Getting Started with Noir: 10 Films to Watch

  1. The 39 Steps (1935) starring Robert Donat & Madeleine Carroll [https://knightleyemma.com/2019/11/16/the-39-steps/]

2. The Maltese Falcon (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, & Sydney Greenstreet

3. Laura (1944) starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, & Judith Anderson [https://knightleyemma.com/2008/10/15/classic-movie-review-laura/]

4. Notorious (1946) starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, & Claude Rains [https://knightleyemma.com/2019/10/30/notorious/]

5. The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

6. The Killers (1946) starring Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner [https://knightleyemma.com/2014/02/08/the-killers-1946/]

7. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, & Lizabeth Scott [https://knightleyemma.com/2011/09/10/the-strange-love-of-martha-ivers-1946/]

8. Out of the Past (1947) starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, & Kirk Douglas [https://knightleyemma.com/2009/08/05/out-of-the-past-1947/]

9. In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart & Gloria Grahame [https://knightleyemma.com/2009/08/23/in-a-lonely-place-1950/]

10. Strangers on a Train (1951) starring Farley Granger, Robert Walker, & Ruth Roman

“Spartacus” (1960) starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons, & Tony Curtis

There is so much cool BTS info (trivia) re: this film! Kirk Douglas (who died at age 103 this month) wanted to play the title hero in Ben-Hur (1959), but director William Wyler wanted Charlton Heston in the role. Douglas was offered the antagonist role of Messala, which was eventually given to Stephen Boyd; he didn’t want to play second banana. Later, Douglas admitted that he made Spartacus to show Wyler and his company that he could make a Roman epic also: “That was what spurred me to do it in a childish way, the ‘I’ll show them’ sort of thing.”

In order to get the large number of big stars in supporting roles, actor/co-producer Douglas showed each a different script (written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) in which their character was emphasized. Stanley Kubrick (known for his perfectionism, vision, and difficult personality) was brought in as director after Douglas (a real-life tough guy) had a falling out w/ the original director, Anthony Mann. According to actor Sir Peter Ustinov, the salt mines sequence was the only footage shot by Mann. In his autobiography, Douglas wrote that he replaced Mann b/c he felt he was “too docile,” esp. for the powerful actors dominating the cast. “He seemed scared of the scope of the picture.”

Kubrick (then only 31 y.o.) felt the script was full of moralizing; he wanted more focus on the Romans. He also complained to Trumbo and that the character Spartacus had no faults nor quirks, so was interchangeable w/ any other gladiator. Kubrick thought the “I am Spartacus” scene was “a stupid idea”(and said so in front of cast/crew)! Douglas promptly chewed Kubrick out. The disagreements between Kubrick and Douglas got so bad that the men reportedly went into therapy together.

Kubrick was a professional photographer who had shot some of his previous movies by himself. He did the majority of the cinematography work on Spartacus. When you see the way that Kubrick shot the battle sequences, you’ll be impressed! All the battle scenes were filmed near Madrid w/ 8,000 trained troops from the Spanish army (serving as Roman infantry). Kubrick directed the armies from the top of specially constructed towers. He later cut all but one of the gory battle scenes (b/c of negative reactions at previews).

A good body with a dull brain is as cheap as life itself. -Batiatus explains while examining the slaves in the salt mines

Kubrick spent $40,000 on the 10+ acre gladiator camp set. On the side of the set that bordered the freeway, a 125-foot asbestos curtain was erected in order to film the burning of the camp, which was organized w/ collaboration from the LAPD and Fire Department. 5,000 uniforms and seven tons of armor were borrowed from Italian museums, and every one of Hollywood’s 187 stuntmen was trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death. Modern sources note that this production used 10,500 people- wow! Richard Farnsworth (who moved into acting after 30+ yrs as a stuntman) and five other stuntmen worked for the entire filming; they doubled as salt mine slaves, gladiators, and generals in the slave army.

Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you. -Draba tells Spartacus when he first arrives at the gladiator school run by Batiatus

This movie parallels ’50s American history, particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings, where witnesses were ordered to “name names” of supposed Communist sympathizers. This closely resembles the climactic (“I am Spartacus”) scene; Howard Fast was jailed for his refusal to testify and wrote the novel (Spartacus) while in prison. This film also has something to say re: race/segregation/civil rights, as I noticed on this viewing. The best fighter owned by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov)- Draba (Woody Strode, who is black)- sacrifices himself by choosing to attack Crassus (Laurence Olivier), rather than kill Spartacus. Not only is Draba the tallest and most handsome warrior, he projects a lot of dignity in his few scenes. There is no differentiation between the slaves of different races who train w/in the gladiator school and- later- serve in the army of Spartacus.

