The Crooked Web

Released Nov. 30, 1955: THE CROOKED WEB, starring Frank Lovejoy, Mari Blanchard, and Richard Denning. Directed by Nathan Juran (Highway Dragnet, The Deadly Mantis, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). Frank Lovejoy owns a diner and is sweet on one of his car-hops (Mari Blanchard). One day, her brother (Richard Denning) TheCrookedWebarrives unexpectedly and drops hints about an illicit deal in Europe he’s involved in that will score a huge amount of money. Lovejoy, who is attracted by any money-making scheme that doesn’t involve work, becomes interested and wants in, especially since Blanchard has made it clear she won’t even consider marrying him unless he can provide for her in style. But all is not as it seems. Unbeknownst to Lovejoy, Denning and Blanchard are not brother and sister, but are actually lovers engaged to be married, and are part of an elaborate plot to bring Lovejoy to justice for a murder he committed in Germany shortly after WWII. The plot is sponsored by the murder victim’s father and involves the German police and other authorities. The goal is to entice Lovejoy to come to Germany and present enough evidence to arrest him for the murder. It’s a promising setup, but unfortunately, the story deteriorates rapidly from there. Once in Germany, the trio embarks on a staged adventure to acquire valuable artifacts that were supposedly stolen and buried during the war. They are forced to keep changing their approach due to various obstacles and delays, some of which are intentionally prearranged. But it’s not always clear which obstacles are planned and which are spontaneous, making the logic of the story difficult to follow. What’s worse, it’s never explained how this convoluted quest for fake stolen artifacts will help bring Lovejoy to justice for murder, so the last half of the film becomes an aimless mess of contrived circumstances with very little holding them together, all of which results in a rather anti-climactic ending. This second-rate B-noir has a decent enough cast and an interesting premise, but is ultimately torpedoed by an ill-conceived and poorly executed story. We give The Crooked Web 1.5 out 5 fedoras.

1.5 Fedoras

The Gangster

Released Nov. 25, 1947: THE GANGSTER, starring Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, and Akim Tamiroff. Directed by Gordon Wiles (Lady from Nowhere, Women of Glamour, Prison Train). The story opens with a cynical voice over by Barry Sullivan, explaining how he fought his way up from the gutters to become a successful and powerful gangster who makes his money off the “broken down mutt” business owners along the beach boardwalk. TheGangster

The voice over and visuals set the stage for what appears to be a typical gangster story, but what follows is a very different kind of movie. The Gangster turns out to be an arty character study about a brooding, unemotional, and ultimately lonely, thug. One part of the story concerns Sullivan’s tenuous relationship with his girlfriend (Belita), and the other is about a rival gangster (Sheldon Leonard) moving in to take over Sullivan’s territory, but the plot lines are almost secondary to Sullivan’s inner experience. There’s almost no violence or gun play, we never see Sullivan strong-arm anyone, nor do we get to see his vast operation or “crew”. Sullivan spends most scenes scowling in silence, and when he does have an outburst, it’s usually to reiterate his story about rising up from the gutters and how everyone around him are chumps. His climactic meeting with Leonard is one of the oddest encounters between rival gangsters on film. There’s a lot of talk, not all of it making sense, halfway through Leonard seems to capitulate for no apparent reason, and they finally reach a kind of vague understanding. This film shrugs off many of the typical conventions of 1940s cinema and ends up feeling a little ahead of its time. Stylistically, it could easily have been made in the mid-1950s. The sets are artful, geometric, and deliberately appointed, which is not surprising, considering director Gordon Wiles spent much of his career as an art director, and the cinematography is quite striking, mixing a variety of visual styles, from brightly lit interiors, to dark gritty rain-drenched streets, to surreal shadowy compositions. The cast does a fine job with the material. Sullivan certainly looks the part and is convincing in his role, and it’s interesting to see him become a sad puppy dog-like character whenever he’s trying to woo Belita. Akim Tamiroff, who plays Sullivan’s nervous business partner, provides much needed energy and charisma to the story. Belita delivers her lines in a refreshingly natural and sincere manner, almost as if they were on-the-spot improvs, which again, makes this film feel more like a product of the 1950s rather than the 40s. A special treat for movie fans is a small uncredited speaking part by a young Shelley Winters in the role of a cashier. It’s difficult to evaluate a film like The Gangster. The fact that it’s not a cookie-cutter gangster story is both its strength and it’s weakness. If you approach it expecting a by-the-book noir gangster film, you may be disappointed, if not a little confused, by the odd pacing, brooding aura, and talky nature of the film. But if you leave your expectations at the door, you may be pleasantly surprised by a bold and curious gem of a movie. We give The Gangster 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

