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2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 23rd, 2015, 12:45 am
Film Noir – Palm Springs 2015
I was fortunate enough to attend the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, organized by Alan K. Rode and held at the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs. None of the twelve showings were sellouts, but all were well attended. The audience was enthusiastic, and both novices and mavens had a good time. Most of the attendees seemed to be locals, but some had traveled from as far away as Toronto. Lovers of film noir would consider this money well spent. The all access pass was $125.
The movies were introduced by either Alan Rode, Foster Hirsch, or the “Czar of Noir” himself, Eddie Muller. All three gentlemen did an excellent job of providing helpful information about the films, and all three hung around in the lobby between shows to chat with audience members. Copies of books by the featured guests (more discussion to follow) were available in the lobby.
I’ll break this diary into segments so that the entries don’t run too long.
The festival began on Thursday night with the only post-1950s film, MILLER’S CROSSING (1990). How well this film has held up. More viewers get the Coen Brothers’ sensibility now than was the case back then. I remembered liking the film pretty well when it was released, finding it a bit violent for my taste, but feeling uncertain about the gay villain, although clearly there was nothing homophobic about the Coens’ treatment of the theme. This time around, what I liked about the movie was just about everything, though it’s around the limits of how much violence I can take.
The screenplay is so brilliantly written that it’s almost beyond praise. The directing and the editing never distract from the dialogue, the gestures, and the expressions on the actors’ faces. This is the opposite of using routine camera set-ups; the camera is deliberately placed to maximize the impact of the dialogue and the actors. Gabriel Byrne is an actor I often find cold and unsympathetic, but that works to his advantage here. He may not be very likable, but he is a solid performer. Albert Finney is cast effectively as his boss. Marcia Gay Harden projects more softness and vulnerability than the dialogue suggests, but this may be a good thing.
However, for me three supporting performances stand out even more: Jon Polito as Gaspar, the rival gangster to Finney; tall, thin, stone-faced J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, his second in command; and John Turturro as Bernie, the small-time bookie whose actions set the plot in motion. Too bad Steve Buscemi doesn’t have more scenes as Mink, the druggy underling who’s the center of an unlikely but altogether wonderful (for the viewer, that is) triangle between Bernie and the Dane.
After the showing, which was enthusiastically received, Alan Rode interviewed a special guest: Jon Polito himself, who said he hadn’t seen the movie on the big screen in eighteen years, and that he loved seeing himself that big. Polito said he was asked to read for Eddie Dane. (This seemed impossible after just watching J.E. Freeman own the role of the Dane as much as anyone has ever owned any movie part, but the Coens didn’t have our advantage of hindsight.) Polito wanted to play Gaspar and wasn’t interested in reading for Dane. They didn’t ask him to read for Gaspar, having envisioned an older man, so he went off to do an arc on Miami Vice and some stage work.
Then he was invited to read for Gaspar. He had been given the first scene to prepare. If you haven’t seen the film in a while, it opens with a long monologue by Gaspar about the importance of ethics. When Polito acted the first scene to the first break in it, they asked him to step outside, then called him back in to read the whole part cold.
The opening scene was originally filmed in one long shot, like the first scene of THE GODFATHER, but the rushes showed that this did not work. The long speech had natural breaks, so they used cuts, and this worked. Polito said his long speech was so well-written that it was easy to memorize.
Polito had no scenes with Turturro, Buscemi, or Marcia Gay Harden, but he and Marcia had rapport on the set. It was the first big break for both of them. She had tried film with little success, then gone back to NYU for her Master’s degree. She was concerned that Gabriel Byrne seemed distant, but Polito thinks this was deliberate on Byrne’s part to help establish the needed distance between their characters on screen. Byrne and Finney hit it off immediately, with much Irish drinking and many Irish drinking stories.
The big scene which resolves matters between Gaspar and the Dane took only four or five hours to film. Alan Rode commented that Joel Coen doesn’t expose a lot of film. (I’ll add that MILLER’S CROSSING has the look of a film which is storyboarded, not pulled together in the editing room.)
Polito had worked for a year on Broadway (c. 1984) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Dustin Hoffman and Kate Reid. At the time Polito weighed only about 155 lbs. This production was filmed. Hoffman helped him with film acting, telling him not to be too aware of the camera but to include the camera as part of the audience. Kate Reid also helped him generally with acting.
Gaspar gave Jon Polito the look that has made him identifiable for the rest of his career: the weight, the thin mustache. Today he looks very much like he did on screen in 1990, and now is probably the age the Coens had in mind for Gaspar. As a boy he loved Warner Brothers films and their character actors in particular. He specifically mentioned Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ted De Corsia, and Charles McGraw as favorites.
