DVD of the Week: I WAKE UP SCREAMING – framed by a stalker

Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

As a tribute to the Noir City festival of film noir in San Francisco, my DVD of the Week was just featured at Noir City.  In I Wake Up Screaming, the promoter Frankie (Victor Mature) discovers the hardscrabble beauty Vicky (Carole Landis), and seeks to turn her into a star. She gets her Hollywood contract, but leaves Frankie behind with a pile of nightclub tabs and furrier bills. Vicky turns up murdered, and the cops, led by the menacing Cornwell (Laird Cregar) try to pin the crime on Frankie. Frankie and Vicky’s sister Jill (Betty Grable in a rare dramatic role) try to find the Real Killer. They discover that Frankie isn’t just a convenient suspect, he is being framed – and the stakes get higher as they race the cops to solve the crime.

As befits a noir, we see gritty diners, top end nightclubs, the police interrogation room and an all-night theater. When the light goes on in the den of a stalker, set up as a shrine to his victim, it’s a jaw-dropping moment. I Wake Up Screaming is on my list of Overlooked Noir.

This is Laird Cregar’s movie. Cregar’s hulking and insolent Cornwell dominates every scene that he’s in, and several times he makes us literally jump. Cregar understood how to use his size and looks to intimidate. Cornwell is almost buoyant as he explains to Frankie how he intends to ruin Frankie’s life. But when Cornwell doesn’t know that he’s being watched, he drops his chin and lapses into an open-mouthed stare at Landis. This is a very early and groundbreaking portrayal of a stalker. There are early hints to his unhealthy obsession, but nothing prepares the audience for the revelation of just how unhealthy it turns out to be.

Cregar was an immense acting talent. A closeted gay man and overweight, he was uncomfortable in his own skin. Sadly, aspiring to become a leading man, he died suddenly from damage caused by a quackish, extreme diet. (At the time, no one could foresee Raymond Burr’s path – playing film noir heavies and later becoming a huge star on TV.)

Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Victor Mature in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Betty Grable, Carol Landis and Victor Mature in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

In her brief career, Carole Landis was usually cast based on her impressive, top-heavy figure. Here, she brings some nuance to the role of Vicky, for whom there is more going on than apparent. She’s far more than the Eliza Doolittle that Frankie thinks she is. It’s later revealed that she can get what she wants from a slew of men and that she can make a canny and ruthless business deal. She cheerfully cuts Frankie out of his Return On Investment with an “it’s just business” attitude. Landis was only 23 years old when she made I Wake Up Screaming. After four stormy marriages, she committed suicide at age 29 – right after boyfriend Rex Harrison refused to leave his wife for her.

The hunky Mature went on to spend an entire decade shirt-free in sword-and-sandal movies. Of course, Grable would soon become the favorite pin-up girl for the US military in WW II. The most unintentionally funny part of I Wake Up Screaming is when the two decide to top off a date with a late-night swim at a NYC indoor pool. It is easy to visualize the studio brass ordering the poor screenwriters to somehow get Grable and Mature into their swimsuits.

Before getting stuck in beefcake roles like Samson, Horemheb the Egyptian and Demetrius the Gladiator, Mature proved himself to be a pretty fair noir hero, especially in 1947’s Kiss of Death. He’s good here. So is Grable, without any singing or dancing (although she did have a song in a deleted scene on the DVD). Film noir favorite Elisha Cook, Jr. has a role that seems small but juicy, until it becomes pivotal.

Scholars place 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor as the very first film noir. Released in 1941, I Wake Up Screaming is a very early noir, along with The Maltese Falcon, Johnny Eager, Suspicion, High Sierra and The Shanghai Gesture. Director H. Bruce Humberstone and cinematographer Edward Cronjager did not become giants of noir, or even notable noir artists, but their lighting was impressive. Cregar often lurks in the shadows, and when he doesn’t, we usually see his shadow, often dwarfing another character. Cregar also gets the horizontal shadows of Venetian blinds across his face. At least three times, characters turn on the light to find that another character has slipped into their apartment – yikes!

