Showing posts with label Film Noir. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Film Noir. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

El vampiro negro (1953)


Despite the title, there are no vampires in this movie. It's not even horror. Instead, El vampiro negro/The Black Vampire (1953) is a brilliant Argentine film noir adaptation of Fritz Lang's M (1931). It takes the original story of a whistling serial killer who roams the streets looking for young girls to kill and adds some new characters—most notably some interesting female characters—and transports the viewer to 1950s Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Directed by Román Viñoly Barreto, El vampiro negro stars Olga Zubarry as Amalia, a beautiful cabaret singer and single mom who works hard to keep her daughter in boarding school. One night Amalia witnesses a mysterious man dump the body of a young girl. The man in question is Teodoro (Nathán Pinzón)—an English professor by day and a deranged serial killer by night. Teodoro feels isolated by society and has never had a relationship with a woman.. He pays Amalia's friend Cora (Nelly Panizza) for the opportunity to visit her without any sort of sexual touch. In return, Cora takes his money and humiliates him for her own enjoyment. Teodoro takes out his sexual frustrations by stalking for new prey. It's suggested that he's only attracted to adult women and that he seeks out young girls solely because they're easy prey to kill. 

The other prominent male figure in the story, Dr. Bernard (Roberto Escalada), is investigating the case of the serial killer dubbed "the black vampire." Bernard seeks out Amalia for information about what she saw that fateful night. Dr. Bernard and Teodoro are not very different from each other. Like Teodoro, Dr. Bernard is sexually frustrated and while devoted to his invalid wife he seeks an affair with Amalia who rejects him. Both men channel their frustrations on either side of the law. As Teodoro continues to kill, the community is both terrorized and brought to action to capture "the black vampire."

El vampiro negro/The Black Vampire (1953) is a thrilling film noir. It comes out of the golden age of Argentine cinema and is clearly influenced not only by early German cinema but also American film noir. The story is told in one long flashback sequence and employs many other film noir elements including its use of light and shadow, most notably in the sequences where the killer is being chased through the sewers. The film explores themes of isolation and humiliation as well as social responsibility and the importance of community. While it has the same framework as M (1931), it's a loose adaptation with plenty of new elements that make it seem more like an original story. 

Olga Zubarry really carries the movie as the story's main protagonist. While her performance was at times a bit over the top, Zubarry's character Amalia is the emotional core of the film and she adeptly guides us through the story and always keeps us aware of what is truly at stake. I was most captivated by Nathán Pinzón who is a dead ringer for Peter Lorre who was in the original film. He has the same wide set eyes and a countenance that expresses sadness with a hint of danger. According to film historian Fernando Martin Peña, Pinzón was a great admired Lorre and modeled his own acting style after him.

El vampiro negro (1953) is available in a beautiful Blu-ray and DVD deluxe set from Flicker Alley. The film was rediscovered and restored by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. They were also responsible for bringing to light another wonderful Argentine film noir

Los Tallos Amargos/The Bitter Stems (1956) which I highly reommend you watch if you haven't already.

The Flicker Alley set includes the restored version of El vampiro negro on two discs as well as a booklet and reversible cover. The extras include an introduction by Eddie Muller, a documentary about the three adaptations of M, an interview with director Román Viñoly Barreto's son Daniel Viñoly, an essay by Imogen Sara Smith as well as audio commentary by Fernando Martin Peña. For those Spanish speakers out there, the discs also include Spanish subtitles. I always prefer to watch Spanish movies with Spanish subtitles so I really appreciated having this option!

El vampiro negro (1953) is available wherever Flicker Alley discs are sold.

Amazon — Barnes and Noble — Deep Discount — Flicker Alley

Thank you to Flicker Alley for sending me a copy of El vampiro negro for review.

Watch me discuss this film and more on the latest episode of my Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey by Eddie Muller

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey
TCM Kid Noir
by Eddie Muller and Jessica Schmidt
illustrated by Forrest Burdett
Running Press Kids and TCM
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762481682
32 pages
4 years and up
September 2023

"My name is Kitty Feral. I was a gumshoe with no shoes, but I quit that racket. But when I overheard Cora talking about the missing Marshmallow Monkey, it was too sweet to ignore."

In his first picture book for children, Eddie Muller—along with writer Jessica Schmidt and illustrator Forrest Burdett—offers budding classic movie enthusiasts a kid-friendly introduction to film noir.

Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey is a mystery in the style of The Maltese Falcon (1941). The story a two-fold mystery with hardboiled detective Kitty Feral solving the case of the stolen chocolate covered Marshmallow Monkey while also trying to locate his missing partner, Mitch the Mutt. We follow along as Kitty Feral roams the dark city streets searching for answers.

Published by by TCM and Running Press Kids, Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey is a delightful ode to film noir and a must-have for noir enthusiasts, especially those who want to instill a love of classic movies in their children.

The book is chock full of film noir references. The endpapers display animal-inspired noir posters for movies like Nut Crazy, He Squawked by Night and The Possum Always Rings Twice. Kitty Feral visits the Acme Book Shop—a hat-tip to the famous bookstore sequence in The Big Sleep (1946). I spotted references to noirs like Deadline at Dawn (1946), On Dangerous Ground (1951) and I Walk Alone (1947) and to actors like Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Gloria Grahame and Dorothy Malone. There are even references to non-noir classics like The Leopard Man (1943) and On the Waterfront (1954). Visual clues make this book a veritable treasure hunt for children (the villains are referenced on almost every page) as well as adult noir enthusiasts.

