Monday, December 31, 2007

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

1944 was a big year for film noir. Early film noirs Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet were all released near the end of '44 and all were box office hits. Murder, My Sweet helped Dick Powell - known as a song and dance man in film up to this point - change his screen persona to a tough-talking film noir hero in many movies and television shows afterward. The film also features Claire Trevor as a convincing “black widow” and Mike Mazurki in his most memorable role as Moose Malloy.

The star of the film however is the tough-talk dialog taken directly from Raymond Chandler's novel. The book Farewell, My Lovely,written in a first-person perspective, was actually filmed for the first time a few years before. The Falcon Takes Over from 1941 looks nothing like the Chandler novel - certainly the hero Gay Lawrence (George Sanders) was nothing like the L.A. Private detective Chandler wrote about. A few years after The Falcon's release studio heads at RKO realized that they could make the story again but this time in the style of the 1941 hit The Maltese Falcon.

The plot of the book is almost impossible to explain and it must have been nearly impossible to create into a screenplay. Actually the novel was a combination of three early Chandler short stories weaved together by the writer into full-length book. This is one of those films where the trip is much more satisfying than the destination because the story is very muddled - at least in my head- even after multiple viewings. Credit goes to screenwriter John Paxton (Cornered, Crossfire) and director Edward Dmytryk for cleverly translating the cynical book and for retooling the ending at the beach house to make it more satisfying than the novel. Chandler never liked when his stories were rewritten for film - despite the fact that he did just that to James M. Cain's book Double Indemnity a few years earlier. In this case the shootout at the beach house concludes much of the mystery while in the book the villain slips from Marlowe. The classic Hollywood ending that follows the beach house scene is a disappointment but not unexpected for the time.


The makers of Murder, My Sweet - without Chandler's help - were determined to make a movie that captured the feel the book. Surprisingly the movie star hired to play Philip Marlowe for the first time was Dick Powell. The almost forty-year-old Powell (who previously tried to land the lead in Double Indemnity in his attempt at becoming a dramatic actor) had star power and his hiring actually helped the film makers get a bigger budget for the movie. Although Powell does a convincing job in the role he, in my opinion, never really nails the role like Bogart would a few years later in The Big Sleep. When Marlowe is kidnapped and drugged halfway through the film Powell begins acting over the top. Movie-maker tricks- like a clever (and now classic film noir) montage and “spider webs” superimposed over the screen - makes me think that the film makers were trying to distract audiences from Powell's acting. Practice does make perfect, however. In 1948 Powell - after a number of film noir roles - gives one of the best performances in a noir when he plays Lizabeth Scott's sucker in the fantastic Pitfall. In Murder, My Sweet Powell does fit the character of “eagle scout” Philip Marlowe well but age has not been kind to his performance and today I suspect that viewers unfamiliar with his other films will probably not buy him as the private dick.

Powell does, however, use Chandler's voice-over observations and wise-guy cracks to distance himself from all that are out to get him in the film. It must be pretty hard to be a smart ass when you're getting lied to, conked over the head, strangled, smacked in the face with a roscoe, blinded, burned and even drugged.

Supporting Powell is a slew of seasoned veterans. Esther Howard's one scene as Jessie Florian is just perfect. Many would tell you that Sylvia Miles - who received an Oscar nomination for her version of the character in the 1970's Farewell, My Lovely - was better. I disagree. I find Howard's performance of the lonely drunk funny and spot on. Character actor Mazurki is amusing as the giant lug Moose (the only other role that compares to Moose is Mazurki's role as a not-too-bright wrestler in Night and the City). Boxer John Indrisano teams with Mazurki making it a sure thing that Powell will take his share of beatings in the film. Otto Kruger could always be counted on to play the charming but slippery villain.

Claire Trevor stands out playing a difficult part. She has to play a woman constantly lying and acting a role. Femme fatale Trevor - decked out in glamorous gowns - is convincing as a tramp that marries into high society but in her heart will always be a cheap and manipulating. Her cold and calculating ways at first seems to turn Marlowe into a killer but, unlike Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, she never is successful at turning him. (If she only had Lawrence Tierney- her partner in Born to Kill - to help her she would have gotten away with it.)

Right before the release of the film the title would have to be changed from Farewell, My Lovely to Murder, My Sweet so that film goers would never mistake a movie with “Murder” in the title as a Powell musical comedy.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk for RKO. RKO was a perfect fit for B-budget film noir. Producer Val Lewton concocted a winning formula for making financial and critical hits when he made his early 1940's series of horror films there. He used shadows, darkness, strange camera angles and even unexpected noises to help tell his dark tales. It was out of necessity - RKO couldn't afford big sets, special effects or even big stars that the old Universal horror films used. Dmytryk, a former film editor, used many of the behind-the-scenes talent from these films (many also worked on the big-budget but similarly shadowy Citizen Kane) to make what turned out to be one of the most successful filming of a Raymond Chandler novel. RKO went on to be one of the biggest producers of film noir. Surprisingly, in 1944 Chandler didn't get a dime for the second filming of his book since RKO already owned the rights.

Murder, My Sweet is a wonderfully dark cynical look at Los Angeles and paved the way for other great film noir. Philip Marlowe is the most filmed detective in movie history and Murder, My Sweet is one of the best of them.

