Lawless border town brings out the worst in its inhabitants—and in its screenwriter too.
We've shared some promos from the Orson Welles film noir Touch of Evil before. Those were worthy efforts, but we think this Belgian poster is the best. We don't have a Belgian release date but we can guess at one. The movie premiered in the U.S. in early 1958, then crossed to Europe during the summer, with premieres in the UK in April and France in June—in fact today. The film won the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) Prize at the Brussels World Film Festival that year, which was held from April 21 through June 13, but we think the movie showed after its French premiere. So we're guessing sometime between June 8 and June 13 for its Belgian unveiling.
So about the film. We've hinted at this, but now we'll come out and say it: It isn't as good as many claim. Award winner, yes, but one that hasn't aged well. Visual masterpiece with numerous breathtaking shots, certainly, but one in which the script (written by Welles) lacks narrative logic. We could choose a dozen examples of this problem, but we'll give you just one. Early in the film Janet Leigh, who's married to a cop and thus shouldn't be naive, allows herself to be led down dark streets by an unknown male at four o'clock in the morning. And she does this in a Mexican border town Charlton Heston describes as “bringing out the worst in people,” which we can assume to mean “not safe.” Leigh traipsing off into the unknown with an obviously dodgy character is absurd. The movie lost our girlfriends at that point. "Oh, come on!" was the general sentiment.
The truth is Touch of Evil flirts dangerously more than once with being laugh out loud silly. Dennis Weaver's motel desk worker is Norman Bates from Psycho two years earlier, several degrees twitchier, and immeasurably hammier. Even the staging of the film is bizarre at times, with various characters required to physically orbit the central action so they can be glimpsed or encountered at just the right moment. We know, we know—our complaints are total sacrilege. Don't get us wrong. The movie is still entertaining, but people who call it a masterpiece have decided to overlook Welles' screenplay. And generally these people will also call you stupid for disagreeing with them, so be prepared for that. But don't take our word on Touch of Evil. Watch it and see what you think. And if you're interested, we dicussed other aspects of the film a while back here.
A Dors of a different color.
Diana Dors is the star of the above Technicolor lithograph, which was tinted pink for fun by the vendors at Corp. A. Fox, an outfit that churned out thousands of similar prints during the mid-century period. They picked up the images wherever they were able, and this one was originally made as a promo for the 1957 film noir The Unholy Wife, without the garish pink tinge. Dors had already been in movies for ten years, so she wasn't actually a new box office figure, as the promo declares, but maybe she was newish to U.S. audiences. The photo was also sold as a horizontally oriented lithograph, again without the overdone blush, also below. You can see a couple dozen more prints featuring various known and unknown models from A. Fox and other litho companies by clicking the keywords at bottom. We also shared a Dors litho from 1964, which you can see here. And you can read about The Unholy Wife here.
Film noir with an Irish accent.
Odd Man Out, for which you see the promo poster above, is a beautifully shot thriller about a group of Irish political separatists who rob a mill in order to help finance their organization. The group is obviously based on the Irish Republican Army, whose actions helped fuel the Troubles—that period of violence that engulfed Ireland mainly during the 1960s The film takes no sides, at least not overtly, while presenting the separatists as fully realized, complex human beings. Needless to say, a movie of this depth and thoughtfulness would never be made today on the subject of terrorists. James Mason is the titular odd man out, the leader of the gang who's left behind after the robbery and must somehow survive alone, wounded and sick, as the police close in. The bad luck, deceptions and palpable sense of doom are standard for film noir, but what isn't is the location work in the backstreets of Belfast. The screen grabs below are all from around the forty minute mark, and their deep shadows, angular light, and inky blacks show how much planning and effort director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker put into making the film visually perfect. We doubt it's the most exciting motion picture ever made, as claimed on the poster, but we recommend it. Odd Man Out premiered in the UK in January 1947 and opened in the U.S. today the same year.
I shot my alarm clock. After years of abuse it was long overdue.
Above, a nice image of a nightgown clad, gun accessorized Rita Hayworth in her rare platinum blonde incarnation. The photo was made as a promo for her film noir The Lady from Shanghai, 1947.
Short of breath? Accelerated pulse rate? It might not be the altitude.
Since we're from Denver (we know it's tough to keep track because we've written about living in L.A., San Francisco, Guatemala, and the Philippines, but we are indeed from the Mile High City) we thought we'd share this promo for the Noir City Film Festival's new Denver edition. This particular noir fest (there are several) is affiliated with the San Fran fest, so it's not a surprise to see that they're reusing the art from the 8th San Francisco get together. What is a surprise is that the event is at the Alamo Drafthouse in Littleton—i.e. suburbia. Usually these events are held at historic cinemas such as the Castro in San Francisco or the Egyptian in Los Angeles. Denver has a few landmark cinemas, including the Mayan right in the city center. We assume it wasn't available. But on the plus side crime author James Ellroy will be co-hosting at the Alamo along with Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller. The festival will be a quickie—three days and six great thrillers: The Prowler, 711 Ocean Drive, Wicked as They Come, The Lineup, He Walked by Night, and I Walk Alone. Denverites, we highly recommend seeing film noir on a big screen. Opportunities in cities like New York, San Fran, L.A. and Chicago abound. Opportunities in the mountain west are rare. Take advantage.
