A music-hall singer in need of new material (Linda Darnell) charms a mild-mannered composer (Laird Cregar) into service. Service that includes him taking care of her cat, natch. But there’s a catch, of course. If he works too hard, he blacks out and can’t remember a damn thing the next day. There’s definitely trouble in paradise for this pair. John Brahm directs; based on a Patrick Hamilton novel.
Classic Noir Reviews
Kiss Me Deadly/1955/United Artists/105 min.
If you fancy a sci-fi chaser with your classic noir, be sure to check out 1955’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” recently rereleased by Criterion.
Director/producer Robert Aldrich’s evocation of popular pulp writer Mickey Spillane’s apocalyptic novel (with a script from A.I. Bezzerides) has dazzled critics and influenced directors from the French New Wave to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. (Aldrich also directed the campy noirs “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” from 1962 and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” 1964)
The story of ultra-macho Los Angeles gumshoe Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) smiting bad guys and spurning women as he wrestles with a whodunit is a tad misogynistic, but I’ll let that pass because this is a portrayal of a rough and violent, sometimes sadistic, world overall.
Besides, there is much to enjoy – the intense cinematography, for starters, from Ernest Laszlo, also the superb eye of 1950’s “D.O.A.” The film looks great and there are some unforgettable shots, from the arresting opening to the amazing finale. Laszlo creates a harsh, almost merciless, world. “Kiss Me Deadly” also features a fast-paced, hairpin-turn plot, a sexy score, sharp LA location shooting and excellent acting from the entire cast.
Actress Cloris Leachman (who later played the wacky neighbor Phyllis on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show) makes her debut in the film as Christina Bailey, a hitchhiker who snags a late-night ride with Hammer. Christina has just escaped from an insane asylum, in the nude except for a trench coat. She says she was dumped at the asylum and really doesn’t belong there. Oh, that old line.
She gives Hammer vague answers to his questions and tells him to remember her. She’d be a bit hard to forget, actually. The two are run off the road, taken to a house where Christina is tortured and Hammer is punched out, then put back in Hammer’s car and pushed over a cliff. More
An escapee from a mental institution (Cloris Leachman) snags a late-night ride from steely, surly private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), which sets him on the path of a bevy of bad guys and a mysterious leather case. Oh, and the advances of every woman he meets. An intense detective story with a sci-fi twist. From a Mickey Spillane novel; directed and produced by Robert Aldrich.
Cape Fear/1962/Universal Pictures/105 min.
From the moment Robert Mitchum appears in “Cape Fear” with his slow swagger, Southern drawl and serious mean spirit, there’s no doubt he’s a tour-de-force bad guy. In fact, he is one of cinema’s greatest psychos. His character Max Cady ranks No. 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 villains of all time.
The plot is straightforward but it’s a story that simmers with tension. Ex-con Max Cady puts the blame for his recent stint in jail squarely on the man who testified against him: Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, who also helped produce), a prominent lawyer in a small Southern town. Seeking revenge for the eight years he spent behind bars, Cady launches a campaign of terror against Bowden and his family that culminates in a life-and-death struggle in a moonlit swamp.
The 1962 film, still chilling today, had all the ingredients for success: accomplished director J. Lee Thompson (who also made Peck’s 1962 adventure classic, “The Guns of Navarone”), a near-perfect cast, top-notch material (James R. Webb’s screenplay is based on John D. MacDonald’s novel “The Executioners”), a Bernard Herrmann score, cinematography by Sam Leavitt, art direction by Robert Boyle and editing by George Tomasini.
Herrmann, Boyle and Tomasini were frequent collaborators with Alfred Hitchcock. Of shooting in black and white, director Thompson said, “I thought the black and the shadows would enhance the story and color might spoil it.”
The cast includes TV comedienne Polly Bergen as Sam’s wife Peggy, Lori Martin as their daughter, Martin Balsam (“Psycho’s” ill-fated detective) as police chief Mark Dutton, Telly Savalas as gumshoe Charlie Sievers and Barrie Chase as Diane, a goodtime girl victimized by Cady.
To Peck’s credit, he understood that Mitchum’s character was more dynamic than steadfast and respectable Sam Bowden. Mitchum makes even a quick line, such as, “You sweatin’ a little, huh counselor?” glow with burning malice.
