3 Strong Anti-Heroines of 1950 Film Noir: Life’s Rough “You see kid, in this cage, you get tough or you get killed. Better wise up before it’s too late!”

Life’s Rough: Three Strong Anti-Heroines of 1950 Film Noir

“You see kid, in this cage, you get tough or you get killed. Better wise up before it’s too late!”Kitty Stark, Caged (1950)

The 1950 films, Caged!, The Damned Don’t Cry, and The File on Thelma Jordon, contain three women performing female masculinity. A common thread these characters possess is ‘metamorphosis.’ They are forged by male institutions and they must adapt to survive. Each woman is thrust into a noir narrative.

In Caged!, Eleanor Parker leaves innocence outside the prison bars and is transformed into a hardened, jaded criminal in order to survive. Joan Crawford, a poverty-stricken mother in The Damned Don’t Cry rises as a high-powered opulent underworld mistress to prevail and support herself. Barbara Stanwyck is predatory, manipulating a weak man to gain access to her Aunt’s fortune in The File on Thelma Jordon — Stanwyck ultimately becomes a fallen figure of remorse and redemption.

Like their noir male counterparts, they become anti-heroines as past actions come back to haunt them.

Film noir of 1950 desired realism, decadence, and transformation. Femme-fatales thrive using sexuality to claim independence from weak, damaged, sexually-obsessed men, unable to resist dangerous influences. These women master patriarchal organizations, taking control of their bodies and identities to avoid gender enslavement in a male hetero-driven society.

In most noir films men are the central figures–isolated from their surroundings, closed in by circumstances beyond control, but married to fatalistic visions with stoic passivity. By flipping this trope on it’s battered head, these women invoke female masculinity driving their characters. As anti-heroines they adopt masculine armor to navigate masculine institutions. They’re placed in situations that impose a definition of what a woman is and should be. They adopt feminine masculinity to survive.

“Female masculinity is framed as the rejected scraps of dominate masculinity in order that male masculinity may appear to be the real thing… Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to uneven distributions of wealth.” — Halberstam, Female Masculinity

Caged! (1950)

You don’t know women until you know them without men!

Directed by John Cromwell, Caged! is set in a women’s prison and plays out like a savage dance with “unremitting pessimism” (Crowther) with the women performing masculinity to gain power. It is a “dames in the hoosegow” film (New York Herald Tribune), indicative of socially conscious 1950s noir. The women are demeaned in prison, and to prevail they appropriate masculine primacy.

Caged! boasts an incredible ensemble. Eleanor Parker’s persuasive performance as Marie Allen, a delicate young woman subjected to cruelty by the sadistic degenerate Matron Evelyn Harper (punctuated to the hilt by imposing 6’ 2” Hope Emerson).

Wonderful character actors include Betty Garde as Kitty Stark, Ellen Corby as Emma Barber, Jan Sterling as Jeta Kovsky (aka Smoochie who loves to kite checks, buys pretty shiny things, and can’t stay out of prison), Olive Deering as June Roberts, Gertrude Michael as Georgia, and Lee Patrick as ‘vice queen’ Elvira Powell.

American actress Eleanor Parker acting in the film ‘Caged’. USA, 1950 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The film opens with the police van door swinging opening —“Pile out, you tramps. This is the end of the line”— to reveal the ‘new fish’ in the fatalistic incarceration cycle. The central figure is a timid, pregnant and nervous 19 year old Marie who gets the book thrown at her for helping her husband commit armed robbery- “For that forty bucks I heisted I certainly got myself an education.” Her role as an accomplice, sitting in the car waiting for the bum, lands her 15 years in prison. With a doe-eyed shocked gaze, she is thrown into a primal world. The intake nurse’s examination reveals she is ‘expecting company’ — with her dead husband’s child. Marie, number 93859, is sweet candy for the cold-blooded, menacing Matron Harper.

Marie doesn’t fall for Harper’s charms, thus she is subjected to dehumanizing torture by Harper, the bon bon-eating, romance novel-reading dyke who enjoys personal comforts and flaunts luxuries (as a grotesque phony femme) to the women prisoners who don’t have any privileges.

Harper brutally beats Marie causing her to lose her baby, thus her motherhood is taken away.

Removing her femininity, her identity, Harper shaves Marie’s hair. When vice queen Elvira distributes lipsticks at Christmas, Harper cruelly takes them away. Harper, embedded in the masculine system, creates an environment where the weakest women must become predatory cons, shedding their femininity.

Sympathetic warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorhead) allows them to keep cosmetics as a connection to the outside world. Believing in rehabilitation, Benton bucks bureaucracy, but her altruism blinds her from the vicious brutality.

The mood at the prison heats up and Kitty kills Matron Harper. Marie is worn down by the inhumanity of prison life and disillusioned by Harper’s corrupting influence over inmates. She changes from a shivering innocent to a smart-mouthed hard-bitten con. Her efforts to go straight are sabotaged by the sadistic Harper. Marie learns the hard way how to earn parole, but she’s already stigmatized and changed by the system.

Jan Sterling, Ellen Corby, Marjorie Crossland, Olive Deering, Betty Garde, and Eleanor Parker in Caged (1950)

Through Marie’s eyes we experience the dehumanization and objectification, from the moment she is processed, to her release. Influenced by other miscreants and malcontents Marie evolves into a criminal by the system constructed to rehabilitate. She sheds her victimhood and takes on a powerful masculine approach, but not with ruthlessness of a femme fatale. Marie becomes a criminal. She’s independent, as only a man could be in 1950.

When released at the gates, she gets into a fancy sedan with shady characters. She’s become a prostitute for her butch mentor Elvira who has given up on men completely. “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all. You just get out of the habit.” –Elvira

Warden Benton keeps Marie’s file open as she watches out the window “Keep it active, She’ll be back” summarizing the Sisyphean absurdity of prison, hardening and transforming women without any hope.

THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950)

“Call me CHEAP?” Nothing’s Cheap When You Pay the Price She’s Paying!

Directed by Vincent Sherman, with a screenplay by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman. Cinematography by Ted D. McCord  (The Treasure of the Sierra Madres 1948, Johnny Belinda 1948, I Died a Thousand Times 1955, The Sound of Music 1965) (wardrobe Sheila O’Brien who worked on all of Joan’s pictures, Sudden Fear 1952, Flamingo Road 1945, Female on the Beach 1955)

Stars Joan Crawford as Ethel Whitehead, David Brian as George Castleman, Steve Cochran as Nick Prenta, Kent Smith as Martin Blackford, Hugh Sanders as Grady, Selena Royle as Patricia Longworth, Jacqueline deWitt as Sandra, Morris Ankrum as Jim Whitehead, Edith Evanson as Mrs. Castleman, Richard Egan as Roy.

Joan Crawford is Ethel Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes, a woman from harrowing poverty, who leaves her husband, Roy, after their son Tommy is tragically killed. She starts over in New York City first as a cigar store clerk, and model for a cheap fashion wholesaler. She eventually climbs to the top of the high society/criminal underworld wearing a facade of respectability. While usually men abandon families, Ethel is the one to leave. Crawford perfectly performs the role of power and masculinity.

The Damned Don’t Cry portrays a bleak, dark, corrupt world. The story is told in flashbacks. Directed by Vincent Sherman (All Through the Night 1942, Mr. Skeffington 1944, Nora Prentiss 1947, Affair in Trinidad 1952, The Garment Jungle 1957) The film co-stars Steve Cochran as Nick Prenta, David Brian as George Castleman, and Kent Smith as Martin Blackford, and Jacqueline de Wit as Sandra.

Ethel begins as unsophisticated modest woman, married to an oil field worker, dirt poor, plain looking, and beaten down. An oppressed housewife and mother, judged harshly by her misogynist father, and husband Roy who says “You’ll never do enough for her.” She becomes an elegant ambitious society climber who dismisses suggestions her life is corrupt and immoral. Crawford manifests her signature cunning in the ferocious pragmatic transformation.

Ethel lives with her parents and beloved son Tommy, who wants a bicycle but Roy says it’s too much money. Wanting her son to be happy, she makes a down payment on the bike. Furious, Roy demands it be returned. On his way to the store Tommy rides down the road, and is hit by a truck, and killed. His death ends their marriage, and Ethel leaves.

Roy says he’s “done the best he could.” Ethel answers “Well it ain’t good enough.”

Unlike male protagonists with more choices, in this narrative Ethel can only be a model or prostitute.  She performs female masculinity by adopting independence. Ethel creates power to choose her own fate, possessing what Hirsch calls ‘a lonely man’ trope.

Another model, Sandra, introduces Ethel to a new world, convincing her to go out with wealthy businessmen. She becomes the glamorous mistress of gangster George Castleman, showered with riches— fur coats, diamonds, and haute couture. George helps Ethel’s metamorphosis into a wealthy socialite, Lorna Hansen Forbes, and she enters the inner circle of gangsters.

Ethel now known as Lorna, exploits her beauty, relying on rich men to pay for the privilege of her company. She learns she must selfishly grab for herself. Negotiating her body for wealth is a means to an end. Lorna’s selfishness emerges.

Lorna surpasses Sandra’s petty schemes to aim for the brass ring of ultimate luxury.

She befriends mild mannered Martin Blackford, an account who falls for her. Encouraging him to become Castleman’s bookkeeper, she uses him to get ahead. Martin brings a dark brooding presence into Lorna’s life which is visually actualized in a scene where Lorna is sunning herself at the pool, Blackford casts a symbolic dark cloud over her light-hearted sexually care free embodiment. The closeup shows Ethel’s face as the sun’s rays emblematically reflect in her sunglasses. Taking them off, she turns off the sunlight, and is confronted with Blackford’s bitterness.

