#Noirvember: “House of Strangers” (1949) starring Edward G. Robinson, Susan Hayward, and Richard Conte

After serving 7 yrs in prison, NYC-raised lawyer Max Monetti (Richard Conte), goes to the bank run by his brothers Joe, Tony and Pietro. He promises to revenge them. Next, he visits his lover, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), who asks him to forget the past and start a new life in San Fran. In flashback, we see Max’s life in the early ’30s. He was the favorite son of his father, Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), who had a small bank in Little Italy on the Lower East Side (LES). Gino is an egotistical/self-made Italian immigrant who ruled over his family like a tyrant. Max was a competent lawyer engaged to a young woman, Maria Domenico (Debra Paget). Max meets Irene when she comes to him for legal help; they have a LOT of spark, but their love affair is troubled. The new Banking Act takes effect in 1933, and Gino is investigated by the feds for misapplication of funds. Max forms plan to help his father…

Max [to Irene]: Always looking for a new way to get hurt from a new man. Get smart, there hasn’t been a new man since Adam.

This is a film noir that is also a dysfunctional family drama (how appropriate for the holidays- LOL)! If you are an immigrant or a 1st gen American, you MAY esp. relate to this movie. It’s a BIT of a mixed bag, though it has some (timeless) themes and (mostly) good acting. The character of Gino Monetti is loosely based on Amadeo P. Giannini (1870-1949), founder of the Bank of Italy, which became the Bank of America. According to articles from the entertainment press in March of 1948, Victor Mature was to be cast as Max. This film reunites Conte, Paget, and Hope Emerson who appeared in Cry of the City (1948)- a V fine movie. Of course, MANY of you will know Robinson and Paget from The Ten Commandments (1956).

I like watching Conte (discovered by John Garfield and Elia Kazan); he has a challenging role here. No offense to the fans of Mature, BUT Conte is a stronger actor. Max (who sometimes operates in the “gray areas”) has to decided btwn the “good girl” (virgin) from his neighborhood and the mature/WASP “temptress” (experienced w/ men). Conte and Hayward play off each other well; they have a sort of combative energy. Now, are there some stereotypes in this story? Yes, though we classic movie fans are aware this can be the case sometimes. People of Italian heritage were considered “exotic” in the 1940s; Hollywood (for many decades) did NOT create subtle characters who were ethnic (or racial) minorities. Some (modern) viewers couldn’t get over the accent used by Robinson, his pencil-thin mustache, and mannerisms.

Max: Pa, have you read the new banking act?

Gino: I don’t even read the old one. Why?

There was also drama behind-the-scenes (BTS) of this movie. According to the biography of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (People Will Talk), the producer (Sol Siegel) hired Philip Yordan to adapt Joseph Weidman’s novel (I’ll Never Go Home Again) for the screen. After Yordan submitted 3/4 of the script, Siegel decided that it was unacceptable, fired him, and asked Mankiewicz to redo the script. Mankiewicz rewrote ALL of Yordan’s dialogue, reshaping the script. The Screen Writers Guild ruled that Yordan receive sole story credit and he and Mankiewicz share credit for the screenplay. Mankiewicz refused to share credit for a screenplay he had basically written, so received NO credit. The studio remade House of Strangers in 1954 as a western- Broken Lance (starring Spencer Tracy as the patriarch). Yordan was given credit for the story and won the Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Yordan was also front for many screenwriters blacklisted in the ’50s.

[1] The acting is this film is nothing short of fantastic. Robinson is perfect as the dictatorial, ruthless Gino. Conte is totally believable as the favorite son – efficient and slightly to the right of slimy. Luther Adler gives a brilliant performance as the henpecked Tony. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. Susan Hayward plays Max’s love interest, a woman who gives as good as she gets. She looks sensational and does a terrific job in her role. Stardom is right around the corner for her, and it’s no surprise.

[2] …a great story of hatred and forgiveness. Edward G. Robinson has one of his best performances (if not the best) and wins the Best Actor award in the 1949 Cannes Film Festival. Richard Conte has one of his best roles (if not the best) in his well-succeeded career. Susan Hayward is very beautiful and elegant and performs a strong female character.