Polito won an acting scholarship to Villanova. At the time the students were concentrating on internal work, but a British director there (unnamed) helped him play larger and more externally. Obviously this prepared him for playing Gaspar.
In response to a question from Rode, Polito said that he did not think being openly gay hurt his career as a character actor, though he was refused an opportunity to read for one role because he was gay; someone from the producer’s office actually told his agent that over the phone. His agent said that was against the law, but was told the producer still didn’t want him. J.E. Freeman was also openly gay, and fought back against the police at demonstrations in San Francisco.
There was also some discussion of TV shows Polito was on; my notes are incomplete because I was unfamiliar with those shows.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 23rd, 2015, 12:02 pm
Friday, May 15, 2015
A follow-up to the Jon Polito interview: after the show, JP had dinner at the theater and stayed until nearly midnight talking with fans.
Foster Hirsch introduced the morning movie, THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME. The last TCM showing of this film led to some lively discussion here at SSO. Hirsch said this has the reputation of being a second-rank film noir, but it is not at all second-rank. (I believe that’s what most of us at SSO thought, too.) He said it is a film filled with surprises and that we are constantly having to change our minds about the four main characters and that no character is a stereotype. Hirsch mentioned how odd the opening scene is. We’re in a courtroom, with the defendant on trial for murder, but his lawyer is unshaven and looks untrustworthy. The camera pans across several witnesses, but one has his back to the camera. The opening credits have shown us a waterfall. What is that doing in a crime film?
Like those of who saw the film recently, Hirsch praises the subtlety and unexpected strength of Robert Young’s performance. He noted, for instance, the quick look Young gives to his wife’s gabby aunt. We get to see Jane Greer six months before her iconic performance in OUT OF THE PAST. She and Robert Young are bonding over . . . deep sea fishing?
THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME doesn’t have much of the visual style of noir, except in a couple of key scenes: Robert Young looking for his wife in a dark house and Robert Young in prison. The director, Irving Pichel (rhymes with Mitchell) was a devout Christian, which led to his directing films like MIRACLE OF THE BELLS, MARTIN LUTHER, and DAY OF TRIUMPH. He also directed QUICKSAND, a film noir some of us have seen.
Hirsch suggested that the audience is placed in the same position as the jurors. I have little to add to his excellent discussion.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 23rd, 2015, 6:06 pm
I forgot to add this fun fact to the discussion of MILLER’S CROSSING: the maid in the scene where Byrne goes into the women’s restroom is . . . Albert Finney in drag.
ON DANGEROUS GROUND is a favorite of many people here, and it was a great pleasure to see it on the big screen. I still find it unbalanced, with too much time devoted to a specific murder case which has no relation to the main part of the film. (I overheard some other viewers saying the same thing.) Ryan’s cop on the edge character could have been sketched in much more economically. However, once Ryan heads for the snow country and meets Ward Bond and Ida Lupino, the movie rises to an exalted level.
What struck me most this time was the great score by Bernard Herrmann. Apparently the work of Ryan, Lupino, and Nicholas Ray had affected me so forcefully that I had not listened carefully enough to the music. Ryan and Ward Bond could not be better, and Ida Lupino’s luminous performance is the much-needed heart of the film.
Alan K. Rode introduced the film and then had an extended discussion afterwards with J.R. (Jim) Jones, author of the excellent biography THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN. Rode made the excellent point that this is the unusual film where a bereaved father quickly becomes unsympathetic. According to Rode, producer John Houseman and Robert Ryan didn’t want a happy ending, but RKO and Nicholas Ray wanted a reunion at the end. (I think the overbalanced opening third of the film makes a happy ending absolutely necessary.)
ON DANGEROUS GROUND went into post-production hell after completion. It was shelved for a year and a half after completion. Why? Howard Hughes, of course. That happened to lots of RKO movies at the time, according to Alan Rode. Some have speculated that Hughes was deliberately trying to lose money at RKO to use as tax losses. J.R. Jones could not locate a single quote from Ryan about this movie. He noted that if a movie goes through creative struggle, those involved with it tend to have selective amnesia. Ryan’s children can’t remembering his ever mentioning this film, and he never listed it among his favorites. He liked Nicholas Ray and Ida Lupino. Apparently the movie was just dumped on the market when it came out, and Ryan did no interviews to promote it.
