Humphrey Bogart, Primo Carnera, and The Harder They Fall

•February 4, 2014 • 6 Comments
Bogart with co-stars Jan Sterling and Mike Lane

Bogart with co-stars Jan Sterling and Mike Lane

The final film of Humphrey Bogart’s career was The Harder They Fall (1956). In this saga of the seedy side of the boxing world, Bogart is Eddie Willis, an unemployed sportswriter who is hired as a press agent by an unscrupulous promoter, Nick Benko (the great Rod Steiger). Willis’s primary job is to foster publicity for Benko’s latest acquisition, a huge South American fighter, Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), but Willis soon discovers that Moreno is a “powder puff” in the ring. Despite his increasing qualms about the exploitation of the dim-witted boxer, Willis effectively guides him through a lengthy series of fixed fights to the heavyweight championship. Later, after learning that Moreno’s contract has secretly been sold, and unable to stomach the dirty business any longer, Willis gives Moreno the $26,000 he earned as his press agent and sends the young man back to his home in South America. Incensed by Willis’s disloyalty, Benko threatens his life, but the agent reveals his plan to write a series of articles exposing the racket, telling him, “You can’t scare me and you can’t buy me.”

Real-life boxer Primo Carnera (right) claimed the film's story was his own. (And he wasn't happy about it!)

Real-life boxer Primo Carnera (right) claimed the film’s story was his own. (And he wasn’t happy about it!)

Hailed by one critic as a “lively and stinging film,” The Harder They Fall was a hit at the box office, probably enhanced by the amount of publicity it received. In December 1955, Columbia Studios announced that because of “lack of cooperation from the International Boxing Commission,” it had been unable to gain permission to use any stadium in the country for filming, and was forced to combine two stages to make a boxing arena. The film garnered more press in May 1956, when former heavy weight boxing champion Primo Carnera filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the studio, claiming that the movie paralleled his “rise and fall in the ring” and that, as a result, he had been “subjected to ridicule” and “has lost the admiration, respect, and friendship of neighbors and business acquaintances.” In August of that year, the ex-fighter, who later became a wrestler and restauranteur, lost his case when Judge Stanley Mosk, of the Santa Monica Superior Court, ruled that “one who became a celebrity or public figure waived the right of privacy and did not regain it by changing his profession.”

And how was YOUR day??

Happy birthday, Clark Gable!

•February 1, 2014 • 14 Comments
Warning: Pre-Code Gable may cause your eyes to cross!

Warning: Pre-Code Gable may cause your eyes to cross!

Clark Gable may be best-known for his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, but for my money, he gave us some of his most memorable characters during the pre-Code era. In celebration of his birth, 113 years ago today, I offer you my favorite Gable pre-Code films.

The Easiest Way (1931)

This feature stars Constance Bennett as Laura Murdock, a working girl who finds her way to Easy Street when she becomes the mistress of a wealthy older man (Adolphe Menjou). Gable was featured as Nick, Laura’s brother-in-law, who is none-too-approving of her lifestyle. Amiable, hard-working, and very much in love with his wife, Peg (Anita Page), Nick was a bit of a moralistic ass where Laura was concerned, sniping about her pulling up to his house in a limo and refusing to allow Peg to accept her sister’s fancy hand-me-downs (“My wife don’t have to wear the castoffs of a woman like you.”) But he turned out to be a good egg in the end.

Oh, my . . .

Oh, my . . .

A Free Soul (1931)

Oooh, whee! Gable was something else in this one, portraying gang leader Ace Wilfong (don’t know where they got that name from), who catches the eye of a free-spirited society gal when her dipsomaniac dad defends him for murder. We have no problem seeing why the attorney’s daughter, Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer), falls for Ace – he’s powerful, fearless, and sexy as hell. Later on, though, we’re cheering Jan’s efforts to get as far away from this guy as she can!

Gable in Night Nurse: Not a nice guy. At all. Seriously.

Gable in Night Nurse: Not a nice guy. At all. Seriously.

