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
After four days of back-to-back noirs at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, it is hard to return to reality. I keep expecting to see men in fedoras and mink-coated molls. Or to hear terse whispers from crooks working a heist or an imperious “Ah, shut up” a la Joan Crawford. Well, it’s a rainy day and it’s still early so you never know what might happen.
The annual noir gathering, now in its 11th year, is one of my favorite fests and such a great chance to mingle with other noiristas, such as producer and programmer Alan K. Rode and the rest of the Dark City Players: Marvin Paige, Foster Hirsch, Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller. Ric and Rozene Supple are the fest’s executive producers and the Camelot Theatre does a great job hosting the event. The festival is named after its founder Arthur Lyons Jr., an author and longtime resident of Palm Springs.
From the first notes of Henry Mancini’s silky score for “Experiment in Terror,” which opened the fest, to the Palm Springs locations of 60 years ago, shown in the final movie, “The Damned Don’t Cry,” there was much to relish. In “Experiment in Terror” from 1962, Ross Martin hatches a plot to anonymously extort money from Lee Remick; his efforts are thwarted by FBI agent Glenn Ford.
It’s hard to shake the mood of menace that director Blake Edwards creates in this chilling tale. Stefanie Powers, who played Remick’s younger sister, spoke after the screening. “Nobody shot that way,” she said of Edwards’ daring camera, adding that the film may be the first time that someone died on screen, eyes open.
Friday’s fare included “The Underworld Story” (1950, Cy Endfield); “Six Bridges to Cross” (1955, Joseph Pevney); “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956, Gerd Oswald) and “Cape Fear” (1962, J. Lee Thompson).
I can never get enough of Dan Duryea, star of “Underworld,” and seeing Tony Curtis in “Six Bridges” was a rare treat. “You can’t help liking him even if he is a criminal,” said co-star Julie Adams in the post-screening Q&A, noting the natural charm Curtis brought to the part of inveterate schemer Jerry Florea. Sal Mineo made his screen debut in this movie, as the young Jerry, leader of a Boston street gang.
Then it was time for a dash of luscious color: The broad gaze of CinemaScope catches the hard-core badness of college student and casual killer Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) in “A Kiss Before Dying.” Though he was voted most likely to succeed in high school, at 25, he’s still stuck in college, despite the support of his doting mom (Mary Astor). He figures it would be a whole lot easier to ditch the books and marry into a rich family, even if it requires a murder or two.
Co-starring as his love interests are Joanne Woodward and Virginia Leith, both of whom are excellent. Director Gerd Oswald, a mainstay of the classic TV show “The Outer Limits” and the son of Vienna-born director Richard Oswald, elicits memorable performances, particularly from the young and sexy Wagner.
The evening ended with a classic thriller: “Cape Fear.” The top-notch cast includes Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam and Jack Kruschen. Adding to the mood is music by the maestro of the suspense film Bernard Herrmann.
Mitchum’s portrayal of Max Cady, a brutal sadist seeking revenge, is one of his best and most famous roles. On hand to reminisce after the movie was Chase, also an accomplished dancer who partnered with Fred Astaire on his TV specials. Chase said of Mitchum in this movie: “He was fantastically attractive as a horrible person.”
When she rehearsed her scene with Mitchum (she played a victim of his brutality), he made it very clear that he had nothing on under his pants. “It struck me as funny,” she said. (The audience had the same reaction.) “He was very kind and protective after that; he treated me like a kid sister.”
Also, Chase said, despite giving the impression that he winged it when it came to acting, Mitchum was “totally prepared, he knew exactly what he was going to do.” As for how she broke into movies, she told the audience she got the requisite encouragement to follow her dream from “a fella named Stanley Kubrick” whom she was going out with at the time.
