Pushover (1954) starring Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak, Philip Carey, & E.G. Marshall

This film noir is considered a kind of sequel- in spirit- to Double Indemnity. Both movies feature blonde femme fatales, temptation, and (of course) the lure of easy money. It opens w/ a bank heist where over $200,000 is stolen by a pair of armed men in plain clothes. After a late movie, Lona McLane (Kim Novak- just 20 y.o. in her first role), can’t start her car. She gets help from Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), who was also alone at the movies. After her car is taken to a local garage, Lona decides to go home w/ Paul, and have an affair. A few days later, Paul reports to his boss’ office- we learn that he’s an undercover police detective! In order to catch the man who planned the robbery, Paul has been keeping track of his girlfriend- Lona.

The boss, Lt. Eckstrom, is played by E.G. Marshall- a face recognizable to movie fans of several generations. He had a long/successful career as a character actor, incl. as a juror in 12 Angry Men (w/ Henry Fonda) and the billionaire philanthropist in Absolute Power (w/ Clint Eastwood). Paul’s younger partner in the stakeout is Rick McAllister, played by a tall/deep-voiced actor named Philip Carey. He later became known as Asa Buchanan- patriarch of one of the families on the soap opera One Life to Live. Wow, I never knew he was so handsome as a young man! After a few moments, I recognized his name and that voice.

Rick (re: Lona): New car, mink coat, no clocks in the joint… probably the story of her life.

Paul: You just don’t like women, Rick.

Rick: What keeps you single?

Paul: Maybe I like ’em too much.

Rick: I’ve seen all kinds since we joined the force… B-girls, hustlers, blackmailers, shoplifters, drunks. You know, I think I’d still be married if I could find a half-honest woman. Must be a few of ’em around.

Paul: Watch yourself! Those few might just be smarter!

It doesn’t take Lona too long to discover that Paul is a cop; she’s mad and says they are through. Paul, Rick, and another cop stakeout Lona’s apt, waiting for her man to call or (maybe) visit. During the lull times, Rick watches Lona’s neighbor through his binoculars. This is Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone), a nurse who is always busy and in a cheerful mood.

MacMurray does a fine job as a good, but weary, middle-aged guy who is emotionally vulnerable once he meets Novak. The femme fatale is not a master manipulator; she resents being the trophy of a criminal. Is their hope to their relationship? Rick and Ann seem to almost live in a separate world; their relationship starts off shady, but grows hopeful once you see their chemistry. The atmosphere created in this movie also keeps you interested. The filmmakers are good at setting the mood; we see L.A. mostly at night when there are shadows, streets lit by large lamps, and a few rooftop scenes. This isn’t any fresh territory for Hollywood, but I stayed interested, wondering how far Paul would go.

Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

Thieves’ Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California… not the setting you’d expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise.

Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream.

Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world’s most elegant truck driver. Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance.

The love story is very sincere, and very simple, and dare I say it- very touching.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

In his introduction to this must-see classic on TCM’s “Noir Alley”, Eddie Muller stated this was the picture that got him hooked on film noir as a teen while playing hooky from school. Film critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of “film gris,” a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Most of the movie is shot on location, in produce warehouses, back alleys, and country roads. The story takes about 15 minutes to get going, but from there it delivers in big ways! Soon after WWII, with people desperate to believe in the American dream, this film suggests that that dream isn’t for everyone. A.I. “Buzz” Buzzerides (who was of Greek Armenian heritage) based this movie on his working-class roots, before he became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. Director Jules Dassin (who came from Ukrainian Jewish parentage) does a terrific job; he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and moved to France to pursue his career.

Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte, then in his late 30s) is a first gen Greek-American who returns home from the Navy to his loving parents and blonde/”girl-next-door” fiance, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). After a few moments of domestic happiness, he discovers that his father has lost his legs. He was involved in a truck accident after dealing w/ a San Fran fruit dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), who refused to pay a fair price for a truckload of tomatoes. Figlia also had his thuggish employees get Mr. Garcos drunk. Nick, who is both ambitious, clever, and hot-headed, is bent on getting revenge.

Nick goes to see Ed Kinney (the local man who bought his father’s old truck) and says that he will buy it back, but Ed proposes a deal with Golden Delicious apples, where they may both make a lot of money. Nick invests most of his savings in another truck and buys apples from a Polish farming family. They plan to drive directly to the market (w/o sleeping) to keep the fruit fresh. The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the filmmakers; there are scenes that are exciting and dangerous (before the time of special effects). Ed’s truck has a problem with its axle, and Nick arrives first in San Fran.

