Released Oct. 31, 1941: I WAKE UP SCREAMING, starring Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, and Laird Cregar. Directed by Bruce Humberstone (Charlie Chan at the Opera, Tall, Dark and Handsome, Within These Walls). Mature is a New York sports promoter, who on a whim, decides to transform a beautiful coffee shop waitress (Carole Landis) into a hot new celebrity simply by introducing her to the right people and generating media exposure. His scheme is wildly successful and everything goes according to plan, until one day, Landis announces she’s abandoning Mature to pursue a film career in Hollywood. The next day, she’s found murdered in her apartment and Mature is the obvious suspect. He claims he’s innocent, and indeed, there’s no hard evidence to implicate him, but one detective (Laird Cregar) ignores all the facts and is convinced beyond any doubt that Mature is guilty. The film opens with Mature and the victim’s sister (Betty Grable) both being questioned by police in separate interrogation rooms. They each tell their story in flashbacks that are cleverly interwoven to create a continuous narrative of events leading up to Landis’ murder. Once the flashbacks catch up to the present, the story continues with Cregar relentlessly pursuing Mature, while everyone else looks elsewhere to find the killer. It’s a satisfying mystery that includes several unexpected plot twists. The performances by Mature, Grable, and Landis are top notch, but it’s Laird Cregar who steals the show. His controlled portrayal of the obsessive detective is disturbingly creepy in all the right ways. He moves through the film with an unflappable demeanor that is both unnerving and intriguing. It’s a memorable performance that will stay with you long after the film is over. This is an early noir, made when the noir style was still being forged. Most scenes are shot in a conventional manner, but when things get dark, they get really dark. Humberstone, who is not known as a noir director, uses darkness to great effect in several scenes, such as when Mature and another suspect (Alan Mowbray) are led into a pitch black room at the police station, or when Mature wakes up in the middle of the night to find Cregar sitting in darkness at the foot of his bed. Visually, this film feels like a bridge between old style 1930s Hollywood and the new developing noir sensibilities. We give I Wake Up Screaming 4 out of 5 fedoras.
Released Oct. 30, 1948: KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, starring Joan Fontaine, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Newton. Directed by Norman Foster (Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation, Journey Into Fear, Woman on the Run). Lancaster plays a former WWII soldier living a meager existence in post-war London. Scarred emotionally and psychologically from his experiences as a POW, he is a brooding loner with a hair-trigger temper. During a violent outburst, he accidentally kills the proprietor of a pub and subsequently breaks into Fontaine’s apartment to hide from the police. Fontaine tolerates his presence and doesn’t alert the police when the opportunity presents itself. Lancaster leaves the next day, but can’t forget her kind gesture. Eventually he seeks her out again, and after some persistence, they begin spending time together, but complications arise in the form of a shady criminal (Robert Newton) who witnessed Lancaster kill the pub owner and tries to use this as leverage. First off, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands has got to be one of the best titles of any classic noir film. However, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its evocative name. After the initial scene in which the pub owner is killed and Lancaster is chased through the streets, the film simmers down considerably. More than half the story is devoted to Lancaster trying to befriend Fontaine, which is fine, but it’s not what we’re setup to expect given the lurid title and thrilling opening sequence. The intensity ratchets up again in the last third of the movie, but just as things reach a fever pitch, the story hastily wraps up with a mild, lukewarm ending. But all is not lost. Strong performances are what save the day, which comes as no surprise given the talented cast. Lancaster’s character is menacing and intense, but he’s portrayed with a frail underlying vulnerability that makes him immediately sympathetic. Newton does a superb job creating the scariest type of villain – a disarmingly cordial everyman who will turn on you with vicious ferocity the minute you cross him. Fontaine shines as only she can; restrained, empathetic, with a heart of gold. This film also looks great. The dark foggy streets and heavy use of shadows and backlit silhouettes are stereotypically film noir, and they work perfectly here. Despite the uneven pacing, there’s enough progression in the story and characters to keep the viewer engaged. We give Kiss the Blood Off My Hands 3.5 out 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Geraldine Brooks, born Oct. 29, 1925 in New York, NY. Brooks had a long acting career that spanned four decades, but she only appeared in less than a dozen feature films. Fortunately for us, four of those features were noir films. Brooks started acting on Broadway in the early 1940s, and was brought to Hollywood by Warner Bros. in 1946. She made her film debut in the noir thriller Cry Wolf (1947) with Barbara Stanwyck and Errol Flynn, and followed with another noir, Possessed (1948), playing opposite Joan Crawford. Crawford, who had a reputation for being difficult to work with, took a liking to Brooks and the two became lifelong friends. After making two more films that didn’t garner much attention, Brooks asked to be released from her Warner Bros. contract and became a freelancer. In 1949, she was cast as Joan Bennett’s daughter in the noir film, The Reckless Moment, with James Mason, but acting opportunities were scarce, so Brooks traveled to Europe and made two films for Italian production companies. She returned to the US in 1951 and began working almost exclusively in television. However, before the decade ended, Brooks appeared in two final films, one of which was the noir classic The Green Glove (1952), starring opposite Glenn Ford. Brooks was active in television for the remainder of her career, appearing in dozens of series throughout the 1960s and 70s, and also returned to the stage in 1970. Together with her second husband, screenwriter Budd Schulberg (On The Waterfront), she opened a writers workshop for the underprivileged in Los Angeles, and also wrote poetry for children. Brooks had an older sister, actress Gloria Stroock, who also had a long career in television. Brooks died of cancer in 1977 at age 51. Joan Crawford spoke at her memorial service.