The exposition in I Wake Up Screaming is pretty muck by-the-numbers. The primary appeals of the film is the proto-noir style, the matter-of-fact sexiness of Landis, the easy-to-root-for pair of Grable and Mature, and the amazing performance of Laird Cregar. Incongruously, the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow keeps showing up in this dark and oft creepy movie. I don’t understand how or why, but it is an effective choice.

I Wake Up Screaming plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. The DVD is available with a Netflix subscription, or you can buy it from Amazon. I Wake Up Screaming was featured at the Noir City 2018.

Betty Grable and Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING
Laird Cregar in I WAKE UP SCREAMING

Stream of the Week: THE BURGLAR – loyalty among thieves

Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea in THE BURGLAR
Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea in THE BURGLAR

The Stream of the Week comes from my Overlooked Noir. The Burglar (1957) is known primarily as the movie debut of Jayne Mansfield, but it’s a fine film noir. It starts out with a tense burglary, but once the necklace is successfully burgled, the story focuses on the heist team going stir crazy as they wait for the environment to cool down so they can safely fence the booty. They are strung so tight that even the whistle of a tea kettle is enough to startle the gang. While dodging the cops, they find that they are also being hunted by a corrupt rogue cop and his partner.

The core of The Burglar is the stellar lead performance of Dan Duryea as the chief burglar. He’s a tortured and worn-out guy – with one deep loyalty.

There are plenty of noir moments – lots of shadows, uplit faces in the darkness and amoral, grasping characters. We have not one, but two noir vixens – Jayne Mansfield and Martha Vickers. Asked at a bar by Duryea what she wants, Vickers answers “Basically, I’m out to find myself a man.” The characters in this fine film noir find themselves in Atlantic City, where the bad cop chases the protagonists through the House of Horrors and the Steel Pier, culminating in a final confrontation under the boardwalk.

The acting is excellent, other than Peter Capell, who gives over-acting a bad name while playing the most nerve-wracked member of the gang. Even Mansfield is good; (The Burglar was held in the can for two years and then released when Mansfield became a sensation with The Girl Can’t Help It).

The movie was shot on location in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. We see Independence Hall, and it’s hard not to think of Rocky when Duryea climbs the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Burglar plays from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and is available streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, Xbox Video and Flixster.

[Note: The Burglar features John Facenda as his real-life role as a Philadelphia newscaster (when local TV stations aired 15-minute newscasts). Facenda later found much broader fame as “The Voice of God” for his narration for NFL Films football documentaries.]

Stream of the Week: FRANK & LOLA – Bad Girl or Troubled Girl?

Imogen Poots with Michael Shannon in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in FRANK & LOLA.
Photo courtesy of SFFILM.

The San Francisco International Film Festival is underway, so this week’s video pick comes from the program of last year’s festival.  The absorbing neo-noir romance Frank & Lola opens with a couple lovemaking for the first time – and right away there’s a glimmer that he’s more invested than she is. Soon we’re spirited from Vegas to Paris and back again in a deadly web of jealousy.

Lola (Imogen Poots) is young and beautiful, a lively and sparkly kind of girl. Frank (the great Michael Shannon) is older but “cool” – a talented chef. He is loyal and steadfast but given to possessiveness, and he says things like, “who’s the mook?”.

In a superb debut feature, writer director Matthew Ross has invented a Lola that we (and Frank) spend the entire movie trying to figure out. Imogen Poots is brilliant in her most complex role so far. She’s an unreliable girlfriend – but the roots of her unreliability are a mystery – is she Bad or Troubled? A character describes her with “She can be very convincing”, and that’s NOT a complement. Poots keeps us on edge throughout the film, right up to her stunning final monologue.

Shannon, of course, is superb, and the entire cast is exceptional. There’s a memorable turn by Emmanuelle Devos, the off-beat French beauty with the cruel mouth. Rosanna Arquette is wonderful, as is Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies. I especially liked Justin Long as Keith Winkleman (is he a namedropping ass or something more?).

Frank & Lola has more than its share of food porn and, as befits a neo-noir, lots of depravity. But, at its heart, it’s a romance. Is Lola a Bad Girl or a Troubled Girl? If she’s bad, then love ain’t gonna prevail. But if she’s damaged, can love survive THAT either? We’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.

