Life and Death in L.A.: October 2023

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

How a Real-Life Prison Sentence Added Another Dimension to Mitchum's Performance as a Woozy Doctor on the Run in a Nightmarish Flight From Justice

Robert Mitchum, "Where Danger Lives" (1950).

By Paul Parcellin

This article contains spoilers

A lot of red flags should go up when Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) meets Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue). But she’s a real dish and this is noir, so naturally he ignores the many warning signposts screaming at him that he’s about to drive over a cliff.

Margo is an emergency room case whom Jeff treats after a suicide attempt. There’s an instant attraction between the two and she persuades him to meet with her outside of the hospital. 

He ditches his steady girl, nurse Julie Dorn (Maureen O’Sullivan, wife of the film’s director John Farrow), for the more exciting, emotionally scarred rich one. As bad decisions go, this is a whopper and it’s all but impossible to stop watching the impending train wreck take shape. 

In the first part of the movie Jeff is smitten with Margo, and he at least still has his wits about him. A little later he’s smitten again — this time literally. He suffers a concussion and it doesn’t improve his judgment, but it explains why the level-headed physician would fail to see that his newfound love is an erratic maniac. 

She lives with her rich dad (Claude Rains) — that’s what she tells him, at least — and is financially dependent on the infirm old geezer. She and pop reside in a swell mansion and when Jeff stops by for a visit he’s surprised by the opulence but isn’t impressed with it. Money isn’t so important to him, and it’s evident that his infatuation with Margo is taking up a lot of real estate is his brain. 

But things start going sour. He gets into a scuffle, gets clocked on the head with a fireplace poker that puts him in a fitful stupor, his judgment deteriorating — clearly something he doesn’t need. Soon, he’s in the kind of trouble that only femmes fatale can get a fellow into and he and his new lady friend go on the run as fugitives from justice.

Mitchum, Faith Domergue, dazed and confused.

The nightmarish scenario in which he’s trapped is a classic noir trope. He’s the average guy who unexpectedly plunges into a hellish abyss. Mitchum brings his every-man persona to this doctor who’s torn between the straight life and the rush of staying one step ahead of the law. 

Maybe the same could be said about Mitchum, although living strictly on the straight and narrow didn’t much appeal to him. In 1948 he was busted for possession of marijuana, a pretty big deal back then, and he served prison time not so long before shooting this film. The ex-jailbird at first thought that his career was over. But his boss at RKO, Howard Hughes, stuck by him and ignored the voices wanting to cancel the controversial actor. It turns out the publicity actually enhanced his career and this role is but one example of why a pot bust turned into a plus for bad boy Mitchum.

Audiences in 1950 must have sensed that Mitchum brings an essential element of danger to a character who might have otherwise come across as too straitlaced. He did that before the pot bust, too, but by the time the film came out that image was fresh in the public’s mind. It’s not hard to believe that, given the opportunity, Jeff is the kind of guy who just might take up with a dangerous woman like Margo. Maybe his attraction to her is due in part to his doctorly instincts to heal the afflicted. But with his guard down he morphs into a moth drawn to the flame — and his distorted powers of reasoning aren’t helping him see the follies of his ways, either.

Once on the road together, both he and she suffer from bouts of paranoia. Every cop they see is out to get them; people everywhere have them pegged as fugitives from justice. They stumble upon police at the airport, get spooked and hot foot it back to the highway. When they come upon a roadblock they assume it’s a dragnet set to capture them, so they make a U-turn and barrel off in another direction.

Typical of their muddled way of thinking, they opt to dump her expensive auto to a cliche of a used car dealer, as if that would throw the police off their trail. The used car jockey wears a houndstooth sport jacket with mis-matched patterned shirt and tie that are fighting a bloody war against each other. He gets a twinkle in his eye, seeing that the two are desperate and will make easy pickings for a chiseler such as himself, and he promptly fleeces the two pigeons.

They move onward, but try as they might it becomes apparent that they’re playing a losing game. Despite his injuries, Jeff is still thinking clearly enough to realize that his condition is deteriorating, so their mission turns into a dash for the Mexican border in hope of making it before he expires. 

For her part in this fiasco, Margo plays it cool, but a few stunning revelations about her eventually come to light. Like most noir anti-heroes, Jeff comes to the hard, cold facts a bit too late to slow down his inevitable trudge toward the gates of hell. 

We’re left to ponder whether Jeff’s misadventures are due to fate simply paying him back for callously leaving his girl back home. As paybacks go, that one exacts a rather high price. Something like prison time for smoking a reefer.


Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Big Caper: Burning Desire For a Life of Luxury Drives Career Criminal to Score a Cool Million Bucks

Roxanne Arlen, Paul Picerni, Corey Allen, "The Big Caper" (1957).

Heist films must always be centered around a carefully thought-out plan — and no matter how artfully arranged, the scheme will sooner or later go horribly wrong.

Lots of stuff can cause a heist to crash and burn: a flaw in the plan; unforeseen circumstances; somebody accidentally trips an alarm — you’ve probably seen them all. 

But the most interesting kind of heist failure occurs when gang members' weaknesses cause it to happen. One is a big mouth, another has a hot temper and yet another has an uncontrolled addiction, all of which causes friction that punches a hole in the entire operation. “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) and “The Killing” (1956) are two high-water marks in the American heist sub-genre, and both are like case studies of each character’s flaws. “The Big Caper” (1957) is a kindred spirit, but not in the same league as the other two.

In "The Big Caper," career criminal Frank Harper (Rory Calhoun) will eventually confront the same fate that other hoodlums before him have met. Like many others, his desire for material comfort and freedom motivates him to go for the big score. He's every bit the cool character as he drives a shiny Chrysler during the opening credits. He yearns to be seated in the lap of luxury, or at least flush with cash now that he dropped his last couple of thousand bucks at the track. He drools over the swank Southern California home that racketeer Flood (James Gregory) is renting. Poolside at Flood’s lair, Frank is all business while secretly coveting the senior gangster’s upper middle class lifestyle, including his blond bombshell of a girlfriend, Kaye (Mary Costa), who’s in taking a dip.

 Frank wants Flood to pony up the cash he needs to do a big job. A former Marine who was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Frank knows that the Corps’ payroll is regularly kept in a small bank near the base. More than $1 million in cash can be had if they play their cards right. Flood is hesitant, but is eventually persuaded to finance the operation and provide his connections to crime specialists.

The plan is that Frank and Kaye will pretend to be husband and wife, buy a filling station and a home in the community and blend in with the local citizens. When the time is right Frank's crew will crack open the bank vault and make off with the dough. 

