Life and Death in L.A.: September 2023

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Knockout Punch Noir: The Runyonesque, Raw-Boned World of Prizefighting Inspires Tales of Corruption, Violence and Redemption

Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” (1956). 

By Paul Parcellin

This post contains spoilers, so you may want to see the films before reading the article.

You’d be hard pressed to find a sport more noir-like than professional boxing. It’s got all of the elements of noir rolled into a savage athletic competition whose object is to knock an opponent unconscious and perhaps spill his blood.

Boxing brings with it the stench of mobsters, illegal gambling, fixed fights, disabling violence and sometimes death. Boxing noirs focus on the exploitation of the powerless, the corrupting influence of fast cash and man’s indifference to the suffering of others. Fighters outstay their viability in the ring and are left broken in spirit and usually penniless. 

The boxing establishment reflects the unjust society from which boxers emerge. They see the fight game as a way out of the maelstrom that is their lives, but it turns into a prison much worse than the place they left.

Like Richard Conte in “Thieves’ Highway,” hauling a load of Golden Delicious apples to a fruit wholesaler in San Francisco, fighters eventually learn that the game is rigged. The average man will never get an even break and will be worse off if he tries to stand up to his tormentors.

Aside from corrupt individuals who run the system, boxers often struggle with their inner strife in their quest to reach the top. They wrestle with self doubt, conflicting loyalties and the threat of annihilation. Their personal lives are typically in turmoil. Pride is often a chief motivator that allows them to make unwise choices. Fans savor sweat drenched, blood spattered competition. They idolize a champ and denigrate an other’s failure. 

The best boxing noirs are pure drama peopled by desperate characters struggling to stay alive in an indifferent world. Like the marathon dancers in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969), fighters risk injury and death just to stay alive — the prize is another day or two of a desolate existence.

Here’s a sampling of some films that display the exhilaration, desperation and ultimate downfall of fighters on their way up:

John Indrisano, John Garfield, Canada Lee,
"Body and Soul" (1947).

"Body and Soul" (1947)

Corruption stands in the way of a young fighter making good in “Body and Soul.” Promising amateur Charlie Davis (John Garfield) reluctantly goes pro despite his mother’s wish that he get an education. The fresh-faced boxer has dynamite in his fists but sags under the guilt he feels over the unfulfilled expectations his mother holds for him. 

When we first encounter Charlie his life has hit the rocks. He’s a pariah to the ones who once cared the most for him. We flashback to his days as an amateur, when some rough breaks force him to make choices about his future. Living on the edge of poverty in Depression era New York, Charlie decides to get into the fight game. He doesn’t want to end up running a candy store like his father. But it’s his dad who supports the young man’s boxing dreams over mom’s objections. 

Once in the world of pro boxing, Charlie encounters numerous promotors and racketeers who have a hand in his pocket. The question is, will the business corrupt Charlie. 

Fights are rigged to accommodate crooked betting. Charlie is ordered to go 15 rounds and let the preordained winner take the contest by a decision. But wounded pride and arrogance can make a fighter go against the bosses, and that’s more dangerous than any combination of punches a prizefighter could face. 

"Champion" (1949)

Ambitious boxer Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) will sacrifice everything for success. He has no qualms about the damage he does in and out of the ring in this tale based on a Ring Lardner story. “Champion” is a competent, expertly photographed take on the fight game in the early part of the last century. 

But it has a coat of big studio gloss that softens its edge; Dimitri Tiomkin's mischievous score wants to add comic touches that make the tough stuff more palatable. It doesn’t cop out with a happy ending, but sticks with its tough, uncompromising view of the fight game. 

Unlike the scrappy boxers in other films who lurk in the lowest tier of the sport, Midge enjoys the spoils of his championship. He’s hardly a sympathetic character, save for his hardscrabble upbringing, and like the rising star in a gangster movie, it’s sometimes hard to stay in his corner. As his success in the rings ebbs and flows, Midge is clearly in for a comedown — and that he gets in spades.

Robert Ryan, ”The Set-Up" (1949). 

"The Set-Up" (1949)

“The Set-Up” doesn’t have a complex plot. It focuses on character and packs a lot of movie into it’s 72-minute running time. Fighter Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is in the twilight of a disappointing career. He’s 35, ancient by boxing standards, and fighting in crummy arena’s in backwater towns. He’s in the low-rent district of fictional Paradise City and set to face a young up-and-coming fighter. 