[3] I said it was an adult movie… The characters are ambiguous, as people in real life would be. In some ways, for instance, Pa is a lovable old patriarch, but he’s also monstrously insensitive to the feelings of others. And the murderous resentment of the older kids is made understandable too. And Richard Conte’s character is aggressive and domineering at the beginning, just as a spoiled youngster might be, but he develops into a Mensch by the end of the tale. Hayward develops too…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “The Set-Up” (1949) starring Robert Ryan & Audrey Totter

An “over the hill” (35 y.o.) boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), pleads w/ him to quit (before he sustains a serious injury). His manager, Tiny (George Tobias), is so confident that he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from a gambler, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), w/o telling Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” 23 y.o. newcomer, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), unaware of what will happen to him if he wins.

Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.

Julie: I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.

This movie is based on a poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who gave up his job as the 1st managing editor of The New Yorker to focus on writing. He went to Hollywood for a dozen years and worked as a screenwriter. In 1948, he volunteered to work on this film, BUT was turned down! Moncure March was angered that his Black boxer (Pansy Jones) was changed into a white character for The Set-Up. In the original poem, Pansy is depicted as a bigamist. The main reason for the change of race was b/c RKO had no Black leading men on contract. James Edwards (who plays Luther Hawkins), could’ve fit the bill, BUT the studio decided that he wasn’t well-known enough to carry a movie. Director Robert Wise suggested Canada Lee (who’d played a boxer in Body and Soul); RKO didn’t think that would work either.

While he was a student at Dartmouth, Ryan was an undefeated boxing champion- V cool! Former boxing pro, John Indrisano, choreographed the match and is credited onscreen for “fighting sequences.” Fieberling was also an expert boxer. Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film; he was so impressed by the boxing that he had to deliberately avoid copying Wise’s camera moves when it came to Raging Bull (1980). Wise (who’d begun his illustrious career as an editor) used 3 cameras to capture the boxing scenes: one capable of seeing the entire ring, one focused on the fighters, and a handheld for quick shots and close-ups. This was Wise’s 9th film for RKO; after this, his contract obligations were complete and could work freelance.

Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn (a former sportswriter) w/ much of the film’s realism. Cohn knew the boxing world; many of the script’s colorful supporting characters came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself; he hung out in dressing rooms before and after fights. Scorsese (who 1st saw this film as a college student) considers it as an allegory for the chaos of life, populated by characters who are flat-out of luck.

The events occur in real-time (over the tight running time of 73 mins); this is unusual for a Hollywood movie. Ryan plays a good/straight-talking guy; you can’t see the acting (as he inhabits the role). I esp. liked the early scenes w/ Ryan and Totter; they make a believable married couple going through a rough patch. All the supporting characters have something to contribute; some of the boxers are jaded (after experiencing disappointment), while others remain hopeful. The crowd can be bloodthirsty, entertained by the (potentially dangerous) fighting.

It’s really a happy ending, in a truthful way. And maybe there’s a hope to that, a hope for the weaker ones in the world.

-Martin Scorsese

[1] I love Robert Ryan films. Whether playing a scum bag or a hero, his gritty and realistic performances have always impressed me.

[2] The end result is a film that is dark, low key and gripping throughout; it exists in the gutter, in the small time where all our characters seem destined to remain regardless of heart or talent. […]

The fight is realistic and tense throughout, I was genuinely unsure how it would go.

[3] What first struck me the most watching this was just how vile everyone- apart from the boxers- are. The fighters are actually the only ones with honesty and integrity running through their veins. These guys are the ones with the self respect being a chief issue for them, they are fighting not just for glory, but for a basic human trait.

[4] Although unnoticed at first, The Set-Up has slowly built a reputation as one of the great noir films out of RKO and one of the best boxing films ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, & Don Cheadle

In a world divided by black and white, Easy Rawlins is about to cross the line. -A tagline for the film

In 1948 in LA, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Denzel Washington), a Black WWII vet, is looking for work. At his friend Joppy’s bar, he’s introduced to a white man, DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore), who is looking for someone to help him locating a missing white woman (perhaps hiding in the Black community). Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is the fiancĂ©e of a wealthy “blue blood,” Todd Carter (Terry Kinney), the fave to become mayor. Daphne is known to frequent Black jazz clubs and spend time w/ a gangster- Frank Green. Easy accepts Albright’s offer; however, he soon finds himself amidst murder, crooked cops, ruthless politicians, and brutal hoods.

Easy: A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?

