A Stroll Down Noir Alley

TCM’s Eddie Muller, Doctor of Noir

Of late, I have become addicted to TCM’s Noir Alley, which screens Saturday at midnight and Sunday at 9 am (both times Eastern). It was my friends Alain Silver and James Ursini who introduced me (and most Americans) to the genre with their books on the subject. Now that I am retired, I have pursued the subject on my own, both in films and literature. Eddie Muller, host of Noir Alley, shows an interesting array of noir films and provides excellent introductions and background info—when he is not plugging wines for the TCM Wine Club.

Last night, for example, he screened Too Late for Tears, a 1949 United Artists film on how the prospect of money can warp one’s thinking and emotions. Directed by Byron Haskin, the film stars Lizbeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Arthur Kennedy, and Don DeFore. Although the film tanked when it was first released, it is worth a second look; and now that a restored print has been created by the wizards at the UCLA Film Archive, such a second look is now possible.

Pressbook for Too Late for Tears (1949)

Aside from Too Late for Tears, the noir films I have seen on Noir Alley in the last few months have included, in the order I’ve seen them:

  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise, starring Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte
  • The Hunted (1948) directed by Jack Bernhard, startring the strangely beautiful Belita
  • The Sniper (1962) directed by Edward Dmytryk, about a misogynist serial killer
  • The Threat (1949), directed by Felix Feist, with Charles McGraw as an escaped murderer bent on revenge
  • The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, perhaps one of the very best noir films ever made

Many of the films shown are pictures you’ve probably never seen or heard of, yet all are interesting explorations of the underside of the American psyche. I look forward to seeing what Muller selects from week to week.

 

Seeing the Stooges at the Alex

Curly, Larry, and Moe—The Original Three Stooges

You wouldn’t think that Martine is a big fan of the Three Stooges, but she is. She has seen every one of their shorts innumerable times. For the last twelve years or so, we have trekked to Glendale’s Alex Theatre see see their annual big screen event, usually on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Today was the 21st annual Stooges show at the Alex.

The theme this year was a title with the number three in it. Consequently, the program included:

  • “Three Little Beers” (1935)
  • “3 Dumb Clucks” (1937)
  • “Three Missing Links” (1938)
  • “Three Little Pirates” (1946)
  • “Three Hams on Rye” (1950)
  • “Three Sappy People” (1939)

I am not about to claim that watching Stooge shorts is a sophisticated intellectual experience, but it is uproariously funny. There is something about watching same with a large appreciative audience that makes it funnier still.

The Alex Theatre on Brand in Glendale

The Alex Theatre is on the National Register of Historic Places. Founded in the 1920s, it has become a venue for not only films, but occasional concerts. Two of the upcoming film programs include the Nutcracker Ballet with the Los Angeles Ballet (several dates in December) and “The Greatest Cartoons Ever” on December 26.

One of the reasons that incline Martine toward events in Glendale is that she truly loves the way Armenians prepare chicken. (The City of Glendale is the largest Armenian city outside of Asia.) Glendale is the home to Sevan Chicken at Kenilworth and Glenoaks and Elena’s Greek and Armenian Restaurant at 1000 Glendale Boulevard.

My Brilliant Acting Career

Me As a Dissolute 19th Century Gambler

Martine and I have been working at thinning my overflowing collection of books and papers. Today, two 8 x 10 photos emerged of me in a 1970s student film by Trevor Black and Lynette Cahill. If I remember rightly, the film was based on a Chekhov story called “The Duel.” I played a bit part as a cheating gambler. How any self-respecting gambler sport such a rat’s nest of a hairdo is beyond me. The interesting thing is that, unconsciously, in costume I resembled my literary hero, G. K. Chesterton, hair and all. (Today my hair is not much to look at.)