Speaking of another actor in the film: as some of you know, people who had been blacklisted sometimes went to Ward Bond to get his seal of approval, which could put them back to work. Rode said one such person was Anthony Quinn, whom Ward Bond received while sitting on the toilet.
Rode mentioned that Ryan had been quoted as saying that he had a face that led to being in Arizona eating bad food rather than being in Monaco like Cary Grant.
Jones said that the general response when he asked people about Robert Ryan is that they liked him and that he was hard to read.
For the time being, I’m not going to post all my notes about J.R. Jones’ discussion of Ryan’s career. We’re currently trying to book him as a guest here on SSO. Start getting your questions ready.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 23rd, 2015, 10:11 pm
I missed THE BIG CLOCK, the late afternoon Friday show, but came back for the evening show, CHICAGO CALLING (1951). This rarity, like THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME, was restored by the UCLA Film & TV Department. It is now available on DVD.
CHICAGO CALLING has nothing to do with film noir except: 1) it stars Dan Duryea and 2) has many location shots of downtown LA and Bunker Hill. Alan Rode described the Bunker Hill area as containing 1890s Victorian buildings which by 1951 were deteriorating rooming houses and flophouse hotels. It was an independent low budget film, and therefore location shooting saved money. That’s now perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film.
Actually, this film is an American imitator of early Vittorio De Sica films like BICYCLE THIEVES and SHOESHINE. Dan Duryea gives an excellent performance as an out-of-work blue collar guy desperate to find $50 to pay his phone bill so he can receive an important phone call from his wife. Along the way he meets an all but abandoned boy, well played by Gordon Gebert, who tries to help him. This movie is a real tearjerker, and the viewer should not expect a typical Hollywood ending. For my taste, the director, John Reinhardt, doesn’t pace the film particularly well; it seems longer than its 78 minutes. Perhaps the pace would have seemed more correct if it hadn’t been shown in a film noir festival.
Fans of Dan Duryea will definitely want to see this one; he’s just as good in a mostly sympathetic role as he is in those classic portrayals of Mr. Sleaze. Rode said that at one time Duryea was the highest paid freelance actor in Hollywood. He took a percentage of the profits rather than a salary which the budget of this film could not have afforded, but there were no profits.
John Reinhardt was the best friend of Alan Rode’s grandfather, and they crossed the USA together to get to California. Reinhardt later made Spanish versions of films in Mexico.
After the film, Rode interviewed Gordon Gebert, now a handsome white-haired man in his early seventies, apparently in good health. His experience as a child actor is much happier than many of his more famous colleagues. His wife and children were also in attendance. His only bad experience was with the director of SADDLE TRAMP, who pitted the boys in the cast against each other.
Gordon Gebert was never the breadwinner for his family. His mother, who had a bookkeeping background, kept meticulous records. In time, there was enough money for him to go to college and later to buy a house.
His father was interested in theater, and Gordon played a role in a production at Drake University in Des Moines. When the family moved to California, he appeared at Pasadena Playhouse, where he was seen and signed by an agent, Lola Moore. The Geberts then discovered than she represented about 500 child actors and would send as many as fifty of them on the same casting call.
Gordon did not remember a lot of specifics about CHICAGO CALLING. His family lived in the San Fernando Valley when it was quite rural, and he was amazed by the seedy downtown areas he saw when making the film.
His most famous role was as Janet Leigh’s son in HOLIDAY AFFAIR. Leigh, Robert Mitchum, and Wendell Corey had great rapport on the set, and there was a lot of joking. Mitchum was very nice to him and helped him improvise a scene with a turtle. The director, Don Hartman, had a son Gordon’s age and knew how to work with kids. Gebert thought Hartman was an excellent director. One day, Elizabeth Taylor, who was a good friend of Janet Leigh, came to the set, and he remembers how awestruck he was by her beauty.
He recalls that Joel McCrea was nice to him during the making of SADDLE TRAMP. His last role was as the young Audie Murphy in TO HELL AND BACK. At times during his career he felt frustrated by not having a normal life, but by 25 he realized how lucky he’d been.
He studied architecture at MIT and Princeton, and has both taught architecture and practiced as an architect. Unlike some child stars, he made a successful adjustment to the real world.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 24th, 2015, 1:21 pm
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, introduced the morning film, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY. He hadn’t seen it when he wrote his book on noir, but wishes now he could include it, for it is one of his favorites. He thinks that Ruth Roman and Steve Cochran were never better, and that this performance led Antonioni to cast Cochran in IL GRIDO. (Same here.)