I recently re-watched this movie (on Hulu). The source novel for this story is by Walter Mosely; the screenplay was written by Carl Franklin (who collaborated w/ Mosely). Jonathan Demme was the main producer of the the film; he’d directed Washington in Philadelphia (1993). At one point, Demme considered directing this film himself, but deferred to Franklin on the strength of his work on One False Move (1992). Washington also helped produce here; we fans know of his production company (Mundy Lane). The cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, also worked on Star Wars VI: A New Hope, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense. Elmer Bernstein (then in his 70s) composed the musical score- wow! Of course, the score is supplemented with jazz music from that era.

The 1st thing I noticed was the production design; it looks like we’re actually dropped into the late 1940s in the opening scene. We see period-accurate cars, humble/well-kept houses, and Black working-class people of all ages/shades/sizes. We learn (via a friend/neighbor) that Easy is one of the few Black men who owns a house and isn’t a private detective by training; I’d consider him a reluctant hero. Washington (in one of his rare “regular guy” roles) simply inhabits his (non-showy) character. Easy has charm and carries himself w/ dignity. Washington is also looking hot (and sometimes shirtless- wearing just a white tank, suspenders, and khaki dress pants).

Mouse: Easy – if you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?

Beals (5’8″) is NOT intimidated to go toe-to-toe (wearing heels- of course) w/ Washington. I thought she was dressed and made-up to look like Linda Darnell (an actress who appeared in several noir films). We can’t forget Easy’s friend- Mouse (Don Cheadle- in an early screen role)! The young actor (who trained in the theater) makes a great impression; Cheadle brings some (much needed) humor to the dark story. Sizemore creates an unapologetic/dangerous villain who enjoys causing fear and pain.

[1] Franklin’s greatest achievement here is the way he brings the period to life, albeit with a certain amount of nostalgic love for the idea.

Overall this is a solidly enjoyable detective story with all the twists and turns that you could expect from that genre. However, it also benefits from a great sense of place and time that is all through the film, not merely painted on with sets or soundtrack. A class act from Washington and others just adds to the feeling of quality.

[2] It can be argued that Beals as the titular femme fatale of the title is under written, but the character comes with an air of mystery that serves Franklin’s atmosphere very well. Tech credits are high, something of a given with Bernstein and Fujimoto on the list, while Washington turns in another classy show of subtlety and believability.

Lovers of film noir should get much rewards from Devil in a Blue Dress.

[3] The atmosphere is a major asset here; director Carl Franklin has done a magnificent job not only of recreating the Los Angeles of the late forties, but also of showing the story from the black perspective, a rarity in film. All the sights and sounds are there, and if you concentrate real hard you can even detect the smells, too. […] Fans of Washington should watch this, but really anyone who likes film noir will approve.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “One False Move” (1992) starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, & Michael Beach

There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now. -A tagline for the movie

After a drug rip-off which involves 6 murders, the LAPD are on the hunt for a dangerous trio: a sadistic genius- Pluto (Michael Beach- best known for ER), his volatile former cellmate- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton- also co-wrote the screenplay)- and Ray’s 20ish gf- Fantasia (Cynda Williams). Evidence indicates that these fugitives are headed to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Detectives Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings) contact the local Chief of Police- Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton)- then head to Star City to continue their investigation. Dale, an energetic cop/family man, is excited by the chance to participate in a nationwide manhunt.

Can something from 1992 look fresh and unexpected (to modern/jaded eyes)? Every element is firing on ALL cylinders in this (lesser-known) indie film: acting, directing, editing, sound/music, sets/production design, costumes/hair, etc. I kept hearing about how great it was on movie podcasts, so decided to check it out (Amazon Prime). This is NOT a typical action/crime/drama, as it’s more interested in character development. None of the main ensemble is what he/she seems at 1st glance. I was a BIT surprised to see Paxton in a complicated role; he is perfectly cast and able to show his range. Thornton (sporting a few extra lbs. and rat-like ponytail) is an immature/sloppy/volatile villain; his trigger finger is itchy. Beach (pressed/polished) is a calm/calculated villain; he is more dangerous than his partner. Williams (who was married to Thornton: 1990-1992) is NOT the strongest of actors, BUT she does well here, being paired w/ seasoned actors. Like MANY women (incl. women of color), Williams didn’t have much of a career after her 20s. She is also known for her supporting role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (playing a singer/one of the love interests of Denzel Washington’s character).