The scheme sounds foolproof, as do most heist movie plots, but the difficulty comes in the execution. For one thing, putting Frank and Flood’s girl together, posing as man and wife, is like playing with matches near a leaky gas pipe.

Within a few months Frank and Kaye have mingled their way into the community, making friends with other couples in their neighborhood. They’re even pals with the cop on the beat. But their manufactured image of suburban contentment is as staged and hollow as pictures in a Sears catalogue. 

Why the big charade is needed as part of the robbery scheme is never clear, but it puts Frank and Kaye together in a domestic setting and their lace curtain existence together begins to have an effect on both. Kaye is unhappy being Flood’s girl, and pretending to live in matrimonial bliss makes her crave the real thing. She tells Frank that she plans to split with Flood. 

“Hope I’m not around when you decide to break the news to him,” he growls. 

Rory Calhoun, Mary Costa: An Imitation of Domestic Bliss. 

She’s not the only one feeling the itch of desire. He struggles to keep his relationship with Kaye on a strictly business track, but it’s only a matter of time before the wall he puts up develops cracks. Frank can barely stand running the filling station and earning peanuts. It’s for squares, he says. When neighbors are around he’s all smiles, but can hardly wait to pull the caper and blow town.

Pulling the robbery requires rounding up the manpower get the job done; a heist movie staple. Roy (Corey Allen), Flood’s blonde, musclebound houseboy and henchman is odd and unpredictable. He appears to have a sadomasochistic relationship with his boss — Flood whips him for showing his muscles to Kaye (could this have anything to do with Flood’s blasé attitude toward her?). Roy’s hackles are raised when Doll (Roxanne Arlen), the cupie doll girlfriend of another mobster, shows up, breaking the crew’s guys-only policy. Soon enough, she burrows her way into the caper and becomes a threatening annoyance to Flood.  

Old man Dutch Paulmeyer (Florenz Ames), expert in the art of blowing open safes with nitro, joins the pack. Respected among his peers and near retirement, he speaks with an accent and is the consummate gentleman thief. 

His diametric opposite, Zimmer (Robert H. Harris), an arsonist and hard-core boozer, stumbles onto the scene. Sweating profusely, dressed in a panama hat, white linen suit and a loud, wide tie, it’s clear that he’s going to be trouble. He’s a pyromaniac who strikes wooden matches and stares dreamy eyed into the flame as though he’s getting an erotic rush from it. There’s dynamite and a timer in his suitcase and he’s got an unquenchable thirst for gin — what could go wrong?

Quite a lot, actually. Especially when Frank and Kaye learn that there’s a very big problem with Zimmer’s plans to set off a diversionary explosions as part of the robbery plan.

Frank is finally left on his own to struggle with his conscience, knowing that the crew’s big score will do irreparable damage to the community that he once ridiculed. The film seems to ask whether or not an antisocial cynic can transform himself into righteousness simply by going through the motions of living a clean life and accidentally finding love. It takes more than that, of course, but Frank Harper is a hard-core case who just might have a soft center.  

Thursday, October 19, 2023

‘Hollering Hank,’ A Director of Noble Lineage, Turned Out Landmark Semi-Documentary Crime Dramas That Capture the Unease of Post-World War II America

Lucille Ball, Mark Stevens, "The Dark Corner" (1946). 

Director Henry Hathaway is probably best known for the westerns he made with legendary stars, including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, among others. But his semi-documentary, noir-tinged crime films of the 1940s-‘50s should have earned him a more prominent place among noir’s noted directors. 

In addition to westerns, his varied body of work includes adventure stories, war pictures and action films, and perhaps because of this he was often dismissed as a talented journeyman, not an “important” filmmaker. He worked at Paramount and then at 20th Century Fox and was seen as a company man rather than an innovative firebrand.

But his work continues to find receptive audiences and in recent times his reputation has been burnished. 

Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller says that Hathaway is underrated as a director. 

“He gets lost in the shuffle because he’s not a myth-maker like (John) Ford or (Howard) Hawks,” Muller said. “He’s a craftsman and adapts to the material. He doesn’t have a signature style. In the ’50s, he became the poor man’s Anthony Mann.” 

Shell-shocked actors found that on-set tension rivaled the tribulations of the tormented characters they played

While his peers may not have have regarded him as a trail-blazer, Hathaway was infamous for his red hot temper. Nicknamed “Hollering Hank,” he was known for his despotic behavior on the set.

Lucille Ball said she hated shooting "The Dark Corner,” mostly due to Hathaway’s bullying, which caused her to stutter when trying to recite her dialog. Hathaway accused her of being drunk (more about this below).

Dennis Hopper said that Hathaway blackballed him in the industry after “The Sons of Katie Elder” — yet Hathaway later hired him for “True Grit.” Over dinner at Telluride, Hathaway’s elegant wife, Skip, asked mischievously, “You do know Henry’s a bastard, don’t you?” 

Still, some got along famously with him. Signe Hasso, who starred in “The House on 92nd Street,” adored him, just as she did another tough Hollywood pioneer, Cecil B. DeMille.

Despite his tendency to upset casts and crews, the irascible director was unapologetic about his on-set outbursts.

“You have to have discipline,” Hathaway asserted near the end of his life. “It's like a father with a big family. What do you do if a kid gets out of line? You've got to whip him or pretty soon all the kids are wild. Well, making a picture involves a mighty big family, and there's a lot of money involved, so I don't let things get very far out of line.”

Royalty In His Blood

There are probably a number of factors at the root of Hathaway’s testy, monarchal behavior, and chief among them could be his family lineage.

Henry Hathaway was born Henri Léopold de Fiennes, in Sacramento, Calif. His title of marquis was inherited from his paternal grandfather, a Belgian nobleman in service to King Leopold I of Belgium.

Hathaway's father, Rhoady, became a theatrical manager and married Hathaway’s mother, a Hungarian-born Belgian of aristocratic ancestry, born the Marquise Lillie de Fiennes, who acted under her maiden name Jean Hathaway. 

A Rising Star

With two parents in show business, it’s no wonder that Hathaway was drawn to the film industry early in life. He was hired as a child actor in 1908 by the American Film Co., where he became a protege of director Allan Dwan. When Dwan became the first recipient of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s Career Achievement Award, Hathaway recalled sitting on Dwan’s knee. 

Working his way up the ranks, he became an assistant director in 1919, most notably with Victor Fleming (another Dwan protege), Josef Von Sternberg, William K. Howard and Frank Lloyd. By 1932, he had become a full-fledged director of Westerns and by 1936 had directed “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” the first big-budget Western in three-strip Technicolor.