Nick parks his truck directly in Figlia’s loading dock and goes to compare prices for his cargo. After talking to a few smaller sellers, he meets Figlia (who has a reputation for being crooked). Figlia is surprised, and maybe also a bit impressed, by the younger man’s confidence. Nick says that his partner is still on the road, so he’ll return later. As always, Cobb does a great job as a fast-talking villain.

At a small diner nearby, Nick is approached by an alluring Italian refugee- Rica (Valentina Cortese)- who he is almost too sleepy/tired to notice. She asks him for a light, though there are several other men ready w/ matches. Then, she leans across him to get a container of sugar for her coffee. He’s bemused by her actions and walks away. She boldly asks him if he wants to come rest in her room (from where he can observe the market).

Film noir romances usually lead to the hero’s downfall, but it’s the opposite case here. Sparks fly between Conte and Cortese in their scenes, incl. one where she plays tic-tac-toe (on his bare chest)! Censors had rules about women revealing too much skin, so the director went the other way. As for Cortese, her hair is dark, short, and curly and (unlike her Italian peers who moved to Hollywood in this era), her face and body are angular. Most amazing- she hadn’t yet learned English, so spoke her lines phonetically!

Conte grew up in Jersey City and worked as a trucker; he was discovered (at age 25) by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield while waiting tables. Like Garfield, Conte is short (for a leading man), w/ deep-set dark eyes and thick brown hair. Kazan helped Conte get a scholarship to study acting in NYC; the young man quickly revealed his potential. All the actors, incl. the colorful sidekicks, do a great job in their roles.

Rewatch: “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizbeth Scott, & Kirk Douglas

The prologue suggests a Gothic movie, with the spooky figure of Mrs. Ivers dominating the eerie household that Martha wants to flee; then, the film changes to a noir with a fine plot. In fact, Lewis Milestone, the director, has mixed styles in the picture, but the end result makes a satisfying film to watch.

Barbara Stanwyck is at her peak–sure, confident, and unfailing. Van Heflin’s natural talent makes everything he does seem effortless. Kirk Douglas offers a most impressive film debut in what, in retrospect, is an uncharacteristic role. Lizabeth Scott (who seems to me a fascinating cross between Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Clooney) is constantly engaging.

The black & white cinematography is magnificent, and the fatal character of Barbara Stanwyck is one of the most dangerous and manipulative villains I have ever seen in a film-noir.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

I discovered this classic film a bit late (my earlier review was from 2011). I’ve seen it maybe three times over the years; somehow, it feels fresh each time! The film (which is a blend of melodrama and noir) was written by Richard Rossen, who went on to work on “The Hustler.” The director is Lewis Milestone, an immigrant from Moldova (then part of Russia), who worked on many fine films, incl. The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, and Mutiny on the Bounty (w/ Brando). According to film historians, a few days of this film (which started shooting during a strike in Hollywood) were directed by Byron Haskin.

Barbara Stanwyck was 39 y.o. in this movie; her two co-leads were 36 y.o. Van Heflin (who had just served in WWII), and 30 y.o. Kirk Douglas (in his film debut). According to film historians, Stanwyck did not like to be upstaged; when she saw the coin trick Heflin had learned (Milestone’s suggestion), she informed him he should make sure he did not do it during any of her important lines. Heflin only used the trick once in a scene with her. And what a debut for Douglas! Even though the actor (recommended to producer Hal Wallis by his close friend Lauren Bacall) is playing a weak-willed alcoholic spurned by his wife, his role is meaty and the star potential in clear onscreen. You see the maturity and commitment to character (honed in the theater) and the ironic expressions which he came to be known for in his prime years.

Martha Smith (Stanwyck), Sam Masterson (Heflin), and Walter O’Neil (Douglas) grew up together in the small city (Iverstown) w/ a burgeoning steel industry. As teens in 1928, Martha and Sam (a rebellious boy from “the wrong side of the tracks”) are the best of friends who plan to run away to join the circus. Walter, an obedient/fearful boy and son to Martha’s tutor, knew about the plan. Martha was an orphan determined to escape her controlling aunt (played by famed villain Judith Anderson). Martha, the child of a wealthy mother and a humble mill worker father, hated her aunt, who disapproved of her heritage and behavior (strong-willed). After Martha is caught and brought back to the family mansion, her aunt reveals that she has changed the girl’s last name to “Ivers” (reflecting her maternal heritage). Of course, young Sam escapes and goes on adventures of his own. After her aunt is dead, Walter’s father (an ambitious/calculating schoolteacher), takes over caring for her and securing the future of his son.