Night Nurse (1931)

Speaking of wanting to get away from guys, Gable’s character in Night Nurse was 10 times worse than Ace Wilfong ever aspired to be – he portrayed another guy named Nick, this time a dastardly chauffeur whose dirty deeds include trying to kill the two young offspring of his alcoholic employer. He also socks nurse Barbara Stanwyck in the jaw. Bastard!

Possessed (1931)

I loved Gable through and through in this one. He played moneyed attorney Mark Whitney, who has a longtime affair with admitted gold-digger Marian Martin (Joan Crawford), transforming her into a lady and falling for her in the process. There was everything to love and (almost) nothing to dislike – except maybe his reluctance to marry the obviously devoted Marian. But we forgive him even that.

If he knew what was coming, Gene Raymond would’ve stayed on the boat.

Red Dust (1932)

In one of Gable’s best-known pre-Code features, he played rubber plantation owner Dennis Carson, a real man’s man whose magnetism attracted both down-to-earth, good-time gal Vantine (Jean Harlow), and high-class married woman Barbara Willis (Mary Astor). If you look too close, Dennis was actually kind of a jerk – he was rude and intolerant with the workers on his plantation, treated poor Vantine like trash, and had an affair with Barbara under her husband’s nose – but you were still rooting for him in the end.

Dames were always fightin' over Gable.

Dames were always fightin’ over Gable.

Hold Your Man (1933)

Here, Gable was re-teamed with Jean Harlow, this time playing a small-time con man who goes on the lam when he delivers a lucky punch that’s not so lucky after all. Once again, Gable managed to create a likable persona out of a character with less than stellar morals. This is definitely Harlow’s film, but Gable’s character, Eddie, is very much a presence throughout. (Plus, it’s got that great title song!)

So, those are my favorite Clark Gable pre-Codes – what are some of yours?

Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Mildred Pierce

•January 22, 2014 • 18 Comments

Along with Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Sudden Fear, Mildred Pierce is one of the few films noirs that I have had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen. Because of this, it’s a sentimental favorite of mine, but I also love it on its own merit – and there’s so much to love! Here are the top 10 reasons why I’m wild about Mildred Pierce:

Mildred Pierce starts out with a bang. Literally.

Mildred Pierce starts out with a bang. Literally.

1. The film’s opening. We’re taking in the view of a beautiful beach house on the edge of the Pacific when the film’s pleasant score is suddenly interrupted by the sound of repeated gunshots. Inside the house, we see that the target of the shots is a tuxedo-clad, mustachioed gent, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) who falls forward into the camera, muttering one name before he dies: Mildred. I’m not ashamed to admit (well, maybe a little) that the first time I saw Mildred Pierce, I went through the entire film firmly convinced (incorrectly) that I knew who killed Monte.

2. Jo Ann Marlowe. She played Kay Pierce, the younger of Mildred’s two daughters. I don’t remember ever seeing her in any other movie (although the IMDB states that she played uncredited roles in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Of Human Bondage), and her last film was in 1950, but she was a delight to watch, cute as a button and a completely natural young actress.

3. The little signs that point to the fact, early on, that Veda is a massive bitch. Like when she chides her baby sister for playing ball in the street and mussing her clothes, telling her she looks like a “peasant.” Her snooty tone when she informs her mother that “Valse Brilliante” means “brilliant waltz.” And when she returns her mother’s declaration of love, but adds, “don’t let’s be sticky about it.”

This scene is mesmerizing. No matter how many times I see it.

This scene is mesmerizing. No matter how many times I see it.

4. The scene where Mildred learns that Veda lied about her pregnancy in order to extort money from her would-be spouse. It starts with Veda tenderly kissing the ten thousand dollar check she received. From there, it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on Mildred that, in her own words, Veda is “cheap and horrible.” Veda delivers her great speech about why she wanted the money (see below) and when Mildred tears up the check, Veda serves up a slap that literally knocks Mildred off her feet. But, boy, when she gets up! I love the steely look in Mildred’s eyes, the barely perceptible quaver of rage in her voice, and her economical choice of words when she tells her daughter, “Get your things out of this house before I throw them into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you.”