I saw Frank & Lola in May 2016 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I liked it more than most and put it on my Best Movies of 2016. After a brief and tiny theatrical release in December which did not reach the Bay Area, Frank & Lola is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

NOIR CITY 2017: a bang up final weekend

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

I’ve been recommending  the Noir City film fest, underway in San Francisco and running through Sunday. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.  Here are the highlights of Noir City’s bang up final weekend:

  • Charley Varrick: the shamefully underrated American neo-noir from the 1970s with Walter Mathau.  To survive, he’s got to outsmart the mob all by himself.
  • The Aura: A completely overlooked 2005 neo-noir from Argentina about an epileptic taxidermist.  He’s smart enough to plan the Perfect Crime, but does he have the sociopathic ruthlessness?
  • Before the Devil Know You’re Dead: A masterpiece from the then 84-year-old director Sidney Lumet, it features one of the best performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then there’s Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon – but Albert Finney steals the movie at the end.
  • Victoria: A 2015 European thrill ride filmed in a single 138-minute shot.
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City
Ricardo Darin in THE AURA at Noir City

NOIR CITY: the great San Francisco festival of film noir

Noir City 2017
I always look forward to the Noir City film fest, which gets underway in San Francisco this week. Noir City is the annual festival of the Film Noir Foundation, spearheaded by its founder and president Eddie Muller. The Foundation preserves movies from the traditional noir period that would otherwise be lost. Noir City often plays newly restored films and movies not available on DVD. And we get to watch them in a vintage movie palace (San Francisco’s Castro Theatre) with a thousand other film fans.

The theme of this year’s festival is the Heist Movie, Noir City is presenting a wonderful array of heist movies from the classic American film noir period, foreign noirs and an especially healthy selection of neo-noirs. Being noir, you might not expect many of these heists to end well. And some are from noir’s Perfect Crime sub-genre – they’re going to get away with the elaborately planned big heist EXCEPT FOR ONE THING.

Noir City runs January 20-29. To see the this year’s Noir City program and buy tickets, go here.

On Noir City’s first weekend:

  • The Asphalt Jungle: As long as things go according to plan… John Huston directed a marvelous cast (Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, John McIntire). And even Louis Calhern knows that Marilyn Monroe isn’t going to stick around as his moll.
  • Violent Saturday: a completely overlooked film from one of my favorite directors that I hadn’t seen until Eddie Muller programmed it for this festival. Filmed in the bright Arizona desert with CinemaScope and De Luxe color, the story is plenty noir.
  • Four Ways Out: Saturday night, Noir City goes goes Italian with the last script written by screenwriter Federico Fellini before he started directing. Four guys pull a heist, and it goes bad four different ways.
  • Big Deal on Madonna Street, the funniest film in the festival, with an Italian gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Watch for a 34-year-old pre-Fellini Marcello Mastroianni.
  • Rififi: This French classic is the top heist film ever and pioneering in its use of real time. After the team is assembled and the job is plotted, the actual crime unfolds in real-time – over thirty minutes of nerve wracking silence.
  • The Big Risk: It’s a highlight because it’s a French noir starring the bloodhound-visaged Lino Ventura that I have NOT seen, so I’ll be going to Noir City myself on Sunday.

And midweek, at Noir City:

  • The rarely-seen Once a Thief (Alain Delon, trying to keep Ann-Margret while being hunted by Van Heflin) and The Sicilian Clan (with the neo-noir trifecta of Delon, Ventura and Jean Gabin), both on Wednesday evening, January 25.

I’ll be writing about Noir City’s tremendous final weekend. Stay tuned.

VIOLENT SATURDAY
VIOLENT SATURDAY

Stream of the Week: FRANK & LOLA – Bad Girl or Troubled Girl?

Imogen Poots with Michael Shannon in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The absorbing neo-noir romance Frank & Lola opens with a couple lovemaking for the first time – and right away there’s a glimmer that he’s more invested than she is.  Soon we’re spirited from Vegas to Paris and back again in a deadly web of jealousy.

Lola (Imogen Poots) is young and beautiful, a lively and sparkly kind of girl.  Frank (the great Michael Shannon) is older but “cool” – a talented chef.  He is loyal and steadfast but given to possessiveness, and he says things like, “who’s the mook?”.

