A stranger in strange lands comes to know pure evil.
Because Eric Ambler's 1939 thriller The Mask of Dimitrios is the source of the classic 1944 film noir of the same name starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, we should have read it long ago, but better late than never. The book tells the story of a writer in Istanbul who becomes interested in a killer, smuggler, slaver, and political agitator known as Dimitrios Makropoulos. In hopes of finding inspiration the writer begins to piece together the life of this mystery man.
The investigation carries him from Istanbul to Sofia to Geneva and beyond. That sounds exotic, but the story is almost entirely driven by external and internal dialogues, with little effort spent bringing alive its far flung locales. While we see that as a missed opportunity, and the book could be shorter considering so much of the aforementioned dialogue fails to further illuminate matters, it's fascinating how Dimitrios is slowly pieced together. Here's a line to remember, as the main character Latimer reflects upon the modern age and what the world is becoming:
“The logic of Michelangelo's David and Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's Mein Kampf.”
That isn't one you'd soon forget. Ambler sees casino capitalism and Nazism as twin signposts on a road to perdition built by people like Dimitrios. We can't even imagine that being written by a popular author today without controversy, but Ambler, writing in England during the late 1930s, had zero trouble identifying exactly what he was looking at. This Great Pan edition of The Mask of Dimitrios appeared many years later in 1961, and it has unusual but effective cover art from S. R. Boldero.
Why the hell didn't I think to have the bank teller double bag this?
We keep sharing posters for Stanley Kubrick's thriller The Killing because each one we see is unique and interesting. Above is an Italian poster we missed when we shared three other promos from Italy last year. This one, with its broken sack of cash symbolizing the futility of the central robbery, was painted by Giuliano Nistri. It's impressive that the Italian distributors commissioned three completely different masterful promos for the film, but that was the golden era of cinematic art. These days in Italy, as everywhere, movie posters are merely photographs with text emblazoned across them, but once upon a time they produced amazing things like what you see above, and here. Rapina a mano armata, aka The Killing premiered in Italy today in 1957.
Maybe I should have listened to my parents and stayed in community college.
Above, a nice James Avati cover for Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, copyright 1949. The hardback of this came out in 1946, and it was adapted to the big screen in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role, so this art reflects the movie, which is why the cover femme looks like and is dressed like co-star Colleen Gray. This is one of many mid-century novels set in and around carnivals, and it's one of the better ones, we think. The film version adheres reasonably close to Gresham's original vision. We talked about it several years ago, so check here if you're interested. We've also talked about several other carnival books over the years and now we have an idea to put together a cover collection along those lines. We'll have to see if there are any examples left to find. But in the meantime you can see what we've already collected here, here, here, and here.
The Florida heat cooks up trouble in Lawrence Kasdan's masterful neo-noir.
Kill your husband for you? Sure, I can make that happen, I guess. Spousal murder is a film noir and pulp fiction plot tentpole, and the motivation for trying something so risky generally revolves around sex. But during the time the film noir and pulp fiction genres were extant their makers could only imply it. The neo-noir thriller Body Heat, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1981, fixed that problem, as not-so-bright lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, is seduced into a murder plot by whip smart bombshell Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner in her cinematic debut.
Body Heat is an apt title. The setting is South Florida during a heat wave, with most of the action set in the mythical towns of Pinehaven and Miranda Beach. Every frame of the movie seems to vent steam. There's copious slippery sex and nudity, all of it important to the plot. When the pair have their electric first encounter Hurt pulls off Turner's panties with an expression of pure awe on his face and intones, “So wet.” For just that moment he wonders if it's really him turning on a woman that much. And he's right to wonder, because it isn't him. What's turning her on is money.
Directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film is a reworking of Double Indemnity, but it improves on the original in the sense that we fully understand the visceral reasons why murder has occurred. That moisture between Turner's legs causes an electrical short in Hurt's brain. After subsequent sexual encounters, including an anal session that's implied but clear as day thanks to some clever visuals, he's hooked like a bluegill. For a guy just smart enough to get a law degree, but not bright enough to avoid being known as his town's worst lawyer, bedding Turner makes him feel godlike. Surely he can pull off murder and make it look like an accident.
