In the Ministry of Fear they bake better than they spy.
Fritz Lang was one of the most important directors of his era, both in his native Germany and in the U.S., and was a pioneer of the film noir form. Movies like Scarlet Street and especially The Big Heat are essential noir viewing. Ministry of Fear dates from a bit earlier and finds Lang saddled with what we consider to be a substandard script that through sheer artistry he makes into a watchable film. Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, and Dan Duryea headline in a spy tale that revolves around Lang's favorite villains—the Nazis. Jewish and German, he left his homeland for Paris and beyond during the ascent of the Nazis during the 1930s, so the subject was personal for him, and was one he'd dealt with in previous films such as Cloak and Dagger and Hangmen Also Die.
In Ministry of Fear Milland plays a man who spends two years in a British asylum and is released at a time when World War II is raging and London is being bombed. He goes to a charity carnival and is enticed into guessing a cake's weight for a chance to win it, and because he's been given the correct answer by a fortuneteller, is victorious. But it's soon clear that the correct weight wasn't supposed to be given to him, and he isn't supposed to have won the cake. But he really wants it and resists attempts by the carny folks to take it back. He loses it during a train ride when a passenger beats the snot out of him for it, and at that point finally realizes the obvious—sweet though this confection may have been, it wasn't sought by various and sundry for its flavor, but because inside was something important. He wants answers, and he'll have to risk his neck to get them.
Generally with movies it's best to simply accept the premise, but there are limits. We were never clear on why it was necessary to put this important item in a cake. We understand subterfuge is involved in the spy game, but why not just hand the item over in an alley, or a pub bathroom, or a parked car? And if food must be involved, why a cake? Why not a haggis, or something else very few people want to just gobble up on the spot? A dried cod maybe. A blood sausage would have done. Plus they're easy to transport. You can just stick them in your pockets. And in a tight spot a whack across the nose with a blood sausage is far more effective than shoving cake in someone's mug. The cake gimmick was probably—strike that—certainly better explained in Graham Greene's source novel. We haven't read it but we're confident about that. It could have been Lang who screwed the pooch, but it was more likely Seton I. Miller. He was screenwriter as well as executive producer.
In any case Milland bumbles his way through a train trip, across a moor, in and out of a crazy séance, and into a maze of misdirection to the eventual revelation of what's inside the cake, but the whole time we kept thinking the movie should be called Ministry of Cut-Rate Spies. We don't mean to say it's a total loss. It isn't like the Eddie Izzard comedy routine, “Cake or Death.” You won't choose death over cake. But it's a pretty uninspiring flick. The old dramas that have survived have done so for a simple reason. Most of them are good. Ministry of Fear isn't bad. It's just meh. It's like a cake that fell—it's flat and dense, but teases you with how yummy it could have been. It premiered in England today in 1944.
Here, have your cake. And eat it too. Heh. I prefer blood sausage for train trips, but I guess it's better for you I'm not shoving one of those in your face, eh? Wow, you sort of... crush the shit out of your cake before eating it. Have I been eating cake wrong the whole time I've been in England?
Mansfield and her crew try to steal a million.
This fantastic Belgian poster with lettering in French and Dutch was made for the 1957 film noir L'Ange des mauvais garçons, better known as The Burglar. Well, better known is relative. The movie is somewhat obscure but it shouldn't be—it's a film noir clinic, and this great promo, which was made for its run at the Ciné Capitole in Antwerp, befits such an artful movie. It's unsigned, so the creator will have to remain unrecognized for now. Conversely, we think the movie will garner more recognition as time passes. Jayne Mansfield co-stars but don't get your hopes up—she doesn't wear a black jumpsuit. Not even close. You can read more about the movie here.
Please help me. My husband is on death row and I need to save him so I can kill his cheating ass myself.
