Everything that matters happens while the city sleeps.
This poster for The Sleeping City says it's the exciting successor to The Naked City. That's a mighty bold claim, considering The Naked City was directed by the legendary Jules Dassin and was selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress's National Film Registry, while The Sleeping City was directed by the not-quite-legendary George Sherman, who mostly helmed westerns and received a Golden Boot Award for his contributions to the Western film genre. Both were skilled at their craft, no doubt. But there's a big difference between the National Film Registry and the Golden Boot.
The Sleeping City is a New York City based crime thriller, and it starts with a cheeseball introduction in which lead Richard Conte pays tribute to Bellevue Hospital and its doctors and nurses. It was tacked onto the finished picture after city officials learned that the public already viewed the hospital negatively, and a crime thriller set there might make those perceptions worse. But it was still a silly thing to do—Bellevue was a public hospital. It wasn't like it was going to lose ad revenue from bad publicity. In any case, we're glad these sorts of “the story you're about to see” preambles didn't last long in Hollywood.
Once the movie gets started, Conte plays a cop sent undercover to solve a murder at the hospital. He's posing as a doctor and has some medical experience, but is by all means to avoid being roped into a situation where he actually has to do any doctoring. If he gets in a jam of that sort he's supposed to sacrifice his cover, and as reliably as the turn of a script page, he gets trapped into treating a case of diabetic shock. He decides to forge ahead rather than step aside. One could ponder his ethics, but luckily he gets through by the skin of his teeth. Whew.
Conte sticks his long nose in various nooks and crannies around Bellevue, makes goo-goo eyes with ward nurse Coleen Gray, and finds himself roomed with a hothead doctor named Steve. The murder mystery eventually lands right in his lap when his roommate turns up dead—lucky break that—and an important clue is provided by a nurse played by Peggy “Wow*” Dow. We won't tell you how the plot unspools from that point. We'll just say The Sleeping City is a functional thriller worth a watch. With Conte and Gray on board, it's pretty hard to fail. The film premiered this week in 1950.
*Not her official nickname. That's just how we think of her.
Excuse me madam, would you like to hear an American's opinions about everything?
John Steinbeck's Un americano en Nueva York y en Paris was published in 1957 by Ediciones Mariel, which was based in Buenos Aires. First published in 1956 in France as Un Américain à New York et à Paris, this is a collection of articles that Steinbeck wrote for Le Figaro when he was living in Paris. Because they originally appeared in French for a French publication many went unpublished in English for decades. In fact we can't be sure all the essays are available in English even today, though one would like to assume so. In any case, that's why this book caught our eye—because it surprised us that the entire collection of essays was available in Argentina, but not the U.S., almost immediately after they appeared in France.
Steinbeck was a serious writer, and thus was considered a serious persona, but the Le Figaro essays gave him a chance to show readers his wit and humor. Some of his observations read so contemporarily they could be from a year ago, particularly his musings over a restaurant owner who received a Michelin star, then spent every waking moment plotting, hoping, suffering to get another. He hopes to have his chance when the Michelin critic schedules another visit. The fact that the chef's official taster is Steinbeck's cat Apollo just adds more absurdity to the tale, as the genius who wrote Of Mice and Men veers into the silliness of cats and menus.
The parts of Un americano en Nueva York y en Paris not about France consist of articles concerning New York, culture, and politics. One of those latter entries, from 1954, is about Joseph McCarthy, who was in full witch hunt mode at the time. Much of the literati were loudly opposed to the proto-fascist senator, but Steinbeck took a different tack, writing that democracies occasionally need a challenge from demagogues in order to evolve, because such dark episodes remind people what democratic ideals really are—i.e. everyone gets to participate, not just self-appointed gatekeepers and purity-testers afraid of change or losing power. The tent of democracy always gets bigger, not smaller. It can't do the latter and qualify as a democracy.
