Life and Death in L.A.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

‘Repeat Performance’: Happy New Year! — You're Dead

Louis Hayward, Joan Leslie, 'Repeat Performance' (1947).

By Paul Parcellin

Sometimes we could all use  a do-over, and that’s certainly the case with Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) who’s just capped off her year by turning her husband, Barney (Louis Hayward), into a corpse. But then something supernatural happens. Come midnight New Year’s Eve she finds herself not in the new year but repeating the previous year. Hubby is still alive and she’s got a second chance to fix her life and not plug her mate — sort of a year-long “Groundhog Day” that happens just once, if you catch my drift.

"Repeat Performance" (1947) asks whether experience prepares us to avoid mistakes we make, and Sheila does her level best to do just that by traveling to different locales and avoiding certain people. She reasons, quite sensibly, that if you break the chain of events leading up to an unfortunate incident you can nip the mishap in the bud. But, it turns out, fate is a stubborn thing.

Things began to sour last year when she and Barney traveled to London, so she insists that they go to California instead. She never tells Barney about the strange phenomenon she’s been experiencing, instead she confides in her neighbor, wisecracking poet Edward Edwards (Richard Basehart). However, try as she might to prevent them, events find a way of recurring. Sheila tries to stop Edwards from being committed to a mental institution as he had the previous year. And Paula Costello (Virginia Field), playwright and first-class home wrecker whom Sheila tries to ban from her residence, makes a grand appearance much to Sheila’s horror and Barney’s delight. 

Joan Leslie, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field.
It’s soon apparent that Sheila has overestimated her ability to keep disaster away from her doorstep. The trouble is, no matter what she does her husband is the same jerk he always was and no amount of clairvoyant insight is going to change that. 

We begin to understand how Sheila fell for Barney — when he turns on the charm he’s quite persuasive. In fact the two of them share some sweet moments together. But as his true character comes out, that of the failed, bitter playwright, we realize that he’s turned into a mean, womanizing drunk. Sheila tries to fix their relationship but it becomes evident that she’s wasting her time.

“Repeat Performance” is an outlier in the film noir canon, with its supernatural bent that conflicts with the earliest examples of noir, which lean toward hyper realism and rough-hewn characters who often inhabit downscale settings. Sheila and Barney are sophisticated New Yorkers and part of the upper middle class. What makes their story similar to those of other iconic characters in film noir is the palpable presence of fate. Invisible forces typically send these anti-heroes to ruin. You can change the events that lead to ruin, but you can’t change human nature, the film seems to tell us.

As it turns out, the do-over does in fact change the story’s outcome in a significant way as the hand of fate re-shuffles the deck. While you can’t drastically alter human nature, a few nips and tucks can make a world of difference.

We’re lucky to have a restored copy of “Repeat Performance” available on Blu-ray, courtesy of The Film Noir Foundation, UCLA and others. A 2007 screening of the film with an appearance by Joan Leslie was scheduled, and it was discovered that a 35mm print had deteriorated, so the foundation, the university and others coordinated the restoration. As with Sheila Page, an intervention can change what seems to be an inevitable unfortunate outcome. 

If you don't want to spring for the Blu-ray you can watch a well-worn print of it here on YouTube.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

‘Dementia’: A Feverish, Tortured Night on Skid Row

Adrienne Barrett, 'Dementia' (1955).
“Dementia” (1955) has many of film noir’s hallmarks: a dingy hotel room with a well-worn electric sign outside that nervously flashes off and on, shady characters prowling skid row’s streets and a posh-looking fat man who glides around town in the back seat of his limo. And of course tobacco smoke, deep, dark shadows and raking light that makes everything look sinister. 

Despite its noir earmarks, “Dementia” is mostly a psychologically driven horror film chock full of surrealistic imagery — equal parts Luis Buñuel, Raymond Chandler and John Carpenter with a heavy dollop of Sigmund Freud tossed in for good measure.  

In it, a tormented woman’s restless sleep is interrupted by paranoid delusions. She roams the streets in a business suit, looking like a Sarah Lawrence grad, except she brandishes a switchblade and as we soon discover, isn’t afraid to use it. 