The jaded Lorna tells the neutered Martin “You’re a nice guy, but the world isn’t for nice guys. You gotta kick and punch and belt your way up cuz nobody’s going to give you a life. You’ve got to do it yourself. Cuz nobody cares about us except ourselves… It’s that stuff you take to the bank, that filthy buck that everybody sneers at but slugs to get.” Martin is afraid he’ll lose self-respect. “Don’t tell me about self-respect!” Ethel snaps. “That’s what you tell yourself when you got nothing else!”

Her glamorous life ultimately comes at a price. Castleman wants to use Lorna to spy on Nick Prenta, as he suspects Prenta of killing one of his men Grady (Hugh Sanders) and making it look like a car accident planting a bottle of alcohol at the scene. Castleman fears Nick Prenta is organizing the men against him. He sends Lorna to insinuate herself with Nick Prenta in order to find out what he is up to and report back to him. Setting him up for a hit. Instead Lorna starts falling in love with the handsome rogue gangster who has a reputation for his womanizing. Lorna winds up defying Castleman by not staying in touch and actually falling for the guy instead.

Martin then shows up telling Lorna, (though he still refers to her as Ethel out of spite) that George Castleman has sent him to check up on her, he hasn’t heard from her in a while. The moment we see Martin’s scruples have eroded is during the pool scene which illustrates Martin’s own transformation from a nice decent guy to one of George’s thugs, with his smug tone and his dark sun glasses. He warns Lorna not to hold out on George. He boasts about how powerful he’s become and that people listen to him. He offers her some ‘sound advice’ “Has he promised you the world too!?”  referring to Nick Prenta and sneaking in a good dig at how she used him at one time. “He means nothing to me, except he’s a human being.”Don’t tell me that disturbs you.” Martin has become so jaded and embittered.

Later Nick Prenta asks Lorna to marry him, she is moved to tears as she embraces him. Lorna asks, “Do I really mean that much to you?” Nick tells her, “Everything, why is that enough?” Lorna –“Then get out of this, Nick, I’m scared about what you’re doing, what you’re planning, what it will lead to, if you don’t give this up.” “If that’s what it takes to get you, you’ve got a deal. I can get out of this inside a year” “No, it’ll be too late then” “But I can’t get out now Lorna, this is a big jump I’ve got to see it through.”

Lorna begs him to give it all up, but he kisses and sends her back to her hotel room where she finds Martin and Castleman waiting for her. Castelman is sitting in the dark, giving off a sense of menace from the shadows. “Hello Lorna” he puffs on his cigar then rises from the couch. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” Suddenly he begins grilling her about Nick Prenta’s meeting, but she tells him that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Castleman tightens his fist and smacks Lorna across the face, his paranoia about the meeting and his gang aided by Prenta out to get him is driving him into a frenzy.

In his fury, even Martin gets worried about Castleman’s sudden violent outburst. Then he hits Martin and knocks him down, and begins beating Lorna brutally as she tries to convince him that she’s not in love with Nick Prenta, it’s just that she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. She tells Castleman that she’s still in love with him.  But he growls at her, “You’re lying, you’re so used to lying and cheating and double crossing that you almost make it seem good.”

Castleman throws Lorna into the glass window that shatters. Martin tries to defend her, and calm Castleman down, telling him it’s enough. Castleman says “She’s no good, not even to you” yet Martin thinks fast on his feet, “But she is to you, she can still help, she can still be useful.” Castleman tells Martin looking down at the battered Lorna,  “There’s only one thing to do with dirt, sweep it up.” Martin tells him, “Listen to me, you want Nick don’t you? She can get him” Castleman responds, “You got a brain Marty, best kind, the kind you don’t got go out and buy.”  As Castleman says this he looks disdainfully at poor Lorna lying in a pile of broken glass all bruised and sobbing.

Martin convinces Lorna to call Nick Prenta and get him over to the hotel room. Prenta shows up already knowing her true identity, he must have heard it from Eddie Hart. She is lost in shadow, beaten down and crying, Prenta sarcastically tells Lorna, “I want to apologize for busting in on you like this Mrs. Forbes, but a friend of yours, Eddie Hart said it would be okay, he said Castleman might not like it, but Ethel Whitehead would go for anything.”  But when he sees how badly beaten Lorna is he comes to her side, until he is confronted by Castleman, who emerges out of the shadows and tells him that while Prenta likes to be in the headlines he’s gonna move him over to the obituary column. Prenta turns to Lorna, “You dirty tramp!”

A fight breaks out and Castleman shoots and kills Prenta. In the turmoil, Lorna takes off in her car. Castleman tells Martin that they’ll have to dispose of Prenta first and then “I want her.”

Once Lorna fails to stop Castleman she is transformed once again through resignation and redemption having gone full circle through her own journey of hell.

Martin tries to protect Lorna from Castleman, by telling the police that it was George Castleman who killed Nick Prenta. In the meantime, Castleman wants her dead. And he knows the truth about where Lorna comes from, where she was probably heading and he’s on his way there.

Lorna now home in Bakersfield, arrives at the broken shack with her fur coat and her Ray Foreman coif. Her parents first reject her. The bitter Martin has shed his anger by now, hopelessly in love with Lorna, he shows up to try and protect her from the vicious Castleman. In the films ironic rhythm of fate, she symbolically comes full circle, winding up on the same road where her son died.

Martin tells her that she needs to move on and keep running before Castleman catches up with her, but she’s worried that he’s unfinished business now too, since he’s turned on Castleman. He reminds her “We do what we do– what was it you once said?, because we can’t help ourselves.” 

Castleman shows up at Lorna’s home. She quietly walks out of the house, so as not to endanger her mother and father and Martin who are talking in the kitchen.

In the brutal climax Lorna calmly, stoically and courageously confronts the vicious George Castleman.

He asks for Martin but Lorna lies and covers up for him, saying she hasn’t seen him. She boldly with new resolve walks right up to George Castleman. He asks if she’s been waiting for him. “Strangely enough George there was a time when I did wait for you. And no one else. but that’s over now.”

In a struggle to take the gun away from Castleman, Lorna gets shot and wounded, lying in the dirt wearing her fur coat, –hows that for symbolism! Then Martin comes out of the house and  shoots Castleman down and his getaway car leaves without him, while he’s lying there dead.

The police and the press show up pushing for all the answers to Lorna (Ethel’s) involvement.

Two cops outside the house start talking about the case. Cop one-“Pretty tough living in a place like this” Cop two”Tougher to get out” Cop one“Wouldn’t you?”  Cop two shakes his head “Yes!”

Having traveled through her journey performing the code of female masculinity she has reclaimed herself, found her empowerment and emerged as her own woman again. We are left wondering what the future holds for Lorna/Ethel, now not only emancipated, if not redeemed, as the anti-heroine of The Damned Don’t Cry!

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950)

Thelma Jordon: “I’m no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!”

Directed by Robert Siodmak, written by Marty Holland with a screenplay by Ketti Frings. Cinematography by George Barnes (Rebecca 1940, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Mourning Becomes Electra 1947, Force of Evil 1948, War of the Worlds 1953) Costumes designed by Edith head

Starring Barbara Stanwyck as Thelma Jordon, Wendell Corey as Cleve Marshall, Paul Kelly as Miles Scott, Joan Tetzel as Pamela Blackwell Marshall, Stanley Ridges as Kingsly Willes.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Thelma Jordon who uses a gullible attorney to cover up her crimes of murder and larceny, secretly in cahoots with her sleazy husband. As in Double Indemnity, Stanwyck masterfully plays a ‘vice-ridden murderess.’ She performs female masculinity, playing the aggressor— pursing lovers, greed, and power.

Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film opens with Thelma in a small town district attorney’s office reporting burglary attempts at the mansion she shares with her aunt. She begins an affair with DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), who is in a loveless marriage. Thelma is also married to the sinister Tony Laredo. An icy femme fatale who desires danger, she’s drawn to Tony’s equally nefarious nature and devours Cleve who is weakened by her magnetism. Thelma starts out the femme fatale, her fatal flaw is falling in love with Cleve, feeling remorse, and sacrificing herself to become redeemed in the end.

Thelma’s aunt is murdered in an apparent robbery and her emerald necklace is missing. Fearing Tony will be implicated, she cleans up the evidence, and calls Cleve to help. Thelma is cold and calculating, casting Cleve as her lover and accomplice known only as Mr. X. Cleve tells her to shut the lights and pretend she was asleep when the police arrive. Cleve leaves, making sure to seen but unrecognized by the butler who discovers Aunt Vera’s body.

When Tony’s alibi checks out, Thelma is arrested for murder. While the police try unsuccessfully to prove her guilt, she and Tony plan to leave town. By now Cleve has uncovered Thelma’s checkered past.

He accuses her of duplicity and Thelma admits he was part of the plot. When Cleve confronts her, Tony’s dark presence looms. The camera shows both men juxtaposed in the room, Tony’s dark presence looms— he is too irresistible to let go.. Cleve is too normal and unselfish to be stimulating for her deviant desires. With both men framed in contrast, Thelma realizes she belongs with the dark and dangerous Tony. Tony beats Cleve to a pulp, leaving with Thelma.

But driving down a winding mountain road, Thelma’s pang of conscience gets the better of her and she causes the car to plunge off the cliff. It’s a darkly romantic gesture, suicide by flaming car crash is her attempt at redemption. She hopes with her death, Cleve can repair the ruination of his life. But this is noir, and he cannot wake from the nightmare.

Tony dies but Thelma lives long enough to confess her crimes. She does not give away Cleve as Mr. X, but Miles (Paul Kelly) is suspicious. His career in shambles, Cleve walks off into the uncertain shadows of noir. Thelma dies, redeemed. It’s noir universal justice, Thelma cannot get away with her Aunt’s murder and continue her affair. She must be brought down by fate’s hand.

Miles: ”She’s confessed everything except who her Mr. X is.”

Cleve looks at her “Why don’t you tell him?”