Written by Steve-O

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best film noir of all time list

Part 1 1941 - 1945

The votes are in for The Best Film Noir of All Time (1941-1945). These years are tricky because the film style was still being defined and perfected in these five years. Its no surprise that Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon topped the list. Wartime thrillers (Cornered) and period films (The Suspect, Gaslight) did not fare well in the survey. Other films like The Lost Weekend - which was considered film noir when the term was first introduced years after the movie style became popular - today isn't considered noir at all according to voters. The Lost Weekend only received one percent of the voting. Here's the Top 10 vote getters:

1. Double Indemnity received a whopping 39 percent of the vote. That put the Billy Wilder film number one on the survey.

2. The Maltese Falcon received a lot of last minute votes but the John Huston film came in second. The film today isn't considered as “noir” as Double Indemnity due to it's light tone but it's still remembered as arguably the first film noir. The Bogey mystery gets 25 percent of the vote.

3. Number three goes to the poverty-row gem Detour. The cheapy usually doesn't even get mentioned alongside of Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon. As the years go by the dark road picture gets more and more popular. Detour got 12 percent of the vote.

4. Closely behind Detour is a totally different kind of film noir. The drawing-room mystery Laura netted two less votes than Detour. The thriller has been imitated many times but none came close to the groundbreaking Otto Preminger film.

5 & 6. Coming in fifth and sixth are Murder, My Sweet and Scarlet Street. Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet and Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street each broke from their screen persona in these groundbreaking movies. Powell got tougher and Robinson got meeker. Murder, My Sweet get eight percent of the votes and Scarlet Street gets seven.

7. Shadow of a Doubt - the Hitchcock film noir does a respectable six percent. Do people consider Hitch's movies film noir?

8 & 9. To Have and Have Not - Voters didn't find this Bogart film a true noir but still liked it a bunch to get number eight on the list with 4 percent. Also getting four percent is the thriller Fallen Angel starring Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell's legs.

10. Coming in tenth is the action thriller This Gun For Hire (1942) with Alan Ladd getting 3 percent of the vote.

A few film that surprisingly didn't make the top ten include Fritz Lang's Woman in the Window, the forgotten Phantom Lady (a DVD release would remedy this), and the Joan-Crawford classic Mildred Pierce.

The next survey for 1946-1949 will be up soon. That one should be interesting! There are many great films from that period.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is the perfect mix of talents that combined to create one of the best films of all time. The movie is based on a brilliant novella by James M. Cain, written for the screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, an enterprising film score by Miklós Rózsa and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. Double Indemnity was directed by Billy Wilder who used his movie making instincts to create a classic film noir all others would be measured by.

Wilder's first few films as a director in Hollywood showed no signs of the shadowy world of film noir he would help create. He was known as a comedic writer but he wanted to do more. He wanted to do a thriller. Wilder, working for Paramount Pictures, had the rights to Cain's novella and Barbara Stanwyck was to be the main attraction.

The plot is simple: A housewife plots to rub out hubby with the help of a nasty insurance agent.

Creating a screenplay from the popular novella was a challenge. Austrian-born Wilder wrote for many German films but his had yet to get total command of English. His American writing partner Charles Brackett refused to work on the film due to the racy content - Double Indemnity was a tale of adultery and premeditated murder for hire. Wilder and Brackett knew that a film like this would be nearly impossible to get past censors and a powerful film studio. Wilder, who previously directed two Hollywood films, felt he was up for the challenge but he needed a writing partner. Paramount and Wilder tried to get James M. Cain to co-write the screenplay but he was under contract for another studio. During the exhaustive search Wilder read The Big Sleep and decided that Raymond Chandler would be a good choice since his writing style was similar to Cain's. (interestingly Chandler detested Cain's writing one time writing “Do I, for God's sake, sound like that?)

Most importantly, Chandler could write amazing dialog. Wilder found out early on when reading Cain's characters words aloud - although effective on the page - sounded wrong when read aloud. Chandler and Wilder had their work cut out for them. To make the task of writing the script even harder was the fact that the pair hated each other from day one. Wilder and Cain locked themselves in a room together for weeks and what came out of Billy Wilder's office was pure genius. Cain's crime story was intact but now it featured witty dialog that was a combination of 1930's machine-gun chatter (especially Robinson's speeches) and the laid-back hip dialog that would be Chandler's trademark. The result is a screenplay that actually ends up being more sexual than the novella thanks to an almost non-stop delivery of slick double entendre-laced lines uttered by Phyllis and Neff:


When I was getting ready for this Noir of the Week, I tracked down and read Cain's novella. I poured myself a drink and ending up memorized - reading the story in one long sitting. Cain's story puts you inside the skin of two egotistical killers who will stop at nothing- and makes you care about them. Wilder keeps the spirit of the quick-paced novella as well as Cain's first-person perspective but strips the dialog almost completely. Wilder also no doubt contributed most of the humor to the script that was lacking in the book.

