The Girl He Goes For: Whistle Stop (1946)

Whistle Stop 2

It’s been months, but I’m still grumbling about losing Turner Classic Movies and its Noir Alley feature. Oh, I manage to get by (sort of) with Movies! Sunday Night Noir, which offers a mix of genuine classics alongside lesser known and oddball crime melodramas. But I get the feeling that the network’s definition of “Noir” demands no more than coming from the 1940’s/50’s and being in black & white.

Whistle Stop 1

Not everyone’s a fan of George Raft (1901 – 1980), many considering him too wooden a performer who was understandably eclipsed by Humphrey Bogart and others as one of the studios’ main tough guys. But I do like him, though I’d be the first to concede that in Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films/United Artists release, Raft was woefully miscast as Ava Gardner’s former lover, being more than twenty years older (and that’s if you believe Raft’s ‘official’ 1901 birth date, which many contend was actually 1895).

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As for Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990), she’d been toiling away in walk-ons, bit parts and uncredited roles since arriving in Hollywood in 1941. But 1946 would be her year, starting with Whistle Stop and ending with the much more memorable The Killers alongside Burt Lancaster. For me, Gardner’s like Ida Lupino or Lizabeth Scott: I’d buy a ticket and happily watch them read the dictionary, file their nails or do absolutely nothing at all for an hour and half. Gardner acquits herself well in this, her first starring role, playing Mary, a girl with a reputation returning to her small ‘whistle stop’ hometown far outside Detroit after a two year absence. Mary’s not just returning for a family visit, but yearns to rekindle a steamy affair with Kenny Veech (George Raft), and when that doesn’t quite work out, she takes up with a shady nightclub owner. There’s already some bad blood between Raft and the sleazy gambler, and soon enough someone will have to die.

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Screenwriter Philip Yordan claimed he was faithful to the source material…what little of it he could actually use, that is, since it was much too sexually explicit for 1946 audiences.  That would be Maritta Wolff’s 1941 first novel by the same name. Wolff (1918 – 2002) actually wrote the seamy tale of small-town violence, vulgarity and sex as a book-length assignment for her senior year composition class at the University Of Michigan. It went on to be published in multiple hardcover and paperback editions, earn rave reviews and lead to a successful writing career. Maritta Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, was also made into a film, The Man I Love (1947) starring Ida Lupino. Intensely private, Wolff refused to do publicity for her books, and her final manuscript was discovered hidden in her refrigerator after her death (Sudden Rain posthumously published to great success).

Whistle Stop Books

Whistle Stop’s okay, though mostly because we get to watch Ava Gardner assume the mantle of a lead actress, alternately seductive, manipulative and vulnerable from scene to scene. The film was interesting enough to prompt me to look for Maritta Wolff’s novels so I could find out more about this adventurous college kid cranking out a provocative hit novel in college. Whistle Stop and Night Shift are en route right now.

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

Guilty Pleasures, And Not A Noir: Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

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No, not a film noir or even a crime melodrama, Love With The Proper Stranger is one of my guilty pleasure movies. I suppose we’d call it a romance, and though there are multiple scenes that are — if not downright comedic, then certainly played for laughs – it’s hard to think of it as a period rom-com. This is the story of young Angie Rossini, a Macy’s store clerk eager to spread her wings and escape the crowded family apartment shared with an overbearing mother and two vigilant older brothers, all of them anxious to lock her into marriage with a bumbling neighbor. But Angie’s recent one-night stand with roving jazz musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen) leaves her pregnant, so she tracks him down for the name of a doctor and money for a backroom abortion. Doesn’t actually sound like the setup for a light-hearted romance, does it?

Directed by Robert Mulligan from an Arnold Schulman script, the film is unrelentingly gritty and claustrophobic, capturing mid-twentieth century big city life beautifully…beautifully grim, that is. Released on Christmas Day in 1963 (and often listed as a 1964 release), the film may not have been a huge financial success, but did snag five Oscar nominations, including one for Natalie Wood. Schulman penned a novelization of the film, which may have been an expanded version of the original treatment, including some scenes handled differently or not even in the movie, the story told more from Rocky Papasano’s POV.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that a late 1950’s/early 1960’s Natalie Wood became the model for my imaginary ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character, and specifically, it’s her performance in Love With The Proper Stranger – her look, wardrobe, demeanor, and the neatly crafted juxtaposition of assertiveness and vulnerability.  Natalie Wood is stunning here in an incredibly real everyday person kind of role, one that countless young women surely could relate to back in 1963. If you get a chance to see this one, check it out.


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