Sunday Night Noir: The Racket (1951)

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Director John Cromwell appeared in and directed the hit Bartlett Cormack Broadway play The Racket in 1927 with newcomer Edward G. Robinson, which later made its way to Los Angeles (skipping Chicago, where the story is set, and where it was banned, supposedly on orders from Al Capone himself). There, Hollywood quickly snapped up Cromwell, and over the next two decades he directed a long list of cinema classics and was in the postwar vanguard of directors helming projects in the emerging film noir genre. 1947’s Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott was among those films (that one a personal fave of mine). Cromwell brought Scott along for his final Hollywood film before he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: A 1951 RKO remake of the 1927 stage play, The Racket. The film may have been co-directed by a team including Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer and others, and stars noir icons Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Lizabeth Scott.

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Robert Ryan’s mob boss has an entire un-named midwestern city in his pocket. All except a determined and incorruptible police captain played by Robert Mitchum, that is. Undermined at every turn by corrupt cops and crooked politicians, Mitchum convinces sultry nightclub chanteuse Lizabeth Scott to testify against her boss, even though both of them know that cooperating means she’ll be as good as dead. With a rigged election looming, mob boss Robert Ryan will stop at nothing to take down Mitchum, who neatly turns the tables on the violent gangster, the corrupt cops and the crooked politicians.

the racket 3The Racket is dark, violent and an under-appreciated treat, with three film noir titans working together on screen. And who’d miss a chance to watch the Queen of Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott? Did I say watch her? Heck, just listening to that smoky voice of hers is enough of a treat.

Lobby CardsReviews were mixed and I have no idea if The Racket was a financial success. But I couldn’t care less if this one ranks high with the scholarly film studies crowd or not. For me, the films made in the few years right at the end of the 1940’s through the very early 1950’s best capture the iconic film noir look and feel, whether well-funded and with major stars, or made on shoestring budgets. The Racket is brimming with enormous, bulbous looking cars. The fellows all sport those tent-sized overcoats, voluminous suits, stubby ties and wide-brimmed fedoras. The women are at their most sultry, in long-but-snug skirts, chunky heels, seamed hose, and hats-hats-hats on everyone, men and women alike. To say nothing of one chain-smoked cigarette after another…did they even have to bother with fog machines back then?

Indulge me for including some foreign posters for “La Gang”, which I assume was The Racket in France. Sometimes those European theater posters just look better than the tamer Hollywood versions.

La Gang

I may have lost TCM, and especially Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley, but MOVIES!’ “Noir To Die For!” and “Sunday Night Noir” may just keep this particular noir junkie from getting the shakes or going into total withdrawal, all the more essential during our sheltering-in. A word or two about some other noirs both good and bad to be found on MOVIES! will follow in subsequent posts.

I Really Need TCM…Like Now.

Thursday Noir To Die ForIt’s no Turner Classic Movies. Not even Retroplex. And it’s certainly not Eddie Muller expertly hosting TCM’s Noir Alley (I’m kinda tearing up just thinking about that).

But when my cable provider rudely deleted TCM (and Retroplex and a lot of other channels) I had to learn to embrace MOVIES! for the occasional film noir, good old-fashioned B-movie crime melodramas and some random classics (along with a lot of other stuff I couldn’t care less about). Commercials? Yes, but not enough to drive me batty. And I wouldn’t complain if MOVIES! spent a few dollars to increase their “noir” library to more than the dozen or a dozen-and-a-half films they keep rotating…their tag is “Reel Variety”, after all. But “Noir To Die For!” on Thursday evenings and “Sunday Night Noir” (on…well, Sundays, obviously) is better than 24/7 syndicated reruns, bad 80’s action flicks and the wall-to-wall pandemic programming everywhere else.

Serves me right for being entranced with size and choosing the enormous TV instead of the Smart-TV. But it is a heck of a good picture…

Sunday Night Noir

Stuck At Home? Then Go To Noir City.