The cover art on this was painted by J.C. Cotignola, whose work appeared on various Argentine and Brazilian publications, but who isn't well known today. Bang up job though. To us the title of the collection somewhat echoes George Orwell's acclaimed Down and Out in Paris and London, another book about knocking around in a couple of big cities. The difference is Orwell was so poor he almost starved to death—he literally ate moldy bread out of garbage cans to survive. Steinbeck was the toast of Paris when he was there. Given a choice, we'd skip the mold and go straight to the toast. Preferably with a layer of rillette de porc on top. Even Apollo the cat would approve of that.
In New York City people of a certain class live on the Upper East Side. Stockbrokers, lawyers, Nazis...
This poster would have sucked us right through the moviehouse doors had we been around when it was on display. It has beautiful colors, an air of mystery, a nice design, and dramatic graphics. The House on 92nd Street, which starred William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, and Signe Hasso (who we've seen a lot of lately), definitely doesn't rise to the level of the promo art. It qualifies as a propaganda film, though the events depicted are accurate. But with J. Edgar Hoover appearing briefly in the prologue, a stentorian narration, stilted dialogue, and a soundtrack that veers toward the martial, it's pretty hard to immerse yourself in what is undeniably a Hollywood-on-FBI stroke job.
If you take the plunge, the movie turns out to be about a German American student who is recruited by Nazis but instead becomes a double agent for the FBI during the period when World War II was raging in Europe but the U.S. wasn't militarily involved yet. German spies had been deployed around the U.S., and the movie deals with a particular group that gets wind of an important military secret, the secret of—dum dum duuuuuuum—the bomb. You know. The big bomb. The A-bomb. The nuke. The edge. The be-all. The end-all. The mushroom cloud layin', eyeball meltin', city flattenin', effervescently fissionatin' ordnance both Germany and the U.S. thought would win the war. Good premise, actually.
But since World War II was almost over when the film came out, the plot's outcome was a given. Did audiences feel any suspense? We aren't convinced. Even if the FBI hadn't routed out the spies, the skyrocketing Upper East Side real estate prices would have. The Nazis would have moved to the Bronx seeking cheaper rent. With the conclusion not in doubt, the movie's thrills needed to be provided by the audience's attachment to double agent Eythe, who's in constant danger of being outed and de-cortexed by a Luger slug. Unfortunately, he's mostly an empty suit, therefore the movie fails on that level. It was well reviewed in its day, but duh, critics need to eat too. We doubt many would have panned the movie at that time. But the lens of history is cruel and today the film is considered substandard.
The best aspect of The House on 92nd Street is Signe Hasso as the cast iron Frau Farbissina style bitch operating the nest of naughty Nazis, but she's not enough to save the production—nor ultimately the spy ring. If the filmmakers had ditched the narration, the scare music, the scare Hoover, and gone less procedural and more personal, maybe there would have been a good film in this somewhere, but as it turned out it's just a middling crime melodrama considered to be a fringy film noir—certainly one the genre could do without. The poster, though, remains very nice. The House on 92nd Street premiered today in 1945.
When you choose an inspiration choose the best.
Above you see a cover from Beacon Signal books, circa 1960, for All Woman by Matt Harding. The woman in this case is the legendary Bettie Page, rendered by illustrator Jack Faragasso. Page appeared on vintage book covers several times, either in photo or painted form. We've shown you examples of both types here and here, and you'll notice one of those covers is also by Faragasso. Clearly he had an affinity for Page, and there's a reason. When he was attending the Art Students League of New York in 1951 he shot nude photos of her. This was before she was well known. Faragasso later published those images in a book, but as far as using them as inspiration for paperback covers, he did it only twice. We'll keep an eye out for more Page covers. For that matter, we'll keep an eye out for more Faragasso covers too.
Monroe finds herself in a room with no space to maneuver.
