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Massachusetts noir: Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone November 6, 2007

Posted by jackal in : TV, Film Noir , add a comment

Robert B. Parker is a fixture of American crime writing, most famous for his long-running Spenser series, now some 35 novels strong. In recent years, however, he’s also turned to a couple of new central characters: female Boston P.I. Sunny Randall (originally designed as a movie vehicle for Helen Hunt) and the troubled anti-hero Jesse Stone. A depressed, functioning alcoholic fired from the LA police force, Stone winds up as police chief in the small Pacific coast town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Haunted by the ex-wife he left behind, Stone’s humble new job is his last chance at salvaging a life and career, and he knows it.

From this starting point Parker is slowly building an increasingly rich and satisfying series of novels, a deliberate departure from the world of Spenser. Stone is younger, flawed, less of a wise-guy. Thus far we have had six novels: Night Passage, Trouble in Paradise, Death in Paradise, Stone Cold, Sea Change and High Profile, which is released in paperback here in the UK this month.

Spenser never translated fully well to the big screen, largely because the right actor to play him hasn’t been found; neither Robert Urich nor Joe Mantegna fully fit the bill of the honourable Boston P.I., an ex-boxer from whom the wisecracks slip as easily as breathing. Parker’s own suggestion of Robert Mitchum in his prime doesn’t get us anywhere, at least without a time machine, and I struggle to think of anyone today who genuinely suits the role.

For whatever reason, Jesse Stone is somehow an easier character to cast. I’ve always pictured Kurt Russell while reading the books, but you could easily find a number of actors for the role. So when the novels came to Hollywood a couple of years ago, in a Stone Cold TV movie starring … Tom Selleck, it seemed an odd choice. Selleck was then 60, playing a character written as 35. It didn’t seem obvious casting.

As it turns out, Selleck was a fan of the books and, serving as executive producer of Stone Cold, protected the integrity of the adaptation. When that film was a ratings hit, a TV movie series bloomed, and Selleck has continued to ensure that the spirit of Parker’s books makes it to the screen intact. There have been plot changes here and there, but at other times entire scenes, frequently down to the dialogue, are lifted from the books unchanged. Parker has in fact called the Jesse Stone movies the most faithful screen versions of his work.

Following 2005’s Stone Cold (actually the fourth novel), Selleck and co. went back and filmed the first novel, Night Passage, as a prequel. Death in Paradise (the third novel) followed that, but was set after Stone Cold. Then (if you’re still keeping up), bringing the series back into line with the novels, Sea Change (a rather loose adaptation of the fifth novel) premiered earlier this year. Currently in post-production is Thin Ice, from an original screenplay, and planned for a Spring 2008 premiere. If it maintains the ratings success, the series will surely continue.

Parker’s characters, dialogue and plots aside, the chief reason for the movies’ success is Selleck, who has delivered consistently exceptional performances as Jesse Stone. Physically, he brings immense gravitas to the character. With his broad but aging 6′ 4″ frame he resembles a grizzled bear, bowed but not broken. Stone is just as he appears in the books: a man of deep regrets. In Sea Change he says “you know, you live long enough, you have regrets. And the ones that nag at you the most are the ones where you knew you had a choice.” The lone picture on display in his home is of a diving Ozzie Smith, a reminder of Stone’s own once-promising career as a shortstop, curtailed by injury. He’s a drunk, barely staying in control, and knows it. He’s also a disciplined police officer with a strong sense of justice and a line in self-deprecating humour (his catchphrase: “I’m just a small town cop; mostly I give out parking tickets”). There’s an economy to his actions; every move is deliberate, each word or gesture has a purpose, and backing it up is a quiet yet visceral strength. On top of it all, Selleck looks more than a decade younger than his 60-some years, negating any concern over his suitability for the role. He got an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a miniseries or movie for the most recent adaptation, Sea Change, but lost out to Robert Duvall for Broken Trail. Selleck richly deserves to win at least once before the series is through.

Also integral to the continuing success of the films is director Robert Harmon, who has been behind the camera for every entry so far. He succeeds in letting the story unfold at a relaxed pace, allowing characters room to breathe and ensuring that the sparse action, when it does come, is sharply crafted and makes an impact. There are no car chases or gunfights every ten minutes; the movies are somewhat old-fashioned police procedurals, given real bite by the character of Stone and Selleck’s powerhouse portrayal. The atmosphere throughout is downbeat, melancholy; noir is the watchword, and Jeff Beal’s stark but haunting score is the perfect accompaniment. Okay, these are only TV movies, but they’re thoroughly satisfying, and several notches above the competition. They come highly recommended from these quarters. Just make sure you read the novels first.

Now if only somebody would make a similar series of Sunny Randall movies with Katee Sackhoff in the lead. Too young? Maybe, but she’s got attitude to burn, and more than enough charisma and talent to take on the role.

Sackhoff and Jamie Bamber in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

Starbuck again. Hard at work as always.

Jean Peters: biography of a forgotten leading lady October 16, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , 9 comments

I first came across Jean Peters in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara a few years ago. It was among the films in my Marilyn Monroe: The Diamond Collection boxset, and looked like a decent little thriller. Before long, though, I’d forgotten all about Ms Monroe; the dark-haired, green-eyed second female lead had caught me eye. Who the hell is that and why haven’t I seen her before? I thought. It’s perhaps not surprising that I’d never heard of Jean, since she and many other actresses of her time are today forgotten by all but us film buffs. Peters is at a further disadvantage for two reasons: she retired at 29, and did so to marry Howard Hughes. Thus her filmography is comparatively small, her tally of notable films can almost be counted on one hand, and on the rare occasions that she is mentioned it’s usually merely with reference to Mr Hughes and her place in his curious life.