The style of the book is very fitting with film noir aesthetics. It features a limited color palette of black-and-white with pops of color. Kitty Feral wears a blue fedora and trenchcoat, Mitch the Mutt wears a red collar and the two are seen enjoying the multi-colored sunrise, signaling the end of the story's nighttime adventure.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press Kids via Edelweiss

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press Kids via Edelweiss

The backmatter includes a single page entitled What is Film Noir which gives young readers the fundamentals of understanding noir. It explains why film noir was often black-and-white, the meanings behind certain terms and a gentle introduction to character and story types.

As a read aloud story this book has a lot of potential. I do wish the narrative flowed a bit better. There are a couple of awkward points in the narrative that could have easily been fixed. A design error on page 25 obscures one moment of dialogue. With that said, I read this book several times out loud and found that experience quite enjoyable. This book would make for a great bedtime story or read aloud for a group storytime. You'll want to develop character voices for Kitty Feral (who is also the narrator), Casper the Nighthawk, Polly the Bookstore Guard Dog, Mitch the Mutt and Lucky Lapin the mob bunny.

I hope Kitty Feral is the first of a series. I can see many more mysteries for Kitty Feral and Mitch the Mutt to solve and plenty of noir references to make.

Thank you to Running Press Kids for sending me a copy of Kitty Feral and the Case of the Marshmallow Monkey for review!

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Blood on the Moon by Alan K. Rode

Reel West: Blood on the Moon
by Alan K. Rode
University of New Mexico Press
Paperback ISBN: 9780826364692
March 2023
136 pages

“The film transplanted the dark urban environs of the city into the West’s iconography.... Akin to Chandleresque private detective or a returning WWII veteran trudging through the brick alleys and gilded neighborhoods of the apocryphal urban noir environment, Mitchum travels through a similarly alienating domain, where loyalties shift and things are assuredly not what they initially seem.” — Alan K. Rode

Robert Wise's Blood on the Moon (1948) has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. It's come to be appreciated as a notable film of its era—one that strikes a perfect balance between its two genres: the Western and the Film Noir. Based on the novel by Luke Short, the film stars Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry, a gunslinger who is hired by his old buddy Tate (Robert Preston) to settle a dispute between Tate and a cattle rancher. Jim falls for the rancher's headstrong daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and comes to realize that Tate is actually scheming to steal the rancher's cattle from under him. The story unfolds like a Film Noir detective story with a notable Western backdrop, a thrilling bar brawl and a climactic shoot-out.

In 2020 the Warner Archive Collection released a Blu-Ray edition of Blood on the Moon that garnered much excitement from the classic film community. In 2023 the film was screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival to a packed theater. Blood on the Moon was introduced by film historian Alan K. Rode who recently published a book solely about the movie.

Blood on the Moon by Alan K. Rode is part of the University of New Mexico Press' Reel West series in which each book focuses on one particular film from the Western genre. This slim volume on Blood on the Moon offers readers an opportunity to learn about the background of the film, the key players involved and its place in film history.

The book manages to be comprehensive without bogging down the text with superfluous information. The introduction examines the context and importance of the film. The following chapters details the pre-production, in-production and post-production life of Blood on the Moon while giving the reader background on the notable individuals involved. We learn about the author of the original novel, Luke Short, screenwriter Lillie Hayward, home studio RKO, director Robert Wise, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, actors Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Phyllis Thaxter, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan and more.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • The title Blood on the Moon is a reference to a “hunter’s moon” which appears red or to a total lunar eclipse. It “has been considered a foreboding signal or a portent of doom.”
  • One of the last movies green-lighted for RKO by Dore Schary before Howard Hughes took over.
  • The movie rights to Luke Short's novel Gunman's Chance were bought by RKO. It wasn't developed until director Robert Wise and Theron Wrath came across several versions of the script in the story department and realized that it " a viable film property that had been mishandled by RKO.”
  • "Preston and Mitchum were a simpatico team who worked well together and enjoyed playing practical jokes on Barbara Bel Geddes and Phyllis Thaxter.”
  • “The leading actors were selected by Dore Schary, but Wise cast all the supporting players…”
  • The film had a bigger budget than other Westerns produced by RKO. It still went over budget due to inhospitable weather.

Author Alan K. Rode's Reel West: Blood on the Moon is an informative and engaging read. This concise book gives the reader plenty to chew on without overloading them with too much research. I recommend this book only to readers who are familiar with the movie as you'll need knowledge of the plot and the key players in order to appreciate the information presented to you.

This is my second book review for this year's Classic Film Reading Challenge.

I purchased Blood on the Moon from Larry Edmund's Bookshop this past April. My copy is autographed by the author.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

In a Lonely Place
by Dorothy B. Hughes
New York Review of Books 
Paperback ISBN: 9781681371474
224 pages

"Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place..." — Dorothy B. Hughes

The 1950 film adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes novel In a Lonely Place is one of the most celebrated entries into the film noir canon. Bolstered by Nicholas Ray’s direction and Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame’s excellent performances, In a Lonely Place (1950) is a tense and ultimately terrifying story of a writer’s downward spiral. Bogart plays Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter working on his next adaptation. He hasn’t had a hit movie in a long time and the pressure from his agent Mel (Art Smith) and his own internal pressure as an artist is starting to get to him. When hat check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart, no not that one, the other one) is brutally murdered, Dix becomes a suspect having been the last one to see her alive. On the case is Dix’s war buddy Brub (Frank Lovejoy) and Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid). While the investigation is happening, Dix starts to fall for his neighbor, actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Their romance is plagued with the tension caused by the investigation, Dix’s manic fits of creativity, his need for control and the threat of violence that lays under the surface. The situation is volatile and Laurel is in constant danger. Is Dix really the murderer? Or is he just falling apart with the suspicion hanging over his head?

