for the part. I think that Deadline At Dawn was the first top billing for the hard-working actress who’d toiled in numerous bit parts and second (third and fourth) billed roles for nine years at Warner Brothers, then Paramount, United Artists and even Republic before she nailed this role at RKO. And though she only made two films that year, it was a turning point, soon moving her up to one lead role after another and securing five Oscar nominations and one win. Here she’s street-smart but world-weary, tough as nails but revealing a very human vulnerability. Sure, she gets to deliver some real gems, Irish/Woolrich’s novel adapted for the screen by playwright Clifford Odets. But watch closely and marvel at how Hayward achieves a poignantly bitter yet hopeful demeanour… lovely, of course, but always looking just a little bit bruised and disheveled. But then she was no stranger to NYC’s mean streets, born Edythe Marrenner in Brooklyn herself in 1917.

Deadline At Dawn 5

This one’s a must-see, though it doesn’t command the attention of some more widely acclaimed movies from the classic noir era. Thanks for small favors, even my crummy cable subscription let me see it.

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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

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