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The Noirathon Begins

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The time has come for all us guys and dames who love Film Noir to assemble here at Maddy’s Club. Over the next three days, a large number of Noir fans will share their reviews and articles on all things Film Noir. Keep checking back to this post over the next three days to read all the entries.  

Massive thanks to those of you who are taking part. I can’t wait to read all those entries. 

Day 3 Entries

Gabriela from Pale Writer returns with a second entry, this time discussing the pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in Noir films.

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society discusses The Dark Mirror

Ruth from Silver Screenings discusses the villain in Kansas City Confidential. 

Movie Night’s Group Guide To Classic Films writes about The Blue Gardenia.

Movie Rob takes a look at The Woman In The Window.

Gabriela from Pale Writer brings Lizabeth Scott to the Noir party, with her article on Dead Reckoning.

Mike from Films On The Box shares his thoughts on Fear In The Night, a 1940’s Noir starring DeForest Kelley.

Erica from Poppity Talks Classic Film, discusses the Noir classic They live By Night.

Movie Rob talks about about Scene Of The Crime, a Noir starring Van Johnson.

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Day 2 Entries

Quiggy at the Midnite Drive-In tells us all about Abbot And Costello parodying Film Noir

The Lonely Critic brings some Japanese Noir to the party, as he discusses High And Low. 

Movie Rob discusses the Barbara Stanwyck classic Sorry, Wrong Number

Le from Critica Retro discusses Tension, a Noir from 1949. 

Clarissa from Stars And Letters shares letters from famous fans of The Killers.

Realweegiemidget joins us a second time to discuss John Wick: Chapter 3 .

John V’s Eclectic Avenue shares his thoughts on The Chase.

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Day 1 Entries

Carol from The Old Hollywood Garden discusses friendships in Film Noir.

Portraits From Jenni writes about one of the best Noir’s of the 1950’s, the gripping Pickup On South Street

Noirish discusses The True Story Of Lynn Stuart, a lesser known Noir film from 1958.

Paddy from Caftan Woman joins all the Noir fun, by sharing her thoughts on Thieves Highway. 

Andrew from The Stop Button shares his thoughts on In A Lonely Place, one of the most famous of all Noir films. 

Gill from Realweegiemidgetreviews brings Keanu Reeves to the Noir party. She discusses John Wick: Chapter 2, which is a modern Noir. 

Erin from Cinematic Scribblings invites us to take a trip to the British seaside, for her review of the brilliant British Noir Brighton Rock

Steve from Movie Movie Blog Blog II joins us to discuss Laura, truly one of the great classics of the genre. 

I write about Murder, My SweetCry Of The City and Dark Passage.

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The Noirathon: Dark Passage(1947)

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Dark Passage is one of the most underrated and interesting of all of the 1940’s Noir films. Quite why this one isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. It’s a very different looking Noir film to most, and it is also one which provides us with a glimpse of a far more vulnerable and tender side to Noir tough guy/hero Humphrey Bogart.

The Humphrey Bogart we see in this film is far removed from the smooth and tough screen hero we’re used to seeing, that man who can get himself out of any scrape and not be phased by what happens to him. His character in this film however is a desperate, awkward and very frightened man, a man who has no control over his situation. It’s rare to see Bogie in such a role. Personally I would have liked to have seen him play more similar characters because this one shows what a great range he had as an actor.Dark Passage poster Bogie’s romantic and affectionate scenes with his co-star and wife Lauren Bacall, are amongst some of the most tender I’ve ever seen the couple perform on screen. Dark Passage would mark the third time that Bogie and Bacall had worked together in a film. Their final screen pairing would come the following year with Key Largo.

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Bogie and Bacall get intimate as Vince and Irene. Screenshot by me.

