Day Twenty-Three of Noirvember: Top Three in ’53

•November 23, 2018 • 3 Comments

Earlier this month, as part of my campaign to point out first-rate noirs released in years other than the typically touted 1947, I spotlighted my top five film noir features from 1945. I’m continuing this effort for today’s Noirvember post, with my top three from 1953. It was a fun personal challenge to narrow my favorites to just three films, although I had to leave some really good ones by the wayside! Check out the other noirs released in that year and let me know what your top three would be!

The Big Heat

One of my favorite noirs of all time, this one was a no brainer for my list. The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford as police detective Dave Bannion, who finds that he’s not only up against local mobsters but his superiors as well when he tries to unearth the real story behind the suicide of a fellow officer.

Yet another reason to stay away from coffee.

Besides those famed scalding-hot-coffee-in-the-face scenes (yeow), I love The Big Heat for its variety of well-drawn characters. There’s Bannion’s tough, fearless, but damaged detective, who tamps down his grief over the murder of his wife in order to hunt down the man responsible. There’s Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh, a gangster’s moll who transformed from light-hearted golddigger to defeated victim to steely, mink coat-clad vigilante. Mike Lagana, played by Alexander Scourby as a syndicate boss whose refined exterior barely masked the scary, ruthless killer underneath. And giving Lagana a run for his money in the scary department, Jeannette Nolan turned in a flawless performance as Bertha

Duncan, the widow of the suicidal cop who had more guts than a bucket full of pig innards.

Favorite quote: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” – Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame)

Wicked Woman

For sheer personal enjoyment, I had to include Wicked Woman as one of my top three picks. It’s no acclaimed classic like Double Indemnity (1944) or Out of the Past (1947), and its cast doesn’t feature any big name stars, but this 77-minute low-budget gem packs a wallop.

Seriously, you have to check out this movie.

The story is about Billie Nash, the dame of the title, played by the infinitely watchable Beverly Michaels (who happened to be married to the film’s director, Russell Rouse). Escaping via bus from a never-revealed past, Billie gets to where she’s going and finds herself part of a gritty quadrangle that includes Charlie Borg (Helton), a fellow dweller in her rooming house who gives new meaning to the word “creep”; Matt Bannister (Egan), owner of the bar where Billie finds work and the object of her none-too-subtle affections; and Matt’s wife, Dora (Evelyn Scott), a world-weary but good-hearted soul who just happens to be a drunk. From start to finish, Wicked Woman is a noir lover’s smorgasbord, overflowing with memorable lines, over-the-top performances, and a perfect ending. For me, watching this movie is like settling back with a bucket of buttered popcorn and a bag of Skittles – it may not be good for me, but I LOVE it!

Favorite quote: “That dinner don’t entitle you to no special favors, buster!” – Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels)

99 River Street

My final 1953 decision was a photo finish between two movies set on dark, shadowy boulevards – 99 River Street and Pickup on South Street. As much as I admire the latter, 99 River Street won out for one main reason: John Payne. Underrated and often overlooked, Payne was made for film noir. He had just the right combination of rugged but accessible good looks, take-no-crap toughness, and everyman vulnerability – all of which were on display in this feature.

Because John Payne.

In River Street, Payne is Ernie Driscoll, an ex-prize fighter turned cab driver who finds himself in a whole mess of trouble when his shrewish wife (excellently, if briefly, played by Peggie Castle) turns up dead in the back seat of his taxi. Supporting Ernie is his misadventures are a whole passel of memorable characters, including Linda James (Evelyn Keyes), an actress who helps Ernie hunt down the killers; Christopher (Jay Adler), the thoroughly terrifying head of a jewel fencing ring; and Mickey (Jack Lambert), Christopher’s uber-savage henchman. The film’s non-stop action is topped off by a socko climax at the waterfront location of the film’s title, where Ernie’s boxing prowess comes in handy in his quest to subdue the bad guys.

Favorite quote: “Rhinestones wrapped around a ten-dollar movement – they might be real if I hadn’t married a pug.” – Pauline Driscoll (Peggie Castle)

Join me tomorrow for Day 24 of Noirvember!