However, his crime films were shot in black and white, with one notable exception. Here’s a sampling of his work:

Tyrone Power, "Johnny Apollo" (1940).

Johnny Apollo” (1940)

Bob Cain (Tyrone Power) falls for gangster moll 'Lucky' Dubarry" (Dorothy Lamour) and throws in with some rough characters all in the name of getting his Pop paroled from the big joint. But he finds that making a deal with the D.A. is tougher than he bargained for.

Bob, the son of a wealthy and respected judge, hits the skids when he is wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to prison. Inside the prison, he becomes acquainted with charismatic and ruthless gangster Mickey Dwyer (Edward Arnold). Along the way, Bob adopts the alias Johnny Apollo and transforms from a law-abiding citizen to a criminal under Dwyer's influence.

One of the key themes explored in "Johnny Apollo" is the concept of morality and how one's circumstances can influence their choices. The film explores the idea that people are not simply good or bad, but a combination of both and are shaped by their environment and experiences. This is evident in Bob/Johnny’s evolution from an upright young man to a criminal mastermind when he’s influenced by the corrupting power of money and the allure of quick success.

Power's performance as Johnny Apollo shows us the internal conflict and moral dilemma that the character faces. Dwyer, the antagonist who represents the darker aspects of society, is like a magnetic field that pulls Johnny into his orbit. The film comments on the economic hardships faced by many Americans during the Great Depression, portraying the desperation and temptation that can lead individuals down a path of crime as they seek financial security and success.

In true noir fashion, cinematographer Arthur C. Miller uses shadow and light to define the contrasting worlds of Johnny's upper-class upbringing and the gritty, harsh reality of prison, while highlighting the moral ambiguities that define Johnny’s actions.

Hathaway's keen eye for composition and visual storytelling is evident throughout "Johnny Apollo." His use of framing and camera movement adds depth and layers to the narrative. We see the stark contrast between Johnny's life before and after prison, which is visually emphasized by the use of framing: the spacious, well-lit rooms of Johnny's home give way to the tight, dimly lit penitentiary cells. The stark shift in Johnny's circumstances define his character and help us better understand his circuitous route to redemption.

Leo G. Carroll, Signe Hasso, "The House on 92nd Street" (1945).

The House on 92nd Street” (1945)

Nazi agents have set up housekeeping in Manhattan as World War II enters its final months and spies are after atomic bomb secrets. A double agent infiltrates the spy network to bust the covert ring wide open. Hathaway takes pains to give the film an authentic feel. Scenes are shot at locations where the real story took place. 

Actual FBI agents play small roles and real surveillance footage of the German embassy is included in the film, as is newsreel footage of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover at his desk shuffling important looking documents. 

Hathaway conveys tension at nearly every turn. We watch in fear that the double agent, once inside the belly of the beast, will be discovered. Then there’s the matter of the atomic secrets that could land in Nazi hands. In hindsight we see what was at stake, but in the mid-1940s with the war still on, few realized the threat that was taking shape. The film’s script  had to be revised to stay abreast of historic events.  

While making the film, neither the actors nor Hathaway were aware of the atomic bomb’s existence

The movie was released on Sept. 10, 1945, just a month after the bomb was dropped on Japan, and barely a week after Japan's formal surrender. While making the film, neither the actors nor Hathaway were aware of the atomic bomb’s existence, and they didn’t know that the nuclear bomb would become part of the story. None of the actors’ dialog includes any mention the bomb. 

But co-director and producer Louis De Rochemont, who produced the "March of Time" newsreel films, and narrator Reed Hadley played a role in producing government films on the development of the atomic bomb. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hadley and screenwriter John Monks Jr. quickly wrote voiceover narration linking the fictional "Process 97,” the film’s McGuffin, to the atomic bomb, and Rochemont inserted it into the picture in time for the film's quick release.

Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball, "The Dark Corner" (1946).

The Dark Corner” (1946)

In noir, aesthetes are usually single-minded monsters who have a higher regard for art and precious objects than they do for human life. They are of the monied class and their self-indulgent obsessions lead toward acts of moral depravity. Such is the case with art dealer Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), who not only values beautiful objets d’arte but jealously watches over his straying trophy wife Mari (Cathy Downs). He sparks a chain of events that put private eye Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) on the spot. 

Galt’s sweet and wholesome secretary Kathleen Stewart (Lucille Ball) falls head over heels for her boss, but it’s never clear why she’s smitten with the down-on-his-luck private dick. The icy barrier she puts up to keep him at a distance begins to thaw when she learns he was framed for manslaughter and did a two year stretch in the pen. No matter, the ravishingly photographed story moves along at a fast enough clip to make us skip over any momentary lapses in logic. 

Ball plays the working class gal that Shelly Winters mastered, although Winters would offer a more complex touch of larcenous vulnerability to her characters. Mark Stevens is in the kind of role that Dana Andrews would play — an upright man steadfastly pursuing the dark figures who are trying to pull his strings. 

A flop at the box office, the film deserved a better reception. Hathaway himself was critical of Lucille Ball and critical of the film. At the time, Ball was trying to break from MGM and had an "unsettled" personal life. 

Hathaway biographer Polly Platt wrote: "Early into the shoot, it was obvious to Hathaway that Ball was not concentrating on her job. After she flubbed her lines one time too many, Hathaway embarrassed her before her peers by ordering her to leave the set and actually read the script." However, some regarded the role as one of Ball's finer dramatic performances.

While Hathaway didn’t think highly of the film, New York Times film critic Thomas M. Pryor called “The Dark Corner” "tough-fibered, exciting entertainment.”

Brian Donlevy, Richard Widmark, Victor Mature,
"Kiss of Death" (1947).

Kiss of Death” (1947)

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) helps another couple of mugs rob a swanky jewelry store located high up in a New York skyscraper and is thwarted by slow elevator service. He lands in prison and his personal life comes apart.

A woman’s voiceover narration guides us into the story — is it the voice of Nick’s wife, we wonder? But Nick’s wife dies while he’s doing hard time, and it turns out the voice we hear is that of Nettie Cavallo (Coleen Gray), a woman who helped care for Nick and his wife’s two small daughters. We don’t know whether or not Nick will come out alive after the ordeal he’s about to face comes to pass, but it’s clear that there will be at least three people waiting for him to return safely. 

At heart, Nick is a family man who takes missteps because as an ex-con he can’t catch a break. When Nick finally chooses domestic bliss over the thug life, he must reject the criminal code of silence and become an informer. From that point on he’s in danger and so is his family.

