Having made so many great discoveries earlier in the month, for the final five double features of Noirvember I decided to choose mostly new-to-me films. This is also because the Noirvember hashtag on Twitter provided so many suggestions! At this point, I’ve compiled an incredible list of noirs I haven’t seen and many look absolutely awesome—it has already made me excited for Noirvember 2018!
Double Homicide: I Wake Up Screaming (1941, H. Bruce Humberstone) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948, Orson Welles)
I Wake Up Screaming is one of the very first film noirs, filmed at the same time as The Maltese Falcon but released three months later. In that sense, it is somewhat of a transitional film, carrying over elements from the gangster pictures of the 1930s into the more psychoanalytical world of noir, but without the fatalism of noir. In a plot that foresees that of Laura, the narrative moves back and forth in time as we follow the homicide investigation into the death of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), an up-and-coming model/actress discovered by promoter—and now prime suspect—Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature). The investigation is somewhat stymied by the growing attraction between Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) and Frankie as well as the obsessive drive of the exceedingly creepy policeman played by Laird Cregar and the almost inevitable appearance of Elisha Cook Jr. It is rather quirky for a film noir, especially with Grable and Mature in the leads, but I enjoyed it very much. However, I do wish the film had kept its original name of Hot Spot, as I think that more aptly describe the situation the characters find themselves in (I Wake Up Screaming is the name of the source novel).
That’s the first time anyone ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer, you’d be flattered.
—Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai
Even though I had decided to focus on new-to-me selections for this last push, I still wanted to rewatch The Lady from Shanghai specifically for the mirror-maze shootout ending, which was recently referenced in the ending of John Wick: Chapter 2. Newsflash: It still looks cool. However, this set piece also reflects (!) a fundamental problem with this film, lots of standout moments that don’t quite hang together. I want to love it, but the plot is extremely hard to follow, some scenes—like the Central Park opening—just don’t fit with the rest, and Orson Welles’s Irish accent doesn’t work for me at all. That said, it is an extremely poetic film and there is a speech about sharks that is second only to Quint’s speech in Jaws. Plus, I love Everett Sloane as Arthur Bannister, trial lawyer extraordinaire and husband to Rita Hayworth.
Double Check: Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder) and The Blue Gardenia (1953, Fritz Lang)
Ace in the Hole was one of those films that didn’t seem like it could be noir based on stills I had seen or the plot description, so I hadn’t put it on my original viewing list. However, David recommended it in the comments of my first Noirvember post, so I added it to the mix. It definitely breaks the mold of standard noir fare, but I certainly consider it a part of the noir canon. The most striking thing about this film was how relevant it remains today. I watched this one with a French cousin who was visiting from Calgary and we both agreed that it seemed fresh and modern (in the most depressing way). The film tells the story of a cynical big-city reporter, played by Kirk Douglas, who finds himself in the “backwater” of the American Southwest with access to a scoop that might allow him to get back a primo job on a major newspaper. Jan Sterling is a particularly callous femme fatale. Corruption, greed, and manipulation rule the day and almost no one comes out of this one looking good.
Honey, if a girl killed every man who got fresh with her, how much of the male population do you think there’d be left?
—Ann Sothern to Anne Baxter in The Blue Gardenia
I paired Ace in the Hole with The Blue Gardenia, a film I had never heard of, because it too stars a newspaper journalist looking for a scoop; however, Richard Conte is much less ruthless than Kirk Douglas. In fact, once again, Raymond Burr is the male heavy, playing a playboy artist whose encounter with switchboard operator Anne Baxter sets the plot in motion. The story is not very original and the murder mystery wraps up a bit too quickly in the end, but there are some nice cinematographic effects and I loved the interactions between the roommates.
Double Decker: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950, Otto Preminger)
It was odd to finally watch The Strange Love of Martha Ivers since the Out of the Past podcast uses its main theme as their intro music and closes with dialogue from the final scene: “Don’t look back, baby. Don’t ever look back.” Still, I didn’t love this movie as much as I thought I would given this familiarity, although it certainly has some memorable moments of dialogue and a key revelation scene towards the end that is simply delicious. I think the main problem for me was that the set-up goes on far too long. You see, the film starts about twenty years in the past of the main characters, when the characters later played by Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas are children. Certainly knowing the details of the main event of this opening—the mysterious death of Martha’s aunt—is critical to the rest of the film, but I think it could have been handled in a few minutes. In any case, the main reason I would rewatch this film is Lizabeth Scott, who plays Toni, a newcomer to this bizarre love triangle.
When you get old like me, you don’t care what time it is.