His shifty manager, Tiny (George Tobias), takes a bribe from the gangster fight promotor who arranged the bout. The trouble is, Tiny fails to tell Stoker that he’s supposed to lay down. He figures that the young wild man will make fast work of the old timer, so why cut the sure to lose fighter in on the action? 

Stoker’s girl, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants the aging pugilist to leave the fight game. Delusional as he is, Stoker insists he could be just one punch away from a championship. More likely still, he’s one sock on the forehead away from permanent brain damage. Unable to bear the sight of yet another bout, she’s a no-show at the fight. Stoker is left wondering if she’s left him and this weighs heavily on the fighter’s mind as he faces a worrisome opponent. 

Much of the film’s first part takes place in an appropriately dingy locker room crowded with young and not so young hopefuls waiting for their fight. Some are punch drunk, some not, and each harbors a fantasy of making into the big time. Whether or not they succeed, each is destined to be double crossed and fleeced by promoters and managers, whose corruption knows no limits. 

Stoker finally enters the ring and the fight is emotionally wrenching and dramatically paced. There’s a lot at stake in this match, and Stoker may be in for his last competition on the canvas.

"The Harder They Fall" (1956) 

Former sports columnist Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) is broke and unemployed after his paper shuts down. He reluctantly joins forces with boxing promotor Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) as a PR man for Benko’s crooked enterprises. He’s hired to promote towering Argentinian fighter Toro Moreno (Mike Lane) — “promote” is used loosely here. The ex-newspaperman must create a smokescreen of lies, finessing the tough questions his former colleagues lob about the shaky colossus fighter. 

Moreno looks menacing but is meek in personality, has a glass jaw and possesses no discernible boxing skills. Benko’s plan is to pay Moreno’s opponents to take a dive, allowing the grossly untalented Moreno to get an unearned reputation as a contender. It’s a cinch that once the over-hyped fighter meets a real boxer, the oily Benko will bet on the opponent and let the unprepared Moreno face a virtual buzzsaw blade of physical punishment. 

Steiger, as the villainous boxing promotor, is riveting each time he appears on screen. The hyper rat-a-tat  cadence of his speech is hypnotically persuasive while conveying an unspoken threat of physical harm to anyone who gets in his way. 

This was Bogart’s last film and he looks fatigued, but that fits Willis, who’s exhausted by the charade he’s allowed himself to get involved in. He’s trying to keep his mind on the promise of a large cash payout, not on the poor schlump who will face a beating in the ring. Who wouldn't feel a bit weary with all of that on his shoulders?

Dane Clark, Douglas Kennedy, "Whiplash" (1948). 

Whiplash” (1948)

Artist Michael Gordon (Dane Clark) falls for a woman, Laurie Rogers (Alexis Smith), who buys one of his paintings. They spend a romantic evening together, but she disappears. He follows her to Manhattan, learns that she’s the wife of a thuggish fight promoter Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). 

Gordon decks one of the Durant’s prizefighters and gets recruited to box. They rechristen him Mike Angelo, as in Michelangelo, because he’s a painter. Still angered by Laurie’s deception, Michael directs his rage toward his opponents and becomes a title contender. 

Michael eventually learns the reason why Laurie stays married to the icy, sadistic Rex. Laurie’s brother, hard-drinking Dr. Arnold Vincent (Jeffrey Lynn), who looks after the fighters under Rex’s employ, plays a role in the mystery that is Laurie and Rex’s relationship. 

Mike is finally given a shot at the title, but he’s at great risk when he enters the ring for his big fight. Odds are he won’t survive. 

Here are some honorable mentions:

The Big Punch” (1948)

A boxer turned minister offers shelter to a fighter framed for killing a policeman.

The Fighter” (1952)

In Mexico, a young boxer uses his winnings to buy guns to avenge his family's murder.

Iron Man” (1951)

An ambitious coal miner is talked into becoming a boxer by his gambler brother.

The Crooked Circle” (1957)

A young prizefighter finds himself being squeezed on all sides to throw a fight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Acting Through Clenched Teeth: Quirky Timothy Carey Performed in a Number of Noirs and Neo-Noirs … and Was Kicked Off Almost as Many as He Appeared In

Timothy Carey, “The Killing” (1956).