Who wants to fight? An animal can learn to fight. But to say beautiful things, and to make people believe them… -Spartacus tells Varinia (after listening to a story told by Antoninus)

Ingrid Bergman was one of several actresses who rejected the role of Varinia. Sabine Bethmann was then cast, but when Kubrick arrived, he fired her and offered the part to Jean Simmons. In the 1988 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Douglas explained to host Terry Gross that he was reluctant (at first) to have Simmons (who is English) portray Spartacus’ love interest. He had cast the English actors as aristocratic Romans, b/c he felt they “had a more elegant pattern of speech.” He explained: “All the slaves, like myself, were Americans… it’s just that Americans have a rougher speech pattern.” During the long shoot, Curtis allegedly asked Simmons, “Who do I have to f*ck to get off this film?” Simmons may have shouted back, “When you find out, let me know.”

I thought Simmons and Douglas had strong chemistry, so you can believe them as a couple. As w/ great actors of any time/place, the acting comes from the eyes; you don’t need dialogue to express yourself. As slaves who fall in love, Varinia and Sparticus don’t have the luxury of speech or much time alone. Others in the household notice that they care for each other, so try to put a stop to it. When they are suddenly reunited, they laugh (w/ a lot of joy) and embrace as free individuals. Of course, their relationship made me think of how life might’ve been like in the time of slavery in US.

My taste includes both snails and oysters. -Crassus tells Antoninus

Sir Laurence Olivier gave Tony Curtis tips on acting to improve his performance; Curtis gave Olivier tips on bodybuilding to improve his physique. The original version included a scene where Crassus attempts to seduce his body slave, the young Sicilian- Antoninus (Curtis). The Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency both objected to the “oysters or snails” scene seen in the 1991 restoration. Since the soundtrack had been lost, the dialogue had to be dubbed. Curtis was able to redo his lines, but Olivier had died. Dame Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, remembered that Sir Anthony Hopkins could do a dead-on impression of her husband. Hopkins agreed to voice Olivier’s lines in that scene (and it’s seamless); he is thanked in the credits for the restored version.

You and I have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin? – Gracchus comments to Batiatus

I liked seeing the evil side of Olivier; Crassus was very convincing as a powerful/tough/smart villain w/ a hint of insecurity. You buy him as a senator and as a soldier, unlike his wimpy brother-in-law Glabrus (John Dall). He is best-known as the villain in Hitchcock’s Rope; here Dall portrays an inept leader of the Roman forces. A lot of the light/humorous moments were given to Batiatus (Ustinov), the wimpy slave peddler who is a follower of the powerful senator, Gracchus (Charles Laughton). When Crassus and his family come for a visit, Batiatus rushes to cover up the bust of Gracchus. As w/ Olivier, Laughton gives gravitas to his character, but also humor. When Batiatus comments on the many beautiful women in Gracchus’ household, the older man laughs and comments: “Since when are women a vice?” Gracchus is considered eccentric (for that time/society), b/c he is a lifelong bachelor; he explains that away by saying he “holds the institution of marriage in too high a regard.” I almost forgot that the (also very handsome) John Gavin portrays Julius Caesar; he doesn’t get as much of a role as Curtis. Both Gavin and Curtis have shirtless scenes- why not!? Gavin co-starred in Hitchcock’s Psycho (also released in 1960).

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.”

Detective Story (1951) starring Kirk Douglas & Eleanor Parker

[1] The writing is a bit too well-structured, almost like clockwork, the characters are a bit too symbolic and easy to categorise. The comic relief kicks in just on schedule. The psychological diagnosis is too precise. And yet, this is one of the greatest films ever made. It has a sense of respect for the totality of life, and makes tragedy almost poetic. 

[2] Kirk Douglas carries the burden of McLeod and makes the tormented policeman painfully believable–it is almost a nonstop, swirling performance… 

[3] The abortion angle of the original play was taken to the screen, partly because of censorship, and partly because the close-up, immediacy of the camera requires rage to be clearly more explained than on the stage…

-Excerpts from various reviews (Amazon & IMDB)

detective story poster.jpg
A poster for the film

Evil’s got a smell of its own. A child could spot it. -McLeod says, before giving some info re: his father/parents’ relationship

In this film, abortion is sinful, criminal, horrifying (personally and socially)- a tragedy. It appears from different angles: the Dutch abortion doctor (w/ his clever lawyer), the detective’s wife, her ex-boyfriend (who got her pregnant), and eventually, the detective. When Mary (Eleanor Parker) finally tells her husband (Kirk Douglas) about it, his worldview is too black and white to handle it. He calls her a “tramp”- she’s wasn’t expecting that reaction. All that matters is that she was intimate with someone before being married to him. She says she’s leaving him forever. He doesn’t go after her, as his fellow detectives urge. Mary gets her freedom.