Thelma: “I love him, that’s why. I couldn’t go on with him Cleve. You did that for me. I’m glad I told. All my life struggling, the good and the bad.”

Cleve: “Save your strength darling.”

Thelma: ”Willis said I was two people, he was right. You don’t supposed they could just let half of me die?”

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying, it’s great to spend time in the darkness of noir’s shadows & under the influence of fate’s pointed finger, but you gotta come out into the light til the next time around!

Happy NoirVember!, Joey

Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat
Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
Cul-de-Sac
Françoise Dorléac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
the Naked kiss
Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
Shock Corridor
Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
CapturFiles_3 copy
Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

Glen or Glenda
Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

The Killing of Sister George
Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

weird-noir
There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
mimi3
Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
The Strangler 1964 Victor Buono
Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
Repulsion
Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946): Brutal Noir- The First 12 Killer Minutes!

Lancaster The Killers

“Noir exploits the oddness of odd settings, as it transforms the mundane quality of familiar ones, in order to create an environment that pulses with intimations of nightmare.”Foster Hirsch, The Dark Side of the Screen

You can read more about this iconic noir masterpiece in The Dark Pages feature issue

Here’s the link below to order a copy of The Dark Pages for yourself or subscribe all year round… so you’ll always get your fill of everything Noir from this sensational publication!

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The Dark Pages Giant Killer Issue

killers

Produced by Mark Hellinger (The Naked City, Brute Force and The Two Mrs Carrolls Music by Miklós Rózsa; Cinematography by Elwood Bredell (Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, Phantom Lady 1944). Boldly directed by the great Robert Siodmak. The Screenplay is by Anthony Veiller and uncredited co-writers John Huston and Richard Brooks.

The Killers (1946), with it’s doomed hero, flashbacks, and seedy characters is one of the finest in the film noir canon. The film is a gritty dream with carnal fluidity and monochromatic beauty. The Killers is a neo-gangster noir film with a liminal and evocative intensity. Director Robert Siodmak gives the film a violently surreal tone— it’s a stylishly slick, richly colorful black and white film where the players live in a world condemned by shadow. Burt Lancaster plays out the obsession theme with ‘unfaithful women’ leading to his ultimate demise.

Killers, The (1946)

The evocative opening scene is one of the most powerfully ferocious in film noir. It is faithful to Ernest Hemingway’s short story. The determined thrust of the first twelve minutes mesmerizes. It has a villainous and cynical rhythm, paced like shadowy poetry in a dark room with no open windows. The film opens with Miklos Rozsa’s ominous brassy jazz that later becomes the killers motif. Two men drive into a small town, Anywhere, USA. We see them from behind in darkest black silhouette inside the car.

While cars and trains are iconographic means of escape in noir films, the opening sequence of The Killers offers no escape. The two gun men enter the screen in their vehicle veiled by the darkness of the highway road. The vision is more like one of bringing the means of death to this ordinary environment. The peculiar, unsettling gunmen Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) are two dark forces invading an ordinary landscape with their malicious and aggressive presence. The dark highway is a typical Hemingway metaphor for the eternal strife, of ‘going nowhere’ and his cycle of ‘heroic fatalism.’ The road is an unfinished trajectory, unpredictable and unknown with no way out but ‘the end.’

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coming from the dark

We see the two walking onto the street silhouetted in shadow. We know they are trouble. They enter a diner reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks.’ Perhaps this American Diner scene influenced scavenger hunting director Quentin Tarantino for his Pulp Fiction in 1994.

The men ask about a man they’re looking for, ‘the Swede.’ They make no effort to hide their malevolence. They revel in belligerence as they demean and degrade the men in the small town diner. Al and Max begin to psychologically torture George (Harry Hayden) who works the counter and Nick the boy at the end of the counter. They exude an offensive egotism and a cruel antisocial spirit as they barrage the men with perverse assaults.

The Killers 1946 diner

George: “What’ll it be, gentlemen?”
Max: “I don’t  know. What you want to eat, Al?”
Al: “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
 Max: “I’ll have the roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.”
 George: “That’s not ready yet.”
 Max: “Then what’s it on the card for?”
 George: “Well, that’s on the dinner. You can have that at six o’clock. That clock is ten minutes fast. The dinner isn’t ready yet.”
 Max: “Never mind the clock. What have you got to eat?”

The conversation is absurd and meaningless. It is just a mechanism to bully these townsmen. They continue to harass George asking “you got anything to drink?” George tells them “I can give you beer, soda or ginger ale.” Al: “I said you got anything to drink?” George submits a quiet “no.” Max says “this is a hot town, whatta you call it?” George: “Brentwood.” Al turns to Max “you ever hear of Brentwood?” Max shakes his head no. Al asks George “what do you do for nights?”

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Max takes a deep breath and groans “They eat the dinner, they all come here and eat The Big Dinner.” The outsider mocks the small town conformity of eating whatever is served. George looks downward murmuring “that’s right” and Al says “you’re a pretty bright boy aren’t you?” He uses “boy” to demean. George mutters “sure” and Al snaps back “well you’re not!”

Al now shouts to the young man at the end of the counter“hey you, what’s your name?” he looks earnestly at Al and says “Adams. Nick Adams.” Al says, “Another bright boy.” There is sadism at work here, almost subconsciously homophobic/homoerotic in the way they are using the term “boy” to subvert these bystanders’ manhood. Max says, “town’s full of bright boys.”

The cook comes out from the kitchen bringing the plates. ”One ham and one bacon and” George starts to serve the men the food and asks “which one is yours?” Al says “Don’t you remember bright boy?” the continued use of this phrase truly begins to tear at the layers of our nerve endings. George starts laughing and Max says “What are you laughing at?” “nothing.”

“You see something funny?” “No.” “Then don’t laugh.” “Alright.” Again Max says ”He thinks it’s alright.” Al says “Oh, he’s a thinker.” It’s an antisocial backlash to an intellectual society that would perceive Al and Max as outcasts. This is where a noir film begins to break the molds of Hollywood civilized society. The two intruders have trespassed into an ordinarily quiet community to shatter it’s sense of security. It is the death of humanism in film language.

Max and Al tie up Nick and the cook in the kitchen. “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen, we’re gonna kill the Swede, you know big Swede, works over at the filling station.” He lights a cigarette. George says, “You mean Pete Lund?” Max takes the cigarette out of his mouth and the smoke enervates George’s face, “If that’s what he calls himself… Comes in every night at 6 o’clock don’t he?”

Georges asks “what are you gonna kill him for? What did Pete Lund ever do to you?” Max replies,”He never had a chance to do anything to us he never even seen us.” The conversation is so matter of fact that it’s chillingly absurd. Again George asks, “What are you gonna kill him for?” Max smirks “We’re killing him for a friend.” Al pokes his head through the sliding window to the kitchen “shut up you talk too much” but Max says ”I gotta keep bright boy amused don’t I?”

In the kitchen

When George explains that ‘the Swede’ never comes in after 6pm, the killers head to the station where he works. George unties the men in the kitchen. Nick leaves to warn ‘Swedes,’ jumping fences on his way to the rooming house.

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the killers

At the rooming house, Pete (Lancaster) is on his bed in almost complete darkness, face hidden in the shadows, his body’s repose in stark contrast to the backdrop of the frenetic orchestration by Rozsa. Nick enters and urgently warns him about the two dangerous men. Nick asks, “Why’d do they want to kill ya?” He replies: “There’s nothing I can do about it. I did something wrong. Once. Thanks for coming.” His tone is soft and fatalistic.

Nick offers “I can tell you what they’re like?” Swede replies “I don’t wanna know what they’re like… thanks for coming.” ”Don’t you wanna go and see the police?” “No that wouldn’t do any good.” Nick asks “Isn’t there something I could do?” “There ain’t anything to do.” “Couldn’t you get out of town?” He answers “No… I’m through with all that running around.”

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A merciful violin plays while Swede remains resigned to the dark bed. His large hands rub his face. We hear the squeaking of a door downstairs as it opens slowly then shuts. The Swede turns his head looking slightly worried for the first time. He leans up in the bed, the light from outside hitting his face, as Al and Max mount the staircase that leads to his room.

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The Swede listens like a trapped animal. He does not betray any fear, only a gloomy resignation that his life is about to end. It is not death that he ponders, memories and another enemy. Cinematographer Elwood Bredell switches between closeups of Lancaster’s face and the door, then suddenly the two men come in blasting. From pitch black begins a light show, arcing like electricity striking a void. The canon fire gunshots pound into a field of blackness. The killers walking up the stairs acts as foreplay and the gunfire like violent intercourse… White hot flashes of light break grave blackness. The last image we see as it fades to black is Lancaster’s hand falling limp by the bedpost. The last words we hear are Swede uttering “Charleston was right, Charleston was right.”

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This is where the powerful prologue ends and Hemingway’s story leaves us with no explanation as to the reason for Swede’s murder, nor insight into why he acquiesces to his death by not trying to elude the killers and his fate. From this moment on Veiller’s screenplay starts to expose the back story to the killing.

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Look at the killer chemistry between Lancaster & Gardner… I’d get shot up in the dark for either one…!

This has been a killer post! Your Everlovin’ Joey

Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!

As a treat I thought I’d talk about 4 really interesting films that were released amidst the slew of suspense thrillers of the 1940s. Some Gothic melodrama and a few perhaps conveying an almost hybrid sense of noir with their use of flashback, shadow, odd camera angles and elements of transgressive crime. I’ll just be giving a brief overview of the plot, but no worries there are no spoilers!

I recently had the chance to sit with each film and said to myself… Joey, these would make for a nice collection of obscure thrillers so without further adieu, I offer for your enjoyment, The Suspect, Love From A Stranger 1947, Moss Rose & The Sign of the Ram!

THE SUSPECT 1944

The Suspect

Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase 1945, The Killers 1946, Criss Cross 1949, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, The File on Thelma Jordan 1950) and adapted to the screen by Bertram Millhauser and Arthur T Horman from the novel This Way Out written by James Ronald. Basing this film very loosely on the Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen murder of his wife that was sensationalized at trial in 1910.