As I watched more of Peters’ movies I started to become a real fan and, partly because I could find literally nothing beyond the most basic details of her life and career, I found myself becoming more interested. This led somewhat circuitously to the current piece on jackal’s film corner. On a whim a couple of months ago, I decided that if it’s so difficult to find anything substantial on Peters, I’d pen something myself. So I set out to find as much material as possible: obituaries from reliable newspapers archived on the net, lots and lots (and lots) of additional online research, a whole bunch of print articles (it’s amazing what you can find on ebay), as well as Raymond Strait’s long out-of-print 1971 biography Mrs Howard Hughes. I weighed it all up, filtered out anything that didn’t tally, and laid the results out in my own words. It also goes without saying that I tracked down and watched as many of her films as possible (everything from her Fox years; later TV movies and the like proved more difficult to locate). The following piece is not intended to be exhaustive, nor impressive; some sections are more detailed than others, depending on how many sources and how much detail I could find (and if anybody knows more - or better - than me, please say so). This is merely a pet project, an attempt to put the pieces of Jean Peters’ life together into a reasonably complete and coherent picture. It’s something that I’ve been working on intermittently for a while (see, Mr Jukes, I told you I’d finish it!), for nobody’s amusement but my own, and here seems as good a place as any for it to end up.

Big thanks to Carole for some of the photos that appear below.

Elizabeth Jean Peters was born in Canton, Ohio on October 15, 1926. She was 10 and her sister Shirley just a toddler when their father died and Jean’s mother opened a tourist camp alongside the family farm to earn a living. Jean soon became adept at DIY and working around the house, a trait that would stick with her even after fame struck. Growing up on a farm in small-town America, she could easily have ended up living an anonymous life as a school teacher, were it not for a friend’s casual act: when she was 20, studying to be a teacher at Ohio University, Jean’s roommate secretly entered her photo into the State Beauty Contest. Jean won, but apparently wasn’t interested in the prize: a screen test for 20th Century-Fox. Nevertheless she ended up travelling with her mother to Hollywood, where she reportedly caught the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck and was signed to a contract without even filming the test. Despite frequent clashes with her bosses, Fox would remain her home studio for the next decade.

Jean as a child

After the whirlwind events that swept her west, Jean’s first few months in Hollywood were an anticlimax: a dull routine of publicity work and screen tests. It was only when scheduling conflicts prevented Linda Darnell from taking the female lead in Captain from Castile that Jean got her big break. The young college student suddenly found herself starring in a lavish Technicolor period adventure alongside superstar Tyrone Power. “When I first met him he seemed like some kind of god,” she later confessed. Despite a complete lack of acting experience, Peters handled the role admirably, impressing the powers-that-be, and a film career was born.

dancing with Ty Power in CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE

Captain from Castile would influence Peters’ career for the next few years: she was such a perfect fit as the film’s headstrong and fiery Spanish love interest that the studio tried to cast her in similarly strong, colourful female parts. At first Jean resisted being marketed as a sex symbol. Raised a Methodist and still influenced by her mother’s views (she was only 21) she refused, among others, the Anne Baxter part in Yellow Sky deeming it ”too sexy”. That caused the first of several suspensions. Jean’s tomboy personality also frustrated the studio’s publicity department. She dressed in jeans and sneakers on the Fox lot, abhorred the colour pink, wore little or no makeup and lunched on empty sets with her dresser or makeup girl to avoid the tourist groups that prowled the commissary.

an early publicity shot

Especially in those early days, Jean was conscious of her inexperience as an actor, and sought advice from her more established co-stars. Recognition as a serious actress was what she craved most, but would never attain because, quite honestly, she wasn’t a ‘great’ actress. She was, though, always believeable, able to adapt to a wide range of parts and genres. She also brought a natural passion and fiery spirit to all her performances, and more than a little sex appeal. Among her film crews she earned a reputation as a hard worker. An early riser, she could get by on four or five hours sleep a night, and was known as the most punctual star on the lot. There, the studio-favoured nicknames of Jeannie or Liz were ignored; she was ”Pete” to everyone, and universally liked. Columnist Cobina Wright said, “I never knew Jean to have a feud with anyone.” In his biography of the actress Raymond Strait similarly remarks that “in all the research and planning that went into this book, no one ever had an unkind word to say of Miss Peters, and that is unusual.” Her circle of friends at this time included the likes of Joseph Cotten, David Niven, Ray Milland, Marie McDonald, and Marilyn Monroe. Her best friend was fellow Fox contract player Jeanne Crain, only a year her senior, with whom Jean remained close for years.

relaxing between takes, circa 1950

The Hollywood party scene was not Jean’s; she enjoyed dining out, attending the opera, or small parties, but avoided publicity-friendly events like the plague - acting was fun, but she hated the idea of being a ‘celebrity’ and all that it entailed. “I’ve been to only one premiere,” she declared proudly in 1955, and on that occasion she even made her own evening gown. Fashioning her own clothes was a hobby born out of necessity in her youth, and one which which she continued in Hollywood. She had a talent for it, even writing articles on dress-making for the movie magazines. Fame didn’t make Jean frivolous with money, either. She lived for some time in a modest apartment that she liked because it was close to the studio, and saved much of her paychecks, investing the money in real estate. Between movie shoots she went horse riding, painted (friends said she was quite good) and was a passionate baseball fan. At home Jean followed the Cleveland Indians, but out west, ten years before the Dodgers would bring major league baseball to L.A., she adopted the minor league Hollywood Stars as her team and kept a private box at Gilmore Stadium.

between takes on NIAGARA, with Marilyn Monroe and Max Showalter

on location for Viva Zapata!

