TCM Pick of the Month: Pre-Code

•May 27, 2020 • 4 Comments

I was so pleased to see that Five Star Final (1931) was airing on TCM as part of the network’s “Star of the Month” spotlight on Edward G. Robinson. I’ve had this film (on VHS) in my collection for many years, but it’s a lousy copy and, as a result, I’ve only seen it once or twice. Before selecting it, I didn’t recall much about the story’s specifics, but I clearly remembered that this is one heck of a pre-Code and a first-rate offering from Robinson. Choosing it as this month’s TCM pre-Code pick was a no-brainer!

The plot involves the efforts of a single-minded newspaper owner to boost his paper’s sagging circulation – by any means necessary. Turns out that his primary necessary means is to publish a series of articles focusing on a young woman, Nancy Voorhees (Frances Starr), who fatally shot her boss 20 years earlier because he refused to marry her after getting her “in trouble.” The jury declined to convict the woman because she was expecting a child, and she went on to get married and disappear from public view. As fate would have it, the newspaper is revisiting the case on the wedding eve of Nancy’s now 20-year-old daughter, who neither knows of her mother’s criminal past, nor that her mother’s husband is not her father.

Randall cannot wash away his sin.

Spearheading the serial is managing editor Joseph Randall (Robinson), whose previous attempts to lift the paper above the popular sensationalist muck have led to its current failing state, and who has now left his high ideals by the wayside in order to keep his job. (“I’ve been in this game too long to be ashamed of myself. I’m gonna be one newspaper man that gets out of this business with enough money to give me a decent old age,” he explains.) Randall’s ruthless management of the story is so contrary to his deep-seated inner convictions that he is obsessed with frequently washing his hands, as if trying to scrub away the dirt in which he’s found himself surrounded. When the first article in the planned series is published, the fallout results in a string of unimaginable consequences; the last 30 minutes of the film are as dramatic, unexpected, and heart-rending as anything I’ve ever seen.

Boris Karloff ain’t no Frankenstein in this film.

In addition to Robinson, the cast includes Aline MacMahon as Randall’s secretary, who is secretly in love with her boss, but also serves as what he refers to in one scene as his “visible conscience”; Boris Karloff as Isopod, an unscrupulous, hard-drinking reporter (not to mention a rather creepy lecher); Ona Munson as a new reporter on the paper,  who’s not above breaking the law to get her story; and Marian Marsh, as the bride-to-be whose world is about to be forever changed by the newspaper’s revelations.

Within the film’s overall narrative, Five Star Final contains a number of dialogue exchanges that serve as superb representatives of the pre-Code era – the kind of lines that leave you with your mouth open. (In other words, my favorite kind!) Here’re just a few examples of what I mean:

In her first scene, Kitty Carmody (Ona Munson – who you might remember as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind), arrives at the newspaper offices for her job interview for a reporter position, clad in a close-fitting, low-cut dress and three-inch patent leather heels. She informs the managing editor’s secretary, Miss Taylor (MacMahon), that she’d had a lot of experience in Chicago. Miss Taylor gives her the up-down and remarks, “Yeah, you look it.”

Miss Taylor illustrates the job-winning attributes of the new reporter.

In that same scene, after Kitty’s departure, Miss Taylor shares with a young male co-worker that the previous reporter in the position was fired because she was flat-chested. She further offers, “Now they’re going to put this girl on because she’s –“ and she makes a gesture toward her own chest to indicate a voluptuous figure. “Oh, I like ‘em that way, too,” her pal says.

The paper’s owner asks his secretary to retrieve an early draft of the Voorhees article. When she brings it to him, he asks her for her thoughts. Her opinion? “I think the part about the illegitimate child isn’t made quite clear enough.”

The contest manager of the paper has the bright idea to increase circulation by holding a taxicab race throughout the city – and plans to rig it to ensure that “an Irishman, a Jew, and a Wop” win the contest.