The film noir adaptation is so vastly different from Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel that reading the book and watching the movie will make you feel like you just experienced parallel universes. The novel is narrated in the third person omniscient point of view. However, the narrator never strays from Dix giving the reader the perspective of the serial killer. And yes, he is a serial killer. It’s known from the very beginning of the novel that Dix Steele is a former airman who fought during WWII. He found an opportunity to live in his friend Mel Terriss’ (not his agent like in the movie) apartment. Mel’s absence is explained away by Dix as him having traveled to Rio de Janeiro for a job but the reader knows something is up. Dix has been killing one woman a month. He stalks vulnerable young women at night, lures them to an isolated spot and strangles them. The book goes into detail about how Dix hunts his prey but spares us the bloody details of the actual crimes.

The irony is that Dix’s war buddy Brub is a police detective investigating the string of murders. Dix is pretends to be a crime writer and this affords him access to particulars of the investigation. The pretense is that Dix needs material for his work but really Dix is gaining knowledge on how best to get away with future crimes. Brub’s wife Sylvia is one of the most important characters in the story. In the film, Sylvia (Jeff Donnell) is a minor character, one who frets over her husband’s work and triggers one of Dix’s outbursts when she reveals something she wasn’t supposed to. In the novel however, she is the first person to suspect Dix and works diligently to lure him in, study him, gather materials for the case. She’s more effective as a detective than her actual detective husband Brub. The film did this character dirty!

(Jeff Donnell as Sylvia and Gloria Graham as Laurel)

The Brub character is the polar opposite of Dix. He feels that his war experience has led him to want to help people. He’s devoted to his work and is for the most part a gentleman (except for his overt lust for other women including Laurel Gray). Dix is a sociopath whose war experience may have given him a taste for blood. He’s also incredibly lonely and isolated which is really key to his character and to the title of the story. Dix spends a lot of time doing solitary things: driving, hanging out at the beach, stalking his prey, etc. In the movie, Dix is a hardworking screenwriter. In the novel, Dix pretends to write but really doesn’t want to work at all. He doesn’t understand why he can’t live off a trust like his friend Mel or why his rich uncle Fergus won’t give him more money. When actress Laurel Gray comes into his life, he begins to imagine what it would be like to have a long-term relationship with a woman he doesn’t hunt and kill. She reminds him of a long lost love and the calmer days before his killing spree.

Laurel Gray is probably the best represented in the film. Gloria Grahame captures Laurel’s ambivalence about the movie business, her attraction to Dix and her growing suspicion of Dix. In the movie, she’s much more a victim of domestic violence. She suffers as Dix becomes more and more controlling. In the novel, she’s not in love with Dix at all. She recognizes that they’re both similar in their selfishness but that they are meant to be together for a good time not a long time. She says to him:

“I knew you from the first time I looked at you just like you knew me. Because we’re just alike. We’re out to get it, and we don’t care how we get it."

Laurel and Sylvia are both objects of Dix’ lust and are both key to his downfall. I really enjoyed how Dorothy B. Hughes approached the psyche of her serial killer protagonist and the women in his orb. Laurel and Sylvia are the heroes in the novel. As they slowly draw away from Dix, we feel the tension and know that something big is about to happen. The authorities are only effective once both women have done the work on their end. Otherwise Dix might have kept going.

Dorothy B. Hughes was a fantastic writer. I enjoyed how she describes the fog, the beach, Dix’s isolation and loneliness and how the reader has to pick up on subtle clues outside of Dix’s point of view. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Why hide this beautiful creature under the blanket of your indifference?" 
"There was a save delight in being a lone wolf. It wasn't happiness.. He was a lone wolf; he didn't have to account to anyone nor did he intend to." 
"She was greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire." 
"This was the beginning of something good. So good that he was enjoying its immediacy without thought, without plan. She was beside him, that was enough. He had needed her for so long a time. He had always needed her. It was a dream. A dream he had not dared dream, a woman like this."

I highly recommend reading In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. If you’re worried it will ruin the movie for you, don’t! The two stories are so different. There is no way they could have stayed true to the novel and pleased both Columbia Pictures and the Production Code Administration. Both can be thoroughly enjoyed as two separate art forms.

Have you read In a Lonely Place? What are your thoughts on how the changes they made from the movie?

Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

Double Indemnity
by James M. Cain
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Paperback ISBN: 9780679723226
128 pages

When asked to define film noir, one movie often comes to mind as the most representative of the cinematic movement: Double Indemnity (1944). Not only is it the most noirish of the noirs, it’s one of the best films ever made. With Billy Wilder’s direction, Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson portrayals and key filmmaking elements such as expert pacing, lighting and set design, the whole movie comes together as a veritable work of art. Double Indemnity also paved way for other noirs, especially The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both novels were written by James M. Cain and the battle to get Double Indemnity past production code guidelines allowed for negotiations to finally bring Postman to the big screen.

I read The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years ago to compare it to the movie and I was really intrigued by how lustful, violent and even racist the original story was in comparison to the movie adaptation. Then I wondered: how would Double Indemnity hold up with a novel-to-movie comparison?

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is a novella that was originally serialized by Liberty Magazine in 1936 before it was published in book form as one of three stories in a collection. The book packs a punch in just 115 pages. Like the film, the story is told from insurance salesman Walter’s (Fred MacMurray) perspective. Through his first person narration, Walter relates the details of how he and his lover Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) plotted to murder her husband and commit insurance fraud for a big payout. Instead of relating his story to a dictaphone like MacMurray does in the film, Walter is writing a long letter to his work colleague Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) while traveling on a vessel.

