Nobody is who they seem in this crime collection.
Above are some covers from French publishers Éditions Baudelaire, specifically four entries from its collection Le Chat Noir, or Black Cat, written by various authors, and with cover art by Jacques Thibésart, who signed his work as Nik. The authors were pseudonyms too—or at least, Georges Méra and César Valentino were, which makes us pretty sure the others were, as well. Sharp eyed readers will notice that Thibésart was inspired by Hollywood's film noir wave. The first cover is definitely Dick Powell, and the male on the third cover has to be Alan Ladd from This Gun for Hire. Right? Or is that just us? Thibésart seems to have switched out Ladd's co-star Veronica Lake, though, because the female figure doesn't look anything like her. Oh, it's all such a riddle with these pen names and borrowed faces. In any case, nice art. These were all published in 1959.
It's Ho Chi Minh City (not Saigon). Why they changed it we can't say. People just liked it better that way.
This is a beautiful Spanish poster for the 1947 adventure Saigon, which opened in Madrid today in 1948. The film is one of innumerable mid-century thrillers set in foreign cities. At a time when the rest of the world was so distant and hard to reach, Hollywood fetishized it, romanticized it, and set stories wholly or partly in Mexico, Argentina, Morocco, China, Hong Kong, Martinique, and an entire atlas of other places. But today, with the rest of the world so easy to reach, Hollywood mostly tells audiences they'll be kidnapped or dismembered if they leave home. Saigon is old school. It makes viewers wish they could fly to mystical East Asia. Of course, the film's Saigon doesn't exist anymore, but the fact that Hollywood set a movie there tells you it must have been quite a place. But they say that about all the former colonial cities, don't they? Rangoon, Bombay, and Constantinople, as brilliantly eulogized in the satirical song by The Four Lads, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
Saigon deals with two recently discharged military buddies played by Alan Ladd and Wally Cassell who decide to stay in Asia to show their terminally ill third pal a good time before he dies in a few months. The third man doesn't know he's ticketed for oblivion, which leads to problems when Veronica Lake takes a liking to him. No matter how romantic old Saigon was, only so many tropical nights and platters of French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine can distract you from the fact that the love-hate relationship between Ladd and Lake is unpalatable. To us, slapping, insults, and over-the-top meanness feels like hate-hate. But put on your retro filter and you'll find a lot of comedy in this film, thanks to motormouth quipster Cassell. Some of his lines are truly clever. It wouldn't be exaggerating to say he makes the first sixty minutes of running time watchable.
When Lake inevitably falls for Ladd even though he's been treating her like a disease for hundreds of nautical miles, you'll accept it because it's a motif in old movies—though usually managed with a lot more charm and finesse. Overall we consider Saigon recommendable, but just barely. You know what we really took away from this movie, though? What you needed to do back then was open a shop and sell white suits. You'd have made a fortune. There are more white suits here than you can count. Far more than in Casablanca or Our Man in Havana. This film will make you wonder whether you can pull off the white suit. But even if you looked okay in it where would you wear it these days? Like old Saigon, that city is gone.
Los Angeles homecoming goes awry for Alan Ladd.
The Blue Dahlia is often cited as a top film noir, but it really isn't. That didn't matter to the Hollywood movers and shakers who nominated Raymond Chandler's screenplay for an Oscar, but we suspect the nod was for stringing together hard boiled dialogue, since it certainly wasn't for stringing together a coherent plot. The movie tells the story of a vet who returns home to find his wife cheating with the shady owner of a Hollywood nightclub. When she's murdered, the husband is sought by police, but he goes fugitive and attempts to find the real killer. With pretty boy Alan Ladd in the lead, plus support from Veronica Lake, William Bendix, and the beautiful Doris Dowling, The Blue Dahlia has a lot going for it, including a cool nocturnal vibe, but a script too reliant on improbable occurrences and Lake's flat performance in a basically ornamental role keep it from being upper echelon. It's worth a watch just to see Bendix go bathouse crazy every time he hears what he calls “monkey music,” but go into it knowing there are at least twenty better films in the genre.
The city that helped inspire film noir hosts a celebration of the genre.
Above is a very nice promotional poster for the 19th Noir City Film Festival in Los Angeles, which starts this evening at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Some of the featured films include The Accused, Lady on a Train, and Chicago Deadline, and film noir buffs will have noticed that the promo art features Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd from 1942's This Gun for Hire, which is also on the slate. In fact that one opens the festival tonight as part of a double bill with Quiet Please, Murder.
Seeing the movies in the Egyptian, which opened in 1922, just adds to the authenticity of the experience. And of course film noir wouldn't be the same without Los Angeles, a city that is almost itself a character in many films. Mainly, though, we were drawn to the promo art and had to share it. It mimics the original This Gun for Hire poster, which is one of the nicer efforts from the time period and a collectible that runs upwards of $20,000 for original prints. We tried to determine who painted it and had no luck. Below we also have a couple of shots of the Egyptian, which is a place we recommend visiting if you're ever in Hollywood. You can learn more about Noir City Los Angeles at this link.
Now Joey, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your dog on a leash?
These Japanese posters were made to promote the 1953 western Shane when the movie was re-released in Japan in 1970 and again in 1975. The movie starred Alan Ladd, and he appears on the posters along with Brandon de Wilde, but for us the real star of these is the dog, Shep. In the first he's like, “Is that a squirrel?” And in the second he's wandered off and been run over by a stagecoach. You don't remember that from the movie? You need to watch it again.
It may be the second version but it’s first rate.