Offscreen, Peters embodied many of the characteristics of the Hawksian woman, even down to the masculine nickname, and it’s a pity she never worked with Hawks himself. Margaret Sheridan’s role in The Thing from Another World springs to mind as one that would have been ideal for Peters, but he also made several movies at Fox during her tenure and the only one that would have been an obvious mismatch is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Peters hated dancing on-screen, and even after singing lessons couldn’t carry much of a tune. Surprisingly, when she did agree to a choreographed dance sequence in Love that Brute (1950), the end product (a dubbed rendering of “You Took Advantage of Me”) was slick and entertaining - thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I’ve uploaded it here if you want to check it out. Nevertheless, it was something the actress was never comfortable with, and largely avoided.

Jean has a ball as ANNE OF THE INDIES

After Captain from Castile Jean slimmed down to a trim 125lbs and got solid if unspectacular work in the likes of Deep Waters (1948) and It Happens Every Spring (1949), the latter playing into her real-life passion for baseball. She also wanted to go blonde for the picture, but was overruled by director Lloyd Bacon. The afore-mentioned Love that Brute (1950) was the best of her films from this period, pairing her effectively with Paul Douglas in a warm comedy about a good-natured gangster and the nightclub singer he romances. However, it was as Anne of the Indies the following year that Peters came into her element. The role of the tough, swashbuckling pirate captain was perfect for the tomboy actress, with Jean relishing the chance to dress up as a pirate and embody a larger-than-life character. Though the film ultimately falls short of fulfilling its potential, her glee at portraying such an appealing bad girl pervades every scene.

becoming suspicious in NIAGARA

After this, her films began to rise in stature: she was the wife of Marlon Brando’s Mexican revolutionary in the Oscar-winning Viva Zapata! (1952), second lead in Niagara (1953) with Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe, and scored a plum role in Samuel Fuller’s desperate film noir masterpiece Pickup on South Street (1953). Peters gave a raw, punchy performance, arguably her best, as Candy, the ex-hooker who becomes involved with Richard Widmark’s cynical pickpocket Skip McCoy.

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, Jean's finest hour

The noir trend continued, although the films themselves were inferior: Vicki, a by-the-numbers remake of I Wake Up Screaming, at least gave her a glamorous starring role as a society model and the chance to work again with Jeanne Crain. A Blueprint for Murder re-united her with another pal, Joseph Cotten, but in an implausible, flat thriller that played off elements of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to only a fraction of the effect.

with Jeanne Crain in VICKI

Jean was by now unquestionably a star, if not quite among the front rank. When Jeanne Crain proved unavailable for Fox’s lavish new CinemaScope romance Three Coins in the Fountain, Peters was ushered in. Ironically, while the film turned out to be the most popular of her career, Peters’ role was among the weakest she ever played. Surrounded by gorgeous Italian locations and wrapped up in Victor Young’s lush music, Jean didn’t actually have much to do but look pretty in Technicolor. That, at least, was easily accomplished.


Next up for Jean were back-to-back westerns. She was loaned to United Artists for Apache, which saw her made-up as a rather unconvincing American Indian opposite Burt Lancaster. While filming in high winds, she remarked to director Robert Aldrich, “make sure you pan with my wig when it blows off”. Back at Fox, she was cast in another top-flight CinemaScope production, Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954), during which there were rumours of a fling with co-star Robert Wagner (in his recent autobiography, Wagner says that their friendship never turned romantic).

BROKEN LANCE, with Robert Wagner

Jean’s next film, A Man Called Peter (1955), generated some of her best reviews yet, but it was to be her last. Put on suspension again for refusing roles, Peters decided she was through with movies when long-time suitor Howard Hughes finally agreed to marriage.

Jean Peters and Howard Hughes first met, according to most accounts, at an Independence Day party in July 1946, shortly before Hughes’ near-fatal crash while piloting the XF-11. Ditching her date Audie Murphy, the farm girl from Ohio fell immediately for the charming Hughes, and they apparently began seeing each other very quietly. This caused consternation at Fox, whose publicity department desperately wanted to play up notions of a Hughes romance to enhance her public profile. Jean, though, insisted on her privacy and for the time being the studio relented. For Hughes the appeal in Jean was her natural beauty and lack of pretence, as well as the fact that she clearly didn’t need him; when he was in town they would go out for dinner, maybe see a show, but Jean was otherwise happy to continue her life without him, even managing to turn a blind eye to his dalliances with other actresses and the constant ’spies’ that Hughes sent to watch over and keep tabs on her.

A BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER, with Joseph Cotten

Eventually, however, Hughes’ reluctance to commit to their relationship frustrated Peters enough to consider life away from him. In August 1953 Peters was on a flight home from Rome, where she had been on location for Three Coins in the Fountain. At the Paris stop-off, oil executive Stuart Cramer III boarded the plane and sat opposite Jean in first class. The pair hit it off immediately, and upon her arrival in LA, Jean gave Howard Hughes an ultimatum: marriage - or else, even confessing as much to Three Coins director Jean Negulesco. When Hughes still refused to commit, she began seeing Cramer, and romance blossomed. They dated for several months before marrying on May 29th 1954.

promoting BROKEN LANCE with Wagner, 1954.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning that some make a rather far-fetched claim regarding this time: namely that during 1953 or 1954, Jean gave birth to the illegitimate son of Howard Hughes. Given her nearly unbroken filming schedule through this period (from Vicki to Three Coins to Apache to Broken Lance, to her marriage to Stuart Cramer just a few weeks later), as well as her unwaveringly slim figure on-screen, it must have been the shortest and most invisible pregnancy in history. In addition, over 50 years later, no such child has appeared, so I think we can safely put such stories in the dustbin reserved for the likes of Walt Disney’s frozen head and Ida Lupino’s wig.