I was quite captivated by Cain’s novel. It’s short enough that you can lose yourself in it and read the whole book in one sitting. The novel portrays Phyllis as a much more sinister character, Keyes becomes important only at the very end of the book, and Lola (Jean Heather), Phyllis’s stepdaughter, and her boyfriend Nino (Byron Barr) have a more distinct present in the story. The novel is heavy on the dialogue—Walter’s dictation and his conversations with the other characters. But there are also some interesting descriptions of the location settings including Glendale and Hollywood, California.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts, and how good I was going to sound when I started explaining the high ethics of the insurance business I didn’t exactly know.” — Walter 
“I was standing right on the deep end, looking over the edge, and I kept telling myself to get out of there, and get quick, and never come back. But that was what I kept telling myself. What I was doing was peeping over that edge, and all the time I was trying to pul away from it, there was something in me that kept edging a little closer, trying to get a better look.” — Walter 
“Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness…” — Phyllis 
“Walter—I’m so excited. It does terrible things to me.” — Phyllis 
I don’t often like somebody. At my trade, you can’t afford to. The whole human race looks—a bit crooked.” — Keyes

While James M. Cain was originally hired to adapt his own novel, ultimately Billy Wilder and fellow noir novelist Raymond Chandler were responsible for the final screenplay. Here are some of the changes they made:


  • Character names get a makeover. Walter Neff is changed to Walter Huff, Phyllis Nirdlinger (yes you read that correctly) was changed to Phyllis Dietrichson and Nino Sachetti was changed to Nino Zachetti. Phyllis’ maid Belle becomes Nettie and the original Nettie, Norton’s secretary, isn’t given a name at all.
  • Phyllis is described as having a lust for death. She’s driven by that more so than by freedom and money. Part of her backstory includes being a killer nurse. Like in the film, she’s responsible for killing Lola’s mother. In the novel she’s also responsible for killing three children which led to a malpractice suit that ultimately affected the Sachetti/Zachetti family.
  • Asian characters in the novel, Walter’s Filipino “houseboy” and Walter and Phyllis’s mutual acquaintance Mr. Ling are not included in the film adaptation.
  • The Keyes character is brought to the forefront giving Edward G. Robinson more screen time. In the film, Keyes is the moral center of the story. In the novel, Keyes orchestrates a getaway plan for Walter. That would not fly during the Hays Code era when all murderers depicted on screen had to pay for their crime.
  • Phyllis shoots Walter but Lola and Nino are blamed for it. Walter is fixated on clearing Lola’s name. They had both stopped seeing Phyllis and Nino respectively and started dating each other.
  • The final scenes in Double Indemnity are some of the most memorable. It depicts Walter confessing to Keyes at their place of work with Walter making a weak attempt at a getaway. IN the novel, Walter and Phyllis are on a boat grappling with the future that lays ahead of them. They make a suicide pact and the suggestion is that they jumped off the vessel and were eaten by sharks. Phyllis goes as far to dress up for her “bridegroom” Death, whom she describes as her one true love. She puts chalk on her face to look paler, creates dark circles around her eyes, puts on red lipstick and drapes herself in red silk for this upcoming “wedding.” Eek!


Ultimately, James M. Cain was happy with the changes Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler made to his story. He even commended them for some scenes he wish he had thought of in the first place. This is one of those rare cases in which the movie improves on the book.

Have you read the novel? If so, what did you think of it?

Monday, May 22, 2023

Noir Bar by Eddie Muller

Noir Bar
Cocktails Inspired by the World of Film Noir
by Eddie Muller
TCM and Running Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762480623
May 2023
248 pages

“Noir Bar offers a booze-based excursion through America’s most popular film genre, pairing easy-to-master recipes with the kind of behind-the-scenes anecdotes I like to include in my film intros and books.... This book is designed to be a drinking companion for anyone taking a deep dive into the glamorous and gritty world of noir.” — Eddie Muller

Cocktails and film noir make for a perfect pair in TCM host Eddie Muller's latest book: Noir Bar. Presented in alphabetical order, Noir Bar features 50 different films, each with a cocktail recipe to accompany it. Muller's curation of titles is as exciting as the cocktails he picks for each. The recipes were carefully selected by Muller—who is both the Czar of Noir and an experienced mixologist—to tie into the movie. The connection between noir and cocktail can be as simple as a reference to the title, protagonist or one of the actors. Some are thematic based on elements of the story. And there are numerous Eddie Muller originals. As someone who loves both film noir and cocktails, I had fun reading how Muller ties the cocktail to the movie and his reasoning behind each choice.

Here are some of my favorite film noir and cocktail pairings:

  • The Blue Gardenia (1953) The Pearl Diver — This is a hat tip to the Tiki cocktail that Raymond Burr's character buys for Anne Baxter in order to get her intoxicated. Not many cocktails in the book have a direct connection
  • D.O.A. (1949)The Last Word — The name is a reference to the protagonist's plight to get the "last word" on his murder. The cocktail recipe ingredients put together look reminiscent of the luminous poison from the film.
  • Hell’s Half Acre (1954)Mai Tai — This film noir takes place in and was filmed on location in Hawaii. As someone who has enjoyed many a Mai Tai in Oahu, I appreciated Muller's tips on how to make a quality Mai Tai at home.
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Johnny & Earle — Named after Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte’s characters, this Eddie Muller original is probably the most clever cocktails in the whole book. He writes: “My mixology strategy here is obvious and symbolic—like the end of the movie. Two base spirits that rarely engage with each other are unexpectedly combined: Jamaican dark rum… and Southern Comfort… In the spirit of the story, my formula calls for fifty-fifty use of the two spirits…The bitters and the Allspice Dram smooth things out between two headstrong leads.”
  • Pickup on South Street (1953)Bloody Mary — Eddie Muller prides himself on his signature recipe and this cocktail happens to be director Samuel Fuller's drink of choice.
  • Suspense (1946) Belita — This frozen cocktail is named after the film's star Belita and is a hat tip to her career as an ice skater.

