Day 23 of Noirvember: Luther Who?

•November 23, 2016 • 6 Comments
Adler with sister Stella.

Adler with sister Stella.

Film noir is practically overflowing with famous actors who made the era’s anti-heroes come to life. Who can forget Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944)? Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946)? Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947)?

But these big name performers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the talent pool represented by the films of the noir era. Sadly, many of the lesser-known actors are seldom mentioned today — even by classic film aficionados — and some are all but forgotten.

I am on a mission to bring these first-rate performers back into the conversation where they belong — and I’m starting with today’s post on Luther Adler, who was primarily known during his lengthy career as a stage actor. But when he wasn’t treading the boards, Adler could be seen on the big screen alongside such luminaries as Alan Ladd, John Wayne, and Rita Hayworth, and he was a featured performer in no fewer than five examples of the film noir era.

Luther Adler was practically born to be an actor. His father was Jacob Adler, a famous Yiddish theater pioneer, and his mother, Sarah, was also a performer, as were most of his siblings, including Stella and Jay (who once called Luther “the golden boy of the family”). Adler made his stage debut at the tender age of five, in a Yiddish drama starring his father, and when he was still in his teens, he toured with his father’s acting company to London, Vienna, and South Africa.

With Frances Farmer in Golden Boy.

With Frances Farmer in Golden Boy.

At the age of 20, Adler made his Broadway debut in Humoresque, co-starring Laurette Taylor. He later joined the famed Group Theatre, and in 1937 earned rave reviews for his performance in Golden Boy, where he played opposite Frances Farmer as violinist-turned-boxer Joe Bonaparte. (Famed critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that Adler performed the part “with the speed and energy of an open-field runner.”)

Also during this time, Adler attracted the attention of 20th Century-Fox studios and was cast in his debut film, Lancer Spy (1937), starring Dolores Del Rio and George Sanders. (A year after his arrival in Hollywood, Adler married actress Sylvia Sidney; the couple had a son, but the union ended in divorce in 1947. Adler later remarried, this time to Julie Roche, to whom he remained married until his death. Shortly after Adler’s passing in the mid-1980s, his son would die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.)

After his screen debut, Adler returned to the stage, and another six years passed before he appeared in front of the camera again. The actor explained his absence by telling reporters that “an actor goes where he has to work. It’s as simple as that.” Adler’s first film upon his big-screen return in 1945 was also his first film noir — Cornered.

This manhunt drama focused on the efforts of a Canadian airman (Dick Powell) to track down the Nazi collaborators who murdered his wife. Adler played the small, but key, role of the object of Powell’s search. (“It wasn’t a big role in the Hollywood interpretation of ‘big role,'” Adler said later, “[but] you heard all about me from the other characters.”) Despite the brevity of his appearance on screen, his performance was pointed out by several critics, including Jim Henaghan of the Los Angeles Examiner, who wrote that Adler “will thrill you with his splendid reading of a great, meaning speech.”

Following roles in Wake of the Red Witch and The Loves of Carmen, both in 1948, Adler was featured in his second noir, House of Strangers (1949), starring Edward G. Robinson and Susan Hayward. This well-done feature tells the story of Italian-American banker Gino Monetti and his four sons; Adler played the eldest of the siblings — the petulant but thoroughly ruthless Joe. Among a cast of fine performances, Adler’s was a standout.

Adler’s four films in 1950 included two noirs, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and D.O.A.. In the first, Adler plays a crooked lawyer who teams up with an escaped convict (played by James Cagey) to blackmail a couple of crooked cops. And the fast-paced D.O.A. tells the story of accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien), who learns he has been poisoned and has only days to find the person (or persons) responsible for his demise.

As the unforgiving Majak in D.O.A.

As the unforgiving Majak in D.O.A.

Among the individuals Bigelow tracks down is Majak (Adler), a refined and soft-spoken racketeer who actually apologizes before telling Bigelow he will have to kill him: “You know I can go to jail for 10 years for this little business? At my age, that’s my life . . . With my life, I do not take chances. I am sorry, believe me.” Adler earned praise for his performance in both of these features; after the release of D.O.A., the critic for the Los Angeles Examiner raved: “As chief menace, Luther Adler is superlative, but when isn’t he?”

The following year, the actor was seen in his final film noir, M (1951), a remake of the grim 1931 Fritz Lang feature centering on a citywide hunt for a serial murderer of young girls. Adler played an alcoholic ex-lawyer and earned accolades from one reviewer who said he was “theatrically triumphant as the drink-sodden attorney.”