Jean on the day of her wedding to Stuart Cramer

The Cramer-Peters marriage was not to last, though. Hughes was jealous and may well have actively sought to break up the union. After 33 days the couple separated, and Hughes attempted to reconcile with Peters, while also hurrying along divorce proceedings against Cramer. But Jean didn’t sign the papers, and when Cramer tracked her down in Miami, they got back together for the next few months. Jean went back to Fox and starred in A Man Called Peter that autumn, apparently choosing the film on the recommendation of her new mother-in-law, who had been a parishioner of the real-life Rev. Peter Marshall, upon whose life the film was based.


Despite the relatively brief reunion, the marriage faltered in 1956 and Peters, once again on suspension from Fox for her ‘difficult’ behaviour, went back to Hughes. When the Cramer divorce became final in December 1956, Hughes and Peters married just days later in January 1957. Jean’s friend, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, was gifted the story.

Jean acquiesced to her husband’s desire for privacy and not only quit movies - much to the dismay of Fox, her friends, and fans - but also studiously avoided the public eye in any way. For the first couple of years the couple lived together in California, but as Hughes became increasingly reclusive and suspicious of outsiders, he moved to his Las Vegas penthouse and left Jean alone in a grand home in Bel Air. She would fly out occasionally on weekends, but was otherwise left to her own devices.

Cover star back in the 50s

Jean had always been wise with her money, but suddenly finding herself the bored wife of a billionaire, she developed a taste for shopping. She frequented the high class boutiques in Beverly Hills, often buying numerous outfits, only to forget all about them until a courier showed up on her doorstep with an armful of packages. A friend from her days at Fox bumped into her in a store and had to politely decline the outrageously expensive dresses Jean tried to buy for her.

Jean would go out to shows when she visited Vegas, but her husband never came along. Accompanied by friends, she would sit at the best tables, but was seldom recognised, “unless one of my movies had been on TV the night before”. Back in California she would go to a ballgame or the opera with friends, Hughes’ invisible bodyguards always trailing quietly behind.

Jean at the 1970 Academy Awards

By the mid 1960s Jean was so stifled by solitary life that she went back to college for something to occupy her time, enrolling for classes at UCLA under her real name of Elizabeth Peters. Dressing casually and wearing sunglasses whenever possible, she got by for several months, ranking among the top students in her class, before an anonymous tip alerted reporters and she had to drop out. By this time her contact with Hughes was mostly by telephone; the marriage existed only on paper. Finally, Jean filed for divorce.

The precipitating factor for this seems to have been Jean’s involvement with Fox executive Stanley Hough, whom she first met on Captain from Castile in 1947, when he was an assitant cameraman. They had known each other, on and off, ever since (he worked also on Three Coins in the Fountain and most probably other films with Jean). When the Hughes divorce came through in June 1971, she was awarded $70,000 a year for life, to be adjusted for cost of living increases. In return, although Hughes didn’t insist on a confidentiality agreement, Jean promised not to talk to the press. She never did, telling Newsweek only that ”my life with Howard Hughes was and shall remain a matter on which I will have no comment”. Hughes’ aides said that Jean was one of the few people he was never heard to bad-mouth.

Howard Hughes in 1947

A year after her divorce from Hughes, Jean and Stanley Hough were married. She decided to return to acting, but Hollywood had moved on in the 20 years since her Fox contract, and she found it impossible to shed her identity as Mrs Howard Hughes. Her first reappearance was on TV, in Winesburg, Ohio (1973), and generated a level of press interest out of all proportion to the relatively insignificant production. “I’m not so naive as to think your only reason to be here is your interest in my career,” she remarked to the attendant press.

VICKI, 1953

Shortly before his death in 1976, Hughes sent Jean a letter claiming he had always loved her, but second-hand platitudes were no substitute for fifteen years of a largely empty marriage. Jean subsequently returned to acting only occasionally, instead concentrating mostly on charity work. She also returned to college, finally getting the teaching degree that had eluded her all those years earlier. She intended to make use of it in the classroom, but never found the opportunity in the end.


Jean made her last screen appearance in a 1988 episode of Murder She Wrote. At 62, she had aged gracefully, and was perfectly cast as a reclusive ex-movie star, in a story that made much use of her old publicity photos and memorabilia for verisimilitude. It wasn’t a high-class exit - Murder She Wrote is hardly the pinnacle of TV drama - but was somewhat nostalgic nonetheless.

Jean photographed in 1989

Following the death of spouse Stanley Hough in 1990, Peters left Beverly Hills and moved to Carlsbad, California, to be near her younger sister Shirley. In her early days Jean had spoken optimistically about her future: a long marriage, eventually children perhaps, much like her friend Jeanne Crain enjoyed, but it didn’t work out that way. She gave interviews only rarely in her later years, but on one occasion, talking about her childhood, confessed, ”I liked my small town. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had remained there.” Jean died on October 13th, 2000, two days shy of her seventy-fourth birthday, and is buried next to her third husband in Culver City, Los Angeles.

