Film Noir

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Thieves Highway 1949

After an extended trip away from home, Nick Gracos (Richard Conte) returns home full of optimism for the future. He’s eager to marry his girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) and looking forward to starting a business with her father. The last thing he expects is to find that his truck driver father has lost his legs after getting on the wrong side of Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), the corrupt owner of a produce market in San Francisco. Now Nick’s father can’t work, has no money, and had to sell his truck to Ed (Millard Mitchell), who is behind on his payments on it.

After meeting with Ed, Nick decides to put his plans on hold and goes into business with Ed. For their first gig, they transport trucks full of apples to the market in San Francisco that’s owned by Figlia. Despite having truck problems along the way, they make it to the market on time. As soon as Nick gets to the market, he has to deal with Figlia trying to scam him and sabotage his truck. He even hires Rica (Valentina Cortese) to distract Nick while Figlia tries to sabotage him. Since Nick is exhausted, she lets him rest in her apartment, but even though she’s working for Figlia, she begins to have feelings for Nick.

When Figlia tries to shortchange Nick on his apples, Nick successfully gets more money and it seems his first shipment went very well. So well, he asks Polly to come down so they can be married right away, much to Rica’s dismay. She insists that Polly is only after his money. But then some of Figlia’s thugs attack him and steal his money, Nick is left empty handed when Polly does arrive — and she doesn’t stick around long once she finds out he’s broke. But now, Nick is in great danger of losing his life in addition to his money.

Aside from the really forced ending, Thieves’ Highway was a highly enjoyable noir. Exactly the caliber of movie I’ve come to expect from Jules Dassin. It’s not often I use the words “gritty,” “sincere,” “heartfelt” together, but they both apply to Thieves’ Highway. The performances by Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte absolutely make the movie one worth seeing. Lee J. Cobb was absolutely brilliant as the corrupted to the soul Figlia and Conte was perfectly determined to do right by his father without laying it on too thick. The ending was the only thing I didn’t like about it; it just felt really forced and tacked on.

Black Widow (1954)

Black Widow 1954

After saying goodbye to his actress wife Iris (Gene Tierney) at the airport, Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) decides to make an appearance at a party being thrown by their neighbor, Lottie (Ginger Rogers), a fellow actress. Peter really doesn’t want to go, but he finds it hard to make excuses not to when he lives in the same building as the host. At the party, he meets 20-something-year-old Nancy “Nanny” Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner).

Like lots of young people, Nanny has recently come to New York City full of ambition and looking to start a successful career as a writer. Peter is very happily married and has no interest in having an affair, but he likes to help people who are just getting started, so he offers to take her out to dinner, making his platonic intentions very clear. After that night, he continues his friendship with Nanny and when she says her apartment isn’t very conducive to writing, he agrees to let her work from his luxurious apartment while he’s at work during the day.

When Iris returns from her trip, she and Peter arrive at their apartment and discover that Nanny has committed suicide. But once the police get involved, it becomes clear there was foul play involved. Iris was well aware of Peter’s friendship with Nanny and never felt threatened by it…until the investigation gets underway. Once the police investigation begins, though, some evidence comes forward that makes Peter look like the prime suspect. Determined to prove his innocence, Peter has to do some investigating to clear his name.

Black Widow isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a great movie, either. The story is nothing innovative or groundbreaking, but it’s entertaining enough to watch at least once. There are certainly far worse ways you could spend 95 minutes. But I have a slight soft spot for it since there’s something about film noir movies that were filmed in Technicolor that I really like (I don’t know why really, just one of my many random fixations.) Also, because it has a poster that is far more scandalous than the movie actually is. (Seriously, why does the woman on this poster have long hair? Nanny has super short hair, nor is she nearly that vampy.)

Black Widow has a lot of big stars, but none of them are at their best in it. Gene Tierney in particular is extremely under utilized in it, so if you’re watching it for her, you may be disappointed. George Raft was pretty underwhelming in his role as a detective working the case. And although I liked some of Lottie’s sassier quips, it’s not one of Ginger’s finest roles, but it’s not a terrible one, either, especially considering where she was at that point in her career.  This was one of the last feature films she made before mostly moving into television and stage roles, so while Black Widow is no Kitty Foyle, it doesn’t even come close to Trog or Sextette territory, either. The best performance of the movie comes from Peggy Ann Garner, who unfortunately, doesn’t get top billing even though she deserved it more than most of the other actors in this movie.