He was a standout in this Twilight Zone episode.

Throughout the next several decades, Adler stayed busy in such feature films as The Last Angry Man (1959), a top-notch drama marking Paul Muni’s return to the screen after a 13-year absence; stage productions including Fiddler on the Roof, in which he replaced Zero Mostel, and The Passion of Josef D, where he played Lenin opposite Peter Falk as Stalin; and numerous television series, from Route 66 to The Twilight Zone. He also directed several plays, including A View From the Bridge. Adler’s last film appearance was in the box-office hit Absence of Malice (1981), in which he played the mobster uncle of Paul Newman.

After a prolonged illness, Adler died at his home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He was 81 years old. After his death, a letter appeared in the New York Times, praising Adler’s accomplishments in film and on the stage. It was signed by several stars, including Marlon Brando and Paul Newman.

“The American public knew him for what he was — not an idol for the moment, but an actor of enduring value,” the letter read. “He has done his work. He has had his time. He will never be forgotten as long as there are actors to honor his memory.”

Do yourself a favor and find out what the fuss is all about — check out a Luther Adler movie today!

And join me tomorrow for some turkey on Day 24 of Noirvember!

Day 22 of Noirvember: The Lesser Knowns — Pushover (1954)

•November 22, 2016 • 4 Comments
Kim Novak smolders in this one.

Kim Novak smolders in this one.

Some may call Pushover a “poor man’s Double Indemnity” — and the label is understandable. Like Double Indemnity, Pushover stars Fred MacMurray as a respected professional man pulled into a web of deception and murder at the urging of a beautiful blonde. But that’s where the similarities end. In Pushover, MacMurray’s character, Paul Sheridan, is an undercover cop assigned to keep an eye on Lona McLane (don’t you love that name?), a bank robber’s galpal portrayed by Kim Novak, in her first credited role. While maintaining a round-the-clock surveillance of Lona’s actions from an apartment across the street, Paul blurs the line between his professional and personal life, and before long he’s head over heels. When his lover proposes that they kill her boyfriend and abscond with his stolen bankroll, it doesn’t take Paul long to sign on. Like many best-laid plans, though, this scheme doesn’t turn out quite as intended.

Favorite character:

The character I like best is not one of the principals; it’s Rick McAllister (Phil Carey), Paul’s partner on the surveillance job. When we first meet him, Rick is stony and cynical — not exactly a woman-hater, but certainly not a cheerleader for the female side. In his business, he’s seen ’em all: “B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still get married if I could find a half-honest woman,” Rick says. “There must be a few around.”

How can you not love Rick?

How can you not love Rick?

As it turns out, there’s one who lives right next door to Lona — a hard-working nurse named Ann (Dorothy Malone) — and Rick can’t keep his eyes off her. Before long, Rick admits: “I wait for her to come home. I worry about her, wonder what she’s doing.” He finally comes face-to-face with Ann in a memorable meet-cute in which he plays Sir Galahad, rescuing her from the attentions of an overly amorous date. Played by the handsome and beefy Phil Carey, Rick is a hard-nosed cop on the outside, but a big ol’ teddy bear on the inside. Juxtaposed against the rather seedy goings-on involving Paul and Lona, Rick’s schoolboy crush on Ann is a sweet and welcome diversion.

Trivia tidbit:

In an early scene, Kim Novak emerges from a movie theater showing the 1953 western, The Nebraskan. Released by Columbia Pictures, the film stars none other than Phil Carey.

These two.

These two.

Favorite quote:

“Money isn’t dirty. Just people.” — Lona McLane

One more thing:

Check out this great post by Robby Cress over at Dear Old Hollywood, all about the L.A. locations in the film. It’s good stuff.

And join me tomorrow for Day 23 of Noirvember!

Day 21 of Noirvember: Trivia Tidbits

•November 21, 2016 • 3 Comments

Not Norma.

Ruth Roman’s parents owned a carnival sideshow in Boston. Roman’s given name was Norma, but she was renamed Ruth after a fortune teller predicted that her original moniker would bring bad luck.

Years later, Roman and her son, Richard, were passengers aboard the Andrea Doria when the ocean liner collided with another ship. She and Richard were eventually rescued from the sinking ship, along with 750 other passengers.

Good thing her name wasn’t Norma.

