Hi there. Is this planet taken?
Above is an iconic poster for Roger Corman's sci-fi thriller Not of This Earth, about an alien in human form who is beamed to Earth through a matter transmitter and enacts a scheme to be transfused with human blood. If he derives the hoped for benefits from these transfusions, his entire dying race will come to Earth, in what you might call an interstellar migrant caravan, only rather than fleeing danger and finding good paying jobs their intent is to enslave humanity and steal its blood. This film is one of the all-time cheeseball classics, well worth a viewing, especially when accompanied by drinks and friends. And it's just about 70 minutes long, which is a nice bonus. The poster art, which is the entire point of this post, is by Albert Kallis, one of the great American movie artists. More from him later, or if you prefer, more of his unearthly talent now. Not of This Earth premiered in the U.S. today in 1957.
I'm getting some really high readings on this. We better try the rectal thermometer.
I don't have a rectum, baby. But I have a rection. That's the word in Earthtongue right?
Sure, he wanted to enslave humanity. But it felt good to be wanted.
The shot heard 'round Japan.
This unusual poster was made to promote a film called Teppôdama no bigaku, known in English by the cool title Aesthetics of a Bullet. The movie came from Art Theatre Guild, or ATG, producers of films in the loose category known as Japanese New Wave, meaning to take a new approach to filmmaking by rejecting traditional ideas and techniques. This one was directed by Sadao Nakajima and stars Tsunehiko Watase as a hot-headed two-bit hustler named Kiyoshi who tries numerous schemes to get ahead, including being a chef, gambling, and breeding rabbits. He fails at all of them, and he's desperate for a break.
When he's given a job by a local yakuza cartel known as Tenyu Group, he quickly learns about the power of a gun. With it he can command others, make them fear and respect him, make them literally kneel. With this gun his sense of self worth is first restored, then inflated. He caresses it, brandishes it, polishes it, treats it better than even the women he lusts for, and the gun confirms that he's superior to others. And once he feels superior he becomes—not to put too fine a point on it—a total asshole. He's actually an abusive chump even before the gun, but the weapon fully unleashes his destructive, hyper-masculine impulses.
The things he does are too ridiculously stupid to get into. Suffice it to say that even for a regular guy these would lead to trouble, but he's Tenyu Group's thug-at-large, which means his erratic behavior and explosive anger offends the other crime bosses. Pretty soon he discovers that he's torn a dangerous rift in the yakuza network. But what Kiyoshi doesn't know—which the audience does from the beginning—is that Tenyu Group hired him in the first place precisely because he's a disruptive fuck-up. Their theory was always that he would spark a gang war. All he has to do is fire that beloved gun once and Tenyu Group will have the excuse it needs.
Aesthetics of a Bullet is obscure, so we knew nothing about it, but we liked it. It's concise, has a strong point of view, and a good supporting cast that includes Miki Sugimoto and Mitsuru Mori. Its only flaw—perhaps unavoidable—is that the lead character is such a misanthropic troublemaker that we could barely tolerate watching him. But we guess that's where the whole rejecting traditional filmmaking comes in. Who needs a likeable or even sympathetic lead? Real life is more complicated than that, and Kiyoshi's fictional life gets plenty complicated too. Even if you can't root for him, at least he won't bore you, and neither will the movie. Aesthetics of a Bullet premiered in Japan today in 1973.
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.
A man is only as good as his word.
As the promo poster makes clear, the 1958 crime drama Murder by Contract deals with a killer for hire. That's nothing special, but Claude, played by Vince Edwards, is a different kind of fella. He's single-minded, socially distant, and harbors a nebulous, smoldering hostility. He has theories and plans, and being a killer is the quickest way to for him to get what he wants out life. Everything goes fine for this contractor until he's asked to do away with a woman, played by Caprice Toriel in her only film role. Reluctance isn't the issue for Claude. Just the opposite in fact—he's willing but feels he deserves more money for killing a woman. Why?
Claude: “I don't like women. They don't stand still. When they move it's hard to figure out why or wherefore. They're not dependable. It's tough to kill somebody who's not dependable.”