5. Jack Carson. In doing a little research for this post, I learned that during his career, Jack Carson was never even nominated – let alone won – an Academy Award, or any other kind of movie award. Such a shame, because Carson’s portrayal of Wally Fay was definitely of award-winning caliber. Carson took this fellow, infused him with equal parts humor, intelligence, and charm, threw in some ruthlessness and deceit, added a dash of cool – and gave us one of his most memorable and watchable characters.

6. The women’s clothes. My favorites were the suit and matching hat worn by Veda on the day she got her new car, the shiny striped number Ida wore to Veda’s 17th birthday party, and the jaunty little hat Mildred had on in the scene in the attorney’s office. Honorable mention to Mildred’s gorgeous fur jacket. (Sorry, PETA!)

Wouldn't you love to have a pal like Ida? I would.

Wouldn’t you love to have a pal like Ida? I would.

7. Ida Corwin. She was the cool pal that every woman would love to have – somebody you could share a drink with in the middle of the day, and count on to give it to you straight, no chaser. Both literally and figuratively. If you know what I mean.

8. Joan Crawford. Actually, this should have been number one. What was I thinking?

9. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I love the fact that Mildred winds up with Bert in the end.

10. And, finally, the lines – oh, the lines! Like these:

“Being a detective is like making an automobile. You just take all the pieces and put them together one by one. First thing you know you’ve got an automobile. Or a murderer.” Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen)

“I was in love with him, and I knew it for the first time that night. But now he’s dead and I’m not sorry. He wasn’t worth it.” Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford)

"What's on your mind, lady?"

“What’s on your mind, lady?”

“What’s on your mind, lady? You know what I think? I think maybe you had an idea you’d take a swim, that’s what I think. You take a swim, I’d have to take a swim. Is that fair? Just cause you feel like bumping yourself off, I gotta get pneumonia. Never thought about that, did you? Okay. Think about it. Go on, beat it now. Go on home before we both take a swim.” Policeman on Pier (Garry Owen)

“With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and from everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its mean that wear overalls. You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!” Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth)

"Alligators eat their young."

“Alligators eat their young.”

“Oh, men. I never yet met one of them that didn’t have the instincts of a heel.” Ida Corwin (Eve Arden)

“Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.” Ida Corwin (Eve Arden)

“You still don’t understand, do you? You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that. . . . The way you want to live isn’t good enough for me.” Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth)

“You don’t really believe I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?” Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott)

Don’t miss Mildred Pierce, airing on TCM Thursday, January 23rd, as part of the spotlight on Joan Crawford. You only owe it to yourself. (For real, though.)

Note: A version of this post appeared at 1001 Movies I (Apparently) MUST See Before I Die, as part of the Seven Shadows blog event.

The Oscars: From Pre-Code to Film Noir

•January 22, 2014 • 3 Comments

These guys might not be too happy, but The Big House was good to writer Frances Marion!

Now that this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced, I am firmly and happily in the grips of my annual Oscar fever – between now and March 2nd, I will be immersing myself in all things Oscar, including trying to see as many nominated movies as possible, viewing my well-worn videotape of Oscar’s Greatest Moments (which covered the Oscars from 1970 to 1990), and reading up on all kinds of Oscar lore. Here’s some of the stuff I found out about the Oscars during the pre-Code and film noir eras…

Frances Marion was the first woman to win an Academy Award, for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1930 for The Big House, a prison drama starring Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, and Robert Montgomery. She became the first person to win two Oscars when she won for Best Story for The Champ in 1932.

Norma Shearer was nominated for Best Actress for both The Divorcee and Their Own Desire, in the same year. According to the website for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a single nomination could honor a performer’s work in one or more films. The final awards ballot listed both of these films for Norma Shearer, but when the Best Actress award was announced, it was only for The Divorcee.

Oscar winner Norma Shearer looks adoringly at her Oscar-winning brother, Douglas.

Incidentally, Norma Shearer and her brother, Douglas, were the first Oscar-winning siblings – Douglas won for Sound Recording for The Big House.