Mature plays the hapless Nick with self assurance and simmering outrage over the way he’s been persecuted for his past crimes. He’s aware of his faults, but feels forced to take drastic measures to support his daughters.

Like other Hathaway films, “Kiss of Death” is shot at spots where a true story took place. In this case it’s the New York locations where prosecutor Eleazar Lipsky tried cases. Lipsky, under the pen name Lawrence Blaine, wrote the 100 page manuscript on which the film is based and 20th Century Fox purchased the story as a vehicle for Mature. 

While inspired in part by Lipsky’s prosecutorial experiences, the story is largely fictional. Still, Hathaway’s documentarian touches, such as use of actual locations and voiceover narration, the film feels less documentary-like than other Hathaway films. 


As delinquent psychopaths go, Tommy Udo is the unabashed supreme leader in his field

“Kiss of Death” is notable for being Richard Widmark's film debut. He plays arch criminal Tommy Udo, a role originally announced for Richard Conte. Hathaway was looking for someone to play the part when he was asked to test Widmark for the role. 

“Hathaway didn’t want me,” Widmark remembered, and apparently, it was because his forehead made him look “too intellectual.” 

But studio head Darryl Zanuck overrode Hathaway's preference for Conte and Widmark won the role. As first acting gigs go, this one was a Lulu, and as delinquent psychopaths go, Udo is the unabashed supreme leader in his field.

His most gruesome on-camera moment comes when Udo pushes a wheelchair-bound elderly woman down a flight of stairs to her death. Hathaway said the idea for the wheelchair scene came from co-screenwriter Ben Hecht. He wanted Udo to be a "hophead" because "they're so unpredictable. They'll shoot you or stab you, they'll do anything."

Patricia Morison played Nick's wife but her scenes were cut. The original script had her commit suicide by putting her head in a gas stove, and prior to that she is raped. Censors put the kibosh on both scenes. Morison’s name is listed in the credits but she doesn't appear in the final cut. 

James Stewart, "Call Northside 777" (1948).

Call Northside 777” (1948)

Based on a real-life murder that led to a wrongful conviction in 1933, the movie stars James Stewart as a reporter who revives a cold case and tries to prove a man imprisoned on a murder conviction is innocent.  

“The assumption was that the city of Chicago bungled the prosecution because it was busy with the World’s Fair,” author, film historian and Film Noir Foundation board member Alan K. Rode said. “They blew this case. It was topical and perfect grist for (Fox chief Darryl F.) Zanuck.” 

“Call Northside 777” (1948) is a fictionalized account of the true story of Joseph Majczek, who was wrongly convicted of the murder of a Chicago policeman in 1932. 

In the film, crusading reporter P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) risks his life to prove Majczek's innocence — Majczek is renamed Frank Wiecek in the film and is played by Richard Conte. McNeal is at first reluctant to pursue the story because he believes that the convicted man probably is a cop killer. But his boss, Chicago Times city editor Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), prods the skeptical McNeal to dig deeper into the case. 

After chasing down down witnesses and attempting to interview uncooperative police officials, McNeal becomes convinced that the wrong man was imprisoned, and so begins his crusade to undo the injustices suffered by an innocent victim.

As he did in “The House on 92nd Street,” Hathaway employs his trademark documentary-style in the opening scenes. With great attention to detail, he shot at or near sites where the true events took place. A side note: the film is credited with being among the first to include the use of a fax machine, cutting edge technology at the time, which plays an important role in the plot.

The real-life events that inspired the film began on Dec. 9, 1932, when Officer William Lundy was shot and killed during a robbery at a delicatessen in Chicago. Two men, Joseph Majczek and Ted Marcinkiewicz, were arrested and convicted of the murder. However, there was significant evidence that pointed to their innocence, including eyewitness testimony that placed them elsewhere at the time of the crime.

Majczek's mother, Tillie, was convinced of her son's innocence and spent years trying to clear his name. In 1944, she placed a classified ad in the Chicago Times offering a $5,000 reward for information about the real killers. The ad caught the attention of Times reporter J. Watson Webb Jr., who began investigating the case and soon uncovered evidence that Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were innocent.

Webb's investigation led to the reopening of the case and in 1946 Majczek and Marcinkiewicz were exonerated. The real-life P.J. McNeal was a major factor in their release, and he was even present in the courtroom when they were finally declared innocent.

“Call Northside 777” was a critical and commercial success and it helped raise awareness of wrongful convictions. The film also earned James Stewart an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Marilyn Monroe, Jean Peters, Max Showalter, "Niagara" (1953).

Niagara” (1955)

Honeymooners Ray and Polly Cutler (Jean Peters) (Max Showalter) run into the tormented Loomises, Rose (Marilyn Monroe) and George (Joseph Cotten), at Niagara Falls, and as tensions between the bickering couple escalate to the breaking point, the Falls begins to look like an all too inviting place to ditch a body.

The film, in brilliant Technicolor and set against a stunning backdrop, masterfully combines elements of suspense, sensuality and psychological tension.

The majestic scenery serves as more than a mere backdrop — it’s a character in its own right. Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald capture the falls in all their grandeur, using wide shots to emphasize their overpowering beauty. However, Hathaway contrasts this natural splendor with a dark and sinister undercurrent that runs through the film, symbolized by the treacherous currents beneath the falls. 

Furthermore, Hathaway's direction of the actors in "Niagara" is exceptional. Marilyn Monroe, in one of her early leading roles, delivers a performance that encapsulates both her sensuality and vulnerability. Hathaway's direction brings out the complexity of her character, Rose, a seductive yet troubled woman, and allows Monroe to showcase her range as an actress. Similarly, Joseph Cotten's portrayal of her husband, George, is a testament to Hathaway's ability to elicit nuanced performances from his cast. George's descent into jealousy and paranoia is palpably depicted, creating a sense of psychological tension that pervades the film.

The pacing and suspenseful elements of "Niagara" are a reflection of Hathaway's directorial prowess. He maintains a sense of tension throughout the film, building suspense as George's delusions intensify, and his actions become increasingly unpredictable. Hathaway's meticulous control of the narrative allows the audience to feel the looming threat and the impending danger.

Hathaway's collaboration with the composer Sol Kaplan is also noteworthy. The film's musical score enhances the tension and emotion, complementing Hathaway's direction and the performances of the cast. The music becomes an integral part of the film's atmosphere, further immersing the audience in the story.

In its review of “Niagara, the Hollywood Reporter praised the director, saying “Hathaway draws splendid performances from his cast and maintains a taut, spicy tempo that grips the attention consistently.” 