D.O.A. (1950)

D.O.A. 1950 Poster

When Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) announces he’s taking a quick trip to San Francisco, his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) is nervous about him going alone, but reluctantly agrees to let him go. As soon as he gets to his hotel, Pamela calls to tell him Eugene Phillips has been urgently trying to contact him and refuses to leave a message. Frank also meets Sam Haskell (Jess Kirkpatrick) who invites him to join a party in his hotel room.

The party moves to a nearby bar and when Frank notices his drink tasting strangely, he doesn’t think anything of it. When he wakes up the next morning not feeling well, he goes to a doctor and finds out his drink had been spiked with a lethal poison that has no known antidote. He only has a few days to live and plans to spend it finding out who could have poisoned him and why. Sam is nowhere to be found and the bar they visited is closed. Later, Pamela calls to let him know that Eugene Phillips had suddenly died, the reason for his important call still unknown.

Sensing there may be a connection between his poisoning and Eugene’s death, Frank goes to Eugene’s place in Los Angeles and finds out he had committed suicide. Everybody close to Eugene is acting strangely and nobody knows why he’d want to talk to Frank. Meanwhile, back home, Paula has finally found Eugene’s connection to Frank — Frank had notarized a bill of sale for a purchase of Iridium that Eugene had been involved in. When Frank discovers that Eugene’s death was actually a murder, he suddenly finds himself caught in the dangerous position of knowing too much.

Three words for D.O.A.: essential film noir. D.O.A. is anything but dead on arrival; it has one of those opening scenes that grabs your attention instantly and holds onto it with a tight grip until the last frame. Does it get any more purely film noir than an opening scene of a man staggering into a police station to report his own murder? An extremely intriguing story that is very effective without trying too hard. D.O.A. is everything I want from a good film noir.

Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager Robert Taylor Lana Turner

Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) had been a known as a ruthless gangster, but after spending some time in prison, he’s turned over a new leaf as a cab driver.  At least that’s what he wants his parole officer to think.  When he isn’t driving a cab, he’s as cutthroat as ever, involved in illegal gambling, and is working on opening his own dog racing track.  While visiting his parole officer one day, he runs into sociology student Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner).  There’s an immediate attraction between them, but it grows into a deeper infatuation when they meet again later.  Lisabeth is much more sophisticated and intellectual than the type of women Johnny usually meets.

When Johnny suspects his friend Lew (Barry Nelson)  has been short-changing him, he and his associate Jeff (Van Heflin) go to a nightclub to confront Lew.  While there, he runs into Lisabeth again, who has been left alone after her date got drunk.  Johnny gladly keeps her company for the rest of the night, but when he brings her home, he discovers Lisabeth’s father is John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the man responsible for putting Johnny behind bars.  Farrell is also the one preventing Johnny’s dog track from opening.

Of course, Farrell isn’t happy about Johnny seeing his daughter and wants to put a stop to it.  He tells Johnny he will do anything to protect his daughter, even if it means killing or framing Johnny for something.  So Johnny decides to turn the tables on Farrell by coming up with a scheme for his friend Julio to come bursting into Johnny’s apartment while Lisabeth is there.  Julio and Johnny stage a fight, Lisabeth shoots Julio with a gun loaded with blanks, and Johnny escorts her away before she can question what happened.  Lisabeth has a breakdown over the incident, but Johnny uses gun with her fingerprints on it to blackmail Farrell into letting his dog track open.

Johnny’s dog track has a successful opening night, but after the stunt with Lisabeth, some of his closest associates are getting concerned that his ruthless behavior is getting out of hand.  One of them even offers Johnny $500,000 to close the track and leave town with Lisabeth.  It isn’t until he visits Lisabeth that he realizes just how badly he’s hurt her.  For once, Johnny feels badly about what he’s done and wants to make it right, even if it means putting his life on the line to do it.