Director Delmar Daves shot a large amount of Dark Passage with a subjective camera technique. This technique shows the film unfold before us entirely from the point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. For most of the film we don’t see his characters face at all, but we do hear his voice. When we finally do see his face, it is his heavily bandaged face. The film is one hour and 41 minutes long, but it takes about an hour before Bogie’s face actually appears on screen. This visual style more than anything else about the film is what makes it such an unusual one.

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The bandaged Vince. Those eyes sure do look familiar. Screenshot by me.

The point of view photography was pretty risky when you think about it. Bogie was one of the biggest film stars on the planet at the time this film was made. Not showing his face for such a large part of the film was a gamble.  Bogie was the draw for a large amount of the audience and they could very easily have walked out of screenings thinking they weren’t going to get to see the man himself. 

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We see what Vince is looking at for much of the film. Screenshot by me.

Interestingly, Dark Passage is actually not alone in the Noir genre for its use of this camera technique.Actor Robert Montgomery had caused quite a stir when he had directed and starred in another Noir film, Lady In The Lake, which had been released earlier in 1947. That film had been shot almost entirely from the point of view of the character Philip Marlowe, who Montgomery played, and the film became quite the talking point because of the way it was shot.

Delmer Daves also shot much of his film on location in San Francisco and this, coupled with the point of view sequences, ensured that there was quite a realistic and different feel about this film. The film is based upon the 1946 novel of the same name written by David Goodis. Delmer Daves wrote the screenplay in addition to sitting in the directors chair.

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Irene appears to help Vince. Screenshot by me.

The film tells the story of Vincent Parry(Humphrey Bogart), a man who is imprisoned for the murder of his wife, a crime that he insists he didn’t commit. Vince escapes from prison and is pursued by the law. Vince is picked up by a guy who agrees to give him a lift.

A news report comes on the car radio describing this man’s passenger. Vince beats the driver up, drags him into some bushes by the roadside and takes his shoes. Suddenly another car pulls up, and out gets a young artist called Irene Jansen(Lauren Bacall). Vince doesn’t know her, but she seems to know him(this is all explained later in the film). She tells him to come with her and she will help him. Irene drives him to San Francisco.

                               The roadblock sequence. Screenshot by me. 

Vince and Irene encounter a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge, which leads to a very suspenseful sequence where Irene has to act casual to throw off the suspicions of the policeman who stops her car. Vince hides underneath a large covered pile of her art supplies and narrowly avoids being discovered. Once in the city, Vince gets help from a back-street doctor (Housley Stevenson)who performs plastic surgery on him to give him a new face. 

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Who’s in the mood for some plastic surgery? Screenshot by me.

The scene where Vince prepares for surgery is a standout, and it is made so by the dubious character of the doctor and his fabulous dialogue and laughter as he prepares his patient for surgery – “Ever seen a botched plastic job? If a man like me didn’t like a fella, he could surely fix him up for life. Make him look like a bulldog or a monkey!”. I doubt a man would want to get a shave off this dude, let alone willingly sit back and let him perform facial surgery on them. As the anaesthetic takes effect on Vince, he enters a bizarre nightmare, one where images and conversations he’s had get all mixed up as he goes under.  

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Part of the nightmare Vince has. Screenshot by me.

Vince emerges with a new face and recovers from the surgery at Irene’s apartment. She nurses him. Once recovered, Vince changes his name and sets about trying to investigate his wife’s murder. His investigation is difficult and dangerous.His only ally in all of this is Irene. The person who knows the truth about his innocence or guilt is Madge Rapf(a scene stealing Agnes Moorehead), the woman whose evidence in court was crucial in getting him put away.

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Agnes Moorehead as Madge. Screenshot by me.

Agnes delivers one of her best performances here. She’s a real nasty piece of work in this film. Madge is the sort of dame who sucks people in, charms them and then discards them like trash. She’s a whole lot of mean encased in one beautiful and glamorous exterior. I hope that Agnes had a lot of fun with this role because it sure looks like she relished playing the part. Such a shame that she didn’t get to play more bad girls in more Noir films. 