As adults in their 30s in 1946, the trio is reunited. Sam notices the sign of his old town, gets distracted, and runs into a pole (minor fender bender). FYI: The young sailor who is in the passenger seat is director Blake Edwards. This requires Sam to stop at the local garage for repairs and look for a hotel to stay. He runs across an old cop on his beat who used to chase him as a kid. When he goes back to his childhood home, Sam meets Toni (Lizbeth Scott), a pretty young blonde w/ a husky voice (reminding us of Bacall). She misses her bus to her hometown, but isn’t too upset about it. Sam has lived the life of a gambler (after leaving the circus), getting in trouble w/ the law, and spending a lot of time in hotel rooms.

After Toni gets in trouble, Sam goes to see Walter (who is running for DA) at his office. While they talk, Martha comes in; at first, she doesn’t realize who this man is. After a few moments, she runs into Sam’s arms. Sam hugs her twice, surprised at how beautiful she has become. Walter is (obviously) jealous, imagining that they may still have feelings for each other. Later, in these scene w/ Sam and Martha at her office, we learn that she has the real power in Iverstown (not her husband). She has grown the steel mill in size and workforce. The Ivers mansion has been redecorated to suit her style.

The melodrama element of this film is heightened by the music and costumes (designed by the famed Edith Head). Martha doesn’t dress like a typical businesswoman. She wears a lot of outfits, incl. a fur stole, cape, and several gowns that would suit a Manhattan cocktail party (not a steel town). In the final scene of the movie, Stanwyck wears a gorgeous flowing gown with a beaded waistline which is high in the front and lower in back. Film historians said Head designed this to draw attention from the actress’ long waist and somewhat low hips.

The film noir genre is known for it’s theme of the past (incl. old flames, friends, enemies) coming back to haunt you, and this film is no exception. Though Heflin is the hero who the audience can relate to, it’s the (explosive) scenes between Stanwyck and Douglas that reveal just how dysfunctional marriage can become! I really enjoyed how the romance between Sam and Toni, who both have somewhat shady pasts and alcoholic fathers, enfolded in a natural way. Their fresh and hopeful relationship is in direct contrast to that of the O’Neils. In the very last scene, we see Sam and Toni driving happily westward. He advises: “Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.”

The Woman in the Window (1944) & Scarlet Street (1945) starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, & Dan Duryea

These two films by Fritz Lang star the multi-faceted Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett (perhaps best known as Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend), and character actor Dan Duryea. Lang was a half-Jewish refugee from Austria who fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s. Growing up w/ German cinema, Lang was “concerned w/ symbolism and good and evil existing w/in one character” (as Barbara Bordwell McGrew, former film instructor at Burlington College explained). Double Indemnity (where Edward G. Robinson played a fine supporting role), Laura, Murder, My Sweet, and The Phantom Lady were all successful noir films released in 1944. “This led the way for more dark, mature stories to be told in Hollywood,” Eddie Muller (host of Noir Alley on TCM) commented.

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Mild-mannered Gotham College professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) and his two close friends (a district attorney and a medical doctor) become obsessed with the portrait of a woman in the window beside their men’s club. After dinner and drinks at the club, his friends head off to a burlesque show. Wanley decides to read for a while and seems to doze off. Late that night, he meets the woman, Alice Reed (Bennett), while admiring her portrait, and ends up in her apartment. While they chat and drink champagne, a man bursts in and misinterprets the situation. This intruder lunges at the professor and a fight ensues where the other man is killed. In order to protect his reputation, Wanley agrees to dump the body and help cover up the killing.

The Woman in the Window is considered to be one of the most significant movies in the film noir genre. It’s a film has many key noir ingredients: man meets woman and finds his life turned upside down, shady characters, a killing, shadows and darkness, and an atmosphere heavy w/ suspense. At its core, the film is about the dangers of stepping out of one’s normal life. The cast is very strong; Robinson, Bennett and Duryea re-team with Lang the following year. As on reviewer on IMDB noted: “The Woman in the Window seems to say that evil only lives when people look hard enough for it – practically a ‘film noir’ rebuttal.” The ending (which some liked, yet modern audiences may think a bit cheesy) had to be that way b/c of the Production Codes of that time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a bank cashier who is given a gold watch by his boss for 25 years of honest service. Chris is kind of an Everyman who is respected by his peers, yet has a boring life w/ his loud/shrewish wife in Brooklyn. Chris has a love of beauty and painting (which he does on Sundays). One rainy late night, he sees a young, beautiful woman being beaten by a man on the street in Greenwich Village. He stops the villain and saves this (supposed) damsel in distress. In no time, he falls desperately in love w/ this woman- a struggling actress named Katherine March (Bennett). Kitty (her nickname) gets to know more about his inner life and starts making demands (w/ tears, saying how she is so poor). As Chris talks re: his love of art on their dates, Kitty assumes that he is wealthy.