Johnny Eager has a pretty standard gangster movie/film noir plot, but strong writing and good acting save it from being just another run-of-the-mill gangster flick.  Robert Taylor may get the star billing, and he is very good as Johnny Eager, but it’s Van Heflin who really steals the show.  Heflin completely deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for his work in Johnny Eager.  I’m a big fan of Lana Turner, but I don’t think this was her best work.  Although I did get a kick out seeing her play what has got to be the most outrageously glamorous sociology student of all time.  If you’ve never seen it before, Johnny Eager is definitely worth keeping an eye out for; it’s very enjoyable.

Niagara (1953)

When Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter) head to Niagara Falls for their belated honeymoon, all they’re expecting is a relaxing vacation and maybe a little bit of business networking for Ray.  The last thing they expect is to find themselves mixed up in a murder plot.  When they arrive at their cabin, they find the previous occupants, Rose and George Loomis (Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton), haven’t left yet.  Rose explains that her husband isn’t well, so Polly and Ray agree to stay in another cabin instead.

Just before Ray and Polly head out to do some sightseeing, Rose says she’s going to go grocery shopping.  But when the Polly sees Rose kissing another man, the Cutlers write her off as an unfaithful wife, but don’t really dwell on it.  Later, after Rose returns to the cabin, George finds a ticket stub in her coat pocket that proves she didn’t just go shopping like she said and starts to suspect she’s been seeing someone else.  His jealousy reaches a breaking point that night when Rose goes to a social wearing a very tight dress and requests a romantic song be played.  George storms out of the cabin and smashes the record.

The next morning, Rose and George are set to leave for Chicago.  But when Rose says she wants to go to the bus station for tickets, George gets suspicious again and this time for a good reason.  She and her boyfriend Patrick have come up with a scheme to kill him and run away together.  When she goes to a gift shop to meet up with Patrick, George follows her and, thinking they’ve gone to some caves, buys a ticket for the caves.  The plan is for Patrick to follow George into the caves, kill him, and when he’s dead, let her know by having the bell tower play their special song.  So while Patrick goes to take care of George, Rose goes back to the cabin and puts on her act about her husband being missing.  When a body is recovered from the falls, Rose is called to identify it, but faints after seeing it.  The authorities take her fainting to mean the body found was indeed George.  However, Polly soon discovers that Rose and Patrick’s plan didn’t go exactly as planned.

Of all of Marlyn Monroe’s movies, I’ve always thought Niagara was one of her most under-appreciated.  I love Marilyn’s comedies, but she was fabulous as a film noir femme fatale.  It’s too bad she didn’t make more noir films because she was a natural in Niagara.  As good as Marilyn is in it, Joseph Cotton is pretty outstanding as well.  He really nailed it as the mentally unstable, jealous George.  I also can’t neglect to mention Jean Peters and Max Showalter, who were perfect for the naive, innocent couple who got dragged into this whole mess.  They really seemed so completely Midwestern.

There are some scenes in it that are genuinely terrifying.  I’m always on the edge of my seat for that scene on the wooden stairs by the Falls.  It makes me nervous enough just to see people walking on those things normally, but having Joseph Cotton chasing Jean Peters on them?  Yeah, I was pretty horrified, but in just the right way.  All in all, Niagara is a pretty good thriller that doesn’t really get as much recognition as it deserves.

Affair in Trinidad (1952)

For three years, Chris Emery (Rita Hayworth) has been living in Trinidad with her husband Neal.  He’s an artist, she’s a nightclub singer and dancer.  After one of her performances, she comes off stage to find Inspector Smythe (Torin Thatcher) waiting to break the news that her husband is dead.  At first, the police believe he committed suicide, but they soon discover it was murder.  Chris is ready to go back to America, but the police want her to stay and help them.  They know that Neal’s friend Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) is responsible for Neal’s death, but they also know that Max is the head of an organization that sells military secrets.  To get the proof they need to convict him on that charge, they ask Chris to spy on him for them.  Wanting to avoid an ugly murder trial, Chris agrees.