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Mary (Eleanor Parker) begs and cries, but McCleod (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t see her virtues.

This may be one of the early “typical day” genre- several different stories occurring over one day in the same location, but melded into a whole (as on the TV shows, Hill Street Blues and Barney Miller). A key ongoing side plot involves an unlikely/lovelorn first offender and the younger sister of his former girlfriend. He stole from his employer to win back his (model) girlfriend who has moved on to a different circle. McCleod’s partner, Det. Brody (William Bendix) is more gentle/understanding; this man reminds him of his dead (WWII hero) son.

Oscar nominations were given out for William Wyler’s direction, the screenplay, and for Parker and Lee Grant, lead and supporting actresses respectively. At a little over 20 minutes, Parker’s performance in this movie is the shortest to ever be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.

I built my whole life on hating my father. All the time he was inside me, laughing. -McLeod finally realizes the truth about his personality 

Since it was impossible to film the movie without portraying the killing of Detective McLeod, so this movie resulted in another amendment to the Production Code. From December 20, 1938 to March 27, 1951, there was a rule forbidding the display of law enforcement officers (EX: detectives, security guards, etc.) dying at the hands of criminals. From March 27, 1951 onward, the Production Code allowed such portrayals, if they were “absolutely necessary to the development of the plot” (as noted in the book The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Jeff and Jerold Simmons).

Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas

Introduction

With a career spanning more than 7 decades, Kirk Douglas has long since earned his place in Hollywood history. December 9, 2016 was the iconic actor’s 100th birthday (WOW)! His is a real-life “up from nothing” story; Douglas is the son of Jewish immigrants (from modern-day Belarus) who settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a youngster, he was a good student and athlete (even wrestling competitively at St. Lawrence University). Douglas discovered an acting scholarship and was talented enough to get into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

After working on the New York stage (alongside good friend Lauren Bacall), he began his film career in the 1946 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, which was soon followed by memorable roles in Out of the Past, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives, among others. Douglas also developed his own projects behind the camera, releasing the historical epic Spartacus through his own production company. 

Movie Review: Ace in the Hole 

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[1] This movie fits nicely into the film noir genre, although it takes place largely under the hot, harsh glare of the New Mexico sun, highlighting the sweat and grime visible on the characters’ skin and creating a visual metaphor for the sorry state of their souls. 

[2] Perhaps the cause of failure of this film [at the box office] is that there are no sympathetic characters here… The screenplay, and the lead performances are top class. The extensive location photography, and somewhat documentary look of the film makes the film feel more modern than most 1951 films.

[3] The world described here is so depressing, so disheartening that it takes drama to new limits. Not only Tatum is evil, but so are the miner’s wife and family who take advantage of the situation, regardless of any morals. So is the faceless crowd, who has a wild time, near a dying man. You and me, we could be part of this populace, and maybe we’ve already been! 

Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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This film, featuring Douglas (who plays Chuck Tatum) as an antihero, is on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list. I rented it on YouTube recently. Aside from the length (it could’ve used more editing), I thought it was pretty good. It was co-written by Billy Wilder, so you know the dialogue (esp. that for Chuck) will be fast, funny, and VERY interesting. Wilder’s wife, Audrey Young, came up with the funny, yet irreverent line spoken by Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa): “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

No chopped chicken liver! No garlic pickles. No Lindy’s. No Madison Square Garden. No Yogi Berra! -Chuck complains re: missing NYC

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Chuck has been fired from a few different newspapers (drinking too much, chasing a publisher’s wife, etc.)  He manages to get on the staff of an Albuquerque paper. Finally, Chuck learns re: Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a man who got trapped in a mine while digging for Indian (Native American) relics. Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) is the wide-eyed young reporter who tags along w/ Chuck.

Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t say with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest. -Chuck explains to Herbie 

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Leo is trapped inside a mine in the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Chuck manipulates the (politically-ambitious) sheriff, the Army engineer running the rescue operation, and Leo’s wife, Lorraine. Chuck, with his wily words, manages to prolong the rescue efforts; what could’ve taken just twelve hours lasts six days. Leo’s story becomes known nationwide, making Tatum a star reporter (yet again), and creating a circus around the desert town.