Film Noir still MIA August 1, 2007

Posted by jackal in : Films, Film Noir , 3 comments

It’s been a year since I wrote Film Noir MIA, highlighting some of my favourite noirs that were unavailable on commercial DVD. Checking through the list again recently, I was happy to observe that several of the 12 titles have been released, or are on the slate for the near future. Woman in the Window and Macao have arrived on R1 and The Glass Key on R2. Ministry of Fear is also due for R2 release in September, while Dangerous Crossing has appeared on Fox’s website for future R1 release (although, this being Fox, who knows whether it’ll actually show up).

In light of those releases, and since I’ve watched a lot more films noir over the past 12 months, I thought I’d revise and expand my original list. Below you’ll find a rundown of my favourite noirs still sitting unreleased in the studio vaults. Some are perhaps more crime than noir and, as before, I must stress that it’s entirely biased to my tastes: there are many, many other noirs that are also unavailable. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

20. Saigon (1948)

The fourth and final screen pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake is a lightweight but enjoyable romp that finds them caught up with shady dealings in the titular locale. My take on it is here.

19. The Glass Web (1953)

Edward G. Robinson and John Forsythe are producers of a reality crime TV show; when the woman both men are involved with is killed, suspicion falls on one of the pair, much to the delight of the other. An interesting premise plays out in rather far-fetched but enjoyable fashion.

18. Human Desire (1954)

After The Big Heat, Fritz Lang reunites with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame for this smouldering drama of infidelity and murder. Broderick Crawford co-stars.

17. The Brasher Doubloon (1947)

Probably the most obscure screen outing for Philip Marlowe, this short and snappy adaptation of Chandler’s The High Window has George Montgomery as a breezy, wisecracking incarnation of the private eye.

16. The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

John Garfield is a troubled veteran of the Spanish Civil War who finds himself sucked into a Nazi spy plot. Great thriller co-starring Maureen O’Hara as the alluring girl he falls for along the way.

15. The Sleeping City (1950)

Absorbing docu-noir with Richard Conte as a cop sent undercover at Bellevue Hospital to investigate a string of apparent suicides; Coleen Gray co-stars. I previously looked at the film here.

14. Nocturne (1946)

Solid detective story with George Raft as a cop investigating the puzzling murder of a womanizing music composer. Lynn Bari co-stars.

13. Conflict (1945)

One of the most notable Bogart titles not on DVD is this interesting little melodrama. He plays a murdering husband who is troubled by a series of odd happenings that suggest his wife may not be dead after all. Alexis Smith and Sydney Greenstreet co-star.

12. 99 River Street (1953)

Tough noir, with John Payne as an ex-boxer who has one hell of a bad night. Accused of murdering his wife, he’s on the run, desperate to find the killer before he leaves the city. Brad Dexter and Evelyn Keyes co-star.

11. Johnny Angel (1945)

An atmospheric thriller with George Raft as tough guy Johnny Angel: a merchant navy captain determined to find his father’s killer. Claire Trevor co-stars.

10. They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

Robert Young’s womanising past comes back to haunt him when he finds himself on trial for murder. Will the jury believe his outlandish explanation of events? Susan Hayward and Jane Greer co-star in this atmospheric noir.

9. The Window (1949)

A brilliant performance from child actor Bobby Driscoll anchors this gripping tale of a young boy who witnesses a murder in a neighbouring apartment, but finds that nobody believes him - except the killer! Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale also star.

8. The Web (1947)

A private detective smells a rat when a simple bodyguarding job goes badly wrong, and sets out to discover what’s really going on. Edmond O’Brien, Ella Raines, William Bendix and Vincent Price are the quartet of noir all-stars populating this tightly-plotted thriller.

7. A substantial portion of Dick Powell’s career! (Cornered, Cry Danger, Johnny O’Clock, PitfallTo the Ends of the Earth)

There are just SO many Dick Powell noirs unreleased, it’s easier to bunch them all together. Here are a quintet of fine thrillers, all of which deserve to be more widely seen. Cornered was apparently due for release in WB’s new Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 4 boxset, but lost its place to the inferior (IMHO) caper The Big Steal.

6. My Name is Julia Ross (1945)

One of the finest “B” pictures ever made: Nina Foch is excellent as the titular heroine, kidnapped by Dame Mady Whitty and her psycho son for their nefarious scheme of changed identities and murder. It’s short and modestly budgeted, but terrific entertainment.

5. Phantom Lady (1944)

Top-notch early mystery from Robert Siodmak; the lovely Ella Raines is an intrepid secretary who must track down the elusive ‘phantom lady’, whose testimony is the only thing that can prove Raines’ boss innocent of murder.

4. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

One of the very first examples of true noir, this wonderfully shot, nightmarish thriller is a real treat. Peter Lorre shines as the loony killer of the title.

3. The Breaking Point (1950)

John Garfield and Patricia Neal star in director Michael Curtiz’s take on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. Sticking more faithfully to the novel than the 1944 Hawks film, this is a powerful noir flavoured with despair, populated by flawed, human characters, and featuring a blistering performance from Garfield.

2. The Bribe (1949)

Robert Taylor is a federal agent sent to the Central American island of Carlotta to investigate shady business dealings. But as Taylor begins to fall for the suspect’s wife, the case gets a whole lot more complicated. Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton, John Hodiak and Vincent Price complete the impressive line-up for this hot and humid noir.

1. Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

Don’t be put off by the dodgy title - this is a beguiling, poetic noir directed by Robert Montgomery. He also stars, as Lucky Gagin, a disilluisoned WWII veteran who travels to a backwater Mexican bordertown with revenge in mind, and the Feds on his tail. Gagin finds help in the form of Pilar (Wanda Hendrix) a naive yet enigmatic teenage girl who follows him everywhere, and the hard-drinking, fiercely loyal Pancho (Thomas Gomez). The straightforward plot gradually peels back to reveal rich and meaningful depths to this forgotten gem.