A few days later, Neal’s brother Steve (Glenn Ford) arrives in Trinidad after receiving a letter from Neal about having a job for him down there.  Not only is he shocked to find out about his brother’s death, but also that Chris is rumored to be romantically involved with Max.  Chris wants to explain to him what she’s doing, but Inspector Smythe warns her not to.  Determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on, Steve stays with Chris for a few days.  When the two of them are invited to Max’s house for dinner, Steve quickly realizes Max is connected to Neal’s death.

Meanwhile, Max and Steve both have fallen in love with Chris and they each ask her to leave the country with them.  She turns down both of their offers and Steve is frustrated by her apparent desire to stick close to Max.  When Steve tries going to the police with proof of Max’s connection to Neal’s murder, he doesn’t understand why Smythe doesn’t seem to care about the matter.  Chris and Steve each carry on their investigations, but when Max and his associates find out what Chris has been doing, Steve winds up in a shootout to save Chris.

Affair in Trinidad was the first movie Rita Hayworth made after taking a four-year break from movies.  From her first moment on screen, Rita proves that none of her magnetism was lost during those four years.  Teaming her with Glenn Ford again was definitely a good move; their chemistry certainly hadn’t faded with time.  The story is pretty convoluted, but it is entertaining and Rita Hayworth’s charisma more than makes up for a far-fetched story.  All in all, a pretty enjoyable comeback movie.

Book Vs. Movie: The Maltese Falcon

When you have more than one screen adaptation of a novel, usually one is more faithful to the novel than the other.  However, in the case of The Maltese Falcon, it has two pretty accurate adaptations.  The first version, released in 1931 and stars Ricardo Cortez, Thelma Todd, and Bebe Daniels, does a pretty good job of sticking to the source material.  However, the 1941 Humphrey Bogart version is an even more accurate representation of the book.  It doesn’t stick to the novel exactly, but most of the dialogue is taken verbatim and the key story elements are kept in tact.

Most of the differences are pretty subtle and probably were changed for the sake of pacing.  For example, in the movie Sam finds out about La Paloma after he wakes up in Gutman’s hotel room and starts looking around the room.  It’s a much more drawn out process in the book.  In the book, Sam finds out Miss O’Shaugnessy didn’t go to Effie’s apartment like she was supposed to.  Instead, she had the cab stop to get a newspaper, then she asked to be brought to the ferry building.  So Sam gets a copy of the paper in question to look for clues, but doesn’t figure it out until he starts snooping around Cairo’s room and notices that the newspaper section with ship arrivals was of particular interest to him.  Although there’s nothing wrong with the way that part plays out in the book, if it were filmed that way, it would have slowed the movie down.  Another difference is that the character of Gutman’s daughter is completely absent from the Bogart movie (as well as from the Ricardo Cortez version, for that matter), but she wasn’t exactly a vital character in the book.

A lot of the other changes were definitely made because of the production codes.  What’s interesting about that content is that neither the 1931 or the 1941 version gets it exactly right.  The 1931 version tends to be a bit more scandalous than the book was, but it does include things that were in the book that couldn’t be included in the 1941 version.  There’s no way the 1941 version could have gotten away with the scene where Spade strip searches O’Shaugnessy after noticing that $1,000 of the $10,000 Gutman promised him was missing, but it was in the 1931 version.  The 1941 version also really had to downplay the fact that Cairo and Wilmer were both supposed to be gay, the 1931 version made that much clearer.  In the book, when O’Shaugnessy finds out that Sam has been talking to Cairo and that he’s prepared to offer more money than she can, she offers to sleep with him and proceeds to spend the night at Sam’s apartment.  When it comes to that part in the 1941 version, O’Shaugessy can’t offer herself to Spade or spend the night, so Sam just kisses her instead.  As for Spade’s affair with Iva Archer, the 1941 version actually depicts what went on more accurately than the 1931 version.  The 1931 version made that affair more salacious than the book described.  First of all, the book made Iva Archer out to be a little past her prime, which Thelma Todd most certainly was not.  There also weren’t any scenes involving Iva showing up at Sam’s apartment and finding O’Shaugnessy wearing her kimono nor were there any of Miles listening on the extension while Sam and Iva set up a tryst.