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Day Twenty-Two of Noirvember: Happy Thanksgiving!

•November 22, 2018 • 6 Comments

Joan Crawford served up a strong noir presence in such first-rate features as Mildred Pierce (1945), Possessed (1947), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Sudden Fear (1952).

She also served up a mean turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving!

And join me tomorrow on Day 23 (seriously, where is the time going!?!?) of Noirvember!

Day Twenty-One of Noirvember: Quote of the Day

•November 21, 2018 • 6 Comments

“She was a charming, middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle.” Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Day Twenty of Noirvember: The Noir of HUAC

•November 20, 2018 • 7 Comments

Larry Parks testifying before HUAC.

In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched an investigation into Communism in the motion picture industry, throwing Tinseltown into a paranoid panic and ruining the lives of countless artists.

During secret testimony before HUAC in 1951, actor Larry Parks, best known for playing the title role in The Jolson Story (1946), alleged that several of his fellow film performers were involved with the Communist Party. Among the actors and actresses named by Parks were a number of film noir veterans, including Lee J. Cobb, Howard DaSilva, and Sterling Hayden.

Today’s Noirvember post takes a look at the impact that the HUAC hearings had on the careers of these three stars.

Lee J. Cobb

Cobb starred with Jane Wyman in The Man Who Cheated Himself, shortly before he was named in testimony before HUAC.

Initially, upon being named, Lee J. Cobb vehemently denied any involvement in the Communist Party. Two years later, though, he changed his story, admitting that he’d joined the Party in the early 1940s at the invitation of Phoebe Brand and Morris Carnovsky, who’d both worked with Cobb in New York’s Group Theatre. He also testified that he’d discontinued his membership in the Party a few years later because of his “general disenchantment with the Party methods.” Cobb went a step further and identified several others who’d been members, including Lloyd Bridges, Jeff Corey, and Gale Sondergaard.

Cobb in his Oscar-nominated performance in On the Waterfront.

Between Cobb’s initial denial of Party membership in 1951, and admitting his involvement (and naming names) in 1953, he only appeared in one film, The Fighter (1952). Prior to that, he’d been featured in as many as five films in a year. After his 1953 testimony, his career began to pick back up, and the following year, he landed his first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, for On the Waterfront.

Throughout his career, Cobb seldom spoke publicly about his experiences, but he did give an interview to the New York Times in 1968, in which he spoke frankly about the effect of HUAC.  “They have unspeakable ways – very special ways I couldn’t describe to you – to force you to do what they want,” Cobb said. “My personal life was shattered. When I finally went the Committee, they already knew what I had to tell them, so the whole thing was a farce. But I had to make the gesture – to survive. Afterwards, it meant starting a new life, making a new set of friends. When I realized what I had to do, I set about doing it and I felt strong again.”

Da Silva was outstanding in one of my favorite noirs, They Live By Night.

Howard Da Silva

In addition to being named by Larry Parks, Howard Da Silva was also named by actor Robert Taylor, who told the committee that Da Silva “always seems to have something to say at the wrong time.” When Da Silva was called to testify, he refused to answer questions and was promptly blacklisted. All of his scenes were cut from the film he’d recently completed, Slaughter Trail (1951), and reshot with Brian Donlevy, and he would not be seen on the big screen again for close to 10 years.

Da Silva was one of the performers named by Robert Taylor during his testimony.

Da Silva turned instead to the stage, appearing in a variety of productions, and was scheduled to appear on a live television broadcast in 1960, but after he was slammed by a columnist in the New York Journal-American for his “communist sympathies,” the program never aired. He finally returned to feature films in 1962, portraying a psychiatrist in David and Lisa, for which he earned a nomination from the British Academy Award of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Like Lee J. Cobb, Da Silva seldom discussed HUAC in later years, but in 1976 he admitted that he had compassion for his colleagues who named names. He added, however, that there were some people “who shall remain forever nameless, that I will never forgive. Never.”

Hayden in one of his best films, The Asphalt Jungle.