Bogie and Bacall are both absolutely terrific here. They convince as a couple thrown together in unusual circumstances who begin to fall in love.  Bogie does a good job of playing a more vulnerable and wounded character than he usually played. Much of his performance here comes via his voice and by the look in his eyes, it’s a more subtle performance than many of his others. He also makes us root for Vince and admire his determination to risk himself in order to find out the truth. Lauren delivers one of her best performances in my opinion. I love her as the determined, confident and fearless Irene. I also find her character so interesting because she is actually quite symbolic. 

                               Irene removes Vince’s bandages. Screenshot by me. 

Irene is the traditional white knight figure(a role usually played by men)to Bogie’s man in distress. She appears to him out of nowhere and saves him several times. She nurses him, supports him and stands by him. She is his guardian angel. She is his safe port in the hellish storm he finds himself caught up in. You could also say that Irene serves as a symbolic mother too, due to her being the one to bring the new Vince into the world so to speak. Vince doesn’t remove his bandages, it is Irene who does that, and in the process reveals his new self to him. Irene is also the one who chooses a new name(identity)for Vince, so if you look at it one way, it is she who brings this new man to life. Farewell, Vincent Parry. Hello to Alan. 

The entire supporting cast all deliver solid performances. The film is an interesting mystery and contains a lot of suspense and thrills. Some of the plot certainly does come across as being extremely far fetched, but somehow the film still manages to work despite that. It is a film that deserves to be much more widely discussed and appreciated today. I highly recommend this one to fellow Noir fans. 

Have you seen this? Leave your thoughts below. This is my final entry for my Noir Blogathon being held this weekend. 

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The Noirathon: Cry Of The City(1948)

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Cry Of The City is a Film Noir which plays out like a 1940’s Greek tragedy. It is a poignant and powerful tale of injustice, love, the desire for a second chance and the inability to avoid the hand dealt to us by fate. This film not only makes us fully support and sympathise with the supposed villain of the piece, but it also gets us to sympathise with the detective who is tasked with pursuing him.

                            Candella and Martin have much in common. Screenshots by me. 

The hero and villain both developing a mutual respect or realising that they are both more alike than they’d care to admit, is undoubtedly one of the oldest of the storytelling tropes, and I think that this trope is put to very effective use indeed in Cry Of The City. This film takes that trope one step further than most, by revealing to us that the two main characters, Martin Rome and Lt. Vitorrio Candella, had both grown up in the same crime infested slum and were friends as children. Both men went down very different paths in life. They both see the other as the living embodiment of the type of person they could easily have become had things turned out differently for them. 

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In some ways I consider Cry Of The City to be quite similar to Michael Mann’s Heat(1995). Both films have the criminal and the cop beginning to respect, understand and even like each other the more they interact with one another. Both films also go far beneath the surface of their lead characters to show us the souls of both men, and in doing so both films allow us to see that their characters are more similar than they are dissimilar. 

Cry Of The City is directed by Robert Siodmak(The Spiral Staircase, The Killers). Siodmak was loaned out from Universal Studios in order to make this film for Twentieth Century Fox. The film is based upon the 1947 novel The Chair For Martin Rome by Henry Edward Helseth. Twentieth Century Fox purchased the rights to the novel not too long after it was published and they adapted it for the screen very quickly. The film was shot on location on the streets of New York. This one joins the ranks of those other Noir flicks whose location work lends an almost documentary look to the finished film.  

                          Martin doesn’t like what Niles has to say. Screenshots by me. 

Hardened criminal Martin Rome(Richard Conte), kills a police officer in a shootout and is himself injured and taken to hospital under guard. He is visited there by shady lawyer, Niles(Berry Kroeger),who tries to get Martin to confess to a robbery and murder which were actually committed by another client of his, a fellow criminal called Whitey Leggatt, and a female accomplice called Rose(a scene stealing Hope Emerson, playing a masseuse who you really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of).

