Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Noir City Chicago 6 and The Altars of Forgotten Women


This weekend Noir City Chicago kicks off at the Music Box Theater with two of my favorite films: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949) starring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, and ROADBLOCK (1950) starring Joan Dixon and Charles McGraw.

I've written about both of these films on this blog (here and here), and I'd like to reprint an essay I posted here a few years ago that celebrates Lizabeth Scott and Joan Dixon.

Here's "The Altars of Forgotten Women":

One of the ironies of film noir is that many of its lasting icons were never stars in their lifetime. More than any other genre, stardom in noir is retroactive. Someone like Ann Savage had only the most fleeting taste of fame in her youth before Hollywood showed her the door. Yet, Savage was one the lucky people who lived to see her fame catch up to her. A cheap little sixty-five minute crime picture called DETOUR—a picture Savage appears in for all of thirty minutes—somehow endured and prospered over the years. Savage was in her sixties and working as a secretary when she discovered that she was at the center of a cult.

Savage’s cult is just a faction of something larger called film noir, which is, among other things, largely a cult of forgotten women. Savage was not alone in finding herself as an object of worship. Within this convocation there are many different sects, sects with passionately devoted followers. Actors like Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, and Janis Carter all have legions of admirers. None of them were really stars in their day, but their movies have a life all their own. Long after their careers fizzled out, sometimes after their own deaths, some actors finally became stars. That just about defines the word bittersweet.

Of course, major stars like Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland experience a similar life after death effect, and a select few even seem to reach beyond mere stardom and become a part of the larger shared consciousness of society. You could argue, at this point in Western culture, that Marilyn Monroe is nearly as iconic as the Virgin Mary.

Yet film noir is a genre born out of B-movie obscurity. Lizabeth Scott will never be as famous as Marilyn Monroe, but she is the ruler of her own dark little corner of Dreamtown because is the woman who most deserves the title of Queen of Noir. She starred in more film noirs than nearly anyone else, and she was also unique in that her filmography consists mostly of noirs. She only made a handful of movies that didn’t involve people betraying each other and ending up gutshot at the end. She played the entire range of characters available to women in the genre, from doe-eyed innocents (THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS) to world-weary lounge singers (DARK CITY, I WALK ALONE) to cold-blooded femme fatales (STOLEN FACE). She starred in one of the genre’s real lowlights, the misogynistic DEAD RECKONING. She starred in what maybe the campiest noir ever made, the hilarious DESERT FURY. Most importantly, she starred in two of the finest noirs we have, Andre De Toth’s 1948 PITFALL and Byron Haskin’s 1949 TOO LATE FOR TEARS.

To understand the appeal of Liz Scott, one only need to look at those last two films. In the first, she plays a woman named Mona Stevens who falls into an affair with a married man played by Dick Powell. Their affair is discovered by a psychotic private detective (played by Raymond Burr) who is obsessed with Mona and proceeds to make life hell for everyone involved. The cast here is superb, and at the center , in a performance of great sympathy, is Queen Liz. She makes Mona a sexy woman (which must have been fairly easy since Scott herself was gorgeous, blonde, and had a voice that was equal parts cigarettes and silk), but she also makes Mona a sad woman. Loneliness is the undercurrent of Scott's voice, the thing that pulls you further down into her trap. Even when she’s happy, you can tell that Scott is afraid of the worst. In PITFALL, she pretty much gets the worst at the hands of thoughtless men.

In TOO LATE FOR TEARS, she gets her revenge. As housewife turned criminal Jane Palmer, Scott creates a portrait of coolheaded evil. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving home one night when someone tosses a briefcase full of money into their car. Is the money a payment for a ransom? Perhaps a blackmail payoff? Alan doesn’t care, he just wants to turn the money over to the cops. His wife, ah, disagrees. She’s willing to do anything to keep the cash, even after slimy crook Dan Duryea shows up looking for it and slaps her around. Neither the crook nor the husband have any idea who they’re dealing with in Jane Palmer. These guys are toast. With her performance, Scott makes a pretty good grab for the most evil femme fatale on record, yet she also makes Jane Palmer curiously relatable. Again, there’s that sadness, that aching, unfulfilled need at the center of Lizabeth Scott that comes through in her performance. Jane Palmer is evil, yes, but she’s also smart, dogged, and utterly human.

It is, after all, humanity that is the great appeal of the forgotten women of film noir, our sense that we’re seeing a human being alive onscreen. Movies of the forties and fifties were made to be dreamlike, and all these years later they still seem like dreams. The dreams hook us; the humanity makes us obsessives, worshipers at the altar. “Who was this woman?” we ask. Not just Queen Liz (who, happily, is still alive as I write this), but so many others. We watch them laugh and cry and scheme and die and then we watch them do it all over again. It doesn’t take much to hook us.

Take Joan Dixon. In 1951 she starred in a vastly underrated film noir called ROADBLOCK alongside Charles McGraw. She plays Diane, a sexy conwoman who marries a straight-laced insurance investigator name Joe Peters, a marriage that will have disastrous results. Joan Dixon strolls through this movie as if she’s one of the great femme fatales. It’s not just that she’s beautiful, it’s that she projects that essential combination of intoxicating sexual allure and an untouchable, unknowable center. Is Diane bad? It’s tough to say. Dixon might be criticized for giving a performance that's too laid back, but I would argue that very ambiguity is her greatest attribute. She doesn’t set out to ruin Joe Peters, but once she meets him, he’s a goner. It’s an interesting take on the femme fatale. Many femmes are man-eating monsters. Diane is different. She’s a catalyst who opens up all the insecurity and greed buried beneath honest Joe Peters’ upright fa├žade. It takes quite a gal to destroy Charles McGraw. Joan Dixon does it without really trying.