—Grayce Mills as Ken Paine’s landlady in Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends (not to be confused with the Shel Silverstein children’s book) is another unusual entry in the noir canon. Directed by Otto Preminger, who made Laura, and starring that film’s leads (Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney), Where the Sidewalk Ends depicts a world even darker and more violent than most film noirs. As in Laura, Dana Andrews is a police detective, although one with decidedly less finesse than Mark McPherson. In fact, he has been demoted after numerous citizen complaints about his violent ways and rough tactics. These rough tactics lead him to inadvertently kill a suspect he is interrogating and then go to desperate lengths to cover up the crime. Gene Tierney plays the estranged wife of the dead man and love interest to Andrews, and the situation becomes even more complicated when her father becomes a suspect in her husband’s death. Although I didn’t really love Andrew’s character or this world (except for Martha of Martha’s Café), there is something very compelling about this film. I look forward to revisiting it when I have a broader knowledge of the canon.
Double Talk: Nightmare Alley (1947, Edmund Goulding) and Whirlpool (1950, Otto Preminger)
Nightmare Alley is another recommendation from David, and it came up in quite a few Noirvember tweets, so I decided to check it out even though I was not at all convinced of the carnival setting. However, this is really a great story about an unscrupulous con man who starts out in the carnival but eventually takes his act into the big time. The con man is played by Tyrone Power, who really throws himself into the unattractive role. Of course, almost everyone here is unattractive, except maybe the slightly more innocent Molly, played by Coleen Gray. There are two other great roles for women, including Zeena, the “psychic” played by Joan Blondell, and the sleazy psychiatrist played by Helen Walker. There is lots of plot and character detail to this seedy world, so I imagine it will reward multiple viewings.
Girls! Girls! Battling over dear David in my bedroom. It’s the most dramatic thing that ever happened in it.
—Constance Collier as Tina Cosgrove in Whirlpool
Whirlpool is a bit of a clunker. On its face, it seems like it could be interesting and there are two strong leads in Gene Tierney and José Ferrer, but the set-up isn’t very believable and the whole film suffers for it. The basic story is that Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the wife of a well-known psychiatrist, is caught shoplifting and David Korvo, a hypnotist played by José Ferrer, sees this happen and saves her from arrest. Somehow, despite being warned off by Barbara O’Neil, he manages to talk her into consulting with him to solve her psychoanalytical issues (that her successful analyst husband somehow doesn’t see?) and gets her to a place where she is not sure whether or not she has committed a murder. I didn’t dislike it, but it doesn’t have much to recommend it either. Basically, it’s a second-rate Blue Gardenia.
Double Dose: This Gun for Hire (1942, Frank Tuttle) and The Blue Dahlia (1946, George Marshall)
I decided to conclude Noirvember with a double dose of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, who starred in three film noirs together: This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key, and The Blue Dahlia. I really wanted to end on a triple feature and watch all three, but I just didn’t have time.
This Gun for Hire, based on a novel by Graham Greene, was the first of their pairings. The film transports the action of the novel from England to California, specifically San Francisco and Los Angeles—so I knew I was bound to like it. I was already a huge fan of Veronica Lake from such films as Sullivan’s Travels and I Married a Witch, but I only knew Ladd from Shane. Now, I love Shane, and Ladd is great there, but he doesn’t really work as a noir anti-hero for me. He’s just too clean-cut for the role of gritty, abused assassin. Of course, this is the movie that supposedly made him a star, so what do I know?
You’ve got the wrong lipstick on, Mister.
—Alan Ladd as Johnny Morrison in The Blue Dahlia
Ladd is a bit more believable as a returning war veteran in The Blue Dahlia. Having read The Black Dahlia a few years ago, and knowing the influence of this film’s release on the nicknaming of that murder victim, I wanted to be sure to include this film sometime during the month. It was hard to get, so it fell to the very last slot. On the Out of the Past podcast, they don’t have a very high opinion of this film, the first original screenplay by Raymond Chandler. I liked it somewhat more than they did, although I did find the solution to the mystery rather odd and was happy to learn it was changed from Chandler’s original script. Despite the plot not making much sense (but, hey, it’s Chandler, so…), the script still has moments that truly sparkle, like this gem soon after the three army buddies arrive in Los Angeles:
Buzz: Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.
George: Two separate glasses. Get it?
Bartender: Why wouldn’t I get it?
All in all, despite the time commitment it took to watch thirty films in thirty days, I’m so glad I did. I discovered many new films and was able to view films I knew well in a new light. I look forward to Noirvember 2018 (when hopefully I won’t forget to hit “publish” on my write-ups)!
I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
This Gun For Hire (1942)
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
The Lady from Shanghai (1948)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Ace in the Hole (1951)
The Blue Gardenia (1953)