There’s a reason why this film attracted lines around the block. Find out why.

And finally, there’s this exchange between Randall and Kitty Carmody, when the latter complains to her boss about her fellow reporter, Isopod:

Kitty: I rode uptown in a taxi with him and I haven’t any skin left on my knees.

Randall: What were you two doing, kneeling in prayer?

Kitty: He was doing the kneeling. I darn near went off the side of the cab.

Five Star Final serves up an unrelenting, scathing indictment on the news media, which is just as timely today as it was nearly 90 years ago when the film was released. Do yourself a favor and check this one out, May 28th on TCM.

You only owe it to yourself.

TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir

•May 25, 2020 • 12 Comments

Until I watched it recently to prepare for this post, I’d only seen Pickup on South Street (1953) once, and that was almost 20 years ago. But it made enough of a lasting impact that as soon as I saw that it was airing this month on TCM, I knew that it would be my noir recommendation.

Pickup tells the story of a woman (Jean Peters) who has her wallet stolen from her purse while traveling on a crowded subway. (I’ll bet I’m not the only viewer who immediately thinks of social distancing while viewing this scene! But anyway.) She’d been serving as a courier for her ex-boyfriend (Richard Kiley) and she was on her way to make her last delivery, not knowing that she’s been carrying classified information to the Communists. She also didn’t know that her latest dropoff – which was on microfilm in her pilfered wallet – was a new patent for a chemical formula. The happenstance theft by a wily pickpocket (Richard Widmark) ties together a set of characters and sets off a chain of events leading to deception, violence, and murder.

Love in the era of noir.

Masterfully directed by Samuel Fuller, who would later helm such noirs as House of Bamboo (1955), and The Crimson Kimono (1959), the film serves up a combination of unremitting noirish doom and the battle against Communism, with a dash of a love story tossed in for good measure. It’s a riveting, superbly acted feature – if you haven’t already, you simply must put it on your watch list this week.

This film marked the second time I ever saw Jean Peters on screen. The first time was in Niagara (1953), where she played the aptly named Polly Cutler – a Midwestern housewife clad in sensible blouse-and-skirt combinations and flat shoes. Her also-aptly-named-Candy in Pickup couldn’t be more different. I really find it hard to believe that this is not only the same actress, but that the two films were released in the same year. When we first see her, she’s wearing a white, form-fitting dress, matching pocketbook and gloves, and she’s got a pouty, insolent look on her face. And then when she opens her mouth! This common-sounding, streetwise drawl comes out, and you’re instantly drawn to her, wondering where she came from and what she’s all about. She’s utterly fascinating.

Hooker? Or nah?

(Incidentally, I’ve read several reviews about this film, each of which label Candy as a hooker. I don’t where this information came from – the source of this knowledge totally escapes me. There are only two character exchanges that might possibly hint at this avocation; in the first, Candy’s ex-fella remarks that she’s “knocked around a lot – you know people that know people.” And Candy responds, “You gonna throw that in my face again?” And later, after Candy asks Skip how he got to be a pickpocket, he retorts, “How’d you get to be what YOU are?” But, honestly, I don’t know how the leap was made from these comments to Candy being a hooker. If somebody can shine some light on this for me, I’d be most appreciative!)

Widmark is top-notch. (So what else is new?)

As ex-con, petty thief Skip McCoy (if that isn’t a perfect name for a pickpocket, I don’t know what is), Richard Widmark turns a typically stellar performance. At his home in a sparsely furnished riverfront shack, he cannily stores his ill-gotten gains in a crate submerged beneath the water beside his home. Cooler than the other side of the pillow, Skip is fascinating to watch – fearless, calm under fire, quick-thinking, it doesn’t take him long to realize that the microfilm in his possession is worth a whole lot more than he’d bargained for when he slipped the wallet from Candy’s purse. And despite the admonishments from police about the film falling into the wrong hands, Skip’s hankering for cash far outweighs any sense of patriotic duty he might possess.

