The Noir Forties

The Noir Forties

Biographer and historian Richard Lingeman has a long list of impressive books on American history to his credit, and this one’s particularly intriguing, zeroing in on the five years between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War. The Noir Forties is a perfect title. Lingeman explains, “I devote a large chunk of the book to what I’ve dubbed ‘noir culture’, after the body of crime films known as film noir which flourished between 1945 and 1950. I believe films noir are a key for unlocking the psychology (and) the national mood during those years”

Once the VJ Day euphoria wore off and the ticker tape was swept out of Times Square – and main streets all across the U.S. – there was much to reckon with. Over 400,000 Americans killed in combat and countless millions dead worldwide. The Holocaust and the atom bomb. Anxious hopes for postwar prosperity dashed by abrupt economic upheavals, housing shortages, a divorce boom, the “Iron Curtain” and rise of totalitarian Communism, the formation of the U.S. security state and more.

Part memoir, part conventional history, Lingeman’s book recounts key political, military, social and cultural events side-by-side with evocative personal stories and anecdotes from this five-year period. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ driving the emergence of noir culture becomes apparent, not only the many classic films noir from this era, but we could include the explosion of grim, violent and sexy crime novels populating the new paperback original market, an evolution in pulp magazines and comics, the emergence of abstract expressionism in the new global fine art capital, New York City. All of this occurred amidst racial strife, the Iron Curtain slamming down over Eastern Europe, the Red Scare and then a return of U.S. troops in combat in what many understandably feared would swiftly become World War Three.

I’ll leave it scholars to quibble about their definitions of ‘film noir’ and its timeline, including many proto-noirs from earlier in the 1940’s, or quite different films from the late 1950’s and even the early 60’s that might more justifiably be considered a bridge to what we later called ‘neo-noir’. All that’s fodder for university film studies classes and master’s theses, and my school days are behind me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy an incredibly well-written and readable book like Richard Lingeman’s The Noir Forties, and if you like what you see here at ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’, it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy this book.

Tonight: 99 River Street

99 RIver Street

I’ve read better lobby card tag lines: “One did it with sheer stockings…One did it for sheer excitement!” But the more I think about it, it does have a rather perverse ring to it.

99 River Street 4

Diligent hard work all day Saturday earns downtime later Saturday night, as in Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley on TCM at 11:00 PM CST. Tonight: John Payne, Evelyn Keyes and Peggy Castle in 1953’s 99 River Street, directed by low budget noir-ish crime film maestro Phil Karlson, who did three such movies with Payne in the lead. John Payne plays a washed up prize fighter reduced to driving a cab, with a wife who’s none too pleased with cutting coupons in dumpy flat. Which may be why she’s having an affair with a smooth talker, who also happens to be a thief, and who knocks off the the unfaithful wife and then tries to pin the murder on boxer-now-cabbie.

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99 River Street didn’t earn rave reviews when released but its reputation has increased in the years since, thanks in large part to film noir experts like Eddie Muller himself. I was sure I’d seen this movie before, but now I’m thinking I’ve mixed it up with a different film altogether (a few of them do start to look the same after a while), so I’m doubly anxious to shut off the computer a few hours from now and settle in at 11:00 for Muller’s intro and an hour and half of some prime viewing. Thank you once again to TCM and Eddie Muller for Noir Alley!

Noir City

Carla Gugino: A Femme Fatale Princess

Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 2Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 3Sure, she’s done goofy comedies, wholesome family films and television series going back to the 1980’s.

But for me, Carla Gugino is a member of contemporary noir royalty. With memorable performances in Sin City, the so-weird but so-cool Sucker Punch, then Hotel Noir, and nominated for Best Actress by the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival for Greg William’s and Sebastien Guiterriez’ indie short Tell-Tale (see preceding post), Gugino rightfully belongs in the ranks of cinema’s most notorious (and therefore utterly loveable) femmes fatales. Whether browsing darkly stylish fashion editorials or film stills from selected projects, one could almost fill a mini-blog just with Gugino in various dangerous dames roles. I won’t, but I will include these three here as a glimpse of her work.

carla gugino by greg williams

8 Minutes Of Noir Bliss

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Can a deliciously dark neo-noir film be nearly perfect, even if it’s less than ten minutes long?

Venezuelan writer, director and filmmaker Sebastien Guiterriez is an inventive artist and clearly a fan of classic Hollywood film noir. Not a name popping up on TMZ and People magazine? No, Guiterriez is not, but he creates some unusual work, like the screenplays for films like Gothika and even the over-the-top Snakes On A Plane. He directed the 1998 blink-and-you-missed-it neo-noir crime thriller Judas Kiss, and wrote and directed a truly unusual blend of horror and neo-noir, Rise: Blood Hunter in 2007 with Lucy Liu and Michael Chiklis, a movie I hope to chat up here later at some point. (I mean it’s definitely a horror film, but it’s also a pretty darn good neo-noir crime film in its way.) But Guiterriez is quite the entrepreneurial sort, writing and directing one of the first wave of regular ‘feature type’ films intended exclusively for online distribution, 2011’s Girl Walks Into A Bar, and then turned to Kickstarter to launch the great Hotel Noir, a faithful homage to classic Hollywood film noir and sundry genre classics, which later saw limited theatrical release, renamed City Of Sin.