By Paul Parcellin

Timothy Carey was the kind of actor who refused to fade into the background — even as a movie extra. That cost him a job or two, including one of his earliest acting gigs, an occurrence that would prove all too typical in his professional life. He’d hitchhiked to the New Mexico location where Billy Wilder was shooting “Ace in the Hole” (1951) and managed to get hired as a background performer playing a construction worker trying to free a man trapped in a cave-in. To ensure that his face got into the frame, Carey stepped between the star, Kirk Douglas, and the camera a few too many times and the director issued him pay vouchers and sent him packing.

The experience did not damped his urge to crowd the spotlight. In addition to Wilder, Carey worked with a number of other high profile directors, including William Wellman, Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Andre de Toth, and John Cassavetes. How often he made it to the final print is another matter. 

When he did appear on screen, at times he had the curious habit of keeping his teeth clenched when speaking — that’s how the shady characters he often played would talk, he reasoned.

Film critic Grover Lewis said of the actor’s portrayal of loathsome genre heavies, “You could look into his hooded, jittery eyes and sense real danger. Prankster or madman? Crusader or wise guy? The choice was hard to make … ‘  He added, “Carey’s strongest performances offer the kind of mixed signals associated not so much with art or craft as with pathology or the twisted mysteries of DNA.” 

Born March 11, 1929, in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to a family of Italian and Irish descent, Carey made his way west as a young man to storm the gates of Hollywood. He eventually settled in the working class Los Angeles suburb of El Monte where he and his wife Doris raised six children: Romeo, Mario, Velencia, Silvana, Dagmar, and Germain. 

In 1951, Carey was a 22-year-old acting school graduate making his film debut playing a corpse in a Clark Gable western, but it was his brief, uncredited part as Chino's Boy #1, a member of Lee Marvin's motorcycle gang in “The Wild One” (1953) that began his run of unsavory onscreen characters. Going out on a limb as he usually did, he came up with the idea of squirting beer in Marlon Brando's face — Brando wasn’t wild about the idea.

He played Joe, the bordello bouncer who threatens James Dean in “East of Eden” (1955). Both roles were uncredited.

He was the go-to guy for a certain kind of Hollywood tough character, whether he was an abortionist in “Unwed Mother” (1958), a wino, in a silent walk-on in the Susan Hayward melodrama “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955), a “hulking mental patient” in “Shock Treatment” (1951) or the pool shark South Dakota Slim in “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965). As the heavy Lord High-and-Low, he menaced The Monkees in the Jack Nicholson-penned “Head” (1968) — Nicholson was one of his biggest fans. He acted in "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) with Brando and in John Cassavetes's “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971) and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976). 

But it was the role of  Nikki Arcane, the sharpshooter who is recruited by a gang plotting to rob a racetrack in Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) that was among his more memorable and disturbing screen appearances. 

Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel,
“Paths of Glory” (1957). 

The following year he portrayed French soldier Pvt. Maurice Ferol in Kubrick’s World War I drama “Paths of Glory” (1957). However, Carey’s outlandish behavior did not amuse his fellow thespians. During filming in Munich the film’s co-star, Adolphe Menjou, complained that Carey had disgraced the company with his behavior. 

“I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes,” said Carey. Producer James Harris said Carey embarrassed the crew, and that the Germans wanted to throw the whole company out of the country. The real reason for the uproar had little to do with the actor’s toy monkey or the holes in his shoes. The New York Times reported that Carey was found handcuffed and gagged on a desolate road outside Munich. Police said the actor had been picked up hitchhiking and was robbed by two English-speaking men. 

At a posthumous screening of Carey’s work, his son Romeo explained that his father staged the abduction because he was frustrated that Kirk Douglas and other cast members were getting all of the press interviews.

Timothy Carey, “The World's Greatest Sinner” (1962).

Equally outlandish was the film Carey wrote, directed, produced and starred in, “The World's Greatest Sinner” (1962), a 77-minute black-and-white feature that was filmed fitfully between 1958-’61 for a total cost of approximately $100,000 and was released in 1963. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman who quits his job, changes his name to God and starts his own political and religious movement, promising to turn everyone into millionaires, gods and super humans. Promotional material called it “The most condemned and praised American movie of its Time.” 