She visits her parents’ graves in the dead of night and relives the violence she experienced as a child at the hands of her father and her mother’s indifference to it. Later, she’s waylaid by a pimp who attempts to put her to work for him, is chased by the cops and roughed up by some others. It’s a trippy exploration of madness as well as the ever-present threat of violence and sexual abuse that women endure. Probably “Torment” would have been a more fitting title for it.

In a Silent Way
Oh, and the film has no spoken dialog at all, just some written messages that fit into the story. One online version that I watched, titled merely “Dementia,” has a wheezing, growling electric guitar soundtrack that must have been dubbed in long after the film’s initial release — best to avoid that one. 

John Parker, the film’s writer, producer and director originally intended “Dementia” to be a short but revamped it into a feature length production. 

Bruno VeSota, Adrienne Barrett, 'Dementia'

The story is based on his secretary Adrienne Barrett’s dream, and he cast her to play the lead role. Viewing it today it’s hard to understand why the New York State Film Board banned it in 1953, but it was finally released two years later. Producer Jack H. Harris acquired it and re-released it in 1957 as “Daughter of Horror,” adding a bit of voice over narration. 

The soundtrack has the kind of swooning melodies you'd expect in a schlock horror film — music by George Antheil, orchestration by Ernest Gold, with The Giants, Shorty Rogers, and vocals by Marni Nixon. 

Also on the hokey side is the narration performed by Ed McMahon prior to his stint on “The Tonight Show.” It's over the top, but adds needed clarity to the story. 

If you don’t like low-budget, independent art films, “Dementia” is probably not your cup of tea. It’s more akin to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” than to traditional noir studio productions like “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past.” 

But on the plus side it does possess a certain saturnine visual poetry that is heavy on symbolism, charmingly corny, and makes the most of dark, shadowy landscapes where danger lurks around every corner — the stuff that always lures us in.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

One Step Beyond: Film Noir and the Supernatural

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

We can all daydream of possessing special powers, because who wouldn’t want greater insight into their life and extraordinary abilities to manipulate the hands of fate? But if there’s one thing that speculative fiction teaches us is that supernatural powers — mind reading, communicating with the dead and other such phenomena — all come with a steep price tag. 

That’s certainly true for mentalist John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) in “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948). He describes his ability to see into the future as something like travel aboard a train. A passenger might see a farmhouse, then a field of corn followed by a pasture of grazing cows. But someone standing on the train’s roof can see all three motifs in one glance. And for better or worse Triton is one who stands atop his own train car as it barrels through the countryside.

That may sounds enticing to some — certainly not to me. But what if those supernatural powers bring about little more than misery and alienation from the people you care about most? That’s a common theme in “supernatural noir,” a blend of film noir and supernatural fiction, two genres that fit together like a dovetail joint. 

In noir, a protagonist is usually alienated from his or her environment and faces crushing circumstances that threaten their very existence. Add unpredictable supernatural forces into the mix and a noir anti-hero gets a double whammy of everyday and otherworldly forces that mean trouble — a dark place to find oneself, indeed. 

As Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the beaten down piano player in "Detour" (1945) says, "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Noir anti-heroes are destined for failure, and the supernatural  works hand in hand with fate to bring about the flawed character's inevitable downfall.

“Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is one of those noir-tinged leaps into the realm of speculative fiction that in shortened form would fit comfortably in “The Twilight Zone” (1959 - 1964) TV series. Speaking of which, aren’t a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes especially noir-like?

John Lund, Gail Russell, Edward G. Robinson.
A Charlatan Becomes a Psychic 

It’s odd and somehow fitting that vaudeville mentalist Triton should be gifted with the power to see the future. He’s a fairly successful entertainer with a phony mind reading act who, for unknown reasons, develops supernatural powers. It’s as if  he offended the gods by pretending to be clairvoyant and they are taking revenge by bestowing on him the psychic foresight he’d been faking. Now, he must bear the torment of foreseeing tragic accidents and deaths that befall people around him. That includes not only strangers but also almost everyone in his inner circle. Once it becomes obvious to him that he’s cursed with horrifying powers he begins to wonder whether he’s simply predicting these deaths, or could it be that he’s somehow making them happen? 

Of course, it’s not just tragedy that he foresees. He picks winning racehorses for his piano accompanist and buddy Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan) who thinks Triton’s new abilities are just swell. Early on, his powers seem to be a blessing. He helps save the life of a young boy playing with matches who sets his bed afire. But thereafter his predictions grow increasingly grim and depressingly accurate. 