The ending is also very different. In Cain's story Neff and Phyllis Ditrichson (actually called the almost comic Huff and Nirdlinger in the book) end up on the lam on a cruise ship where they plan suicide by jumping ship and get eaten by sharks. Before that there are a few extra twists and turns similar to end of Cain's biggest novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Luckly, Wilder trims most of the fat and wisely ends the film with Neff's confession to Keyes (played by Robinson). Wilder actually shot another ending featuring Neff going to the gas chamber (you can see a still of the scene to the right) but Wilder - like his decision to cut part of Cain's ending - smartly edited himself and ended the tale when Keyes receives his friend Neff's confession late one night in the Bradbury building.

In the novella Keyes is not even liked by Neff. Wilder wisely has the two men admire each other- often telling each other “I love you.” Keyes is a fat obnoxious guy in the book. He's made more lovable just by hiring Robinson in the part - no small casting feat considering Robinson, past his prime, was used to being the lead actor.

The casting of MacMurray is one of the most interesting tales. According to legend the role of Huff was offered to every leading man in Hollywood they could find including George Raft. Wilder was reportedly very relieved that “wooden” Raft turned down the role because he didn't want to be killed in the end. The same reason he turned down another classic High Sierra. MacMurray, a saxophonist turned light comic actor, was eventually hired but never felt comfortable in the role. Most of his scenes with Stanwyck and Robinson made him feel like his was in over his head. Despite his self-doubt MacMurray is perfect. He not only nails the character but he adds something to Huff that wasn't in the novella. When he first meets the sunbathing Phyllis - wearing only a towel and anklet - he has a look of a man who's meet his share of lonely housewives before. He knows what Phyllis is all about and you can see in his face that he's quickly coming up with a plan to bed her before she even speaks. His flirting and laid-back line delivery would later be aped by every film noir to follow.

The casting of Stanwyck was a no brainer. The book called for a blonde with slightly buck teeth. Babs was also the biggest actress in the world. Having her in the lead no doubt made it easier for Wilder to get the film made.

Stanwyck and her director adds a lot to her role as Phyllis. Cain was known for his Hemingway-esque writing which didn't include a lot of details. Working with a mostly clean slate Wilder created Stanwyck's cheap but brassy look including a blonde wig and the worlds most memorable ankle bracelet. She plays the part of a cheap but sexy femme fatale with gusto but at the same time tones down her beauty by wearing that ugly wig and over lipsticked mouth - which ended up looking wonderfully black on screen. You can see why men would do anything for her. Her looks and body language made her a man trap that none could escape.

Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun writes: “Already proving her mettle in screwball comedy, Stanwyck took on the dark art of film noir with nasty brilliance. Creating one of noir's most inspired, iconic femmes fatales, Stanwyck's double-crossing, bitch-seductress Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's seminal Double Indemnity remains unparalleled. Donning the now famous blond wig, a sexy, cynical smirk and (dear God!) that anklet, she oozes a snaky sex appeal that manages to be evil and, in flashes, vulnerable. After eyeing her mark in Fred MacMurray's insurance salesman, Stanwyck convinces the lovesick lug to help plot and execute the murder of her husband in the hopes of cashing in on the dead man's insurance policy and supposedly living happily ever after. But, as usual in these situations, nothing ever comes off without a hitch -- numerous hitches, in this case. All dolled up in pom-pom heels, creamy sweaters and dramatically lined lips, Stanwyck's Phyllis, who's not as young as she used to be and not quite as lush, can't hide the poison within her. And her chemistry with MacMurray sizzles as they swap barbs and coos with sleazy ease. They yearn for more, but Stanwyck, the prototypical noir siren, seems perfectly aware of how fatalistic this kind of dream really is. Sometimes murder really does smell like honeysuckle.”

Restrictions due to the Hayes code actually made Double Indemnity a better film. Not being allowed to show sex instead it was implied with clever editing- and I bet it was fantastic. Instead of showing the murder the camera pans to a smug Barbara Stanwyck while the killing takes place off camera - for the first time in the film revealing that maybe Neff isn't as smart as he thinks he is.

Double Indemnity was released September 1944 and it rocked the film world. The a dark back-and-white tale of lust, greed and murder told from the killers point of view - distinctly different when compared other noir born around the same time including The Maltese Falcon - was a box office hit. Double Indemnity competed against romantic thrillers and Hollywood melodramas at the 1944 Oscars - the film lost the Best Picture award to the Bing Crosby-starrer Going My Way. In fact was shutout in all Oscar categories. No one knew how influential this film would eventually become.

There's so much you can say about a film like this. From it's opening shot of a car speeding through a stop light foreshadowing things to come to Wilder's brilliant use of flashbacks (also used to great effect in Sunset Blvd.) the film is a piece of art that you can watch over and over again.

Wilder was inspired by Hitchcock films when he made Double Indemnity. But he ended up doing something much more than a Hitchcockian thriller. Thanks to the film's success Wilder became a movie maker that could take nearly any controversial subject and not only film it but earn big money at the box office at the same time. More importantly helped define an American style of film making that survives and inspires today.