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Martin sets out to put things right. Screenshot by me.

Martin quite rightly refuses to take the rap for something he didn’t do, but this then leads Niles to threaten Martin’s gentle and innocent fiance, Teena(Debra Paget, in her debut film role). Martin attacks him and is transferred to a prison hospital. 

The injured Martin breaks out of prison(a sequence which is one of my favourite in any Noir film)and goes on the run. Martin must now protect his girl, find out who really committed the murder and theft Niles has tried to pin on him, and also try and evade Lt. Candella(Victor Mature), the detective who is trying to capture him.  Martin has help in the form of his ex-girlfriend, Brenda(Shelley Winters) in tracking down the female accomplice in the murder and theft. While all of this is going on Martin is gradually succumbing more and more to his injury. 

“There won’t be any shooting in this house as long as Mama’s here!”

While the two main characters in the film are male, there are also many memorable female characters. The women of Cry Of The City not only represent the different types of women found in life, but they also serve to show us what women must contend with in the world of crime, death and darkness that is Film Noir.

Teena ,Brenda, Mama and Rose. Screenshots by me. 

Teena is naive to the dark realities of the life her beloved Martin is a part of. Teena doesn’t care what he has done, she only cares that they love each other and she believes they will get a happy ending. Brenda is a more worldly gal, one who is wise to the realities and goes along with it all. Brenda has a heart of gold and will do anything for anyone. Rose knows the realities of this world all too well. Rose is a strong woman who plays men at their own game and also rather interestingly lives a life of complete independence running her own massage business. Mama Rome represents the woman who is the heart of the home and has an inner strength which helps her survive the bad times in life. Mama is also someone who never stops loving their children, even if those children take a wrong step along the path of life. 

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Martin and his Mama. Screenshot by me.

The film also focuses very heavily on the importance of family and on the personal life of the criminal. When Rome is in the home of his elderly mother(Mimi Aguglia), he leaves his dodgy activities outside the door, and it is she, rather than him, who is the boss of that home. She is everything to him. She knows what he does and isn’t afraid to call him out on what he does.

In a very poignant scene she confesses that she should have put a stop to him getting into a bad life when he was younger, but he sent her money and she needed it and accepted it without asking questions. Their relationship is the heart of the film and their relationship is tinged with sadness. She also worries for his fiance because she knows that their relationship will most likely end in heartbreak(she ain’t wrong). 

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Richard Conte is at his best in this film. Screenshot by me.

Richard Conte delivers one of his best performances in this film. His performance as Martin Rome has become my favourite from his work. He is a regular face in Film Noir and remains best known to fans for his chilling and sadistic performance in The Big Combo.

This film offers him a very different type of role. Martin Rome is certainly a bad guy, but he isn’t sadistic, mean or unhinged. Martin wants to get married and escape his criminal life. He has done bad things in the past but he longs for a clean slate and a second chance. I love the nuance that Richard brings to this character. Richard is tough with a don’t mess with me attitude one moment, and then the next he is vulnerable and shows us the man beneath the protective macho mask.  He has you on his side completely and makes you long for a happy ending for him, all the while knowing full well that such endings are rare beasts indeed in Noir. 

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Victor Mature as Candella. Screenshot by me.

Victor Mature really surprised me the first time I saw this film. I have never really thought much of him as an actor(I mean no disrespect when I say that)but he blew me away in this. He steals every scene he is in and his performance is often quite subtle. Watch his eyes and body language in this because he conveys so much with both. He more than convinces as the tough and capable cop who will do what must be done.

In some ways Victor has the more interesting character of the two to portray because there is alot going on emotionally/psychologically with him. Candella doesn’t just see Martin as a criminal who he must bring to justice. Candella knows the childhood Martin endured and remembers what it was like, but Candella had the sense and strength to say no to crime and walk away, whereas Martin got sucked into that life. He sympathises with Martin in many ways, but he never pities him because at the end of the day he could have turned his back on that life and didn’t. Candella also loves and respects Mama Rome and has known her since he was a kid. He knows that whatever he does to Martin will hurt her and we know that he feels awful because of that fact. 