He exists in an existential no man’s land where his “gift” can bring great riches or somehow trigger death and he has little control over which of the two his visions will bring about. Faced with this crisis, he stops using his powers to pick winning racehorses or juicy business opportunities — by and by, Courtland becomes a rich man due to Triton’s psychic insight.

In one of his flashes of foresight he sees doom, and in a panic he abandons his fiancée (Virginia Bruce) and Courtland with no explanation. The only chance of avoiding tragedy, he believes, is to leave and never return. Holed up in a seedy Bunker Hill tenement in downtown Los Angeles, he goes into self-imposed isolation. His room overlooks the Angels Flight funicular that chugs up and down the steep incline. Likewise, he moves through his days with a mechanical repetitiveness, avoiding human contact for it can only bring about tragedy and heartache. 

When finally an opportunity for redemption arrives, it comes wrapped in impending tragedy, so at best Triton can save a life, but in doing so his actions will exact a great cost to himself.


There’s a handful of noirs with a supernatural theme running through them. They include “Alias Nick Beal,” “Night Tide,” and “Ministry of Fear,” to mention a few — I’m sure there are more. What others am I missing? 

Some, like “Dementia,” "The Seventh Victim" and “Cat People” combine elements of horror, film noir and expressionism. More about them in my next post.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Jazz Mania: Film Noir, Bebop and the Devil’s Music

Elisha Cook Jr., 'Phantom Lady' (1944)

You might be surprised to learn that jazz didn’t show up in film noir right away even though by the 1940s swing was part of the popular music landscape and bebop was well on its way to becoming a solid American art form. But you wouldn’t know it by watching “The Maltese Falcon” and other early noir offerings. 

The fact is, initially at least, film noir producers didn’t seem to dig that style of freewheeling music. Typically, they played it safe, sticking with traditional orchestral arrangements instead of cool improvisational compositions played by hip bands and small combos. In short, when it came to music, Hollywood establishment cats were squares.

A couple of noir films finally presented a scene or two of jazz musicians doing their thing, but in both cases the music serves as a backdrop that fairly drips of sex, drugs, crime and madness — in other words, good, if overheated, material for a crime drama, but unflattering to the musical genre itself.

Ella Raines, Elisha Cook Jr., "Phantom Lady"
For openers, “Phantom Lady” (1944) offers a strange, mesmerizing view of an impromptu basement jam session. It may not have been jazz’s first appearance in noir, but it sticks in the memory. 

Based on the Cornell Woolrich novel of the same title, “Phantom Lady”  is a nightmarish odyssey that takes place over a single night. The story involves a woman’s hat, which becomes the object of an obsessive hunt that leads to run-ins with dangerous characters in shadowy corners of an unforgiving urban sprawl. 

Carol Richman (Ella Raines) crosses paths with Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), the drummer in a pit orchestra. They flirt and he brings her to an after hours jam session. Cliff sits in with the other musicians and the scene’s centerpiece is his drum solo, a performance that is a none-too-subtle expression of sexual  desire — Cliff is the one whose temperature rises to the boiling point, while Carol plays along in hope of getting vital information from him. 

He pounds out a frenzied solo on a trap set, his maniacal, leering expression, aimed at Carol, registers a 10 on the creep meter. Cliff later figures out that Carol has been leading him on and she splits before there’s any trouble, leaving Cliff to catch his breath and take a cold shower.

Then there’s the nightclub scene in “D.O.A.” (1949), which gives us a cartoonish rendition of both jazz and the kookie audience that grooves on the stuff. 

Frank Gerstle, Edmond O'Brien, '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 him 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," he says. "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.

Swinging in San Francisco, 'D.O.A.'
Like the scene in “Phantom Lady,” an infectious rhythm dominates the action like a swift current carrying small crafts toward the edge of a waterfall. Both films seem to be saying that jazz is not only background music for bad behavior, it’s perhaps a catalyst for it. And while both scenes border on self parody, they are oddly striking, maybe even iconic. 

The action and cross-cutting is thrilling and mind-bending. The hyped-up, cartoonish performances may not be an accurate depiction of how real jazz is played — although, of the two, “Phantom Lady” comes closer to the real McCoy — but in each case the music becomes a powerful antagonistic force that tests the heroes’ mettle. Personally speaking, those are two gigs that I wouldn’t mind attending, martini in hand.