And of course I had to make the Out of the Past (1947) Paloma. In the book Muller writes, 

"this [is a] humble concoction of tequila, lime, and grapefruit soda... Mitchum, of course, would have waved off grapefruit soda in his tequila. Granted. This one's for Jane [Greer]." 

I've had Palomas in the past but have never made one at home. I'm not terribly experienced when it comes to crafting cocktails. I appreciated Noir Bar's front matter which includes Muller's introductions on spirits, garnishes and tools to have on hand as well as a guide to basic cocktail making techniques. And for those of you who love to look up old cocktail recipes and are often dismayed by how many of them contain egg whites, fear not because this book only has one such recipe!

The mix of titles include some of the most famous entries into the film noir canon as well as some obscure titles I've never heard of—and everything in between. Two of my favorites, Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), were missing but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book.

Each film noir has a 4-6 page entry complete with a brief foray into the film's history, an explanation of the cocktail pairing, a recipe and some images from the film. Some of the cocktails are presented with a stylized photograph that has a sort of hazy 1980s neo-noir vibe to it that gave me a twinge of nostalgia. The book is a nice compact size but because of its binding and dark matte gloss pages, I do suggest placing it in a cookbook holder for reading and reference purposes if you can. I would not recommend this for someone who abstains from alcohol because the book leans heavily on the cocktail related content. They are not sections you can just skip.

Interior spread courtesy of Running Press. Champagne Cocktail to accompany Sunset Blvd. (1951).

Noir Bar is the perfect companion for film noir enthusiasts who enjoy a well-made cocktail.

Don't forget to drink responsibly!

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Noir Bar to review!

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Laura by Vera Caspary

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

by Vera Caspary
The Feminist Press
Paperback ISBN: 9781558615052
256 pages

“You have so many friends, your life is so full, you’re always surrounded by people.” – Mark McPherson 
Laura: “It’s when you have friends that you can afford to be lonely. When you know a lot of people, loneliness becomes a luxury. It’s only when you’re forced to be lonely that it’s bad.” – Laura Hunt

Any film noir enthusiast will attest that Laura (1944), is one of the finest noirs of the era. It offers viewers an engrossing story, an air of sophistication, a couple of delicious plot twists and plenty of wit. Then there is the quartet of main players: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), the bored aristocrat, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), the sensitive police detective, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), the spoiled Southern gigolo, and caught in the middle is the least femme fatale of all the femme fatale: Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Laura is the murder victim until she’s not and through both her absence and her presence we learn a lot about her as an individual and the men who want to possess her.

The story was born out of the imagination of Vera Caspary, a writer who was no stranger to Hollywood. In her lifetime she wrote 19 books and out of her novels, original screenplays, theatrical plays and other writing contributions, 24 film adaptations were made. Some of these include: Working Girls (1931), Letter to Three Wives (1949), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and Les Girls (1957). Caspary was particularly interested in writing about working women, like herself, and her stories dealt with themes of identity, romantic relationships, personal independence and crime. She didn’t consider herself a mystery writer and preferred to focus on character development and plot structure than genre form. According to writer A.B. Emrys, “Her novels revolve around women who are menaced, but who turn out to be neither mere victimized dames nor rescued damsels. Independence is the key to survival of such protagonists as Laura…”

Laura was written during WWII but its decidedly not at all influenced by the war. In fact, Caspary had spent much time exploring her political beliefs (she dappled in Communism which led her to be graylisted during the red scare), and decided she wanted a break from politics in order to return to writing. Laura started as a theatrical play and an original screenplay. When neither of those sold, Caspary wrote Laura as a novel. It was serialized in seven parts in Collier magazine and then published by Houghton Mifflin. Otto Preminger learned about the novel and presented it to Darryl F. Zanuck, with whom he had a long time feud, in order to get 20th Century Fox to acquire the film rights, which they did.

Caspary’s novel is divided into five parts, each giving the perspective of one of the four main characters before returning back to the police detective’s investigation:

Part 1 - Waldo Lydecker’s POV
Part 2 - Mark McPherson’s POV
Part 3 - Shelby Carpetner’s POV - as told through a police interrogation.
Part 4 - Laura’s POV
Part 5 - Mark McPherson’s POV

The film adaptation follows the book quite closely with some key differences. Lydecker is described as a middle-aged man who is overweight, pale and has lost his appetite due to the stress of the criminal investigation. He’s decidedly more biting with his remarks in the book than in the film. Clifton Webb really steals the show with his performance as Lydecker. Laird Cregar, who would have fit the novel’s characterization of Lydecker more closely, was considered for the role but Preminger thought his ominous presence would give away a key plot point.

Gene Tierney is as exactly as Caspary has Lydecker describe her in the book: “She was a slender thing, timid as a fawn and fawn-like, too, in her young uncertain grace. She had a tiny head, delicate for even that thin body, and the tilt of it along with the bright shyness of her slightly oblique dark eyes further contributed to the sense that Bambi had escaped from the forest and galloped up the eighteen flights to this apartment.” Her POV is strong and definitely the highlight of the book.