Co-credited with the screenplay is Art Cohn, a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune and a friend of Eddie Muller’s father. Art was a friend of Mike Todd and died in the same plane crash as Todd. Co-author of the screenplay and credited with the story is Guy Endore, a friend of Dalton Trumbo, and part of Hollywood’s left-wing clique. (This may explain the “Grapes of Wrath” part of the story, although the hero’s finding fulfillment as a lettuce picker still seems a little weird to me.)
The director, Felix Feist, was originally a film salesman for MGM. In the 1930s he directed DELUGE, an early disaster movie. For RKO in the 40s he directed THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE, which helped establish Lawrence Tierney’s screen persona; THE THREAT, a favorite of Alan K. Rode; and the Joan Crawford film THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS. Muller quipped that seeing Steve Cochran and Lawrence Tierney on the same day (the late afternoon movie was BORN TO KILL) was badass overload. He called Steve Cochran the Elvis of noir, and indeed in some shots the resemblance is striking. In one respect they differed greatly, however. Muller once asked Mamie Van Doren, “Who were the studs and who were the duds?” Dud: Elvis. Stud #1: Steve Cochran. Mamie said, “He did Mae West in the morning and me in the afternoon.”
Muller summed up Cochran by saying that he knew how to manage his career, but didn’t know how to manage his life.
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY again, and on the big screen. However, it did not seem to me in the same class as the next three films: M (1951), BORN TO KILL, and PANIC IN THE STREETS. That was an incredible trifecta.
The highlight of the festival for me was the showing of M, Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of the Fritz Lang classic. Alan K. Rode introduced it, saying that Losey saw the original in Munich in 1931 and at first did not want to do the remake. The son of the original producer produced this version. Losey rejected the idea of having Peter Lorre repeat his performance as the child killer. He felt that with the Mr. Moto films, Lorre had become a kind of clown.
Rode mentioned the use of downtown LA and Bunker Hill, as well as the climactic scenes in the Bradbury Building. He also suggested that the ensemble cast is a character actor Hall of Fame.
The cast includes David Wayne, superb as the child killer; Howard Da Silva, dominating the sceen as the chief of police; Martin Gabel as the rather upper-crust crime boss; Luther Adler as the drunken attorney; Raymond Burr as a raspy-voiced thug; and John Miljan as the blind balloon-seller. Norman Lloyd has a couple of priceless comic bits, one involving a scale, one involving the door to an oculist’s office. There are many more supporting actors, little-known but just right for their parts.
This is one film I’d love to have seen again immediately afterward. The opening shots were so stunning that I was putty in the director’s hands. The gorgeous print was a 35mm restoration by the Library of Congress. There were many shots of downtown LA (lzcutter needs to see this). Some of the shots inside the Bradbury Building will knock you out.
Wayne’s performance is mostly silent for the first half of the film. This remake is more psychologized than the original, with a fair amount of Norman Bates (before the fact, of course). We also see and hear something closer to a mimed orgasm that I can recall ever seeing in a Code-era film. The lawyer’s speech on the killer’s behalf is overlong, preachy, and full of outdated psychology, but we know the police are on the way, so all tension is not lost. The final shot brought some gasps from the audience. As I heard one woman say leaving the theater, “Wow, that was intense!” Yes, it was.
The next afternoon I asked Eddie Muller to recommend showing both the 1951 M and ABANDONED (to be discussed subsequently) at the next TCM Film Festival. He mentioned that there is a 1953 Argentine remake of M called EL VAMPIRO NEGRO which focuses on the mothers of the murdered children, and that it is also a fine film. When he presented this recently in LA, he praised the performance of the star, Olga Zubarry, known as the Argentine Marilyn Monroe. After the showing, an attractive, voluptuous woman in her fifties came up to him and thanked him profusely for his kind words about her mother. Olga Zubarry’s daughter lives in the LA area now; Eddie had no idea this was the case.
Another note about Losey’s M: on first viewing, this seems on a par with THE CRIMINAL, previously my favorite Losey, closely followed by THE PROWLER and THE SERVANT. His films are hard to find, and not many have been shown on TCM. The only others I’ve seen, more or less in order of preference, are THE GO-BETWEEN, EVA, ACCIDENT, SECRET CEREMONY, and the one outright dud, KING AND COUNTRY, which nonetheless has excellent performances by Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde.