In later years Hollywood got hip to modern music, and jazz held a more exalted position in noir. Here are a handful of memorable performances.

“Gilda” (1946). More of a big band performance than modern jazz, Rita Hayworth wows them with a smoldering rendition of  “Put the Blame on Mame.”

“Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), featuring a performance by the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1957), score by Miles Davis.

“I Want to Live” (1957), score by Johnny Mandel and Gerry Mulligan.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959), score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.  

I’d venture to guess that there are more that belong on the list. Which are your favorites? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Key to Marlowe’s Conundrum is In a Can of Cat Food

Elliot Gould, "The Long Goodbye" (1973)

One of my favorite neo-noirs is “The Long Goodbye” (1973), Robert Altman’s adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel of the same title, published 20 years earlier. Altman’s most drastic alteration of Chandler’s opus is placing the story in the 1970s instead of eight years after the end of World War II, when the novel is set. In doing so the film puts Chandler’s hero, private detective Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould), in a starkly different Los Angeles. 

Here, Marlowe, the slightly impoverished white knight with a touch of wry wit, doesn't quite fit in. He's an anachronism in a time when private detectives in skinny ties and black morticians' suits are about as unhip as you can get.

His neighbors at the High Tower apartment building in Hollywood Heights are a gaggle of young female hipsters who practice yoga topless on their balcony and run a candle shop on Sunset. The grocery clerk (Rodney Moss) at his local supermarket gets busted in a protest march against police brutality. Marlowe also encounters a shifty psychiatrist (Henry Gibson) running a clinic that’s a cult-like new age treatment center. Still, the intrepid shamus takes his unfamiliar surroundings in stride, shrugging it off with bemused nonchalance. “It’s OK with me,” he says.

The film’s opening sequence finds Marlowe awakening on his bed, fully dressed, as if he’s coming out of a 20-year trance. Unlike the Marlowe we’re more familiar with, this one owns a cat and the kitty is hungry. After a trip to the market in the wee hours he tries to palm off a Brand-X cat food to the discriminating el gato, even putting the stuff in an empty can of the kitty’s favorite brand. But, as any cat owner could predict, it’s no dice. The famished feline isn’t fooled and takes a hard pass.

All of this may seem beside the point of the story, but in a way it hints at what’s to come.

Marlowe on a cat food quest.
Marlowe gets pulled into a murder case involving his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton) who is accused of killing his wife in a most brutal fashion. Marlowe doesn’t believe that Lennox is guilty and he sets out to prove his pal’s innocence. His investigation takes a long, winding path. Along the way he’s hired by a Malibu socialite (Nina van Pallandt) to find and retrieve her alcoholic husband (Sterling Hayden) who’s gone missing, a matter that seems unrelated to Terry Lennox’s woes. But as is often the case in Chandler stories, we learn that the two are directly connected. 

That’s where the can of cat food comes in.

It's a signal that we’re going to see a much greater subterfuge unfold before the ending credits roll. 

Granted, it’s a bit of a trek before we discover who’s pulling the wool over whose eyes. That’s because none of Marlowe’s initial suspicions hit the mark. In fact, the freelance shamus is a few steps behind the LAPD in its investigation. But that’s OK, because part of the reason we like Marlowe is that he’s not the Superman of detectives and his fallibilities make him relatable. He’s driven by a sense of right and wrong and is doggedly determined to seek justice for all who deserve it. It’s those qualities that drive him to stick to a case even after the LAPD give up on it. 

Once Marlowe figures out the final piece of the puzzle his response is shocking. More than a few Chandler fans cried foul. Let’s just say that this Marlowe proves himself to be considerably changed from the one we may be more familiar with. He’s living in a different era and like the world around him, Marlowe has adapted.

But getting back to the cat food matter, Altman said that the sequence points out that “you can’t fool a cat.” Maybe so, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe you can’t con a kitty into eating Brand-X, but you can fool an audience, and that’s the point of it. “The Long Goodbye” does what any great mystery ought to do — misdirect us until its final, rather brutal and controversial reveal. We may know that we’re in for a big finish, but we never want to see it coming.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'Highway 301': There's a Killer on the Road

Wally Cassell, Steve Cochran, Richard Egan, Edward Norris,
Robert Webber, 'Highway 301' (1950). 

