Happy birthday to actress Joanne Dru, born Jan. 31, 1922 in Logan, WV. When she was 18, Dru moved to New York where she worked as a model and appeared in Al Jolson’s 1940 Broadway show, Hold On to Your Hats. In 1941, she married singer Dick Haymes and the couple moved to Hollywood, where Dru worked in theater. She made her film debut in Abie’s Irish Rose (1946) but didn’t get noticed until she was cast in the westerns, Red River (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), both with John Wayne. Her success in these two films resulted in Dru being typecast for westerns for much of her career. However, she did appear in dramas and comedies as well, such as in Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951) with Clifton Webb, The Pride of St. Louis (1952) with Dan Daily, My Pal Gus (1952) with Richard Widmark, and 3 Ring Circus (1954) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Dru also appeared in three noir films, All the King’s Men (1949) with Broderick Crawford and second husband John Ireland, 711 Ocean Drive (1950) with Edmond O’Brien, and Forbidden (1953) with Tony Curtis. As westerns became less popular in the late 1950s, Dru started to work mostly in television, making guest appearances on many shows throughout the 1960s, and sporadically in the 1970s. Dru died of complications from lymphedema in 1996 at age 74.
Happy birthday to actor Victor Mature, born Jan. 29, 1916 in Louisville, KY. After finishing school and working odd jobs in Kentucky, Mature moved to California to study acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Eventually, he landed a small film role in The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939), and then got his first lead, as a caveman, in One Million B.C. (1940) with Carole Landis. Prior to enlisting in the Coast Guard during the war, Mature appeared in several more films, including two noirs: I Wake Up Screaming (1941) with Betty Grable and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) with Gene Tierney. After the war, Mature resumed his acting career and became a popular leading man across several genres, including westerns, crime dramas, and comedies. He also appeared in several Biblical epics: Samson and Delilah (1949) with Jean Simmons and Gene Tierney, Androcles and the Lion (1952) with Jean Simmons, The Robe (1953) with Richard Burton, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) with Susan Hayward, and The Egyptian (1954) with Jean Simmons and Gene Tierney. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Mature had top billing in several notable noir films: Moss Rose (1947) with Peggy Cummins, Kiss of Death (1947) with Brian Donlevy, Cry of the City (1948) with Richard Conte, Gambling House (1950) with William Bendix, and The Las Vegas Story (1952) with Jane Russell. Mature retired from acting in 1961, but made a comeback in 1966, playing a parody of himself in the Neil Simon comedy, After the Fox with Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland. He also appeared as “The Big Victor” in the Monkees’ psychedelic film, Head (1968). Mature made a handful of film appearances in the 1970s, but preferred to spend his time playing golf. He was known to be self-effacing about his acting abilities, and was once quoted as saying, “I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics.” Mature died of leukemia in 1999 at age 86.
Released Jan. 28, 1944: PHANTOM LADY, starring Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, and Alan Curtis. Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Dark Mirror, Criss Cross, The File on Thelma Jordan). Alan Curtis finds himself alone in a New York bar with two tickets to a show, but no date. The only other customer in the bar is a well-dressed woman (Fay Helm) wearing an unusual hat. Curtis tries to make conversation with her, but she is no mood to speak. However, Curtis eventually convinces her to accompany him to the show, no strings attached. At the end of the evening, Curtis parts with the woman, never learning her name, and comes home to find his wife strangled and three police detectives (Thomas Gomez, Regis Toomey, and Joseph Crehan) waiting for him. Curtis’ only alibi for the evening is the mysterious woman. Unfortunately, none of the people who saw them together – the bartender (Andrew Tombes), cab driver (Matt