Is Toriel going to be tough to kill? Oh, you betcha. This contract is more trouble than Claude is prepared for by orders of magnitude, not least because two temporary sidekicks he's working with for this important job are distrustful of his methods, and the target has police protection. Getting to her is going to require creativity. Which may be just what this otherwise confident character lacks. With its no frills style, quirky humor, and Django Reinhardt-esque score by Perry Botkin Sr., Murder by Contract is not film noir, but the disaffected killer that's its subject makes it a good choice for the Noir City festival. Recommended stuff.
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.
The blood may stop but the stain is permanent.
These old movies. The Scarlet Hour is fun in a way modern flicks simply aren't. Basically, a rich man thinks his young wife is two-timing him. She and her lover, seeking privacy one night, drive to a secluded lookout. Three men arrive and discuss plans to rob a nearby hilltop mansion. The take? $300,000 in insured jewels. The lovers, from their hiding place, hear the plot and decide that if they rob the robbers they can get enough money to run away together. Their consciences are clear about it, because the goods will have been stolen already. But the husband, now deciding to do something about his wife's nocturnal forays, begins following her around. On robbery night that puts him in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
It's a twisty set-up, handled deftly thanks to Rip Van Ronkel's, aka Alford Van Ronkel's clever screenplay. The complications keep coming, which means The Scarlet Hour has surprises in store all the way to the end. And as a bonus it was directed by Michael Curtiz, the man behind Casablanca, and as sure-handed a director as ever worked in Tinseltown. It also has a nice nightclub number by crooner Nat King Cole. As far as we know, there are no good digital transfers of the film available, which means a rental or download may yield a less than pristine television rip (like the one we watched). Noir City will be showing an archival print, which would make this worth the extra effort to see even if the movie weren't great, which it is. But even if you aren't anywhere near San Fran tonight, this is one to keep in mind for future viewing.
The courtship is dangerous, but the engagement is murder.
A Kiss Before Dying should perhaps be titled “A Xanax Before Dying,” because Robert Wagner and co-star Joanne Woodward both perform as if they've gotten into the medicine cabinet. They play a young couple that accidentally conceive. Wagner envisions his life's ambitions going up in a haze of diapering and 6 a.m. feedings, so he decides to get rid of the baby. Abortion is out of the question, of course, so he tries gently nudging Woodward down a set of bleachers at the local university. When her tumble fails to produce the desired miscarriage, Wagner decides to up his game with a pharmacological solution—and murder.
Best exchange of dialogue, as Wagner parts one evening with an unsuspecting Woodward:
Wagner: “Good-bye, baby.”
The attraction in this film is Wagner, who's so smarmy and eely he might make you laugh out loud—at least until you realize how brutal he's prepared to be. Only in a vintage movie can a guy be so obviously evil yet have nobody take notice. A sign around his neck reading, “I think about nothing but homicide 24/7,” would have been ignored. But of course Woodward, while remaining studiously oblivious to her mortal peril, is harder to kill than expected.
Each year the Noir City organizers try to get audiences to take a fresh look at a few non-noir films, but their choices have occasionally been dubious. A Kiss Before Dying is a solidly but unspectacularly directed Deluxe Color production that lacks pretty much any noir iconography, but in terms of script and characterization it's a good fit for the festival. Plus Mary Astor plays Wagner's mom, and she's noir enough to satisfy us any day of the week. Put this in the flawed-but-interesting bin.
You'd Hammer in the stomach, you'd Hammer in the jaw, you'd Hammer all over the body.
Does anyone not know what's in the suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly? We imagine almost everyone does, but we won't tell. We'll give you two hints, though: it isn't the same thing that's in the case in the novel; and the change the filmmakers made places the film on a progression along the line of such what's-in-the-case thrillers as Pulp Fiction (where you never see) and Ronin (where you never find out). Ralph Meeker stars as Mickey Spillane's harder than hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer, and Maxine Cooper plays his his assistant/friend-with-benefits (she was only his assistant in the novel) Velda Wickman.
Plotwise the first couple of reels follow the novel pretty closely, with Hammer almost running over a woman on the Pacific Coast Highway, letting her into his car, and quickly finding she's being pursued by villains of the worst kind. She and Hammer are captured, the woman is tortured, then the two are placed unconscious back in Hammer's prized Jaguar and pushed over a cliff. But the murder attempt only snuffs one of them—Hammer is left alive to seek answers and vengeance. With the help of his slinky sidekick he sets about turning the town upside down.