According to Ben Mankiewicz on TCM, when first released, local censor boards in New York, Milwaukee and Atlanta banned this film entirely, for being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community.” Though this may seem tame to (modern) audiences, there are themes of dominance and submission in this film. Chris’ wife, Adele, bosses him around at every turn. On the other hand, Kitty, allows herself to be abused (emotionally and physically) by her fiance- Johnny Prince (Duryea). Her friend/roommate, Millie, keeps telling Kitty that he is no good, but she doesn’t listen. In her mind, this is “love” and Millie “doesn’t understand.”

Scarlet Street is compelling and unpredictable; Lang truly knows how to keep the audience hooked, even in quiet moments. “The film is full of irony throughout (ironically made by a non-American),” as one reviewer wrote on IMDB. The audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but the ending is terrific. The atmosphere that Lang creates draws you in, as do the fine actors (esp. Robinson as the anti-hero).

Criss Cross (1949)

Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) watches his ex-wife
Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) watches his ex-wife

Tagline: The savage drama of an amazing double double-cross! 

This meaty film noir is a follow-up to The Killers (1946).  It reteams German director Robert Siodmak with star Burt Lancaster (age 35 here), who once again finds himself in a deadly love triangle.  Lancaster, cast against type as a loser, Steve Thompson, a man who returns to his native LA after a year of wandering about the country.  He doesn’t call up his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo), but they bump into each other. Steve still “has her in his blood,” much to the dismay of his mother.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Or fate?   

Anna (Yvonne de Carlo) & Slim (Dan Duryea) in the club
Anna (Yvonne de Carlo) & Slim (Dan Duryea) in the club

She’s all right, she’s just young.  -Steve

Hah! Some ways, she knows more than Einstein.  -Mrs. Thompson

Anna and Steve rekindle their relationship for a time, but then she sneaks off to marry gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who operates out of a local bar/nightclub.  Steve almost can’t believe his ears when the sympathetic bartender breaks the news.  Does Anna only care about money? 

That's young Tony Curtis!
That’s young Tony Curtis!

This is also the film debut (not credited) of Tony Curtis, who dances in the rhumba scene.  Later, Curtis and Lancaster would costar in Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success

Steve is warned to stay away from Anna by old pal/cop Pete (Stephen McNally)
Steve is warned to stay away from Anna by old pal/cop Pete (Stephen McNally)

I should have been a better friend.  I shoulda stopped you.  I shoulda grabbed you by the neck, I shoulda kicked your teeth in.  I’m sorry Steve.  -Pete

This film is unusual for the genre, because Steve is not a loner, with no one to look out for his well-being.  He has a loving family- mother, jovial little brother, and future sister-in-law. He has a good friend in Lt. Pete Ramirez, a cop he’s known since childhood.  The many minor characters lend flavor to this film. 

Steve's fellow armored car guards at work
Steve’s fellow armored car guards at work

In time, he draws himself into Slim’s sphere, proposing an armored car heist.  This heist involves a elderly co-worker who’s seeing his widowed mother.  The main action scene was very well-done, as it looked quite modern. 

Love…  love!  You’ve got to watch out for yourself!  -Anna

The last scene of the film
The last scene of the film

He [Siodmark] fragments the narrative through flashbacks, counterposing the hopes of Lancaster’s return home with the desperation into which he has fallen.  He also slows down for virtuosic sequences that only a great director could bring off: a long scene when the heist is being plotted, with the bored DeCarlo smoking cigarettes (“It passes the time”) while the railway criss-crosses the window behind her; and an equally long one in the hospital, involving a cranked-up bed, a tilted mirror on the bureau, and a visitor in the corridor- a good Samaritan who turns out to be his worst nightmare.  -IMDB review excerpt

Anna is not like a typical femme fatale, as she’s not the planner.  Steve takes agency in the robbery, though he never wanted anyone to be killed, if possible.  He thinks naively, as he “wasn’t born into this” (Pete comments).  He cared about love, not the money.  The last quarter of the film is atmospheric, intense, and very well done.  Anyone can become a fool for love, even Lancaster.  Look at how young/sad/lost Steve looks when he sees Anna in the club (dancing carelessly) after so long.  This is a fine performance, layered yet accessible.