Love and the art of armed robbery.
Above, a French promo poster for the American film noir Gun Crazy, which premiered in France as Le Démon des armes today in 1950. Haven't seen it? We think it's well worth a viewing.
Someone in the sleeping compartment isn't going to wake up.
Film noir teaches us that anyone can get in too deep, even a railroad engineer. In Human Desire, Fritz Lang's retelling of Emile Zola's 1890 novel La Bête humaine, Glenn Ford finds himself trapped between lust for Gloria Grahame and reluctance to kill to have her. He's already helped her cover up another killing and gotten in the middle of blackmail plot, but every man has his limits. This is flawed but canonical noir, with a cocky Ford, a quirky Grahame, a brutish Broderick Crawford, and Kathleen Case playing the loyal gal pal, who for our money is much more alluring than Grahame. Ford figures that out too, eventually. Too bad his realization is sandwiched between two murders on his train. Human Desire premiered today in 1954.
Why bother with divorce when murder will do?
From the moment Leslie Brooks makes her appearance in Blonde Ice, striding down a staircase in her wedding dress and casting a hawkish gaze over the crowd, you know she's trouble. This is a woman that clearly shouldn't marry, and indeed the union is strained before the reception ends, and the husband is dead within days.
Yes, we have a killer on our hands, a sociopath who married for money then disposed of the unnecessary man attached to it. The police don't buy suicide as a cause of death, which presents problems for Brooks, and other aspects of her plot don't go according to plan, but this is a person you don't want to count out even when the tables seem to be turning against her. She'd hardly be worth the appellation femme fatale if you could take her down just like that.
Low budget, but well executed, with the lead perfectly played by the occasionally crazy-eyed Brooks with a blend of chilly slyness and gee-whiz phony innocence, Blonde Ice shows how much filmmakers can achieve with very little budget, quite a bit of careful thought, and a very good headliner. A little more money might have solved some problems with this production, but it's a nice little time eater even if the tidy ending hurts it a little. Blonde Ice premiered in the U.S. today in 1948.
Sharky's Machine hums along nicely, but only up to a point.
This poster for the 1981 thriller Sharky's Machine was made for the movie's premiere in Bangkok. Every blue moon or so Hollywood decides to update a ’40s film noir. Sometimes these are excellent movies—Body Heat as a rework of Double Indemnity comes to mind. Sharky's Machine is based on William Diehl's novel of the same name, which is a restyling of 1944's Laura. If you haven't seen Laura, a detective falls in love with a murdered woman, focusing these feelings upon her portrait, which is hanging over the mantle in her apartment. In Sharky's Machine the hero, Atlanta vice detective Burt Reynolds, falls in love with Rachel Ward via his surveillance of her during a prostitution investigation, and is left to deal with his lingering feelings when she's killed.
When Ward observed years back that she had been too prudish in her artistic choices, we imagine this was one movie she had in mind. We agree. Reynolds' 24/7 surveillance of a high priced hooker is not near frank enough. This is where vice, voyeurism, and sleaze as subtext should have come together overtly, as it does in Diehl's unflinchingly detailed novel, rather than as stylized montages, which is what Reynolds opts for.
Sex and nudity aren't always gratuitous. The plot driver in old film noirs is often sex, but it couldn't be shown. Remaking a noir affords the opportunity to explore the sexual aspect further, as in Body Heat, where it's literally the lure of sex with no boundaries—exemplified in that famous (but implied) anal scene—that snares the hero in an insane murder plot. In Sharky's Machine it's sexual objectification that is the initial driver. Reynolds' loves Ward's body first and her personality later, but the surveillance that is the key to this is barely explored.