Released Oct. 28, 1949: BORDER INCIDENT, starring Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, and Howard Da Silva. Directed by Anthony Mann (Strange Impersonation, Desperate, The Naked Spur). Montalban and Murphy play Mexican and American immigration agents respectively, who go undercover to crack a corrupt ring of smugglers that shuttles illegal Mexican workers (braceros) into the US, then robs and murders them on their return trip home. This must’ve been an eye-opening film in 1949, but even today, it loses none of its intensity or relevance. The film starts with a dispassionate narrator, reminiscent of an old industrial documentary, dryly explaining the importance of Mexican immigrant labor in California’s Imperial Valley. Fortunately the lecture is brief, and soon we’re plunged head-first into a gritty, unforgiving world of corruption and human exploitation. Every scene oozes with atmosphere and energy. Collaborating with cinematographer John Alton, Mann creates a visual masterpiece using deep focus, low angles, stark closeups, and heavy shadows. The composition of shots in closed spaces often combines disturbingly near facial closeups along with background action in deep focus, creating subtly unsettling images. The cast includes many interesting faces, especially among the villains, and Mann makes the most of them with jarring closeups chiseled in deep shadows. The tractor scene near the end of the movie is one of the most terrifying sequences in any noir film, and is shot superbly to maximize the terror and anguish of the poor victim. Due to the Hays Code, no graphic violence or gore could be shown, but that just makes it all the more horrific as we’re left to imagine the most gruesome outcome. All of the cast members deliver immersive and believable performances. Montalban displays equal parts toughness, compassion, and intelligence. Murphy is perfect as the all-American hero type who is afraid of nothing. Howard Da Silva and Charles MacGraw make excellent, but very different, villains; one uses his intellect and wealth, the other, brute force and a gun. Both are equally dangerous. This is a beautifully shot and thoroughly absorbing movie, that despite it’s unconventional subject matter, is an excellent example of film noir. We give Border Incident 5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Teresa Wright, born Oct. 27, 1918 in Harlem, NY. Wright took an interest in acting while in high school, and after graduating in 1938, became an understudy in the Broadway production of Our Town. She went on to appear in the play Life With Father, where she was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn, who brought her to Hollywood and immediately put her in movies. Wright’s film career started spectacularly, earning Oscar nominations for her first three roles in Little Foxes (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Mrs. Miniver (1942), for which she won Best Supporting Actress. Next came the Hitchcock noir, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), playing opposite Joseph Cotten. Other notable films were The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950), starring opposite Marlon Brando in his film debut. After a falling out with Goldwyn and termination of her MGM contract, Wright continued appearing in films as an independent, but was never able to attain the same level of success as her earlier efforts. However, she consistently received critical acclaim for her performances. In the 1950s, she starred in three noir films: The Capture (1950), The Steel Trap (1952), and Count the Hours (1953). During this period, she also made many television appearances, earning two Emmy nominations, and in the 1960’s returned to the stage. Wright continued acting on stage and television through the 1990s, and occasionally appeared in movies. Her last film role was in The Rainmaker (1997). Wright died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 86.
Happy birthday to director Don Siegel, born Oct. 26, 1912 in Chicago, IL. Siegel began his film career in the 1930s as an editor and second unit director. In 1946, he made his debut directing features with the noir classic, The Verdict. He went on to direct nearly two dozen movies and television episodes in the 1940s and 50s, among them were seven more films noir: The Big Steal (1949), Count The Hours (1953), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Private Hell 36 (1954), Crime in the Streets (1956), Baby Face Nelson (1957), and The Lineup (1958). He also directed the original version of the sci-fi horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Siegel is probably best known to movie audiences for many of the notable films he directed in 1960s and 70s, including Flaming Star (1960) with Elvis Presley, The Killers (1964) with Lee Marvin, Charley Varrick (1973) with Walter Matthau, The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne, and five films with Clint Eastwood, including Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), and Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Eastwood credits Siegel for teaching him about film directing. Siegel died of cancer in 1991 at age 78.