Noir City 1It’s not like I didn’t see it coming: Shelter-at-home, non-essential businesses closed temporarily, etc. It’s just that the day job was in its normal busy time of year, well underway prior to the shutdowns and continuing during the transition to work-at-home. I may have been prepared with groceries in the fridge and a full tank of gas (should I just skip the thing about the cigarette carton stash?), but I hadn’t been to the library, hadn’t been in a bookstore and hadn’t even done a quick online order of any books – new or old – in the days leading up to the sudden switch to hermit status. The to-be-read stack on the writing lair’s endtable had whittled down some. It’s not like I don’t have shelves of beloved treasures that could do with a re-read, but still…

So, it was a double delight to see the new Spring 20202 Noir City e-magazine Number 28 appear in my in-box.

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Now I’m not kidding about being busy with the day job. Even routine tasks seem to take twice as long as they do in-office, where simple face-to-face questions and approvals take no more than a moment, but now require email barrages. No complaints, mind you. When the news is filled with startling stats like 1 in 10 Americans filing for Unemployment last week and even 1 in 4 laid-off, furloughed or weathering hours cutbacks, I’m thrilled to be working. But with time at a premium, I haven’t read a single word of this new Noir City issue yet. Still, a quick scroll through the pages (drooling the entire time) assured me this is another terrific issue from Vince Keenan and Steve Kronenberg, and as always, a visual treat from Art Director Michael Kronenberg.

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Craving some dark delights in the midst of endless dismal news? Get thee to the Film Noir Foundation’s site (link below) to find out more, become a contributor and to get your mitts on the Noir City e-magazine. Just try to visit there and not end up wanting something: Back issues, festival posters, whatever. Hey, if we can’t spend money in stores right now, we can unload a few bucks on something of real value for noir culture enthusiasts…and I know there are more than a few of you reading this.

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

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

Trouble Is My Business.

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Some hard-core film noir enthusiasts could break the bank collecting movie memorabilia. Some, like writer-director-actor Thomas Konkle and cohorts, decide to make their own film noir instead. The result, Trouble Is My Business, is both tribute and pastiche, deadly serious but with a nod and a wink to fellow noir aficionados.

The early to mid-1940’s roots of film noir may start with bigger budgeted crime melodramas starring Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. But the classic postwar film noir era surely counts many more projects with a little less prestige, made for a lot less money and not always through the major studios. Not every 40’s/50’s noir was directed by the likes of Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang. Paraphrasing some genre luminaries, those involved didn’t realize they were making ‘film noir’, only cranking out low-budget crime flicks on tight schedules. The dark, shadowy look we cherish today was sometimes no more than a convenient way to mask underpropped sets and over-familiar backlot locations.

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Consider Thomas Konkle’s Trouble Is My Business an earnest love letter to those noir cult faves, the film’s look betraying its tighter-than-tight budget, but happy to overlook it in classic B-movie style. Cowritten by Konkle with Brittney Powell, directed by Konkle, and produced by Konkle along with Michael Smith, Trouble Is My Business drops us right in the middle of the very time and place the film pays tribute to: Los Angeles in 1947. There, down on his luck private eye Roland Drake (played by director co-writer Konkle himself) sees a chance for redemption – which, in classic noir style, will inevitably lead him into something more sinister – with the fetching Montemar sisters: First with lovely Katherine, who winds up dead after she and Drake wind up in bed…and then with femme fatale Jennifer Montemar. Both roles are played by Brittney Powell, relying on a wig and her performance as a disguise.

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Noir tropes and clichés abound, from crafty dialog to the SoCal location shots and a memorably nasty thug with a badge. Brimming with noir-stereotype scenes and set-ups, Trouble Is My Business also indulges viewers with a glimpse of what went really on behind closed doors in those 40’s/50’s era films which were still made under the swiftly disintegrating production code. But to the film’s credit, Konkle and Powell get the screen sizzling a bit without going for the cheap shots.