After the showing, Alan Rode interviewed Norman Lloyd—or, more accurately, let Norman Lloyd talk and tell stories. The extended tale about Charles Laughton might be too X-rated for this site. Unfortunately, there was no discussion specifically about M, but Lloyd talked a bit about Losey. They did four plays together before either went to Hollywood, and Lloyd considered Losey a friend. The first was a production of A BRIDE FOR THE UNICORN at the Harvard Dramatic Club. Lloyd was part of Eva Le Gallienne’s company, and several of them were used for the production. At the time, the author of the play, Denis Johnston, was considered a very promising playwright.
Losey had been to Russia to study with Vakhtangov, whose expressionistic style was diametrically opposed to the Stanislavski methods. Losey was better with set design than with actors. He had a mannerism of sighing after he gave directions. Actors thought that this meant he didn’t like them, but Lloyd reassured them he did this with everyone.
Lloyd and Losey also worked together on The Living Newspaper, a development of the federal Theater and the WPA. Lloyd also worked as a producer and director as well as an actor. At one time Losey brought him a play based on the short story which eventually was turned into the musical SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. Lloyd directed Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen in “The Man from the South,” a famous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His method of directing Lorre was to “keep my mouth shut” and let Lorre do what he wanted.
Lloyd was originally inspired by Al Jolson and stole bits from him for his own vaudeville act. He was once in the same acting class as Milton Berle. Chaplin said that Jolson was the most dynamic figure he ever saw on stage. At one time Lloyd and Chaplin optioned THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? Lloyd was to direct, Chaplin was to write and produce, and Sydney Chaplin was to star. This was when Chaplin was working on MONSIEUR VERDOUX, just before he sailed to England and was refused readmission to the United States.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 24th, 2015, 4:49 pm
Eddie Muller introduced BORN TO KILL, praising it as one of the most depraved and perverse of noirs. He said that the source novel, James Gunn’s DEADLIER THAN THE MALE, is even more so, and he has no idea why RKO bought it and then hired the genteel Robert Wise to direct. The resulting film, he said, is incredible. I’m in total agreement about that.
Muller interviewed Claire Trevor a year before he died. She described Lawrence Tierney as “very interesting and a great professional.” Tierney described her as “a cold fish.” (I believe this means she was immune to his charms.) Muller describes Tierney as “the meanest man in the history of movies.” Fittingly, his breakout role was the title character in DILLINGER.
Tierney’s advice about life: “Never get into a fight with a guy who can handle a knife.” Those are indeed words to live by. When asked if he had any regrets, he said, “Yeah, for some reason they always cast me as a real a*******.”
As for BORN TO KILL, Tierney gave all the credit to the screenplay by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay. “Wise didn’t do nothing.” Perhaps Tierney’s right, but Wise did nothing wrong, either. There’s not one false move in the film, and five sensational performances by Lawrence Tierney, Claire Trevor, Esther Howard, Walter Slezak, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Not many films in any genre have five well-rounded characters as memorable as these, let alone five characters as well-rounded and sleazy as these.
By the way, neither the script, the acting, nor the direction shies away from the homosexual implications of the Cook/Tierney relationship. Cook is obviously in love with his murderous buddy. They have lived together for five years, if I remember the dialogue correctly, and when Tierney returns after the murders in Reno to his room, Cook is lying atop the bed, and we only see one bed in the room.
I considered taking a break from the movies and skipping the evening show, but am I ever glad I didn’t. PANIC IN THE STREETS looked terrific on the big screen, and I’d have to consider this one of Kazan’s five or six best films. Now that I already knew the story, I found much more to enjoy in the interplay between the actors in each scene. Joe MacDonald’s photography looked even better on the big screen.
Foster Hirsch did a great job of introducing the film. PANIC IN THE STREETS is still shown to medical professionals as how to deal with a crisis. Hirsch considers Kazan the greatest director of actors in the history of directing, and he is Hirsch’s favorite director. Hirsch considers Kazan just about the smartest person he ever met. He mentioned a benefit at the Actors Studio for Kazan where Kazan was talking to Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Al Pacino, caught sight of Hirsch, and left the three stars to go over and put his arm around Hirsch. That certainly shows a different side of Kazan. When Kazan met the woman who would become his third wife, she had no idea who he was and didn’t recognize his name, and that was very appealing to Kazan.
PANIC IN THE STREETS was filmed on location in New Orleans, and Kazan cast locals in many scenes. He clearly captures the feel of the docks, which are so important to the story. Zero Mostel was already blacklisted when he was cast. As Mostel’s wife, Kazan cast an actress he knew Mostel didn’t like, and that added some fuel to the dislike between husband and wife already written into the script.