In a superb debut feature, writer director Matthew Ross has invented a Lola that we (and Frank) spend the entire movie trying to figure out.  Imogen Poots is brilliant in her most complex role so far.  She’s an unreliable girlfriend – but the roots of her unreliability are a mystery – is she Bad or Troubled?  A character describes her with “She can be very convincing”, and that’s NOT a complement.  Poots keeps us on edge throughout the film, right up to her stunning final monologue.

Shannon, of course, is superb, and the entire cast is exceptional.  There’s a memorable turn by Emmanuelle Devos, the off-beat French beauty with the cruel mouth.  Rosanna Arquette is wonderful, as is Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies.  I especially liked Justin Long as Keith Winkleman (is he a namedropping ass or something more?).

Frank & Lola has more than its share of food porn and, as befits a neo-noir, lots of depravity.  But, at its heart, it’s a romance.  Is Lola a Bad Girl or a Troubled Girl? If she’s bad, then love ain’t gonna prevail. But if she’s damaged, can love survive THAT either?  We’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.

I saw Frank & Lola in May at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I liked it more than most and put it on my Best Movies of 2016. After a brief and tiny theatrical release in December which did not reach the Bay Area, Frank & Lola is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

 

THE LINEUP: cool killer, volcanic killer, careening thru San Francisco

THE LINEUP
THE LINEUP

The 1958 film noir The Lineup plays this Saturday, July 30, on Turner Classic Movies. The villains and the final chase scene are unforgettable, as are the movie’s iconic San Francisco locations.  It’s one of my Overlooked Noirs.

Two gangsters are smuggling heroin into San Francisco, hidden in the bags of unsuspecting cruise ship passengers. When a shipment isn’t where it’s supposed to be (in a girl’s doll), the gangsters take the doll’s owner (Cindy Calloway) and her mother (Mary LaRoche) hostage and then try to hunt down the contraband in San Francisco’s underground. Will the crooks find the junk? Will they harm the hostages? Will the cops find them first? The suspense builds until the man hunt turns into a spectacular chase through San Francisco.

Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP
Richard Jaeckel and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP

The bad guys, Julian (Robert Keith) and Dancer (Eli Wallach), really set The Lineup apart from other crime dramas of the period.  Julian is ruthless, but always controlled and strategic.  One of the most self-aware villains in cinema history, Julian says things like, “Crying’s aggressive and so’s the law. Ordinary people of your class, you don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He describes his partner Dancer as “a wonderful, pure pathological study. He’s a psychopath with no inhibitions.”

Robert Keith’s son, Brian Keith, became a much bigger star in the TV series Family Affair and a host of Disney productions.  But Robert Keith was himself a fine actor, especially as a PTSD-addled colonel in Men in War (1957).  The role of Julian, with its unusual combination of cool smarts and calculated malevolence, became one of Robert Keith’s finest performances.

Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP
Eli Wallach in THE LINEUP

Julian’s biggest challenge is operating with a psychotic partner (Wallach’s Dancer) who is ready to explode in violence at any moment.  Wallach was a great movie character actor who had the gift of packing maximum entertainment value into any role.  Movie fans will probably best remember him for two bandito bad guys – Cavela in The Magnificent Seven and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  But here he is, just three years after his feature film debut in Baby Doll, and Wallach is seething with intensity as he gives pychopathy an especially bad name.

To make their situation even edgier, Julian and Dancer have hired a local getaway driver  (the ever reliable character actor Richard Jaeckel) who is a raging alcoholic.

There isn’t any lineup of note in The Lineup, which was a theatrical feature seeking to exploit a police procedural TV series of the same name, hence the reference to “30 million fans” in the trailer.  Warner Anderson co-starred in the series and plays the cop in the movie.  The real juice in this movie, however, comes from the criminals that he is chasing.

The Lineup was brilliantly directed by the grievously underrated Don Siegel.  Siegel was a master of crime movies (and was the primary filmmaking mentor to Clint Eastwood).  I particularly love Siegel’s 1973 neo-noir Charley Varrick, the guilty pleasure Two Mules for Sister Sara and John Wayne’s goodbye: The ShootistThe Lineup is right up there with Siegel’s best.