On Saturday morning, critic Kim Morgan introduced “99 River Street” (1953, Phil Karlson) starring John Payne and Evelyn Keyes. Morgan pointed out that the film is a great example both of cinematographer Franz Planer’s work (he was on “Criss Cross,” 1949; “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” 1948; “Bad for Each Other,” 1953, and many others) and of the boxing noir sub-genre, along with “Body and Soul,” 1947, and “The Set-Up,” 1949. All three films, Morgan pointed out, likely would have been on Martin Scorsese’s radar as he prepared to make 1980’s “Raging Bull.”
Next up was “Plunder Road” from 1957, directed by the underrated Hubert Cornfield (“The Night of the Following Day,” 1969) and lensed by Ernest Haller. A reported favorite of Quentin Tarantino, this lean little caper flick is about a group of men stealing gold from a train, hauling it off in commercial trucks and melting it down in a foundry before getting it out of the country. It’s wildly far-fetched, true, but still a good time.
And what noir fest would be complete without an appearance of Elisha Cook, Jr.? Gene Raymond, Wayne Morris and Jeanne Cooper round out the cast; in her discussion with Foster Hirsch, Cooper recalled that Cornfield made the actors really learn the work involved at foundry. He wanted authenticity but also told them wryly: “Now you can back yourselves up and know something more than acting.” Cornfield’s advice on knowing another trade was sadly prophetic – he eventually turned to house painting to support himself.
Completing the afternoon was 1954’s “Loophole,” directed by Harold Schuster, much of which was shot on location in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Malibu. It’s a strong example of a noir staple: the wrongly accused and possibly doomed dude. Barry Sullivan is a standup bank teller; Dorothy Malone plays his loyal and devoted wife; Charles McGraw shines as the obnoxious insurance investigator determined to make Sullivan pay for his “crime.”
Another stalwart of noir is amnesia and in “Mirage,” from 1965, we see the topic deftly handled by master noir director Edward Dmytryk (“Murder, My Sweet, 1944; “Crossfire,” 1947). Gregory Peck stars as the afflicted; Walter Matthau plays a newbie gumshoe helping him out; Diane Baker is a mysterious woman from his past. The film also boasts a great collection of villains: Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, Leif Erickson, Walter Abel and George Kennedy.
Dmytryk effortlessly balances suspense with humor and there are many funny moments, such as when Peck tells Matthau, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you knew what you were doing?” The film is written by Peter Stone, who also wrote “Charade” (1963) and co-wrote “Arabesque” (1966) both by director Stanley Donen, and you can definitely feel the similarities between the three movies.
Eddie Muller and Diane Baker chatted extensively after the movie, with Baker recalling Peck as being full of life with a “great sense of humor and great energy.”
Arguably, the best movies were saved for last. Sunday’s lineup was “Crashout” (1955, Lewis R. Foster), “Saboteur” (1942, Alfred Hitchcock) and “The Damned Don’t Cry” (1950, Vincent Sherman). Certainly, my favorite guest appearance was actor/producer Norman Lloyd, who was interviewed by Alan K. Rode. Lloyd, 96, regaled the crowd with many stories about Orson Welles, John Houseman, Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock and others.
On learning about filmmaking Lloyd said: “When I came to Hollywood, I didn’t know the front end of the camera from the back. I was very nosy and Mr. Hitchcock was delighted to answer my questions. It happened by my talking a lot.”
On Hitchcock dealing with actors? “Hitchcock worked with a major star who had been trained in the Stanislavski method. Hitchcock directed him to sit and the star asked, ‘Why do I sit?’ Hitchcock replied, ‘To put your ass in the seat of the chair.”
And in case any viewers were flagging after four days of viewing, there was sustenance to be found in, as Rode put it, the “take-no-prisoners femme fatale” – none other than Joan Crawford in “The Damned Don’t Cry.” The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Virginia Hill, mistress of gangster Bugsy Siegel, and it’s a joy to watch Crawford savagely claw her way to the top of a national crime syndicate, breaking heart after heart and stubbing out cig after cig as she climbs.