Thompson says in the making-of feature in the DVD, “Greg was conscious the whole time that the villain was the colorful part and that Mitchum was playing it beautifully. And he let him run with it. … The way [Peck] played the part and the strength he showed, it became a very good battle between the two men. It was wonderful teamwork between the two.”
Thompson also recalls the way Mitchum embraced the role. “This part is a drunk, a rapist and a violent man, and I live my parts,” Mitchum told him. “It was sort of a warning that we might have some stormy passages during the making of the film … and we did have some stormy passages,” laughs Thompson.More
Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck engage in a battle of wills in this classic thriller by director J. Lee Thompson. Mitchum’s Max Cady is an ex-con looking to even the score with the man he blames for his jail time; he’s nuts but hides it so well. Peck’s good guy is a pillar of strength, guarding his family from Cady’s stalking, smirking and revenge-seeking. Strong support cast and virtuoso visuals.
The Damned Don’t Cry/1950/Warner Bros./103 min.
In “The Damned Don’t Cry,” which is full of sharp dialogue, this line cuts to the chase. Jacqueline DeWit asks Joan Crawford: “What else do we got to sell but a face and figure? And anyone who can make a peplum move like you do don’t need anything else.”
DeWit’s Sandra, a model by day and escort by night, briefly takes Crawford’s character, Ethel Whitehead, under her wing as Ethel learns to fend for herself in New York City. But, in addition to her modeling ability, Ethel has brains and ambition in spades and she soon surpasses Sandra to become the ultimate hard-as-nails femme fatale in this classic Crawford film noir.
Like many femmes fatales, Ethel has humble roots. A downtrodden housewife with a cranky husband (Richard Egan), she eventually rises to the top of a national crime syndicate and lives the high life – travel, the best restaurants, a great apartment, a closet full of swanky clothes. Key to her climb is cultivating contacts such as mild-mannered accountant Martin Blackford (Kent Smith). Ethel is impressed by the letters CPA after his name, even though she’s not quite sure what they mean.
Martin helps her gain entry into the world of tough but urbane George Castleman (David Brian), the leader of the syndicate. “I like men with brains,” Ethel tells George. Finding him far more impressive than number-crunching Marty, she shows up at his office the next day, proves she’s as gutsy as he is and gets a job with his racket. Never one to think twice about mixing business and pleasure, Ethel seals the deal with a kiss.
A quick study, Ethel devotes herself to the syndicate, then takes on a new identity. With polished and distinguished Patricia Longworth (Selena Royle) guiding her, Ethel transforms herself into wealthy socialite Lorna Hansen Forbes. It’s Ethel’s equivalent of an MBA.
But her toughest assignment is when George asks her for some due diligence on gangster Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Despite her new name, old habits die hard and Ethel/Lorna falls for Prenta. Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before George susses her out and decides to set things straight.
With its A-list performances, crackling script, crisp pace and striking cinematography by Ted McCord, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” is an ideal noir vehicle for Crawford. The movie is based on an original story by Gertrude Walker; Harold Medford and novelist Jerome Weidman and wrote the script. Also fodder for the story was the real-life affair of Virginia Hill and gangster Bugsy Siegel. The title comes from a line in “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill. More
The Damned Don’t Cry/1950/Warner Bros./103 min.
A quintessential film noir and one of Crawford’s crowning roles. She plays Ethel Whitehead, a housewife stuck with her dreary, damaged hubster (Richard Egan). Ethel leaves him and tries to build a better life for herself in New York City. Short on actual career skills, her path instead leads her to become a streetwise moll who takes on the mob and never once musses her hair. Along the way, she mixes business and pleasure with David Brian, Kent Smith and Steve Cochran. Vincent Sherman directs.
TCM’s Classic Film Festival starts tomorrow and I’m fretting about packing in all the viewing and events. Definite draws are the classic noirs “The Third Man,” which screens at 9 a.m. Saturday; Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, screening at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday; and “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) showing at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Other must-sees: Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil is a Woman” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935) at 10:15 p.m. Friday and “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)
If a city could be a femme fatale, it might be Vienna in “The Third Man” from 1949. The voiceover at the beginning of the film refers to “old Vienna with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” But new Vienna, a war-torn metropolis split into four Allied zones after World War Two, is a city living by its wits, host to a thriving black market. Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow.