Kazan did not like Paul Douglas, saying he should have been a host in a steak joint, but cast him as a cop, but then Kazan didn’t like cops. I think Douglas is excellent here, playing well off Richard Widmark. Hirsch noted the very unglamorous way Barbara Bel Geddes is presented in her first appearance in the movie, and pointed out how unusual for Hollywood at the time is the very realistic presentation of the Widmark/Bel Geddes marriage.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 24th, 2015, 7:23 pm
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Three more movies to go! First up is an almost unknown film, ABANDONED (1949), shown in the archival print made by Universal’s Asset Management Vice-President, Bob O’Neill, now retired. Without people like this, many of these films would be lost to us. ABANDONED is not on DVD and has never been shown on TCM, which has limited access to Universal films. The writers credited are largely unknown, but Foster Hirsch tells us that William Bowers, who wrote the final screenplay, had a gift for dialogue. He was a former newspaperman who sat in a bar, drinking as he wrote. That sounds like noir, doesn’t it? The director, Joseph M. Newman (billed here as “Joe Newman”) said that all that is good in the movie is the result of Bowers. I wouldn’t agree with that—hey, I didn’t know directors were even capable of modesty—but you gotta love lines like “You turning legitimate is like a vulture turning vegetarian.”
The stars of the film are Dennis O’Keefe, whom Hirsch considers hugely underrated, and Gale Storm, not an actress who suggests noir, although Hirsch points out that she also made THE UNDERWORLD STORY and BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN. Hirsch says that O’Keefe has the ability to veer from tough guy to comedy, which at least in this movie is true. He knows how to make the most of the great lines Bowers gives him. He’s a newspaper reporter, and Gale Storm is a nice girl from Pennsylvania who’s come to LA to find her missing sister, who’s just had an illegitimate baby. Sister and her baby have both vanished. Storm may not be familiar with big city ways, but she has the determination to find out what happened, even if it kills her. In this genre, it almost does.
What if I told you that a movie you’ve never heard of has Raymond Burr, Jeff Chandler, Mike Mazurki, and Marjorie Rambeau in major supporting roles? Sound more interesting? A very skinny Chandler is chief of police, Rambeau is a society dame up to no good in a black market baby racket, Burr is the private eye who says he’s turning legit, and Mike Mazurki—well, who wants to see a scene where Mazurki mixes it up with Raymond Burr? This is one of the most violent scenes in any movie of the times. Will Kuluva as a villain and Meg Randall as another girl in trouble are also fine. In fact, the unknowns in the cast are all quite good.
The first half of the film has many shots of downtown Los Angeles. Low budget = film on location = preserving some of LA’s history. The cinematographer is the wonderful William Daniels, who had also photographed BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY for Jules Dassin. Daniels had a long career, shooting everything from Greta Garbo’s silent films to THE MALTESE BIPPY. Talk about the sublime to the ridiculous.
ABANDONED is the only film I can think of in the studio era which seems to refer to incest. Gale Storm says she and her sister did not get along with their father and that he “wouldn’t let us alone,” which is why her older sister left home. What did the censors think these lines meant?
By happenstance three films at the festival, all shot in downtown Los Angeles—CHICAGO CALLING, M, and ABANDONED—all had scenes with African-American shoeshine men. None of the three was a racial stereotype. The one in M is an underling in the criminal network, like most of the characters in the film, and the other two were definitely portrayed as sympathetic.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 24th, 2015, 9:53 pm
HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) made a big impact on the big screen. Before the show started, a man nearby was talking excitedly about Linda Darnell’s “gams,” which are indeed on display in her music hall number and look spectacular—but then, all of Linda Darnell looks pretty spectacular. This “bad girl” role is an excellent showcase for her. Laird Cregar is superb as the tormented and mostly sympathetic villain-hero. Too bad he couldn’t accept being a character actor in the Charles Laughton/Vincent Price style. I believe Hollywood could have kept him busy, although Laughton and Price might not have enjoyed the competition.
George Sanders as a police psychiatrist, Faye Marlowe as the nice girl, and Alan Napier as her conductor father were all quite good in support. The fiery finale was as thrilling on the big screen as you might imagine; the audience was buzzing afterward.
Cregar originally did not want to do this film, thinking it too close to his role in THE LODGER, and he was suspended for eight weeks before agreeing to take the part. He had originally attracted attention with his one-man show at the El Capitan playing Oscar Wilde. That’s a great role for him, and I’d love to have seen that. He then made a hit as the sinister policeman in I WAKE UP SCREAMING.