It’s a wonder that anyone gets through the first few minutes of "Highway 301," a noir based on the true-life crime wave perpetrated by an outfit called the Tri-State Gang. The film is a taut little thriller that starts off with wooden speeches by three, count ‘em, three state governors, the honorable gentlemen of  North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, where the real Tri-State Gang did its dirty work. Their turgid preambles are the same: Crime doesn’t pay, kids. It’ll make you roll your eyes and, depending on where you are, either change the channel or head for the snack bar.

But don't be put off. You might assume that the rest of the movie is just as cringe-worthy as the opening sequence but you’d be dead wrong. The action whips up to a furious pace as we follow a gang of bank robbers led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), who seldom hesitates to squeeze the trigger whenever someone gets in his way — and that “someone” can include any of the gang members’ women who are traveling with them. He’s got pure Freon coursing through his veins and a thousand-yard stare that could stop a freight train. This being noir, the film admirably avoids giving us a fancy psychological profile explaining how he ended up this way. Bad childhood? Obviously, but who cares? He’s a B-movie killing machine. Enough said.

The rest of the hoods are a good deal less trigger happy than their boss and are quite subservient to him — who wouldn’t be? The guy’s nuts. They include Herbie Brooks (Richard Egan), Bobby Mais (Wally Cassell), Bill Phillips (Robert Webber) and the driver (Edward Norris). 

Steve Cochran, Gaby André.
French-Canadian Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre), newly wed to gang member Bill Phillips (Robert Webber), hangs out with the band of henchmen not realizing that she’s sitting on a powder keg. Bill tells her that he and his buddies deal in women’s apparel and furs. Legenza’s girlfriend Madeline Welton (Aline Towne) who offers a bit of sarcastic comic relief, scoffs at the naive Lee. “Furs that fell off the back of a truck,” she sneers. Tension mounts as Lee finally gets the full picture of what’s going on. She knows too much, which is a surefire way to end up in a landfill. 

Voiceover narration by head investigator Det. Sgt. Truscott (Edmon Ryan) sets up each sequence, giving the film a documentary feel which fits well in this true crime drama. The cops want desperately to stop the gang’s wave of murder and robbery which Truscott characterizes as terrorism.

Director Andrew L. Stone keeps the action flowing and the tension wound as tightly as a two dollar watch. He plays with the audience’s emotions and expectations the way a conductor directs a symphony. Particularly good are his action sequences that include car chases and shootouts. One standout sequence moves from the interior of an apartment building to a park and finally to city streets and ends with a stunning twist. He also ramps up the jitteriness in a chase scene involving elevators and staircases. The tension of watching the elevator floor indicator dial move as a killer approaches his victim is heart-stopping. The unintended corker is that the elevator operator witnesses a particularly vicious murder and seems barely moved by it — maybe that’s business as usual in the elevator game. 

The film boasts the use of real-life locations, but most of it was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. The studio rushed it into production to capitalize on the success of “White Heat,” in which Cochran co-starred with James Cagney. Like his role in the Cagney film, Cochran again fits perfectly into the part of a deadly lothario who acts with chilling brutality. It’s understandable that audiences in 1950 would be shocked by the level of violence depicted here — which probably helps explain the outsized concession that allowed the three governors the chance to hijack the first few minutes of the film.

Even so, we’re apt to concede that, yes, crime doesn’t pay, as the three stuffed shirts tell us, but it can also be pretty entertaining, and that’s why it’s worth watching. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

When Tinsel Town Turns the Camera on Itself

Rod Steiger, 'The Big Knife' (1955).

Face it, scandals make good news copy and the Los Angeles entertainment industry produces a bumper crop of the stuff that keeps gossip writers in business. 

From Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle to Harvey Weinstein the press has never been at a loss for words when it comes to movie industry playboys who can’t control their libidos. An occasional murder, drug overdose or sexual assault crops up now and then and the public can’t get enough of the lurid details.

The gossip that follows a large public display of dirty laundry is especially enticing because it puts the Hollywood elite in a harsh spotlight that’s different from the radiant glow of positive press-agent-generated fluff that we normally see.