The Suspect stars the inimitable Charles Laughton, (Dr. Moreau – Island of Lost Souls 1932, my favorite Quasimodo in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939, the most lovable ghost Sir Simon in The Canterville Ghost 1944, The Paradine Case 1947, The Strange Door 1951, Witness for the Prosecution 1957, Spartacus 1960, Advise and Consent 1962 and notably–director of two films–his masterpiece Night of the Hunter and his uncredited The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1949)

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The film also stars the underrated Ella Raines (Phantom Lady 1944, Impact 1949) Dean Harens, Stanley Ridges, (Possessed 1949, The File on Thelma Jordan and No Way Out 1950) Henry Daniell , Rosalind Ivan and Molly Lamont (The Dark Corner 1946, Devil Bat’s Daughter 1946) Raymond Severn plays the delicious little urchin Merridew who works for Phillip as he tries to keep the little guy on the straight and narrow. Merridew would make the perfect name for a little tabby cat!

Charles Laughton gives one of his most subtle performances as a kindly man trapped by an abusive wife. Siodmak as usual creates a dynamic framework for this psychological thriller that is lensed in shades of darkly ominous spaces that seems to shape itself around Laugton’s comfortable face and Ella Raines intricate beauty.

from IMDb trivia – Lux Radio Theater broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on April 9, 1945 with Charles Laughton, Ella Raines and Rosalind Ivan reprising their film roles.

Music by Frank Skinner (Blond Alibi 1946, Johnny Stool Pigeon, The Brute Man, The Spider Woman Strikes back and way more to his credit see IMDb listing) With cinematography by Paul Ivano. Who did the camera work on director Hugo Haas treasures like Strange Fascination 1952, One Girl’s Confession 1953, Hold Back Tomorrow 1955!

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And marvelous gowns and hats by Vera West. (The Wolf Man 1941, Shadow of a Doubt 1943,Flesh and Fantasy 1943, Son of Dracula & The Mad Ghoul 1943, Phantom Lady 1944,Strange Confession 1944, Murder in the Blue Room ’44, House of Frankenstein ’44, The Woman in Green 1945, Terror by Night 1946, The Cat Creeps, She-Wolf of London, Dressed to Kill, Danger Woman & Slightly Scandalous 1946.)

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In 1902 London, well respected middle class Englishman, but unhappily married shopkeeper Phillip Marshall (Charles Laughton) develops a loving and warm friendship with young and beautiful Mary Gray (Ella Raines) who’s father has recently died, leaving her down on her luck and looking for a job. Phillip Marshall is such a kind and genteel man he stops to say a kind word about his neighbor Mrs Simmon’s garden, loves his son and shows real affection. Is like a father to young Merridew. Is beloved by the community. Even when he approaches Mary, and she hasn’t yet looked up from her tear soaked hanky, thinking she’s being approached by a lecherous man in the park, “I’m not that sort” tells her, only wanting to see if she needs help.

Mary like Phillip is lonely… the first night Phillip begins to walk her home- “A cup of tea, a six penny novel and a good cry.”
Mary- “I’m afraid you’ve been looking in my window.”

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Phillip’s dreadful wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan –perfectly suited to play the emasculating harpy-she had a similar role tormenting Edward G Robinson in Scarlet Street 1945) is a reprehensible shrew who humiliates and demeans both her husband and her son (Dean Harens who had more room to act in Siodmak’s terrific noir Christmas Holiday 1944 starring a very different kind of Gene Kelly and the self-persecuting Deanna Durbin.) John is shown moving out of the house, because his horrible mother has burned some important papers of his. She got into one of her rages and before he could stop her she burned a whole weeks work.

Cora Marshall is vicious and cruel, showing no maternal feeling, caring little that her son is leaving home.

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Cora-“That’s just what young hopeful did, he’s clearing out bag and baggage that selfish ungrateful good for nothing.”
Phillip-“What did you do to him?”
Cora- “What did I do to him… that’s right put the blame on me. All I did was bring him into the world, nurse him, make myself a doormat for him to walk on!… Go on, go to him and tell him from me that when he leaves this house needn’t think he can come crawling back. Deserting his own mother!… And what do you think you’re doing now?”
Phillip- “I’m moving into John’s room.”
Cora- “Of all the indecent…we’re married aren’t we?”
Phillip (deep sigh)- “Oh we’re married all right.”
Cora –“Then how dare you! I forbid it do you hear me. I forbid you to treat me like this.”

Phillip says, “Now Cora that’s all over now that John’s gone. It’s all over and done with, do you understand me?… I’m moving out of here and there’s nothing you can do about it”
Cora- “Oh yes there is. There’s plenty I can do!”

They wrestle with his clean folded white shirts that he’s busying himself moving out of the bedroom. She tries to grab them and he finally loses his composure and yanks them away.

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Cora- “What’s got into you.. I’d like to know what’s going on in your head.”
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Phillip- “It’s much better that you shouldn’t Cora, it might frighten you…”

Saddened by his John’s departure who he loves and will miss, prompts Phillip to move into his son’s room. Cora, so bent on appearances is driven to tirades of abusiveness toward the meek and genteel Phillip. Harassing him at every turn. I might have thrown her down the stairs myself or given her one of those late night glasses of milk!

The scene with Merridew just tickles me and shows how kind, compassionate and caring Phillip is. He calls Merridew over talking to him in a quite earnest and fatherly tone, all the while you can tell he’s quite fond of the little fellow and visa versa.

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Phillip- “Merridew I have to bring a very serious matter to your attention- I regret to say there’s a shortage in your accounts-there’s a penny missing from the stamp box.”
Merridew- “It… it was for a sugar bun this morning but I’ll put it back on pay day honest Mr. Marshall”
Phillip- “And the tuppence the day before yesterday what was that for?”
Merridew- “Acid drops sir.”
Phillip- “Acid drops??? quizzically… that’s very serious. And the hay penny the day before?”
Merridew- “For the monkey with the hurdy gurdy but I’ll put it all back Saturday every last farthing. “
Phillip- “That’s what all embezzlers plan to do.”

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tears in Merridew’s voice make it quiver as the camera shows Mary listening in, she smiles and laughs at this whimsical inquisition.

Merridew- “But I’m not an embezzler.”

Phillip- “Yes, but you can get started that way. It’s the first step that counts… after that it all becomes too easy. Six pence tomorrow, half a crown the day after… then a five pound note… I know you’ll always mean to pay it back, but I’m afraid you’ll finish by paying it back in the Portland quarries”

Merridew- “Don’t send me to no quarries please Mr. Marshall (sniffling)”

Phillip- “Well not this time Merridew. Now stop sniffling and wipe your eyes.” he hands him a hanky.

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Mary has come into the shop looking for employment. When Phillip tells her there isn’t a position available he later finds her on a park bench crying. He takes her to dinner, gets her a job with a colleague and the two begin a very tender friendship.

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Phillip continues his platonic relationship with Mary, but once his wife finds out that he’s been seen supping with the young lady, he breaks it off, as he’s a gentleman who truly thought his wife would want out of a loveless marriage.

Still, Cora threatens him with scandal as well as making trouble for Mary. When Cora refuses to divorce him, worried that gossip will spread that she has failed to hold onto a husband, he is driven to the point of frustration and despair. She tells him the neighbors are all beginning to gossip about him coming in at all hours-

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Phillip- “None of that business Cora.”

Cora- “Ha! Married people’s lives is everyone’s business and I’m not going to be made of object of pity in front of my friends do you hear!I wonder what ever possessed me to tie myself up with a poor stink like you… walked through the forest and picked a crooked tree that’s what I did. A crooked fat ugly tree.”

Even after she’s been so cruel, he tries to reason with her about getting a divorce and face things honestly by admitting that they’ve never been happy together. He asks her to let him go. But she wants to punish him, because she is a bitter and cruel woman calling him immoral and indecent.

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Phillip is very decent in fact, even though there’s only been friendship between he and Mary, he breaks it off with her so as to do what’s expected of him telling Mary that he behaved badly but he was afraid that she wouldn’t want to see him again. He was sure Cora would let him go… Phillip tells Mary , “And I couldn’t let you go once I’d met you.”

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But Cora won’t be happy til she “drives them both ‘into the gutter where you belong!”

Laughton is adorable and wonderfully believable as a romantic figure because of his gentle nature.

His murderous response is more to protect Mary from Cora’s wrath, who tells him with a face like a Victorian harridan spewing a poisonous vitriol-

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“You better be afraid. As sure as the sun rises tomorrow, I’ll give her the Merry Christmas she’ll never forget”
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Paul Ivano’s brilliant camera angle frames Laughton as somewhat diminished, seemingly trapped or rather oppressed by the space around him.

And so, Phillip murders his wife. We see him grab one of his canes and assume though we don’t see him actually bashing her head in with it, that he has in fact brained her. The next morning she is found dead at the bottom of the stairs, and it is deemed an accident.

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Added to the plot’s layering of Sturm & Drang is the always wonderful scoundrel in Henry Daniell’s Gilbert Simmons, Phillip’s neighbor a stumbling drunkard who also beats his wife (Molly Lamont) Mrs Simmons and Phillip also have a very sweet relationship, one that ultimately anchors Phillip to his integrity. But I won’t reveal the outcome of the story. The miserable Gilbert Simmons also has the distinction of turning to blackmail adding to his other earthly vices.

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Amidst all these dreary, grim and dark ideas, the film still emerges as a beautiful story, partly due to Siodmak’s ability to guide suspense along it’s way with an appealing cadence. As Foster Hirsch states in his must read Film Noir-The Dark Side of the Screen, “Siodmak films like Christmas Holiday and The Killers have an extremely intricate narrative development…{…} the relative extremeness of Siodmak’s style is reflected in his obsessive characters.”

