The temperature rises and the bodies fall in Fritz Lang's tense film noir.
In the thriller The Big Heat, which is based on a novel by William P. McGivern and directed by Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford plays one of the toughest men you'll find in film noir—ass kicking detective Dave Bannon, whose clash with organized crime sends him down a rogue path that leaves people battered, bruised, bloodied, burnt, and blown up. He co-starred with Gloria Grahame, and the way the plot develops, she turns out to be every bit as tough. We can't tell you anything about the movie others already haven't about a thousand times, so we're focusing instead on this top notch promo poster, a framable classic in the panel format we love. You'll see this online only occasionally because it's way too rare for sellers to ever have in stock, but it's a fitting piece for such a great movie. The Big Heat premiered in the U.S. today in 1953.
Good thing they were both professional actors. They could act like this wasn't weird.
We have a feeling this promo image of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame made for their 1953 film noir The Big Heat never got published. Handout photos such as these were provided by studios—in this case Columbia Pictures—to the press for usage when writing about various movies, but what newspaper or magazine would have used this? It's beyond provocative for back then, and in fact its bizarre, coercive feel would make the internet explode even today, were any two stars to pose in this way. Amazingly, promos for vintage thrillers often featured female stars sitting or kneeling within phallus range. In fact, we've seen enough to consider putting together a collection. We'll give that some thought while you glance at another example we shared a while ago.
Gloria Grahame's three-step plan for dealing with a problem—aim, fire, assess.
These photos of U.S. actress Gloria Grahame come from one of our favorite old movies, the film noir The Big Heat, in which she starred with Glenn Ford. How many good films was Grahame in? Plenty, including The Bad and the Beautiful, Crossfire, the amazing In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, The Glass Wall, and Odds Against Tomorrow. Outside the drama/noir genres, she was also in It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of the most watched U.S. films of all time, and Oklahoma!. In The Big Heat she plays the prototypical film noir bad girl who wants to be good but has a hard time getting there. We won't say more. Just check it out. The photo is from 1953.
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.
The Florida heat cooks up trouble in Lawrence Kasdan's masterful neo-noir.
Kill your husband for you? Sure, I can make that happen, I guess. Spousal murder is a film noir and pulp fiction plot tentpole, and the motivation for trying something so risky generally revolves around sex. But during the time the film noir and pulp fiction genres were extant their makers could only imply it. The neo-noir thriller Body Heat, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1981, fixed that problem, as not-so-bright lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, is seduced into a murder plot by whip smart bombshell Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner in her cinematic debut.
Body Heat is an apt title. The setting is South Florida during a heat wave, with most of the action set in the mythical towns of Pinehaven and Miranda Beach. Every frame of the movie seems to vent steam. There's copious slippery sex and nudity, all of it important to the plot. When the pair have their electric first encounter Hurt pulls off Turner's panties with an expression of pure awe on his face and intones, “So wet.” For just that moment he wonders if it's really him turning on a woman that much. And he's right to wonder, because it isn't him. What's turning her on is money.
Directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film is a reworking of Double Indemnity, but it improves on the original in the sense that we fully understand the visceral reasons why murder has occurred. That moisture between Turner's legs causes an electrical short in Hurt's brain. After subsequent sexual encounters, including an anal session that's implied but clear as day thanks to some clever visuals, he's hooked like a bluegill. For a guy just smart enough to get a law degree, but not bright enough to avoid being known as his town's worst lawyer, bedding Turner makes him feel godlike. Surely he can pull off murder and make it look like an accident.
Body Heat made Turner, Hurt, and Kasdan superstars, and did the same for a few of its below-the-line players. Turner went on to become one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation; Hurt, who had starred in the brilliant but under appreciated Altered States, became one of Hollywood's top leading men; and Kasdan directed Silverado, The Big Chill, and other hits. Co-star Ted Danson also blew up, and Mickey Rourke parlayed a blazing supporting bit into a career as Hollywood's go-to rebel creep. You know any film that ignites five such careers is top notch, but as a post-noir entry Body Heat is also cinematically important. Not only did it finally lay bare the motivation behind all those noir murders and obsessions, but it did so with a reverent visual style and pitch perfect mood. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
L.A. burlesque dancer sentenced to cool off in jail.
Today in 1952 thirty-six-year-old burlesque dancer Betty Rowland, known as the Ball of Fire because of her red hair and diminutive stature, was convicted of lewd behavior for a dance she performed at the Follies Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Being arrested was an occupational hazard, but this was an unusual case. Two cops had ventured into the Follies and, as cops are wont to do, demanded special treatment—i.e. free entrance. The ticket girl was not with the program so the cops busted the show and hauled Rowland and her manager into court. Rowland was eventually sentenced to three months in jail for a lewd performance and hit with a $5,000 fine—a tremendous amount back then, about $46,000 in today's money.
Rowland is putting on a brave face in the Los Angeles Examiner photos you see here, but she was stunned by the sentence, and the situation was all the more frustrating because the conviction hinged on the lies of two angry cops. Rowland had been performing her act for years with no hint of problems from the morals squad, and certainly wouldn't have started pushing the envelope after being so well established for so long. But that explanation held no water with Judge Byron J. Walters, who we can assume issued an unusually harsh sentence at the behest of those same crooked cops. Rowland wasn't the first dancer railroaded by the law and she wouldn't be the last.