McHugh), drummer in the show (Elisha Cook Jr.), star of the show (Aurora Miranda) – remember seeing the woman. With no material alibi, Curtis is easily convicted and sentenced to be hanged. His secretary (Ella Raines), who is secretly in love with him, is convinced he was framed and decides to find the mysterious woman and expose the truth. This is a low budget noir but Siodmak succeeds in rising above many of the production limitations through first-rate cinematography. The sequence where Raines follows Tombes through the streets at night is beautifully shot, making the most of what black and white cinematography has to offer, and is full of iconic noir imagery in almost every frame. Another exquisitely shot scene is Raines’ visit to Curtis in prison, which is an excellent example of how minimal elements: a barred window, streaming light, metal railing, and lots of darkness, can convey so much. Raines is the star of the show here. Once Curtis is convicted, it becomes her story, and she does an admirable job of taking the helm. Tone however, plays it a little too over the top – overtly obsessing over his hands and contorting his face whenever his brain experiences a short circuit. He is certainly creepy enough, but his portrayal of a demented murderer is more akin to a silent movie villain than a modern tortured soul of noir. One of our favorite character actors, Elisha Cook Jr., delivers a memorable and entertaining performance as a drummer who seems to have an endless supply of unbridled energy. Gomez deserves mention as the police detective who assists Raines. Unlike the typical portrayal of detectives in 1940s films, he is an understanding and sympathetic character, making him the perfect anchor for Raines and a counterbalance to Tone’s bizarre portrayal. Phantom Lady is very obviously a low-budget noir, but it is saved by an interesting story, creative cinematography, and a great supporting cast. If you can overlook some awkward dialog scenes and the occasional threadbare production values, you’ll find this to be a very good noir film. We give Phantom Lady 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actress Joan Leslie, born Jan. 26, 1925 in Detroit, MI. In the mid-1930s, Leslie, born Joan Brodel, and her two older sisters, Betty and Mary, toured the vaudeville circuit as The Three Brodels to help support their family during the Great Depression. In 1936, Joan signed with MGM and made her film debut in Camille (1936), but her dialog scenes were cut and the studio eventually let her go because they couldn’t find enough suitable roles, so she went back to her family in New York and worked as a model and in radio. When her sister Mary got a contract with Universal in the late 1930s, the family moved to Hollywood where Joan was able to work as a freelance actress, getting small parts in a handful of films. In 1941, she signed with Warner Bros. and changed her name to Joan Leslie because it was felt Joan Brodel was too similar to Joan Blondel. That same year, she got her big break in the film noir blockbuster High Sierra (1941) with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, as well as appearing opposite Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941), which received 11 Oscar nominations. As a rising star, she appeared in films such as, The Male Animal (1942) with Olivia de Havilland, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney, The Hard Way (1943) with Ida Lupino, The Sky’s the Limit (1943) with Fred Astaire, and Rhapsody in Blue (1945) with Robert Alda. But by the mid-1940s, Leslie wanted more serious and mature roles, which she wasn’t getting due to her young age and wholesome image, so she left Warners. Moving to Eagle-Lion and then RKO, Leslie expanded her range appearing in films like Northwest Stampede (1948) with James Craig and Hellgate (1952) with Sterling Hayden. She also appeared in two noir films, Repeat Performance (1947) with Louis Hayward and Born to be Bad (1950) with Mel Ferrer and Joan Fontaine. In the mid-1950s, Leslie turned her energies to raising her twin daughters, and only made occasional appearances on television for the remainder of her career. Her last role was in the TV movie Fire in the Dark (1991). She spent her later years designing clothes and performing charity work. Leslie died on October 12, 2015 at age 90.