G. K. Chesterton

I enjoyed this brief acting stint, though I was never requested to act again. No casting directors have besieged me to try out for any major studio (or even indie) productions. No matter: I was never really that interested in film production, whether as director, crew, or actor. I just liked to see, talk about, and write about great films. I would have liked to become a professor of film history, but that was not in the cards for me; and I have no regrets about the winding path I wound up taking.

Here is another view of me in costume, acting as the second in a duel:

Me as the Crooked Gambler Acting as the Second in a Duel


If any of you have any lucrative roles for a ratty looking retired guy, please contact me at once.
 

Favorite Films: Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

French Film Director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

You have to admit it: He looks like an American. But he comes by it honestly. Not only is he a hero of the French Resistance during the Second World War, but his code name was Melville, based on his love of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, born an Alsatian Jew in Paris; but he signed all his films as Jean-Pierre Melville.

I have seen four of Melville’s thirteen films. Although the French New Wave of the 1960s resulted in a publicity windfall for Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, there were many French directors who never became quite so well-known across the Atlantic. Jean-Pierre Melville is one of them. Others include Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol.

Two Men in Manhattan (Deux Hommes dans Manhattan) is like a Valentine dedicated to New York City at night. A newsman for Agence France Presse in New York is told to investigate the non-appearance of a French diplomat at the United Nations. Moreau (played by Melville himself) looks up his paparazzi friend Delmas. Together, they search for three known past girlfriends of the diplomat, including a Broadway actress, a jazz singer, and a stripper. They even visit a high-priced prostitute known to favor diplomats. When they find that he has died in a girlfriend’s apartment, a conflict erupts when Delmas sees the potential for selling photos that show his death to have been a squalid one. It turns out the deceased was a hero in the Resistance, and Moreau’s boss wants the negatives of the pictures Delmas took.

French Title for Two Men in Manhattan

In no American film of the period have I seen such beautiful scenes of night-time Manhattan. The exteriors in this film are lovely, and the scuttlebutt is that Melville shot them himself. If so, I would regard it as high on the list of the best noir films, irrespective of country of origin.

If you should rent the DVD, I suggest you also watch the extra footage of a conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, two knowledgeable film critics who provide excellent background to the movie and Melville’s career.

 

Favorite Films: King Kong (1933)

Who Can Resist That Mug?

I must have seen the original King Kong (1933) over twenty times by now, and I never seem to grow tired of it. One of the reasons I love it is that it is Pre-Code. As such, it gets away with many scenes that a few scant years later would have received the kibosh from the censors at the Hays Office. In one of my favorites, Kong employs Fay Wray as a scratch-n-sniff toy, stripping away her outer garments as if they were onionskins and holding his fingers up to his nose. You can see the scene on YouTube here.

A few years before he died, I happened to meet the producer and co-director of the film, Merian C. Cooper. He spoke to a film class at UCLA for which I was the graduate teaching assistant. During that class, he gave his own interpretation of what Kong was really about. Now I don’t necessarily take his word for it, but he says that the ape was a symbol of the downtrodden black race which did not know its own power. Maybe, but there are too many vignettes of the giant gorilla munching on black natives or crushing them like insects under his feet for that reasoning to be altogether convincing.

While I liked the big gorilla, I went ape for Fay Wray. After seeing countless movies of the period with goldilocks-looking blondes wearing those stupid cloche hats, like cloth helmets, it was refreshing to see a healthy young woman who would be considered a knockout today—without having to squint your eyes. Oh, and she was also a pretty good screamer.

Fay Wray in the Notorious Scratch-N-Sniff Scene

There have been numrous remakes and near look-alikes, but I still think the only ones worth considering were done by Ernest B. Schoedsack with or without Merian C. Cooper. I am specifically referring to Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the age of CGI, Kong just ceases to be interesting. The model work in the Schoedsack/Cooper films was nothing less than superb.

 

Favorite Movies: Rio Bravo and El Dorado

Ricky Nelson, John Wayne, and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959)

Over a period of eight years, director Howard Hawks filmed virtually the same story twice—both films starring John Wayne—with the only differences being some minor script changes and a different set of supporting actors. The films were Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967). Interestingly, both films hold up pretty well today.