John Brahm is beginning to be recognized as an outstanding director, especially for his noir trifecta of THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE, and THE LOCKET. Alan K. Rode told me that Brahm’s LET US LIVE (1939) is tentatively scheduled for next year’s Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs. We agreed that, despite the theoretically too early date of 1939, LET US LIVE is genuine noir, and a good film.
After the movie, Alan Rode interviewed a special guest: Steven C. Smith, author of A HEART AT FIRE’S CENTER: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF BERNARD HERRMANN. This book was so popular that when I wanted to buy it after the interview, all copies had been sold out. This belongs on my must-read list.
Bernard Herrmann, Benny to this friends, was tall and heavy. Because music would be such an important part of HANGOVER SQUARE, Herrmann worked for six months before shooting began, so that he could create the concerto which is an integral part of the story. Subsequently this has become known as the Concerto Macabre. Cregar had to synchronize his hand movements. They were so accurate that the 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim saw the film over and over again so that he could learn the notes and play the opening notes of the concerto himself. SWEENEY TODD was inspired by Herrmann’s music.
When Herrmann saw the finished picture, he could not believe how his friend Brahm had photographed his music.
Orson Welles brought Herrmann to Hollywood, and CITIZEN KANE was Herrmann’s first film, not a bad way to start. He was a consummate professional who had scored many radio shows for CBS. The final Rosebud scene was shot to prerecorded music. He won the Oscar for his second film, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. This was the only Oscar he won.
“Benny” had a reputation of being difficult and was known for his tirades, but he had incredibly high standards and things went well with directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Brahm. On the other hand, when he was supposed to write the score for THE EXORCIST and William Friedkin began giving him directions for instrumentation, Herrmann walked out.
Herrmann moved to Hollywood in the 1950s. Previously he had lived in New York. He was an independent, not bound to any studio. At the time of HANGOVER SQUARE, he was married to Lucille Fletcher, best known for her radio drama, SORRY, WRONG NUMBER. Unlike some Hollywood composers, he insisted on writing his own orchestration, saying that not doing so would be like a painter not choosing his color palette.
Herrmann wanted to be what Leonard Bernstein became, accepted in both popular music and symphonic music. He loved little-known composers, befriended Charles Ives, and championed Ives’ music.
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1954) was his first collaboration with Hitchcock. His later concert piece, PORTRAIT OF HITCHCOCK, is based on this score. After many successful films together, they split up over the music for TORN CURTAIN. Universal wanted something like Henry Mancini. Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted a “beat” score, which to Herrmann suggested Shostakovitch. When Hitchcock first heard this music, he fired Herrmann on the spot and dismissed the orchestra. This sealed Herrmann’s fate in Hollywood. Herrmann called Norman Lloyd and asked him to intermediate, but Lloyd refused. Later, Herrmann tried to heal the relationship on a personal level, but this was not successful.
Having burned so many bridges in Hollywood, Herrmann moved to London with his third wife. It was there, after he had been supervising the score for TAXI DRIVER, that he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 64.
Stephen Smith said that his favorite Herrmann score, like Herrmann’s own, is THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Around this time Herrmann fell in love with Lucille Fletcher’s cousin Lucy, who became his second wife. Smith sees the score as inspired by Herrmann’s love for Lucy. (Mrs. Muir’s name is Lucy, by the way.)
Herrmann and Lucy became good friends with Marsha Hunt. At some point he simply disappeared from this friendship, for no reason known to Marsha Hunt. Later, with his third wife, he wanted to return to the earlier closeness as if nothing had happened.
Steven Smith produced many episodes of A&E’s show Biography, back in the days when it actually did arts programming. He first met Eddie Muller while doing the segment on Richard Widmark. Smith believes that you can see the real Widmark in those early scenes with Barbara Bel Geddes in PANIC IN THE STREETS. At the time of the Biography segment, Widmark was in his 80s, looking after his wife who had Alzheimer’s. Smith learned that than in the scene in PANIC IN THE STREETS where Jack Palance hits Widmark, Palance actually knocked Widmark out on the first take.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 24th, 2015, 10:47 pm
The festival concluded with the 1949 Jules Dassin film THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, introduced by Alan K. Rode. This is a personal favorite of both Rode and Eddie Muller. It is adapted from the novel THIEVES’ MARKET by A.I. (“Buzz”) Bezzerides (1908-2007), which has now been reprinted with an introduction by Eddie Muller. Bezzerides’ father raised produce in California’s Central Valley, where the novel and movie are set. Bezzerides was shaped by the Depression; Rode described him as “the last angry man.” If you wanted to get him really mad, just say “Jack Warner.” Later, he created THE BIG VALLEY, among other shows.