The issue of race adds another layer to the story. The director Carl Franklin (a former actor) is a Black man; I 1st heard of him in 1995 (when I saw another great neo noir- Devil in a Blue Dress– starring Washington). The racism depicted in this movie is casual/subtle. The contrast between life/values of the city vs. the small town/country are shown also. For those who want danger, I admit that I was on my the edge of my seat during several scenes. The tension builds… and builds… until the (emotionally powerful) climax! This film was considered “too violent” when it premiered at Sundance; it was produced by a company that makes movies that go direct to video. Luckily, One False Move did get a (limited) big screen release, after critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke of its merits. Siskel put this movie as his fave of 1992; Ebert placed it in 2nd place- WOW! Some of you may recall that 1992 was an esp. strong year for movies; these are some titles: A Few Good Men, Damage, Howard’s End, Malcolm X, The Last of the Mohicans, and Unforgiven.

[2[ The film starts off quite violently, but once it gets going, the emphasis is on good old fashioned character study.

[1 Franklin has a wonderful way with his camera, only revealing enough for us to fill in the blanks, and often his camera is used as a character POV device, with close ups and cuts blending seamlessly with mood of the story.

[3] The script deals with the themes of the contrast between the country and the city, racism, and the mask that many people wear to hide the complexities of their lives and their past. Somehow, all these themes come together in the most seamless and nuanced manner to enhance the poignancy of the film.

[4] I have seen this movie twice. The first time, for the whole movie I was on the edge of my seat. This was an intense film. From the extremely brutal beginning to the climatic end, I couldn’t relax once.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: Films from Noir City DC (OCT 2022)

This year was my 2nd time attending the Noir City DC Film Festival at AFI Silver Theatre (here in my current neighborhood- Silver Spring, MD). I ended up seeing 3 movies- one of which I’d never watched before. During the 1st weekend, TMC’s Noir Alley host, Eddie Muller, introduced the films. I bought Eddie’s book on the behind-the-scenes story of Gun Crazy (1950).

All the King’s Men starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanna Dru, John Derek, & Mercedes McCambridge

Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a newspaper reporter who hears of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to cover the man. What’s SO special about this “nobody” running for county treasurer? He’s supposedly an honest man! Burden discovers this to be true when he sees Willie delivering a speech and having his son pass out handbills, while local politicians intimidate him. Willie is honest and brave; he’s also a “hick” whose schoolteacher wife educated him at home. He loses the race for treasurer, BUT later makes his way through law school. He becomes an (idealistic) attorney who fights for what is good. Someone in the governor’s office remembers Willie, when they need a patsy to run against the govermor and split the vote of his rival. While these (wiser/experienced) political types underestimate Stark, Burden (who becomes Stark’s biggest supporter) overestimates the man’s idealism.

I’d never seen this movie before; it will esp. interest those of you who follow politics. Here we find some of the same themes as in A Face in the Crowd (1957)- a must-see for fans of classics. After living through the Trump presidency, you’ll (no doubt) find comparisons aplenty! The basis of this movie is a Pulitzer-winning novel, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren; the book was loosely based on the life of a Louisiana politician- Huey Long. The screenwriter/director, Robert Rossen, also worked on Body and Soul (1947) and The Hustler (1961). Ireland reminded me a BIT of Henry Fonda w/ his looks. This is the 1st movie role for McCambridge; she makes a big impression as a tough/unapologetic political operator. Dru is NOT able to convey deep emotion, so in several moments, she dramatically turn away from the camera. Crawford, known for playing mostly “heavy” (tough guy) roles, seems to inhabit his role here. Both Crawford and McCambridge won Oscars for their work!

A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, & Shelley Winters

A chance meeting w/ his uncle after his father’s passing leads to George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) being caught in the middle of two worlds and NOT truly belonging in either one. The son of poor Christian missionaries, George meets his wealthy (paternal) uncle, Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), while working as a bellhop in his uncle’s hotel in Chicago. Wanting a better life for himself, George takes his uncle up on his offer for a job in one of the Eastman factories in California. Under his cousin Earl’s directive, George is placed on the factory assembly line. George sees this position as a stepping stone to something better, which he’s willing to work hard to achieve. Feeling lonely, George breaks the rule of no fraternization when he starts dating a fellow assembly-line worker, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Several months later, Mr. Eastman suddenly promotes George professionally and personally. Although he’s NOT used to high society, George is soon befriended by beautiful/young socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor- then just 18 y.o.)