For a director known for his irascibility, Hathaway gave Marilyn high praise: “She never had any confidence, never sure she was a good actress,” he said. “The tragedy was that she was never allowed to be. But she was the best natural actress I ever directed.” 


Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Riding an Express Train to Hell: In Noir and Thrillers, Passengers Embark on Dark Journeys Aboard Shadowy Railroad Cars Hurtling Toward Uncertain Destinations

Charles McGraw, Don Haggerty, Marie Windsor, Don Beddoe,
“The Narrow Margin” (1952).

This article contains spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Rail travel is a throwback to the days of neckties, breast pocket handkerchiefs and fedoras, so naturally it pops up often in films noir. It’s safe to say that if you’re watching a black and white film with a handcuffed criminal being shuffled aboard a pullman car, you just might be watching noir.

Trains are not only the popular mode of transportation in noir, they’re often a stage where dramatic scenes play out. They’re a location where solo travelers can meld into the crowd or escape to a sealed overnight compartment. Night trains are often dimly lit, even shadowy. It’s the kind of environment where transgressive behavior can take place undetected. People hop a train to run away from danger or the law, or to find a missing person or purloined object. They’re an escape vehicle, a sanctuary and sometimes they’re the perfect setting to perpetrate a crime.

Theft, kidnapping and murder are all possible under the murky illumination inside a railroad car as it speeds through sparsely populated territories and cityscapes. Passengers, lost in reverie, are oblivious to disturbing events unfolding around them. 

Ditto for railroad stations, which are often packed with anonymous faces, many of whom are too distracted to pay close attention to their surroundings. Train stations are a transitional area for travelers, a place that passengers would prefer to leave as soon as possible. They’re fertile ground for pickpockets, petty thieves and conmen preying on distracted, weary travelers whose thoughts are fixed on where they’re bound for as they endure the tedium of getting there. They’re a place where cigar stand cashiers mutter inside info to cops and hoods alike, and fugitives grab a tabloid from the newsstand to find out what’s what.

Rail travel echos many of film noir’s tenets, including loneliness and isolation. Trains are inherently claustrophobic, with their narrow corridors, compartments, dining cars and baggage areas. In short, they’re perfect fodder for the movies. Try to imagine how hard it would be to stage a credible chase scene aboard a plane or a bus, but a train is tailor made for it. 

Trains are more than mere staging areas for action sequences. The sense of confinement one feels mirrors the moral and emotional entrapment characters are experiencing. The train becomes a microcosm of the noir world, where people are trapped in a place that mirrors their internal conflicts.

Film noir is notorious for its dimly lit streets and alleys that create an atmosphere of uncertainty and danger. Train travel often occurs at night, emphasizing the characters’ descent into darkness and their moral ambiguity. The rhythmic clatter of the train’s wheels amplifies the tension, intensifying the noir experience. In short, the confined interiors of train cars provide an ideal spot for things to happen, the kinds of things that happen in noir.

Here a handful of films noir, crime films and thrillers in which trains play a critical role:

Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, “Double Indemnity” (1944).

Double Indemnity” (1944)

A train can be part of a murder plot as well as a tool of deception. In “Double Indemnity,” insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), cooks up a murder plot that includes train travel and a sophisticated maneuver that makes it look like an accident. He and Phyllis Dietrichson plan to bump off her husband to collect his accident insurance payout — she and Neff have recently begun an affair and they plan to go away together with the spoils of their deadly scheme. 

With some sleight of hand Neff gets the unsuspecting hubby to sign off on a fat policy with Phyllis as the beneficiary. The corker is that if Mr. Dietrichson dies aboard a train the payout is double the face amount of the policy — double indemnity. It takes a fair amount of maneuvering and creative planning to set the wheels of deception in motion, but they do it. 

Neff strangles the husband and, dressing like Mr. Dietrichson, boards the train pretending to be the unfortunate chap. At a given location, Neff will hop off the rear car and he and Phyllis will place the body at the spot where he jumped. People will think that Dietrichson accidentally fell off, putting Phyllis in line for a big payday. 

Aboard the train, Neff makes his way to the observation platform at the rear of the last car. He steps into the open compartment, the darkness serves as a metaphoric backdrop for the morally corrupt acts he’s carrying out. But lo’ and behold, he’s not alone. Another passenger, the chatty Mr. Jackson (Porter Hall), is enjoying the night air amid the clatter of steel wheels on tracks. Neff did not anticipate this and it could be disastrous for him and Phyllis since there’s only a brief window of opportunity for him to take the leap. Neff makes up an excuse to get Jackson to leave the observation car and go fetch cigars Neff claims he left in his compartment. 

It’s a close call, but he’s is able to jump off the train at the precise point where Phyllis waits in the family car with the still warm body of her husband. Director Billy Wilder is masterful in his creation of tense moments on film, and he doubles down on the pressure once the body is planted on the tracks. 

Neff and Phyllis are about to make a clean getaway — then the car won’t start. Such are the problems of a murderous pair who seek to defraud an insurance company and get rid of a husband who’s overstayed his usefulness. 

Farley Granger, Robert Walker, “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Strangers on a Train” (1951)

When you board a train you never know who you might sit across from. Clean-cut tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) has the misfortune of planting himself opposite unhinged gadabout Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno recognizes Guy from seeing his picture on the sports page, and knows far too much about the tennis player’s personal life. Guy is mildly annoyed, but soon the two of them are lunching in Bruno’s compartment, although clearly Guy would prefer to lose the eccentric busybody.

Bruno rambles on about some harebrained schemes he’s been thinking about and Guy humors him. But then Bruno’s conversation turns perversely dark. He’s dreamed up a way to commit the perfect murder: two people who each want someone dead would commit each other’s murders. Guy laughs off the suggestion, although he’s got a troublesome wife who won’t give him a divorce. Bruno has a father who understandably threatens to have him committed. 

Guy never gives the wacky scheme a second thought, but Bruno is deadly serious and he mistakenly thinks that Guy is on board with him. It’s a great setup for a thriller and in Alfred Hitchcock’s hands the film is a tantalizing melange of dark humor and tense moments. 

Here, train travel is the catalyst for a chance meeting that sets the story in motion and reminds us that random events can trigger unsavory actions. The journey brings about the entwined destinies of two very different characters. As we eavesdrop on their conversation we get an inkling of the deep moral complexities that Guy will soon face. 

Bruno’s scheme requires two people with no discernible connection between them who share a common interest. Unfortunately for Bruno, Guy has no intention of being anyone’s partner in crime, but he didn’t make that sufficiently clear to Bruno. Much to Guy’s horror, Bruno goes ahead with his side of the imagined bargain and kills Guy’s wife. Guy is, of course, a suspect. 