Howard Duff

Happy birthday to actor HowardDuffHoward Duff, born Nov. 24, 1913 in Bremerton, WA. Duff began acting in high school and went on to be part of the Repertory Playhouse in Seattle until joining the Army Air Corps during WWII, where he worked as an announcer for the Armed Forces Radio Service. When the war was over, Duff landed the role of Sam Spade in the radio show The Adventures of Sam Spade, which ran from 1946 to 1950. Duff’s first movie role was in the noir classic Brute Force (1947) with Burt Lancaster. He appeared in about two dozen movies throughout the 1940s and 50s, including several more noir films: The Naked City (1948), All My Sons (1948), Illegal Entry (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), and Shakedown (1950). In 1950, Duff appeared together with Ida Lupino in the film noir Woman in Hiding. In 1951, they were married and would appear together in three more noirs: Jennifer (1953), Private Hell 36 (1954), and Women’s Prison (1955). Duff successfully transitioned to television in the late 1950s, including co-starring with Lupino in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve (1957-58). Duff and Lupino eventually separated in 1966 and were divorced in 1984. Duff had an active television career along with occasional parts in movies up until his death in 1990. One of his more memorable film roles was as Dustin Hoffman’s attorney in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Duff died of a heart attack in 1990 at age 76.

The Verdict

Released Nov. 23, 1946: THE VERDICT, starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Joan Lorring. Directed by Don Siegel (The Big Steal, Crime in the Streets, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Greenstreet is a veteran London police detective who is dismissed from the force when he mistakenly sends an innocent man to the gallows. TheVerdictGreenstreet’s friend, who was related to the murder victim in the failed case, is subsequently found murdered in his bedroom, which was locked from the inside with no evidence of entry or exit. These mysterious circumstances are ultimately too baffling for the police to solve, so Greenstreet is called in to help. What unfolds is a fairly run-of-the-mill Victorian-era mystery that’s made special by the delightful presence of Greenstreet and Lorre. The mystery itself is not a bad one, but the level of intrigue and suspense in the story never quite manages to rise above a mild simmer. What makes this film worth watching, however, is the mystery’s unexpected resolution, and the performances by Greenstreet and Lorre, who are at the top of their game. Lorre in particular, is a joy to watch. His character is a carefree but introspective playboy who wants nothing out of life but “wine, women, and song”. He has some of the best lines in the movie, and delivers them with an unmistakable comedic pathos that is uniquely his. Greenstreet moves through the film with an air of assured confidence and complete mastery, dominating every scene not just with his enormous physical presence, but with an innate sense of grace and charm. This was the pair’s sixth and final film together, and the special synergy they shared is clearly evident. The Verdict was also director Don Siegal’s debut feature. He of course, would go on to direct several more classic noir films, and continue his legendary career into the 1960s and 70s. For fans of polite Victorian mysteries, The Verdict is definitely worthwhile viewing. For those who like their noirs gritty and hard-hitting, this film probably won’t scratch the itch. But either way, it’s worth a look just to see Greenstreet and Lorre at their finest. We give The Verdict 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

3.5 Fedoras

The Letter

Premiered Nov. 22, 1940: THE LETTER, starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler (Detective Story, The Best Years of our Lives, The Desperate Hours). The Letter opens on a balmy night on a Malaysian rubber plantation. The peaceful silence is disrupted by a gunshot and a man bursting out of a plantation house, stumbling onto the front porch. TheLetterHe is followed by a relentless Bette Davis who coldly empties all chambers of a revolver into him, then drops the gun. Impeccably crafted by director William Wyler, this is one of Hollywood’s great opening scenes. Wyler brilliantly avoids belaboring or glorifying the violence, heightening the visceral impact through rapid, and almost casual, execution. While we’re still trying to comprehend what just happened, the film simply moves on. It’s an unexpected and arresting scene that lingers in your mind throughout the movie. In the ensuing investigation, Davis claims she shot the man in self-defense, and since all available evidence supports her story, it seems her acquittal is a foregone conclusion. But a mysterious woman surfaces, threatening to reveal a letter written by Davis that clearly indicates Davis planned to kill the man, who it turns out, was her secret lover. At this point, Davis’ true nature reveals itself as she resorts to manipulation and deception to obtain the letter and secure her freedom. This film belongs entirely to Davis, who delivers one of the finest performances of her career, starting out as a sympathetic victim only to unveil a character who is despicably selfish and deceitful. Wyler and Davis collaborated on two other superb films, Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but it can easily be argued that The Letter is their crowning achievement. It’s a film in which you will love to hate Davis’ character. We give The Letter 4.5 out of 5 fedoras.