Written by Steve-O

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

This week’s film noir is also a comedy - a dark, sardonic comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. It’s the great Sunset Blvd., (co)written and directed by Hollywood’s sharpest and nastiest wit, Billy Wilder. What follows is an excerpt from my biography of Wilder, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder.In one of my other books, Laughing Hysterically: American Screen Comedy of the 1950s,I argue that if Sunset Blvd. has to be slotted into a genre, that genre would be comedy rather than film noir. Without being too Three Faces of Eve-ish about it, I don’t agree with myself any more; Sunset Blvd. is too intricate to be readily categorized. If pressed now, I’d say it was a comical-noirish-melodrama, or maybe a dramacomedic-noir. Whatever it is, it’s brilliant - the best Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie ever made. And one more thing: if you like what you’re about to read, or maybe if you really enjoy hating it, then you’ll absolutely need to buy my new book, Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis

--Ed Sikov, December 2007

Editor's note: Ed Sikov's book has some excellent stories about the filming of Sunset Blvd. The section on the casting of the classic film is worth the read alone. I've taken a piece from the book that talks about two of the most memorable scenes in the film: William Holden floating in the pool and Nora's final decent down the staircase. Surprisingly both scenes were shot well after the initial filming was complete.

By the end of the first week of June, the need for retakes as well as generally slow progress brought the production five days behind schedule, a manageable delay. One problem was the weather; Los Angeles was plagued by unusually foggy days, so whenever a little sun came out they would drop what they were doing and film outdoor scenes. They weren’t looking for the characteristically brilliant sun of Los Angeles, however - not for Sunset Boulevard. As John Seitz put it, “You know, I’ve noticed anyone who ever worked for Ufa, they hate to shoot in the middle of the day, which I do too. Because everything is so bright. Freddy Zinnemann is the same way. And Billy too - they all were.... The least interesting time of the day is noon.” The film may have been set under the cruel sun of Hollywood, but both Wilder and Seitz preferred more gray than Southern California’s sky tended to provide.

Norma’s descent down the staircase - equally funny, though in a more Grand-Guignol manner - was shot six days later. Finally, at 3:00 AM on June 19, Sunset Boulevard wrapped after (William) Holden and (Eric) von Stroheim completed their work at the Desmond mansion location.

Nobody believed the film was actually finished. The need for retakes, special effects photography, pickups, and the filming of added scenes meant that the production would simply reopen the following week. Some of these scenes involved Max serving as Norma’s chauffeur. The car had become an Isotta Fraschini, not a Hispano-Suiza. Von Stroheim was helpless. “Erich didn’t know how to drive,” (Gloria) Swanson later reported, “which humiliated him, but he acted the scene, and the action of driving, so completely that he was exhausted after each take, even though the car was being towed by ropes the whole while.” Wilder was blunter, and probably more inventive as well: “He still crashed it into the Bronson gate.” According to Swanson, she and von Stroheim suffered no tensions leftover from their disastrous past. They were no longer close, of course, but they’d reconciled long before being cast in Sunset Boulevard.

Wilder had also come up with an idea for a spectacularly unnerving low-angle shot of Joe Gillis’s dead body floating in the swimming pool, taken from underwater. The shot proved to be so central to Wilder’s vision of the film, and so difficult to achieve, that several whole days in late June were spent solving the problem of how to do it. The shot, added late to the shooting script, was complicated not only by virtue of its strange vantage point but also because there had to be blood flowing from the wound Norma Desmond’s pistol had just inflicted. The script was quite clear on this point: “we see blood flowing from chest wound.” In addition, the shot had to include a group of policeman and a photographer staring down at the body from above - specifically, from the side of the pool. The photographer would even be snapping pictures, so flash bulbs had to be popping behind Gillis’s floating corpse. Discussions of how to effect this intricate shot began around the actual swimming pool at the location. John Seitz and his crew all thought it would be nearly impossible to balance the light correctly in and around the pool itself, and there was equal concern that the surface of the water would act as a mirror and obscure the people above it.

Billy was insistent. “Baby,” he said to John Meehan, the film’s associate art director, “the shot I want is a fish’s viewpoint.” This rang a bell with Meehan. While waiting at the barbershop earlier that week, he had read a magazine article on the subject of the way fishermen look to the fish they are trying to catch. He returned to the barber’s the following morning and frantically searched for the article, but he couldn’t find it. He proceeded to the studio in defeat, but the germ of an idea had been planted. He got an aquarium, a mirror, and a few plastic dolls from the props department and performed some trial setups. At a certain angle, the objects in the water were as clear as the objects above the water. According to Meehan, “The scene in the finder showed that the shot was upside down and in reverse, but I knew the optical department could straighten that out in printing.”

There was a water tank on Sound Stage 9. Holden was summoned, along with the men playing the police. With Holden in the pool and the other actors surrounding him looking down, the shot was actually taken from above the water, the camera pointing down toward a mirror on the floor of the tank. Behind the policemen was a large piece of sky-colored muslin. Holden was quite chilly by the time the shot was successfully filmed; the water couldn’t be warmed for his comfort. As Meehan explained, they had to “work within the critical angle of the transmission of light from water to air, about 48 degrees. If you pass this angle the surface itself becomes a mirror. The water must, as usual, be filtered for clarity and should if possible be kept at a low temperature of about 40 degrees. At higher temperatures the natural gases that build up in the water cut down the light transmission.” The effect is spectacularly macabre. A dimly recognizable body floats slowly across the screen as the cops look down and flash bulbs fire. The audience is unnerved not only by the ghastliness of the corpse but also by the position we are asked to assume. At least Joe Gillis floats. We, on the other hand, have sunk to the bottom. There is no inconsistency between Wilder’s refusal to film a shot looking down from a catwalk and his demand for “a fish’s viewpoint.” Wilder chooses his shots to express emotions - his own as well as his characters. Looking down on his characters from an isolated perch isn’t his style. Sinking to the bottom and staring up at them in disbelief is.