THE LINEUP
THE LINEUP

The biggest star of The Lineup, however, is the San Francisco of the late 1950s. The Lineup starts on the waterfront and ends in a chase that careens from the Cliff House all across the city to the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway (now itself torn down decades ago). The story also takes us to the old Embarcadero YMCA, the Golden Gate Bridge, War Memorial Opera House, US Custom House, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Legion of Honor, the old DeYoung Museum and the Mark Hopkins Hotel.  There’s even a critical scene in the Sutro Baths – which had become an ice skating rink when the movie was filmed.

Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP
Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Cindy Calloway, Eli Wallach and Robert Keith in THE LINEUP (the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in the background)
The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP
The unfinished Embarcadero Freeway in THE LINEUP

The Lineup (one of the few DVDs that I still own) plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

Stream of the Week: THE BURGLARS

Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea in THE BURGLAR
Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea in THE BURGLAR

This week’s Stream of the Week comes from The Movie Gourmet’s list of Overlooked Noir. The Burglar (1957) is known primarily as the movie debut of Jayne Mansfield, but it’s a fine film noir. It starts out with a tense burglary, but once the necklace is successfully burgled, the story focuses on the heist team going stir crazy as they wait for the environment to cool down so they can safely fence the booty. They are strung so tight that even the whistle of a tea kettle is enough to startle the gang. While dodging the cops, they find that they are also being hunted by a corrupt rogue cop and his partner.

The core of The Burglar is the stellar lead performance of Dan Duryea as the chief burglar. He’s a tortured and worn-out guy – with one deep loyalty.

There are plenty of noir moments – lots of shadows, uplit faces in the darkness and amoral, grasping characters. We have not one, but two noir vixens – Jayne Mansfield and Martha Vickers. Asked at a bar by Duryea what she wants, Vickers answers “Basically, I’m out to find myself a man.” The characters in this fine film noir find themselves in Atlantic City, where the bad cop chases the protagonists through the House of Horrors and the Steel Pier, culminating in a final confrontation under the boardwalk.

The acting is excellent, other than Peter Capell, who gives over-acting a bad name while playing the most nerve-wracked member of the gang. Even Mansfield is good; (The Burglar was held in the can for two years and then released when Mansfield became a sensation with The Girl Can’t Help It).

The movie was shot on location in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. We see Independence Hall, and it’s hard not to think of Rocky when Duryea climbs the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Burglar plays from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and is available streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, Xbox Video and Flixster.

[Note: The Burglar features John Facenda as his real-life role as a Philadelphia newscaster (when local TV stations aired 15-minute newscasts). Facenda later found much broader fame as “The Voice of God” for his narration for NFL Films football documentaries.]

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS: his alibi for one murder is another murder

Jeanne Moreau in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
Jeanne Moreau in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Tomorrow night, July 24, Turner Classic Movies presents the groundbreaking French noir Elevator to the Gallows.  It’s one of my Overlooked Noir.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) is such a groundbreaking film, you can argue that it’s the first of the neo-noir. It’s the debut of director Louis Malle, shot when he was only 24 years old. It’s difficult now to appreciate the originality of Elevator the Gallows; but in 1958, no one had seen a film with a Miles Davis soundtrack or one where the two romantic leads were never on-screen together.

A thriller that still stands up today, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) is about the perfect crime that goes awry. The French war hero Julien (Marcel Ronet), is now working as an executive for a military supplier. He’s having an affair with Florence (Jeanne Moreau), whose husband owns the firm. Seeking to possess both his lover and his company, Julien implements an elaborately detailed plan to get away with his boss’ murder. Everything goes perfectly until he makes one oversight; then the dominoes begin to fall, and soon he is trapped in a very vulnerable situation. He is incommunicado, and he remains ignorant of the related events that transpire outside.

Almost every character makes false assumptions about what is going on. Florence mistakenly believes that Julien has run off with a young trollop. A young punk and his peppy girlfriend incorrectly assume that they are on the verge of arrest. The police pin a murder on Julien that he didn’t commit – but his alibi is the murder that he DID commit. And there’s a great scene where Julien is striding confidently into a busy cafe, unaware that he has become the most recognizable fugitive in France.