See her in Champion (1949), The Window (1949), Beyond the Forest (1949), and Strangers on a Train (1951).

And join me tomorrow for Day 22 of Noirvember!

Day 20 of Noirvember: “Big” Noir

•November 20, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Although creating an absolute definition of film noir is sometimes an elusive task, I’ve found over the years that a simplistic but revealing description of the era can be found in some of the frequently repeated words in the titles of the films themselves. Some of these include “fear,” “night,” “kill,” “street,” “kiss,” and “big.”

Today, I’m taking a look at three of the “big” noir films from the classic era: The Big Combo, The Big Heat, and The Big Knife. Each one is a first-rate picture featuring an outstanding cast, and each is worth checking out (or checking out again)!

The Big Combo (1955)

This film stars Cornel Wilde as Lt. Leonard Diamond, a big city detective who has a two-fold obsession: he’s determined to bring to justice a local mob leader known only as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), and he’s in love with Mr. Brown’s inamorata, Susan (played by Wilde’s then-real-life wife, Jean Wallace). Highlighted by a memorable jazz score and appropriately noirish lights and shadows, the film also features support from an array of first-rate character actors including Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef, Earl Holliman, Ted deCorsia, and Helen Walker.

Richard Conte had the best lines. Ever.

Richard Conte had the best lines. Ever.

Favorite character:

Mr. Brown is one of film noir’s most memorable personages. He’s brought to life by the always-excellent Richard Conte, who serves up a thoroughly unredeemable hood. There’s no heart of gold in this guy; he’d trade his own grandmother for a strawberry soda if he got thirsty enough. But that’s why he’s so fascinating. Mr. Brown is completely and irrefutably out for number one – his motto, in fact, is “First is first, and second is nobody.” He has a list of misdeeds as long as your left leg, including torturing Lt. Diamond by first blasting music in his ears through a hearing aid device, and then pouring high-octane hair tonic down his throat. Mr. Brown is the kind of character you can’t take your eyes off of – even when he refuses to lay eyes on you, which he frequently does with Lt. Diamond, disrespectfully declining to even face him while speaking to him. Talk about fellas you love to hate!

Favorite quote:

“Joe, tell the man I’m going to break him so fast he won’t have time to change his pants. Tell him the next time I see him he’ll be down in the hotel lobby crying like a baby and asking for a ten dollar loan. Tell him that. And tell him I don’t break my word.” – Mr. Brown (Richard Conte)

The Big Heat (1953)

Glenn Ford stars here as Sgt. Dave Bannion, a police detective whose ordered world is turned upside down after his beloved wife is killed in a car bombing intended for him. It turns out that the attempt on Bannion’s life is directly tied to his single-minded investigation of the suicide of a fellow cop – and his unwavering sense of purpose only increases when he focuses it on finding the men responsible for his wife’s death. Some of the oh-so-memorable characters in the film include Bertha Duncan (Jeannette Nolan), wife of the suicide cop, whose quiet graciousness and mournful visage serve to mask a far darker nature; the brutish Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who would just as soon burn a woman with a cigar – or worse – as put on his socks; and Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), one of the most refined gangsters you’d never want to meet.

Favorite character:

No question, the film’s standout character is Debby Marsh, excellently portrayed by Gloria Grahame. As Vince’s girlfriend, Debby apparently has nothing to do with herself all day except spend Vince’s money, concoct tasty-looking cocktails, and amuse herself by subtly making fun of her boyfriend and his underworld pals. Sadly, Debby gets a raw deal in The Big Heat, joining Sgt. Bannion’s wife in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time Club.

As Debby, Gloria Grahame played one of her most memorable roles.

As Debby, Gloria Grahame played one of her most memorable roles.

But what makes her so interesting in that she’s no one-note character; Debby actually undergoes a series of transformations throughout the film. She starts out as your typical good-time girl, satisfied to bookend each day by waking up at noon and haunting local nightclubs after dark. Then, after a particularly vicious encounter with Vince, she becomes morose and self-pitying, a bit clingy and teeming with gloom. (Not that you can blame her.) Over time, though, she’s not only able to understand, appreciate, and empathize with Bannion’s pain, but her efforts to soothe his wounds help her to start forgetting her own. And finally, she taps into a core of strength which compels her to take a series of actions that help to bring down Lagana’s entire operation.