One more crucial scene needed to be reshot. On June 23, the cast and crew gathered at the stairway of the Desmond mansion, where Norma would prepare for the close-up of a lifetime. Wilder filmed the scene as he planned it; Norma came down the stairs not toward an actual close-up but toward a final fade-out. The production reopened one more time on the 25th for shots of rain and fog at the mansion location, after which Sunset Boulevard’s production closed again. The film’s budget of $1,572,000 was still essentially on target.

Billy and Charlie (Brackett) weren’t satisfied with some of the rushes. The tone was off; something was missing. More retakes were necessary. The scene in Norma’s bedroom, in which Gillis assures the suicidal star that he loves her, was reshot on July 7. On July 9, Holden and Swanson reworked their first scene together - the one in which Norma leads Gillis toward a small dead body draped with a satin coverlet and set upon a kind of altar. Norma announces: “I put him on the massage table in front of the fire. He always liked fires - and poking at them with a stick.... I want the coffin to be white, and I want it specially lined with satin - white, or a deep pink...!” (at this moment Norma draws the coverlet back part way and a tiny, very hairy dead arm falls down) “...maybe red! Bright flaming red - let’s make it gay!” Wilder then tracks forward to the monkey’s face.

Sunset Boulevard wrapped once more. August, September, and October were taken up by editing. By October 10, Sidney Skolsky was on the cutting room floor. Looking at the footage again and again, especially with a preview audience or two, Wilder concluded that other scenes weren’t quite right either, and the production was forced to reopen yet again on October 20 for location shooting - in particular, the beginning of the film and the chase sequence. The corner of Sunset and Rexford, Billy’s own block of North Beverly Drive, and a driveway on the actual 10000 block of Sunset Boulevard - all were shot that day just after dawn with two identical sets of cops and reporters - one set proceeding on Rexford, the other turning into the driveway on Sunset.

More retakes of Gillis’s body in the pool followed, along with interiors of the Desmond mansion and a revised scene with DeMille. “We required one more close up,” Wilder reports. “I asked him to come back and do it. He understood. It was the shot outside the stage where he says good-bye. He came back. For another ten thousand dollars.” (Wilder is slightly mistaken on this point. Instead of $10,000, DeMille got his $6,600 Cadillac limo and an extra bonus of $3,000. ) Sunset Boulevard wrapped once more.

Reviewing footage in November and December, Billy and Charlie decided that a certain scene still wasn’t right. The tone was still off; the mood was wrong; it just didn’t play well enough. They had to redo it. So on January 5, 1950, more than six months after it was supposed to have closed for good, the production of Sunset Boulevard reopened again. It would be the last time. The scene was Norma’s. Gillis was dead, Norma having shot him in the back. (She explains her action by noting, “No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star. The stars are ageless, aren’t they?”) The homicide squad has arrived at her mansion, along with Hedda Hopper. The butler, Max, Norma’s former director, must convince her to come down the stairs, and he does so by telling the madwoman that she is filming her new movie’s climactic scene. She descends the staircase. Neither Wilder nor Swanson had hit their stride yet.

Holden was long gone from the production; so were von Stroheim and Hedda Hopper. This would indeed be Norma Desmond’s final scene, and she wouldn’t have to share it with any of her costars. To start the day, Wilder ordered a total of nine different takes of the dialogue between the two homicide detectives, with slight changes from take to take. He then called for ten different takes of Norma’s descent down the staircase, all accompanied by music, just as filmmakers used to do in the days of silent pictures. The music: the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Richard Strauss’s opera. (“Strauss for the rehearsal,” Wilder said; “Then we got better than Strauss. Waxman!” )

They tried various effects with Swanson. Take two, for instance, featured a wild, demented look on her face as she descended, after which she raised her arms at the foot of the steps. For take four she was asked to effect a relaxed, pleasant look and to raise her arms at the end. A pleasant look without the raised arms was the point of take six. The first six takes were in medium long shot, after which Wilder moved the camera farther away for the following four. The pleasant look and the wild look were each filmed again with alternating arm postures. Finally, on the last take of the day, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond descended the stairway from a long distance with a deranged look in her eyes and her arms raised in a bizarre, inimitable gesture - a mad, contorted dance, her hands waving invisible veils. She walked toward the camera, her image went briefly out of focus, Wilder yelled “Cut!,” and the filming of Sunset Boulevard was completed.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

The diminutive one, Mickey Rooney stars in this 1954 heist/noir offering. To give you the Reader Digest version does the phase “I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman” sound familiar? If so you this is the film for you. Now if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, please read on.

The film opens with some classic sport car road racing scenes and during the course of the film the cars are as much the stars as the cast. We’re treated to glorious shots of MG TDs, XK150 Jags and Porsche 356 Speedsters in addition to leggy co-star Dianne Foster (Barbara Mathews). The second male leads are suburb; Kevin McCarthy (Steve Norris), and Jack Kelly (Harold Baker) both a few years prior to their definitive roles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and TV’s Maverick. Seems these three schemers have happened upon the perfect little bank to rob (excuse me, but seems I’ve heard this somewhere before) and all they need is a hopped-up getaway car and someone to drive it.