Sterling Hayden

When Sterling Hayden was called before the committee, he admitted that he joined the Party in 1946, saying that he did so because he “wanted to do something for a better world.” He said he’d renounced his membership, though, less than a year later, calling it “the stupidest, most ignorant thing I ever did in my life.” Hayden also named several others, including screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who penned the noir classics Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) – both starring John Garfield, who himself was hunted and haunted by HUAC. Blacklisted because of the hearings,

Hayden testifying before the Committee. He later called it his “one-shot stoolie show.”

Polonsky wouldn’t have a screenwriting credit for the next 20 years.

Hayden was praised for his “honesty and frankness” by none other than Ronald Reagan, then president of the AFL Screen Actors Guild (and later president of the United States). But Hayden deeply regretted his actions, calling it his “one-shot stoolie show.” In his 1963 autobiography, Wanderer, the actor stated: “I was a real daddy longlegs of a worm when it came to crawling. Not often does a man find himself eulogized for having behaved in a manner that he himself despises.”

Just the mention of the HUAC acronym evokes a period of unimaginable fear, suspicion and betrayal, where countless artists were forced to make a choice between turning on their friends and colleagues or suffering the loss of their livelihood, or worse. (Larry Parks, incidentally, reportedly begged the committee not to force him to testify. After he finally offered his tearful testimony, he was blacklisted anyway, and was dropped from his contract with Columbia. His acting career never recovered.)

I have always been careful to never pass judgment on the actions of anyone in that era who was accused of Communism or called on to testify – I can’t fathom what it must have been like. I can only hope that it represents a time in our history that will never be seen again.

Join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember.

Day Nineteen of Noirvember: Celebrating Gene

•November 19, 2018 • 18 Comments

When you think of first-rate noir actresses, the really talented ones, who do you think of? Stanwyck? Claire Trevor? Audrey Totter?

What about Gene Tierney? Is she even on your list?

Because of her striking beauty and innate elegance, I think that Tierney’s acting prowess is often overlooked, but she lent her unique charms to six films noirs, and she’s well deserving of her place in the sun – or the shadows, if you will.

In celebration of Tierney’s birth date – she would have turned 98 today – I’m delighted to celebrate Noirvember by taking a look at her considerable contributions to the era of film noir.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

An early example of film noir, this film is set in the Shanghai of the film’s title, and centers on a gambling den run by the exotic Mother Gin Sling, played by Ona Munson. Tierney plays Poppy, a spoiled, self-indulgent socialite who is seduced by the danger she finds at the casino.

Favorite Tierney quote: “The other places are like kindergartens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity, like a half-remembered dream. Anything can happen here. Any moment.”

Laura (1944)

Laura (1944)

One of noir’s most iconic offerings, Laura starts out as a story about the murder of the title character – played by Tierney – and the search for her killer. Halfway through, however, it turns into something else, when the very dead Laura turns out to be very much alive.

Favorite Tierney quote: “I never have been and I never will be bound by anything I don’t do of my own free will.”

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

This is a rare color noir, in which Tierney portrays Ellen Berent, a woman whose tendency toward obsessive, cloying love knows no bounds. Labeled by a family member as one who “loves too much,” Ellen’s demonstration of affection left a trail of dead bodies in its wake.

Favorite Tierney quote: “This baby’s making a prisoner out of me. I hate the little beast – I wish it would die.”

Whirlpool (1949)

Whirlpool (1949)

Here, Tierney plays Ann Sutton, who undergoes hypnosis in an effort to cure her kleptomania, only to find herself at the scene of a murder with no memory of how she got there. And no way to prove that she’s not the killer.

Favorite Tierney quote: “I don’t remember going there, I tell you. I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t! Unless . . . Unless I’m crazy.”

Night and the City (1950)

One of noir’s finest offerings (in my book, anyway), Night and the City focuses on Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a con man from way back, whose life seems to be one long get-rich-quick scheme. Tierney played his long-suffering girlfriend, Mary, who was in Harry’s corner whether he was filching money from her purse or running for his life.

Favorite Tierney quote: “You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains, ambition. You worked harder than any ten men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things.”

