Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dispatches from Noir City (Days 1-3)

by Rosalie Lewis
What do you do when you’ve spent the last three days at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre watching 10 film noir movies amidst hundreds of other lovers of all things hardboiled and historic? Naturally, you come back for four more days of mesmerizing, crime-filled cinema! It’s only fitting that I’m currently holed up in the Music Box Lounge as I write this, tickets in hand for the next double feature. Let me tell you about what I’ve watched so far, so that you can follow along at home.

Day 1: In a Lonely Place / The File on Thelma Jordon

There were very few empty seats when everything kicked off on Friday night. It’s always encouraging, especially in a city where there’s a lot to do and not that many lovely summer days to do it in, to see a big crowd turn out for films that have existed in some form for nearly 70 years. These are my people! I talked a bit about both of these movies in my preview article, but let’s dive a little bit deeper in this recap.

In a Lonely Place (directed by Nicholas Ray) stars Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who seems to be in a dry spell in his writing as well as his love life. He invites a coat check girl home one night to tell him the story of the next book he’s supposed to adapt, since she read it and claims it’s “epic.” The next morning, the cops are at his door asking him his whereabouts at 2am because the coat check girl never made it home--she was murdered and left along a lonely stretch of road. Steele claims no knowledge of the incident but the cops are skeptical until his new neighbor, played by the electrifying Gloria Grahame, shows up and says she saw the two say goodnight and part ways.

From there, of course, a romance develops because this is Hollywood and that’s what happens. But nagging questions about Steele’s reputation and actual involvement in the murder still hang in the air. He doesn’t help matters with his cavalier attitude and willingness to narrate how he thinks the murder may have happened -- he’s made a living writing about murder and his imagination makes things feel a little too real for comfort. Besides, he has a temper that comes out at inopportune times and manifests in violent ways. Can the romance surmount these obstacles that threaten to pull the two lovers apart? How well do they really know each other, after all?

The movie is adapted from a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, a name that ought to be familiar to fans of film noir. She also wrote the novels Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse, both of which inspired memorable movies. But Lonely is by far her best known and most renowned. As host Eddie Muller explained in his intro, this woman managed to capture perfectly the ins and outs of the troubled male psyche and ego.

If you haven’t caught up with this movie yet, you rent it on Amazon, iTunes, and the other usual suspects, or you can pick it up on glorious Criterion Blu-ray and indulge in the many special features.

For further viewing: Check out Nicholas Ray’s earlier noir entry, They Live By Night. That movie stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in another noir romance, this one threatened by the fact that they’re on the run from the law.
The File on Thelma Jordon (directed by noir veteran Robert Siodmak) stars Barbara Stanwyck as the fetching Thelma, soliciting the help of assistant DA/major alcoholic Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey, who had a drinking problem in real life). It seems Thelma’s aunt has been dealing with an intruder who seems to be targeting the jewels in her safe. Cleve figures he can help her and help himself at the same time, and it’s not long before Thelma and Cleve are sneaking off together under cover of darkness to park and kiss. Then Thelma’s aunt is robbed again, and this time she gets murdered. Cleve suspects foul play, but love conquers all, right? Things get more complicated from there, and the final few scenes are absolutely unforgettable. Stanwyck lights up the screen as always, and we understand why the men in her life would do anything for her even when all evidence points to a less than happy ending.

Like Lonely, this movie’s story was written by women. Ketti Frings adapted it from a story by Marty Holland, a woman who begin as a secretary and script typist at Fox but later decided to write stories of her own. Holland also had success with her story Fallen Angel, which was adapted for film by Otto Preminger.

You can rent this on Amazon or Vudu if you’d like to watch at home.

For further viewing: If you haven’t already seen the primeval noir, Double Indemnity, that would be the logical companion to this film. In that film, Barbara Stanwyck uses her considerable charms to seduce Fred MacMurray into murdering her husband, plus you get the bonus of a script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Day 2: Trapped / Appointment With Danger / Sudden Fear / Pickup on South Street

I’d only seen one of these (Pickup) before, and Saturday’s programming did not disappoint. In between pictures, host Eddie Muller held court next door in the lounge, sharing tidbits and answering questions about the movies being shown as a crowd of eager moviegoers gathered around, hanging on his every word.