Premiered Jan. 25, 1951: THE ENFORCER, starring Humphrey Bogart, Zero Mostel, and Ted de Corsia. Directed by Bretaigne Windust (Winter Meeting, Perfect Strangers, Pretty Baby) and Raoul Walsh (uncredited) (They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Man I Love). Humphrey Bogart is a district attorney who is about to put the crime boss of Murder Inc. (Everett Sloane) on trial. His key witness is Sloane’s number two man (Ted de Corsia) who, on the eve of the trial, gets cold feet because he believes that even though Sloane is behind bars, he can still order a hit on him. Overcome with anxiety, de Corsia manages to escape police protection, but dies in the process. Left without any witnesses who can finger Sloane, Bogart and his police captain (Roy Roberts) decide to sift through all the testimony they’ve gathered in the hopes of finding a shred of incriminating evidence they might’ve previously overlooked. At this point, the film slips into flashback as it traces the case from its initial developments. As various key characters are introduced, the film uses the seldom-seen storytelling technique of a flashback within a flashback to move the plot along efficiently and effectively. The film gradually delves deeper into the malevolent inner workings of Murder Inc., a criminal organization whose only purpose is to earn money by committing killings for hire. Terms like “contract” and “hit” have become commonplace in reference to organized crime activity, but when The Enforcer was made, they were just starting to be introduced into the American lexicon, as is evidenced in the film. When Bogart encounters these terms early in his investigation, he doesn’t understand their meaning until later, when he learns they are code used by Murder Inc. Bogart delivers a strong performance as the DA, and this being a Hollywood film, the DA character does more than sit behind a desk and argue cases in court. Bogart’s DA is very hands-on and leads the charge in every phase of the investigation, including delivering a stiff right cross when necessary. The supporting cast give first-rate performances that are convincing and memorable, particularly de Corsia, Zero Mostel, and Sloane, who only appears twice in the film, but makes a powerful impression as the heartless criminal boss. This is a taught crime noir with a fascinating, fast-moving plot, bolstered by Bogart’s star power and an excellent cast. We give The Enforcer 4.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actor DeForest Kelley, born Jan. 20, 1920 in Atlanta, GA. Kelley’s first brush with show business was singing in his father’s church in the early 1930s, which eventually led to a singing engagement with Lew Forbes and his Orchestra. But he soon gave up performing to go to school. During WWII, Kelley was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the armed forces responsible for creating training and propaganda films. In 1946, Kelley moved to California to pursue a career in acting, and caught the attention of a Paramount scout who saw Kelley in a Navy training film. In 1947, Kelley made his film debut with a lead part in the noir film Fear in the Night. He had one more leading role in Variety Girl (1947), but thereafter was used as a character actor in supporting parts, including two more noir films: Canon City (1948) and Illegal (1955). In the early 1950s, Kelley started working consistently in television, often appearing in westerns, usually playing a villain. At the same time, he had roles in several western movies, such as: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, The Law and Jake Wade (1958) with Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark, and Warlock (1959) with Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, and Black Spurs (1965) and Apache Uprising (1965) both with Rory Calhoun. In 1966, Kelley’s career shot into the stratosphere when he was cast as Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek TV series, bringing him legions of new fans and forever cementing his place in film and television history. After Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, Kelley continued to have guest spots on various TV shows, but by the 1980s his only screen appearances were in the many Star Trek movies that would be released throughout the decade, as well as recording voiceovers for Star Trek games. Kelley died of stomach cancer in 1999 at age 79.
Released Jan. 19, 1944: THE LODGER, starring Laird Cregar, Merle Oberon, and George Sanders. Directed by John Brahm (Guest in the House, Hangover Square, The Brasher Doubloon). Jack the Ripper is loose in London, murdering women, eluding police, and holding the city in the grip of terror. Against this backdrop, a mysterious man with peculiar habits (Laird Cregar) rents a room from a London family, who gradually come to suspect he may be the dreaded Ripper. That’s really all there is to the plot, but within that simple premise lurks a rich and absorbing film, thanks to a well paced story, beautifully atmospheric cinematography, and most importantly, Cregar’s captivating performance. Cregar has a way of being disturbingly creepy and sympathetic at the same time, so even when you’re fairly certain he is indeed the Ripper, a part of you still believes it might not be him, or at least hopes it’s not him. As he did in I Wake Up Screaming, Cregar steals the show with a captivating yet understated performance. His sad eyes, large frame, and soft-spoken voice create an unforgettable presence that immediately draws you in. What also makes The Lodger work so well is that it’s not a slasher film, but an eerie character study of a troubled and obsessive individual. Occasionally, the dialog becomes a little awkward, especially when Cregar has extended scenes with Merle Oberon and his cryptically veiled rants are all he has to offer, but this is a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent film. We give The Lodger 4.5 out 5 fedoras.