Both films were a reaction to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), in which Sheriff Gary Cooper tries and fails to enlist the help of his fellow townspeople in fending off an attack of several bad guys seeking vengeance for having jailed several of them. In contrast, John Wayne turns away several offers of help in the Hawks pictures and beats the bad guys anyway. Both times, the sheriff is under attack by wealthy ranchers who bring in hired guns to assist them.

Here are the major cast differences:

  • John Wayne plays himself in both pictures, though in El Dorado, he is a gunfighter assisting his friend, the sheriff, played by Robert Mitchum.
  • Dean Martin plays the drunk lawman in Rio Bravo; Robert Mitchum, in El Dorado.
  • The young gun is played, respectively, by Ricky Nelson and James Caan, in his first major role.
  • The female lead is played, respectively, by Angie Dickinson and Charlene Holt.
  • The deputy comic sidekick is played, respectively, by Walter Brennan and Arthur Hunnicutt.

John Wayne and James Caan in El Dorado (1967)

I just saw Rio Bravo again for the nth time yesterday afternoon. I will summarize it here because it is fresh in my memory. John Wayne and Dean Martin arrest Claude Akins for shooting an unarmed man. Unfortunately, scapegrace though he is, he is the brother of powerful rancher John Russell, who is determined to spring him before the U.S. marshal comes to town in six days. He besieges the jailhouse with his men and orders the musicians in his saloon to play El Deguëllo nonstop. This was a bugle call played by Santa Anna’s Mexican troops during the 1836 siege of the Alamo. Eventually, Russell’s men manage to kidnap Dean Martin. Wayne arranges for an exchange of Martin for Akins at a warehouse at the edge of town. The good guys prevail.

There is a third Howard Hawks film with a similar story, Rio Lobo (1970), which was the director’s last film. Although I love Hawks’s works, this is one you can skip.

 

 

Favorite Films: The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Scene That Scared Me Most as a Kid

My favorite science fiction film of the 1950s was The Thing from Another World, an RKO cheapie that was superbly written and, for me as a boy who grew up in that strange era, utterly frightening. The whole film takes place in a research camp in the remote arctic north of Alaska. An army officer (Captain Hendry) receives orders to investigate the landing of an unknown object weighing some 20,000 tons (18 million kilograms)—far above the weight of known aircraft of the period. Also, it could not be a giant meteor because it went up before ultimately landing.

He flies up to the research station and, the next day, scouts out the landing site, in which the entire craft with the exception of a protruding fin is under ice. Hendry’s men line up above the visible edges of the vessel to determine its shape (it is circular, of course) and test the fin for its composition (an unknown alloy of some sort). To study the vessel more carefully, Tobey employs thermite bombs to melt the ice around it. Unfortunately, it also blows up the space ship. In doing so, a large (8 feet or 2.5 meters) figure is thrown from the ship. Still encased in ice, the figure is flown back to the research station.

Tobey orders the windows of the supply room in which it is stored to be broken to keep the figure frozen in ice. One of the guards on a later shift puts an electric blanket over the space alien—for such it turns out to be. The ice melt, the creature awakens, and it immediately goes on the attack.

Flying Saucer Fin Sticking Up Through the Ice

The scientists at the station, led by the venerable Nobelist Dr. Carrington, immediately deduce that the priority must be to communicate with the “obviously” superior creature, even if it turns out to be suicidal in the end. Captain Hendry, on the other hand, is more concerned for the safety of the military and scientific staff. During the beast’s rampages, there is an almost total radio silence with the civilized world because of severe storms.

This 87-minute black and white film was produced in the same year that saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide, and it was more successful than either film. My only reaction to that is, to use an expression from the film, “Holy Cat!” By the way, the beast was played by James Arness in his first role.

The film was signed by Christian Nyby as director, though it clearly shows signs of having been heavily influenced by producer Howard Hawks.