The Suspect works as a great piece of Melo-Noir mostly due to Laughton’s absolute perfection as the sympathetic, trapped gentle-man. As always he is masterful with his intonations, sharpened wit and ability to induce fellowship with the characters he’s playing… well maybe not so much with Dr. Moreau, Capt. Bligh, Judge Lord Thomas Horfield or Sire Alaine de Maledroit in The Strange Door. But he’s a lovable sort most of the time, one can’t deny.

The Canterville Ghost-Margaret O'Brien & Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton and Margaret O’Brien in Jules Dassins’ The Canterville Ghost 1944-based on the story by Oscar Wilde

Ella Raines is just delightful as Mary. She’s such a treat to watch as you start to believe that this beautiful young woman genuinely has fallen for this older, portly yet kind hearted misfit. You find yourself hoping that he gets away with his wife’s murder, and that the two find happiness together.

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Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) stalks Phillip Marshall believing he killed his wife

Phillip is staunchly pursued by a Scotland Yard Inspector Huxley (Stanley Ridges) who has the tenacity of Columbo. Speaking of which, a poster of The Suspect appears in an episode of Columbo“How to Dial a Murder” in 1978.

LOVE FROM A STRANGER 1947

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On the darker more sinister side of these suspense yarns we find Sylvia Sidney as Cecily Harrington at the mercy of a very deranged bluebeard in John Hodiak as Manuel Cortez.

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the exquisite beauty of Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney Love From a Stranger

Directed by Richard Whorf who became more fluent in directing for television. Written for the screen by Philip MacDonald (Rebecca 1940, The Body Snatcher 1945 for Val Lewton, The Dark Past 1948, Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Fingers of Fear 1961, The List of Adrian Messenger 1963) based on Agatha Christie’s short story Philomel Cottage. Hair Stylist Eunice Helene King is responsible for slicking back Hodiak’s swarthy and murderously Lothario hair, he’s almost Draculian. He definitely covets his slickety hair as he shows his first sign of deranged pathology when Cecily tries to stokes his hair and he lashes out at her, telling her not to touch it.

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The marvelous costumes equip with capes, sequins and ostrich feathers are by Michael Woulfe (Blood on the Sun 1945, Macao 1952, Beware, My Lovely 1952)

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson. Anita Sharp-Bolster as Ethel the maid (wonderfully crabby Christine in The Two Mrs Carrolls)

And again a terrific score by Hans J. Salter. This period piece is lavishly framed by Tony Gaudio (The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942) Once the protagonist and her murderous husband honeymoon at their hideaway cottage, the lens turns the film into an almost chamber piece, becoming more claustrophobic as Manuel and Cecily begin to awaken into the revelation of his dangerous nature.

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Sylvia Sidney  plays Cecily Harrington, an unassuming English girl in Liverpool who has just won £50,000 in the Calcutta Sweepstakes which was a fortune in turn of the century England. Cecily meets Manuel Cortez (John Hodiak) when he sees her name in the newspaper next to the headline of his latest murder. He follows her then arranges to make it appear as if he’s looking to rent her flat. She is taken with this mysterious stranger and suddenly breaks off her engagement to her fiancee Nigel Lawrence (John Howard) rushing into marriage with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a Bluebeard who is after her money.

The swarthy Manuel Cortez has already alluded the police for the murder of three women, believed to have drowned while trying to escape he has changed his appearance, darker hair no beard. Dr Gribble (Philip Tonge) who is a crime connoisseur collects journals and books, one with a drawing of him showing his beard. It also mentions his earlier crime as being in South America and New York (Hodiak’s character is given several Spanish aliases-Pedro Ferrara and Vasco Carrera)

The newlyweds spend the summer at their secret honeymoon cottage where he’s been planning to kill her and bury her body down in the cellar.

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Isobel Elsom plays Auntie Loo Loo with her usual exuberance, Ann Richards is the faithful friend Mavis Wilson.
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Manuel Cortez pretends to be looking for a flat to rent, showing up at Cecily’s door he has actually followed her from their ‘accidental’ meeting at the post

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Cortez begins to work his Bluebeard charms on Cecily
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The handsome John Howard as Cecily’s fiancee Nigel Lawrence is crushed to find her love has gone cold, as she is now entranced by the swarthy Manuel Cortez
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Neither Nigel nor Mavis trust this mysterious stranger with the slickety hair and cape
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Everyone around Cecily knows there’s something not quite right

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Auntie Loo Loo is surprised at her nieces impetuous behavior

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Ethel and billings the gardener greet the newlyweds at the cottage they’ve spirited off to.
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There’s a dark cellar with a lock on the door. That never bodes well!

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Digging the hole!
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which poisons to use, decisions decisions
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Manuel warns Cecily to stay away from his experiments in the cellar
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Auntie Loo Loo and Mavis manage to find out where the honeymoon cottage is and pay Cecily a visit to make sure she’s alright
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The couple are going away on a long voyage soon, though Manuel hasn’t shown her the tickets

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Auntie Loo Loo is worried!
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Dr Gribble- Walking over to the book shelf- “Ah criminology are you interested in criminology Mr Cortez?”
Cortez- “Yes, it’s a sort of hobby of mine doctor.”
Dr Gribble- “Well we’re fellow enthusiasts”
Cecily “Yes I think it’s a horrid morbid past time.”
Dr Gribble “But fascinating Mrs Cortez. Here’s a great favorite of mine. Criminals and their mentality. That’s great psychology… Bless my soul the latest journal of Medical Jurisprudence and the Criminal. I should have thought I was the only person within a hundred miles radius who ever so much as heard of this publication.”
Manuel Cortez-“Really I’ve subscribed to it for years”
Dr Gribble “Let’s see did I read this issue? Ah yes this is the one with the account of that South American Carrera. It’s a very interesting case.”
Manuel Cortez- “I don’t believe I’ve read it.”
Dr Gribble- “You should have. This fellow Carrera was a professional wife murderer. They caught him after he completed his third crime. Then he was drowned trying to escape.”
Manuel Cortez- “Oh yes I remember. They never found the body did they?”
Dr Gribble- “No as a matter of fact they didn’t. I don’t think there’s any real doubt he’s dead!”

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Manuel catches Cecily by the cellar door. Look his hair has finally lost control!

Love From A Stranger is perhaps the more melodramatic and Gothic of all these films I’ve talked about in this post, but perhaps the most unrewarding in terms of it’s depth. While there are some truly terrifying scenes, the queer chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak creates a distance from the narrative. It’s still truly worth watching as part of the canon of 40s suspense melodramas.

Sylvia Sidney has a certain edgy sensuality to her, that doesn’t make her performance thoroughly implausible for the story but perhaps a different actress might have brought another style of vulnerability to the role. And Hodiak has an unctuous, gritty sort of sex appeal, that made his part as a psychopath believable. He’s got intensely dark focused eyes, sharply defined features and an iron jawline that slams shut, when he’s internally scheming. Toward the end he brings it a bit over the top, but he’s sort of good at playing a surly mad dog.

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Told to read aloud from the journal of criminology- “There is no doubt at all that Vasco Carrera the last name he was known by is a truly remarkable character. He posed as a great world traveler women even those from a cultured background succumbed very quickly to his perculiar charms
possessed of a remarkable charm of manner Carrera exerted an extraordinary fascination over women”

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YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft
YOU AND ME 1938-Sidney, Sylvia and George Raft- Now that’s chemistry!

Perhaps the one issue I have with the casting is the chemistry between Sidney and Hodiak that never truly rings authentic. He’s too internally frenetic to be romantic… mysterious yes, but he’s not convincing in his wooing of Cecily. And the character of Cecily doesn’t seem to have the layers that peel innocence away, unveiling a vulnerable yet eruptive sensuality that would be unconsciously drawn to the scent of a dangerous man. That’s why Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door 1947 work so well.

John Hodiak is a puzzle for me. I’ve been trying to decide whether he’s one of the most intriguingly sexy men I’ve come across in a while or if I find him completely cold and waxen in his delivery as a leading man.

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John Hodiak and Tallulah Bankhead in Alfred Hitchcock’s marvelous floating chamber piece Lifeboat 1944

He had me going in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat 1944. I would have thrown my diamond Cartier bracelet over the bow to tumble under the tarp for a few hours with that sun kissed, salt sprayed crude adonis, sweaty, brash, unshaven -the whole deal. Just watched him in Somewhere in the Night 1946, once again, found Hodiak’s character of George Taylor compelling in his odd way of conveying vulnerable but faithful to the lure of the noir machismo. I felt sorry for a guy who can’t remember who he is or if he should just stay forgetting- in case he was a rotten human being.

But as the cunning and psychopathic lady killer in Love From A Stranger, he sort of makes my skin crawl which I supposed means he did a fabulous job of inhabiting the role of Manuel Cortez right.. Maybe he would have had better chemistry with someone like Alexis Smith or Audrey Dalton.

Now, I haven’t yet seen Basil Rathbone’s version in director Rowland V Lee’s 1937  film also known as A Night of Terror with Ann Harding -still based on the short story by Agatha Christie but set in contemporary England, Rathbone plays the intrepid type of urbane gentleman who sweeps Ann Harding off her feet and plunges her into a sudden and dangerous marriage. Where he then plots to killer her and take her money. In the earlier version, the heroine too gradually realizes that she’s in danger…

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Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding in the 1937 version of Love From a Stranger

Sylvia Sidney looks stunning as the new bride who begins to notice the strange behavior of her husband and realizes once she goes down into the cellar that Manuel is hiding something. He spends hours locked away down there preparing for the moment he will kill Cecily and has forbidden her to go down there, claiming that he’s doing experiments which are dangerous. Well that’s true, since he’s mixing poisons and digging her grave.