His alibi, that he was on a train at the time of the murder, won’t hold water. He spoke with a soused college professor who happened to be sitting across from him on the train, but the now sober educator cannot remember a thing from the night before. Guy is once again an anonymous person on a train, and this is one time that he wishes someone would have recognized him.

Charles McGraw, Jacqueline White, Peter Virgo, “The Narrow Margin” (1952). 

The Narrow Margin” (1952)

L.A. Police Det. Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) must escort a key witness for the state, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), from Chicago to Los Angeles. She’s the widow of crime boss Neall and has critical information the authorities want, but the mob is determined to stop her from talking. She narrowly escapes death when a gunman pays her a home visit, but instead Brown’s partner takes a fatal bullet.  

Brown is less than thrilled to be assigned to this dangerous mission, and the lady is annoyed about the long train journey ahead. Before long she and Brown get on each other’s nerves, but that’s the least of their worries — a group of thugs who are out to kill her have boarded the train. 

Most of the movie takes place in the compartments, corridors and dining car, and it’s the perfect claustrophobic setting for this drama of paranoia and frayed nerves. Brown is the one taking it the hardest. He feels responsible for his partner’s death and the guilt weighs heavily on him. 

He’s restless, has trouble sleeping and can’t eat, but Mrs. Neall remains calm and has to be reminded to hide herself from the marauding killers. 

Her one advantage is that the bad guys don’t know what she looks like. But they know Brown, and they lie in wait until the detective tips his hand and leads them to her. The train’s narrow corridors make it almost impossible prevent Brown from crossing paths with the hitmen as they glare at each other, waiting to see who makes the first move. 

When violence finally erupts the confined space makes for intense chases and dramatic struggles over firearms. A side note: Given the danger Brown and the lady face, it’s a wonder that he doesn’t wire ahead for reinforcements and simply get off the train. But then there wouldn’t be a movie.

William Holden, Nancy Olson, “Union Station” (1950). 

Union Station” (1950)

Train travel is part of the “Union Station” plot, but the station itself is where the action takes place. Sharp eyed passenger Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) spots a couple of shady characters on her trip to Chicago. Police Lt. Bill Calhoun (William Holden) tails the pair, who turn out to be gun-toting bad guys.

He watches as they stash a suitcase in a locker at the station. The suitcase is retrieved and Joyce identifies the contents as the belongings of Lorna Murchison (Allene Roberts), the blind daughter of wealthy Henry Murchison (Herbert Heyes ), who coincidentally happens to be Joyce’s boss. Lorna has been kidnapped but Mr. Murchison doesn’t want police interference which might endanger Lorna’s life. But he does agree to let Calhoun do some low-profile investigating. 

A ransom drop off at the station is arranged, and a small army of plain clothes detectives swarm the area. The upshot is a handful of petty criminals plying their trade in the crowded station get scooped up — a suitcase thief here, a con man there — business as usual at this Midwestern crossroads. The station itself — Los Angeles’s Union Station standing in for Union Station Chicago — is like a character in the story. Long corridors, waiting area and various crannies are useful to both cops and crooks who want to blend into the background. 

More intimidating is the tunnels beneath the station where the action eventually moves. There are small service cars for workers that run on tracks and are electrically powered, kind of a mini railroad beneath the railroad. 

That makes the tunnels all the more treacherous. One false step and you might land on a live power line. It’s an awful place, especially for a blind girl scared out of her wits.

Wesley Addy, “Time Table” (1956). 

"Time Table” (1956)

The distinguished Dr. Paul Brucker (Wesley Addy) responds to an urgent call for aid. A man aboard the train on which he’s traveling is having a medical emergency. The doctor examines the patient and concludes the stricken man suffers from polio. He directs the train crew to make an unscheduled stop so that the ailing man can be transferred to a hospital. 

An ambulance meets the doctor and patient at an otherwise deserted train depot and the afflicted individual is taken away. But that’s hardly the most unusual event occurring on the train this night. 

While the medical emergency is under way, unbeknownst to the crew a lone robber breaches the train’s locked baggage compartment where a large quantity of cash is secured in a safe. This has the trademark a well-trained band of robbers with lots of insider information and a knack for misdirection. 

Although the train seems as secure as an armored car, investigators later realize that the perfectly timed scheme was planned specifically for a train running on this route. What would otherwise be a daunting mission with many drawbacks — the confined space, the well guarded baggage car — are instead advantages that the robbers exploit. 

They’re able to direct attention away from themselves and prevent passengers from catching on to what they’re up to. The train crew is also in the dark — most of them, anyway. Instead of being trapped like lab rats, the thieves get away without a hitch, making this a tough case for insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens) to solve. But, as we might expect, the robbers’ seemingly bullet-proof scheme begins to unravel.

Here are more films that include scenes at Union Station in Los Angeles:

“The Ladykillers" (1955), "5 Against the House" (1955), “Mildred Pierce" (1945). The Driver" (1978), "The Bigamist" (1953), "Criss Cross" (1949), "Too Late for Tears" (1949), "Cry Danger" (1951).

These films feature scenes at Grand Central Station in New York:

“North By Northwest" (1959), "Seconds" (1966), "Midnight Run" (1988), "Spellbound" (1945), "The House on Carroll Street" (1988), "Carlito’s Way" (1993), "Grand Central Murder" (1942).


Thursday, October 5, 2023

Noir After World War II: Damaged Vets Strain to Re-enter Civilian Life as America Stares Down Fascist Conspiracies and a Seething Nuclear Nightmare

Gaby Rodgers, "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955).

This Post Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

American films noir changed a lot after the end of World War II. The standard setups — a guy, a girl, a gun, a pile of cash, gave way to new storylines and different kinds of characters. We began to see G.I.s returning home from the war with debilitating physical and psychological wounds that made adjustment to civilian life difficult. Films such as “Crossfire” (1947), “Act of Violence” (1948), “High Wall” (1947) and “The Chase” (1946)  focus on returning servicemen and their tortuous reentry into everyday American life. 

In “The Blue Dahlia” (1946) ex-bomber pilot Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) returns from the war to a less than stellar reception. His wife, Helen (Doris Dowling), has been partying and carrying on with another man in Johnny’s absence. In fact, it seems that a significant portion of the civilian population has been on a bender and has little appreciation for the sacrifices service people made to preserve their freedom. 