It’s a page-turner of a plot, and the acting is superb, but Malle’s choices make this film. When Florence thinks that she’s been dumped, she walks through Paris after dark. Jeanne Moreau doesn’t have any lines (although her interior thoughts are spoken in voice-over). Instead, she embodies sadness and shock through her eyes and her carriage – the effect is heartbreaking. Mile Davis’ trumpet reinforces the sadness of her midnight stroll.

The Miles Davis score is brilliant, but Malle often makes effective use of near silence, too. And he reinforces the kids’ shallowness and over-dramatizing with strings. Every audio choice is perfect.

There’s vivid verisimilitude in a Paris police station at 5 am – all grittiness with drunks sobering up, and the holding cage filled with thieves and prostitutes. The contrast in how the police treat the wealthy and influential is stark and realistic.

The young couple is completely believable. The joyride is absolutely what these characters would do. The young guy is sullen and the girl is hooked on his moodiness. And, of course, with the self-absorption of youth, they over-dramatize their own situation.

Every scene in Elevator to the Gallows is strong, but the scenes with Moreau pop off the screen. This was her star-making role, and perhaps the definitive Jeanne Moreau role (yes – even more than Jules et Jim).

Marcel Ronet is also excellent as Julien. Julien is a guy with serious skills, and the confidence and poise to use them. When Julien is trapped in the situation that would cause most of us to freak out, he immediately starts working on an Apollo 13-like solution without any hint of panic. The harrowing scenes of Julien’s entrapment and escape fit alongside the mot suspenseful moments in the great French crime thrillers Rififi (1955) and Le trou (1960). The means of his eventual escape is one of the most ironic moments in cinema.

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

Eventually we see the marvelous Lino Ventura as the detective captain. A former European wrestling champion, Ventura had debuted five years earlier in the great Touchez pas au grisbi and had followed that with several gangster/cop supporting roles. Immediately after Elevator to the Gallows, Ventura started getting lead roles. Ventura had an almost unique combination of charm, wit and hulking physicality; he’s one of the few actors I can envision playing Tony Soprano.

The high contrast black and white photography, the voiceovers and the city at night all scream “noir”. So does the amorality of the main characters seeking to get what they want by murder, the ironies of the miscommunications and mistaken assumptions and the profoundly cynical ending.

But the look and sound of Elevator to the Gallows is entirely new. The experience of viewing Elevator to the Gallows seems closer to the American indie triumphs of the early 1970s (The Godfather, Chinatown, The Conversation) than to the likes of The Postman Always Rings Twice or The Big Sleep. Elevator to the Gallows remains a starkly modern film that is still as fresh today as in 1958.

Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
Marcel Ronet in ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS

DVD/Stream of the Week: HIS KIND OF WOMAN – he knows the deal is too good

HIS KIND OF WOMAN
HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Here’s a selection from my list of Overlooked NoirHis Kind of Woman. Robert Mitchum plays a down-and-out gambler who is offered a deal that MUST be too good to be true; he’s smart enough to be suspicious and knows that he must discover the real deal before it’s too late. He meets a on-the-top-of-the-world hottie (Jane Russell), who is about to become down on her luck, too.

They are stuck in the confines of a Mexican beach resort with a full complement of shady characters, played by noir standard-carriers Charles McGraw, Jim Backus and Philip Van Zandt. And there’s the star of movie swashbucklers (Vincent Price), who is hiding out from his unhappy marriage. Tim Holt (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) shows up as another guy who isn’t what he seems. And, anchored just offshore, is the ruthless Italian crime lord (Raymond Burr at his most pitiless).

What makes this a noir classic is the complete amorality of the very sympathetic Mitchum and Russell characters. They’re not bad people, but they are playing the hands that they have been dealt. Neither questions the justice of their situations – they don’t feel sorry for themselves, they just deal with it. And they don’t worry about sleeping around or breaking a few laws if they have to. They may not be lucky, but they are determined to survive.

Reportedly, studio owner Howard Hughes fired the director John Farrow and replaced him with noir-master Richard Fleischer (Cry Danger).

His Kind of Woman plays on Turner Classic Movies and is also available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Flixster.