It wasn’t in theaters for long, but among the few people who saw it was Frank Zappa, who wrote the film’s score. He called it “the world’s worst film.” However, John Cassavetes held it in higher esteem, proclaiming that the film had the “emotional brilliance of Eisenstein.” Lacking a wide commercial release, “The World’s Greatest Sinner” achieved cult status as a midnight movie in Los Angeles in the 1960s.

It’s worth noting that the roles Carey turned down or self-sabotaged his way out of are as impressive as the ones he played.  He opted out of an offer to play Luca Brazzi in “The Godfather” (1972) and would have been cast in “The Godfather Part II” (1974) had it not been for a prank he played on the big shots. He smuggled a gun loaded with blanks, hidden in a box of cannolis, into a meeting at Paramount and proceeded to blast away at the mucky mucks. Producer Fred Roos was not amused and Carey was dropped from the production. “The Godfather” director Coppola also wanted him in “The Conversation” (1974) but contract haggling put the kibosh on that, as well. 

According to director Quentin Tarantino, Carey auditioned for the role of Joe Cabot in Tarantino's “Reservoir Dogs” (1992). Although he did not get the part, the screenplay is dedicated to him, among others.

In the twilight of his career, Carey saw fewer movie roles, appearing in a film every one or two years, the last one being “Echo Park” (1985).

He died of a stroke May 11, 1994 at the age of 65 in Los Angeles. His body is interred at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, Calif. 

Timothy Carey, Phyllis Kirk, “Crime Wave” (1953)

Here’s a sampling of Timothy Carey’s performances in films noir and neo-noirs:

Hired as a background actor for “Ace in the Hole” (1951), Carey plays a construction worker helping to free a man caught in a cave-in (uncredited and unconfirmed). He was fired for habitually stepping into Kirk Douglas’s shots.

Carey is uncredited in the role of Johnny Haslett, a psychotic drug addict who is on the run from the police in “Crime Wave” (1953). His performance is manic and unpredictable, displaying what might be the most strident example of scenery chewing ever committed to film.

In “Finger Man” (1955), Carey is cheap hood Lou Terpe, a suck-up to gangster Dutch Becker (Forrest Tucker). The sleazy Terpe disfigures prostitutes under Becker’s employ when they fail to toe the line. He’s dangerous and probably psychotic, which puts him in a league with many other characters the actor portrayed in noirs. 

As sharpshoot Nikki Arcane, Carey plays a significant supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956). Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) masterminds a plot to rob a racetrack as fans watch the ponies make their way around the oval. Arcane is recruited to fire one bullet that will throw the packed stadium into a panic. Carey has never been sleazier, particularly in his racist encounter with a parking lot attendant.

Gangsters meet greasers in “Rumble on the Docks” (1956), one of the few noirs with a rock ‘n’ roll interlude. Carey is Frank Mangus, a gangster’s flunky who helps him lean on a newspaper publisher who prints stories about the mob’s influence on the waterfront. Meanwhile, local teenaged hoods with D.A. haircuts rumble with rivals. Carey displays an exhaustive library of ticks and grimaces. Seated on a sofa he slouches, then throw a leg over a chair back  — he reaches deeply into his bag of hammy scene-stealing gimmicks.  

Carey is Carl Fowler, a violent thug with a grudge, in “Chain Of Evidence” (1957). He’s not above giving an unsuspecting man a savage beating. When questioned by the cops he’s a leather jacketed surly wise guy. A distraught woman whose boyfriend is missing is looking for answers. Fowler growls at her, “He ran out on you, baby.” But he knows different. It’s one of Carey’s more restrained performances.

In “Revolt In The Big House” (1958), Bugsy Kyle (Carey) is the grand poobah of the “big house” until stickup man Lou Gannon (Gene Evans) arrives. Together they work on a plot to bust out. Bugsy is the kind of guy who would stab you in the back — literally.

