My 1,000th Post: “While the City Sleeps” (1956) starring Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, & John Barrymore, Jr.

…tempers hard-core noir with more mainstream motives. It’s a slick, entertaining, and at times even scary movie.

With an intriguing plot and an impressive ensemble approach with the casting, this film offered much and, although it could have been darker in tone, it still offered a lot of potential to be a slick urban mystery. 

Hitchcock of course treated the subject of a mother-fixated psychopath just a bit better a few years later…

I did like how Lang seemed to enjoy himself thumbing his nose at the production code.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The main plot concerns what happens at Kyne News Service after the founder/boss suddenly dies. Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), a playboy who doesn’t know much re: his father’s business, decides to have a contest among the heads of its three divisions for a new executive role. Mark Loving (George Sanders) runs the news wire, Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) runs the newspaper New York Sentinel, and the paper’s art director is Harry Kritzer (James Craig). Walter’s wife, Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), is having an affair w/ Harry, who is also the best friend of her husband. While these men one up each other, anchorman Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), pursues the story of a murderer targeting young women living alone. Ed is trying to convince his girlfriend/Loving’s secretary, Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), to marry him. The gossip columnist, Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), may be seeing Mark, but she also has eyes for Ed.

From 1936 to 1956, German director Fritz Lang made some psychologically astute movies, often working w/ pulp fiction (lightweight material). Most of these were thrillers, dealing w/ the psychosis of the killer. Plot never really interested Lang; he focused more on the details and characterizations. The serial killer here (played by John Barrymore, Jr.) is never the focus of attention. This movie was based on a real 1946 murder case, when William Heirens killed three women and left a message (in lipstick on a bathroom mirror) after the second murder. He urged the police to catch him before he killed again; the press dubbed him “The Lipstick Killer.”

As TCM’s Eddie Muller noted, usually noirs don’t have this many big names. The lighting (for the most part) is flat, like you’d see on a ’50s TV show, Muller explained. I noticed the “K” logo for Kyne Enterprise looks similar to one in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (also produced by RKO). The first half presents the POV of those who report the news, so if you’re interested in journalism and corporate intrigue, check it out. I watched it twice in the past two years; I didn’t appreciate it much the first time.

After 6+ mos. of quarantine life, I’m having a tough time staying positive. Also, have you noticed how much laundry and dishes there are to do!? I’d like to cook more, but my work has become quite busy (and stressful) this Summer/Fall. I feel tired pretty much all the time these days. This blog is helping me to stay sane (no joke). Thanks to all who are reading, subscribing, sharing, and liking my posts! I hope you all stay safe!

Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, & Richard Todd

Commodore Gill: The best thing you can do, my girl, is go back to the Academy; practice your soul-shaking antics in surroundings where they can’t do any harm.

Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) is wanted for questioning by the police who suspect him of killing the husband of a famous theater actress. His friend Eve Gill (Jane Wyman), offers to help him hide; she’s infatuated w/ Jonathan. He says that his lover, actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich- fabulous at age 49), is the real murderer. He even carries a dress smeared w/ blood! Eve’s father, Commodore Gill (Alistair Sim- famed as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol), reluctantly decides to let Jonathan stay in his seaside cottage. Eve wants to investigate the murder herself! She follows one of the cops in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding- who later became one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands), to a pub. To get close to Charlotte, Eve becomes a substitute for her maid/dresser, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh). Eve’s unsuspecting mother, Mrs. Gill (Sybil Thorndyke), thinks that her daughter is busy w/ classes at R.A.D.A.

D.I. Smith: Perhaps you’re allergic to bars. Look, would you feel less uneasy if I sat with you? Or, more uneasy? Perhaps you’re allergic to strange men too.

Eve Gill: No, I love strange men! I mean, I’m very fond of them.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s 21 y.o. daughter, Patricia, was studying at R.A.D.A. (one of the settings for the movie) at this time. He wanted to spend some time w/ her (after being based in Hollywood for several years); Pat has a small part in the movie. Hitch also had Pat double for Wyman in the early scenes that required “dangerous driving” in the opening. Pat is given the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister,” which was a term of endearment according to Hitch (b/c she was “a girl you could always lean on”).

Charlotte Inwood [to Eve]: Oh, darling, don’t confide in me. Pour some tea will you?