Beginning in the pre-Code era, there was an Oscar awarded for Best Assistant Director. The first year it was introduced – 1933 – the award went to seven assistant directors from seven different studios. The award was discontinued four years later.

In 1931, Fredric March and Wallace Beery tied for the Best Actor Oscar. At that time, the Academy Award rules stated that if the votes of one nominee came within three votes of the top vote-getter, the award would be considered a tie. Beery had one vote less than March. March won for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Beery won for The Champ. After the awards were given, March offered up the following gem: “Mr. Beery and I recently adopted children. Under the circumstances, it seems a little odd that we were both given awards for the best male performance of the year.” (Har!)

John Monk Sanders won the Oscar for Best Original Story for The Dawn Patrol (1930) – which would be remade just eight years later. Sanders’s wife at the time was actress Fay Wray, of King Kong fame.

Katharine Hepburn (here, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) emotes up a storm as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory.

Katherine Hepburn earned the first of her four Oscars (and 12 nominations) during the pre-Code years – she won the Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory (1933).

The first year that films noirs won Oscars was 1945.  Joan Crawford won for Best Actress in Mildred Pierce, and Leave Her to Heaven won Best Color Cinematography. Mildred Pierce also received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth), Black and White Cinematography, Screenplay Writing, and Best Motion Picture. Leave Her to Heaven received nominations for Best Actress (Gene Tierney), Sound Recording, and Art Direction.

In 1948, the song “Buttons and Bows” from the film The Paleface won the Oscar for Best Song. The writers, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, would appear on screen singing the song a few years later in Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Is Gloria telling us how many nominations this film DIDN'T receive??

Is Gloria telling us how many nominations this film DIDN’T receive??

Speaking of Sunset Boulevard, this film racked up Oscar nominations in a variety of categories: Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Writing (Story and Screenplay), Best Director, and Best Picture!

Before 1943, best supporting actors and actresses did not receive a full-sized Oscar; they were given a miniature Oscar on a plaque. (Well, damn.)

1944 was the first year in which the number of nominees for Best Picture was limited to five.

The Killers (1946) – (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT) – the subject of the just-released 40-page “giant” edition of The Dark Pages newsletter – earned nominations for Directing, Music, Film Editing, and Screenplay.

Ronald Colman was a wee bit on the nutty side in A Double Life.

Ronald Colman was a wee bit on the nutty side in A Double Life.

The first Best Actor Oscar for a performance in a noir went to Ronald Colman in A Double Life (1947). In it, Colman portrayed a Shakespearean actor for whom “life imitates art” was more than just a cliché.

In 1953, Joseph Breen – Hollywood’s chief censor and morals cop – was given an honorary Oscar for – get this – his “conscientious, open-minded (!?!) and dignified management of the Motion Picture Production Code. (Alrighty then!)

1947 is often cited as noir’s best year. It was certainly a banner year at the Academy Awards, with nominations going to Body and Soul, A Double Life, Ride the Pink Horse, Crossfire, Kiss of Death, and Possessed. Miklos Rozsa won for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Film for A Double Life.

Be there, or . . . just be there, okay?!?!

Be there, or . . . just be there, okay?!?!

Crossfire was the first ‘B’ movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Two of the three writing awards in 1950 were won by noirs – Panic in the Streets won for Best Motion Picture Story and Sunset Boulevard took home the statue for Best Story and Screenplay.

Erich von Stroheim was not a happy camper when he learned that he’d been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Sunset Boulevard. He reportedly threatened to sue Paramount because he felt the nomination was an insult to his stature.

The Strip (1951) was the first noir to earn a Best Song nomination – for “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” In the film, the song was warbled by Louis Armstrong. (Have you ever heard it? It’s a great song.)

The Oscars were televised for the first time in 1952. And they’re still going strong! So, throw on your best duds, grab a glass of bubbly, and don’t forget to tune into Hollywood’s golden night on March 2nd!