I love this line from Crawford’s character Ethel Whitehead: “Don’t talk to me about self-respect. That’s something you tell yourself you got when you got nothing else.”
Watching Crawford was a terrific way to wrap up the fest and I was a bit sad to say goodbye. I think Eddie Muller summed it up best said when he introduced “Mirage” on Saturday night, telling the packed theater, “The best part of every noir is when the woman gets the gun in her hand.”
Four days of devouring big-screen classics has left me deliciously sated! At least until my next film fest.
About 25,000 people attended this year’s sold-out TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, which featured more than 70 films and special events. Stars who made appearances included Julie Andrews, Alec Baldwin, Drew Barrymore, Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Peter O’Toole, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Mickey Rooney.
Before the screening of 1940’s “Fantasia,” in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Sunday night, TCM’s Bob Osborne announced that there will be a third fest in 2012. He also announced a new event: the TCM Classic Cruise, Dec. 8-12, 2011, a five-day/four-night event aboard Celebrity Millennium. The cruise will sail from Miami to Key West and Cozumel.
Most important for me was getting my noir fix and, happily, dark delights abounded. For example, there was the chance to see Nicholas Ray’s “Bigger Than Life” with James Mason as a teacher struggling with an addiction to prescription cortisone. As co-star Barbara Rush told Osborne before the screening, this 1956 psychological drama has been programmed in several film noir festivals “because it’s so dark and so scary.”
As you’d expect from Ray, it’s very well done and the performances are excellent. Despite telling the audience that she was “very old,” Rush is very lively. When Osborne asked her to talk about her leading men, she replied, “I had them all!”
Another noir high point was meeting the charming Marya of Cinema_Fanatic and chatting with renowned author Foster Hirsch at the screening of 1953’s “Niagara,” directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Marilyn Monroe (as a murderous wife), Joseph Cotten (as her off-kilter husband) and Jean Peters (as a plucky, pretty brunette). Hirsch told the audience that film noir can absolutely be in color, describing “Niagara” both as a “minor masterpiece” and a “pulp-fiction paperback come to life.”
He pointed out the contrast in lighting between the bright exteriors and dark interiors, ending with the comment: “If you’ve come for laughs and joyous uplift, you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Also a treat was seeing “The Man with the Golden Arm” from 1955. Adapted from a Nelson Algren novel, it’s a story about drug addiction in a gritty urban setting, by master noir director Otto Preminger. I’d seen it before but, as with “Niagara,” the big screen really intensifies the storytelling. It is definitely Frank Sinatra’s best performance and one of Kim Novak’s finest as well. In attendance were Preminger’s daughter Vicki Preminger and Sinatra’s daughters Nancy Sinatra and Tina Sinatra. Rounding out the noir programming were “The Third Man” (Carol Reed, 1950), “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) and “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, 1976).
Other films with noir elements included Orson Welles’ masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Tingler” (1959), “The Mummy” (1932), “Went the Day Well (1942) and “Whistle Down the Wind (1961). (I saw all but “Kane,” which I’ve seen several times before.)
The festival also honored master composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored “Citizen Kane” and “Taxi Driver” as well as “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” “Cape Fear” and many others.
On the neo-noir front, I’ll be excited to see Cinemax’s upcoming “Femme Fatales” anthology series “about powerful, sexy and dangerous women” starring Ana Alexander and Anya Monzikova, both of whom walked the fest’s red carpet to promote show.
The first of 13 stand-alone episode starts May 13 and I hope to catch up with the actresses sometime soon.
One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.
And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and JohnSchlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)
In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.
Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).
Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.
After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.
Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.
Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. More
In this Martin Scorsese neo-noir, Robert DeNiro won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of angry loner Travis Bickle, who’s on the brink of insanity in sad and seedy ’70s New York. Says Travis: “Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” While waiting for the rain, he makes it his mission to save a child prostitute. Co-star Jodie Foster, then 12, earned an Oscar nom of her own. Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks round out the cast.