We're hooked on this poster—and the movie too.
Le port de la drogue was better known as Pickup on South Street, a movie we raved about a little while ago. Its U.S. poster is pedestrian, but this promo for the French market was painted by Constantin Belinsky, and we think it's spectacular. He actually painted two posters, the second of which—not quite as nice because he was asked to copy the U.S. promo—appears below. We'd never heard of Belinsky before but we'll keep our eyes open for more of his work. Pickup on South Street premiered in the U.S. in 1953 and seems to not have made it to France until today in 1961. We aren't sure why it took so long, but the wait was worth it, because the movie is great.
Gangsters try to steal Robert Ryan's boxing future.
In film noir there are procedural cop movies. The Set-Up is a procedural boxing movie. It tries to take viewers behind the scenes of the violence, bloodlust, and money to focus on the nuts and bolts of the fight game. Starring Robert Ryan as an aging heavyweight and Audrey Totter as his fretful girlfriend, most of the first half of the film takes place in a claustrophobic locker room as boxer after boxer goes out for subsequent bouts of a six card program like gladiators in Rome's Coliseum. Ryan is the main event, and when his name is called the action shifts to the ring for his fight, which is shown in something close to real time.
Ryan is hoping a win over an up and coming young fighter will earn him one last shot at fortune and glory, but he has no idea the fix is in. Somebody should have told him, because if he wins the bout he'll be in heaps of trouble. This is a good flick. It was helmed by Robert Wise, has some fantastic directorial extravagances, and looks spectacular in general, like the gritty documentary photos of Arthur Weegee Fellig, which is no small feat for a film shot entirely on an RKO backlot (Weegee, incidentally, has a cameo as a timekeeper). In the realm of boxing movies The Set-Up stands toe to toe with most. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
She's a nightmare on Scarlet Street.
This beautiful photo features U.S. actress Joan Bennett and was made as a promo for her 1945 drama Scarlet Street, in which she plays a con artist who steals credit from a struggling artist for his critically acclaimed paintings. Directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, it's a solid film noir, well worth seeing. Check out its promo poster at this link.
A Trapped criminal always fights to the death.
Above you see a crop and full frame version of one of the greatest film noir promo photos ever made, in our opinion, from the 1949 thriller Trapped. Lloyd Bridges stars as a counterfeiter stalked by treasury agents, and Barbara Payton co-stars as his loyal lady love. We may talk about this film at some point. Payton would later earn her place in Hollywood lore by spiraling down the drain of drugs and vice. We discussed that in detail several years ago, and it's a very noir tale that you can check out at this link.
Ida done it her way.
Above, an interesting German language promo poster for the Ida Lupino film noir Private Hell 36, which we talked about last month. Lupino is considered a film pioneer for her migration into directing, but she's always good in front of the camera too. This piece is signed, though illegibly, so another artist loses their chance for internet immortality. Private Hell 36 premiered in West Germany today in 1956
Mortal man finds himself at the whims of a goddess in 1954's Pushover.
We love this bold yellow poster for Du plomb pour l'inspecteur, which was originally made in the U.S. and known as Pushover. Most important item to note here is that this is Kim Novak's first credited role, when she was aged twenty-one and looked freshly delivered to Earth on a sunbeam. Fred MacMurray plays a cop assigned to get close to her in order to snare her gangster boyfriend. MacMurray is only mortal, unlike Novak, so he immediately falls in love with her and begins seeing her outside his official duties. Not long after that he's plotting to steal her man's cache of $210,000 in bank loot. That would be about two million dollars in today's money, which is no insignificant amount. Any man would compromise his principles for that, but he'd do so even more readily for a chance to nuzzle Novak. There are a lot of old movies out there that hinge on lust as a motivating factor, but in this one it really makes sense. Performance-wise Novak can't act well yet, but like MacMurray, you'll overlook her flaws. After opening in the U.S. in 1954 Pushover premiered in France today in 1955.
It should have launched a memorable career but didn't quite work out that way.
Do people who like film noir also like NFL football? We ask because the Noir City Film Festival wraps up tonight in head-to-head competition with the Super Bowl. For football haters, the fest is a chance to get out of Super Bowl households for the duration of the game, but for others it's a tough choice. Film noir and football are similar. Both feature hardheaded men pitted in mortal struggle against forces arrayed against them. Both feature unexpected plot twists. Both put physical safety at risk. In both cheating is rampant (at least when the Patriots are involved). In neither is victory assured. We wonder what the festival organizers would have done if the 49ers had made it to the title game. Hah hah‚ that's a joke. They knew—everybody knew—the 49ers would suck this year.