Jake Menner (Carey) is a mob guy who gets tangled up in Earl Macklin’s (Robert Duvall) plot to seek revenge for the killing of his brother, who made mistake of robbing a mob operation, in “The Outfit” (1973)

Flo (Carey) is one of the gangsters who leans heavily on Los Angles nightclub owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara). Cosmo has just paid off the mob loan he used to buy his club and now the gangsters want to take the joint away from him, in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976). And with his 6 foot, 4 inch frame, Flo can be intimidating.

Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel,
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976).

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

One American Author’s Writings Inspired Multiple Films Noir, Yet His Name Is Less Well Known Than Other Top Noir Storytellers of His Generation

Edward G. Robinson, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948).

By Paul Parcellin

By any measure, Cornell Woolrich was a virtual human writing machine who cranked out fiction at a feverish pace. He’s credited with 22 novels under his name, 17 more under the pseudonym William Irish, two more as George Hopley (including one of the most memorable, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes”), hundreds of stories and scores of scripts for film, TV and radio.

An American author of crime fiction, suspense, horror novels and short stories, Woolrich is best known for his work in the noir genre, and his stories have been adapted into films such as “Rear Window,” “The Leopard Man,” and “Black Angel.” It’s a quirk of fate that such a prolific, influential writer should dwell in the shadows, behind authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner. But Woolrich’s life and career were unlike those of his literary peers.

Cornell George Hopley Woolrich was born in New York City in 1903. He was an only child and his parents separated when he was young. He lived for a time in Mexico with his father before returning to New York to live with his mother, Claire Attalie Woolrich. He showed an early interest in writing and began submitting stories to magazines while in high school.

After graduation he worked as a journalist and advertising copywriter. He attended Columbia University but left in 1926 without graduating when his first novel, “Cover Charge,” one of his six jazz-age novels, was published. 

A short story, “Children of the Ritz,” won Woolrich a $10,000 first prize in a competition organized by College Humor and First National Pictures, which led to screenwriting work in Hollywood for First National. But during his tenure there he never managed to get any screen credits. He decided to pick up where he left off as an author, and he and his mother returned to New York. 

When he couldn’t find a publisher for his seventh jazz-age novel he transformed himself into a pulp writer. He began writing novels and short stories under the pen names William Irish and George Hopley. His stories were published in magazines such as Black Mask and Thrilling Mystery, and he also began to publish novels.  

His work was often dark and atmospheric and he explored themes of alienation, guilt and obsession. A sense of dread permeates his work. Some of his heroes suffer amnesia and find themselves in an alien world. A recurring theme is the hero’s quest to discover his true identity. Often what he finds would have been better left unexplored. 

Some are falsely accused of murder but are terrifyingly unsure of their innocence. Most live in a nightmarish world where they struggle for truth while dodging a cloud of persecution hovering over them. At times, paranoid delusions control their very being. The air is rife with elaborate conspiracies in which they’ve somehow become entangled. Surprise plot twists lead to radical shifts in a story’s direction. 

Woolrich was unafraid to hug the line between plausibility and untenable fantasy. His novels and short stories have been called among the finest examples of suspense writing by any American author. The obsessive exploration of dark psychological themes in Woolrich’s work has prompted some to call him the Edgar Allan Poe of the 20th century.

By the 1930s, Hollywood was again interested in his work, resulting in the romantic comedy “Manhattan Love Song” (1934) based on a Woolrich novel, and action film “Convicted” (1938), adapted from a short story. But it would be his pulp crime work that became his hottest properties and the stories for which he’d be most remembered. 

Cornell Woolrich. 

Woolrich began to receive wider recognition in the 1940s. Some of his most famous works from this period include “The Black Alibi,” “Deadline at Dawn,” and “Phantom Lady.”

In later years his writing made him wealthy, but he and his mother lived in a series of seedy hotel rooms, including the squalid Hotel Marseilles apartment building in Harlem, among a group of thieves, prostitutes and lowlifes that would not be out of place in Woolrich's dark fictional world. They lived there until his mother's death on Oct. 6, 1957, which prompted his move to the slightly more upscale Hotel Franconia, 20 West 72nd Street near Central Park.

Of his 58 IMDB credits for films based on his writings, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954), adapted from Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” is probably the most celebrated. Other films based on his work include “The Leopard Man” (1943), “Phantom Lady” (1944) and Francois Truffaut’s “The Bride Wore Black” (1968). 

