Foreign (Italian, I’m thinking) poster art for Columbia’s 1953 noir Pushover with Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray, called “Criminal On Duty” here. This poster’s art always intrigued me, first because it’s such a disturbing image – a knock on the door, you open it and WHAM! Badness is about to happen.
But aside from the visceral artwork, it’s an interesting decision not to depict either of the film’s two main stars (well, other than Fred MacMurray’s hand) and show Dorothy Malone instead of Kim Novak. Mind you, I love them both, and Malone did what she could in a small but important role. All the same, the image here is dynamic and unsettling at the same time, don’t you think?
I haven’t read Thomas Walsh’s 1953 novel The Night Watch or William Ballinger’s Rafferty from the same year, but both books were adapted by screenwriter Roy Huggins for Richard Quine’s 1954 Columbia noir, Pushover. At the time, reviewers compared it (favorably or not) to 1944’s Double Indemnity, and understandably so, both films starring Fred MacMurray as a too-smart-for-his-own-good fellow who may not be dirty but is certainly a bit dusty, enough to fall in love or lust with a seductive blonde even though he knows she’ll be pure trouble. In the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s steamy novel, it was Barbara Stanwyck, of course, in one of most memorable roles. Here it’s a young Kim Novak.
The movie opens with an action-packed robbery that goes bad. Cut to stag-night MacMurray spotting unattached Kim Novak at a late-night movie. Kim’s car trouble leads them to a cocktail lounge, then to more drinks at home (and presumably whatever else goes on there that couldn’t be shown in 1950s films). The coincidental meeting looks to turn into a romance, till we learn that MacMurray’s actually a cop who’s been tailing Novak all along, she being the gal pal of the armed robber who’s now wanted for murder.
She’s no dope, figures out that MacMurray’s a detective, but love is love and lust is lust, and soon enough the two conspire to get their mitts on the heist man’s loot and make their getaway. Just why they think their hastily hatched scheme can succeed with two-man police teams doing round the clock surveillance on Novak’s apartment eludes me. Meanwhile, MacMurray’s confirmed bachelor partner falls hard for Kim Novak’s neighbor, played by Dorothy Malone, a cute nurse he’s keeping an eye on (literally) through binoculars from his perch across the street. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder if you ought to close the blinds when you’re down to your skimpies or getting up to something naughty.
No surprise, just about everything that could go wrong does, with MacMurray getting deeper in trouble by the hour and a couple of bodies left in his wake. Like all good noirs, doomed love is precisely that: Doomed.
I’d only seen this film once before, but it’s suddenly in rotation on the MOVIES! cable channel’s Sunday and Thursday night noir showcases. Double Indemnity it’s not, but it’s damn good. Dark, steamy, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence…all you could want from a mid-1950’s crime film.
It had been ten years since Fred MacMurray helped make the screen sizzle alongside Barbara Stanwyck as Walter Neff and Phyllis Deitrichson. With a 25-year age difference, it’s understandable if you consider him mismatched with sleek 21 year old Kim Novak. But then, Hollywood never fretted much about pairing middle-aged (and older) fellows with ingenues and starlets (I mean, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn? Seriously?). That we believe that Kim Novak’s gun moll doesn’t only see MacMurray’s crooked cop as her ticket out of the life, but that he actually gets her motor humming, is just a testament to the young actress’ emerging talent. Bottom line: The duo make it work. MacMurray was an old pro, and one of Hollywood’s highest earning actors at the time, but this was Kim Novak’s first starring role. In fact, it was only her second film, the previous part just an uncredited walk-on.
On TV, online (it’s there) or on disk – if you haven’t seen Pushover, check it out. It won’t make it to the top of your film noir list, but you won’t be disappointed.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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“.
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’.
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.
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.