It says plenty about Don't Bother To Knock that we queued it up last night, popcorn and adult beverages in hand, having forgotten that we already watched it several years ago. That has less to do with the overall film than with Marilyn Monroe, but we'll get to that in a minute. The film was based on Charlotte Armstrong's Mischief, which was serialized in 1950 in Good Housekeeping magazine, and deals with a mentally disturbed babysitter watching over a child in a fancy New York City hotel suite. Along with Monroe it stars Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft, with their three characters suffering respectively from derangement, detachment, and disillusionment—three ailments suggested to be caused or exacerbated by life in the big city. Widmark as a cynical single looking for easy action and Bancroft as a world weary torch singer working the hotel lounge don't have any problems a change in luck wouldn't solve, but the movie revolves around Monroe, who, thirteen credited roles into her career at this point, gets a chance to stretch her range as a nutty nanny in need of a lot more than just kind words to get back on the beam.
Monroe's performance in this heavy drama is tough to judge. To us it feels a bit flat, but contemporary reviewers generally liked it, and it's fair to say it helped her climb that last rung to the superstardom she'd reach a year later with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Watch that film and you'll see that, while Don't Bother To Knock asked her to stretch, it did so by requiring that she suppress her natural charisma. That's no easy trick for an actor, let alone someone as incandescent as her, and that, in short, is probably why we forgot we'd already watched the movie. Monroe was so big in her other performances that this flick went down the memory hole. Her iconic movies feel as if they could only have starred her. This one feels like it could have starred anyone. Monroe just isn't Monroe in it. But that probably means her performance is a success. Watching it afresh, we can tell you it's certainly a must for Marilyn fans, and will probably work for vintage film fans of all types. But those unschooled in the oldies might walk away from this effort thinking, Meh, I don't get all the Monroe fuss. But the fuss was appropriate and deserved. Don't Bother To Knock—not a film noir as labeled on many sites, by the way—premiered today in 1953.
Money is always greener from a distance.
Sweet Smell of Success was a mandatory watch for us. It's considered by many to be a top film noir but we'd never seen it. Well, that's been rectified now, and what a good expenditure of time it was. Tony Curtis plays a New York City publicity agent whose business is falling apart because he's been blacklisted by the most important newspaper columnist in the country, played by Burt Lancaster. Why the rough treatment? Lancaster's sister is dating a jazz musician and he wants the relationship ended. He's trying to force Curtis to do the dirty work—smear the guy, frame him, whatever, just get him out of the picture. Curtis's desperation to climb to the top ranks of agents leads him to try breaking up the pair, but in film noir sleazy decisions have a way of pushing goals farther away rather than drawing them nearer.
Sweet Smell of Success, which had a special premiere in New York City in June 1957, and went into national release a week later, which was today, has a feel similar to another Big Apple drama—the excellent 2019 movie Uncut Gems. Both movies are very fast paced, even borderline chaotic, as desperate bottom-dwellers try to climb to the top of a dog-eat-dog industry while keeping one step ahead of karmic fate. Sweet Smell of Success is the better film largely thanks to Lancaster in one of the all-time heel roles. You'll want to punch his character J.J. Hunsecker—nice, right?—directly in the middle of his face. And you'll want to give Curtis a shaking fit to rattle his teeth. Anything to wake him up to the fact that in a cutthroat game, the most important thing isn't having a razor but lacking a conscience. Noir fans should push this one to the head of the queue.
She likes to chill out, but never so much that she fully lets down her guard.
Above you see U.S. actress Judy Holliday, who debuted in cinema in 1938 and appeared in such films as Adam's Rib and The Solid Gold Cadillac. Her career was going okay until she was named in the red-baiting publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and TV as having communist connections. Called before a congressional committee, she refused to name names, but learned that freedom of association was an illusion in 1950s America. Holliday kept working in films until 1960, and died early five years later, at age 43, from throat cancer, in the place where she had been born and spent most of her life, New York City. The photo above was made in 1944, when she was filming Winged Victory.
Some people really don't like being in photos.
Here's a pulp style historical oddity we've seen floating around the web of late. This photo shows a frame from a bank security camera at the moment a bank robber shoots it. It's from United Press International, and first came to public attention thanks to an art exhibition called “Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play,” which was mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City back in 2016. Based on the fact that the men are wearing fedoras we would have guessed the robbery to have taken place during the ’40s or ’50s, but it actually happened in Cleveland, Ohio, today in 1975.
Interestingly, one of us was actually in an armed robbery. A young PSGP was in a Kroger grocery store when a guy charged in with a gun and yelled at everyone to get on the floor. People were so stunned they just stood there, and the would-be robber turned around and ran. PSGP's dad, decisive as always, said, “Let's get the fuck out of here,” and they took off mere seconds after the robber. Fast forward to later and the local news reported that the store had been robbed. It turns out the thief had come back just a few minutes later. One hates to imagine what would have happened if PSGP and his dad had bumped into the guy. Anyway, does that count as being in an armed robbery? We think so.
To be a sidewalk pancake or not to be a sidewalk pancake. That is the question.
We have a friend who once said that everyone's problems can be boiled down to, “Mommy and daddy didn't love me enough.” We don't agree, but 14 Hours, aka Fourteen Hours, takes that idea and runs with it as far and fast as it can, as Richard Basehart climbs onto a New York City hotel ledge and engages in the eternal existential wrestling match: To be or not to be? Most of the movie takes place on that ledge, as a beat cop played by Paul Douglas tries to talk Basehart out of splattering himself all over 55th Street.
The performances in this film were acclaimed at the time, and it also has an interesting collection of young, soon-to-be stars, including Debra Paget, pretty boy Jeffery Hunter, Barbara Bel Geddes, and the legendary Grace Kelly, who's twenty-two yet plays a mother of two about to be divorced. Yes, there are twenty-two-year-old mothers of two facing divorce, but it feels like a case of shoehorning her into the movie when her role was clearly written for an older actress. But hey, shoehorn away—she's Grace Kelly. She can play King Kong as far as we're concerned.
14 Hours is, on the whole, an involving and speedy flick. It is not a film noir, and we wish IMDB and Wikipedia didn't let their users label every vintage black and white drama a noir. This one is not even close to noir. It has almost none of that genre's standard iconography, and also lacks its required thematic underpinning. The American Film Institute officially calls it a suspense drama. Whatever its category, 14 Hours' ninety-two minutes are entertaining and technically proficient. To watch or not to watch? We say yes. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1951.
If you'd had sex with me I wouldn't be out here with the pigeons right now. Headquarters? Do not—I repeat do not—eat all the donuts. We'll get this nutjob off the ledge and be back there as quick as we can. I certainly don't want you to get desperate enough to climb onto a ledge. Let's go to your place and I'll show you what life is all about. Don't jump, son! Without you there'll be nobody around to listen to me complain about what a loser your father is! Hello, headquarters? Status check on those donuts. Just cooperate, mister! There are a lot of hungry cops up here!
I heard you the first time. I'm just choosing to ignore you.
We've been told that this low rent cover for Justin Kent's 1955 fetish cheapie Touch Me Not! is by sleaze art master Eric Stanton. If so, it's a mere sketch compared to his normal style, but we'll accept that it's him. Last time we checked, Touch Me Not! was selling for $155, which is outrageous for something that looks like it was stapled at a Kinko's. But in this case at least, the buyer would get something historically significant. This book was central to an obscenity case brought in 1959 by the state of New York against Times Square bookstore owner Edward Mishkin that after seven years went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. Mishkin lost the case, and Touch Me Not!, which had been confiscated with numerous other books, remained under wraps for fifty years. You can see plenty more Eric Stanton art by clicking his keywords below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—China Detonates Nuke
At the Lop Nur test site located between the Taklamakan and Kuruktag deserts, the People's Republic of China detonates its first nuclear weapon, codenamed 596 after the month of June 1959, which is when the program was initiated.
1996—Handgun Ban in the UK
In response to a mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland that kills 16 children, the British Conservative government announces a law to ban all handguns, with the exception .22 caliber target pistols. When Labor takes power several months later, they extend the ban to all handguns.
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.
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