Everything’s better with Thelma Ritter.

Thelma Ritter is on hand as Moe Williams, a world-weary, hardscrabble survivor who lives over a tattoo parlor and ekes out a living peddling information and selling ties. She’s saving every spare dime to buy a headstone and private burial plot in Long Island – if she were to be buried in Potter’s Field, it would “just about kill” her. With her finger on the pulse of the criminal underworld, she enters the story when police – who are hot on the trail of the Communist ring – retain her to help find the identity of the pickpocket and the possessor of the stolen microfilm. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Ritter (as usual) steals every scene, and that’s no small feat in this picture. Plus, in a movie rife with great lines, Ritter has one of my favorites during a conversation with Skip: “Listen, I knew you since you was a little kid – you was always a regular kinda crook. I never figured you for a louse. Even in our crummy kind of business, you gotta draw the line somewheres.”

Pickup on South Street will grab you, grip you, and hold your attention from start to finish – tune into TCM on Friday, May 29th (which also happens to be my mom’s 92nd birthday!) – you’ll be glad you did.

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 From the ’60s

•May 16, 2020 • 11 Comments

I don’t seem to have the time for participating in blogathons like I used to years ago.

But I never let anything stand in the way of celebrating National Classic Movie Day by joining the annual blogathon hosted by Rick over at the Classic Film and TV Café.

He’s had some great topics in the past – including Five Movies on an Island and My Favorite Movie – and this year is no different, shining the spotlight on six favorite films from the 1960s. Choosing my six was an easy task, initially, until I started finding additional films that I couldn’t believe I’d overlooked the first time around – there was a good deal of switching and substituting, eliminating and reinstating – but at long last, I came up with my final list. Submitted for your approval, my six favorite films of the 1960s.

In no particular order.

“Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, what a beautiful, beautiful name.”

Funny Girl (1968)

This Barbra Streisand-starrer was one of those that didn’t make my list the first time around. But when I reviewed the decade’s titles again recently, this one jumped out at me like a Jack in the Box. As a rule, I’m no huge fan of musicals, but I’ve loved this one since I was a little girl and taped all the songs off of the TV so I could learn every word. Some of the tunes (“I’d Rather Be Blue”, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, and “My Man”) are still among my favorites to this day.

The film tells the story of comedienne Fanny Brice, from her humble beginnings in vaudeville, to her rise to fame and fortune, and her ill-fated marriage to her first husband, gambler Nick Arstein (Omar Sharif). In addition to the principal players, the film features Kay Medford as Brice’s mother, Walter Pidgeon as Florenz Ziegfeld, and Anne Francis as Fanny’s best buddy in the Ziegfeld Follies.

Favorite quote: “I’m a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls!” – Fanny Brice

She’ll never win Mother of the Year.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

I first saw The Manchurian Candidate in 1988, after MGM/UA made it available for release in theaters and on video. I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it – or to really even understand what was going on. I’m mature enough now. (BOY, am I!)

This riveting film is about Raymond Shaw, the son of a politically powerful family who is brainwashed into assassinating the leading candidate for the U.S. presidency. It turns out that Shaw, along with several other servicemen, had undergone extensive hypnotism and mind-manipulation while serving together in Manchuria during the Korean War, as part of a Communist plot. The top-notch cast includes Laurence Harvey as Shaw, Frank Sinatra in the role of Shaw’s wartime comrade and closest friend, and Angela Lansbury as one of the most diabolical, thoroughly evil mothers on record.