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This version places it back in Victorian England, perhaps due to the success of the melodramatic thrillers that were proving to be so successful in the 40s like, Rebecca, Gaslight, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Woman in White, Fritz Lang’s The Secret Beyond the Door 1947, The Two Mrs Carrolls 1947.

Continue reading “Women-in-Peril – 4 Obscure Gothic Thrillers of the 1940s!”

Fiend of the Day! Hope Emerson as Madame Rose Given in -Cry of the City (1948)

HOPE EMERSON  (Caged 1950, House of Strangers 1949, Thieves Highway 1949, Adam’s Rib 1949) is a pretty formidable lady. Hope Emerson is 6’2″, 230 pounds of actress as she reprises her fluent ‘vicious & sadistic’ characterization of larger-than-life-evil incarnate-much in the vein of her cruel bon bon eatin’ prison matron Evelyn Harper who tortured poor Eleanor Parker in Caged 1950. Oh that hair shaving scene just sticks with ya…

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Emerson Caged

In Robert Siodmak’s sublime noir Cry of the City 1948 Emerson plays Madame Rose Given who runs a massage parlor, loves to cook, is a pancake eatin’ -looming ‘heavy’… who loves jewels and just wants a little place in the country where she can cook, eat pancakes and fresh eggs… yeah that’s livin’. From her brawny swagger to her grumbling yet leisurely voice, Emerson is the highlight of the film!

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“hmmm…It is good isn’t it. I have the touch. It’s only given to a few. It’s a matter of knowing the currents of the body. Why waste this on fat old women who think they can lose a few pounds and be beautiful again… Fat old women who have too much money and too many jewels. They think the jewels make them beautiful and they fight to keep them like they fight the years that make them ugly.”

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That’s why she didn’t even break a sweat when she strangled old lady DeGrasia for her jewelry. Darn old gal had the nerve to put up a struggle! And does she give self serving on the lam career criminal Marty Rome (Richard Conte) some neck rub while he’s hiding out at her place trying to make a deal. Rose finally gets the jewels as a trade for money and some wheels to get out of town with his girl Debra Paget

Marty-“Pearl choker with a Ruby pendant. Seven rings. Diamond bracelet with the clasp broken. You must have been in a hurry ha?”

Rose-“Where are they?”

Marty- “In a locker in the subway station… I though if you went to all that trouble to get ’em once you may wanna get ’em again.”

Rose chuckles-“You’re a cute little man Martin..”

Rose ‘massaging’ Martin- “hmmm…It is good isn’t it. I have the touch. It’s only given to a few. It’s a matter of knowing the currents of the body. Why waste this on fat old women who think they can lose a few pounds and be beautiful again… Fat old women who have too much money and too many jewels. They think the jewels make them beautiful and they fight to keep them like they fight the years that make them ugly.”

Rose ain’t someone I’d want giving me a rub down, and I sure wouldn’t want to meet her at the door as the Avon Lady either- Gee wiz.. that woman could scare the horns off the devil- She’s got a smirk & leer that makes her seem like she could eat small children. This pistol packing, masseuse who’s hands should be registered as lethal weapons- is one menacing lady who has earned her place here at The Last Drive In as Fiend of the Day!

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Rose Given (Hope Emerson) gives Marty Rome (Richard Conte) a massage he’ll not soon forget!!!

Just look at that mug! Nah, I bet she was really a pussycat. I mean she was the voice of Borden’s Else the Cow afterall! Sadly-Hope Emerson died of liver disease in 1960… Here’s to you Hope Emerson-and your bigger-than-life acting style!-Love Joey

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PS: Cry of the City is perhaps one of my new favorite film noirs in Siodmak’s collection. I’m going to have to cover it, because of the great acting, from the entire cast-small parts even for Shelley Winters to the gritty dialogue and sensational cinematography so stay tuned!- Your ever lovin’ MonsterGirl in the city!

Quote of the day! The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)”I’m no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!”

..SHE’LL LIE…KILL OR KISS HER WAY OUT OF ANYTHING!

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1950)

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Barbara Stanwyck and Wendell Corey in Robert Siodmak’s The File on Thelma Jordon
*photo courtesy of Doctor Macro

Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Spiral Staircase 1945, The Killers 1946, Criss Cross 1949) this is a slick film-noir crime thriller with the ballsy Stanwyck as femme fatale Thelma Jordon in love with jewel thief Tony Laredo (Richard Rober) who gets her to steal from her rich aunt, and winds up shooting her, then making it look like a robbery. Wendell Corey plays gullible Cleve Marshall the assistant district attorney who manages to get Thelma an acquittal at trial. They start a passionate affair but Thelma is no good, and Tony reappears back in the picture… these things never end well…

“I’m no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!”

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photo courtesy of Doctor Macro

“Maybe I am just a dame and didn’t know it!”

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Maybe I’m just a dame and thought I was a MonsterGirl

Postcards From Shadowland No.7

La Belle et la Bete (1946)
Caged (1950)
Criss Cross (1949)
Devil Girl From Mars (1954)
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Experiment in Terror (1962)
Les yeux sans Visage (1960)
Les yeux sans visage (1960)
Gloria Grahame The Cobweb (1955)
I Bury The Living (1958)
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948)
Lady in a Cage (1964)
Mother Joan of The Angels (1961)
Belle et la Bete (1946)
Strait-Jacket (1964)
Sunrise (1927)
The Haunting (1963)
The Queen of Spades (1949)
Vampyr (1932)
The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

The Killers (1946): Brutal Noir- A green silk hankerchief with golden harps

The Killers (1946) is the quintessential existentialist film. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s 1920’s short story who was immersed in the pre war existentialism of that time period, that fostered tales of crimes and violence. As the two French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton remark in their fantastic read and seminal work A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-153 the killer’s gunmen walking into the diner in Brentwood N.J. and begin complaining about the menu predates the dark Absurdism of the existential movement of playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

It reminds me of how great directors like Quentin Tarantino pay homage to films like The Killers in Pulp Fiction, or the work of Samuel Fuller who didn’t hold back on the vicious realism that was ground breaking in it’s day.

According to Electric Sheep blog “the first twelve minutes of The Killers (1946) is a faithful (almost word for word) adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s much-anthologized short story. Two hit men enter a diner (shot to look like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks – itself apparently inspired by Hemingway’s story) typical Hemingway heroic fatalism.”

From what I’ve understood about Hemingway, the debate still rages on as to whether or not Hemingway was guilty of being a misogynist. Here is a decent essay about this question that tries to think about it critically and not write from a place of subjectivity or take a defensive stance. http://thequatrain.org/?p=285

The Killers (1946) the original version scripted by Hemingway himself, was produced by Mark Hellinger (The Naked City, Brute Force and The Two Mrs Carrolls– 3 of my favorite films,) and once again boldly directed by the great Robert Siodmak. With the rise of Nazism Siodmak left Germany for Paris and then for Hollywood. He’s singularly responsible for a great deal of the noir films that are so memorable.

In my opinion Siodmak’s film is a meatier piece of work that rendered a more brutal impression than the 1964 version directed by Don Siegel.

Perhaps due to it’s more neo-gangster noir style it gave it a liminal and evocative intensity. Siodmak’s Killers has a more violently surreal tone, than the stylishly slick and richly colorful pulpy Siegel version.The effective black and white environment of the 1946 Killers once again sets the stage for the players to live in a world that is condemned by shadow. While I love Siegel’s version, it does seem brighter and the world more aired out than usually frames noir desolation.

Although I’m a huge fan of Angie Dickenson and she was incredibly lush and provocative in the role of Sheila, Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins was a more subtly carnal as the temptress who becomes Swede’s downfall. Siodmak’s version gives us the noir police investigation, there is a pervasive Machiavellian cruelty, and the characters have more stratum to their persona’s. John Cassavettes is more icy while Burt Lancaster’s Swede is a very sympathetic yet imperfect man, that fatalistic heroism.

Burt Lancaster plays Ole “Swede” Andersen ex boxer and con, Ava Gardner is Kitty Collins, Edmond O’Brien is  Jim Reardon insurance investigator, Albert Dekker is Big Jim Colfax (Dr. Cyclops) criminal mastermind and Virginia Christine is Lily Harmon Lubinsky (she cameos in the ’64 version as the blind secretary).

Sam Levene is Lt. Sam Lubinsky Swede’s old childhood friend and Charles McGraw( The Narrow Margin) is Al the killer and William Conrad (Cannon tv series)is Max the other killer. The Killers also casts Jeff Corey as “Blinky” Franklin (The Outer Limits O.B.I.T.episode) one of Big Jim’s criminal lackies with a “monkey on his back” implying that he has a drug addiction. And Vince Barnett as Swede’s devoted and world weary petty thief Charleston.

The film opens with Miklos Rozsa’s ominous brassy jazz score that later becomes the killers motif, as the two men drive into a small American town, anywhere USA,  we see them from behind in darkest black silhouette in the car. Then a long view of them walking onto the scene still surrounded in shadow, we know they are trouble. The opening scene of The Killers is perhaps one of the most powerfully ferocious I’ve seen from a 1940’s film.

The two men enter Henry’s Diner William Conrad’s Max and McGraw’s Al, are The Killers, who begin to psychologically torture George who works the counter and Nick Adams the boy at the end of the counter. They exude an obnoxious egotism. A cruel anti social spirit as they barrage the men in the diner with verbal assaults, having a somewhat perverse quality which begins with the menu.

George: What’ll it be, gentlemen?
Max: I don’t know. Whatta you want to eat, Al?
Al: I don’t know what I want to eat.
Max: I’ll have the roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes.
George: That’s not ready yet.
Max: Then what’s it on the card for?
George: Well, that’s on the dinner. You can have that at six o’clock. That clock is ten minutes fast. The dinner isn’t ready yet.
Max: Never mind the clock. What have you got to eat?
George: Well, I can give you any kind of sandwiches: bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, ham and eggs, steak…
Al: I’ll have the chicken croquettes with the cream sauce and the green peas and the mashed potatoes.
Max: Everything we want is on the dinner.