The novel upon which this movie was based, Man Running by Selwyn Jepson, appeared in serial form in Collier’s Magazine (August 9, 1947 to September 13, 1947). Hitch thought of Stage Fright as “more than a murder mystery, it is a critical examination of the acting craft” (a subject that long fascinated him). Eve wears costumes, puts on an accent, and creates a role for herself. This movie is significant b/c it broke a (long-established) cinematic convention that flashbacks were always a true account of earlier events. In Stage Fright, the opening flashback turns out to be a lie, which confused then angered viewers of that day (as they felt cheated)!

Ladies must be well fed. -Hitch commented, having steaks and roasts flown in from the U.S. for his two leading ladies (while food was being rationed in London)

Wyman (who had achieved success the previous year at the box office) worked for weeks in to perfect her Cockney accent; Walsh coached her each day after filming was completed. Wyman was required to appear frumpy/dowdy when acting as the maid, but she was reluctant (when Dietrich appeared so glamorous). Hitch said that Wyman would cry when she’d see Dietrich looking glamorous on-set when she had to wear her maid’s disguise. Much to Hitch’s bemusement, Wyman secretly wore make-up or tried other tricks to improve her appearance (so failing to maintain character).

Eve Gill [in disguise]: My Dad says that man on the run might turn up here. Might even get into the dressing room. Might even murder me, madame.

Charlotte Inwood: The scene of the crime, the murderer returns to – not the theater.

In a rare move, Hitch allowed Dietrich creative control, esp. in how her scenes were lit. Dietrich learned re: cinematography from directors Josef von Sternberg (also one of her exes) and Günther Rittau; so Hitch let her to work w/ the film’s cinematographer, Wilkie Cooper, to light and set her scenes the way that she wished. Dietrich’s costumes were designed by Christian Dior. One of the songs that Dietrich sings is Édith Piaf’s signature song, La Vie en Rose. Dietrich and Piaf were close friends; Piaf granted her permission to use the song. Dietrich’s The Laziest Girl in Town (written by Cole Porter) is spoofed in Blazing Saddles (1974). According to Dietrich’s autobiography, she began her love affair w/ Wilding while making this movie.

I heard she’d only wanted to do it if she were billed above me, and she got her wish. Hitchcock didn’t think much of her. She looks too much like a victim to play a heroine, and God knows she couldn’t play a woman of mystery, that was my part. Miss Wyman looks like a mystery nobody has bothered to solve. -Dietrich on working w/ Wyman

[1] It is the masterful presence of the great Alastair Sim, however, that makes Stage Fright one of Hitchock’s most enjoyable to watch. He is equally at home playing comic relief as he is to serving as the plot glue that makes Eve’s capers possible.

[2] Great use of silent sequences, close ups, slow motion, black humor, and mood lighting… this murder mystery offers all kinds of plot twists and sly humor even though you know the outcome long before it unspools.

[3] The performances here are all excellent, especially Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Inwood, perhaps the laziest girl in town, but also the most flamboyant. The secondary characters are also in fine form and make memorable impressions that adds to the enjoyment factor of this film.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” (1941) starring Joan Fontaine & Cary Grant

Johnnie: Your hair’s all wrong. It has such wonderful possibilities that I, well, I got excited. For the moment I became a passionate hairdresser.

Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) is a handsome/charming man who meets shy/straight-laced Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) on a train. He’s a playboy who is seen in the society pages; she has a sheltered life and reads a lot. Soon, Johnnie sees Lina again in the English countryside; she looks lovely and carefree riding her horse. He goes w/ some local ladies to call on Lina; she is pleasantly surprised to see him. Lina’s parents (played by Cedric Hardwicke and Mae Whitty) caution her, as he’s son to a gentleman they knew, and considered to be “wild.” In no time, Johnnie and Lina (who he nicknames “Monkeyface”) fall in love and decide to elope. After a long honeymoon in Europe, the earnest young bride discovers her new husband’s true character; Johnnie is immature, a gambler, and deep in debt! He gets a job w/ an older cousin (played by Leo G. Carroll) as an estate agent, but that turns out badly. Eventually, Lina starts to become suspicious when Johnnie’s older/wealthy friend, Beaky (Nigel Bruce), is found dead while on business in Paris.

Johnnie: What do you think of me by contrast to your horse?

Lina: If I ever got the bit between your teeth, I’d have no trouble in handling you at all.