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Candella and Mama Rome. Screenshot by me.

Candella won’t give Martin a free ride because of their shared history, he will pursue him because he is on the side of the law. I also love how Candella realises he can’t save Martin, but he can try to save Martin’s kid brother Tony from following his brother into a life of crime.

This subplot is very moving and you are on Candella’s side in his endeavour, even though your heart goes out to Tony for his loyalty to his older brother who he idolises. This is a good example of the power of this film, it has you rooting for the heroes and the criminals, often at the same time. It is a film which packs quite an emotional wallop.

Hope Emerson steals all her scenes as the deadly Rose. She literally towers over other cast members due to her size and is a very imposing and dominating figure.

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Hope Emerson as Rose speaks with Martin. Screenshot by me.

The character of Rose is fascinating. Who can forget that moment when you see what she is capable of doing with her hands to defend herself? While Rose isn’t in that many scenes, she becomes possibly the most memorable character in the film. She is certainly one of the most unforgettable women in Film Noir in general. 

The supporting cast all deliver solid performances. Debra Paget’s performance in particular is very moving and exceptional for a screen debut. I can’t recommend this one highly enough to Noir fans. If you like a gritty, suspenseful, moving and bleak film, then this is certainly one for you. 

Have you seen this film? What do you think of it?

This is my second entry for my Noir blogathon being held at the end of this month. 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Noirathon: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Noir blogathon banner 1When I hear or read the words Film Noir, Murder, My Sweet is always the first film which springs into my mind. Every single part of this flick screams Film Noir. There’s the moody and foreboding atmosphere, the voiceover, the cunning femme fatale, stunning cinematography(by Harry J. Wild) and lighting, intriguing characters and twisty story, and all of that fabulous Noir dialogue – “The joint looked like trouble, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me, the two twenties felt nice and snug against my appendix.” “A black pool opened up at my feet. I dived in. It had no bottom.”

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Marlowe sees his latest client reflected in the window of his office. Screenshot by me.

For this Noir fan, Murder, My Sweet is the film which perfectly encapsulates what Film Noir is all about. Not only is it my favourite Noir film, but I consider it to be the ultimate Noir flick.

In this film we also get prime examples of the types of men and women who roam the dark alleys of Film Noir. There are the ruthless and the evil, the desperate and the damaged, the cynical and the hopeful, the victims and the victors. In the form of Dick Powell’s Philip Marlowe, the film also gives us one of the best depictions of the cynical and witty Noir veteran, someone who has seen and done it all and is no longer phased by the darker sides of humanity when they encounter them going through life.

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Murder, My Sweet is directed by Edward Dmytryk and is based upon Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. This novel was the second book to feature the character of private detective Philip Marlowe. The first novel to feature Marlowe was The Big Sleep, but it was this second novel which would end up being the first to be adapted for the screen.

The rights to Chandler’s novel were bought by RKO Studios and it wouldn’t be long before the studio made a film adaptation of Chandler’s work. In 1942, the plot of Farewell, My Lovely formed the basis of the third film in the popular Falcon series, The Falcon Takes Over. While George Sander’s charming gentlemen sleuth, Gay Lawrence replaced Marlowe as the hero of that film, the rest of its story and characters are essentially the same as those found in Chandler’s novel. 

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Just a couple of years after making The Falcon Takes Over, RKO would go on to make this much more faithful screen adaptation of the story. The film title would be changed from Farewell, My Lovely, to Murder, My Sweet, in the hopes that audiences wouldn’t mistake it for one of the musicals leading man Dick Powell usually made. 

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Dick Powell changed his screen image when he played Marlowe. Screenshot by me.