The best laid plans of singers and musicians often go awry.
This is an unusually nice promo poster we think. It was made for the Susan Hayward vehicle Smash-Up, sometimes referred to as Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. It premiered this month in 1947 and involves nightclub chanteuse Hayward and her crooner husband, played by Lee Bowman. Hayward has talent but values love over career; her husband has less talent but endless ambition. When their careers go in different directions the strain begins to tear the marriage apart. Whose career goes which direction? We won't tell you that, though the audience learns in the first scene, a framing device featuring the downfallen character bandaged and delirious in a hospital bed. Even though the story's ending is sacrificed for an intro Smash-Up is a pretty good if melodramatic movie, with some strong film noir elements, Hayward in an Oscar nominated performance, and solid support from Eddie Albert as Bowman's composer partner. Worth a look—as long as you can deal with all the crooning.
Hallucinatory southwestern noir takes readers to a land of saints and sinners.
It's said that a good book teaches you how to read it. The author instructs while building the story. Dorothy B. Hughes' 1946 crime novel Ride the Pink Horse, which was the source material for the 1947 film noir starring Robert Montgomery, falls into that category. In the story a man wanders around the southwestern U.S. town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, searching for someone he calls the Sen, which is short for the Senator. We suspect the shortening of his title is designed to make it a heterograph with “sin,” because this Illinois senator-turned-crime boss rather sinfully hired out the murder of his wife then shorted the murderer part of his fee. That's why the main character, named Sailor, is adrift in this town. He's followed the Sen there from Chicago to get his money. He plans to find him, confront him, collect payment, then scurry away to Mexico.
But this comes out in trickles. Initially Sailor merely criss-crosses the town, unable to find a hotel room because it's fiesta weekend, with crowds everywhere and processions filling the streets. He sleeps under the canopy of a merry-go-round which features a pink horse. As he keeps going in circles around town more characters emerge—the cop who's trying to solve murder of the senator's wife, the carousel owner who appeals to Sailor's sense of honor, the girl who recalls an innocence he can barely remember, and the beautiful Iris Towers, the focus of his wishes for a better life.
Hughes loves symbolic names: there's the Sen, as we already mentioned; there's Iris Towers, dressed in ivory colors and pale of skin; and there's the girl Pila, whose name is the Spanish word for a laundry trough, a place of cleansing. The book is composed of encounters rather than events, hallucinatory meanderings punctuated by tense verbal standoffs. Each tête-à-tête clarifies matters a bit more for the reader. Did Sailor really kill the Sen's wife? Did he ever intend to? Was she ever to be the actual target? Were others involved?
When Sailor goes from seeing the town's Mexican and Native American inhabitants as something other than sub-human, maybe, we think, he isn't irredeemable. But even if he grows in some ways his hatred continues to drive him. He thinks the Sen is vermin. He wonders how such an abomination can even walk upon the Earth. When he follows the Sen into the cathedral this thought passes through his mind: He didn’t know why the dim perfumed cathedral didn’t belch the Sen out of its holy portals.
Hughes is a good writer, a unique stylist, and she gives Ride the Pink Horse the disorienting feeling of taking place in purgatory. It's a fever dream, an acid trip across a constantly shifting landscape, literary rather than pulp in approach, as much Faulkner as it is Chandler, with nothing quite solid or real apart from Sailor's hatred, which is so intense it seems as if it will consume him and leave nothing behind but a cinder. Sailor's racism is appalling, but he's not supposed to be a good man. This town filled with people that frighten and confuse him could be his salvation or his doom. He's the one who has to decide whether to step back from the precipice. Every wise character sees that he's headed for destruction. But the future isn't set. He has a chance for redemption—small, but real. Top marks for this one.
Knight shoots pawn—check and mate.
Patricia Knight made only five motion pictures, but one of them was 1949's Shockproof, which falls into the category of under appreciated film noir. She plays an ex-convict who moves in with her parole officer. Yeah—bad idea, but no need to say more because we already talked about the film in detail. Check here. Knight married her Shockproof co-star Cornel Wilde and, except for a few more roles, that was pretty much the end of her career. But her contribution to film noir is remembered as one of the better ones. This is a promo photo from the movie, 1949.
Pronounce it wrong one more time. I dare you.
American actress Nancy Guild's name actually rhymed with “wild” not “guilt,” according to her, and since she's armed we'll call her anything she wants. She appeared in the noir thrillers Somewhere in the Night, which we talked about here, and Dashiell Hammett's The Brasher Doubloon, as well as about a dozen more films before quitting show business to marry producer Ernest H. Martin. This photo was made in 1947.
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