It's a missed opportunity to not only make a better thriller, but to examine this lust-to-love transition as an aspect of all romantic relationships. Reynolds doubled as both star and director of the film, and while his relative newbie status in the latter realm may be a reason he didn't push the envelope, he still manages in his third outing helming a motion picture to put together a final product that is stylish, dark, and neon-streaked—everything a neo-noir should be. Upon release many critics had problems with tone—violence and humor seemed to clash. Reynolds' was a semi-comedic cinematic figure and his previous two directorial efforts had been comedies, which may have led to jokes leaking into unusual moments of the film. But these days the mix of violence and comedy is common, so we doubt you'll be terribly annoyed by these few incongruities.
The main flaw with the movie, besides its chasteness, is not its tone, but that it feels compressed in the latter third, especially as relates to the love subplot. True, the film is already a shade over two hours long, but it's time that flies by, populated as it is by so many interesting roles and great actors (Bernie Casey, Brian Keith, Vittorio Gassman, Charles Durning). Another seven minutes would not have hurt. Still, we recommend this one. It should have been as bold a noir rework as Body Heat, but there's plenty to entertain in other areas, and Hollywood may make this film perfect yet—a new version of Sharky's Machine is in development with Mark Wahlberg in the lead. Hah hah—who are we kidding? They'll screw it up completely. You already know that.
You're always in the last place you look.
The war, a grenade, a head wound, and a case of amnesia bring a vet to Los Angeles in search of his identity. The only clue he has is the name of a presumed associate, not a nice guy, which makes the hero fearful, because who associates with not-nice guys but other not-nice guys? The main problem with Somewhere in the Night isn't that the amnesiac soon learns, as even a casual viewer would suspect from the beginning, that he and the not-nice associate are one and the same. The problem is that the script never provides for another possibility. This makes for minimal suspense, a sin compounded by dialogue that crosses the line from hard boiled into ridiculous—like in this exchange:
Friend: “Something smells bad, believe me. It's in the air—like an earthquake. Don't stand too close. Don't get hurt.”
Heroine: “I'm the girl with the cauliflower heart.”
Friend: "You think. You're as tough as a love song. You've got your face turned up and your eyes closed, waiting to be kissed.”
This is a little out there even by the standards of 1940s melodramas. Classics like Casablanca and Gilda didn't get too hip with the lingo, and that's a big reason why those movies remain scintillating today. Somewhere in the Night wears its age poorly. Blame not only its overly slangy dialogue, but the lame plot, wooden performances from the supporting cast, and an uninspiring John Hodiak in the lead. But the poster is an absolute killer.
John Payne goes to hell and back for loot and love.
The film we talked about Sunday, 1944’s Bermuda Mystery, was an island thriller in name only, but Hell’s Island actually works hard to create a Caribbean mood—though it was shot in Southern California. John Payne is hired to fly to the mythical island of Santo Rosario and retrieve a priceless ruby in the possession of his former girlfriend. The girlfriend, Mary Murphy, ran away to the island after jilting the hero to marry a rich islander. Payne arrives and finds that moneybags is imprisoned for life for murder, and Murphy now lives alone in a big mansion, pining for her incarcerated husband. But did he actually commit the crime?
Murphy wants Payne to help her husband escape, and Payne agrees because supposedly only the husband knows where the ruby is. This is all a pretty fertile set-up for a thriller, and while the filmmakers don’t get every element right, they end up with a passably engrossing final product. Some websites call Hell’s Island a film noir, which it is in terms of story elements, mood, and characterizations—but it’s shot in Technicolor, which for some may put it in another category visually. In the end, think of it as a passable vintage crime flick with a few twists and turns, a conveniently placed alligator pit, plenty of swanky menswear, lots of corpses, and one very elusive ruby. Hell’s Island opened today in 1955.
Like Shakespeare wrote, what's past is prologue.
This unusual poster was made to promote the Spanish run of Retorno al pasado, a movie better known as Out of the Past. The title says it all. A man who thinks he's left his sordid past behind sees it rear its ugly head and threaten to ruin the good future he's planned for himself. Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, this is one of the top noir thrillers, in our opinion. Certainly it's one of the most beautifully shot, thanks to director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Mesuraca. Like the poster art by Macario Gomez, the film is richly textured and lushly black, which makes for a nice sense of gathering danger, especially in the pivotal fight sequence about forty minutes in. Plus it has the always compelling Mexico connection used by many excellent noirs, as well as nice location shooting around Lake Tahoe and Reno. Highly recommended, this one. After opening in the U.S. in November 1947 it had its Spanish premiere in Madrid today in 1948.