For the role of the cynical and tough private detective Philip Marlowe, baby-faced screen crooner Dick Powell was cast. At this point in his career Dick Powell was best known as the screen partner of tap dancing sensation Ruby Keeler in a series of popular film musicals. 

Dick however was getting tired of his current career and was trying to get more meaty roles.He had desperately wanted to play the role of Walter Neff in 1944’s other Noir classic, Double IndemnityCharles Koerner, the head of RKO Studios, was the person ultimately responsible for Dick being able to go and create a new screen image for himself. Koerner made a screentest with Dick for the role of Marlowe and signed him for the role after seeing that test. 

Dick’s performance in Murder, My Sweet more than proved what a good dramatic actor he could be. He went on to appear in many more Noir and dramatic roles after this. His casting in this film was a big gamble, but he turned out to be well worth the risk and is considered by many fans(myself included) to be the best screen Marlowe. I can’t get enough of Dick Powell in this film and in his other serious roles.I also love his anthology TV series The Dick Powell Show and Four Star Playhouse too. 

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Philip Marlowe. Screenshot by me.

I love how Dick manages to capture and convey the perfect balance between Marlowe’s toughness and cynicism, his humour/laid back attitude and his almost childlike curiosity and delight at some of the things he does and encounters.

Over the years many actors have played Marlowe on the big and small screen. Raymond Chandler preferred Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Marlowe, but I think Dick Powell is the best actor to have ever taken on this role. As much as I like Bogie as Marlowe, I feel that Dick Powell understood the character a bit better and captured both sides of his personality. I consider Dick’s Marlowe to be the character from the books, while Bogie’s Marlowe never feels like the complete guy to me.

The film begins with a blindfolded Philip Marlowe(Dick Powell)being interrogated by the police. In flashback we learn about the events which led him to come to be in this room. Murder, My Sweet tells a story filled with a great many twists and turns. Marlowe is hired by a tall ex-con by the name of Moose Malloy(Mike Mazurki), to try and find his missing girlfriend, Velma Valento.

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Marlowe and Mrs. Grayle have an instant attraction. Screenshot by me.

When Marlowe and Malloy start looking for the missing dame it seems that nobody knows anything about her.

While working for Malloy, Marlowe is also hired by Lindsay Marriott to accompany him to a meeting to get back a stolen jade necklace.  Marlowe goes with him to the meet, only for Marlowe to be knocked unconscious and Marriott to be killed.

Marlowe soon discovers the jade belongs to Mrs. Helen Grayle, the knockout and much younger wife of old Judge Grayle. Marlowe is intrigued by Helen and there is an instant attraction between the two. Marlowe is also quite taken by Helen’s feisty and angry stepdaughter, Ann(Anne Shirley in her final film role)who absolutely hates Helen. Gradually Marlowe’s two cases converge and he realises that all is not as it may seem. 

The standout sequence in the film is Marlowe’s disturbing nightmare brought on by the drugs pumped into him by his captors. It’s a visually impressive, trippy and weird sequence. It captures the weirdness of nightmares and the horror of not being in control once drugs get hold of the poor sap whose system they’ve crept into. It’s an impressive and memorable sequence which must have blown audiences away back in 1944.

Dick Powell is superb as the much put upon Marlowe and delivers one of the best performances in the entire Noir genre. He makes us like him and root for him. He effortlessly delivers all of that hilarious and laid back dialogue. He also leaves us in no doubt that he can take care of himself and be tough. He is also someone who you can relax around and have a laugh with. Marlowe is an everyman. I also love that we see he doesn’t get much in return for risking his neck all the while. Marlowe lives in a small apartment and certainly doesn’t live the high life. 

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Marlowe begins to feel the effects of the drugs. Screenshot by me.