Above is French poster art for La Clé de verre, aka The Glass Key, the second Hollywood adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s 1931 novel. We’ve shared other Glass Key materials, but never talked about the film. Suffice to say this Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake vehicle is excellent—much better than This Gun for Hire, which starred the same beautiful pair (Ladd and Lake appeared together in seven movies). Complicated, engrossing, and liberally spiced with excellent action and Hammett’s wit chanelled through Jonathan Latimer's screenplay—“My first wife was a second cook at a third rate joint on Fourth Street”—The Glass Key is mandatory viewing. It’s also interesting for its cynical look at American politics, portrayed as corrupt, built on lies, and fueled by legalized bribery. That much hasn’t changed. The first Glass Key was made in 1935 with George Raft in the lead, but this remake from 1942 is the one to watch. Its French premiere, delayed for years due to World War II and its aftermath, was today in 1948.
Glass Key paperback art is tops thanks to another Italian master.
Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake’s film noir The Glass Key, which was Hollywood’s second try at Dashiell Hammett’s novel, premiered this month in 1942. To be exact, it opened yesterday in New York City and throughout the U.S. on October 23. The poster most often seen online is the theatrical release version we showed you several years ago, but alternates were produced and two of them appear below. What we really wanted to share, though, is this great paperback cover from UK-based Digit Books. It’s from 1961 and features the art of Italian illustrator Enrico de Seta, who we’ve mentioned before. If you haven’t watched The Glass Key we recommend it, and if you haven’t read the book, just know that it was Hammett’s personal favorite.
This Gun for Hire is a celebrated proto-noir—but is it good?
We checked the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes for its assessment of the thriller This Gun for Hire and learned that the film scored over 92% among its stable of professional critics. Ninety-two percent? Then surely this must be one of the greatest films ever made, a near flawless work of art. But when you read the reviews more closely, many note the film’s unbelievable plot, reliance upon coincidence, cheesy musical interludes, and less-than-stellar dialogue. So then what’s with the high rating? Well, let’s just say professional critics sometimes rate with their sense of film history rather than their heads. This Gun for Hire helped establish tropes that would be used again and again as the film noir genre developed and flourished, so that’s a big reason film experts like the movie. But is it good? Well…
Now, don’t get us wrong—we aren’t out to slam the flick. Who’d listen to us anyway? We’re just a couple of heavy drinkers who slapped together a website out of sheer boredom. But we’re also fairly bright, and fairly well-versed in film, and we feel confident in saying that any honest assessment of This Gun for Hire would stress the bothersome structural improbabilities. Example A: Veronica Lake plays a San Francisco nightclub performer/magician who happens to catch the eye of a big-timeclub owner, who invites her to perform in L.A., resulting in a train ride that not only coincides with his, but with that of a hired killer he has betrayed, leading directly to an eye-roller in which that very same killer sits in the only empty seat in the carriage—right next to our singer Ms. Lake. Anything that puts Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake together is justified, to an extent, so you’ll probably let that pass. Example B: Lake is engaged to a cop who happens to be part of an investigation into two murders committed by the very same killer sitting next to Lake on the SF/LA night express. Hmm. There’s more, much more, but you get the point.
So what about that 92% rating? Well, Alan Ladd is magnetic and brutally handsome as the ice-cold killer Philip Raven. Veronica Lake is less good as the chanteuse Ellen Graham, but still manages a game performance in a role that could be better written. Robert Preston is note-perfect as the boyfriend detective. So there’s all that. The film looks good, is well-directed by Frank Tuttle, moves quickly and builds a nice atmosphere ofmenace. So there are those things too. And again, the film is a building block in the genre that would later become known as film noir. But if, hypothetically, you’ve never seen a film noir or classic melodrama and This Gun for Hire were to be your first, it would not convert you into a fan. On the other hand, if you already enjoy mid-century cinema, this one will fit snugly in your comfort zone. All in all, we very much appreciate the movie, but a film that rates 92% among professional critics should not be so chock-full of coincidences that even a fourteen-year-old would be incredulous.
At top you see one of the movie’s three French-language posters. The other two are below. This Gun for Hire, which opened Stateside in 1942 but went unseen in Europe due to the inconvenience of World War II, finally premiered in Paris as Tueur à gages or “Hired Killer” today in 1947.
Down Argentine way.
Above, a cover of Cine-Mundial, published in Argentina in January 1942, with an illustration of Veronica Lake by Morr Kusnet. Lake was just twenty years old at the time, on the cusp of a big year that would see her star with Alan Ladd in two of her best films—This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1978—Son of Sam Goes to Prison
David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer known as Son of Sam, is sentenced to 365 years in prison for six killings. Berkowitz had acquired his nickname from letters addressed to the NYPD and columnist Jimmy Breslin. He is eventually caught when a chain of events beginning with a parking ticket leads to his car being searched and police discovering ammunition and maps of crime scenes.
1963—Buddhist Monk Immolates Himself
In South Vietnam, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burns himself to death by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting a match. He does it to protest the persecution of Buddhists by Ngô Đình Diệm administration, choosing a busy Saigon intersection for his protest. An image of the monk being consumed by flames as he sits crosslegged on the pavement, shot by Malcolm Browne, wins a Pulitzer Prize and becomes one of the most shocking and recognizable photos ever published.
In New York City, Dr. Robert Smith and William Griffith Wilson, who were both recovering alcoholics, establish the organization Alcoholics Anonymous, which pioneers a 12-step rehabilitation program that is so helpful and popular it eventually spreads to every corner of the globe.
1973—John Paul Getty III Is Kidnapped
John Paul Getty III, grandson of billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, is kidnapped in Rome, Italy. The elder Getty ignores a ransom demand for $17 million, thinking it is a joke. When John Paul's ear later arrives in the mail along with a note promising further mutilation, he negotiates the ransom down to $2.9 million, which he pays only on the condition that John Paul repay him at four percent interest. Getty's kidnappers are never caught.
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