Trapped technically came out in 1949, so it’s outside of the “film noir in the fifties” theme of this year’s festival. But the Film Noir Foundation recently restored this Richard Fleischer picture, and no one was complaining about the opportunity to see it on the big screen. The movie opens with voiceover and newsreel-like footage of the work done by the U.S. Treasury department, including the intricacies of printing and engraving money. This leads into a story about a counterfeiting ring with performances by Lloyd Bridges and Barbara Payton. The Treasury enlists Tris (Bridges), serving time for his part in the counterfeiting ring, to help find the head honcho who still has the plates that are circulating fake bills all over the country. Payton plays Meg Dixon, a cigarette girl who dreams of a fancier life with Tris once they can shake the feds and flee the country to Mexico.

The fight choreography in this movie is excellent, and I also quite enjoyed the crime boss who always seems to be removing some kind of facial hair when Tris calls on him -- perhaps a hint to the audience that this guy has been in some close shaves before. There’s also some classic noir lines, like when someone grows suspicious of the amount of cash being thrown around: “You don’t make that kind of dough selling Bibles!”

You can watch Trapped via rental on Amazon Prime.

For further viewing: Check out T-Men from Anthony Mann, another noir about busting up a counterfeit money ring, this time starring perennial faves Dennis O’Keefe and Charles McGraw.

Appointment With Danger (directed by Lewis Allen) opens much the same way Trapped does, except instead of the U.S. Treasury, this film focuses on the U.S. Postal Service. You read that right: The Postman Always Rings Twice is not the only noir to reference the good ol’ USPS. This one involves the murder of a postal worker and a planned heist of a mail truck carrying a large sum of cash.

Alan Ladd, who worked with director Lewis Allen a number of times, stars as a tough as nails cop on the case. His partner thinks he needs to lighten up: “You’re the kind of guy who doesn’t even know what love is.”

Al (Ladd) replies, “Sure I do. It’s between a man and a .45 pistol that won’t jam.” He finds himself teaming up with a nun (Phyllis Calvert) on this case, because she’s the sole witness who can identify the murderers. As you might imagine, there are some fantastic and hilarious circumstances and conversations as a result.
Meanwhile, the Post Office Clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. One of them has it out for the nun, all of them will stop at nothing to get rich and avoid jail time. They’ll use whatever happens to be lying around to get job done, which leads to a scene involving a very unusual murder weapon. When this particular scene occurred, a good third of the theater audience gasped, “Jesus Christ!” in unison.

For those of us who hail from the midwest, one of the most interesting aspects of this film is its setting: Gary, Indiana. You get to see Gary’s downtown, the train station, and other landmarks as they were in 1950--definitely not your typical noir setting but very cool if you have driven through that area in modern times.

I loved everything about this movie:

-The dialogue, which is filled with delectable quotes like, “If you’re a government cop you gotta marry money to buy a stick of gum!” and
“I don’t even know anyone in St. Louis!” from a hood on the run, whose boss responds, “You aren’t going there to run for office!”

-The action, which keeps things tense and doesn’t let up til the last second; at times reminding me of scenes from White Heat.

-The performances, from Ladd and Calvert but also from Jan Sterling as Dodie, who plays the heavy’s girlfriend. She loves listening to jazz records and making moves on people she’s not dating. She comes across as your typical film noir floozy until a pivotal scene when you realize she’s a lot smarter than you gave her credit for.

Basically, this is my favorite first-time watch of the movies I’ve seen at Noir City this year so far. If you want to see it too, it’s available for online rental via many platforms.

For further viewing: See another iconic Jan Sterling performance, this time alongside Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. In that film, she delivers the unforgettable line, “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my stockings!”

Sudden Fear (directed by David Miller) gives us Joan Crawford as Myra Hudson, a wealthy playwright who unexpectedly falls for an actor (Jack Palance, whose chin rivals that of Bruce Campbell) she fired from her most recent play. The two couldn’t be more in love... or so she thinks, until she discovers he’s planning to kill her and split the inheritance with his grifter girlfriend (Gloria Grahame, making another Noir City appearance). Perhaps some people would call the police; Myra calls on her inner strength and concocts a plot to save herself that wouldn’t be out of place as one of her stage productions.

In case you need reminding why Joan Crawford is movie royalty, watch this movie and you’ll get it completely. Other reasons to watch include the San Francisco setting, with all its hills and steep precipices, as well as the script courtesy of Lenore Coffee adapting an Edna Sherry novel. As Eddie Muller noted in his intro, women played a dominant part in film noir both on and off screen. “Hollywood at the time had plenty of powerful women working in various capacities,” he explained. “But because film criticism was dominated by male voices, sometimes film noir gets mistakenly characterized as a movement about men.” This movie is all about the ladies, one in particular, and it’s totally empowering and awesome.