I really enjoyed reading The Maltese Falcon and I think anyone who likes either movie version would, too.  Like I said, what you see in either movie version is pretty much what you get in the book.  And since it’s not a terribly long book, either, I definitely recommend reading it.  As for which movie version I prefer, I think it goes without saying that the Humphrey Bogart version wins hands down.  The Ricardo Cortez version is good, but it doesn’t have the flawless cast and direction that the Humphrey Bogart version did.  I always loved the cast of the Bogart version, but while I was reading the book and got to read exactly how each character was described, I feel like that version had some of the most perfect casting of all time.  Nobody will ever make a better Sam Spade than Humphrey Bogart.

For more Bogie, be sure to visit Forever Classics for more Humphrey Bogart Blogathon contributions.

Fallen Angel (1945)

Drifter Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews) had been hoping to get to San Francisco by bus, but when he gets thrown off the bus for not being able to cover the fare, he finds himself in small town Walton, California instead.  He stops into Pop’s Eats and overhears Pop talking to police about Stella (Linda Darnell), one of his waitresses, being missing.  Detective Mark Judd (Charles Bickford) isn’t too concerned and tells Pop that she’ll probably turn up sooner or later.  Luckily, he’s right, and Stella walks in while Eric is still there.  As soon as he sets eyes on her, he joins Stella’s big group of admirers, but she doesn’t fall for his charms so easily.  After leaving the diner, Eric needs a place to stay for the night.  When he sees that a psychic act is in town, he goes to the hotel and pretends to be a friend of the psychic’s to get into their room for the night.

Eric makes friends with the psychic’s assistant and the next day, he finds out that ticket sales for the psychic’s show have been slow due to Clara Mills (Anne Revere), the daughter of a former mayor, claiming the psychic is a fraud.  Eric decides to help him out and goes to see Clara to convince her to stop interfering with their show.  Clara doesn’t buy his smooth talk, but her sister June (Alice Faye) does and convinces Clara that they should give them a chance and go see their show.  Once word gets out that Clara and June are going to the show, Eric has no problem selling tickets.  But of course the act is a fraud and thanks to a little pre-show research, the psychic finds out that Clara and June had been conned out of much of their father’s inheritance, which gets mentioned in the show.  After the show, Eric continues to pursue Stella.  Stella makes it very clear that she’s looking to get married and settle down and Eric would need more money before he would able to do that.

Even though Eric had been offered a job with the psychic, he decides to stay in Walton because he’s got a plan to get the money he needs fast.  Although Clara and June had been swindled out of a lot of their money, they still have about $25,000 left.  So he starts seeing June and June quickly falls head over heels for him.  After a few dates, Eric brings June and Clara to San Francisco.  He tells them that they would be going to a concert, but really, he plans to marry June to get to her money.  Clara is skeptical, but June is thrilled to be married.  When they get back home that night, Eric sneaks out to tell Stella what he’s doing.  He explains that he will divorce her ASAP, but she is furious and goes out on a date with another man instead.

When he wakes up the next morning, he’s shocked to hear that Stella had been murdered.  Clara had followed Eric to his meeting and could have easily framed him for the murder, but instead she tries to cover for him when Detective Judd questions his whereabouts the previous night.  With Clara’s alibi, the prime suspect becomes another one of Stella’s boyfriends.  But then it turns out the other boyfriend has an air-tight alibi and the focus turns back to Eric.  Eric is afraid of being framed and he and June sneak off to San Francisco together.  Even an ordeal like this isn’t enough to shake June’s love of Eric and as the two of them hole up in a hotel room, they get to know each other better and Eric begins to really love June back.  When they leave the hotel so that June can get the $25,000 out of her safe deposit box, she is arrested and brought back to Walton.  But now Eric is more determined than ever to prove who the real killer is and, with a bit of research, is able to prove who left a vital clue at the scene of the crime.

Fallen Angel is one of those wonderful overlooked movie gems. I don’t hear it talked about much, but it really packed a punch.  It’s full of classic film noir cinematography, Otto Preminger’s direction was first-rate, Dana Andrews brought plenty of suave charm, Linda Darnell positively smoldered in her role, and Alice Faye totally hit it out of the park.  At first, you might think Alice Faye would be a little out of place here since she is so strongly associated with musicals, but she was excellent.  Unfortunately, many of Alice’s best scenes were cut from the film in favor of adding more of Linda Darnell, which prompted Alice to stop making movies for many years.  But despite having so many fine moments end up on the cutting room floor, Alice Faye still delivers big time.  Overall, it’s a first-rate noir that deserves more recognition.