 With Damien Chazelle’s marathon tribute to decadent early Hollywood, “Babylon,” fresh in our collective memories, it’s a good time to consider some of the movies that Hollywood has made about itself over the years. Some of the best are noirs, or noir influenced, that examine the decadence and depravity of the movie making capital of the world.

‘Sunset Blvd.’ (1950)

William Holden
Films noir that savage the entertainment industry got their start with the granddaddy of Hollywood takedowns, “Sunset Blvd.” Young screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) has hit a career dead end and is about to leave Los Angeles. Broke and unemployed, he meets delusional former silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who is self-exiled in her dilapidated mansion and is girding herself for a showbusiness comeback — although the industry wants nothing to do with her. 

“Sunset Blvd.” is a darkly comedic parable of youth obsessed Hollywood, whose older guard preys upon the vitality of the young fresh faces that migrate there with high hopes and naïve understanding of the parasitic society they’ve entered. Norma is a washed-up former star who cannot cope with no longer being the ingénue. She’s hit the half-century mark and there’s no one less wanted than an aging woman in Hollywood.

She latches onto Gillis and puts him to work rewriting a putrid script she scratched out on what we may darkly imagine is parchment made from human tissue. She expects this extravaganza, a retelling of the story of Salome, will be the vehicle for her big-screen comeback. Gillis plays along because he’s at the end of his rope financially and believes he’ll pocket some sorely needed cash. 

But Norma is too sharp for the rookie scribbler. When it finally dawns on him that he has become a fellow inmate in her Gothic nightmare of a home along with her dedicated man servant, Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), it’s too late to wriggle free. By the time he gets around to making a run for it, Gillis completes his journey through the depths of Hollywood depravity with an unscheduled dip in Norma’s pool and a couple of slugs of lead in his back. 

‘In a Lonely Place’ (1950) 

Humphrey Bogart
Dixon Steel (Humphrey Bogart) is a former A-list screenwriter whose career tanked. His last hit was before the war. He’s an alcoholic with a hot temper that occasionally flares up into violence. His inner rage, perhaps the result of war related post traumatic stress syndrome, causes him pick fights with the mean-spirited jokers he encounters. 

He gets into a barroom punch-out with a lout who degrades an old, washed up actor who lives from one drink to the next. Turns out the lout is the son of a studio chief, but Steele is far beyond worrying about how the brawl might hurt his career.

Based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same title, “In a Lonely Place” is a study of Dixon Steele’s insecurities and tendency toward self-sabotage. It’s also an indictment against toxic environments present in the Hollywood studio system. His handlers tolerate Steele’s artistic temperament, all right, and they’d probably be perfectly willing to look the other way and cover up any transgressions. When one of their own uses his star power to take advantage of a woman it’s just business as usual. 

When he brings Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), a naïve coat check girl, to his apartment it’s clear that he’s no predator. She’s going to tell him the plot of a novel he’s supposed to have read so that he can decide whether or not he wants to adapt it to the screen. He changes into a robe to get comfortable, which startles Mildred at first until she realizes that he doesn’t have any hanky-panky in mind. She tells him about the book. But as she describes the plot he realizes that the novel is trash and sends her home in a taxi. 

But after Mildred is discovered strangled and left by the roadside Steele’s world begins to come apart. A few friends have a nagging suspicion that he may have done something terrible. His agent, Mel Lippman (Art Smith), is set with an escape plan to Mexico. We can only wonder how many times he’s helped other clients avoid the consequence for their bad behavior.  

When Steele is identified as a person of interest in the murder investigation we see the paranoid delusions that begin to cloud his brain. There’s no telling what’s liable to send him into a rage and as suspicion begins to coalesce around him his erratic behavior increases. His friends wonder whether or not he killed the young girl, and so do we. 

‘The Big Knife’ (1955)

Ida Lupino, Jack Palance
Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) is a movie star under contract with a major studio and he wishes he wasn’t. He lives in big house and has all of the comforts that a load of cash and celebrity can provide. But the film industry is ruining his life. He’s alienated from his estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino), who can’t stand being married to a drunken womanizer who has compromised his ideals. 

Charlie would like to quit the business but the snag is that his melodramatic boss, studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger), won’t let him off the hook. Charlie’s contract is about to expire and Hoff is determined to make him sign another. 