The last 40 minutes or so could almost be a horror movie, they’re so intense. Every little noise makes you jump or cringe along with Joan, even when it’s coming from something as innocent as a mechanical toy dog. The suspense builds until we’re ready to burst, and the ending totally pays off.

To watch along at home, rent it from Amazon.

For further viewing: Check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, in which Joan Fontaine begins to worry her new husband, the gorgeous but smarmy Cary Grant, may be plotting her demise.

Pickup on South Street (directed by Samuel Fuller) got some love in my earlier column; but I’ll give you a quick plot synopsis in case you need further persuading. First time actress Jean Peters plays Candy, who is on her way to deliver something for her ex Joey. An encounter with expert pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) on the train leaves her empty handed when she gets to her destination. Now there’s big trouble, and not just for Candy. A couple of government agents had planned to intercept the exchange, because the drop included government secrets being delivered to folks who were decidedly unpatriotic. The only person who can track down Skip’s whereabouts is Moe, played so memorably by Thelma Ritter, who I wrote about before.

This film exhibits Sam Fuller’s writing and directing at its pinnacle. He tapped into the paranoia of the times, when McCarthyism had everyone wondering who could be trusted and everyone had to put on their most flag-waving behavior to avoid being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. What’s more, he assembled an incredible cast of characters who could believably portray people who frequented the seedy underbelly of New York City but still managed to be sympathetic.

This movie will be released alongside a handful of other early Fuller classics as the Eureka box set “Fuller at Fox” on October 28. In the meantime, you might have a little luck searching for it on YouTube although I can’t vouch for quality. Criterion released it on DVD some years back, so if you check the used movie stores you may also get lucky.

For further viewing: It’s a much different tone, but Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket delves into the mechanics of the trade as well as the existential angst that accompanies a lifetime of petty robberies.

Day 3: Pushover / Private Hell 36 / Kiss Me Deadly / Killer’s Kiss
A little morning rain followed by gray skies just set the tone for more moody pictures in the afternoon. The day began with a double feature about cops tempted to veer off the straight and narrow (both delivering supporting performances from Dorothy Malone), and things got a lot weirder with the evening double feature.

Pushover (directed by Richard Quine) serves as Kim Novak’s introduction to movie audiences, and what an auspicious debut. She walks out of a theater and onto the big screen in a fur coat with perfectly coiffed blonde hair, carefully sidestepping a ladder rather than pressing her luck by walking under it. When her car gives her some trouble, a helpful guy played by Fred MacMurray shows up to give her a lift and soon the two are sharing drinks at a nearby bar.

We learn later that MacMurray is a cop, but Novak doesn’t know that yet. He’s undercover, hoping to get information on the whereabouts of her bank robber boyfriend and the loot that’s still missing. But the longer MacMurray runs surveillance on the beautiful Novak, the more he wonders if there’s another way this story could end. Maybe there’s a way he could get the girl, get the loot, and get the hell out of there.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie has little to do with the main plot. Kim Novak is killing time in a bar, and a guy tries to pick her up using the tried and true, “Haven’t we met somewhere before?”
“Hundreds of times,” she sighs, getting out of her seat.

“I don’t get it,” the guy replies.

“And you won’t,” says Novak. Mic drop.

If you’d like to witness this delightfully cold brush off for yourself, you’ll have to go the physical media route. Find it on the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Volume II DVD collection, which is out of print but may be available through your local library.

For further viewing: A great companion piece to this would be Otto Preminger’s Laura, another story in which a cop becomes obsessed with the woman he’s supposed to be investigating -- although in this case, that woman has just been murdered.

Private Hell 36 (directed by pre-Dirty Harry Don Siegel) stars one of my faves, Ida Lupino, alongside Steve Cochran (looking a bit like Colin Farrell) and Howard Duff. Lupino did more than just appear in the film--she and former husband Collier Young had a production company called “The Filmakers” and they produced Private Hell. Lupino also co-wrote the script.

Duff and Cochran are cops trying to make ends meet with their cop salaries. A chance encounter during the pursuit of a counterfeiter opens up the opportunity to supplement their income by a significant margin. Cochran’s character sees it as a chance to improve his chances with Lupino, who has seemed skeptical of their future together so far.

“You wouldn’t want to become a cop’s wife, would you?” he asks as they’re out for a drive together.

“Rice is for eating, not for throwing,” she replies. She seems to be looking for luxury and stability, and in Cochran’s mind both of those could be bought for the right price.

Meanwhile, Duff’s got a conscience along with a wife and kid. The extra money might be nice, but could he live with himself knowing how he got it?