Several weeks after being hauled off to the cooler, the Ball of Fire's sentence was commuted by Walters, who had been told Rowland planned to quit the burlesque business to open a perfume store in Beverly Hills with her sister. Walters: “The value of incarceration seems to have made its effective marks.” Some time after Rowland's release—we don't know if it was days, months, or years—she claimed it was actually a bribe that secured her freedom, paid out of pocket by her and shunted into the appropriate coffers. We've seen no reports that she opened a perfume store. Instead she danced into the 1960s before retiring. At last count she had reached age 102 in a rest home, and we bet she's still plenty steamed about that jail sentence. The photo below shows a young Rowland, probably around 1945.
She's going to pay back everything she owes—plus interest.
In the pre-Code film The Cheat, Tallulah Bankhead plays a compulsive gambler who, due to her extensive debts, is branded on her chest by the sadistic man to whom she owes a bundle. You can see the mark near her left shoulder. Interestingly, it's kanji—i.e. Chinese logographic characters used as part of the Japanese alphabet—and it says “I possess.” Well, her cruel creditor doesn't possess her gun, and we have a feeling he'll be sorry he doesn't. The photo is from 1931.
O'Neill does her famous bump and grind for her New Jersey neighbors.
Above, a little something we found at an auction page, a promo poster for burlesque performer Lynne O'Neill, who according to this appeared for a week at the Hudson Theatre in Union City, New Jersey. O'Neill was known as “The Original Garter Girl,” and at whatever venue she performed would sell branded garters in the lobby the way bands sell t-shirts. She worked mostly around the New York area because she resided most of her life on Long Island. Like many mid-century peelers she was well known, then mostly forgotten, and finally brought back somewhat into popular culture by an internet fueled revival of interest in burlesque. She died in 2010, but her place in the pantheon of burlesque dancers seems assured, thanks to new photos and artifacts that occasionally turn up. This poster is a good example. It's undated but we're sure it's from 1953 or 1954.
They're hoping for a Cinemiracle.
The above photo shows two hopefuls backstage about to compete for the title of Miss Cinemiracle, which was bestowed by the Los Angeles Press Photographer's Association in a pageant held at the National Theatre. We have no idea who the two women are or what they did once taking the stage, but we do know what Cinemiracle was—a film projection system designed to compete with Cinerama. The winner of the Miss Cinemiracle title, who ended up being Merlene Marrow, gained a measure of recognition—always invaluable for those hoping to break into show business—and in return helped publicize the projection process at public appearances. You see Marrow doing exactly that below, standing next to other pageant winners and actor James Garner. Eventually, Cinerama bought the patents for Cinemiracle and brought the competing format to an end. Anyway, these images struck us and we wanted to share them. The one above was made today in 1958, and the one below was made later the same year.
Just being able to survive feels like success.
Tonight the Noir City Film Festival is screening the urban drama Blue Collar, possibly the best film on the ten-day slate. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and the underrated but indispensable Yaphet Kotto star, but this is Pryor's show, his star turn. A trio of Detroit auto workers are driven by financial desperation to rob their own union hall. They end up netting three-hundred dollars. Trouble is the union, seeking insurance money, claims it was twenty thousand. The organized crime guy who backed the job isn't interested in stories about a three hundred dollar take—he's owed ten percent and that's two grand. But there's hope—the robbery also netted a notebook filled with information on illegal loans, and if Pryor and company can sell it maybe they can come out on top after all. But just how likely do you suppose that is?
Blue Collar is a brilliant work of art. Cinematic maverick Paul Schrader directed it, operating in a gritty milieu that would become his trademark. But the pressurized lives of the working class heroes are truly brought to life by the cast. Keitel studied under Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, as well as at the HB Studio, while Kotto is a guy who studied at the Actors Mobile Theater Studio and made his professional acting debut in Othello, but Pryor the stand-up comic outacted them both, using self-contained fury, razor sharp humor, and just the right amount of improvisation. The man was a once-in-lifetime talent. His comedy was fused with desperation and pain, but Hollywood tried to harness the funny Pryor and jettison the rest. It was like removing his heart. He truly shone only in serious films, where he would break high tension with moments of humanizing comedy. Blue Collar was the best of the lot.
By today's movie standards a couple of thousand dollars hardly seems like much to fret over. Audiences are used to crime films dealing with millions. But the small amounts here make the movie feel real. A 2016 study showed that half of adult Americans would not be able to come up with $400 in an emergency—they would have to sell something, borrow money, or not pay. Back in 1978, when Blue Collar wasmade, real wages in the U.S. were higher than they are now, so the movie depicts travails among working class people who were better off than working class people are today. Let that sink in. We think this is a perfect movie to show in San Francisco in 2017, a city overrun by tech workers contentedly pushing longtime residents out. The movie won't change anything in the city. But it will be remembered by the ticketholders at the screening. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
Pierre Laval, who was the premier of Vichy, France, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is shot by a firing squad for treason. In subsequent years it emerges that Laval may have considered himself a patriot whose goal was to publicly submit to the Germans while doing everything possible behind the scenes to thwart them. In at least one respect he may have succeeded: fifty percent of French Jews survived the war, whereas in other territories about ninety percent perished.
1966—Black Panthers Form
In the U.S., in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther political party. The Panthers are active in American politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but eventually legal troubles combined with a schism over the direction of the party lead to its dissolution.
1962—Cuban Missile Crisis Begins
A U-2 spy plane flight over the island of Cuba produces photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed. Though American missiles have been installed near Russia, the U.S. decides that no such weapons will be tolerated in Cuba. The resultant standoff brings the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The crisis finally ends with a secret deal in which the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban weapons.
1970—Angela Davis Arrested
After two months of evading police and federal authorities, Angela Davis is arrested in New York City by the FBI. She had been sought in connection with a kidnapping and murder because one of the guns used in the crime had been bought under her name. But after a trial a jury agreed that owning the weapon did not automatically make her complicit in the crimes.
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