Drive a Crooked Road (1954) July 4, 2007

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From the writer/director team of Blake Edwards and Richard Quine comes the minor yet engaging little robbery noir Drive a Crooked Road

Mickey Rooney stars as Eddie Shannon, a shy, lonely car mechanic and amateur race car driver with hopeless dreams of turning professional. When the beautiful, sophisticated Barbara (Dianne Foster) takes a shine to Eddie, he’s smitten. Then Barbara’s amiable friend Steve (Kevin McCarthy) casually mentions that he has a job for a top driver like Eddie - handling the getaway car on the demanding escape route from a planned bank heist. Eddie’s no criminal, but begins to think of the life he and Barbara could enjoy with all that money. But what Eddie doesn’t realise is that he’s being played by them both …

Steve brings Eddie in on his plan

It’s easy to pick holes in the film. For starters, the climactic robbery is rather rushed, while Steve and Barbara’s nefarious scheme is laid out in the very first scene, leading to a sort of Columbo situation in which the audience is always ahead of the main character. It’s also obviously a ‘B’ grade production, but well-directed by Quine, and with good use of locations throughout, which adds immensely to the realism.

The performances are uniformally good, too, and the characters well-drawn. Mickey Rooney gives a sensitive, low-key portrayal of an interesting character - even as Eddie is drawn into crime, Rooney makes the guy such a likeable dope that you’re totally on his side. Dianne Foster is good as the duplicitous Barbara, especially when she begins to harbour doubts about what she is doing to Eddie. Kevin McCarthy is also excellent as the charming Steve, disarmingly friendly to McCarthy in a recent pic with Anthony and Stella Hopkinsthe nervous Eddie until he finally reveals his true cold, callous nature. To go slightly off-topic, I’m immensely fond of McCarthy - Innerspace was one of my favourite movies as a kid and remains tremendous fun, while the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a genuine classic. Hopefully we’ll get a new special edition DVD while McCarthy and co-star Dana Wynter are still around to contribute. At the age of 93, McCarthy is still busy working in movies today.

I often find that small-scale little noirs like this - not great, but not bad - either click with me straight away or not at all. Drive a Crooked Road drew me in and is one I know I’ll watch again sometime. It’s a Columbia picture, pretty much unknown, and not that likely to show up on DVD. A pity.

Saigon (1948) June 25, 2007

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The fourth and final 1940s Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake outing is easily the most obscure of the quartet. After the tough, memorable noirs This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, Saigon trails a way behind: a minor, lazily-plotted, oriental crime caper. It’s still solid entertainment, better than IMDB would have you believe, due in large part to the central duo.

Ladd & Lake in a promo shot for the film

When Major Larry Briggs (Ladd), stationed in Shanghai after the war, discovers that an old army pal is slowly dying from a war injury, he gets together with a third member of his former bomber crew to plan a final vacation. To finance the trip, the trio take on a lucrative job flying the mysterious Mr Maris (Morris Carnovsky) and his secretary Susan (Veronica Lake) to Saigon. Ambushed by police at the last minute, Briggs is forced to leave Maris behind to an uncertain fate, over Susan’s vocal protests. Their ageing plane gives out en route and after an emergency landing, the ex-GIs and their feisty charge make their way on foot to Saigon, attracting the attention of a calculating local policeman (Luther Adler) along the way. Will he discover the mountain of dirty money Susan is carrying for her boss? Will Susan eventually fall for Larry? Will Mr Maris show up unexpectedly in the last reel? Well, duh. Rocket science this ain’t.

Mr Maris and his stone-faced henchman

Saigon works despite its faults. The story is fairly predictable, and suffers from T2 syndrome (a lethargic middle act), but it’s glossy and well-produced; the glitzy, expansive set for the hotel in Saigon is particularly well-realized. Like the similarly studio-bound ‘exotic’ caper Macao, the stars are largely responsible for the fun. Ladd and Lake don’t have the overwhelming charm and sparkling interplay of Mitchum and Russell, but they click just the same. Ladd, a slightly built actor I often have trouble buying as a tough guy, delivers a solid performance here. Lake, not yet 30, but already creeping towards the end of her troubled career as a leading lady, plays suitably hard-to-get as the petulant ice-maiden, always perfectly made-up and dressed in a variety of flattering outfits, most notably the stunning, figure-hugging evening gown she dons for the last act.

Of the supporting cast, Morris Carnovsky makes for a smooth bad guy, and Luther Adler is quite excellent as the suspicious but ultimately honourable policeman Lt. Keon. Much of the pleasure, though, is in watching Ladd and Lake together for the final time, and even the film’s downbeat final scene feels strangely appropriate as a low-key farewell for the screen couple.

Although all four of the Ladd-Lake pictures were made at Paramount, Saigon is the only one that remains under their control, the earlier films now belonging to Universal along with almost all other pre-1948 Paramount films. Surprise, surprise, Saigon remains the only one not available on DVD (all of the other three are out from Universal in R2; This Gun for Hire in R1 as well). As is so often my plea at the end of a piece like this, hopefully that oversight will be rectified sometime soon.

The Sleeping City (1950) April 23, 2007

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I hate watching a bad copy of a film. In the murky world of film noir, it’s sometimes unavoidable, but whether they’re dirty, grainy, fuzzy or have a soundtrack that could have been soaked in acid for all the clarity it possesses, the dodgy copies tend to sink right to the bottom of my unwatched pile. A little hiss in the audio and some video buzz to the picture I can just about tolerate, though, and in this case I’m glad I did: The Sleeping City turned out to be something of a minor gem.