They continue to harass George, asking for alcohol, “Al: You got anything to drink? George tells them “I can give you beer, soda or ginger ale. Al: I said you got anything to drink?”George submits a quiet “no.”Max says “this is a hot town, whatta you call it?”George”Brentwood” Al turns to Max “You ever hear of Brentwood?” Max shakes his head no and then Al asks George “What do you do for nights?”Max takes in a deep breath and groans out “They eat for dinner, they all come here and eat The Big Dinner” George looks downward and murmurs  “that’s right”and Al says

“You’re a pretty bright boy aren’t you”, meanwhile George is a grown middle aged man. The term “boy” is designed  to demean him. George mutters “sure” and Al snaps back “Well you’re not!”

Al now shouts to the young man at the end of the counter “hey you what’s your name?” he looks earnestly at Al and says “Adams, Nick Adams.” Al says, “another bright boy.” There is an emerging sadism at work here, almost subconsciously homophobic/homo erotic, in the way they are using the terminology of “boy” working to subvert these bystanders’ manhood. Max says, “Town’s full of bright boys”

The cook comes out from the kitchen bringing the plates of ” one ham and one bacon and” George starts to serve the men the food and asks “which one is yours?”Al says “Don’t you remember bright boy?” the continued use of this phrase truly begins to flay the layers of our nerve endings. George starts laughing and Max says “What are you laughing at?” “nothing” “You see something funny?” “no” “Then don’t laugh” “alright” again Max says ” He thinks it’s alright” Al says “Oh, he’s a thinker” Here we see the anti social backlash to an intellectual society that would perceive them as outcasts. The term “thinker” is used pejoratively as is “boy.” This is where the film begins to break the molds of the Hollywood window dressing of a civilized society, when two intruders trespass on an ordinarily quiet community and shatter it’s sense of security. It is the death of humanism in film language.

Max and Al proceed to tie up Nick Adams and the cook in the kitchen. They further taunt George who asks “what’s this all about?” Max “I’ll tell ya what’s gonna happen, we’re gonna kill a Swede, you know big Swede, works over at the filling station” he lights a cigarette. George says, “you mean Pete Lund?” As Max takes the cigarette out of his mouth the smoke enervates in George’s face, “If that’s what he calls himself’, comes in every night at 6 o’clock don’t he?” Georges asks “What are you gonna kill him for? what did Pete Lund ever do to you?” Max replies,” he never had a chance to do anything to us he never even seen us.” The conversation is so matter of fact that it’s almost chillingly absurd. Again George asks, “what are you gonna kill him for?” and Max smirks “we’re killing him for a friend.” Al pokes his head in from the sliding panel window to the kitchen “shut up you talk too much” but Max says ” I gotta keep bright boy amused don’t I?”

Once the killers believe what George tells them, that Swede isn’t coming into the diner for his supper because it’s passed 6pm, they go to Swede’s boarding house. George unties the two men in the kitchen who have been bound up with dish rags, and Nick jumps over fences trying to head off the killers and warn Swede that they’re coming for him. Nick bursts into Swede’s room.

At first we only see the obscured figure of a man lying on his bed, only from the neck down to his feet. We do not yet see the figure clearly. Swede is framed in shadow.Nick tells him about the men at Henry’s Diner, they were going to shoot him when he came in for supper.”George thought I oughta come over and tell ya” out of breath Nick is panting , and we still only hear Lancaster’s substantial voice in a whispering tone “There’s nothing I can do about it” Nick says ” don’t you even wanna know what they’re like?” “I don’t wanna know what they’re like, thanks for coming” Don’t you wanna go and see the police?” “No that wouldn’t do any good” Swede tells Nick he’s sick of running and “I did something wrong (pause) once, thanks for coming” he ends very solemnly. Nick leaves. The last words we hear Swede utter are “Charleston was right, Charleston was right.”

Now we see Swede’s face just staring and waiting. Sitting up, as the killers come bursting into the room, blasts of light from the gun spray, we are left looking at Swede’s hand lying limp against the side of the bed, surrounded in shadow once again, he is dead.

The Killers relies a lot on the noir mechanism of the flashback. At times there are flashbacks within flashbacks.

We’re now at the police station with Nick and Sam the cook giving their statements. We see a silk scarf with harps among his effects. Swede left a death benefit life insurance policy for $2,500 that goes to a woman in Atlantic City. The case is now being investigated by an insurance detective for the Atlantic Casualty and Insurance Company. Edmond O’Brien plays Reardon, who refuses to drop the case even after his boss insists that it’s not financially worth the company’s time. But Reardon wants to know what happened to this man who had “8 slugs in him, nearly tore him in half.”

Reardon goes to the hotel in Atlantic City and talks to the old chamber maid, Queenie, who is the beneficiary of Swede’s death benefit. She tells Reardon that at least he could be buried in consecrated ground and Reardon asked why she thought it was a suicide.

Queenie tells him in flashback how she was working that night and came into Swede’s room to clean, and he was visibly disturbed, smashing and stomping the furniture crying out “She’s gone, she’s gone!” Queenie asks “who’s gone mister?” He picks up a chair and breaks the window and tries to jump out, but Queenie grabs him and tells him” for the sake of God, you’ll burn in hell for all time” and stops him from killing himself. The death benefit was his way of paying thanks for her kindness.

Reardon embarks on a journey to get the bell to ring in his head, about why the green silk handkerchief with the golden harps is on the tip of his mind.His boss says that claims are piling up and he’s off running around with a 2 for a nickle shooting, but Reardon wants to know why 2 professionals put the blast on a filling station attendant, a nobody. He also notices his hands, scarring which indicate that Swede had been a boxer at one time.

He meets up with Swede’s old boyhood friend from the 12th ward in Philly. Lt Sam Lubinsky who is now married to Swede’s one time girlfriend Lily played by the a young and ever present character actress Virginia Christine who was also in The Killer Is Loose. In The Killers, she is absolutely beautiful as the “nice girl” playing opposite Ava Garner’s femme fatale role as Kitty. Sam joined the police force and Ole Swede started fighting professionally. They always kept in touch, but “when you’re a copper, you’re a copper” and eventually after taking a savage beating in the ring, Swede breaks his knuckles beyond repair and has to stop boxing. Sam winds up putting ” the pinch”on his friend Ole later on.

In a flashback we see Lily and Swede at a party thrown at a swanky hotel by Jake, one of Big Jim Colfax’s men. Lily doesn’t like Jake, he’s got mean eyes. Swede sees Kitty for the first time sitting at a piano. Swede is mesmerized by Kitty. The women share competitive glances. Kitty says, “Jake tells me you’re a fighter” he says “Do you like the fights?” Kitty says “I hate brutality Mr Anderson the idea of 2 men beating each other to a pulp makes me ill.” Lily tells Kitty that she’s seen all Swede’s fights, but Kitty comes back with “oh really, I couldn’t bare to see the man I care about hurt” at that point Lily is finished once Swede remarks how beautiful Kitty is Lily leaves the party.

Lt. Lubinsky tells Reardon that “It seems like I was always in there when he was losing, ever see him fight? He took a lot of punishment.”

Ole’s manager leaves Swede after he isn’t any good as a money making fighter anymore since the bones in his hand are crushed. It’s why he didn’t use his right hand to fight the night he lost the bout to Tiger Lewis. That night his manager says ” no use hanging around here, never did like wakes”

In a flashback within a flashback, Ole starts dating Kitty Collins, Big Jim’s girl. Evidently she shop lifts a diamond pin, Reardon recognizes it as she’s wearing it at a table sitting with a group of thugs who work for Big Jim Colfax. She drops it into a plate of soup, but Reardon stops the waiter, fishes it out and rinses it off in a cup of coffee then tries to take Kitty in, but then “Ole” Swede walks in and winds up taking the rap for her spending 3 years in jail for Kitty’s robbery then he gets released for good behavior.

Kitty’s given him this green silk scarf with golden harps of hers, which he strokes in jail. Swede has a cell mate and friend in a man named Charleston, a petty larceny crook and old time hoodlum who bonds with Swede while in prison. Charleston brings up Jupiter one night. He liked to look at the stars after lights out, he knew their names because he got a book from the prison library.

“You can’t learn any better about stars then by staring” Swede and Charleston staring out the window at the stars, while Swede is stroking the silk scarf Kitty gave him. He asks Charleston is he knows what “harp” means. He says “yeah, angels play ’em” “they mean Irish, Kitty gave me this scarf.” But Kitty hasn’t come to see Swede once while he’s in prison for the robbery she pulled. Swede asks Charleston to look up Kitty when he gets out, because he’s worried about her. But Charleston knows she’s not sick or in trouble. Swede is too much in love to see it.

Later on Charleston relates to Reardon at a pool hall that he was told to bring Swede on the day after his release from jail, because Big Jim is planning a “big set-up.” Also in the room is a thug named Dumb Dumb and Blinky Franklin. Charleston opts out, he only wants easy pickings at his age he’s spent half his life in stir, but Swede seeing Kitty in the room, still Big Jim’s girl, says he’s in. Kitty becomes Swede’s mistress again. We see the glances between the two, and Swede knocks Jim down when he tries to hit Kitty. The two men swear that after the heist, they will even up the score with each other.

The last thing Charleston says to Swede before he leaves the room is “Want a word of advice?, stop listening to golden harps, they’ll land you in a lot of trouble.” We now know what Swede meant by his last words.Charleston leaves the room. Closing the door, hoping Swede will follow, but ” he never showed up, and I never seen the Swede again” We see the character Charleston in flashback standing outside the door. Framed by the shot making the door a principal moment in the film. Charleston staring at the door waiting, looking trapped and small. The door symbolizing the unknown and what lies behind or ahead.