Anyway, tonight the festival features two films, one of which is 1961's Blast of Silence. Written, directed by, and starring Allen Baron, the film is a fascinating counterpoint to Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss, which showed at Noir City a few days ago. Both are low budget crime thrillers shot in New York City about men desperate for better lives whose needs center on women. Where Kubrick's protagonist is a pug boxer whose interest in a beautiful neighbor makes him want out of the ring, Baron plays a killer-for-hire whose random encounter with a woman from his youth triggers second thoughts about his chosen career.
Many reviews of Blast of Silence are of the glowing variety, but while it's seamlessly put together and the noir flourishes are well executed, it suffers from Baron's acting, as well as that of other performers. But everyone loves an auteur in the rough. It's easy to look past the acting and see Baron's behind-the-camera talent. Given a chance he might have had a very different career. Watching Blast of Silence you can imagine it. Like gruff voiced narrator Lionel Stander says at one point, “You get a feeling this is how it was meant to be.”
Instead Baron put together one more low budget movie before migrating into television, where he intermittently directed shows like The Brady Bunch and Charlie's Angels. Hmm... Brady like Tom Brady and Angels like Los Angeles? Um... where were we? Oh yes. It's amazing how Baron's career diverged from Kubrick's despite both making low budget NYC thrillers of similar quality. Was Baron as talented as Kubrick? We aren't saying that. Just that it would have been interesting to see what his cinematic career might have looked like. But if film noir teaches anything it's that in life, as in football, things don't always work out the way they should. Go Rams.
They'll have to choose what they hate more—their circumstances or each other.
The Noir City Film Festival rolls on with Robert Wise's 1959 thriller Odds Against Tomorrow. Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan star in a heist story that brings a touch of underground jazz and an edge of racial tension to the narrative mix. It would play nicely on a double bill with In the Heat of the Night, but fits at Noir City too. In fact it might be the darkest film noir on the bill. Belafonte is in debt to mobsters and Ryan is broke and feels emasculated being supported by his girlfriend. When ex-cop Ed Begley brings the two together for a lucrative robbery both see it as the only answer. The robbery has the same problems associated with any heist, with the added complication of Ryan's racism.
Some reviews of this film try to suggest equivalence between these two characters. Uh, no. Belafonte's separatist leanings and distrust of whites in a society that is unfair toward him is a precaution; Ryan's separatist leanings and distrust of blacks in a society that favors him is oppression. This is a basic sociological truth as it relates to power in any society, and it's irksome that some reviewers miss this. Belafonte respondsto aggressive hate with reactive hate. The expectation that he possess superhuman forbearance while his oppressor can be merely human removes context and wrongly demands that everybody behave identically despite their different circumstances and different locations within the spectrum of power.
Much of the movie examines Belafonte's and Ryan's respective attitudes along these lines, with the heist coming in a flurry of action at the end. The robbery is basically foolproof, but only if the powder keg of racial resentment doesn't blow it sky high. The points Wise is making here, which originate with William P. McGivern's novel, are simply these: cooperate and succeed, or fight and fail. All Ryan needs to do extend the hand of respect, but because of his prejudice he fails again and again, which hardens Belafonte's already suspicious attitudes. Who do these two hate more—their circumstances or each other? That's what Odds Against Tomorrow asks, about its characters, and the U.S. Festivalgoers will leave the cinema talking about this one.
These thieves will probably steal the entire film festival.
This poster for the 1957 film noir The Burglar looks pretty low rent, doesn't it? The movie is modestly budgeted too, but money isn't everything when it comes to making art. The film, which plays at Noir City tonight, opens with a nocturnal suburban heist that leaves a trio of break-in artists headed by Dan Duryea with a gaudy piece of $150,000 jewelry they can't hope to fence until the heat goes down. That means they have to wait, and with this mismatched group that means the pressure goes up. There's a fourth person in the mix. Jayne Mansfield, star of the promo poster, is the crew's eyes and ears, casing places they want to rob.