Favorite quote: “It’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. But I didn’t always hate her. When I was a child, I only kind of disliked her.” – Raymond Shaw

They rob banks. (And look good doing it.)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

I remember first seeing Bonnie and Clyde at the drive-in when I was a little girl – my mother didn’t have any qualms about introducing me to films that today’s world would deem unsuitable for children. (And thank goodness she didn’t!) The main visual that was seared into my consciousness was the scene where the title characters meet their bullet-riddled demise. It wasn’t scary to me – it was more fascinating than anything – and totally unforgettable. That scene still leaves me breathless.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty star as the duo who robbed and shot their way across the country in the Depression-era 1930s before finally being gunned down by Texas lawmen. The outstanding cast also includes Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons as Clyde Barrow’s brother, Buck, and his criminally reluctant and continuously hysterical wife Blanche; Michael J. Parker as C.W. Moss, another member of the Barrow gang; and Dub Taylor, C.W.’s duplicitous father who facilitates that downfall of Bonnie and Clyde.

Favorite quote: This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.” – Clyde Barrow

Crawford and Davis: what a team!

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

I wasn’t sure about including Baby Jane on my list until recently, when I showed it to my two daughters and remembered just how much I love this film. This is another one I remember seeing as a little girl and it served as my introduction to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I had no idea at the time that they would turn out to be my two favorite actresses.

In the film, aging former child perfomer Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) lives in a crumbling Hollywood mansion with her sister, Blanche (Crawford), who’d once enjoyed a successful movie career but is now paralyzed and unremittingly tortured by her younger sibling. The movie belongs almost exclusively to Davis and Crawford, except for featured roles by Maidie Norman, who played Blanche’s sharp-witted (but not quite sharp enough) caretaker, and Victor Buono as an unemployed piano player who thinks he’s hit pay dirt when he answers an ad placed by Jane.

Favorite quote: “I didn’t bring your breakfast, because you didn’t eat your din-din!” – Jane Hudson

Eddie and Minnesota Fats face off.

The Hustler (1961)

Although The Hustler isn’t exactly a “feel good” movie, I had to include it on this list, because the performances are just so amazing. I watched it again a few weeks ago, during TCM’s Special Home Edition film festival and was once again riveted – like I was seeing it for the first time.

Paul Newman stars as “Fast Eddie” Felson, the small-time hustler of the film’s title, who yearns to use his skills and talents as a pool player to launch into the upper echelon of high-stakes gaming. The movie takes us through the ups and downs of Eddie’s existence, from besting real-life famed pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), only to lose the thousands of dollars he’s won, to teaming with a ruthless manager (George C. Scott) who has only his own best interests at heart but who unwittingly serves as the catalyst for Eddie’s moral breakthrough. The film also stars Piper Laurie, in a heartbreaking performance of Eddie’s damaged girlfriend.

Favorite quote: “I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. And even if you beat me, I’m still the best.” – “Fast Eddie”

Who wouldn’t want a father like Atticus?

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The more I see To Kill a Mockingbird, the more I fall in love with it. There’s just so much to love, so much to be fascinated by. Even the smallest, most commonplace conversations seem to be teeming with significance and depth.

Set in the 1930s, the central story of To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the attempts of small-town lawyer Atticus Finch to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. But there’s so much more going on – the relationship between Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, and their summer visitor, Dill; the lessons – both big and small – that they learn; and the mystery surrounding their reclusive neighbor, known as “Boo” Radley. Finch is the heart and soul of the film – he’s played to perfection by Gregory Peck, who creates a portrait of the father every one of us would love to have.

Favorite quote: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.” – Atticus Finch

And that’s it! My six favorite movies from the 1960s. What movies would be on your list?

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This post is part of the Classic Film and TV Cafe Blogathon celebrating National Classic Movie Day. Click here to read the great posts offered as part of this year’s event!

You only owe it to yourself. And the writer in you.

Pre-Code and Film Noir Gems at the TCM Special Home Edition Film Festival

•April 16, 2020 • 2 Comments

In my last post, you may recall, I wrote about the virtual roundtable interview held with TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, General Manager Pola Changnon, and Senior VP of Programming Charlie Tabesh to kick off the network’s first-ever Special Home Edition of the TCM Film Festival (now that’s a mouthful!).