Sir Alfred Hitchcock said that an RKO executive ordered that all scenes in which Grant appeared menacing be cut from the movie. When the editing was completed, the movie ran only 55 mins. The scenes were later restored, b/c the director shot each piece of film so that there was only one way to edit them together properly. Hitch wanted Johnnie to be guilty, but the studio decided that the public wouldn’t accept Grant as a murderer. Hitch’s original ending had Johnnie killing Lina by poisoning her milk, but then convicting himself by mailing a letter that Lina had written. Donald Spoto, in The Dark Side Of Genius, disputes Hitch’s claim to have been overruled on the ending. Spoto writes that the early RKO treatment and memos between Hitch and the studio show that he desired to make a movie about a woman’s fantasy life.

He [Cary Grant] did kill me in the original cut, but at a preview, the audience simply refused to accept him as the murderer. -Joan Fontaine

Provokingly irresponsible, boyishly gay, and also oddly mysterious, as the role properly demands. -Bosley Crowther, NYT film critic, describing Grant’s character

This is the first time that Hitch served in the role of producer. I learned from movie critics/fans that Fontaine’s performance is the only Oscar-winning performance that Hitch directed! Grant (who became Hitch’s favorite leading man) felt that the director gave Fontaine preferential treatment to the detriment of his character. This movie was a big success, earning $1.8M at the box office. The couple’s pet dog is a Sealyham Terrier named “Johnnie,” and on of Hitch’s own dogs.

[1] The tension keeps building, and Fontaine’s performance allows the viewer to feel all of her fear and anxiety. Not everyone likes the way that it all ends, but it is worth seeing and deciding for yourself what you think about it.

[2] Grant is a perfect choice to play Johnnie Aysgard. He has the dark, handsome looks, that gleaming smile and loving charm and he literally sweeps Lina off her feet. His presence only vaguely suggests the menace hidden underneath and this is perfect for a convincing psychological, cerebral thriller.

And his presence is the reason this movie works as an excellent psychological thriller even if the ending is a letdown. Using an actor like Grant misleads the public into being sucked into the lighthearted tone of the first third of the story.

[3] We think we are watching the action unfold in the way typical of most Hollywood films… but in Suspicion we are watching the action from Lina’s point of view… from a very subjective POV. And we assume that Lina is the more mature, stable character in the film. But we then begin to see just how unstable she is, as she interprets every event to be an indication of Johnnie’s criminal nature, as her suspicion grows to paranoia. And let me tell you, Grant’s acting is top notch as he is loving and playful one minute, and menacing the next. Just the way he walks up a flight of stairs with a glass of milk is frightening. His demeanor completely cooperates with Lina’s imagination.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Blue Gardenia” (1953) starring Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, & Raymond Burr

In LA, on her birthday, telephone operator Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), dresses up and makes a nice dinner at home. She sits w/ the picture of her fiance (a soldier in the Korean War) and starts to read his most recent letter. It turns out that he’s in love w/ an Army nurse who helped him recover and plans to marry her! Norah, though very upset/vulnerable, accepts a blind date from a man that calls up her place (wanting to reach one of her roommates). This man is an artist and noted “wolf” w/ women- Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). He and Norah chat, eat Chinese food, and drink at the Blue Gardenia Club. Norah has some strong cocktails w/ rum (Polynesian Pearl Divers) and gets drunk. Harry takes her to his place and forces himself on her; Norah hits him w/ a poker on the head. The next morning, she wakes up at her own apt, but can’t remember what happened the previous night! In the newspaper, Norah reads that Harry is dead; also the police have her handkerchief, black pumps, and the blue gardenia she wore. Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), a star columnist, takes an interest in the murder case. Norah starts suffering from anxiety, thinking that she killed Harry.

The iconic musician, Nat “King” Cole, is seen at the piano singing the theme song- “The Blue Gardenia”- in the club. The police captain who has a friendly rivalry w/ Casey is played by George Reeves (who gained fame as TV’s Superman). Norah’s divorced/wise roommate, Crystal (Ann Sothern), notices her friend’s change in mood/behavior. Their quirky younger roommate, Sally (Jeff Donnell), prefers bloody thrillers by Mickey Mallet to a night out. This is an obvious spoof on Mickey Spillane, known for his Mike Hammer novels. There is another Hammer connection which noir-istas might notice; the photo of Norah’s fiance is that of actor Ralph Meeker (who played Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly).

