Q&A: Michael Kronenberg From the Film Noir Foundation

NOIRCITYcovers
NOIR CITY cover designs by Michael Kronenberg

TCM’s Summer of Darkness is almost over but before Friday night’s Film Noir programming comes to an end I decided to contact artist and designer, Michael Kronenberg and chat with him about his work with TCM guest host Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation. I’ve admired Kronenberg’s work for a longtime so it was nice to be able to learn more about the man and his creative influences. If you like film noir, pulp fiction, comic books and great art, you should enjoy our timely back-and-forth.

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In Film Noir, Never Take the Stairs

stairssidestreetIn watching Side Street (left) last Friday as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness, I noticed how cleverly the locations were integrated into this story of an average guy stepping into a web of intrigue out of his control. As a matter of fact, he was such a “regular Joe,” that the character’s name was actually Joe!

The typically convoluted plotline had Joe chasing all over New York looking for a cache of stolen money. Each new clue led him to a specific address in a different part of the city—Central Park West, Belleview Hospital, W. 8th Street, Wall Street, etc. The streets were located all over Manhattan in a variety of neighborhoods, as though the impact of this particular crime was spreading out across the city map, like spilled ink. Side Street was directed by Anthony Mann and shot on location by Joseph Ruttenberg; the locations gave the narrative authenticity.

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Big Blondes, Big Guns, and Big Bad Criminals: Fun with Film Noir Posters

posterdangerlivesI love movie posters from the Golden Age, because they were designed and executed by graphic artists and illustrators. They retained the expressive flavor of paintings and illustrations and followed the aesthetics of those artistic mediums. In contrast, today’s photography-based posters, no matter how artistic, are grounded in the realism inherent in that medium. Film noir posters are particularly appealing, because the genre is defined by specific visual characteristics, and the posters echo those in interesting ways.

Most of the posters in this article are from upcoming movies yet to air as part of TCM’s Summer of Darkness. The posters not only depict the noir style and suggest the genre’s themes, but I thought they might entice readers to catch a few of these films on Fridays during the month of July.

The covers of detective magazines and novels as well as posters for gangster films influenced the imagery found on noir posters—big blondes, big guns, and big bad criminals. The suit and fedora worn by the private eyes on the magazine covers became the conventional costume of the noir protagonist in the movies and posters. His hard-boiled nature was suggested visually through the serious, focused expression of the movie’s male lead. The posters also borrowed the color coding for femme fatales and bad girls, depicting them in low-cut red dresses to suggest passion, danger, and violence.

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Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die

cornellopenerResearching, re-viewing, and re-visiting film noir this summer through TCM’s Summer of Darkness has led me beyond the trio of hard-boiled novelists/screenwriters generally discussed as the genre’s literary architects: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Daniel Mainwaring, author of Build My Gallows High on which Out of the Past was based, and I was delighted to discover the extent of his contributions to postwar Hollywood. Several readers suggested I also look into Cornell Woolrich, best known for penning the story that served as the basis for Rear Window. While every movie lover can connect his name to Rear Window, few know much beyond that—including myself. Not only is he the least familiar contributor to mystery fiction and film noir, but, in a genre created by a number of self-destructive, anxiety-ridden, and depressed writers, Woolrich was arguably the most troubled.

When the reclusive, alcoholic, diabetic died in 1968, he left behind several unfinished stories, including one titled “First You Dream, Then You Die.” The title seems a suitable epitaph for his wretched life—so suitable, in fact, that writer Francis M. Nevins, Jr., used it for his definitive, 600-page biography of Woolrich.

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Postwar Amnesiac Blues: The Clay Pigeon (1949)

Clay-Pigeon

 

After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.

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FROM THE PEN OF DANIEL MAINWARING

mainwaringgallowsRaymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett are the triumvirate of noir writers hailed not only for their hard-boiled novels but also for their work as scriptwriters and script doctors during the Golden Age. No one can dispute their importance and influence, but those hallowed names tend to overshadow other writers who contributed to hard-boiled literature and the film noir genre.

I recently stumbled across an old interview conducted by film programmer Tom Flinn with writer Daniel Mainwaring. I knew little about Mainwaring save for his association with two of my favorite films from the 1950s—Out of the Past and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I didn’t even know his name was pronounced “Man-a-ring,” not “Main-wearing.” But after sifting through Flinn’s interview, I was inspired to poke around Mainwaring’s life and career. While his work was not exclusive to the noir genre, I believe it echoed the paranoia and disillusionment that simmered beneath the bright, shiny surface of the 1950s.