These two posters were made to promote the film noir Black Angel, which starred June Vincent, Dan Duryea, Doris Dowling, and Peter Lorre in a story credited to high concept author Cornell Woolrich. But we gather nothing survived from Woolrich except the ending. When a man is convicted of his mistress's murder, the jailed man's cheated upon but noble wife tries to prove her husband innocent with the help of the murdered woman's ex-husband, who, though cuckolded, agrees that the wrong person is ticketed for Old Sparky. They set their sights on shady nightclub owner Peter Lorre and decide to infiltrate his operation in order to find proof he was the real killer. Naturally, as this heartbroken and mismatched pair dig up clues and investigate shady characters, feelings get confused. As in many noirs, there's a final act twist, and the one used here is pretty good, helping to elevate an average thriller to something a bit more memorable. Within the genre it's a significant film, and reasonably enjoyable to watch. Black Angel premiered in the U.S. today in 1946.
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.
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.
Bank heist goes every which way except the right way.
This year's Noir City Film Festival opens with the 1949 heist drama Criss Cross. Based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Don Tracy, it's the story of man played by Burt Lancaster who returns to Los Angeles after some years away to find that his ex-wife Yvonne De Carlo has hooked up with a local gangster. The exes rekindle their flame, but when it looks as if the gangster has caught them in the act Lancaster spontaneously cooks up a story about how he was putting together a plan to rob the armored car service for which he works.
Lancaster's robbery idea is not only designed to deflect the gangster's suspicion away from the affair, but to also fund the future he envisions with De Carlo when she and him run away. This scheme, which strains credulity, is probably one of the most obviously terrible ideas in the long, celebrated history of doomed ideas in film noir, but with good direction by Robert Siodmak, who had worked with Lancaster on The Killers, and good acting by all involved, the film concludes on the positive side of the effectiveness ledger. Numerous excellent Los Angeles exteriors, including at Union Station and on now mostly leveled Bunker Hill, make this noir an important time capsule as well, an aspect that increases its appeal. And an excellent musical number by Esy Morales & His Rhumba Band gives the proceedings a further boost. All in all, Criss Cross is a winner.
Nice guys finish last—until they're pushed too far.
The 1945 film noir Scarlet Street is one of the bleaker offerings from a generally bleak genre. Edward G. Robinson plays an aspiring painter in a loveless marriage whose need makes him a perfect mark for a pair of hustlers, played by Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, who shake him down for money, a free apartment, and even his recognition as an artist. The main treat here is seeing tough guy Robinson play a mild-mannered everyman, the sort of terminal pushover he also portrayed to great effect in the noir The Woman in the Window. The thing is, some people can only take so much abuse. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1934—Arrest Made in Lindbergh Baby Case
Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous American aviator. The infant child had been abducted from the Lindbergh home in March 1932, and found decomposed two months later in the woods nearby. He had suffered a fatal skull fracture. Hauptmann was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and finally executed by electric chair in April 1936. He proclaimed his innocence to the end
1919—Pollard Breaks the Color Barrier
Fritz Pollard becomes the first African-American to play professional football for a major team, the Akron Pros. Though Pollard is forgotten today, famed sportswriter Walter Camp ranked him as "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen." In another barrier-breaking historical achievement, Pollard later became the co-head coach of the Pros, while still maintaining his roster position as running back.
1932—Entwistle Leaps from Hollywood Sign
Actress Peg Entwistle
commits suicide by jumping from the letter "H" in the Hollywood sign. Her body lay in the ravine below for two days, until it was found by a detective and two radio car officers. She remained unidentified until her uncle connected the description and the initials "P.E." on the suicide note in the newspapers with his niece's two-day absence.
1908—First Airplane Fatality Occurs
The plane built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Wright Flyer, crashes with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge aboard as a passenger. The accident kills Selfridge, and he becomes the first airplane fatality in history.
1983—First Black Miss America Crowned
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American Miss America. She later loses her crown when lesbian-themed nude photographs of her are published by Penthouse magazine.
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