Bellevue Hospital, New York. The story opens with a wonderfully atmospheric noir sequence: a depressed, burned-out young doctor strolls out to the deserted waterfront for a cigarette. Without warning he is shot dead in cold blood by persons unknown. With no leads in the case, but suspecting a connection to the victim’s job, the Chief Inspector assigns Detective Rowan (Richard Conte) to go undercover at the hospital posing as a new intern. Slowly earning the confidence of the hospital staff, Rowan also finds himself beginning to fall for Ann Sebastian (Coleen Gray), former girlfriend of the murder victim. When a second intern turns up dead, and the finger of suspicion points to Rowan himself, his investigation becomes a race against time to uncover the conspiracy behind both deaths.

The Sleeping City isn’t without its faults: 40 year-old Richard Conte does look a little old to pose as a fresh-faced young doctor, there’s a snooze-inducing prologue in which Conte reassures the viewer that nothing so fiendish could ever really happen in our fine hospitals, and the story pacing is a mess. Once Conte is set up undercover at Bellevue, he spends a good half hour getting used to his job, making friends, and uncovering … nothing. Only in the third act does the mystery plot take a nice twist and start moving at breakneck speed. I don’t have any complaints however: even during the slack second act, the film is never dull. Filmed on in and around Bellevue, it’s fascinating to watch what amounts to a time capsule of hospital life in 1950.

Bolstered by the semi-documentary style, but without the ponderous narration that so often accompanies such noirs, The Sleeping City emerges as perhaps closest in tone to Dassin’s The Naked City. An atmospheric, engrossing little medical thriller, it comes highly recommended from these quarters. It’s just a shame that Universal’s film noir DVD line is dead in the water; had they continued the releases over the past couple of years, second or third tier titles such as this may well have been released by now. It deserves to be cleaned up and made available to a wider audience, ideally with some contribution from lead actress Coleen Gray. The 84 year-old is perhaps the most enthusiastic among the dwindling ranks of surviving noir stars, having made numerous appearances at film noir festivals with author Eddie Muller. She would no doubt be willing to contribute to a DVD release if asked. Here’s hoping Universal get around to it sooner rather than later.

I Walk Alone (1948) February 12, 2007

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Over the course of their careers, off-screen pals Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster made several movies together, ending with the septuagenarian stars playing old-time gangsters adjusting to modern-day life in Tough Guys. Almost 40 years earlier, the pair starred together for the first time, also as gangsters, in little-seen film noir I Walk Alone.

Under the direction of Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, Too Late for Tears), Lancaster headlines as ex-con Frankie Madison, released from prison after serving 14 years for bootlegging during prohibition times. His ex-partner in crime, the ruthless ’Dink’ Turner (Douglas), has transformed their business into a respectable, top-flight supper club, and has no plans to honour the 50/50 gentleman’s agreement he made with Madison 14 years earlier. As Madison attempts, with increasing anger, to obtain his ‘fair share’ of Dink’s empire, he comes to realise just how much things have changed. Now a respected man of society, Dink’s money is locked up in corporations and trusts. Frankie (anticipating Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank) is a single-minded criminal, for whom big business has no meaning - all he wants is the money he’s entitled to, and now. Also thrown into the mix are the sultry Lizabeth Scott as Dink’s on/off girlfriend who falls for Frankie, and Wendell Corey as the guilt-ridden accountant who betrayed Frankie’s friendship by getting him to sign away his claim to the money.

It’s unfortunate that I Walk Alone is so obscure; it’s really an excellent noir drama, with an interesting slant (old-time criminal finds himself lost in the post-war business world). It does degenerate into predictable theatrics in the last act, but otherwise there’s much to enjoy, not least the inaugral screen pairing of Douglas and Lancaster. Having such a magnetic duo bouncing off each other in the lead roles heightens the drama immensely.

I Walk Alone was screened in a brand new print at Noir City 5 in San Francisco only last week, and good DVDR copies are thankfully fairly easy to come by. Given that it’s a Paramount movie, though, who knows when we might see an official DVD release.

Pushover (1954) January 23, 2007

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An ambitious and easily manipulated cop; a seductive young femme fatale; a bank robbery; a suitcase full of money; murder. Sound like a familiar bag of tricks? By 1954, all the noir trademarks were well-established, even if it wasn’t yet termed film noir. Pushover blends all of the above elements into a derivative but entertaining picture; with Fred MacMurray in the lead, it plays like a sort of Double Indemnity-lite.

Opening with a dialogue-free bank robbery in which a cop is shot dead, the film then segues without explanation into a self-consciously smooth sequence in which MacMurray and Novak meet cute and trade innuendo-laden lines before ending up at his place. The connection is soon made clear: MacMurray’s interest in Novak is (at least partly) professional. He’s a cop investigating the bank robbery, and Novak is the on/off girlfriend of the chief suspect. Hopeful that he’ll slip up and contact her, MacMurray’s Lieutenant (E.G. Marshall) assigns the investigating team to stake out Novak’s apartment.

Fred & Kim

There’s just one small problem with this plan: MacMurray and Novak swiftly fall for each other. Blinded by the thought of making off with the girl and the bank robbery loot, MacMurray hatches a scheme to take care of Novak’s criminal boyfriend on the QT and discover where he’s stashed the money. As events begin to slip away from him, however, he has to think on his feet as he clutches desperately at his dream of love and money …

As mentioned at the outset, the plot isn’t terribly original, but it’s craftily put together for maximum tension (almost all of the action takes place in and around the confines of Novak’s apartment building), and creates sympathy for MacMurray’s character that lingers even as his actions become more and more irredeemable. It also deserves credit for following the story through to its logical ending, with no pulled punches. “I guess we didn’t need the money after all,” MacMurray muses regretfully.