The festival’s line-up is superb, with round-the-clock goodies from interviews with classic film stars to award-winning features. And nestled among these gems are seven pre-Code and film noir features that you won’t want to miss – taken together, they’re an absolutely outstanding collection of some of the finest examples that these two eras of cinema had to offer.

Friday, April 16th

Night Flight (1933)

Before airing at the 2011 TCM Film Festival, this feature had been out of circulation for more than 50 years. This aviation drama was produced by David O. Selznick, directed by Clarence Brown, and boasted an all-star cast that included John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and Myrna Loy. It was introduced at the 2011 fest by Drew Barrymore, John’s granddaughter.

Saturday, April 18th

Ann Harding and William Powell bring Double Harness to life.

Double Harness (1933)

This was one of the most popular films offered at the 2016 TCM festivaI – it was shown at two separate screenings and had to turn away festgoers at each one. (I was lucky enough to catch the second showing.) Double Harness stars the wonderful Ann Harding and the always fabulous William Powell. At the 2016 fest, the film was introduced at both screenings by James Cromwell, son of the film’s director John Cromwell. (James Cromwell’s mother, incidentally, was actress Kay Johnson.)

They Live By Night (1949)

This feature tells the tale of two noir-crossed lovers, played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The film also includes superb support from Jay C. Flippen and an oh-so-scary Howard DaSilva. It was helmed by Nicholas Ray in his directorial debut, and introduced at the 2013 TCM film festival by Ray’s widow, Susan.

Richard Widmark is outstanding in Night and the City.

Night and the City (1950)

This riveting film stars Richard Widmark in what I consider to be one of his best performances, as Harry Fabian, an inveterate hustler who’s always chasing the next get-rich-quick scheme. Widmark is ably backed by Gene Tierney as Harry’s long-suffering girlfriend, Herbert Lom, Googie Withers, and Mike Marzurki. Night and the City was directed by Jules Dassin, who was accused of Communism and blacklisted after refusing forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He left the United States for France and Night and the City was the last film he directed for five years.

Sunday, April 19th

The bulk of the action in The Set-Up centers on the Dreamland arcade.

The Set-Up (1949)

Filmed in real-time, The Set-Up is a showcase for the considerable talents of Robert Ryan, who plays a boxer who’s not exactly in the prime of his career, if you know what I mean. Others in the film’s superb cast include Audrey Totter, Percy Helton, and George Tobias (who you might remember best as Abner Kravitz in TV’s Bewitched). The screening of the film at the 2018 TCM film festival featured actor/filmmaker Malcom Mays, who performed a live reading of the Joseph Moncure March poem on which the film is based.

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Jean Harlow stars as Lil Andrews, the social-climbing man-stealer of the film’s title. There’s never a dull moment in this one, which features some of my favorite pre-Code performers: Una Merkel, Chester Morris, and Leila Hyams. It was introduced at the 2017 TCM film festival by film historian Cari Beauchamp, author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (whose presentations are always a treat).

Baby Face (1933)

She ain’t no baby.

One of pre-Code’s best-known and most popular offerings, Baby Face stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman from the other side of the track who quite literally sleeps her way to the finer things in life. She’s supported by George Brent, Theresa Harris, Donald Cook, and a young John Wayne. This is one of the film’s that was slated to be screened at this year’s festival in Hollywood – it was to be introduced by the witty and knowledgeable Bruce Goldstein, founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures and Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum cinema.

If you have TCM, do yourself a favor and take part in the Special Home Edition of the TCM Film Festival. It’s serving up a wide variety of excellent films and unique features, as well as some surprises – and you can’t go wrong with the film noir and pre-Code offerings!

You only owe it to yourself.