Pre-Code Pick of the Month

•January 8, 2014 • 2 Comments
Don't miss Helen, Lilyan, and Joan in "Millie."

Don’t miss Helen, Lilyan, and Joan in “Millie.”

Omigosh, y’all – you do NOT want to miss all the pre-Code goodness that’s fairly spilling over the sides of TCM on Thursday, January 9th. It’s pre-Code-tastic! Pre-Code-errific! A veritable pre-Code-arama!

Here’s what’s on the line-up . . .

Millie (1931)

This movie is a gas. I discovered it during my recent obsession with Lilyan Tashman, when I was desperate to watch any of her movies I could rest my eyeballs on, and I lucked up on this one for free on YouTube! It stars Helen Twelvetrees in the title role of a woman who goes through more angst, upheaval, and melodramatic woe than you can shake a stick at. And it’s all that! Plus, in addition to the totally awesome Lilyan Tashman, the film co-stars Joan Blondell. You’re welcome.

Favorite quote: “From now on, I don’t care where I’m seen – as long as I’m not seen with you!” Millie Maitland (Helen Twelvetrees)

Trivia tidbit:  The film’s star was born Helen Marie Jurgens. Her first husband was named Clark Twelvetrees (no, really!) and she used his moniker as her professional name.

There’s a whole lot o’ drama goin’ on in “The Firebird.”

The Firebird (1934)

This interesting and unusual film is set in Vienna and features Ricardo Cortez – need I say more?  If you know anything at all about Mr. Cortez, you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s playing quite the cad – a self-absorbed skinflint with a bitter ex-wife and a hankering for the lady who lives upstairs. The cast includes Verree Teasdale as the lady and Anita Louise as her Firebird-loving daughter. Speaking of “The Firebird,” if you don’t know this musical composition now, you will by the time this film is over.

Favorite quote: “I’ll tell them a few things about a fashionable actor, who was nothing until a chorus girl picked him up and worked her head off to pay for his education. And now he won’t even pay her a measly alimony. You’ve got to spend it on society dames! And still you can’t hold one. You fool them for a while with that gentlemanly veneer, which I bought for you – then they begin to smell the male chambermaid in you!” – Mrs. Jolan Brandt (Dorothy Tree)

Trivia tidbit: The year after this film’s release, Verree Teasdale married actor Adolphe Menjou. The two remained together until Menjou’s death in 1963. Bonus tidbit: Russian composer Stravinsky sued Warner Bros. for their “misuse” of the music from his ballet, “The Firebird.” He was seeking 300,000 francs in damages. He won the case – and was awarded one franc.

This scene isn't in the movie, but wow!

This scene isn’t in the movie, but wow!

Grand Hotel (1932)

This star-studded MGM gem is one of my favorites – it covers the comings and goings and behind-closed-door doings during two days in Germany’s Grand Hotel. The varied personages include a despondent prima ballerina, a cash-strapped baron, a worldly wise stenographer, and a terminally ill bookkeeper having one last fling. (Click here for more on this movie, which was my pick of the month for February 2013.)

Favorite quote: “Believe me, Mr. Kringelein, a man who is not with a woman is a dead man.” – Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)

Trivia tidbit: Watch for this goof when the Baron steals the ballerina’s pearls from her trunk. When he pulls them out, they are shown to be a long strand of large pearls. But later, when he withdraws them from his pocket, the pearls are smaller and the strand is noticeably shorter.

Joanie may not have liked her performance, but I sure did!

Joanie may not have liked her performance, but I sure did!

Rain (1932)

Rain tells the story of Sadie Thompson – here in her second of at least three screen iterations (one was played by Gloria Swanson in a silent feature and another by Rita Hayworth in color) – that free-spirited “fallen woman” whose life is turned upside down by a religious zealot. If you haven’t seen Joan Crawford in Rain, you simply and truly must. It’s a riveting performance. And I’m not just saying that because I love Joanie so. Really not!

Favorite quote: “You men! You’re all alike – pigs! I wouldn’t trust any of you!” – Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford)

Trivia tidbit: Because of the negative response from critics and even some of her fans, Joan Crawford always hated her performance in Rain. (But I love it!) (Did I say that already?)