Definitely more about that one later.

tell-tale 1Carla Gugino by Greg Williams 4telltale1

But it’s his 2010 internet short Tell-Tale, directed by Greg Williams, that intrigues me. Short? How about really short, as in eight minutes short. Yet to me, it’s practically perfect. Dark. Claustrophobic. Steamy. Relentless. Surprising.

Carla Gugino, Guiterriez’ one time and maybe still partner, works alongside Alan Arkin and others in Tell-Tale, and as the title suggests, the film’s kind of a riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Carla Gugino plays a dangerously alluring woman accused of murdering her lover, while her husband’s grilled for the same crime in the adjoining interrogation room, the questioning interrupted by flashback cuts to a torrid love scene. Yet, there’s much more happening here than a love affair gone bad, or something simple like a jealous spouse’s rage. But it would be unfair of me to spoil it, and c’mon, it’ll only take you eight minutes to see for yourself at YouTube or wherever.

tell-tale 2tell-tale 3

Sets, camera work, wardrobe, acting, dialog (brief as it is)…all dead on, so a big round of applause to director Greg Williams, and to Guiterriez…and to all involved.

Also worth pointing out, Tell-Tale demonstrates something I’ve always contended: sex on screen can literally sizzle till the film melts even without gratuitous nudity. Creative cinematography, artful editing, wardrobe, sets, and of course, the actors’ performances can all work together to generate memorable scenes likely to make you squirm in your  seat. Yet, once they’re done, you realize that it all happened through the sheer magic of crafty filmmaking.

I stumbled across this gem by accident. Then I watched it again. Then returned to it a couple more times, and expect I will do so again. After all, it’s only eight minutes long. You could knock it off during a coffee break (not that I’d advise doing so at the office). As movies go, it’s more of a sketch than a fully fleshed out film. But if you’re in the mood for a quick shot of delectable darkness, go look for Tell-Tale.

 

Noir Alley Is Back

Noir Alley 1

Noir Alley returned to TCM in March, last night showing John Huston’s 1940 classic High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Turner Classic Movies’ Saturday night feature was on hiatus in February and sorely missed ‘round here. If behaving, and at home working on a Saturday evening, it’s right around 11:00 PM when even I’ve had enough and need a break, and what a perfect break Noir Alley is.

Noir Alley 2

A spinoff of TCM’s 2015 ‘Summer Of Darkness’ film noir series, Noir Alley is hosted by novelist and non-fiction author, Noir City Film Noir Festival host and Film Noir Foundation founder and president, Eddie Muller, who provides intriguing and fact-filled introductions to each film. The series shows its share of the classics you’d expect, of course, but also some lesser-known films that aren’t always at the top of everyone’s list. Next week it’ll be Lady In The Lake and later in April there’ll be John Payne and Evelyn Keyes in 99 River Street and Ann Sheridan in Woman On The Run among others.

High Sierra Montage

High Sierra was a perfect wind-down to a productive Saturday for me, Ida Lupino one of my absolute favorite classic Hollywood era actresses, and she couldn’t be better than she was here as taxi dancer Marie Garson, hooking up with gangster Roy Earle played by Humphrey Bogart. And what can you say about Bogart? He’s Bogart, after all, and this film was a breakthrough for the actor, leading to The Maltese Flacon, Casablanca and so many other classic roles. High Sierra, based on William R. Burnett’s novel of the same name and co-written by Burnett and director John Huston, isn’t film noir in the sense of shadowy rooms, dark urban alleys and rain soaked tenement lined streets. It’s mostly set in…well, the High Sierras, after all. But it’s noir embodied nonetheless (even though the term wasn’t in use yet) with it’s overwhelming sense of fatalism, foreshadowing, and both Bogart’s and Lupino’s desperate and unfulfilled quest for freedom. Like so many films of the era, there are some cringe-worthy racial stereotypes inserted for some poorly chosen comic relief, and it gets increasingly difficult to process those bits.

Anecdote: Pard, the cute pup that foreshadows doom for all, but especially for hard-as-nails yet soft-as-velvet taxi dancer Marie Garson and world-weary gangster ‘Mad Dog’ Roy Earl, was actually Humphrey Bogart’s own real-life pet dog, Zero.

TCM’s Noir Alley hosted by dark-renaissance man Eddie Muller…guess where I’ll be next Saturday at 11:00.

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…

Maltese Falcon 1931 2

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.

Maltese Falcon 1931 3

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.

Maltese Falcon 1931 5

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.

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.

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