Mark McPherson isn’t much different than Dana Andrews’ role except that he’s more imaginative and his investment in Laura comes more from his thought process than his actions. The biggest different in characterization can be seen with Shelby Carpenter, who they indeed softened in order to give Vincent Price a much more friendly on-screen part. The novel’s Shelby is an insufferable cad. In fact, when I got to his POV I groaned loudly but lucky his part is reduced to a single chapter. Diane Redfern, the story’s true femme fatale and ultimate victim, plays a stronger part in the novel but like in the film, is never actually seen.

Caspary does a wonderful job exploring the male-female dynamic. She tackles misogyny, gender roles and obsession with clarity and confidence. It’s clear that each of the men sees Laura as an extension of themselves and their individual quests to gain complete control of her all fail in some respect. At several points in the novel, Caspary explores how a woman evolves into herself by her relationship with others, particularly men. But this also happens to men too. Laura is being molded by the men in her life but she is also molding them. It’s as though it takes group effort to blossom into the person you’re going to become. And because these characters are so dependent on each other for personal growth, there is a possessiveness that comes from that.

Laura by Vera Caspary is currently available as a stand-alone book from The Feminist Press or part of the Library of America’s Women Crime Writers anthology. You can borrow the stand-alone book from your local library through Overdrive. It’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend you check it out if you can.

I leave you know with a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Her flatter was never shallow. She found the real qualities and made them important. Surface faults and affections fell away like false friends at the approach of adversity.” – Waldo Lydecker
“I thought of my mother and how she had talked of a girl’s giving herself too easily. Never give yourself, Laura, she’d say, never give yourself to a man… That is why I have given so much of everything else; myself I have always withheld.” – Laura Hunt
“You are not dead, Laura; you are a violent, living, bloodthirsty woman.” – Waldo Lydecker

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Repeat Performance (1947)

"Stars look down on New Year's Eve in New York. They say that fate is in the stars. That each of our years is planned ahead. And nothing can change destiny. Is that true? How many times have you said 'I wish I could live this year over again?' This is the story of a woman who did relive one year of her life."

Directed by Alfred L. Werker and based on a novel by William O'Farrell, Repeat Performance (1947) is a time travel noir that imagines a protagonist being given a second chance to change the course of events that led to a terrible tragedy. Joan Leslie plays Sheila Page, a celebrated actress married to playwright Barney Page (Louis Hayward). While Sheila's career has gained momentum over recent months, Barney's career is spiralling out of control due to his alcoholism and the lingering resentment he feels towards his more successful wife. The film starts on New Year's Eve in 1946. As partygoers usher in 1947, Sheila is reeling from the fact that she has just shot and killed her abusive husband. She confides in her good friend William Williams (Richard Basehart in his screen debut), a poet and a member of Sheila's social scene, wishing she could relive 1946 and ultimately alter the timeline that led her to this moment. Mysteriously both Sheila and William are transported back to New Year's Eve 1945 and Sheila's given a second chance. Can she prevent that fatal night from reoccurring or is she bound by the chains of destiny.

Joan Leslie and Richard Basehart in Repeat Performance (1947)
Joan Leslie and Richard Basehart in Repeat Performance (1947)

In the article I wrote for TCM, I wrote "Repeat Performance (1947) is a flimsy noir bolstered by an intriguing conceit." I'll add to this that I found the film quite gratifying for several reasons. We get to see Joan Leslie in a robust leading role (instead of a supporting ingenue part). She is dressed to the nines in costumes by Oleg Cassini and jewelry (pay attention to the broaches!) by Eugene Joseff. Leslie is able to maintain some of her wholesome image playing a character who is a genuinely good person stuck in a bad situation. As someone who loves all things New Year's, I love how the holiday is implemented in this story. It's the perfect setting since this is a prime moment when we think about the events of the past year and plot out what we'll do different in the next. I also really enjoy the fact that the way the plot plays out is not quite what you'd expect. I enjoyed the cast of characters including Tom Conway as John Friday, the smarmy theatrical producer, and Virginia Field as Paula Costello, a rival actress who tries to poison Barney's mind against Sheila. The film also examines the social politics of the theatre world and Basehart's character William Williams adds two interesting subthemes: literature and mental health.

There is one interaction between Leslie and Hayward that is blatantly sexist and a bit of a head scratcher. If you've watched the film, you'll know exactly what I mean. It's not strictly a noir but film noir expert Eddie Muller calls it a "noir fantasy" because of how the film blends noir with supernatural elements.

Repeat Performance was produced by Aubrey Schenck for Eagle-Lion Films Inc. Joan Leslie had just had a tumultuous falling out with her home studio Warner Bros. and was working as a free agent. Here is some more background on the film from my article:

"Now as a free agent, the star went to work for Eagle-Lion. Actress Constance Dowling had just left Eagle-Lion because of her own dissatisfaction with her roles and Leslie replaced her as the lead in Repeat Performance. Eagle-Lion was eager to showcase their new star and they elevated what would have been a low-budget film to a big budget production....

Repeat Performance didn't make a splash back in 1947 but it continues to linger in the minds of generations of viewers who have seen it since. At the 2013 Seattle Noir City premiere of the film, Eddie Muller called the film a "film noir version of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)." He went on to say that "over the years [many people] have told me about seeing Repeat Performance when they were young and it stuck in their mind. There is something about the premise of this film..." The introductory voiceover read by John Ireland and the conceit is also a memorable precursor to Rod Serling's hit TV show The Twilight Zone. Repeat Performance has since been remade as the TV film Turn Back the Clock (1989) with Joan Leslie in a cameo role. Leslie was a featured guest at a 2011 Noir City event and by sheer luck a 16mm print purchased by a private collector was made available just in time for the screening. Bad prints of the film have circulated over the years and this newly discovered 16mm print was in much better condition."