4.5 Fedoras

Evelyn Keyes

Happy birthday to actress Evelyn Keyes, born Nov. 20, 1916 in Port Arthur, TX. Keyes took voice and dance lessons as a child, and by her late teens was working as a chorus girl. When she was 20, she moved to California where she was discovered by Cecil B. DeMille and signed to Paramount. Her film debut was in The Buccaneer (1938), EvelynKeyesthe first in a string of minor films in which she played small parts. In 1939, she landed the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s sister, Suellen, in Gone with the Wind, which elevated her status as an actress and enabled her to sign with Columbia, where she appeared in over two dozen films, including Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), The Jolson Story (1946), and The Seven Year Itch (1955). During this period she had top billing in seven classic noir films: Ladies in Retirement (1941), Johnny O’Clock (1947), The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) (aka Frightened City), The Prowler (1951), Iron Man (1951), 99 River Street (1953) (aka Crosstown), and Hell’s Half Acre (1954). Keyes officially retired from acting after making Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), but occasionally appeared on stage and television up until the late 1980s. Her last film role was in Wicked Stepmother (1989) with Bette Davis. After her first husband died in 1940, Keyes had several high-profile marriages. In 1943, she married director Charles Vidor, but divorced him two years later. In 1946, Keyes entered into a stormy marriage with director John Huston that generated plenty of fodder for the tabloids until their divorce in 1950. Seven years later, she married her final husband, bandleader Artie Shaw. She and Shaw stayed together until their separation in the 1970s, officially divorcing in 1985. Her last screen appearance was in a 1993 episode of Murder She Wrote. Keyes died of cancer in 2008 at age 91.

Clifton Webb

Happy birthday to actor CliftonWebbClifton Webb, born Nov. 19, 1889 in Indianapolis, IN. At age 16, Webb moved to New York with his mother, and by 19 was performing consistently on Broadway, appearing in nearly two dozen shows between 1913 and 1947. During the 1920s, Webb had small parts in a handful of films, but Broadway was his mainstay. Webb’s film career began in earnest in 1944, when he was cast in the role of the refined villain Waldo Lydecker, in the noir classic Laura. Darryl F. Zanuck was strongly opposed to having Webb in the role, but fortunately, director Otto Preminger was insistent and held his ground. The result was a  memorable performance by Webb, earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and a contract with Fox. Webb’s follow up to Laura was another classic noir, The Dark Corner (1945), with Lucille Ball and William Bendix. It would be Webb’s last appearance in a noir film, but the beginning of a successful and prolific Hollywood career that included over 20 films and three Oscar nominations. Among his notable roles, was the fussy Mr. Belevedere, who was featured in a series of three comedies: Sitting Pretty (1949), Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). Webb died of a heart attack in 1966 at age 76.

I Want to Live!

Released Nov. 18, 1958: I WANT TO LIVE!, starring Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, and Virginia Vincent. Directed by Robert Wise (The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Odds Against Tomorrow). This film tells the true story of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward), a hustler who inhabits the lower underbelly of society, conning marks, escorting men, writing bad checks, driving getaway cars, skipping parole, and generally doing whatever it takes to make a fast buck. She’s tough, she’s good at what she does, and she enjoys the lifestyle.IWantToLiveBut when Hayward and two accomplices get hauled in by the police, she suddenly finds herself charged with a murder she didn’t commit. At least that’s what we’re led to believe. The film never actually depicts the murder in question, leaving us in the dark about details, much like Hayward’s character in the film. Eventually, Hayward is convicted of the murder, all the while proclaiming her innocence, and is sentenced to death. Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film, and indeed, she gives it her all. There are moments when her passion borders on overwrought melodrama, but the sum total of her performance is heart-felt, spirited, and definitely memorable. Hayward alone is responsible for holding up one half of this movie, while director Robert Wise is responsible for the other. There are times when Wise’s fast-paced direction barely gives us a chance to catch our breath. The first 15 minutes of the film are like a whirlwind tour of the seedier side of life, as Wise has us hopping from jazz clubs, to sketchy poker games, to wild parties, to back room payoffs in a series of bite-sized scenes. When Hayward’s fate becomes more grim, Wise unrelentingly draws us into her world of confinement where we directly experience her frustrations, hopes for salvation, and crushing disappointments. The meticulous sequences of the gas chamber being prepared for her execution are brilliant and disquieting. No detail is spared as we’re given a close up view of a two-man crew working in silence, uncovering the chamber, preparing the cyanide pellets, connecting monitoring equipment, and testing the apparatus. It’s a cold and bleak series of images. The jazzy soundtrack by Johnny Mandel is another standout element of the film, complimenting the mood perfectly. Mandel would eventually go on to write the theme to M*A*S*H (1972). Some have cast doubts on the movie’s claim that it presents a factual story. Critics say Barbara Graham is portrayed much more sympathetically in the film than she actually was in real life. This may or may not be true, but either way, it doesn’t detract from the film’s powerful story or Hayward’s forceful performance. We give I Want to Live! 4 out 5 fedoras.