Body Heat made Turner, Hurt, and Kasdan superstars, and did the same for a few of its below-the-line players. Turner went on to become one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation; Hurt, who had starred in the brilliant but under appreciated Altered States, became one of Hollywood's top leading men; and Kasdan directed Silverado, The Big Chill, and other hits. Co-star Ted Danson also blew up, and Mickey Rourke parlayed a blazing supporting bit into a career as Hollywood's go-to rebel creep. You know any film that ignites five such careers is top notch, but as a post-noir entry Body Heat is also cinematically important. Not only did it finally lay bare the motivation behind all those noir murders and obsessions, but it did so with a reverent visual style and pitch perfect mood. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
I've got a handful of sleeping pills for you.
Since we brought up The Big Sleep we might as well share this nice image of Martha Vickers armed and dangerous. Though this was made for the film, it isn't a still frame, but rather a promo image unrelated to the action. She actually does brandish a gun at one point, but it's a 1930s Iver Johnson revolver rather than the automatic you see here. We've shared several other images of Vickers, all rare, all beautiful. See the top three here, here, and here.
What does Rita Hayworth wear under her skirt? Advertising!
This unique Columbia Pictures promo image was made for Rita Hayworth's 1952 thriller Affair in Trinidad. It reunited Hayworth with co-star Glenn Ford in a attempt to recapture the magic of their 1946 blockbuster Gilda. It didn't quite work, but this promo is inspired.
Lizbeth Scott finds herself floating on an ocean of tears.
Playwright John Guare once compared money to life preservers. People are just as desperate for money as someone in the ocean is for a way to float. They may be swimming fine, but without that life preserver they could go down in rough water and disappear without a trace. In Too Late for Tears a married couple that are swimming fine suddenly find themselves with an excess of life preservers when a bag of money lands in their car. We mean it literally—it comes out of the night and plops into the back seat of their convertible. It's a lot of money—$100,000, which would be more than a million bucks today. The couple don't really need this cash but they can't make themselves give it up. Which leads to serious problems when the crook who accidentally threw the bag into their car comes looking for it.
The promo poster is interesting. It shows bad guy Dan Duryea trying to make Lizbeth Scott tell him where the money went. But Scott's tough. She'll endure anything to keep the hundred grand. As an allegory about greed Too Late for Tears runs on a couple of tracks, but the way it suggests that the craving for money can make a woman forgive—or perhaps pretend to forgive—the unforgivable is a pretty potent commentary. Some viewers may find the very suggestion offensive, which is where thinking of the money as life preservers helps. What price wouldn't a rational person swimming in the ocean pay to guarantee that they would never drown? Too Late for Tears asks the question and the answer isn't pretty. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
Don't look at me you fool! Look at the menstrual cups!
Above is a production still from the classic film noir Double Indemnity showing stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray trying to look like two random grocery shoppers who don't know each other. They're failing big time. But it's not because of the sunglasses and hat. It's because they're both in the feminine hygiene aisle. Well, not really. In the movie we never see what aisle they're in, but our interpretation could explain MacMurray's utterly baffled expression. Double Indemnity premiered today in 1944. And for you history buffs, menstrual cups premiered in stores in the 1930s.
In film noir crime is always the road to ruin.
Looking at the promo poster for 711 Ocean Drive you'll notice that it claims to have been filmed under police protection. Apparently organized crime interests were so incensed by the movie they tried to quash its production. We seriously doubt this is true, but a little white lie in service of cinematic thrills never hurt anyone, we guess. The movie stars Edmond O'Brien in the story of an L.A. telephone worker who uses his genius for electronics to rise to the pinnacle of the illegal bookmaking racket. Once on top he comes to the attention of east coast operators, who move in on his set-up, cut him in for half, but promptly cheat him of his percentage. He won't accept that, but his solution to the problem leads to more trouble.
We won't go into detail, but since the story is narrated by an FBI agent you know from the opening moments that O'Brien loses. The only question is how badly. The film would be better without the voiceover, but we suppose audiences of the day needed that good ole crime-doesn't-pay lesson hammered home. Since real life doesn't provide it, at least escapist cinema can. One aspect of the movie that pleasantly surprised us, though, was O'Brien's plan to retire to Guatemala. It isn't often that mention of our former home pops up in an old flick. Audiences must have thought the scheme was ridiculous, but seventy years ago Guatemala must have been one of the garden spots of the world. Certain parts are still lovely even today. Too bad O'Brien never makes it. 711 Ocean Drive premiered today in 1950.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
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