But the cruelest blow Helen dishes out to him comes when Johnny learns about the death of their child. It wasn’t due to illness as Helen had written him, but as the result of an accident she had while driving drunk. Stunned, Johnny picks up his bag and leaves. Later, Helen is found murdered and Johnny is the prime suspect. But suspicion turns to his service pal Buzz (William Bendix), who has bouts of uncontrollable rage and seizures as the result of a wartime head injury. Early versions of the script had Buzz as the killer, but the U.S. Navy forbid it, saying that portraying a wounded veteran as a psychotic killer was unacceptable, so the script was rewritten. Still, the film conveys a sense of discomfort and outright fear the civilian population experiences with war scarred veterans.

While films along this theme continued to make moving statements in post-war America, particularly William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), the plight of ex-servicemen was overshadowed by events on Aug. 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. Noirs began to reflect the growing hysteria over the prospects of nuclear war. 

In 1950 the country entered the Korean War and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having fascist and communist ties.

Some citizens, it was supposed, including war veterans, posed an existential threat to the American way of life. Government censors would paper over any suggestion that a returning veteran might be a deranged killer, but if he was perceived as a communist sympathizer the hammer of justice would strike swiftly. The threat of nuclear war seemed to justify any action deemed necessary.

Here are some films noir made during the Cold War that reflect the mood of the times:

 Janis Carter, John Agar, Thomas Gomez,
"The Woman on Pier 13" (1949).

The Woman on Pier 13” a.k.a. “I Married a Communist” (1949)

“The Woman on Pier 13” previewed in 1949 with the straightforward but unintentionally silly title, “I Married a Communist.” RKO Pictures changed it after test audiences gave the thumbs down. Even with its new title, “Pier 13” is every bit the melodramatic tabloidesque B-picture that the original title suggests. But it reveals a lot about the country’s mood in that most unsettling era.

While the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atomic test in 1949, the film came together a bit too early to press the nuclear annihilation panic button. Instead, it envisions a conspiracy of homegrown communists driving a wedge between labor and shipping industry management. “Pier 13” uses the communist threat in place of more typical forces of evil we see in noir — organized crime, corrupt politicians, police on the take and the like. 

As the film opens we meet San Francisco shipping executive Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), once, a card-carrying commie who labored as a stevedore in New York during the Depression. Later, he changed his name and fled to the West Coast. A communist no more, he fits comfortably within capitalist society. Brad’s ex-flame, Christine Norman (Janis Carter), who’s secretly working for communist cell leader Vanning (Thomas Gomez), shows up unexpectedly and causes tense moments with Brad and his new bride, Nan (Laraine Day).

Christine’s arrival isn’t a coincidence, she’s helping to put the squeeze on Brad. The local communists hold evidence that could send him to the gas chamber, and they want Brad’s cooperation. These days, “Pier 13” may seem like low comedy or self-parody, but it neatly maps out the hot-button issues still before us, including home-grown and foreign conspirators, infiltration of government institutions, shadow governments seeking to undermine our way of life, while dishing out hefty portions of paranoia-inducing melodrama. The film ends on an optimistic note while serving as a cautionary tale of what might befall us if we aren’t more vigilant. That probably soothed frayed nerves back in 1949. 

Frank Gerstle, Edmond O'Brien, "D.O.A." (1949).

“D.O.A.” (1949)

Above all else, “D.O.A.” is a sobering, paranoid meditation on nuclear radiation’s deadly effects on the human race and the pitfalls of self-absorption and hedonism. Small-town accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) comes to the big city and by chance meets a bunch of traveling salesmen and their lady companions who are all staying at his hotel. They persuade his to come to a bar, and it turns out to be a hipster scene. Frank, a bit of a square, came to San Francisco to let his hair down before making up his mind whether or not to propose to his sweetheart back home. So he’s tantalized to check out this pre-beatnik era hangout for the bohemian set. 

He mingles with a lady at the bar and makes a date to meet her later that night. All the while a jazz combo is blowing up a storm on the bandstand. The excitement builds until the musicians and the crowd are in a frenzied state. The nightclub practically levitates as both the band and club patrons get caught up in the frenzied beat to the point of madness. 

The bartender, inured to the cacophony, shrugs it off. They’re “jive crazy. That means they go for this stuff.”

Frank doesn’t much understand the hipster crowd, but it looks like he’s gotten lucky, and that plus the booze are clouding his better judgment. He’s too distracted to pay much attention to the man slipping something into his drink. He takes a big sip of his tainted cocktail and things start to go sideways. It turns out that Frank has been poisoned with a "luminous toxin” and only has a short while to live. He goes on a mad scramble in an effort to find out who slipped him the deadly mickey and why they did it. 

The poison is a radio active substance whose delayed effect turns Frank into a walking zombie of sorts. He finally tracks down his killer, but the story is almost too convoluted to understand. The short explanation is that Frank just had a stroke of extraordinarily rotten luck. But the message is simple: the nuclear threat is all around us and can be unleashed at any time.

Lee Marvin, Terry Moore, Keenan Wynn,
"Shack Out on 101" (1955).

Shack Out on 101” (1955)

A humble diner along the Pacific Coast is a hotbed for post war espionage and the proprietor, George (Keenan Wynn), is clueless about the drama that is percolating in his hash house.

Short order cook Leo (Lee Marvin), whom George has sarcastically nicknamed “Slob,” is a rude, obnoxious masher — his sobriquet fits him well. In a rare moment when Slob and George aren’t bickering, they lift weights together and debate who has the mightier physique. In this, a parable of spies and atomic bomb secrets it’s easy take their muscle flexing contest as a sly comment on the arms race. The two together are pure comic relief.

Frequent customer Prof. Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy) teaches at the local university and works on top secret defense projects. Slob and George both have eyes for waitress  Kotty (Terry Moore), who the professor is romancing. Odds are that the three Romeos are on a collision course.

In what seems to be an unconventional pairing, Slob and the professor allegedly have a common interest in seashells, and the professor collects ones that Slob, a part-time beachcomber, retrieves. But their hobby is a coverup for darker matters. We don’t begin to see Slob’s true character until he admits to the professor that he wants do something that will make people look up to him. The professor chides him about being a burger flipper and Slob’s comeback is arresting. “Hitler was a paperhanger,” he mutters, suddenly sounding determined and not the dolt he’s been pretending to be. “A man makes his own destiny,” he says. It seems a shadowy figure, Mr. Gregory, has buying nuclear secrets from the professor with Slob as the middle man. 