Marlowe is really put through the wringer in this film. What I dig most about Marlowe in this film is that he looks rough after his double dose of imprisonment and forced drug injections.This dude looks worn out, tired, ill and battered several times in this film, and that lends a great amount of realism to what we’re seeing. There’s no James Bond glamour or a quick dusting off and getting right back to it to be found here. Marlowe really suffers in this film. Dick more than convinces us of the pain and distress Marlowe is undergoing throughout this film. I also like that Marlowe doesn’t let his experiences change him into a hard and cold man. He may well be cynical and tough, but he always remains likeable and on the side of good in spite of what he himself has endured. 

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Claire Trevor. Screenshot by me.

Claire Trevor is excellent as the bad to the bone Mrs. Grayle. While she soon realises her charms don’t work on Marlowe, she never the less doesn’t stop trying to get him under her thumb. Claire leaves us in no doubt that her character is a strong and controlling woman who won’t rest until she has what she wants. 

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Anne Shirley. Screenshot by me.

Anne Shirley is fiery, gentle and innocent all at once as the heroine of the piece. Ann is a gentle girl driven to distraction by her poisonous stepmother but never loses her humanity or kindness. I think it’s a great shame Anne never made another film after this. 

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Mike Mazurki. Screenshot by me.

Mike Mazurki is tragic, funny and loveable all at once as the gentle giant, Moose Malloy. Moose is slow witted and ends up becoming the real victim of the film. Marlowe is his only genuine ally. 

  Esther Howard as Jessie. Screenshots by me. 

Esther Howard nearly steals the show with her appearance as the booze riddled Jessie Florian. Jessie’s dead husband owned the bar where Velma used to work and Marlowe thinks she may be able to help him. Esther delivers one of the best drunk impressions in all of cinema. She cuts a funny and tragic figure too. 

The rest of the cast are all solid and everyone, even those in small roles, get their chance to shine in this film. If I could only recommend one film to a Noir newbie to watch it would be this one. Murder, My Sweet is one of the best in the entire genre. It’s one I return to again and again and always enjoy.  Close the blinds, turn out the lights, pour a bourbon and settle down to watch this Noir classic. You won’t regret the time spent in the company of Mr. Philip Marlowe. 

What do you think of this film? Let me know in the comments below. 

This is my first entry for the Noir blogathon I’m hosting later this month.

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2019 CMBA Spring Blogathon: Femme/Homme Fatales: Elsa Bannister From The Lady From Shanghai(1947)

CMBA Blogathon

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting this blogathon all about Femme and Homme Fatales in Film Noir. Be sure to visit the CMBA site to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself. I’ve decided to write about Elsa Bannister from The Lady From Shanghai. There are spoilers ahead about what happens to this character.

I am such a big fan of Film Noir. I think I would even go so far as to call myself a Noir addict. Noir films are absolutely amazing!One of my favourite things about Noir films is the strong and memorable roles that these films offered to actresses during the classic film era. Many actresses did some of their best work in Noir films. 

Few characters are more memorable in Noir films than the Femme Fatales. Femme Fatales are very clever and strong women. They are also dangerous, dominating, intriguing, sexy, and most important of all, they are very alluring. Femme Fatales are women who draw men to them like flames draw moths.

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Rita Hayworth as Elsa Bannister. Is she a victim or a villainess? Screenshot by me.

One of my favourite Femme Fatales is Elsa Bannister(Rita Hayworth)in The Lady From Shanghai. Elsa is a very interesting Femme Fatale, because while she is certainly a ruthless and clever manipulator, she also ends up destroying herself and leading herself to her own fate.

One look at Elsa Bannister and you have no difficulty understanding why Michael(Orson Welles)falls under her spell. Elsa is a prime example of a woman who men should stay well away from. Elsa is one of the most unforgettable Femme Fatales in the history of Noir films. She has the ability to make herself seem vulnerable and unhappy one moment, and then she becomes a cold and calculating b***h the next moment. Elsa is a good actress and knows exactly how to get and keep her audiences (in this case Michael)attention. 