The Burglar is an early role for Mansfield, coming three years into her career, but it also arrived in cinemas a year after the big Twentieth Century Fox musical comedy The Girl Can't Help It, which featured her in full sex kitten mode, with the corset-crunched hourglass figure and helium voice. The irony is The Burglar was actually filmed before The Girl Can't Help It, but Mansfield's milieu had been set in stone by Fox's expensive hit. The Burglar challengingly asks her to be by turns innocent, tough, frustrated, terrified, and vulnerable. Basically, it asks too much this early in her career. But she gets by far the best line, when asked by Duryea at one point why she's being so fickle and difficult:
“You don't know? You really don't know? Well look at me! I'm a woman! I'm flesh and blood and I've got feelings!”
That one might bring the house down. A better actress might have nailed this dialogue, which was written by David Goodis working from his own novel, but as delivered by Mansfield the bit is funny, and actually goes on to hit other comedic notes. Though The Burglar demanded too much of the inexperienced Mansfield, she hurts the final product little, because the movie comes across like a sneaky parody anyway. With one partner in Mickey Shaughnessy who's creepy and rapey, and another in Peter Capell who's as highly strung as a banjo, head crook Duryea has assembled by far the worst gang in film noir history. There's no thought—not even for a second—that these three are going to achieve their goals.
But the movie is 190 proof noir—a knock-you-on-your-ass cocktail of nearly everything cool about the form. You get voiceover, flashback, nightmares, a loyal good girl led astray plus a femme fatale played by Martha Vickers, outrageous shadows, angular framing, hard-boiled dialogue, one crooked-as-fuck cop, a brassy, jazzy score, and beautiful night-for-night location work from director Paul Wendkos and cinematographer Don Malkames. And as bonuses you get a funhouse scene that's pure genius, and a high diving horse. The Burglar is sure to please all fans of old movies, but for noir lovers and lucky Noir City attendees in particular, it's nothing less than a landmark. You can learn a bit more about the film in the post below.
There's no amount of loot that can fill an empty soul.
Yes, we read the novel The Burglar right after watching the movie. We could have done it the other way around, but this seemed to make more sense. We went into the book wondering if the movie's merits were due to director Paul Wendkos or author David Goodis. Turns out it was both. Goodis wrote the screenplay, and his adaptation reshapes several crucial elements. Primarily, the movie has police procedural elements the book doesn't, and a take on the problem of sexual harassment that feels very 2019. On the other hand, an aspect of the novel we're surprised survived is the relationship between Gladden (Jayne Mansfield in the film) and Harbin (Dan Duryea). In both book and film Harbin takes over parenting Gladden when her father is killed, making them father figure and quasi daughter. In the film Mansfield even calls Duryea her foster father. That's pretty provocative, considering she wants to make the eight-limbed mattress monster™ with him.
Overall, it's no surprise the novel became a movie—it's great. The emotional desperation of Harbin, Gladden, and the other woman Della (played by Martha Vickers in the film) verges on painful to endure as a reader. They latch onto each other with a ferocity that's only matched by a fourth character's deadly lust for the stolen jewels. All this intensity comes in addition to a brilliant plot set-up for the entire exercise. We don't know if we'll ever again pair movie watching with immediately reading the source material, but it was interesting this time. Did it take the fun out of the book, knowing what would happen? Not at all. Goodis's novel is different enough that we weren't sure what would happen, actually. We owe this enjoyable read entirely to the Noirfest. We might have stumbled across the book randomly at some point, but without the movie to take us there, probably not.
Edit: Okay, we'll quit with the eight-limbed mattress monster™ bit. It was funny at first. You had to be there.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1923—Yankee Stadium Opens
In New York City, Yankee Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, opens with the Yankees beating their eternal rivals the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1. The stadium, which is nicknamed The House that Ruth Built, sees the Yankees become the most successful franchise in baseball history. It is eventually replaced by a new Yankee Stadium and closes in September 2008.
1961—Bay of Pigs Invasion Is Launched
A group of CIA financed and trained Cuban refugees lands at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba with the aim of ousting Fidel Castro. However, the invasion fails badly and the result is embarrassment for U.S. president John F. Kennedy and a major boost in popularity for Fidel Castro, and also has the effect of pushing him toward the Soviet Union for protection.
1943—First LSD Trip Takes Place
Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, while working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, accidentally absorbs lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, and thus discovers its psychedelic properties. He had first synthesized the substance five years earlier but hadn't been aware of its effects. He goes on to write scores of articles and books about his creation.
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