Top actors of the day played roles in those films. Burgess Meredith in “Street Of Chance” (1942), based on Woolrich’s “Black Curtain”; Edward G. Robinson in “Night Has A Thousand Eyes” (1948), and Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” (1954).

Despite his success, life for him was far from ideal. After his mother died in 1957, Woolrich went into a sharp physical and mental decline. A reclusive figure, his personal life was often troubled — he dedicated "The Bride Wore Black," which he wrote under the pseudonym William Irish, to his Remington Portable typewriter. 

After years of depression he’d let a minor foot injury turn into gangrene and had to have the leg amputated. Wheelchair bound and shrunk to 89 pounds, he was found dead in his room at the Sheraton-Russell on Park Ave. on Sept. 25, 1968. He’s buried along with his mother at Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.

Here is a sampling of films noir and mysteries based on Woolrich’s writing:

Burgess Meredith, “Street of Chance” (1942).

Street of Chance (1942), based on the novel “The Black Curtain”

Frank Thompson (Burgess Meredith) awakens to find that he's lost his memory. He slowly puts the pieces of his life together and discovers that he has a second identity, and that he's been accused of a murder that he can't remember committing.

Phantom Lady (1944) based on the novel of the same title. 

It's a no-no to be seen in public wearing the same accessory as another. Identical chapeaus roil the waters in “Phantom Lady" (1944), a story of murder, gaslighting and fashion faux pas. The film also boasts one of noir's wildest jazz band scenes, to boot.

The Mark of the Whistler (1944) based on a short story. 

A drifter claims the money in an old bank account by impersonating someone else with the same name. Soon he finds himself the target of a man with ties to the impersonated man.

Deadline at Dawn (1946) based on the novel. 

Sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams) and dance-hall girl June Goffe (Susan Hayward) spend a long night trying to solve a murder. He woke up with a pocketful of cash he received from the victim. Now he's only got until daybreak to figure it out.

Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre, “Black Angel” (1946).

Black Angel (1946), based on a novel of the same title.

Alcoholic pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) is convinced that a heart-shaped brooch is a crucial clue in the investigation of his ex-wife's murder. Suspicion builds around dodgy nightclub owner Mr. Marko (Peter Lorre). But darker truths emerge.

The Chase (1946), based on the novel “The Black Path of Fear.”

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) gets a job as chauffeur to tough guy Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran), but Chuck's involvement with Eddie's fearful wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan) becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Fall Guy (1947) based on the story “Cocaine.”

Tom Cochrane (Leo Penn'), full of dope (cocaine) and covered with blood, is picked up by the police. Tom only recalls meeting a man in a bar and going to a party. But when the body of a murdered girl turns up, Tom must act fast to clear his name.

The Guilty (1947) based on the story “He Looked Like Murder.”

Two guys sharing an apartment meet twin girls (both Bonita Granville). One's sweet, the other — not so much so. The nice one is murdered and her boyfriend is accused of the crime.

Robert Emmett Keane, DeForest Kelley, “Fear in the Night” (1946). 

Fear in the Night (1947) based on the story “Nightmare.”

Bank teller Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) dreams of murdering a man in a room full of mirrors. He investigates and finds that there's ample evidence that he did commit murder. But there may be a shadowy figure lurking behind the scenes.

The Return of the Whistler (1948) based on the story “All at Once, No Alice.”

On the eve of his marriage, a young man's fiancée disappears. He hires a private detective to help him track her down, but soon finds himself entangled in a web of lies, intrigue and murder revolving around his fiancée's dead ex-husband and his wealthy, corrupt family.

I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948) based on a story of the same title.

Vaudeville hoofer Tom Quinn (Don Castle) chucks his shoes at a noisy alley cat. But when his cash laden neighbor turns up dead, Tom's footprints are at the crime scene. A police detective (Clint Judd) tries to find the real killer.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) based on the novel of the same title.

Phony mentalist John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) discovers one night that he has developed real supernatural powers, but they bring about little more than misery and alienation from the people he cares about most.

The Window (1949) based on a short story. 

Young Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) witnesses his neighbors kill a drunken sailor, but no one believes him. When Tommy is left home alone the murderous neighbors pay him a visit. They aim to silence him for good, and he's left to fend for himself.

No Man of Her Own (1950) based on the novel “I Married a Dead Man.”