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I don’t know what you get with downloads or online viewing. The Trouble Is My Business‘ deluxe’ DVD set comes with both color and black and white versions. Assuming it was shot in color and converted to B&W, like so many television series’ retro-noir novelty episodes, it’s interesting to see both and then to compare the B&W version to postwar noir classics…the well-funded and poverty row titles as well. I’m no cinematographer, and can’t even shoot a decent still-photo to save my life with a phone or camera. But to my inexpert eye, the oldies exhibit richer, deeper darks and more striking haloed lighting effects than contemporary equipment can manage. But then, maybe it’s precisely that dark magic achieved 60-70 years ago that drove enthusiasts like Thomas Konkle, Brittney Powell, the actors and crew to create an earnest homage like Trouble Is My Business.

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https://troubleismybusinessfilmnoir.tumblr.com

Femmes Fatales, Globally.

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Photographer Nikola Borissov hails from Bulgaria but spends more time in Bangkok, Shanghai, Thailand or his home base in Milan, Italy (while wintering in Cape Town South Africa, apparently). Not sure if he cultivated a flair for the darkly decadent in Sofia’s studios, the shores of the Black Sea, the Indian or Pacific Oceans, but Borissov does seem to have a keen eye for framing femmes fatales as seen in these images and those in a prior post, No Honor Among Thieves.

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It’s A Hard-Boiled World: Noir Of Many Colors.

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When it comes to publishers, I tend to think of Tor as all about SF/Fantasy/Horror, though of course I ought to know better. Aside from skimming the spines lined up on my own bookshelves, I’ll point to their site/blog at www.tor.com, which I follow via BlogLovin’, and enthusiastically endorse. There’s a lot of interesting reading to be found there, in addition to the usual new release info and promotional content.

Case in point: Award winning short story writer and Southeast Asia scholar T.R. Napper’s recent “Hardboiled World: Four Creative Noir Traditions From Around The Globe” (link below). Napper explains in his opening, “I spent three years of my doctorate defining noir and its direct descendant, cyberpunk, and their representations in film and literature outside the U.S. – in particular Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Viet Nam.” Citing Noir scholar Phillipa Lovatt, Napper points out how this thing called ‘noir’ was trans-national from its inception, rooted in everything from German expressionism to French poetic realism and, of course, American hard-boiled pulp fiction. So, Napper looks at noir archetypes from gunslingers to private eyes and their expressions in global noir culture, in particular in Asian film and literature, ranging from apocalyptic noir to what he calls ‘Sunshine Noir’ and more.

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Yes, ‘noir’ simply means black, but it really means so much more, doesn’t it? And, so much more than simply a group of 1940’s – 1950’s Hollywood crime melodramas with visibly dark looks and unrelentingly bleak narratives. Could Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton and their kin have foreseen what I like to think of as ‘Noir Culture’, or noir-homages like L.A. Confidential, neo-noir like The Last Seduction or dystopian noir like Blade Runner when penning their genre-defining articles 60 and 70 years ago?

Sounds silly to say ‘noir of many colors’, but in a way, it’s true. This thing called noir comprises everything from the post-WWII classic film noir era, along with the countless gritty (sometimes saucy) and hard-boiled detective, mystery and crime novels from that same era’s paperback originals (along with the dwindling number of similar short fiction works from the fast-shrinking pulp fiction marketplace). But the aesthetics and the themes from those stories, books and films have since been reimagined, repurposed and otherwise appropriated in films and novels, but also fine arts, comics/graphic novels, fashion photography and even music, resulting in an ever widening (and increasingly tribal) collection of noir subsets: rural noir, desert noir, femme noir, neo-noir, dystopian noir and on and on. The tropes and themes cross borders, adopted by artists, writers and filmmakers in non-U.S. markets and often in entirely different and inventive ways. Admittedly, some creatives merely extrapolate clichés with little understanding of what the genre – if it is one – is really all about. Black & white images outfitted in double-breasted pinstripes and hats with netted veils, propped with venetian blinds and fat-fendered cars, populated by thugs spouting cartoonish Brooklynese and sultry femmes fatales hiding .22’s in their purses – that’s all enough to evoke vague notions of noir for many. Meanwhile, others adopt the isolation, fatalism, anti-heroism and doomed romance of the genre’s film and fiction roots and reinvent those themes in entirely new ways and for new audiences, often discarding the stereotypical iconography altogether.