One thing’s for sure: she never had much of a career in Hollywood. She started out at RKO under contract to Howard Hughes (which was not somewhere a fresh-faced twenty-year old from Norfolk, Virginia wanted to find herself). Hughes promised to build her career, but he was too busy running RKO into the ground. Dixon spent most of her time in low budget westerns and ended her acting career in the late fifties doing bit parts on television. By then, she’d become a lounge singer and was mostly notable in the newspapers for a string of quick marriages and messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992.


She was no one’s idea of the queen of anything, yet she lives on in this little-seen masterpiece. Her fame hasn’t happened yet, unlike Ann Savage or Lizabeth Scott. Even in the insular world of film noir, Joan Dixon isn’t an icon—yet. I have faith, however, that her cult is coming. If there’s one thing that you can learn from the history of noir, it’s that there’s always time.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Something In Red: The Sci-Fi Appeal of Scarlett Johansson

Over at Tor.com, I have a new piece looking at the place of Scarlett Johansson in the current cinematic landscape of science fiction. 

On a side note: I've been thinking about Johansson lately in conjunction with Gene Tierney. I wrote about LAURA a few weeks ago, and soon after that I saw Johansson's new movie LUCY. The only thing these films have in common is the certain strange opacity of the lead actor. This observation isn't a theory yet--in fact, I don't even mention Tierney in my Tor piece--just something I wanted to add. In something like UNDER THE SKIN, I just see a Tierney-like quality.

Anyway, here's a link to my piece, Something In Red.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sam Fuller and the Creation of Neo-Noir

When did classic noir give way to neo-noir? There's no definite answer to that question, of course, but the best candidate is probably the one-two punch of Sam Fuller's 1963 SHOCK CORRIDOR and his 1964 THE NAKED KISS. After these two landmarks, nothing would ever be the same. Check out my new essay over at Los Angeles Review of Books Neo-Noir And Anti-Realism in Sam Fuller

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Movies of 1944: WHEN STRANGERS MARRY

The final installment in my series on the landmark noirs of 1944 looks at William Castle's WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. You can read that now over at Criminal Element

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bacall in Winter


In tribute to Lauren Bacall, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, I'm re-posting this appreciation I wrote about her a few years ago:

Most people fall in love with the nineteen-year old Lauren Bacall. And why not? She's beautiful--willowy and insolent, staring down Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. My favorite moment in the film comes just before the famous "just whistle" line. She sits on Bogart's lap and kisses him.

"What'd you do that for?" he asks.

"Been wondering whether or not I'd like it."

"What's the decision?"

"I don't know yet."

After they kiss again, she says, "It's even better when you help."

Great line, but then again the whole damn movie is quotable from start to finish. The two films that Bogart and Bacall made in the mid-forties with director Howard Hawks, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP, might well represent some kind of high water mark in Hollywood entertainment. Everything is just...perfect. Bogart made "greater" films, I suppose, (Falcon, Casablanca, Lonely Place) but if I could only have two of his films to take with me to that hypothetical DVD-compatible desert island...well, I'd take the Hawks films.

Bogart was a superstar before meeting Bacall, and his star continued to rise after they married. Her career, however, never really hit a higher peak than those first two Bogart films. Their last film KEY LARGO (1948) is good but John Huston doesn't give her much to do except moon for Bogie. DARK PASSAGE (1947) was their third film and remains a real hidden gem. It employs a gimmick for the first hour, a subjective camera, so we hear Bogart but don't see him until his character (an escaped convict trying to prove his innocence) gets a face lift that makes him look like Bogart. This puts the film's emphasis on Bacall for the first hour, and she wisely underplays the role (see Audrey Totter's performance in THE LADY IN THE LAKE, released the same year, as an example of how not to play to the subjective camera).

After '48, she and Bogart never made another picture together (though they did work together on television in 1955 for a live version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST with Henry Fonda). Their legacy rests, and rests securely one should add, on the four films they made together between 1944-1948. After that, she stayed home and raised kids, took the occasional role (such as YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN opposite Kirk Douglas), and tended to Bogart as he died of cancer in 1957.

She was 33 when he died. In the 53 years since, she's had various ups and downs-- from successes on Broadway to voiceovers for cat food commercials--but always and forever her legend swings back around to Bogie.

Which has got to be annoying.

But that's the weird thing about this oddity called movie stardom, it's based entirely on clusters of minutes. Lauren Bacall has been defined for her entire adult life by the approximately 100 minutes of screen time that comprise TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Imagine if everyone you met for the next sixty years, within seconds of meeting you, brought up the same hour and a half of your life. How tiresome must that be?

And, of course, how transcendent. How transcendent to know that through the voodoo of cinema you and someone you loved achieved the rarest thing possible: your love actually became immortal. If the human race doesn't destroy itself (a possibility, I'll grant) then human beings could be watching Bacall sit on Bogie's lap 500 years from now. Why not? I mean, we still read Romeo and Juliet.

These thoughts were inspired by a new interview with Bacall by Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer. Go check it out. Bacall remains the blunt--even grumpy--lady we've come to know through interviews and her bestselling autobiography (one of the first movie bios I ever read, incidentally). Who wouldn't want to spend time listening to this grand old dame tell her stories?

Read the interview here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Movies Of 1944: THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

Check out my new piece on Fritz Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW over at Criminal Element, the latest addition to my series on the key noir films of 1944. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Movies Of 1944: PHANTOM LADY

PHANTOM LADY is probably the least well-known of the landmark noirs released in 1944, but in some ways it's the most important because it initiated the full-on noir phase of director Robert Siodmak's career. You can read about this great film in my new essay over at Criminal Element.