But there’s more to this underground operation that what first meets the eye. It turns out that the professor is not onboard with Slob’s covert operation after all, and he sums up the burgeoning conspiracy that’s afoot while summarizing the country’s worst fears. “The apes have taken over,” he says. “While we were filling our freezers and watching television they’ve moved in. And what’s worse is they’ve begun to dress like us and pretend to think like us.”

Ruth Roman, "5 Steps to Danger" (1956).

5 Steps to Danger” (1956)

We know almost nothing about John Emmett’s (Sterling Hayden) background except that he’s driving from California to Texas when his car breaks down. The first time we see him he’s sitting in his car’s driver’s seat, ambling down the highway. As the frame widens it turns out that the car is being pulled be a tow truck. It’s just a preview of the surprising developments that are in store as this road movie picks up speed. His car is in need of heavy repairs so he accepts a lift from Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman), a woman he meets by chance at the repair shop. Soon, he’s swept up into a web of espionage intrigue. 

We learn about Emmett through his actions, not from anything the taciturn every-man has to say about himself. He isn’t wealthy but won’t accept money as payment for his selfless deeds and insists on sharing travel expenses with Ann. Her life, on the other hand, is fraught with danger and adventure. She’s escaped from Germany with nuclear secrets etched into a pocket mirror. What’s more, at a roadside stop a woman claiming to be Ann’s nurse tells John that Ann is a former mental patient who is still healing from emotional trauma. Emmett sticks with Ann even when she vigorously tries to persuade him to go his own way. 

A mysterious Dr. Simmons (Werner Klemperer), purportedly Ann’s psychiatrist, lurks in the background, and so do CIA and other government agents. The air of high stakes international conspiracies hang in the Southwest desert’s air like buzzards circling a carcass. Ann’s destination is New Mexico where she intends to deliver the nuclear secrets to a Dr. Kissel (Karl Ludwig Lindt) but, as with each new development in this Cold War tale of paranoia, something is off — much like the mood of the country in the dawning days of the nuclear age.  

Willis Bouchey, Murvyn Vye, Thelma Ritter,
"Pickup on South Street" (1953).

Pickup on South Street” (1953)

In "Pickup on South Street" (1953), pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) swipes microfilm from a spy ring courier. Street peddler Moe (Thelma Ritter) can help G-Men recover top-secret information after she figures out that Skip is their man. But her info ain't free. Moe is savvy enough to cut a better deal when she realizes she’s got insider’s knowledge that the police desperately want. Unfortunately, once involved in this high stakes game she’s in over her head, and the bad guys are a lot less forgiving than the street urchins she’s used to dealing with.

McCoy is the story’s keystone. His smart-talking self-assuredness is at once galling and irresistible. He knows where he stands, living from one purloined wallet to the next, and he’s got no interest in anything beyond the meager living he makes combing through subway strap hangers’ valuables. His world is limited to the city’s street and the shack he inhabits on the waterfront. He’s an unlikely player in this drama that has put the fate of western civilization in his grimy hands.

FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey), who has been trailing him, tries to pressure him into turning over the microfilm he boosted, saying “If you refuse to cooperate you'll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb.”

McCoy smugly retorts, “Are you waving the flag at me?”

The fast-talking pickpocket sums up his ethics when at another point he blurts out, “So you're a Red, who cares? Your money's as good as anybody else’s."

Despite his bluster, McCoy begins to see the light. Strangely enough, he becomes emotionally involved with Candy, the courier from whom he stole the microfilm. Her thuggish boyfriend means to do her in, and against all odds McCoy is then ready to stand up and do the right thing.

Maxine Cooper, Ralph Meeker,
"Kiss Me Deadly" (1955).

Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

In "Kiss Me Deadly," Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), the private detective hero of Mickey Spillane's pulpy novels, is on the trail of a suitcase full of hot nuclear soup. He's not quite sure what it is, and neither are we, but he knows it packs a bad-ass wallop.

Like"Pickup On South Street," with Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who unknowingly harvests some national security secrets from a mark's handbag, “Kiss Me Deadly” is a mad scramble for some H-bomb secrets that could help decimate the entire country and possibly the world. Director Robert Aldrich effectively conveys the tensions and uncertainty that existed in the Cold War era. Hammer uses bullying tactics — he’s always ready to slap around uncooperative witnesses who have critical information — to get to the bottom of the nuclear "whatsit" he's after. And he must, because the future of the planet is at stake.

The setting is transported from New York, Hammer’s stomping ground in Spillane novels, to the sunny climes of Los Angeles. This is a story without heroes — nearly every character we meet is sleazier than the last, and Hammer himself is far from squeaky clean.

Hammer’s search for Velda, his secretary, who is being held captive at a beach house — the briefcase full of nuclear lava is there, too — brings him face to face with Gabrielle (Gaby Rodgers), who wrests control of the hot stuff. This sets the stage for the film’s most famous scene, when Gabrielle, in a Pandora-like gesture, opens the briefcase despite warnings to the contrary. 

As Hammer and Velda escape, both Gabrielle and the beach house are consumed by flames. Hammer and Velda, who seem in remarkably good health for two who have just experienced a nuclear disaster up close, make their getaway. The rest of us should be so lucky.

Here are some noirs saturated in Cold War paranoia that deserve honorable mention:

Hangmen Also Die” (1943)

Dr. Frantisek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) assassinates the notorious "Hangman of Europe" and hides from the Nazis in the home of a history professor and his daughter. But the enemy has a deadly plan aimed at flushing him out to face the consequences.

Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948)

G-Man Dan O'Hara (Dennis O'Keefe) and Scotland Yard Det. Philip Grayson (Louis Hayward) team up to smash a spy ring infiltrating a So. California atomic research center. Smart money says a scientist at the lab has turned commie fink. 

The Red Menace” (1949)

A former soldier joins the American Communist party, but soon learns that he’s made a mistake. When he and his lady friend try to leave the party is out for blood.

The Whip Hand” (1951)

A vacationing journalist stumbles upon a Minnesota lake filled with dead fish. A band of Nazis-turned-Communists have purchased a lodge on the lake and have set up a laboratory there.

I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” (1951)

An F.B.I. agent works to bring down the Communist party. Unfortunately, his brothers and his teenage son think he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Red.

Captain Scarface” (1953)

The Soviets have ship containing an atomic device and they plan to sail it to the locks of the Panama Canal and detonate the bomb.

A Bullet For Joey” (1955)

A police inspector discovers a plot to kidnap a nuclear physicist. Mobsters, foreign spies, and a blonde seductress, all play a role in the drama.

I’ll Get You” (1951)

After leading nuclear scientists are kidnapped and smuggled behind the Iron Curtain, an FBI man and a British agent are assigned to catch the kidnappers.