A pregnant woman adopts the identity of a railroad-crash victim and starts a new life with the woman's wealthy in-laws, but is soon blackmailed by her devious ex.

The Earring (1951) based on the story “The Death Stone.”

When a woman goes to see an ex-boyfriend who blackmails her, she leaves behind an earring and when she returns to retrieve it, she finds that he has been murdered.

The Trace of Some Lips (“La huella de unos labios”) (1952) based on the story “Collared).”

When her father dies mysteriously, a young woman is protected by an acquaintance of his, who takes her to live in his house, where she suffers the abuse of his niece.

If I Should Die Before I Wake (1952), based on a story of the same title.

Young Lucio Santana’s (Néstor Zavarce) dad is a detective working on the serial killings of local children. Lucho makes friends with a girl who tells him that a man gives her free lollipops. She makes Lucho vow never to tell anyone. But then that vow is tested. 

Don’t Ever Open That Door (1952) based on the stories “Somebody on the Phone” and “Humming Bird Comes Home.”

Two separate episodes that have in common the door that separates good from evil. In the first segment, "Alguien al teléfono,” Ángel Magaña tries to avenge the death of his sister, a girl who commits suicide over gambling debts. In the second, "El pájaro cantor vuelve al hogar,” Roberto Escalada is a former inmate who whistles when commits crimes and returns home where he is expected by his blind mother, who believes he has reformed.

Rear Window (1954) based on the story “It Had to Be Murder.”

Recuperating photographer L. B. “Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) has nothing to do but watch his neighbors across the courtyard as his leg mends. He notices odd things occurring in Lars Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) apartment. Sinister things.

Obsession (1954) based on short story “Silent as the Grave.”

Helene and Aldo are trapeze artists in a circus. Aldo is injured and has to be replaced by Alex, his former partner who knows too much about him. Alex is murdered and Helen is convinced that her husband, Aldo, committed the crime. But another man is accused of the crime.

Nightmare (1956) based on a short story.

Clarinetist Stan Grayson (Kevin McCarthy) dreams he killed a man, then awakens to find evidence linking him to his imagined crime. His brother-in-law, New Orleans police detective Rene Bressard (Edward G. Robinson) is skeptical of Stan's story.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Femmes Fatale Are Deceptively Charming, Dangerous and Often Lethal; But One Among Them Tips the Scales When It Comes to Evil Doings — And She’s Probably Not The One You’re Thinking Of

Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, “The Killing” (1956).

By Paul Parcellin

Be forewarned: Many spoilers are included throughout the text below.

Sure, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the husband liquidating murderess of “Double Indemnity” (1944) might be your go-to gal whenever the term “femme fatale” is mentioned. She’s as coolly detached and methodical as a hangman, and wily enough to nudge her fall-guy, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), into killing her husband, and she even makes him think that the whole thing was his idea.

Cunning shapeshifter Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), who almost puts one over on private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), is skilled at stitching together tissues of lies that disarm and misdirect the circle of men who orbit her. She’s after a prized jewel-encrusted falcon statue and will use lethal means to get it. We’re not sure until the very end of the film whether or not Spade, the role model for filmdom’s hard boiled shamuses, is buying her act. Anyone would be well advised to do so at his or her own risk. 

Speaking of trench-coated private dicks, in “Out of the Past” (1947) Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) tries to leave behind his checkered past. He used to snoop for crime kingpin Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). The mobster’s henchman drags him back into the life he’s tried to shake off. Jeff’s former lady friend, who happens to be Whit’s current squeeze, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), is expert in playing both men as pawns, even as Whit tries to frame Jeff for a murder. It doesn’t occur to the erstwhile detective exactly how deadly Kathie can be until he finally sees he at her worst. And by then it’s too late.

In “The Killing” (1956), George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) makes the costly error of telling his unfaithful wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about a big score he’s in on. George is supposed to keep his lips zipped, but he tries to impress the drifting Sherry in a futile attempt to keep her from wandering. Trouble is, she’s got a boyfriend, and the two of them decide to grab a piece of the loot George and his partners aim to snatch in a racetrack stickup. George, the milquetoast racetrack cashier, is unaware of the evil steps Sherry will take to stuff her pockets with greenbacks and blow this crummy town — the femme fatale’s credo if there ever was one.