This film doesn’t trade in a lot of action or witty exchanges, but the performances are solid and it’s an interesting examination of class struggle in the fifties. Plus, Lupino just sizzles as a nightclub performer who is just too cool for school.
Olive Films released a Blu-ray of this movie for those of you playing along at home. It doesn’t appear to be available for streaming anywhere at the moment, although it feels like something that might show up on the Criterion Channel at some point.

For further viewing: Howard Duff plays a character with much less of a conscience in Joseph Pevney’s Shakedown, which feels like a predecessor to 2014’s Nightcrawler.

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) makes less sense on paper than The Big Sleep, and I mean that as a compliment. While the script is theoretically based on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer detective novel of the same name, the resulting movie infuriated Spillane to the point that he decried it for the rest of his life. He claimed they took the title and threw the rest of his book out the window. The man behind the movie script was A.I. Bezzerides, aka Buzz, and he’d been kicking around writing noir like They Drive By Night and Thieves Highway and On Dangerous Ground. He infused Deadly with allusions to poetry, nuclear technology, shadowy government agents, and more. It’s a whole lot of weirdness and a whole lot of awesomeness rolled together, with performances from Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman, Nick Dennis--the list goes on.

The dialogue is great, as is expected in all good noir pictures.

“Stay away from the windows,” Mike Hammer’s girlfriend warns him. “Someone might try to blow you a kiss.”

When the two of them are reunited after a close call, Hammer complains, “You’re never around when I need you.” “You never need me when I’m around,” she retorts, before planting a kiss on him.

I really want everyone to see this movie, and it’s pointless to try and explain it so just seek it out for yourself. It’s available on Blu-ray from Criterion, and worth every penny to acquire.

For further viewing: There’s no film quite like this one, but for an earlier film noir with a labyrinthine plot that features brutal men and the women who get entangled with them, look no further than This Gun For Hire, directed by Frank Tuttle and starring Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Alan Ladd, and Robert Preston.

Killer’s Kiss was Stanley Kubrick’s second feature film, so it’s not quite as polished as his future productions but it still features some very memorable elements--especially impressive considering he made it independently. The plot concerns a fading boxer and his interest in a beautiful but mysterious neighbor who seems to be having trouble with her boss/suitor. These things are less important than the creepy imagery that shows up throughout, such as one of the scariest looking dolls I’ve ever seen just hanging attached to someone’s bed frame; or the scene in a mannequin-filled studio where inhuman hands swing from the low ceiling. Another sequence that stands out features Kubrick’s then wife Ruth Sobotka performing a lengthy ballet solo while another character tells a story in voiceover.

As Eddie Muller explained in his intro, “It’s a very amateurish film, but it’s an amateurish film made by one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century.” You can see the promise in this movie of visionary things to come, even if the vision wasn’t fully realized yet.

You can watch this early Kubrick entry by renting it from a number of streaming outlets; or if you have the Criterion Blu-ray of The Killing, this 67-minute movie is among the special features included.

For further viewing: Check out Robert Ryan as a boxer on the night of his last fight before retiring in The Set-Up from Robert Wise.

I’ll have more to say about the movies playing during the remainder of the festival (see showtimes at later, so check back soon!


  1. i have to check if i own a few of those in my various noir compilation at home

    1. How many of these have you seen before? Any favorites among them?

    2. Appart from Killers Kiss, none i can think of, but my memory might be faulty. There's so many. I saw a couple you reference in the text

  2. That is a a lot of movies to take in, Rosalie. I do not think I have that kind of stamina anymore. I will be looking for some of those titles on TCM, probably on Muller's Noir Alley program.

    Robert Ryan is a favorite of mine. His performance in The Set-Up is terrific. The ending of that is so gloriously downbeat, too. His work in On Dangerous Ground is also great, particularly the first twenty minutes.

    Have you watched a movie from 1949 called Border Incident? Anthony Mann was its director. This is one my favorite watches this year. The subject of smuggling people across the Mexican border could not be more topical.

    1. You're right, it IS a lot of movies to take in! But I love it. I do stretch my legs in between showtimes, and try to dip out for fresh air even if it's just for a few minutes. ;)

      Robert Ryan is wonderful. Glad to hear you appreciate his work! Agreed about On Dangerous Ground. That's a really standout performance.

      I have not seen Border Incident but I think it's on a collection I own. Your recommendation makes me want to see it for sure! I do love me some Anthony Mann and it sounds like a very timely subject.

      Tonight is the last night of the fest, with a double feature of Odds Against Tomorrow and Cry Tough. I have not seen either, and am greatly looking forward to remedying that!

      Thanks for reading. :)