Favorite quote:

“Clothes, travel, expensive excitement – what’s wrong with that? The main thing is to have the money. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.” – Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)

The Big Knife (1955)

Not your typical noir, The Big Knife focuses on screen star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), who’s in the center of a maelstrom – his dictator-like studio head, Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), is pressuring him into signing another seven-year contract; his beloved, estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), wants to reunite, but also wants Charlie to leave Hollywood; and Charlie’s harboring a number of secrets, including his involvement in a hit-and-run accident that killed a child, and his brief affair with the wife of his press agent. Based a Clifford Odets play, the film doesn’t contain such standard noir elements as mercenary femmes fatales or shadowy, rain-swept streets, but it’s noirishly dark nonetheless, steered by shady, objectionable characters and dire circumstances that lead to an unusually grim conclusion. The film’s stellar cast includes Everett Sloane, Shelley Winters, Jean Hagen, and Wendell Corey.

Favorite character:

In a film practically overflowing with unlikable characters, my favorite has to be Stanley Hoff, who is so mean-spirited, so overbearing, so callous, he simply becomes larger than life. Admittedly, Steiger does a bit of scenery chewing in his portrayal of this repugnant leader, but there’s no denying the character’s fascination factor. When we first meet Stanley, he’s paying a house call to Charlie, in a personal-touch effort to secure his signature on the contract. He enters the home accompanied by his ever-present lackey – the oddly monikered Smiley Coy (Corey) – with his piercing eyes shuttered by dark sunglasses and spouting deceptive pleasantries that include admiring Charlie’s bathrobe, inviting the actor to join him in a day at the local racetrack, and expressing his oh-so-sincere hope for Charlie’s reconciliation with his wife.

Stanley Hoff. What a guy.

Stanley Hoff. What a guy.

But once those banal topics are covered, Hoff doesn’t waste a single second in broaching the subject of Charlie’s contract, employing every weapon in his arsenal to secure the desired signature. Hoff first waxes nostalgic about the “vitality of talent” that he recognized in the actor at their initial meeting years earlier. Then he shares a lengthy personal story about his wife to illustrate his belief that “the woman must stay out of her husband’s work when he earns her bread and butter.” And finally, when these fail to do the trick, he uses good old-fashioned blackmail. It’s quite masterful, really.

Favorite quote:

“Please, you’ll excuse me for speaking with my eyes closed, but it helps me to see better.” – Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger)

Do yourself a favor and take a look at these “big” noirs. You won’t be sorry.

And join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember!

Day 19 of Noirvember: Tierney. In color. On her birthday.

•November 19, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The beautiful and talented Gene Tierney was born on November 19, 1920. We remember her today.

“I dated dozens of men, had fun with all, made commitments to none.”

“I approached everything, my job, my romances, my family, with intensity.”

“The word actress has always seemed less a job description to me than a title.”

Join me tomorrow for Day 20 of Noirvember!

Day 18 of Noirvember: My Favorite Thing Today

•November 18, 2016 • 2 Comments

I’m celebrating Noirvember today with one of my favorite pictures — this nighttime shot in Chicago in the 1940s. Tres noir!

 

Join me tomorrow for Day 19 of Noirvember!

Day 17 of Noirvember: Words and Pictures

•November 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.

But what about words AND pictures?

Today’s Noirvember post serves up some memorable noir quotes and some equally memorable visuals. Enjoy!

“You know, this’ll be the first time I’ve ever killed anyone I knew so little and liked so well.” Claire Trevor in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

"I just wanna be somebody." -- Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)

“I just wanna be somebody.” — Richard Widmark in Night and the City (1950)

“I know the things I want, and I know how to get it.” — Carole Landis in I Wake Up Screaming (1942)

“Occasionally I always drink too much.” — Richard Erdman in Cry Danger (1951)

“Do you always go around leaving your fingerprints on a girl’s shoulder? Not that I mind, particularly — you’ve got nice, strong hands.” — Rhonda Fleming in Out of the Past (1947)

“I don’t think I’ll have to kill her. Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all.” Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956)

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“I’d like to say I didn’t intend to kill her. But when you have a gun, you always intend to if you have to.” — Barbara Stanwyck in The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

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“Bourbon, straight. With a bourbon chaser.” — William Bendix in The Blue Dahlia (1946)

“I said I liked it. I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.” — Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (1950)

“I thought you knew all the answers. I thought you was a wise guy from way back.” — Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948)

Join me tomorrow for Day 18 of Noirvember!