Rita Hayworth’s trademark thick red hair was cropped and dyed blonde for this role. This was done on the instruction of director Orson Welles(also Rita’s husband at the time of filming), this decision angered the Columbia studio head, Harry Cohen. In my view Mr. Cohen should have chilled out. Orson Welles was right to transform Rita for this role. Rita’s new look works wonders for the character.

                                     Rita’s new screen image. Screenshots by me. 

The effect of her new image makes Rita look like Deborah Kerr’s Karen in From Here To Eternity. Much as it did for Deborah Kerr in that film, Rita’s new screen image as Elsa makes her look sexier, harder and cooler than she had ever done before. Rita oozes sex and seduction whenever you see her on screen in this film. 

This role was quite a change for Rita. She usually played quite bubbly characters who were basically good girls.Even her iconic character in Gilda is really a good and decent woman. The role of Elsa enabled Rita to play a darker and crueller character than audiences were used to seeing her play. 

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Elsa and Michael. Screenshot by me.

When Michael first meets Elsa he can’t keep his distance from her. It really isn’t difficult to see why he is so drawn to her. He wants her, he thinks endlessly about her, and he is wrongly led to believe that she needs him and likes him.

Elsa (just like all Femme Fatales) is like one of those deadly sirens from the old Greek legends. She is an irresistible and alluring being who leads men to a most unpleasant doom indeed.   

Elsa Bannister may well be beautiful and desirable on the outside, but inside she is cold, selfish and heartless. We may at first feel some pity for her at having such an unhappy marriage, but we soon learn that Elsa doesn’t really deserve our sympathy at all. Elsa may well want to break free from her marriage prison, but setting up Michael and leading him on isn’t the way to break free to happiness.

Elsa is clever, but she is also a poor judge of character and is way too sure of herself. When she lures Michael into her web she is also inadvertently sealing her own fate. When he learns that she planned to set him up for murder, Michael is quickly done with her forever. Michael walks away from her after she is shot in the fun house finale. Michael will never be able to forget her though. He will also never lose his genuine feelings for her, but he is at least now free to live in the light and try and have some sort of a happy life.

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Elsa is every inch a Femme Fatale. Screenshot by me.

When Michael gets wise to Elsa, she learns(all too late)the cost of using people and treating them like dirt.

Elsa is still so sure till the last moment of her life that she is irresistible to Michael. She is still so sure that things will go her way. 

She soon realises that she isn’t as irresistible as she thinks. The irony is that Michael genuinely cared about her. Michael could have made her happy if she had gone away with him and not used him. Unfortunately the only person Elsa has ever loved is herself.  

Elsa Bannister dies alone, crying and screaming for help. While her fate may sound rather cold and cruel, her death is actually the fate that she deserved. As deserved as it is, it certainly can’t be denied that Elsa’s death is a lonely and harsh one. Her death sees her lying on the floor of the dark hall of mirrors, discarded like a piece of rubbish that has been dropped on the floor.

Elsa’s behaviour and fate stand as a warning to all the characters who we see throughout Film Noir. Getting too wrapped up in revenge, temptation, lust, murder, and hate can only end in unhappiness and death. You can only use and push people so far before they push back. You can only step so far into the darkness before you are consumed entirely by it. 

I find it very difficult to imagine any other actress in the role of Elsa Bannister. Rita inhabits and plays the role of Elsa Bannister to perfection. Rita’s performance is seductive and mesmerising. It’s one of Rita’s best performances in my opinion. With Rita playing Elsa, the character could also be viewed as showing us what could have happened to Rita’s other famous character in Gilda. Imagine what Gilda would have been like if she had lost her warmth and instead become soulless and cold? I think we have the answer to that in the form of Elsa Bannister. 

Elsa Bannister leaves a lasting impression on anyone who watches Lady From Shanghai. She has become one of the most iconic of the Noir Femme Fatales. What are your thoughts on Elsa?

Do you love Film Noir? If you do, I would love to invite you to join my Noirathon.