Repeat Performance (1947) is available in a deluxe DVD/Blu-ray set from Flicker Alley. The film was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in conjunction with The Film Noir Foundation and funded by The Packard Humanities Institute. The restoration is a sight to behold. I had only ever seen bad copies of the film and the Blu-ray edition was a sight for sore eyes.

Flicker Alley's release has a robust offering of extras. The jewel case includes two discs, a reversible cover and a booklet with photos and the article Repeat Performance: A Book-to-Film Comparison by Brian Light. The disc extras include an introduction by Eddie Muller, a promotional pressbook and audio commentary by Nora Fiore. My favorite extras by far were two vignettes: Farran Smith Nehme's profile on Joan Leslie and Alan K. Rode and Steven C. Smith's Eagle-Lion: A Noir Stained Legacy

Thank you to Flicker Alley for sending me a copy for review!

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Adapted by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, Nightmare Alley (2021) is a magnificent adaptation that honors the film noir classic while giving contemporary audiences a grittier and more nuanced look at William Lindsay Gresham's story.

Stan (Bradley Cooper) has a dark past. One he leaves behind as he enters the carnival world. Intrigued and horrified by the resident geek, Stan catches a gruesome performance without paying the required fee. Carnival manager Clem (Willem Dafoe) catches him but takes pity on Stan and offers him an opportunity to work. Stan quickly becomes a beloved member of the group of carnies. Zeena the psychic (Toni Collette) and her partner and former mentalist Pete (David Strathairn) take him under their wings showing him the ropes. He soon masters the art of deception and showmanship. Stan falls for the young and naive Molly (Rooney Mara) who is under the watchful eye of strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman). After a tragic accident at the carnival, Stan and Molly run away to the city to put on a mentalist show for the wealthy elite at an elegant nightclub. They are thriving until Stan becomes a little too intoxicated with his own powers. He meets his match with Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who knows the inner workings of many a wealthy patron at the club. The two join forces with tragic results.

I've struggled to appreciate the original adaptation of Nightmare Alley (1947), directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. I've watched it numerous times but have always been put off by how the characters prey on the vulnerable and how disjointed the film seemed. However, by watching this new adaptation and revisiting the old one now I have a new appreciation of how masterful the film noir adaptation truly was.

Here is a breakdown of who played which role in the two adaptations

Stanton "Stan"— Tyrone Power (1947) and Bradley Cooper (2021)
Zeena — Joan Blondell (1947) and Toni Collette (2021)
Molly — Coleen Gray (1947) and Rooney Mara (2021)
Lilith— Helen Walker (1947) and Cate Blanchett (2021)
Ezra Grindle— Taylor Holmes (1947) and Richard Jenkins (2021)
Bruno — Mike Mazurki (1947) and Ron Perlman (2021)
Pete — Ian Keith (1947) and David Strathairn (2021)
Clem Hoatley — James Flavin (1947) and Willem Dafoe (2021)

What makes the new adaptation different? We're given much more background on Stan. It's clear that he's a disturbed individual and Bradley Cooper does a great job conveying this (his final scene is mind blowingly good). In Tyrone Power's version, Stan is more of a charming opportunist. The events are a lot more gruesome and there is more at stake for this cast of characters. Toni Collette, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett all did fantastic job as the three main female characters. They have their own agency and don't necessarily exist to serve the main male protagonist. It's sad that it has to be said but there are many films where this is lacking. The new film expands the stories of some key characters including Clem, played by the always brilliant Willem Dafoe, as well as Ezra Grindle who is one of Stan's major victims. A lot of attention was put to visuals including costumes, decor and all the unique elements of the carnival, both big and small. There are some fantastic shots that are works of art in themselves. Dr. Lilith's office is an Art Deco dream. Anyone who loves the era will find a lot to enjoy from the beautiful to the macabre.

The 2021 version was written by Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan, who are both great appreciators of classic film (Kim runs the classic film and pop culture blog Sunset Gun!) and really dived into the sources material and into the life of the author William Lindsay Gresham whose own experiences influenced his writing. The new film is 2 hours and 30 minutes which ads about 40 minutes to the original. I highly recommend watching this in the theater to really immerse yourself in the visuals and the story because this is one you'll want to watch in one go.

Nightmare Alley is a fascinating study in human nature. What we're drawn to, what scares us, what drives us and how we manipulate others to get what we want. Both the film noir adaptation and the new version both drive home an awareness of the dangers of preying on others.

Nightmare Alley (2021) is currently in theaters and Nightmare Alley (1947) is streaming on the  Criterion Channel.

Friday, August 20, 2021

TCM: Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller

Dark City
The Lost World of Film Noir
Revised and Expanded Edition
by Eddie Muller
TCM and Running Press
July 2021
Hardcover ISBN: 9780762498970
272 pages

Published in 1998, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir put Eddie Muller on the map. What would soon became a best seller and one of the definitive books about the genre, opened many doors for Muller. He programmed noir screenings for film festivals, started the Film Noir Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of film noir, and eventually became the host of Noir Alley on Turner Classic Movies. The book that started it all is now back in print in a beautifully designed, revised and expanded edition.