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T.R. Napper’s Tor.com article is just the tip of the iceberg in understanding the scope of this thing called ‘noir’, but as good a place to start as any other, like looking at noir classics through another culture’s viewpoint, or tracing an artistic line from 1947’s Dead Reckoning to Ellen von Unwerth’s photography, Gina Higgins’ gallery paintings or Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ comics. Pop over to Napper’s piece to think a bit about the many ‘colors’ of noir and the far-reaching span of global noir. If nothing else, it might be your first time reading about ‘samurai noir’.

https://www.tor.com/2020/02/19/hardboiled-world-four-creative-noir-traditions-from-around-the-globe/

 

Crewe’s Film Noir Series

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Canadian photographer David J. Crewe, currently residing in Chicago, made the leap into photography from business, also serving in officer roles in the ASMP and Professional Photographers of America. Apparently this “Film Noir Series” was cooked up by Crewe and some friends while in San Diego for a charity event, tapping some pals to serve as models (one of whom worked for a suit company and could help with wardrobe), the entire project completed in just 48 hours.

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Will There Be Homework?

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Photographer Jorg Lehmann knows his way around a shadowy set, artfully spot-lit and layered in fog. We all see contemporary images sprinkled with cliché ‘noir’ propping, but recreating the look of classic film noir shots is surely all about lighting. If I wasn’t all thumbs with my phone or a real camera (and I really am) I’d be tempted to check out Jorg Lehmann’s Film Noir Femme Fatale Photography Workshop to see what I can learn.

Joerg Lehmann Photo 2Film Noir Femme Fatale Book

www.joerglehmann.com

 

Would You Hang Mary Hilton?

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Often described as being based on the real-life case of Ruth Elliss, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Yield To The Night (AKA Blonde Sinner) was actually in pre-production when Elliss was executed, and is really adapted from Joan Henry’s 1954 novel of the same name. Henry, who spent some time in prison herself, cowrote the screenplay along with John Cresswell for this 1956 J. Lee Thompson film. Its snickering marketing campaign played up Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood studios’ ‘blonde bombshell’ starlets: Diana Dors, who was already notorious in the UK tabloid press. But despite the sleaze factor, much of the movie showcased Dors in a decidedly un-glamorous way, challenged her largely un-tapped acting chops, garnered genuinely positive reviews and was even nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1956 Cannes festival.

Yield To The Night PosterBlonde SInner Lobby Card

Dors plays Mary Price Hilton, a sexy good-time girl who sadly has known nothing but bad times with the rotten men in her life. In the pre-opening credits, we witness her gunning down another woman. The film switches to the convicted murderer in prison, its grim monotony and the fear of her impending execution abetted in some small way by a sympathetic guard played by Yvonne Mitchell. In flashbacks, Hilton recounts the seemingly inevitable chain of events that brought her to this end, most importantly a succession of duplicitous and abusive lovers. When she finally goes for what seems like a rare good guy, it all falls apart when he commits suicide (having been duped by another woman) and that’s enough to push Mary Hilton over the edge. And enough to drive her to murder, killing the woman. Followed by trial, conviction and a sentence to die by hanging.

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Diana Dors (born Diana Mary Fluck – a name that could cause real trouble on a theatre marquee if misspelled) really nailed it this one time, at least. I’m no expert on Dors’ filmography, but it seems to be mostly forgettable 1950’s/60’s sexy comedies and vintage trash exploitation movies. But her work in Yield To The Night had Hollywood beckoning (which turned out to be a short-lived stay) and is the one role she always claimed to be proudest of.

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