Mildred, Mildred, Mildred

Anytime there’s talk of remaking a classic movie, it always generates a lot of excitement in the classic film fan community.  Everyone starts talking about the original movie, a lot of people declare that it can never compare to the original, and then there are some who are willing to give it a chance.  When HBO announced they were working on an adaptation of Mildred Pierce, it was no exception to the rule.  But no matter what someone’s initial reaction is, if you mention that you’ve seen the remake, the first thing they’ll say is, “Well, how was it?”  So, here it is: everything you could want to know about HBO’s Mildred Pierce mini-series, how it compares to the Joan Crawford movie, and even how it compares to the original James M. Cain novel.

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Asphalt (1929) and the Roots of Film Noir

When you talk about film noir, people tend to primarily think of movies from the 1940s and 1950s.  Considering that those decades gave us movies like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Postman Always Rings Twice, it’s easy to see why that is.  But even though the style of film noir has roots in 1920s German Expressionism, you don’t usually hear anyone talk about silent film noirs.  But I can think of a silent that definitely embodies the film noir style: Asphalt.

Albert Holk (Gustav Frohlich) is a young police officer, dedicated to his job.  One night, while directing traffic, he finds himself entangled with Else Kramer (Betty Amann).  While he’s working, she’s in a jewelery store looking at diamonds, but she doesn’t have any intention of actually paying for one of them.  She uses her good looks to distract the store’s employee while she gets the diamond onto the floor and hides it in her umbrella.  As she walks out of the store, the staff realizes a diamond is missing and they start chasing her down and Albert catches her.  She doesn’t turn off the charm and the worker is willing to let her go, but Albert isn’t as easily swayed.  He wants to bring her to the station, but she convinces him to stop at her apartment so she can get her papers.  Of course, this is just another one of her ploys, and Albert sees right through them at first, but she eventually succeeds at seducing him.  He goes home, but they can’t get each other out of their heads.  Else seems to genuinely care for him, but Albert is conflicted between his feelings for Else and feeling guilty about not doing his job and letting her go.  The next night, Else sends him a gift and he goes to see her to confront her.  Although he’s angry at first, he succumbs to her charms once again.  But their encounter is interrupted by a surprise visitor: Else’s boyfriend.  Albert and Else’s boyfriend get into a violent altercation and Albert kills him in the fight.  Horrified by what he has done, he turns himself in for murder, but Else saves him by taking that first step toward redemption.

The term “film noir” wouldn’t even exist for another seventeen years after Asphalt was first released, but the movie is chock full of signature film noir elements.  It’s got Else Kramer, who starts out looking like the classic femme fatale: she’s beautiful, she steals, and she has no qualms about using her looks to get men to do what she wants.  We go on to see that she isn’t as ruthless as, say, Phyllis Dietrichson, but the femme fatale roots are still there.  Then there’s the plot, which would go on to become a pretty go-to plot during the golden age of film noir.  As you watch the movie, you’re bound to find plenty of shots that most definitely show the influence German film had on film noir:

Asphalt really is a fantastic movie.  I loved Gustav Frohlich as the morally conflicted cop and he had real chemistry with Betty Amann, but Betty was the real scene stealer of the movie.  She was absolutely stunning and was a flawless choice for that role.  The cinematography is wonderful and it’s got some really great atmosphere.  If you’ve never seen Asphalt, it’s definitely worth seeking out.

I am glad to be part this year’s For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon.  I wasn’t able to participate last year, but last year’s blogathon raised $30,000 to help save two short silent films.  This year is dedicated to helping preserve 1950’s The Sound of Fury.  Click here to learn more about the blogathon and if you are so inclined to donate money to this cause, please do so here.
If you’d like to see what other people are writing about, just head on over here! People are writing some great stuff for this blogathon, so if you like noir, you’ll find lots of quality reading material.