Premiered Oct. 25, 1945: JOHNNY ANGEL, starring George Raft, Claire Trevor, and Signe Hasso. Directed by Edwin L. Marin (Invisible Agent, Nocturne, Lady Luck). Raft plays a sea captain who encounters his father’s ship adrift at sea. He goes aboard to investigate and discovers signs of a violent struggle and the entire crew missing. After coming home to port in New Orleans, Raft takes it upon himself to find out what happened to his father, and proceeds to run around town in his sea captain’s uniform behaving like a belligerent bully in pursuit of answers. The initial premise is great, but things go downhill quickly. The biggest problem is Raft’s stiff-as-a-board performance. His rigid tough guy delivery worked in gangster films, but a “good guy” role requires more range, and Raft simply doesn’t deliver. However, he’s not solely to blame. The script drags the story through several unnecessary scenes with meandering dialog that do nothing to advance the story. In fact, the bulk of the mystery is revealed all at once in a single expository monologue by Signe Hasso about half-way through the film, and quite honestly, this information could’ve been disclosed much sooner, and in a more interesting manner. Ultimately, the underlying mystery is simply not deep enough to warrant a full 80 minute movie, so a number of scenes end up feeling like filler, which means we’re treated to far more of Raft’s uninspired performance than is necessary. On a positive note, some great supporting performances provide much-needed bright spots in the film. Hoagy Carmichael, as a laconic cab driver who always happens to be in the right place at the right time, is a joy to watch, and Marvin Miller, as Raft’s boss, “Gusty”, is delightfully petulant as a bloated man-boy who can’t handle his streetwise wife (Claire Trevor). With a different lead actor and some smart editing, this could’ve been a respectable mystery, but unfortunately, we must give Johnny Angel only 1.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Released Oct. 24, 1951: DETECTIVE STORY, starring Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, and William Bendix. Directed by William Wyler (The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Desperate Hours). The setting is the squad room of the 21st precinct in New York, which is inhabited by detectives, criminals, lawyers, beat cops, and average citizens all thrown together in a melting pot of human drama and tragedy. At the center of this whirlpool is detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas), who takes an especially hard line with criminals, and as we come to learn, with his personal life as well. Douglas’ story forms the main thread of the film, but there are several side plots with a host of interesting characters interwoven throughout. There’s never a dull moment at the precinct. Detective Story is a an adaptation of a Broadway play, and at times its stage roots are evident, but for the most part, Wyler does a great job making it feel very movie-like. He’s aided by a great script, an absorbing emotional story, and a superb ensemble cast. Lee Grant, in her film debut, is particularly endearing as a woman arrested for the first time for a minor offense. She becomes the story’s audience surrogate, observing and reacting to the goings on in the precinct. This film also gives us an opportunity to catch early glimpses of several character actors who would become familiar faces to television audiences in the following decades (Joseph Wiseman, Gerald Mohr, Michael Strong, Bert Freed, and Burt Mustin). We give Detective Story 4.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Coleen Gray, born Oct. 23, 1922 in Staplehurst, NE. After studying drama at Hamline University in Minnesota, Gray came to California and was signed to 20th Century Fox in 1944. She had an active film career, appearing in over two dozen films throughout the late 1940s and 50s. During this period, she appeared in several significant noir films: Nightmare Alley (1947), Kiss Of Death (1947), The Sleeping City (1950), Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Killing (1956), and Death of a Scoundrel (1956). In the 1950s, Gray also made frequent guest appearances on various television series, and by the 1960s, her roles were almost exclusively limited to television, including recurring parts in soap operas Days of Our Lives and Bright Promise. She retired from acting in the mid-1980s. Gray died of natural causes August 3, 2015 at the age of 92.
Happy birthday to actress Joan Fontaine, born Oct. 22, 1917 in Tokyo, Japan. She is the younger sister of actress Olivia da Havilland. Born to English parents, Fontaine moved from Japan to California as a child, and following in her sister’s footsteps, started performing on stage in 1935. That same year, she appeared in her first film, No More Ladies, and continued to have roles in mediocre films throughout the 1930s. In 1940, she broke through to stardom when she was cast in Hitchcock’s noir classic, Rebecca, for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination. The following year, Fontaine won the Oscar for her role in another noir masterpiece by Hitchcock, Suspicion (1941), playing opposite Cary Grant. Her film career thrived throughout the 1940s and early 50’s, and among her many films were several more noir outings: Ivy (1947), Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), Born to Be Bad (1950), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). By the mid-1950s, she started transitioning to television and stage productions, and continued to appear in both until her retirement in 1994. Though she and her sister Olivia were seen together at social functions, incidents of personal friction and rivalry were reported throughout their careers. After their mother died in 1975, they reportedly never spoke to one another again. Fontaine died of natural causes in 2013 at the age of 96.