Those are my picks for pre-Code day on January 9th – don’t miss ‘em! (And stick around to see Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee on the next day – you only owe it to yourself!)

TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir

•January 5, 2014 • 6 Comments
Lana Turner and John Garfield practically set the screen on fire in "Postman."

Lana Turner and John Garfield practically set the screen on fire in “Postman.”

TCM is fairly bursting at the seams with first-rate films noirs and pre-Codes in January – so many, in fact, that I just can’t select a single film of the month! Instead, I’m selecting two days on which TCM is airing a series of must-see noir and pre-Code features. So mark your calendars and fire up the DVRs, you’ve got some watchin’ to do!

Today’s post centers on my film noir pick – I’m choosing Monday, January 6th as the don’t-miss day for features from this shadowy era. In back-to-back-to-back fashion, TCM is airing the following four outstanding examples of film noir:

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

One of my all-time favorite noirs, and one that I’ve seen more times than I can count, The Postman Always Rings Twice stars Lana Turner and John Garfield as Cora and Frank – lovers who’ll stop at nothing to be together, even if it means bumping off Cora’s amiable hubby.

Favorite quote: “Stealing a man’s wife, that’s nothing – but stealing a man’s car, that’s larceny.” – John Garfield

Trivia tidbit: Watch for this goof in the first scene after Frank and Cora open their new beer garden. Frank is seen waiting on customers and is carrying a tray with three filled glasses on it. The glasses are obviously glued to the tray, as Frank is carrying the tray at such an angle that the glasses would otherwise fall off.

Robert Mitchum gets more than he bargained for when he hooks up with this dame in "The Locket."

Robert Mitchum gets more than he bargained for when he hooks up with this dame in “The Locket.”

The Locket (1946)

In this film, Laraine Day stars as Nancy Blair, whose beauty masks the fact that she is psychologically unbalanced. The film is notable for its unusual structure, which features a flashback within a flashback within a flashback.

Favorite quote: “When you’re a housekeeper’s daughter, you see the world through a half-open door.” – Laraine Day

Trivia tidbit: The set that serves as the home of Mrs. Willis, where young Nancy lives with her housekeeper mother, is the same house that belonged to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Notorious (1946).

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Joan Bennett stars in this feature as a mother who becomes the living embodiment of maternal self-sacrifice when she covers up a crime committed by her daughter. The cast also includes the great James Mason.

Favorite quote:  “It was my way of doing something that made everything wrong.” – Joan Bennett

Trivia tidbit: The Reckless Moment was produced by Walter Wanger, who was married to Joan Bennett from 1940 to 1965. In 1951, Wanger shot Bennett’s agent and friend, Jennings Lang, and then turned himself into police, announcing, “I’ve just shot the son of a bitch who tried to break up my home.” Lang made a speedy recovery and publicly forgave Wanger, who was later sentenced to four months in jail.

Lady in the Lake (1947)

The plot of this film focuses on private detective Phillip Marlowe, who is hired by the editor of a crime magazine to find the wife of her boss. Directed by Robert Montgomery, the entire film is seen from Marlowe’s viewpoint, and features the always-awesome Audrey Totter, who passed recently.

Favorite quote:  “So you’re a story writer, too, hmm? The detective business must be on the skids. What are you trying to do, elevate yourself?” – Audrey Totter

Robert Montgomery's face is only seen in mirror reflections in "Lady in the Lake."

Robert Montgomery’s face is only seen in mirror reflections in “Lady in the Lake.”

Trivia tidbit:  The first-person camera technique used in Lady in the Lake is known as the “subjective camera.” It had previously only been used for the first few minutes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931. It was used again in Dark Passage (1947), released the same year as Lady in the Lake, but only for about a third of the film. (The subjective camera was used throughout Lady in the Lake.)

Stay tuned for my pick for TCM’s pre-Code day!