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Tierney was re-teamed with her Laura co-star Dana Andrews in this feature, where she played Morgan Taylor, whose father is falsely accused in a killing that was actually caused by a cop with a hair-trigger temper. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Taylor falls for the cop.

Favorite Tierney quote: “It’s a wonderful day. No job. Everybody against me. My poor dad sitting in a cell. And it’s a wonderful day. Isn’t that amazing?”

Celebrate Gene Tierney’s born day and appreciate her many gifts by checking out one of her films.

And join me tomorrow for Day 20 of Noirvember!

Day Eighteen of Noirvember: Reel Names

•November 18, 2018 • 4 Comments

Mikhail Mazurkiewicz and Doris Bernice Jensen in Nightmare Alley (1947)

On last week’s Trivia Thursday, one of my entries was the given name of actor Robert Taylor: Spangler Arlington Brugh (which just happens to be my favorite name of all time). Today’s Noirvember post serves up 10 more noir favorites and the names that they entered the world with!

Doris Bernice Jensen: Coleen Gray

Michail Mazurkiewicz: Mike Mazurki

Charles Butters and Emily Marie Bertelson in The Narrow Margin (1952)

Charles Butters: Charles McGraw

Emily Marie Bertelson: Marie Windsor

Leo Jacoby: Lee J. Cobb

Margaret Yvonne Middleton: Yvonne DeCarlo

Paul Sternberg: Paul Stewart

Marilyn Louise Louis: Rhonda Fleming

Jacob Julius Garfinkle: John Garfield

Claire Wemlinger: Claire Trevor

Join me tomorrow for Day 19 of Noirvember!

Day Seventeen of Noirvember: Favorite Femme Fatales – Part 1

•November 18, 2018 • 6 Comments

Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson

I love a lot (obviously) about film noir. And one of the things I love best about these films is the deadly, duplicitous dames commonly known as femme fatales. You know – the ones who use their wiles to get their way. The ones who have an uncanny, innate ability for spotting the perfect man who’s ripe for manipulation. The ones who don’t let anything – or anyone – stop them from achieving their less-than-upstanding goals.

Today’s Noirvember post shines the spotlight on the first in a series of my favorite femme fatales – more to come in future posts! (And watch your step – spoilers lie ahead!)

Phyllis Dietrichson

Number one on my hit parade is from my favorite noir, Double Indemnity (1944), which tells the tale of a Los Angeles housewife who teams with an insurance agent to bump off her husband and collect a $20,000 insurance payout.

Love this hat.

Phyllis, played by Barbara Stanwyck, was sexy, intelligent, and ruthless. We don’t know how much thought or effort she’d given to murdering her husband before she met insurance man Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) – even though we find out later that she may have been responsible for the death of her husband’s invalid first wife, for whom she worked as a nurse. But we DO know that within scant minutes of Neff’s visit to her home on insurance business, the wheels of Phyllis’s devious mind started to turn, and she was already trying to figure out how to use Neff to her deadly advantage.

One of my favorite characteristics about Phyllis was her absolute fearlessness – her calm under pressure. During the entire time that she and Walter were carrying out the murder of her husband, from accompanying him to the car where Neff was hiding in the back seat, to dumping his crutches on the railroad tracks near his dead body, she was cooler than the other side of the pillow. You’d have thought she was doing nothing more taxing than taking a trip to the local grocery store.

Bad to the bone.

She’s similarly unflappable when she visits Neff’s insurance office (wearing that SMOKING black hat and veil) and more than holds her own when confronted by the news that her husband’s death was no accident and she’s not entitled to a payout. Even when she learns that her lover (er, FORMER lover, to be accurate) is planning to kill her, she doesn’t bat an eyelash. “Suppose you stop being fancy,” Phyllis tells Walter when he approaches her with a string of clever innuendo. “Let’s have it, whatever it is.” At no point does Phyllis demonstrate that she is anything less than in control of the entire situation, even after Walter lays out his plan to kill her and frame her new lover for the crime – even when Walter starts actually setting the stage for the murder by shutting the window and closing the curtains.

Even though her last-minute glimmer of humanity turned out to be her undoing, Phyllis was a badass to the end.

Join me tomorrow for Day 18 of Noirvember!