Turner Classic Movies Presents the Special Home Edition of the TCM Film Festival

•April 14, 2020 • 1 Comment

If you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll know that every spring around this time, I gleefully toddle off to Los Angeles, California, to attend the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. You might also know (or at least have guessed) that this year’s L.A. event was cancelled more than a month ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what you might not know is that TCM is serving up another type of event this year – the first-ever TCM “Special Home Edition” Film Festival. This four-day cinematic celebration will feature films from both past film festivals and from the fest that was planned for this year, along with a variety of special features.

To kick off the Special Home Edition of the film festival, TCM offered a virtual roundtable interview on April 14th, featuring host Ben Mankiewicz, General Manager Pola Changnon and Senior VP of Programming, Charlie Tabesh. I was pleased and privileged to be invited to participate in this event.

Pola Changnon and Ben Mankiewicz with Peter Bogdanovich at the 2017 TCM Film Festival

According to Changnon, who took over the position of TCM General Manager in January 2020, the idea for the Special Home Edition evolved shortly after the decision was made to cancel the regular festival.

“We were obviously looking with concern at the pandemic. It was literally about a month ago when it was clear that we were going to have to cancel the fest, and we didn’t even feel comfortable postponing it,” Changnon said. “By the end of the day, Charlie felt confident that he could pull something together on our network in place of the festival. Within a couple of days, we knew that we had something really special.”

Tabesh stated that one of the considerations in planning the Special Home Edition was to include programming that the network doesn’t ordinarily air, including interviews and tribute pieces from previous years. He added that his team has done an “amazing” job, working remotely, pulling together material from previous years.

Senior VP of Programming Charlie Tabesh said that TCM is bringing fans together virtually in a way that wouldn’t have been possible previously.

In addition to the features from past fests, the Special Home Edition will include new film introductions from Ben Mankiewicz that were filmed in the past few weeks.

“We shot some stuff in a way I’ve never shot anything before – an unbelievably scaled-down crew and no one came within 10 feet of me,” Mankiewicz said. “The programming you’ll see this weekend will look different. I’m also reminded that people look forward to the festival all year – that includes us – because of this incredible connection we offer to our fans. When we announced the cancellation, I was asked to write something to say on the air. Both in writing and delivering it, I got very emotional. What Charlie programmed helped us all – it certainly helped me.”

Stay home and watch TCM!

Mankiewicz also spoke about the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine and the videos he has filmed for social media to reach out to TCM fans.

“I know I’m in a better position that a lot of people to get through this. I see those food bank lines and read about grocery store workers literally risking their lives, and I just wanted to check in,” he said. “We have a meaningful community here and it means a lot to me.” He also shared that he’d heard from one TCM fan who’d gotten fired from his job of 30 years on the day that Mankiewicz posted his first video. The fan said that he went home, bundled up, and turned on TCM, Mankiewicz recalled, adding, “This network lives because fans care about it so deeply.”

The Special Home Edition of the film festival runs April 16th through April 19th. Click here to view the line-up. And stay tuned for my coverage of this exciting and unique event!

TCM Pick of the Month: Film Noir — Guest Post by Kristina Dijan

•April 11, 2020 • 3 Comments

My TCM film noir pick for the month of April is a first-rate feature starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor and Jacqueline White — The Narrow Margin (1952). To tell you all about it, I’ve invited my pal, Kristina Dijan, author of the Speakeasy blog and Senior Writer for The Dark Pages film noir newsletter, to serve as this month’s guest blogger. Enjoy!

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This is one of the most thrilling, modest, low-budget quickies ever made, and one of my all-time favorite noirs. Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) is tasked with escorting a gangster’s widow, one Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor), to trial. From Chicago to Los Angeles. On an express train. Onboard, there are gunmen who want her dead. Simple. High concept, clear goal, few characters, claustrophobic, fast-moving setting, streamlined crime story and a classic.

Windsor and McGraw are formidable opponents.