Released Jan. 18, 1950: THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, and Paul Kelly. Directed by Robert Siodmak (The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross). Wendell Corey is a small-town assistant district attorney who is unhappy in his marriage and becomes romantically involved with Barbara Stanwyck, who is visiting her ailing aunt (Gertrude Hoffman). The first half of the film is devoted to their passionate secret romance, but things become desperate when Hoffman is murdered during an apparent burglary and Stanwyck is suspected of the crime. To complicate matters, it seems she has a shadowy accomplice (Richard Rober) who is indirectly involved, but cannot be found by police. This is a respectable noir from Robert Siodmak, one of the pre-eminent directors of classic noir films, with an interesting, albeit rather unoriginal, story and a strong performance by Stanwyck. Although Corey is not one of Hollywod’s most outwardly charismatic actors, he generates enough chemistry with Stanwyck to propel the story and keep the viewer involved. Corey is actually quite funny and charming in the opening scene in which his character is falling-down drunk. Unfortunately, the script tries very hard to make Stanwyck a sympathetic con artist with a heart, giving us a watered-down femme fatale, which takes much of the sting out of the story. Even her speech to Corey at the end of the film feels more like syrupy melodrama than noir. But in spite of this, Stanwyck is a delight to watch and there are enough twists and turns in the plot to make this film worth viewing. We give The File on Thelma Jordan 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actor William Bendix, born Jan. 14, 1906 in Manhattan, NY. With his husky physique and prominent New York accent, Bendix was equally suited to playing blue collar working men as well as vicious thugs. In the early 1920s, he was a batboy for the New York Yankees, and by the end of the decade, managed a grocery store. In the 1930s, Bendix took an interest in acting and appeared in several small Broadway productions. He made his first film appearance at age 35 in Brooklyn Orchid (1942). In that same year, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Wake Island (1942), which established him as a solid supporting player and led to over 50 movie appearances throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1944, he became the star of the hit radio show The Life of Riley, which ran on radio until 1951, and then on television from 1953 to 1958, solidifying his popularity as a blue collar everyman. As a film actor, Bendix was capable of playing a variety of roles from serious to comedic. Some of his more notable films include: Lifeboat (1944) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Calcutta (1947) with Alan Ladd, The Babe Ruth Story (1948) as Babe Ruth, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) with Bing Crosby. Bendix’s genuine down-to-earth persona also made him an ideal actor for gritty noir films, of which there were many: The Glass Key (1942), The Dark Corner (1946), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Web (1947), Race Street (1948), The Big Steal (1949), Gambling House (1950), Detective Story (1951), Macao (1952), and Crashout (1955). In the 1960s, Bendix continued to appear on television and had several more movie roles until his death in 1964 from a chronic stomach ailment that resulted in pneumonia. He was 58.
Premiered Jan. 11, 1947: THE MAN I LOVE, starring Ida Lupino, Robert Alda, Andrea King, and Bruce Bennett. Directed by Raoul Walsh (They Drive By Night, High Sierra, White Heat). This film offers a glimpse into the lives of a small group of people whose stories intertwine in varying degrees, with Lupino at the center. Lupino is a nightclub singer living in New York who decides to visit her two sisters and brother in Los Angeles over the Christmas holidays. Once there, she becomes involved with the individual dramas and struggles experienced by each of her siblings. Her tough but compassionate nature enables her to jump into the breach and provide the guidance and support her family needs. Along the way, Lupino gets a job singing at a nightclub owned by Roberta Alda. Alda is a wannabe tough guy who relentlessly chases after anything in a skirt, and has been harassing one of Lupino’s sisters. Lupino intercedes and draws Alda’s attention to herself, but their flirtation ends when Lupino meets Bruce Bennett, a legendary jazz pianist who mysteriously stopped playing music several years prior. Lupino falls madly in love with Bennett, but finds it difficult to compete with the memory of his divorced wife that persistently tortures him. Lupino delivers one of the best performances of her career in this film. Her shining talent and inner fire are vividly evident in every scene, as she propels this film forward almost single-handedly. This was the fourth time Walsh directed Lupino, and he clearly understood how to bring out the best in her. An important aspect of this film is the superb music, which is made up of wonderful songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein, including the film’s title song. The scenes in which Bennett plays the piano are mesmerizing and reinforce the overall mood of the film perfectly. Although this movie doesn’t really contain any of the obvious characteristics typically associated with film noir, it is nonetheless often considered to be a noir. Its subtle noir nature is embodied in the frank and honest depiction of average people struggling to find some measure of happiness in their lives. Such a candid examination of urban life is very noir, especially when that happiness proves to be elusive. We give The Man I Love 4 out of 5 fedoras.