Dassin hated the MGM films he did before his noir days, saying that at MGM he “specialized in s***.” He didn’t want any of them shown at a retrospective devoted to his career. At the time of THIEVES’ HIGHWAY he was having an affair with his leading lady, Valentina Cortese. Dassin, who later married Melina Mercouri, said, “All the women I loved couldn’t speak English very well.”
Valentina Cortese is still alive, but is in poor health.
THIEVES’ HIGHWAY is in some respects an unusual noir in that so much of the film concerns growing and transporting fruit from the Central Valley, and its most unforgettable image is a hill with a wrecked truck and apples strewn all down the hill. Richard Conte plays a sailor returned from a long voyage who learns what has happened to his father while he has been gone. He then swears revenge on the boss of the market (Lee J. Cobb, in his top villainous form) who is responsible for what has happened to his father. He also reunites with his sweetheart (Barbara Lawrence). He joins forces with another trucker (Millard Mitchell, just terrific) who might be a friend, might be an enemy. Two rivals (Jack Oakie, not an actor you expect to see in noir, but very good, and Joseph Pevney as his young sidekick) are definitely out to get to the market first with the season’s first Golden Delicious apples. Oakie was completely deaf, but he could read lips, and he didn’t miss a cue.
Did I mention that the trucks are not exactly in top condition and the roads are hilly and curvy? More danger waits at the market in San Francisco. Location shooting is a big plus here, as we are swept up in the noise, bustle, and excitement of the market. The audience loved it when in a long shot a tall woman with a familiar voice starts discussing produce. It’s Hope Emerson, who provides a jolt of energy every moment she’s on screen.
Also working for the evil if hail-fellow-well-met Mike Figlia (Cobb) is Rica (Valentina Cortese), yet another version of the “bad girl” with a heart of gold. Whether they exist in real life, I don’t know, but they seem to provide actresses with great roles in the movies. Conte and Cortese, complete with clothes, provide more erotic charge than hundreds of later movies which show nekkid people and mimed sex scenes. Conte is bare-chested at times, but who could complain about that? Cortese leans her head against him . . . the two play tic-tac-toe with their fingers on his bare shoulder . . . is he really going back to his hometown gal after this? I liked Cortese in THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL, but Dassin knows how to raise her performance and star power to a higher level.
In a climactic scene in a bar, the bar owner suddenly charges out to see what’s going on. Why, it’s an uncredited Percy Helton. A lot of the audience knew who he was and loved seeing him. That’s one of the special pleasures of a festival screening like this.
Eleven movies in 72 hours. Maybe I need to start budgeting so I can do this again next year. Many thanks to theater owners Ric and Rozene Supple, organizer Alan K. Rode, and many other people for bringing a fabulous weekend of noir to the desert.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 28th, 2015, 12:02 pm
Oh, kingrat, your account of some of the experiences and movies you saw at this festival is so inspiring! I do hope you get a chance to read Smith's book on Bernard Herrmann. It is one of the best Hollywood-related musical biographies I've ever read (the other one may be "Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael" by the late Richard M. Sudhalter).
I loved Abandoned (1949) and all of Raymond Burr's evil-doers in film noir, but can't help wondering--was the print you saw any better than the one that is occasionally available on DVD-r, which I think was drawn from an old VHS tape? Also, I must confess to have been a bit in love with Richard Conte AND Millard Mitchell since seeing Thieves Highway (1949) as a kid. I always thought that the suggestion of violence in this film was more powerful than the drubbings that are meted out every half hour in this movie. If anyone has a chance to snag the DVD of Thieves Highway, it is worth the expense, since there are excellent features such as Alain Silver's fine commentary (he's the co-editor of The Film Noir Encyclopedia, among other essentials), and there is a part of an intriguing documentary on author A.I. Bezzerides, whose truck-driving roots inspired so much of his career.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 29th, 2015, 10:49 am
Thanks, Moira. The print shown of ABANDONED was an archival print from Universal, and it looked beautiful. I have not seen the DVD-R and had never heard of the film before. Because ABANDONED has not been digitized, it's less likely to be shown on TCM. The same is true of the 1951 M, which we saw in a beautiful Library of Congress print. I've recommended both as great choices for the TCM Festival. Charlie Tabesh said he is a fan of M, so it's not impossible.
Re: 2015 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
Posted: May 29th, 2015, 6:23 pm
Brother Rat - that was wonderful commentary on the film noir fest. I enjoyed the read very much.