The voiceover also introduces us to a slightly naïve and completely broke newcomer to the hallowed city: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulpy Western novels, who has come to visit his old friend and fellow Yank Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a sly operator.
Instead of a buddy reunion, though, Martins ends up at his friend’s funeral: Turns out Harry was hit by a car and has died. Also at the burial is the distinguished Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suggests they get a drink.
As they sip, Martins starts asking questions about Lime’s death and eventually suspects foul play. So, Martins hunts for more info and, along the way, he meets a handful of vaguely nefarious characters who traveled in Lime’s orbit: his porter (Paul Hoerbiger), “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), the Romanian known as Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto). One source he particularly likes is Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sultry, cynical Czechoslovakian actress, who was also Lime’s lover.
What troubles Martins is learning that there were three men who carried Harry’s body from the street after he died, but he can only find two. Finding the mysterious third man drives the action, ultimately leading to a chilling chase through the dank sewers of underground Vienna.
Director/producer Carol Reed, working from a Graham Greene novel, draws us into a perfectly rendered world where tension and trouble pulse just beneath the surface, where anxiety and disillusion are tempered with fleeting pleasures and faded love. I love the details of everyday Viennese life: a moonfaced boy, an ancient balloon seller, a haggard landlady, a prowling cat and the forlorn-looking Teddy bears of the children’s hospital. The lecture hall scene reminds me of a similar passage in Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” from 1935. More
American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) comes to his visit his school friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in Vienna after World War Two. But he discovers that his pal is dead and the city is a hub for black-market corruption. Cotten digs for more details with help from various jaded denizens, including Welles’ girlfriend (Alida Valli) and a British major (Trevor Howard). First-rate fare from director Carol Reed working from a Graham Greene novel; brilliant zither music from Anton Karas.
Strangers on a Train/1951/Warner Bros. Pictures/101 min.
A friend of mine once went on a second date with a guy who showed up wearing saddle shoes. Let’s just say there wasn’t a third date. If only he’d seen 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the importance of footwear and it shows in this stellar film.
He starts the story by contrasting the shiny, two-toned spats of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) with the sensible black dress shoes of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) as each emerges from a Diamond cab. We follow these parallel footsteps as they board the same train, hence the title.
These brief shots contain the crux of the film: Model citizens often hide hard-core badness and the most unsavory renegades and reprobates can surprise you with a virtue or two (especially if we count charm and fashion sense as virtues).
Despite their differences, Bruno and Guy both have monkeys on their backs. Bruno is a spiffy playboy with psychopathic tendencies. Besides drinking and gambling, he spends his time hatching schemes for space travel and blowing up the White House. Even though Bruno has his wealthy and wacky mother (Marion Lorne) wrapped around his little finger, his father (Jonathan Hale) isn’t so flexible. In fact, he keeps threatening to have Bruno “taken care of, if necessary, put under restraint.”
Guy is a pro tennis player who wants to marry his dream girl Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Hitch’s daughter Patricia plays Anne’s little sister, Barbara. Unluckily for Guy, he’s already married to venal and unfaithful Miriam (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott).
So, during their train trip, Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy, telling him: “I certainly admire people who do things.” Over drinks, smokes and a lamb-chop lunch, Bruno proposes a daring, if absurd, solution to both of their glitches: If Bruno murders Miriam, that would leave Guy free to marry Anne. In exchange, Guy would bump off Mr. Anthony. Guy laughs it off, but Bruno takes it as mutual pledge and proceeds to carry out his part of the deal, trailing Miriam to a carnival and murdering her.
When he hears the news, Guy’s shocked, but if he tells the police, Bruno will claim that Guy was an accomplice. Besides, he had motive. As the police investigate, Bruno pressures Guy to fulfill his part of the plan.
Guy resists, but Bruno won’t back down and turns into a bit of a stalker. Bruno also has an ace in the hole: he nabbed Guy’s engraved cigarette lighter when Guy left it behind after their lunch on the train. Guy may lack Bruno’s warped brilliance but he pushes back when cornered and he’s determined to set things right.
If you don’t love “Strangers on the Train,” I’ll be shocked. It’s a gloriously suspenseful story, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay, but most of that was trashed and rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with uncredited help from Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook adapted.) Hitch and Chandler apparently had a hate/hate relationship. More