Quite a big audience was present to watch this film; it’s a classic and that stands the test of time. I watched it (w/ my family) as a kid. Mike Nichols said this film was his favorite; the filmmaker watched it 50+ times! Nichols noted that it also influenced how he directed his 1st movie- The Graduate (1967). The director of A Place in the Sun, George Stevens, was one of the most respected/prolific of his era. He came up through the Hollywood studio system, working as a stills photographer, then as a cinematographer. Stevens directed MANY critically-acclaimed/well-loved films, incl. Alice Adams (V early in Katharine Hepburn’s career), Woman of the Year (teaming up Spencer Tracy w/ Hepburn), The More the Merrier (a fun/early rom com), Shane (considered one of the best Westerns), and the epic family drama Giant (also w/ Taylor). The source novel for this movie, An American Tragedy, was written by Theodore Dreiser; it’s based on a true story. The book was adapted into a play by Patrick Kearney. The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson; he also worked on The Bridge on the River Kwai and Laurence of Arabia.

In 1991, this movie was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. One critic wrote that this film represents America, where people are NOT satisfied w/ what they have, BUT always looking for something better. Another critic pointed out the connection shown btwn social class and desirability. The costumes, set design, editing, music/sound, directing, and acting ALL combine to make this an effective (and affecting) story. The director makes some great choices, incl. those memorable close-ups of two of the hottest actors to appear in film. In one pivotal scene, George embraces and speaks reassuringly to Alice, BUT Clift’s body is hidden from the camera. When George and Angela interact, she is often shown in the power position (as a male love interest). Notice their embrace on the balcony, where Clift hunches down and enfolds himself tightly in Taylor’s arms. At the lake, Taylor is sitting up w/ Clift laying his head down in her lap. In the end, did you think that George was a victim of circumstance or a calculating villain?

He would discuss the scene, but not the lines, and would photograph the second or third rehearsal so the scene had an almost improvisatory quality. Stevens would print the first take, then spend the next three hours minutely rehearsing the scene, then film it again. He explained to me that in this way he often got actors’ unplanned reactions that were spontaneous and human and often exactly right. And often when actors overintellectualize or plan their reactions, they aren’t as good. -Winters, describing Stevens’ way of directing

…because Monty was the New York stage actor, and I felt very much the inadequate teenage Hollywood sort of puppet that had just worn pretty clothes and hadn’t really acted except with horses and dogs. -Taylor, on feeling intimidated to act w/ Clift (before they became the best of friends)

Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield & Lili Palmer

Charley Davis (John Garfield) wins an amateur boxing match and is hailed as a local wonder. He meets a young woman, Peg (Lili Palmer), the winner of a beauty pageant. Peg lives in the West Village of NYC and is studying to be painter. The young men of Charley’s Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood are mostly jobless; some are looking to make some quick money. Charley’s friend, Shorty (Joseph Pevney- later director of many eps of Star Trek), tries to get the attention of a boxing promoter, Quinn (William Conrad), when he comes to the local pool hall. Suddenly, Charley’s father is killed in a bombing of his small candy store! Charley’s mother, Anna (Anne Revere), is strongly opposed to him fighting; she wants him to continue w/ night school and become a “professional.” Instead of letting his mother sign-up for “relief” (the precursor to welfare), Charley gets Shorty to set up a fight through Quinn. Charley travels to many states and his career grows, as he keeps winning fights. When an unethical promoter, Roberts (Lloyd Gough), shows an interest in Charley, he finds himself faced w/ difficult choices.

This movie (directed by Robert Rossen) is considered to be the best of Garfield’s short/bright career; the screenplay was written by one of his childhood friends- Abraham Polonsky. This role fits Garfield like a (boxing) glove; he also produced the film. Revere (who is related to that Paul Revere) is perhaps NOT the 1st choice for a Jewish mother, BUT she does good in her role (as usual). Palmer (who is British) and Garfield have good romantic chemistry, BUT her (posh) accent is out of place in the gritty world of the LES. Canada Lee plays Ben, a Black boxer who fights Charley, then becomes one of his trainers/close pals. Lee gets a few meaty scenes (rare for this era for people of color in film); he mainly worked in theater. The cinematographer, James Wong Howe (Chinese-American), filmed the pivotal fight holding the camera while being pushed around the ring by an assistant on roller skates! Martin Scorsese saw this movie as a boy; its influences can be seen in Raging Bull (1980), as some viewers noted.