We wanted to watch Kiss Me Deadly again after reading the novel for the first time several years ago, but didn't get back to it until spurred to do so by Noir City, which is showing the film tonight on a double bill with Killer's Kiss. It's a pretty streamlined adaptation in parts, courtesy of A. I. Bezzerides. Spillane hated the movie, and we imagine he was particularly critical of some of the choices Bezzerides made. But the production is helmed by Robert Aldrich, who shows general flair along with impressive creativity in getting shots that were fresh for the time.
Best exchange of dialogue in this one:
“According to our information he calls himself a private investigator.”
“His specialty is divorce cases.”
“He's a bedroom dick.”
Yeah, we're juvenile. Kiss Me Deadly is aimless in the beginning, and is marred by a silly Greek stereotype used for discordant comic relief, but picks up greatly in the second half and hurtles toward an explosive conclusion. The final product would have been merely decent had the movie stayed on the same course as the book, but Bezzerides wrenched the second half into a hard left turn, and his final commentary—an inspired change—saves the movie, in our opinion. It's preposterous, what Bezzerides does, but it works. So in the end Kiss Me Deadly earns its place on the list of twenty or so best entries in the film noir genre.
Kubrick makes filmgoers and critics eager for more.
Even legends have to start somewhere. Killer's Kiss isn't Stanley Kubrick's first movie, but it's an early effort made with novice actors, not much gear, and a simple script. The story follows a declining boxer played by Jamie Smith whose existence is given new purpose when he becomes the protector of his neighbor, Irene Kane, a taxi dancer who's being tormented by her sleazy boss. The two live on the same floor of a tenement on opposite sides of a lightwell, and can see into each other's apartments. But they don't interact until Smith tries to save Kane from an attack. The emergency breaks the wall of studious anonymity they had maintained, and they quickly decide they want to leave town together and start new lives on a farm. But in film noir planning and execution are always light years apart.
Because Killer's Kiss was made on a shoestring budget it has an indie feel to it, which extends into the areas of acting and sound. Reviews were mixed, and we agree, but nearly all cheapie indies get mixed reviews. Kubrick probably did better than he had any right to, and he ingeniously manages to juxtapose two sides of New York City—the dark, deserted, cobblestone warehouse districts, and the blindingly dazzling Times Square. Killer's Kiss is worth it for those scenes alone. It's also worthwhile to be reminded that the best way to make a movie, in the end, is to gather up some cash from wherever you can get it and simply shoot. If there's talent involved, it will shine through, and people may notice. With this feature, flaws and all, Kubrick made people want more.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1981—Ronnie Biggs Rescued After Kidnapping
Fugitive thief Ronnie Biggs, a British citizen who was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery, is rescued by police in Barbados after being kidnapped. Biggs had been abducted a week earlier from a bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by members of a British security firm. Upon release he was returned to Brazil and continued to be a fugitive from British justice.
2011—Elizabeth Taylor Dies
American actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose career began at age 12 when she starred in National Velvet
, and who would eventually be nominated for five Academy Awards as best actress and win for Butterfield 8
and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. During her life she had been hospitalized more than 70 times.
1963—Profumo Denies Affair
In England, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, denies any impropriety with showgirl Christine Keeler and threatens to sue anyone repeating the allegations. The accusations involve not just infidelity, but the possibility acquaintances of Keeler might be trying to ply Profumo for nuclear secrets. In June, Profumo finally resigns from the government after confessing his sexual involvement with Keeler
and admitting he lied to parliament.
1978—Karl Wallenda Falls to His Death
World famous German daredevil and high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, founder of the acrobatic troupe The Flying Wallendas, falls to his death attempting to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda is seventy-three years old at the time, but it is a 30 mph wind, rather than age, that is generally blamed for sending him from the wire.
2006—Swedish Spy Stig Wennerstrom Dies
Swedish air force colonel Stig Wennerström, who had been convicted in the 1970s of passing Swedish, U.S. and NATO secrets to the Soviet Union over the course of fifteen years, dies in an old age home at the age of ninety-nine. The Wennerström affair, as some called it, was at the time one of the biggest scandals
of the Cold War.
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