Like many Hollywood personnel who rose through the ranks during the Golden Age, Mainwaring experienced an interesting life, which fed into his writing. As a fresh-faced college grad in the Roaring ‘20s, he worked the crime beat for the L.A. Examiner. Around 1935, he made the transition to the film industry, starting at the bottom in the Warner Bros. publicity department. He always claimed that working in the publicity racket gave him an insider’s understanding of the Hollywood dream factory.

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Planning to Watch ‘Summer of Darkness ?’ You’ll Need This Noir-cabulary !

noiropenerI am proclaiming 2015 the year of film noir. Not only am I teaching a course on noir this fall, but TCM is presenting 53 films in the noir-themed “Summer of Darkness,” which airs every Friday in June and July. In preparation for my course, I am reading detective novels, perusing the latest books on the genre, and screening potential films for viewing in class.

My students will be 70 years removed from the original cycle of noir and 30 years removed from the neo-noir movies of the 1970s. This occurred to me when I was re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, and the colorful WWII-era slang jumped right off the page. While the Production Code prevented the film versions of these hard-boiled novels from using the grittier slang, I realized that my students are not going to know the difference between a gat and a gam, or a C-note and a fin. I decided to create a vocabulary list of common slang terms from the era.

I am sharing my first draft of the list for two reasons: I want to lure viewers into watching TCM’s Summer of Darkness every Friday, and I am hoping that fans of the genre will add to my “noir-cabulary.” If you can recall an imaginative phrase or word from a hard-boiled novel or a film noir, let me know, and I will consider adding it to the list. Or, if you remember a line of dialogue that makes a nifty use of slang, that would be helpful, too.

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Unusual Commentary Tracks

 

Terror of Frankenstein

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with Tim Kirk, producer of Room 237, The Nightmare, and other titles. We talked about commentary tracks because he is releasing something called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. The normal order of business would be to simply re-release Terror of Frankenstein (Calvin Floyd, 1977), and then add a commentary track as a bonus. Sadly, the only existing elements that remain for Terror of Frankenstein are sketchy at best and not worth revisiting in and of themselves. A serendipitous conversation, however, between Kirk and Terror of Frankenstein star Leon Vitali opened the door to a mysterious world behind Floyd’s surprisingly faithful adaption of Mary Shelley’s story. Given Vitali’s work with Stanley Kubrick, he is already the subject of a few conspiracy theories himself, but what Vitali reveals in his commentary track to Terror of Frankenstein suggests that method-acting can go too far. It might even lead to murder. [...MORE]

‘Night Moves’ vs. ‘The Long Goodbye’

nightposter

TCM airs one of my favorite film noirs, Night Moves, tonight at 12:15am as part the evening’s tribute to production designer George Jenkins. This 1975 film has been on my mind recently because I am scheduled to teach a course in film noir in the fall. It has been a long time since I have been able to devote an entire semester to one genre, and I want to give my film selection some serious thought. I am torn between using Night Moves by Arthur Penn and The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman to represent the Film School Generation, when certain directors experimented with the conventions, norms, and standards of Hollywood genres. These films have been dubbed experimental noirs, deconstructed noirs, and even anti-noirs, but whatever you call them, they do represent a different treatment of the genre.

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April 18, 2015
David Kalat
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50 Shades of Miss Blandish

 Tomorrow (Sunday the 19th), TCM will be wallowing in filth. Yup, they’re going to be screening a movie that the Monthly Film Bulletin labeled “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen.” Sight and Sound deemed it “a piece of calculated nastiness,” the Daily Mirror called it “as fragrant as a cesspool,” and Sunday Pictorial raved “a piece of nauseating muck.” And if that isn’t enough blurbs to fill out your movie poster with, let’s also add that the Daily Express declared it a “wicked disgrace to the British film industry,” the Star pronounced it “one of the most undesirable pictures ever turned out by a British studio,” and the Sunday Times proposed inventing an all new rating just to classify this one film: “D for Disgusting.”

So, what are we talking about here? A piece of hard-core pornography, perhaps? A snuff film? A work of Soviet Socialist Realism full of secret communist propaganda?

Nope—it’s a 1948 film noir with the unassuming title of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

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