It just so happens Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is not only a pretty good racer who dreams of racing at Le Mans and Silverstone but earns his way through life as a mechanic at a shop catering to foreign cars. So when Steve and Harold are at the race seeking out possible driver candidates and Harold remarks Eddie has “No family, few friends, lives alone and hates it.” He’s fingered as the all day sucker and the missing piece in the puzzle. So how does one get a good natured guy who likes his job mixed up with a couple of crumbs getting ready to pull a bank job? Can you spell DAME?

As noted Eddie works at a garage occasionally races, and hangs out with his fellow mechanics at the garage. His so called pals constantly question his sexual orientation and mock his physical stature. They jokingly call him ‘Shorty’ and repeatedly asked when he was last with a woman? We know he’s got a soft side as we see him pick flowers from the yard of the boarding house he lives in and places them in his room after disposing of older ones. In a couple of telling scenes one co-worker remarks to another “Little guy’s an odd ball,” and one of his male co-workers asked him at the garage “Don’t you love me any more?” While probably reading too much into this we’re made aware early on that Eddie would like to have a girl of his own but just doesn’t know how to go about it. So when Barbara Mathews tools into the shop needing her Hillman convertible worked on and asks for Eddie by name, the die is cast. She could just as easily have been Miss Wonderly strolling into Sam Spade’s office or Phyllis Dietrichson leaning over the banister with a towel wrapped around her, all of them ready to push the handle on the toilet of life and flush some other poor slob down it.

This may be one of the classic cases of casting against type for our star at the time was on the forth of his eight wife’s so his being uneasy with the fairer sex in his role called for some real acting. Speaking of, Rooney’s acting here is a far departure from his usually over the top, frantic style we’re all grown accustom to. His delivery of the reserved, shy, & confused little mechanic dumb struck by a curvaious hunk of woman is right on the mark.

Once Barbara’s thrown out the line she slowly begins to reel in Eddie. He’s unsure of himself but he’s never seen anything like her and grudgingly he just happens to take a drive to the beach after she overtly flirts with him and practically draws him a map of where she’ll be. Once at the beach she introduces Eddie to Steve who’s renting a house at the beach and is just an old friend she tells him. For this innocent meeting, it’s on to a party at Steve’s later where Eddie’s introduced to the wise cracking Harold. This is followed with dinners at Barbara’s place by which time Eddie’s swallowed the hook and the scheme to hold up the bank is laid out to him.

From this junction on, the film takes a decidedly darker tone in both story line and visual style. Where it had been cars, the beach, and parties now we’re into heist details, selling one’s soul and double crossings - the notable exception being the introduction near the films conclusion of the femme fatale with a heart. The pacing also picks up with the apex being the high speed dash along 20 miles of a twisting, narrow, poorly surfaced road with Eddie at the wheel of a hopped up 40 Ford sedan while Steve rides shotgun gap mouthed and Harold bug eyed in the back seat holding on for dear life.

So do they get the dough? Do they crash and roll the car which obligatory burst into flames during the getaway? And will love every find Andy Hardy? Rather than spoil the ending I’ll just leave you all with the peace of mind knowing that this is one that doesn’t end all rosy and nice so all you noir purist can relax. As Barbara remarks to Steve earlier while agonizing over their role in leading Eddie into harms way “People get paid back when they do things like this.”

Written by Raven

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whirlpool (1949)

Editor's note: This week's Film Noir selection is from one of the most highly-regarded film noir historians, Foster Hirsch. His new book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be Kingwas just published by Knopf. The book is an epic biography of the legendary Viennese-born filmmaker. Preminger made many different styles of film but for me he'll always be known as a noir director. His film noir Whirlpool was successful but far from his best. The strange little drama is entertaining, improbable and even a bit silly. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. Mr Hirsch sent me this introduction and allowed us to use an excerpt from the book on the blog.

by Foster Hirsch

Otto Preminger’s standing at Fox during the last years of his contract, from the late 1940s to 1953, was a disappointment to him as well as to his boss, Darryl Zanuck. Following the success of Laura in 1944, Preminger worked in a number of genres - he did not want to be typecast as a director of thrillers or murder mysteries -- often with quite respectable results. But no single film had landed with the impact of his celebrated salon noir. And given his temperament - Otto was born to give rather than follow orders - by the late 1940s he was eager to branch off on his own as a complete independent producer-director. Succumbing somewhat reluctantly to the “genius” of the system, which argued the wisdom of always returning to the scene of your first success, Preminger, in 1949 and 1950, decided to make three psychological thrillers in a row. He knew the genre (which nobody at the time referred to as film noir) was a good fit for him and each of the scripts, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, and The Thirteenth Letter, contained the psychological perversities and ambivalence that he was always drawn to. Of the three thrillers, Whirlpool, which takes place in the homes of well-to-do characters in Beverly Hills, was the most congenial - Where the Sidewalk Ends has a gritty, hard-boiled, mean streets milieu and The Thirteenth Letter takes place in a bleak small town in Canada. But Preminger directs all three films with the kind of glacial control that had distinguished his direction of Laura. At the time of their release the films were not regarded as in any way important, in fact were markers of the director’s fallen estate at the studio. Since then, the films have had substantial critical rehabilitation and are now generally regarded as essential contributions to the era of classic noir.