One of main attractions of “The Big Knife” is the three-ring circus Charlie’s living room becomes when all of the hangers on converge like sharks around a drowning man. Hoff, the lead shark, has a conniption when the Charlie balks at signing a new contract. Steiger’s performance as Hoff is, shall we say, over the top, even for an actor known for occasionally chewing the scenery like a chainsaw. 

“The Big Knife” is the story of a corrupted actor who has sold out to the Hollywood machine, gets caught in its gears and is about to be torn asunder. He’s sacrificed his artistic integrity for the monied life of a film star but it’s an empty existence that’s brought him little happiness. But why does Hoff have so much power over the actor? A dark secret lurks in Charlie’s past and because of it he’s doomed to walk the Hollywood treadmill for eternity. 

In movieland, depravity is contagious, and even a naïve palooka like Charlie can’t help but be drawn into it. It’s easy to become corrupted when everyone around you is ethically bankrupt and willing to cover up your embarrassing and felonious transgressions when you land in hot water. And Charlie is in it up to his neck.

‘Barton Fink’ (1991)

John Turturro 
A noir-tinged comedy set in the 1940s, “Barton Fink” tells the story of the titular character, played exquisitely by John Turturro, an up-and-coming playwright with a politically progressive bent — a thinly veiled stand-in for Clifford Odets. 

His socially aware dramas are taking the New York theater world by a storm. But Fink, irritated by the nitwits and hangers on who plague his existence, has high ideals and an even higher opinion of his own artistic merits. Lured to the West Coast by the promise of piles of cash, he has to twist himself into knots justifying his transition from the stages of Broadway to the backlot of Capitol Pictures, his new employer. 

But move there he does, and from his first day in Los Angeles Fink finds himself in a Kafkaesque nightmare. His hotel is extra creepy, the studio boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) kills him with spooky kindness, assuring him that the writer is king at Capitol Pictures — a deceptive reading of the facts, if there ever was one. 

His next-door neighbor at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, insurance salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), is a too friendly, in-your-face bumpkin with some peculiar habits. Fink meets one of his idols, author W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a thinly disguised William Faulkner, who, like Fink, has been lured to the shores of “the Great Salt Lake” by the promise of riches.

The darkly humorous conceit that runs throughout “Barton Fink” is that Hollywood is hell. Fink failed to read the sign posted at the gates of the city: “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here.” It’s a warning that fools ignore, because, after all, they know better.

‘Hollywood Story’ (1951)

Richard Conte
If “Hollywood Story” has a familiar feel, that’s because it’s is based on the real-life murder of film director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922), a crime that remains unsolved. 

In this fictionalized account of the Taylor case, New York theatrical director Larry O'Brien (Richard Conte) comes to Hollywood to direct his first picture with longtime pal Sam Collyer (Fred Clark). 

O’Brien’s agent, Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), persuades him to direct a film at a disused movie lot that thrived during the silent film era. The director becomes obsessed with a murder of a silent era director, Franklin Ferrera, that happened on the same movie lot more than 20 years before. 

It’s not of the same caliber as the above-mentioned films, but “Hollywood Story” needs to be added to the list when discussing noir’s cold, hard look at the entertainment industry. Perhaps most significantly, it was directed by B-movie maven William Castle, who produced many thrillers on the cheap and promoted them with gimmicks. 

For his film “Macabre” (1958), he came up with the idea to give every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies with hearses parked outside the theaters.

It may not have been promoted with flashy attention-getting hokum, but “Hollywood Story” is, like other Castle films, a bare-bones production, ginned up with cameos by a number of silent film era actors and a few location shots. He knew how to stretch a production budget dollar. 

After O’Brien decides to do a film about the murder he meets resistance from his producing partner, his agent and the deceased director’s heirs who would rather let the matter rest. But then someone fires a bullet at O’Brien, warning him to drop the film. Of course, he doesn’t, and we’re left guessing the killer’s identity until the conclusion.

A forced happy ending tacked onto “Hollywood Story” no doubt calmed the nerves of studio execs and investors who feared a dark wrap-up would result in thin box office returns. Those concerns were probably unnecessary. Few things are more appealing to B-movie audiences than the sight of a Hollywood meltdown, preferably with a hack screenwriter floating face down in the pool.