But I only want to kill my stepmom and take her money. What’s the big deal?
First things first—this poster was painted by Nicola Simbari, yet another genius from the ranks of Italian illustrators, someone who today is thought of as one of Italy’s most important modern artists and has pieces hanging in museums all over the world. He painted the above masterpiece for the Howard Hughes produced Seduzione mortale, known in the U.S. as Angel Face. It's the story of a man who tries to trade up to a richer, flashier girlfriend and ends up entangled in a murder plot. Robert Mitchum stars as the fickle hero, Jean Simmons co-stars as the femme fatale, Mona Freeman is the loyal girlfriend, and Jim Backus—aka Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island—is a tough district attorney.
This one is worth watching for the cringe-inducing central killing alone, which ranks top five in the annals of film noir for sheer brutality. Mitchum is good as always, Simmons less so due to her occasional tendency to act! rather than act, but that’s a minor issue. The movie works. It's well scripted by a trio of writers with an assist from Ben Hecht, and nicely directed by Otto Preminger. Best line in the film: “Is rigging a car like he says a very complicated thing? Or could anyone do it? Even a woman?” Ah yes, film noir—sexy and sexist. But there’s a real lesson there—never teach a femme fatale how a car’s transmission works. You’ll regret it.
Angel Face opened in the U.S. in late 1952 and premiered, according to all the sources we checked, in Italy today in 1953. But the poster at top advertises a premiere at a Rome cinema called the Fiamma on 6 May, 1953. Which date is right? Possibly both. April 18, 1953 was a Saturday, which would be a typical day for a film’s run to commence. May 6 was a Wednesday—not typical for launching a wide release. We suspect the poster was made for a special engagement, probably one night only. But we’re only guessing. We may have to slot this question in the unanswered file. There are only so many things you can figure out from a computer terminal after all. We have another poster below, plus two nice promos.
DeForest Kelly makes strong impression debuting in low budget psychological noir.
We’re doubling up on the film noir with Fear in the Night, a low budget drama that hit cinemas today in 1947. It stars DeForest Kelly—Dr. McCoy of Star Trek fame—in his cinematic debut as a bank teller who has a nightmare of murder, but wakes with unnerving hints it was more than a dream—blood on his hand, thumbprints on his neck, and a few foreign items in his possession. While not a top noir, the source material—Cornell Woolrich’s story “And So to Death”—is strong, and the film is stylishly shot by director Maxwell Shane and cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh, who use various visual tricks to suggest a man barely keeping his grip on reality (see below). Some may be put off by the voiceover dominating the first reel, but we thought it was fun. Viewers know right away Kelly’s done something bad in the real world—the questions are where, when, how, and why. Luckily, his cop in-law and loyal girlfriend are there to lean on, so it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out. Kelly is only twenty-seven in this and with his soulful eyes and perfectly waved hair he’s quite handsome. We recommend this one for true noir lovers, fans of Star Trek, and women who want material for their rub club. And no, you aren't imagining it—DeForest doesn't appear on the promo poster, even though he's the star.
Italian master’s genius spanned decades.
Back in August we showed you a poster from Luigi Martinati, who worked from 1923 to 1967, and said we'd get back to him. Below, seven more great promotional pieces with his distinctive signature on each.
To Have and Have Not
On the Waterfront
Phantom of the Rue Morgue
The Wrong Man
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1967—Boston Strangler Convicted
Albert DeSalvo, the serial killer who became known as the Boston Strangler, is convicted of murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He serves initially in Bridgewater State Hospital, but he escapes and is recaptured. Afterward he is transferred to federal prison where six years later he is killed by an inmate or inmates unknown.
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard
, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
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