Gloria Grahame, “The Big Heat” (1953).

Many others deserve honorable mention for their underhanded onscreen efforts. This is hardly an exhaustive list, just a few of my favorites, including Peggy Cummins, the bank robbing sharpshooter of “Gun Crazy” (1950); Lana Turner, who, with John Garfield, deep-sixes her husband in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946); Gloria Grahame enters a tempestuous romance with Bogie in “In a Lonely Place” (1950), and was gangster Vince Stone’s (Lee Marvin) moll in “The Big Heat” (1953) — it has the scene where Vince serves her a faceful of scalding coffee. Grahame’s other noir performances include “Crossfire” (1947), “Macao” (1952), “Sudden Fear” (1952), “Human Desire” (1954) and “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959); Joan Bennett tormented Edward G. Robinson in two Fritz Lang films, “The Woman in the Window” (1944) and “Scarlet Street” (1945). In both, she conspires with Dan Duryea to fleece him for all that he’s worth. Other noirs she also appeared in include “The Scar” (1948) and “The Reckless Moment” (1949).

I’d be remiss to leave out Lizabeth Scott, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, and especially Ann Savage, the spitfire hitchhiker in “Detour” (1945) whom Tom Neal wishes he never met. (For an in-depth look at the women of noir, check out an excellent book, “Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film Noir,” by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry.)

But among the high priestesses of noir there must be one who reigns supreme. She may not be portrayed by the most accomplished actress, yet she makes others pale in comparison. The top femme fatale — my personal favorite — displays breathtaking wickedness. She has no redeeming qualities — none. Her maniacal quest for dirty loot and her Arctic-cold acts of pure mayhem are so over the top I laughed out loud the first time I saw her American screen debut. 

The worst of the worst femmes fatale simply must be Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie), the cold-blooded double crosser of “Decoy” (1946). Other murderous dames offer stiff competition, but for sheer cruelty and her outsized zest for sadism, Margot stands out among noir’s most treacherous females. Others may leave a greater number of stiffs in their wake. Some even look their paramour, boyfriend or husband in the eye and coolly pull the trigger. 

Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley, “Decoy” (1946).

But there are three reasons why the others cannot hold a candle to the “Decoy” star:

1) She pulls off a murder that is as hideous as any committed by woman or man onscreen at the time. In her crazed pursuit of a $400,000 stash of loot, she disposes of an accomplice in a most chilling of manners. Motoring toward the site where the money is allegedly hidden, their car gets a flat. One of the two men riding with her changes the tire. As he lowers the jack beneath the front bumper, Margot slams the car into forward gear and runs over the unsuspecting sap, who happens to be a cold-blooded killer, himself. She hops out, rifles through the dead man’s pockets, grabs the tire changing tools and gets back behind the wheel …

2) Once she's in the driver’s seat, Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), who has been hoodwinked into aiding in Margot’s scheme, sits shell-shocked in the passenger seat. He mutters to her, “I’d like to kill you.” Without hesitation, she hands him a loaded revolver. He points the weapon at her — Hippocratic Oath be damned — but can’t summon the moxie to pull the trigger. She takes back the gun and they drive off. Margot knows that Craig is a broken man and likely would not shoot. But she wants to demonstrate her dominance over the hapless physician. It’s a sizable gamble on her part, but she willingly risks her life just to rub his nose in the dirt, which leads us to …

3) The last and perhaps most badass gesture on Margot’s part, assuring her top placement in the Legion of Film Noir Femmes Fatale: She’s been shot and is on her death bed. Police Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who has been trailing Margot and her hoodlum associates for a while, stands over her. She asks him to come down to her level. It’s an odd request, but he crouches down to oblige, bringing his face closer to her’s. We expect an intimate, soul-baring moment. She’s about to unburden herself and express regret for all she has done, we think. But the mood is abruptly dashed. With her dying breath she cackles hysterically in his face. A ring of police officers looks on as Portugal blushes, realizing he’s been had. She uses her last gasp to con a policeman and leave him humiliated in front of his peers. She can now leave this mortal coil, warmed by the fact that she’s had the last laugh at another in a long line of suckers. With her rotten-to-the core exit, Margot is the very model of a film noir femme fatale.