As José Ferrer, Whirlpool's costar, recalled, “Otto and Zanuck hoped that the film, which is like a sequel to Laura- it had the same star, the same mood and atmosphere - would have the same success.” Like Laura, Whirlpool is a sleek thriller about the well-to-do. Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the fashionable, neurotic wife of a prominent psychoanalyst, is kleptomaniac. When she is arrested at an upscale department store for stealing a broach, she is save by Korvo (José Ferrer), an astrologer and hypnotist who specializes in separating gullible rich women from their money. Korvo convinces Ann that he can cure her; his real goal, however, is to implicate her in the murder of his ex-mistress, a patient of Ann's husband. At the end, Korvo is gunned down in front of the large portrait of the woman he has killed.

Working with experienced screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, Preminger could not get the convoluted plot to gel. But his shrewd casting of the two leads helped to offset the damage. As the unstable heroine Gene Tierney, who had already suffered periods of mental illness and in later years was to have a harrowing history of breakdowns followed by fragile recoveries, is startling effective. Korvo's comment to Ann, that she has become imprisoned in her role as a pampered, dressed-to-perfection housewife, is also a comment on Tierney's own “perfection” as a well-behaved Hollywood mannequin. As Korvo (kuervo in Yiddish is a male prostitute, an apt description of the character's gigolo manner), José Ferrer offers the enticing spectacle of a phony actor playing a phony actor. The hamminess that was to curdle almost all Ferrer's work is exactly the point here: Korvo is an out-and-out charlatan. For the other major role, that of the society therapist with a trophy wife, Preminger made a rare casting flub: in a tuxedo Richard Conte looks and sounds like a thug. “Conte was a big mistake,” Ferrer said. “We all felt while we were shooting the film. He suggested a New York street type rather than a well-educated psychiatrist.”

The director and his cinematographer Arthur Miller gild Whirlpool with many visual pleasures. Mirror shots of the troubled heroine in her well-appointed home - as in Laura the objects of the rich are made to glisten - underline the character's duality. In a brilliant sequence of noir iconography, under hypnosis and performing the script Korvo has provided, Ann leaves her house and drives to the house of the murdered woman. The camera is placed at odd, transfiguring angles; diagonal shadows cover the walls of Ann's house and of the hilltop house of the dead woman whose portrait looms over her living room like a malevolent deity. The shot in which Gene Tierney stands before the portrait is an obvious homage to Laura and a rare moment of self-quotation in Preminger's oeuvre. David Raksin's theme song (“nice, but not great,” as the composer recalled) evokes the heroine's descent into a vortex.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Too Late for Tears (AKA Killer Bait 1949)

Editor's note: This week's article is penned by the creator of one of the best movie review pages I've seen, Phoenix Cinema. When you're done reading about this fantastic Liz Scott film click over to Phoenix Cinema. Some people just have excellent taste in films.

Too Late for Tears: A study of the pathological housewife

Too Late for Tears has all the elements of my favorite type of film noir: a vicious woman--so crafty and so evil she fools, manipulates and destroys the men in her life, a once-in a lifetime opportunity to get rich (so what if it involves a few corpses), the double cross when you least expect it, and a fast trip all the way down that slippery moral slope to film noir purgatory. Directed by Byron Haskin (I Walk Alone and The Naked Jungle) and based on a novel by Roy Huggins, Too Late for Tears showcases former fashion model, gravel-voiced Lizabeth Scott in one of the two major roles she played in Hollywood. Although Scott was slated for stardom, her career fizzled, and she was never given the roles that could have catapulted her to the top. In 1955, she sued Confidential magazine for libel, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. In 1957, amidst rumors that she was blacklisted, Lizabeth Scott retired from the screen, bringing her all-too-short film noir career to an end. To see her play the main role of pathological housewife Jane Palmer in this 1949 film is nothing less than pure pleasure. Too Late for Tears is currently only commercially available as a very problematic Alpha DVD, but let’s be grateful for what we can get.

Too Late for Tears is a very tight film with no wasted scenes and no fluff--the very first scene takes us right into the action, and right into the marriage of Jane (Lizabeth Scott) and Alan Palmer (Arthur Kennedy). It’s nighttime, and the Palmers are in their convertible enroute to a friend’s home when someone in a passing car tosses a bag that lands in the back seat. Alan pulls over, and Jane grabs the bag. Inside the bag is money--lots of money. When another car appears, Jane doesn’t hesitate; she grabs the wheel, orders Alan into the car and leaves the scene, careening in a high-speed chase along the dark, lonely road. Back home, the Palmers debate what to do with the loot. Squeaky-clean Alan wants to do the right thing and hand the money over to the police, but Jane resists. When Alan insists that the money is a “bag of dynamite,” Jane turns on the charm and wheedles a short grace period from Alan with the excuse that holding the money for a few days can’t hurt.

The next thing you know, while Alan is off working for that measly paycheck, Jane is hitting all the swanky department stores in L.A., returning home with boxes stuffed with furs. Committed to keeping the money, with or without Alan’s agreement, she hides the boxes under the kitchen sink. Just how much planning is going on in Jane’s conniving little head is uncertain, but it’s clear that she considers the money hers.