That may all be true but it’s also complex, dark and full of wickedly fun lines, clever twists and constant obstacles that have Walter dodging repeated murder attempts and contemplating some tough choices. Walter’s partner is shot dead before they even get on the train, which, along with Mrs. Neall’s cold, selfish, contemptuous manner, creates tension between detective and the witness he’s transporting. Mrs. Neall is carrying her husband’s “pay-off” list, which will expose more bad guys and their links to corrupt figures in the LAPD. Now the bad guys on the train don’t know what Neall looks like and mistake another passenger for their target. Walter has to navigate the – you guessed it – narrow margin and decide which side he’ll step to; will he remain the decent lawman or take the bribe he’s offered by the mob to hand over the valuable but detestable woman in his care. And this all happens before a shocking revelation about who and what Mrs. Neall really is. Such a surprise ending after the non-stop race has you looking back, thinking over the details in new light, to figure out motives, moves and meanings of statements.

Director Richard Fleischer creates an atmosphere of claustrophia.

Director Richard Fleischer makes the most of the forward movement and cramped quarters, where our players hide in bathrooms, chase, dodge, take hostages, and knock teeth out of each other, struggling down narrow corridors and tight compartments. The contained world of the train remains mostly disconnected from the outside, with brief stops along the way where frantic communication and exchanges of information happen. As plot urgency and propulsion go, you can hardly engineer any better than this mix: a race, a countdown toward confrontation and exposure, combined with the fog of uncertainty, paranoia and identity confusion, the high likelihood of tragic collateral damage to innocent passengers, and an onslaught of criminals seemingly as unstoppable as the locomotive. The title, the setting, the story, all suggest and construct entrapment, while duping us and Detective Brown with a very familiar noir trope that turns out to be a masquerade, so that there are two disguises at work, and everyone in the dark, since neither the good nor bad guys know exactly who they are working or looking for.

Windsor plays her role with gusto.

RKO head Howard Hughes liked this movie so much he wanted it to never be seen. Not in this form, anyway. Hughes loved the story and saw such potential in it that he wanted it immediately remade as a big A movie with big stars like Robert Mitchum. Luckily The Narrow Margin came out as is, leaving a remake for many decades later, when Peter Hyams did an excellent one in 1990. Not that the original needed improving in any way; Hyams’s is more of a revival, another generation of talent playing with material too juicy to lie fallow. Juiciest of all, what any actress would love to sink teeth into, is the role of Mrs. Neall, which can’t be fully dissected without spoiling the twists, but what can be said is that in the original Marie Windsor plays her with top-notch seductive gusto. She’s a dish, a “sixty-cent special . . . cheap, flashy, strictly poison under the gravy.” Her sparring with McGraw’s Walter is a verbal shootout as wounding and rapid as any with real ammo, and she pushes him to the point where he wants to “step on her face.” It’s a shame – and maybe the only complaint I have about this movie – that such a lady vanishes from the train toward the movie’s end, when we could always use more of that sass and spark.

Don’t miss The Narrow Margin, April 21st on TCM.

Those are some of the plot tricks. The technical ones used to make the film are just as marvelous: the rear projection to show us the passing landscape, the camera that (amazingly, given its size) follows frantic action along passageways that seem impossibly narrow, the gorgeous noir shadows painted across almost every wall and surface, reflections in windows so perfectly placed. And what music do you need in a movie where the sounds are maximally used, like Neall’s rhythmic nail-filing that cuts to, blends right into the clacking beat of the train tracks? I love the “photobomb” where the gangster’s target walks right behind them as they lament not having caught any glimpse of her. Not that they’d have actually seen her even if they did see her, mind you. Don’t worry, that will all make sense if you catch The Narrow Margin on TCM April 21st.

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I’m ever so grateful to Kristina for her guest post, and I encourage you to treat yourself to more of her superb writing by visiting her blog, Speakeasy.

You only owe it to yourself.