The noir look is pleasingly strong throughout, with MacMurray in particular frequently draped in shadows as he chain smokes his way from one crisis to the next. Fred, playing a smarter guy than Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff, if no less greedy, makes a solid lead (and I only counted one use of ”baby” ;-) ). Novak, in her debut, gives a stiff performance, but she’s so gorgeous that’s it’s a decent enough trade-off.

Pushover, as a Columbia picture now owned by Sony, is unsurprisingly unavailable on DVD. Perhaps the best chance for a release is here in the UK, where Sony has recently shown a *slight* interest in noir, releasing Tight Spot and Affair in Trinidad in recent months.

The poor man’s Bogart … January 15, 2007

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On the one hand, his screen persona was tough, taciturn, no-nonsense; on the other, he was wooden, his performances frequently one-note and unchanging. Despite that, I have to admit to being an unashamed George Raft fan. For me, he’s a convincing tough guy partly because of his lack of range; there isn’t a lot of emotional depth on display, but it helps to give him a certain air of menace, even with his oversized suits and slight build.

After his fall from top-tier pictures in the 1940s, Raft starred in a whole gang of crime and mystery pictures, most of which would now be loosely bundled under the film noir umbrella. They’re relatively minor pictures, forgotten and unreleased on DVD, but surprisingly (at least to me), many of them are actually quite good. Granted, there’s the odd stinker like A Dangerous Profession, a desperately dull tale of murder with Raft and Pat O’Brien as bail bondsmen, that not even the ever-radiant Ella Raines can save.

By and large, though, Raft made some thoroughly entertaining movies after his peak: Nocturne and Johnny Angel are two obscure yet excellent noirs, deserving of a wider audience, along with the solid Rogue Cop. Johnny Allegro and Intrigue are fun crime pictures, and better than you might think. In the past week I managed to catch up with another couple and once again found myself pleasantly surprised.

Loan Shark isn’t going to change your life; it’s perhaps the very definition of ‘routine crime drama’, but Raft’s presence brings it up a level, while Paul Stewart as the bad guy is an added bonus. Better yet is Red Light which, despite some grating religious overtones, gives Raft one of his best roles of later years. As a grieving businessman hunting down his brother’s killer, he actually gives a decent performance, and is aided by strong noir cinematography and a stellar supporting cast of Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart and Raymond Burr at his slimiest. Not available on home video in any format, and only surfacing recently in a decent bootleg copy, Red Light isn’t exactly a forgotten classic, but it’s a minor gem worth seeking out.

All of which leaves me with just a few Raft noirs still to check off my list. A Bullet for Joey, Whistle Stop and Race Street are on hand, but I’ll Get You For This is still MIA. But hey, where’s the fun in getting everything you want?

Impact (1949) September 18, 2006

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Below is a copy of a piece I’ve written for the Noir of the Week slot over at The Blackboard

Brian Donlevy is happily married San Francisco automobile mogul Walter Williams, Helen Walker his apparently devoted wife Irene. They live happily ever after. Oh, if only things were that simple …

There’s one slight problem: dear Irene is sick of her hubby. She schemes with her secret lover to have him bumped off during a long car journey, but the plan goes awry. Walter takes a tyre-iron to the head and tumbles into a ditch, but secret lover fella is panicked by a passing truck and gets himself killed in a car wreck while fleeing the scene. Walter, evidently possessed of a steel-plated skull, wakes up later with a headache and a little case of amnesia.

Stumbling upon a small Idaho town, Walter’s luck soon changes. He bumps into garage owner Marsha Peters (Ella Raines) who, impressed by Mr Amnesiac’s skills as an auto mechanic, offers him a job. Back in San Francisco, meanwhile, Charles Coburn’s crusty old detective Quincy is investigating that flaming wreck on the highway – and assumes that the body is that of Walter Williams.

With Walter and Marsha beginning to fall for each other, newspaper reports of his “death” jog Walter’s memory, as Det. Quincy’s continuing investigations lead him to suspect Irene of her husband’s murder. Will Walter extract revenge by letting her be convicted? Or will Marsha persuade him to do the right thing and return to San Francisco? For any first time viewers reading, I’ll leave you to find out – IMPACT has a few more twists left before the end …

OK, Impact is nobody’s idea of a classic, but it’s a highly enjoyable sort of diet-noir, with more than enough points of interest to warrant a look. The plot is an irresistibly outrageous series of coincidences, a melting pot of almost every noir staple you could want: a femme fatale, attempted murder, amnesia victim, police investigations, false accusations, reluctant witnesses. Then there’s the cast: Brian Donlevy is no Bogart, but he does a solid job in the lead; Helen Walker is in her element as the callous, duplicitous wife; a mischievous Charles Coburn is reliable support as the police detective; and of course there’s Ella Raines as the world’s cutest grease monkey - they sure don’t look like her at my local Kwik-Fit.

The film isn’t 100% noir: it doesn’t possess enough of the look, with too much of the action set away from the big city, in broad daylight. The ending is also atypically upbeat (not that I mind a happy ending once in a while). That said, the film has some nice location work in the City by the Bay, and boasts a few great noir sequences, notably the atmospheric murder attempt on Walter Williams while changing a flat tyre on a dark, deserted highway.

Impact is out there on a decent quality DVD from Image. I wouldn’t try and claim it as a knockout noir, but for an engaging diversion you could do far worse.

But hold on a moment - where’s the obligatory Ella Raines photo? Fear not. As if I’d forget …

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