Neo-Noir Spotlight: L.A. Confidential (1997)

•December 23, 2013 • 12 Comments

Up to now, all of the noir films I’ve discussed on this blog have been from the classic era of the 1940s and 1950s. But last night, I watched a noir from the “neo” era, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It’s L.A. Confidential, and if you’ve never seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing. (Well, I guess that’s kind of obvious, but you know what I mean.)

Last night was actually my second viewing of this outstanding feature – I first saw it 16 years ago when it was released in 1997 – I was pregnant at the time with my younger daughter. (In fact, while watching it last night, I joked on Twitter that it was a wonder my child hadn’t emerged biting her nails and smoking a cigarette!)

From my first initial viewing, I recalled that the film was excellent and that I enjoyed it, but for some reason, I don’t think I really remembered just how good it was.

The film's fantastic cast includes Cromwell, Pearce, Crowe, and Spacey.

The film’s fantastic cast includes Cromwell, Pearce, Crowe, and Spacey.

The story is set in 1953 and focuses on three LAPD cops – Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who works on the side as consultant to a popular TV show and cares more about the glamorous side of his job than actually catching bad guys; Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), a dedicated cop with a volatile temper and a soft spot for abused women; and bespectacled Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), whose ambition is almost his undoing. Other characters in the film include police captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell); Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, in an Oscar-winning performance), a high-end call girl who looks like Veronica Lake; Lynn’s wealthy and unflappable pimp, Pierce Morehouse Patchett (David Strathairn); and Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), publisher of a scandal rag called Hush.

The noirish plot is appropriately labyrinthine, with more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive, but it centers primarily on a mass murder at a local diner and the efforts of the three officers to solve the crime. Based on a James Ellroy novel, the film blends real-life occurrences and personalities with the fictional goings-on. I’m not even going to try to go into more details than that; instead, I’ll offer up a few miscellaneous bits of whatnot about this fabulous flick:

This event was based on a real-life incident in L.A. in 1951.

This event was based on a real-life incident in L.A. in 1951.

One of the real-life events that finds its way into the film was the Bloody Christmas incident in 1951, during which seven prisoners, mostly Hispanic, were savagely beaten by members of the L.A. police department.

The film also depicts gangster Mickey Cohen, Cohen’s henchman Johnny Stompanato, and Stompanato’s girlfriend, actress Lana Turner. (Incidentally, although the movie takes place in 1953, Stompanato and Turner weren’t involved until 1957 and 1958. Stompanato was killed by Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, following an argument with the famed actress. Or so the story goes.)

The film was directed by Curtis Hanson, who also worked on the screenplay. Reportedly, in order to prepare his cast and crew for the noir-era film, Hanson showed them a number of noir classics, including In a Lonely Place (1950), Private Hell 36 (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Killing (1956).

Simon Baker (left) got his big break in this film.

Simon Baker (left) got his big break in this film.

Actor Simon Baker, who currently stars in the CBS series The Mentalist, made his big screen debut in this film, playing an ill-fated, wanna-be actor. He was billed under his real name, Simon Baker Denny.

Speaking of Simon Baker, he, and two of the film’s stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, were all raised in Australia. Baker was born there, while Pearce was born in England and Crowe was born in New Zealand.

At a certain point in the movie, one character asks another, “Have you a valediction?” I had no idea what this meant, but after a few quick keyboard stokes, I learned that a valediction is the action of saying farewell; parting words. Now you know.

Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her performance.

This film is apparently brimming with goofs and little continuity errors (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The only one I noticed was the Stompanato/Turner timeline issue, but I plan to watch it again and look for them. If you go to the film’s page on IMDB, they’re all listed there.

I watched this entire movie sitting cross-legged on my bed – I barely moved a muscle during the entire production, and spent a great deal of it with one hand clapped over my mouth – that’s how good it was. If you’ve never seen L.A. Confidential, do yourself a favor and hunt it down – you can buy it for cheap on DVD, view it for free on Amazon if you have Prime, or check it out on any number of other Internet sites. And if you’ve seen it, this may just be the perfect time to rediscover it!

You only owe it to yourself.


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