4 Fedoras

Rock Hudson

Happy birthday to actor Rock Hudson, born Nov. 17, 1925 in Winnetka, IL. Rock Hudson had a prolific and highly successful career as an actor, but film noir is certainly not what comes to mind when assessing his body of work, which is understandable, considering the vast majority of his starring roles were in romances, dramas, and romantic comedies. RockHudsonWhen we think of Hudson, we recall films like Magnificent Obsession (1954), Giant (1956), A Farewell to Arms (1957), Pillow Talk (1959), Send Me No Flowers (1964), and the television series McMillan & Wife (1971-77), among many others. But in the early stages of his career, before he emerged as a heart throb and leading man, Hudson had a few brief encounters with the delightfully dark cinema we call film noir. Hudson decided to pursue an acting career after a stint in the Navy during WWII. After more than a year of struggling and making no headway, he finally landed a small part in the film Fighter Squadron (1948). For the next five years, Hudson continued to have bit parts in over two dozen films, while Universal International groomed him to be a leading man. Among these, were three noir films: Undertow (1949), One Way Street (1950) uncredited, and Shakedown (1950) uncredited. In 1951, he received second-tier billing and a considerably larger role in the noir drama, Iron Man (1951), with Jeff Chandler and Evelyn Keyes. That would be Hudson’s last encounter with film noir. In 1954, he emerged as a bona fide leading man in Magnificent Obsession and never looked back. Hudson appeared in over 65 films and television shows until his death of AIDS-related complications in 1985 at age 59.

Barbara Payton

Happy birthday to actress Barbara Payton, born Nov. 16, 1927 in Cloquet, MN. Leaving high school without graduating, Payton married in 1944 and moved to Los Angeles with her husband. However, she wasn’t satisfied with the life of a housewife and decided to leverage her natural beauty into a modeling career. It didn’t take long for her to BarbaraPayton1start getting jobs as an advertising and clothing model, and she eventually signed with an agency in 1947. In 1949, she caught the attention of a Universal Studios executive, who signed Payton to a contract. Her first film role was in Silver Butte (1949), but it was her third film, the noir crime drama, Trapped (1949), with Lloyd Bridges, that got people to take notice of her. In 1950, she appeared opposite James Cagney in the noir thriller, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which launched her into stardom. Unfortunately, this would be the high point of her short-lived career. Payton was a heavy drinker and spent most of her nights living it up on the town, partying and having affairs with many prominent people in Hollywood. In 1950, she was engaged to actor Franchot Tone, but all the while, was having an affair with actor Tom Neal. At one point, in a fight over Payton, Neal attacked Tone and beat him into a coma. Tone ended up marrying Payton, but they were soon divorced after he discovered she was still seeing Neal. Payton and Neal tried to capitalize on all the press they received by starring together in a stage version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. But her wild lifestyle started to erode her abilities as an actress, resulting in lower quality roles in films such as Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Bad Blonde (1953), and Run for the Hills (1953). Payton and Neal also appeared together in the low-budget western, The Great Jessie James Raid (1953). There was one more noir film for Payton, the low-budget, Murder Is My Beat (1955), which would be her final film, until eight years later, when she got an uncredited bit part in the comedy-western, 4 for Texas (1963), with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the Three Stooges. By this time her life was a wreck. Years of alcohol and drug abuse had destroyed Payton’s good looks and her ability to lead a normal life. She was arrested multiple times for writing bad checks, public drunkenness, and prostitution. She slept on park benches, spent her days drinking, and turned tricks at night. Eventually, this punishing lifestyle took it’s toll, and Payton died of heart and liver failure in 1967 at age 39.