A great scene occurs when Alan uncovers Jane’s new lavish spending habits. Once again, he wants to turn the money over to the police, but once again Jane wheedles him into keeping it. This time, she agrees to let Alan stash the money at a local station. But the interesting element to this scene is that Jane reveals a side of herself she’s so far managed to keep under wraps. While Alan tries to explain to Jane that the money will bring them nothing good, Jane reveals a deep-rooted avarice that stems back to her childhood:

“We were white collar poor. Middle class poor. The kind of people who can’t quite keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they can’t.”

There’s a hunger in Jane for the finer things in life, and the bag of money has started to feed that hunger. Positively orgasmic when she fondles those wads of stolen cash, she’s not about to give up her one shot for big-time wealth, and woe betide anyone who stands in her way. Unfortunately Alan doesn’t listen to Jane’s revelations that she’s always lusted for wealth, and her slippery ability to switch her submissive behavior on and off deceives him.

Fate steps into the Palmers’ lives in the form of Danny Fuller (another great favorite of mine, Dan Duryea), a cheap hood who shows up looking for the money. Jane immediately turns on the charm, crossing those long legs just enough to catch Danny’s eye, and while he has her number, he can’t resist the invitation. Danny is the bad guy in the film, and when he makes his appearance, he does the traditional bad guy stuff, threatens Jane, shoves her around a bit, and even gives her the occasional whack. It’s interesting to see Jane respond, and her responses should give Danny a clue what he’s up against. His threat of violence doesn’t subdue Jane, she simply regroups and waits like a coiled snake. Even though Jane needs Danny’s brawn (she’s the one with the brains), within a short time, Danny’s relationship with Jane leaves him a quivering mess, operating under her orders in a whining, alcoholic haze.

The other female role in the film, and the antidote to Jane, is an equally strong woman, Alan’s sister Kathy (Kristine Miller), a wholesome brunette who accepts Jane as her brother’s wife but doesn’t particularly like her. When Alan disappears and a story emerges that he’s absconded to Mexico with his mistress, Kathy isn’t buying it. At this point, Kathy’s vague uneasiness about Jane surfaces and coalesces in a relationship with a mysterious stranger. This mysterious stranger, Don Blake (Don Defore) claims to be an old WWII buddy of Alan’s, and he appears after Alan disappears without trace. Jane is immediately suspicious of this stranger, and she tries the seductive routine again. Blake is the one man who doesn’t respond to Jane’s brazen flirtations, and so once Jane establishes that Blake is not vulnerable to her sexuality, she rapidly dismisses him, wasting no further time on a man she can’t manipulate.

Of the three main male roles in the film: Alan, Don, and Danny, Danny is the most pliable and therefore the most vulnerable to Jane’s seductive wiles. Alan tries to maintain some standards, and he ends up dead at the bottom of a lake loaded down with concrete. Don is impervious to Jane’s wiles, so she doesn’t waste time on him. Danny, however, is a weak-willed blackmailer who thinks he’s hit the big time, and his greed and desire for sex make him putty in Jane’s hands. He correctly assesses the dangers of a partnership with Jane: “don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart,” and he tells Jane: “you’ve got me in so deep, I can’t get out.” Danny, who’s done a lot of illegal things in his lifetime, balks at murder, but he lacks the moral fiber to defy Jane. While he reaches and crosses the moral boundaries of his actions, it’s doubtful that Jane has any such limits. Even recognizing Jane for what she is doesn’t save Danny; he’s eventually seduced into his own death by her erotic power and dominant personality.

There are also two minor male roles in the film worth examining. Jane picks up a wolfish stranger at the train station, but he sniffs there’s something evil about Jane, and he can’t get out of Dodge fast enough. In another scene, Jane stops her car along the side of a deserted road, and a male stops to help. Under normal circumstances, this scene would ring alarm bells for the viewer, and we would sense the potential danger for the female. Not so in Too Late for Tears, and while the male stranger naively tells Jane: “lady, you ought to have some male protection” we realize that he’s the one who needs protection. Even the policeman who stops to see if Jane is all right buys into the myth that this little vulnerable woman needs protection out on the highway.

I’m a sucker for film noir that includes the vicious dame. I don’t care if she’s a debutante, a career woman or a housewife, the meaner the better. But somehow, the fact that Jane seems to be a perfectly normal housewife who morphs into a stone-cold killer makes Too Late for Tears that more interesting. After all, what does this say about middle-class America if the housewives and future mothers are so ready to murder those who get in the way of material gain? The character of Jane Palmer, played here with such delectable and duplicitous precision by Lizabeth Scott stands in the Dark Dame Film Noir Hall of Fame along with the infamous Cora Smith (luscious Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice) and deadly Phyllis Dietrichson (steely Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Jane Palmer is a member of this savage sisterhood, women trapped by marriage, boredom, and domesticity, driven to murder to break out of their mundane lives. So if you like your women tough, murderous and heartless, they don’t come much colder that femme fatale, Jane Palmer, and this is why Too Late for Tears makes my Top Ten Noir list.

Written by Guy Savage

Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley