This version is for adults only.
Like most burlesque dancers Noel Toy had several nicknames and alter egos, including the Chinese Sally Rand, but this promo image is signed: Ming Toi – The Silver Goddess. Toy/Toi was actually born Ngun Lee in San Francisco in 1918, and was a journalism student at UC Berkeley when she took a job dancing during the Golden Gate International Exposition, a Bay Area version of the World's Fair held in 1939. Having tasted the bright lights of show business, Toy ditched university and took a job at the famed Frisco club Forbidden City, developing a fan dance that brought about the Rand comparison. As her star rose she performed at many of the top clubs around the U.S., including the Stork Club in New York City. In 1951 she made the leap to cinema with an uncredited role in Anne of the Indies, and thereafter acted mostly on television shows, including Columbo, Police Woman, and four episodes of M*A*S*H*. We don't have an exact date for this rare and awesome Silver Goddess shot (yes, we know she looks more like gold, but who are we argue with her self-chosen nickname?), however it's probably from around 1940. A couple more images appear below.
There's always a Price for bad behavior.
These two wonderful posters were made for the melodrama Shock, which starred Vincent Price, Lynn Bari, Anabel Shaw, and Frank Latimore, and premiered today in 1946. With promo art like this we couldn't resist the film. While staying in a San Francisco hotel Shaw looks out her window and sees a man and woman arguing in a nearby room. The man strikes the woman over the head with a heavy silver candlestick, and seeing this causes Shaw to fall into a catatonic state—a state of shock. A doctor is sought and luckily there's one in the hotel—the same man who a bit earlier crowned his wife. The doctor figures out pretty quickly that his murder made Shaw go into shock, so he commits her to a sanitarium under his care. Diabolical.
Vincent Price plays the doctor and the role is perfect for him. He's a master of the sinister, and here he's positively terrifying. He decides that he needs to keep Shaw from talking, and, helped by his mistress Lynn Bari, who's a nurse in the sanitarium, he uses psychotherapy to try and wipe out Shaw's memory. That doesn't work, so he reverses course and tries to drive her insane. Later he reverses course again and decides to kill her via insulin shock. All this non-Hippocratic behavior from Price generated angry reactions from physician and psychiatrist groups around the U.S., but that's just hilarious—physicians have always been integral to atrocities, from the Tuskegee experiments to the Gitmo torture programs.
If the movie has any issue, it's that Shaw's frailty and hysteria feel anachronistic. The script sets up her mental condition by having her pre-shocked—she was told her soldier husband had been killed in the war, so she was already in a fragile state. Even so, we aren't sure many World War II-era women would have become catatonic after seeing someone hit over the head. We said “hit over the head” as opposed to murdered because Shaw had no reason to assume she'd seen a murder, rather than a severe beatdown. But okay, murder they wrote, so we'll accept the filmmakers' premise that candlestick + head = automatic death, and that Bari is in no mental condition to see such a thing. In which case we have to pronounce Shock an adequate little drama, worth it anyway for the oily Price, but decent in general.
You ever realize you're so untrustworthy you shouldn't even trust yourself? I do. It's weird.
Got a secretive husband? Poke around and see what you find. What's the worst that can happen?
Two days ago we discussed Katherine Hepburn's cinematic output and noted that Undercurrent was one of the few movies that qualified as pulp-style. We watched it last night and it falls into the always fun husbands-with-dark-secrets sub-genre. Hepburn marries into a rich San Francisco family and quickly finds that her hubby Robert Taylor is prone to sudden rages whenever he's reminded about aspects of his past. You know the drill: “Who was playing that song! Who's here? Was it you? Where did you learn that song!” Taylor is particularly sensitive with regard to his estranged possibly dead brother, and so are Taylor's employees, his domestic staff, and even his friends. Seems everyone is in on the secret except Hepburn. In typical suspense movie fashion, she decides to solve that problem by digging deeper.
Undercurrent is categorized on many websites as a film noir, because that's where people's minds go if there are any night scenes or shadows in a black and white flick, but you may be disappointed if you have such expectations. It's categorized as suspense drama by the American Film Institute, which we consider correct. You could even categorize it as a romantic suspense drama, one with shades of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film Rebecca. But on the other hand, since film noir is more a mood than a genre, there's always room for debate concerning whether a film should or shouldn't be included. For us, Undercurrent shouldn't. Two sequences bear some visual elements of film noir, and there's a brief nightmare interlude, but without the overarching cynicism and desolate central characters, we don't think it's a good fit.
Hepburn, who was probably never cynical or desolate in her entire career, occupies nearly every frame of Undercurrent and gives an emotional, almost melodramatic performance as a wife whose loyalty and belief in her husband are tested. To succeed fully in her role, she'd have needed better chemistry with Taylor, and the script and plot would have needed to be scintillating. None of those things happen, which means Hepburn isn't given the tools required to anchor the film. Even so, she gives it a hell of a go, and her efforts make it watchable. For her fans this one is a no-brainer—queue it up. For more general film buffs, you can probably take a pass. Undercurrent premiered today in 1946.
When commies get their hooks into you it's forever.
The Woman on Pier 13, for which you see a very nice promo poster above, had a pre-release title that tells you everything you need to know about it. That title was I Married a Communist. What you get here is a melodrama about Laraine Day, whirlwind married to successful San Francisco industrialist Robert Ryan, an exemplar of American free enterprise, but who was once a member of the communist party back in New Jersey. Uh oh.
Long before meeting and marrying Day, he exited the party without even thanking his hosts for the snacks, moved to Frisco, and changed his name. Married life is going wonderfully until the commies track him down and threaten to expose him if he doesn't give over two fifths of his salary each month and sabotage labor negotiations between San Fran shipping magnates and striking dockworkers. They kill a guy in front of him, just so he knows they mean business. The sneaky, thieving, blackmailing, murdering rats. They're cruel squared. All they needed to be worse were monocles and riding crops. And maybe a handy tray of stainless steel dental hooks. And speaking of hooks, wait until you see what what Ryan can do with one. The Woman on Pier 13 is well made and pretty fun, but it's less useful as cinema than as a time capsule of anti-commie propaganda. It premiered today in 1949.
Everything that can possibly go wrong will.
Nora Prentiss, which stars Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith, has an innocuous title, but it's close to the most ingenious film noir ever made. It's about a mild-mannered doctor who falls for a beautiful nightclub singer and decides he's willing to leave his wife. Exactly how far he's willing to go to accomplish this split is one aspect of what makes the film interesting, but the aftermath of his decision, and how it leads to an ending that is simultaneously literal and metaphorical, is what makes it a top entry in the genre. Reviews of the day complained that the film was not believable, but are any of the pickles leading men get into in film noir believable? The fact that the filmmakers, writers, and actors pull off the plot at all is worthy of praise. We can say nothing more about Nora Prentiss, not even a hint, and we strongly suggest you don't get anywhere near a review before watching it. Just trust us that it's a film noir worth seeing. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1947.
By any Reckoning this poster is a top quality piece.
This promo poster for Dead Reckoning is deliberately garish and highly effective at drawing the eye. They don't make 'em like this anymore, nor movies like this either. It had a special premiere today in 1947 in San Francisco, and went into wide release across the U.S. a month later. We shared a piece of Japanese promo art years ago and talked about the film, so if you want to know more, check here.
Scientist takes 7,000 pound elephant on a one way trip.
We don't just read fiction around here. We're deep into Tom O'Neill's Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. We may talk about the book later. It's full of anecdotes from the ’60s, and last night we came across the story of Tusko and his acid trip, which occurred in August 1962. Tusko was an eleven year-old Indian elephant that had the misfortune of finding himself at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City at the same time a crackpot scientist named Louis Jolyon West was at the University of Oklahoma studying the effects of LSD. Why West wanted to dose an elephant is too complicated to go into here, but let's just say he anticipated the resultant data having human applications.
In order to perform the experiment West had to calculate how much acid to give Tusko, and he decisively fucked up. He administered via syringe more than 1,400 times the human dosage (other accounts vary in this regard, but O'Neill relayed the story directly from West's notes). After the injection West stood back to observe the result. Said result, according to West's notes, was “Tusko trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated,” seized, and died.
Other versions of the story contain more detail. Apparently Tusko ran around his pen trumpeting (presumably the elephant equivalent of “I am tripping balls, dude!), before falling over. West, his keen scientific senses detecting trouble, decided to calm Tusko by injecting him with either Thorazine or promazine-hydrochloride (accounts vary) and phenobarbital. These doses were also massive, because once you've wildly overestimated the amount of LSD to give to an elephant, it's best to also wildly overestimate the amount of tranqs he might need. These second injections, running into the thousands of milligrams, may have been the actual cause of Tusko's death. We have profound sympathy for all the animals stuck on Earth with us casually murderous, ravenously omnivorous humans, but even in the endless annals of animal cruelty there are episodes so bizarre you can only marvel. Committing elephanticide using LSD is one of them.
After the Tusko fiasco West eventually made his way to a research position in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, and was there at the same time as Charles Manson, which is why his story appears in O'Neill's book. You'd think he'd been run out out of Oklahoma City on a rail, but you'd be wrong. He had CIA connections, and cruelty is an asset in those quarters. He had already dosed humans without their permission during his days at the CIA's MKUltra program, so it actually represented an improvement in his ethics to do the same to an elephant. They say LSD can bring you into contact with the divine. That must be true, because the story of Louis West and Tusko is a work of divine comedy. And just to give it a tinge of pathos, below is a photo of Tusko on his first birthday, when he had no inkling his life would be cut short in the service of pseudo-science.
Some guys just can't see the warning signs.
The cover art on this Planetmonk Books digital re-issue of Charles Willeford's 1956 novel Wild Wives enticed us with its faux-vintage look, plus the fact that this particular publisher has resurrected a few amazing old novels. This story was surprisingly one-note. You get a San Francisco gumshoe who crosses paths with an unhappily married femme fatale who's trouble with a capital T, and to that volatile mix is added a murder and 10,000 hidden bucks. The result is perfunctorily executed by Willeford. It's more frank than you'd expect, both in terms of violence and sex, and it's unusual for the hero's accepting attitude toward a gay character, but overall this isn't one of Willeford's, aka W. Franklin Sanders', top efforts. He's done well in the past, though, so we're confident about returning to him later.
Basically, the way this job works is my customers phone for drugs and I have people like you deliver them. I call it Instagram.
David Dodge is one of our favorite authors. He's as solid as they get. In 1946 he jumped on the drug hysteria wagon with It Ain't Hay, and which the British imprint Corgi Books re-issued in 1953 as A Drug on the Market. The book features Dodge's tax accountant hero Walt Whitney, star of three previous books, who learns that a prospective client has made his money by sailing marijuana from Mexico to Half Moon Bay, California. This tale is notable for Dodge in that he moves away from his semi-comic comfort zone and into darker territory in which Whitney breaks all kinds of personal codes while trying to bring the kingpin to justice. Dodge comes from the generation that hated drugs but loved to get loaded on booze, so it all reads a bit ironically today, but we don't judge—maybe one day people will say what reactionaries our generation was about uncut black tar heroin. Dodge's storytelling skill is unscathed, and that's all that matters. With Dodge, you can't miss.
The Noir City Film Festival comes to spread darkness over the Bay.
Well, it's that time again. We've done numerous write-ups on the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, and we're going to look at some of its offerings yet again as the festival gets underway tonight. All this really is for us is a way to focus our efforts and adhere to a film watching schedule. It also makes us screen someone else's picks rather than ours, which means we end up watching films we never would have otherwise.
Why this particular fest, as opposed to one of the many others, for example in Chicago or Seattle? This was the first one we ran across promo art for, so it's really just tradition at this point. We will add though, that living in the Bay convinced us that San Fran is the most noir city in the world, more than L.A., more than New York City, more than Chicago or London.
Of course, scores of film noirs were shot in L.A., and one of us lived there too, for four years, but San Fran feels like film noir. The recurrent fog alone makes it that way. Add in the hilly geography, the cable cars, the surrounding water, the iconic locations, and that lingering Barbary Coast notion that anything can happen at any moment, and you have a modern day film noir theme park. It was better before all the suits and beards moved in, but what can you do? Anyway, for the next week we'll be looking some of the movies playing at Noir City, and we're starting right now. See below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
2009—Farrah Fawcett Dies
American actress Farrah Fawcett, who started as a model but became famous after one season playing detective Jill Munroe on the television show Charlie's Angels
after a long battle with cancer.
1938—Chicora Meteor Lands
In the U.S., above Chicora, Pennsylvania, a meteor estimated to have weighed 450 metric tons explodes in the upper atmosphere and scatters fragments across the sky. Only four small pieces are ever discovered, but scientists estimate that the meteor, with an explosive power of about three kilotons of TNT, would have killed everyone for miles around if it had detonated in the city.
1973—Peter Dinsdale Commits First Arson
A fire at a house in Hull, England, kills a six year old boy and is believed to be an accident until it later is discovered to be a case of arson. It is the first of twenty-six deaths by fire caused over the next seven years by serial-arsonist Peter Dinsdale. Dinsdale is finally captured in 1981, pleads guilty to multiple manslaughter, and is detained indefinitely under Britain's Mental Health Act as a dangerous psychotic.
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