Back at Atlantic Casualty and Insurance Co. Reardon tells his boss the “bell rang” he remembered hearing about it in relationship to a big caper that was pulled on July 20th, 1940 at The Prentiss Hat Company. Armed gunmen got away with quarter of a million of Atlantic’s money. One of the robbers was seen wearing a green scarf with golden harps wrapped around his face like a bandit. Swede was one of the people involved in the heist. Now hiding out under an assumed name, and working at a filling station supposedly hiding all the loot from the Hat Company heist, taken away from the other members of the gang.Who sent the killers to assassinate Swede and did Kitty Collins sign his death warrant?

The Killers, details double crosses of all double crosses, as The Killers go to the sleepy town of Brentwood to even a score with Swede, who didn’t take Charleston’s advice and stop listening to golden harps. In noir films there is often a fetishistic quality to an item or action. I think the scarf is a sexual symbol of Kitty for Swede. It bares her scent, it was a token of her sexuality being made of “real silk” as if her skin. the idea of touching something golden. The scarf acts as surrogate for Kitty’s body, as he strokes it in place of the real thing.

Phantom Lady: Forgotten Cerebral Noir: It’s not how a man looks, it’s how his mind works that makes him a killer.

Phantom Lady (1944)

Directed by the master of suspenseful thrillers and fabulous noirs- Robert Siodmak; (Son of Dracula 1943, The Suspect 1944, Christmas Holiday 1944 The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, The Killers 1946, The Dark Mirror, The Spiral Staircase 1946, Cry of the City 1948, Criss Cross 1949, The File of Thelma Jordon 1948) is as nightmarish and psychologically aromatic as it is a penetrating crime noir. The distinguishing cinematography by Woody Bredell.

Phantom Lady is a sadly neglected film noir based on a story by Cornell Woollrich and scripted for the screen by Bernard C. Schoenfeld. Stars the quietly enigmatic Ella Raines (Cry ‘Havoc’ 1943, The Suspect 1944, Impact 1949), as Carol “Kansas” Richman, Franchot Tone as Jack Marlow and Alan Curtis as the leading man Scott Henderson. The film also co stars Thomas Gomez (Key Largo) as perceptive Detective Burgess, the intelligent and compassionate detective who eventually comes around to believe in Scott Henderson’s innocence.

Phantom Lady utilizes noir’s innocent man theme beautifully. Siodmak’s directing creates an often nightmarish realm, the characters float in and out of. The intersectionality frames the story between crime melodrama and psychological thriller. Siodmak is a master storyteller who earned an Oscar nomination for The Killers in 1946.

Although on the surface you would assume Phantom Lady to be a man in peril film, it actually functions as a woman in danger as well because Carol “Kansas” puts herself in harms way in order to help her boss, whom she’s in love with. Fay Helm’s mysterious woman has a tragic trajectory herself as a woman who is spiraling into oblivion by mental decline after losing her beloved fiance.

Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), spends the night with a mysterious woman whose identity is unknown to him. Only later do we learn that her name is Ann Terry (Fay Helm) The two first meet in a bar, after Scott has been shunned by his wife for the last time. The phantom lady is obviously disturbed by something causing her emotional pain, she finally agrees to take in a show with Scott who has tickets. The conditions are that they do not exchange names as it’s just a way for both of them to keep themselves occupied at a moment when both are feeling dejected.

The “Phantom Lady” is wearing a sensationally quirky hat which the film revolves around in a sense, because Scott returns home to find his apartment crawling with police after his wife has been brutally strangled, with one of Scott’s expensive ties. The anonymous lady who wore this stand out hat is the only key to providing Scott’s with an alibi.

Scott proceeds to tell Inspector Burgess (the wonderful Thomas Gomez), that he spent the night with this no name woman, after fighting with his wife and that there are several people who would have seen them together. The bar tender, the cabbie with a very memorable name, and the temperamental lead singer/dancer in the musical review could identify him accompanied by the phantom lady, because of her supposedly original hat– the performer Estela Monteiro (Aurora Miranda) was also wearing the same hat on stage, which is later used as a lead. Aurora shoots daggers at the phantom lady for having worn the same design. You could see the fury on her face as she sings her musical number. Estela Monteiro has a fit, walks off stage and decrees that no one would have the nerve to wear one of her original hats, and throws hers away. Wonderful character actor Doris Lloyd plays the designer Kettisha who is sought after for her one of a kind hat designs.

Inspector Burgess takes Scott around to each of these witnesses but no one recalls having seen him with the woman at all. They all very curiously deny seeing the lady, and it becomes obvious that something is very wrong with the testimony from all these people who were obviously covering something up. The outcome looks bleak for Scott.

Inspector Burgess: [Questioning] You’re a pretty neat dresser, Mr. Henderson.

Detective Tom: [Taunting] Yeah. Everything goes together. It’s an art.

Inspector Burgess: Nice tie you’re wearing.

Scott Henderson: [Upset] Tie?

Detective Tom: Pretty taste. Expensive. I wish I could afford it.

Scott Henderson: Hey, what are you trying to do to me? Marcella’s dead, gimme a break! What’s the difference if my tie is OK or not?

Inspector Burgess: It makes a great deal of difference, Mr. Henderson.

Scott Henderson: Why?

Inspector Burgess: Your wife was strangled with one of your ties.

Detective Chewing Gum: Yeah. Knotted so tight it had to be cut loose with a knife.

Because it appears that Scott is guilty of the crime he is sentence to death and faces the electric chair in 18 days. With no witnesses to back him up.

Even his best friend sculptor Jack Marlow played by gravel toned sophisticate Franchot Tone who doesn’t come onto the scene until midway through the film, is away on business in Brazil, so there is no one but sweet and devoted secretary Kansas who is left to stand by Scott. Scott resigns himself to his fate and doesn’t even blame the jury for their decision.

Scott Henderson is a civil engineer who was in a loveless marriage with  with a beautiful associate who works for him, which he affectionately calls Kansas. She never doubts his innocence for a moment and devoutly sets out on a mission to try and find this mysterious lady to prove she really does exist, before it’s too late. She also tracks down those whom she knows have lied about seeing this woman.

Kansas assumes the role of serious cookie as she taunts Mac the bartender who denies having ever seen the woman with the funny hat in his bar with Scott at the time his wife was murdered. She also goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous and super frenetic drummer Cliff Milburn played to the sweaty frenzied nines by Elisha Cook Jr.

Along the way, Inspector Burgess, confronts Kansas in her apartment and tells her that although he did his job at the time, he also believes in Scott’s story because a child could make up a better alibi than the story he has stuck to so religiously. So now Kansas and Burgess set about to prove that someone has been tampering with these witnesses.

At this point, Jack Marlow comes back from Brazil to lend a helping hand in getting to the bottom of the case. The always present Jack begins to play an important role in helping solve the murder.

What lies ahead is a very gripping story with several taut and fiery moments amidst the looming shadows and dead ends.

Elisha Cook Jr. is too believable yet fantastic as the tweaked sleazy drummer who’s got an appetite for women in the audience, even the phantom lady whom he flirted with.

And Fay Helm plays a very palpable victim of her own sadness as the Phantom Lady who alludes the police after that one night at the musical revue with Scott.

What adds to the noirish obfuscation of the story is the witnesses who are despicable in their evasiveness, which creates an atmosphere of obstruction that is stirring and at times, maddening. But they will all meet a certain cosmic justice by films end.

Woolrich was a prolific writer who’s work came close to being as popular as Raymond Chandler, and he was responsible for many of the screenplays of the 1940’s as well as the radio drama Suspense. Ella Raines is absolutely breathtaking to look at. And sadly Alan Curtis having died in the 50’s of complications from surgery was not only great at being sympathetic, he was strikingly handsome as well.

 

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: [Visiting Scott in prison] Is there anything I can do for you?

Scott Henderson: Yes. You can thank the foreman. I forgot to.

Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman: I don’t know what to say.

Scott Henderson: Skip it, Kansas. I’ll be all right now that I know where I stand. Yes, I’ll be fine. Last night for the first time I didn’t have to count sheep. I slept like a guilty man.

Phantom Lady is a cerebral excursion, which uncovers a lot of psychological layers for us, as it progresses.

Without giving away any key parts of the plot , I’ll say that the film shows us a dark side of humanity.

Without going into the background of the characters, the narrative of Phantom Lady is drawn out in little scenic bursts of disclosure. While the film doesn’t describe to us why these characters are doing what they do with the use of  flashback another noir technique, we see who these people are by their actions. The film explores human nature in a slightly gritty naturalistic style.

The cinematography by Elwood Bredell (The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, The Mystery of Marie Roget 1942, Christmas Holiday 1944, Lady on a Train 1945, The Killers 1946, The Unsuspected 1947, Female Jungle 1956)  is remarkably as Bredell paints a landscape of looming shadows, dark sinister corners and breaks of light that cut through the clouds of mystery and excursions into bad spaces.

A nightmarish journey of the wrongly accused, the tragedy of loss, greed and true madness and sometimes darkness of the soul. And ultimately the love that bears its fruits by unrelenting devotion and the pursuit of the truth at any cost.

Kansas will need to wash her mouth out with bleach after the predatory Cliff plants a raptorial kiss on her!

Inspector Burgess: The fact remains that none of you could have committed these murders.

Jack Marlow: Why not?

Inspector Burgess: You’re all too normal.

Jack Marlow: Oh, the murderer must be normal enough. Just clever, that’s all.

Inspector Burgess: Yes, all of them are. Diabolically clever.

Jack Marlow: Who?

Inspector Burgess: Paranoiacs.

Jack Marlow: That’s simply your opinion. Psychiatrists might disagree.

Inspector Burgess: Oh, I’ve seen paranoiacs before. They all have incredible egos. Abnormal cunning. A contempt for life.

Jack Marlow: You make it sound unbeatable.


 

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