"Film noirs were distress flares launched into America's movie screens by artists working the night shift at the Dream Factory." — Eddie Muller

In telling the story of film noir, Eddie Muller imagines all of the stories, their literary origins, the subsequent films, the players involved and the era in which they were born, as a single place: Dark City. Muller traces the origins of different film noir tropes and themes, giving each its own Dark City address. Each chapter is a stop at a different address where the reader learns about a particular theme and how it was used in film noir. Sprinkled throughout are mini biographies that provide crucial background information as well as context. Everything flows together with seamless transitions and Muller's special brand of noir infused language.

The addresses in Dark City include:

Sinister Heights — Corruption
The Precinct — Crime and Punishment
Hate Street — Murder
The City Desk — News and Reporters
Shamus Flats — Private Eyes
Vixenville — Femme Fatales
Blind Alley — Mysteries
The Psych Ward — Mental Illness
Knockville Square — Heists
Loser's Lane — Deranged Men
The Big House — Prison Dramas
Thieves' Highway — Criminals on the Run
The Stage Door — The last days of Film Noir

Interspersed throughout the book are inserts with expanded biographies which are mostly about movie stars with a few exceptions. Each appears where it makes most sense in context of the discussion happening at that point in the book. These are fantastic biographies that range from 1-4 pages and offer more than the mini biographies that appear in the body of text.

Subjects include: John Garfield, Gloria Grahame, Joan Crawford, Ben Hecht, Robert Mitchum, Belita, Joan Harrison, Robert Ryan, Sterling Hayden, Barbara Payton, Ida Lupino, Tom Neal, Desert Fury (1947) and Steve Cochran.

This new edition includes additional chapters, restored photographs and a new layout. Kudos to the team who worked on the design of this book. The pages are beautifully laid out. Whenever an insert appears it's at a natural point in the text where you don't have to stop mid paragraph in order to read another section. That's very difficult to do but worth it for a better reading experience.

Eddie Muller does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into the world of film noir from all the fascinating information, context galore and stylish language that puts you right into the heart of Dark City. 

Here are some of my favorite lines from the book: 

"[Orson Welles] changed the grammar of motion picture storytelling and set the cinematic syntax for film noir: the quest for truth in morally ambiguous terrain, the cynical take on the corrupting influence of power, the off-kilter visual style."

"Power-mad women are smart enough not to bloody their own hands. That's what men are for." 

"In Dark City, psychiatrists are as corrupt as gangsters, misusing their power over mind to dominate the hapless and disturbed."

"The blurring of moral distinctions was part and parcel of noir."

"In the wake of the studios' Communist purge, social criticism was out. Films could no longer suggest that people did bad things due to economic pressure."

My only minor quibble is with the use of some words to describe female characters. However, we're dealing with some nefarious characters in many of these stories so the usage is not completely out of context. The book itself is quite large which makes it perfect for flipping through to look at photographs but not as easy for someone, like me, who read the book cover to cover. It made me want to invest in an ergonomic book stand!

Dark City by Eddie Muller is evocative of a long gone era of filmmaking that still captivates film lovers today. It effectively transports readers into the world of film noir with its fine use language, images, context and information. A must have for film noir fans.

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of Dark City for review.

This is my third review for the Summer Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

They Won't Believe Me (1947)


"I can't walk out Harry. You'll have to do the walking."

This is the story of one man and three women. The man in question, stockbroker Larry Ballentine (Robert Young), is on trial for the murder of one of those three. A flashback takes us to when it all started. Larry was having an affair Janice Bell (Jane Greer), a delicate rose, who is falling in love with Larry but conflicted by the fact that he's still married. The wife in question, Greta (Rita Johnson), has no plans on letting Larry go. Their marriage was more of a financial arrangement for Larry. But when Greta hears that Larry is about to travel to Montreal with his new flame, she tags along to shake off Janice. At work, Larry falls for an employee at the brokerage, Verna (Susan Hayward). Verna is very different from both Janice and Greta, something that excited Larry greatly. When Verna and Larry plot an escape, a way for Larry to finally get a divorce without sacrificing his financial situation, things take a turn for the worst.

Directed by Irving Pichel, They Won't Believe Me (1947) is a captivating film noir and a must see for anyone who loves this style of filmmaking. Produced by Joan Harrison for RKO, this was her first sole producer credit (learn more about Harrison here.) It flips the femme fatale trope on its head presenting us with what TCM's Eddie Muller calls an "homme fatale." Robert Young as Larry has all the traits you would expect from a femme fatale but in a male role. And a credit to Harrison's handling of the project, the female characters are fleshed out and just plain interesting. They Won't Believe Me is based on a story by Gordon McDonnell and adapted to the screen by Jonathan Latimer. The ending is abrupt and a little ambiguous, a way to get around strict Hays Code guidelines of the time.

RKO re-released They Won't Believe Me in 1957 to play as a double bill in theaters. They cut 15 minutes from the film creating a new 60 minute version. The complete movie was elusive for years. Prints languished in archives but the public only ever saw the cut version. Thanks to the Warner Archive's George Feltenstein who championed the restoration, this film noir is now available in its entirety. The Warner Archive collection has released a new Blu-ray restored in 1080p HD from a 4K scan of the original nitrate print. This restoration premiered at the 2021 virtual TCM Classic Film Festival back in May.

If you haven't seen They Won't Believe Me yet, you're in for a real treat. I found myself really engrossed with this one. It hits all the marks I expect a good film noir should. There are a few twists and turns but nothing is over the top. For me, I really enjoyed the different elements like the court room trial, the escape to the countryside, the backdrop of the stock market, the Caribbean cruise, etc. There's a lot going on but it's so streamlined and seamless that it just flows. I'll definitely be watching this one again and again.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I feature titles from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me copy of They Won't Believe Me (1947).

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