TCM Pick of the Month: Pre-Code

•April 5, 2020 • 3 Comments

Several years ago on this blog, I had a monthly feature where I selected my recommendations for film noir and pre-Code features airing on TCM. I’ve decided to resurrect this practice – and what a month to start! TCM is practically overflowing with first-rate noir and pre-Code offerings, including Safe in Hell (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Baby Face (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), Out of the Past (1947), They Live By Night (1948), The Set-Up (1949), and Wicked Woman (1954). But aside from these gems, I was still left with a veritable smorgasbord of goodies to choose from for this month’s picks. First up, my pre-Code pick . . .

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)

This feature stars one of cinema’s most underrated and underappreciated actresses, Ann Dvorak, in the title role of a shopgirl who very nearly manages to climb her way out of her circumstances, only to fall plummeting ignominiously to the earth. (Ann’s lasst name is pronounced “VOR-shack,” by the way.) As the film begins, Molly, a hotel cigar counter clerk, has just learned that her wealthy boyfriend, Ralph (Don Dillaway), is having a birthday celebration and plans to introduce her for the first time to the upper-crusty matriarch of his family. “I’ve kept you a secret from mother long enough,” Ralph tells her. “You’re going to be right there at the dinner table between mother and me.”

Dvorak with her soon-to-be real-life husband, Leslie Fenton.

As Molly excitedly prepares to meet her future mother-in-law, we’re also introduced to two other characters – Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton), an oily salesman with obvious designs on Molly, and Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell), a hotel bellhop who has a secret crush on our heroine.

Despite Molly’s belief that her meeting with Ralph’s mother means the beginning of a new life, it’s not to be. When she arrives at the family mansion, Molly’s informed that the party has been cancelled and Ralph has left behind nothing but a “Dear Molly” letter. Devastated by the news, Molly turns to Nicky and runs off with him, spending the next few years traveling from town to town. Incidentally, we learn that, in between stops, Molly has had a baby daughter – Ralph’s child.

In typical pre-Code fashion, circumstances go from bad to worse, with Molly eventually finding herself on the lam from the law. But you’ve got to tune in for yourself on April 9th to see how she got there – and what happens next.

Other stuff:

Did I forget to mention Lee Tracy’s in the cast?

Leslie Fenton, who played the pantyhose salesman, was married to Ann Dvorak in real life from 1932 to 1946. According to Dvorak’s biographer, Christine Rice, the two met New Year’s Eve, shortly before filming started on Molly Louvain. “Just about the second day we were together in scenes of the picture, we knew we were hooked.” Dvorak later recalled.

After Molly learns that Ralph has given her the air (don’t you love those 1930s sayings?), she’s seen in Nicky Grant’s hotel room, drunkenly playing the piano and singing. The piano playing and singing were done by Dvorak – and the song she sings at the end of the scene, “Gold Digger Lady,” was composed by Dvorak herself.

In that same scene, Nicky indicates his approval for her singing prowess, telling her “That’s swell, honey! I knew you could do something better than peddle that Bull Durham.” Having recently seen the 1994 Susan Sarandon-Kevin Costner film Bull Durham for the first time, my ears perked up, wondering what the character was referring to. After some brief research, I learned that Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco was a popular brand of loose-leaf tobacco that was manufactured between 1850 and the late 1980s. And Molly, at the time, worked at the cigar counter. Get it? (You’re welcome.)

With Richard Cromwell.

The actor who played the lovesick bellhop, Richard Cromwell, was married for a year (from 1945 to 1946) to actress Angela Lansbury. It’s now known that Cromwell was gay; he and Lansbury remained friends until his death from cancer in 1960 at the age of 50. (His father, incidentally, was a victim of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic – a fact that, before our current COVID-19 circumstances, probably would have escaped my notice. Now, though, it’s like a flashing neon sign.) (Anyway.)

A shooting takes place in the movie in Chicago at the corner or Dearborn and Clark Streets. This location is a block away from my job. (I just thought I’d share that with y’all.)

Tune into TCM on April 9th for The Strange Love of Molly Louvain . . . and stay tuned for my TCM film noir pick for the month!