This is considered a lesser noir from a master of the genre, director Fritz Lang; it was shot in only 20 days. Lang and cinematographer (Nicholas Musuraca) developed a revolutionary dolly for the camera that allowed for sustained tracking shots and intimate close-ups. Lang liked tracking into a close-up shot of an actor over cutting to a close-up later in editing. I liked the interplay between the roommates, the chemistry between Baxter and Conte, the music, and the mood. The ending is wrapped up too neatly and feels rushed. The story was by Vera Caspary, who also wrote Scandal Sheet, Laura, and A Letter to Three Wives. I saw it (for free) on YouTube.

[1] Fritz Lang made a specialty in harassed and harried protagonists getting themselves into some real jackpots… These are people who in fact were guilty. For the first time however Lang’s harried protagonist is a woman and Anne gives a great performance.

[2] One thing this film has going for itself is atmosphere. Making it all seem relevant is the featured song, more than just a theme, an integral part of the movie, sung by the enchanting man with the melodious voice, Nat “King” Cole, who makes a much too brief appearance…

Besides the hypnotic melody, the interplay among the three room mates, Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter), Crystal Carpenter (Ann Sothern), and Sally Ellis (Jeff Donnell), represents the apex of this enjoyable Fritz Lang outing… If “The Blue Gardenia” is to be classified at all, it would possibly be labeled lighter Noir.

[3] I am surprised that so many people who review it here seem not to grasp it. They complain about lack of suspense… It’s about Anne Baxter, the world through her point of view. Her life is a beautiful dream of hopes of love and happiness for the future, which turns into a horrible nightmare that spirals downward with sickening realism and pathos.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock on Nature: “The Birds” (1963) starring Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, & Suzanne Pleshette

Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren- in her first movie at age 32), a beautiful/impetuous socialite, meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), a handsome criminal defense lawyer, at a bird shop in San Francisco one Friday afternoon. He and Melanie flirt (have good chemistry), then he plays a practical joke on her. She decides to return the favor. On Saturday morning, Melanie drives 60 miles to Bodega Bay, where Mitch spends the weekends w/ his widowed mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), and pre-teen sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). Soon after her arrival, the birds in the area begin to behave strangely! This movie and the original story by Daphne Du Maurier share no characters, though both have a bayside town setting, birds behaving oddly/attacking, and the same title. The screenwriter, Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain), collaborated w/ Sir Alfred Hitchcock also on Marnie (1964).

Mitch Brenner: Well, uh, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only gonna be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were… too demonstrative.

Hitch saw Hedren in a 1961 commercial for a diet drink. She is seen walking down a street and a man whistles at her figure, then she turns her head w/ an acknowledging smile. In the opening of The Birds, the same thing happens as Melanie walks toward the shop (an inside joke by Hitch). Hedren was provided with 6 identical green suits for the shoot. Suzanne Pleshette (then 25 y.o.) wanted to play Melanie, but settled for the role of Annie, b/c she wanted to work w/ Hitch. He revised the script for Pleshette, making her character younger w/ more depth and a backstory. Mitch Zanich, owner of The Tides, told the director he could shoot in his restaurant if the lead male was named after him, and if he got a speaking part. After Melanie is attacked by a seagull while crossing the bay, Zanich asks Taylor: “What happened, Mitch?” The fisherman helping Melanie w/ the small boat was played by Doodles Weaver, the uncle of Sigourney Weaver.

Mrs. Bundy, elderly ornithologist: I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?

There is no musical score, except for the bird sounds (which were created on an electronic machine), Hedren playing Debussy’s Two Arabesques on the piano, and the children singing Risseldy Rosseldy. This is considered (by many fans and movie critics) to be an annoying song which also goes on for too long- LOL! Hitch said that 3,200 birds were trained for the movie, claiming that the ravens were the cleverest, while the seagulls were the most vicious. One bird (Archine) really seemed to dislike Taylor; he went out of his way to attack the actor, even when cameras weren’t rolling- yikes!

[1 The tension Hitchcock slowly builds and the atmosphere of impending doom he creates are mesmerizing. This was probably the first true apocalyptic nightmare ever put on screen… Nature just turns on humanity all of a sudden…

[2] A lyrically surreal horror soap opera kind of thing. It visits many of Hitchcock’s obsession’s of course, an icy blond and a castrating mother. I’ve always loved the daring-ness of the pacing.

…in The Birds, Hitchcock created a horror that is uniquely quiet. The great man appreciated something that so few others do- the atmospheric potency of silence, and how, in different settings, silences can differ in character.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews