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’

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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
Posted by:

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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KEYWORDS: No Orchids for Miss Blandish
COMMENTS: 8
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Hammer Noir: A Poster Gallery

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This evening (5 PM PST and 8 PM EST) an interesting batch of British noirs produced by Hammer Films will be making their debut on Turner Classic Movies. The four films scheduled to air include HEAT WAVE aka The House Across the Lake (dir. Ken Hughes, 1954) featuring Hillary Brooke as a seductive blonde who convinces an American writer (Alex Nicol) to help her murder her wealthy husband. This is followed by PAID TO KILL aka Five Days (dir. Montgomery Tully, 1954) where Dane Clark plays a suicidal man with money problems who has second thoughts after he hires a hit man to kill him and the aptly titled GAMBLER AND THE LADY (dir Patrick Jenkins, 1952), which also features Dane Clark as a successful gambler who attempts to “buy his way into British society.” The programming comes to a fun finish with WINGS OF DANGER aka Dead on Course (dir. Terence Fisher, 1952) starring Zachary Scott in one of his more sympathetic roles as a former pilot plagued by unpredictable blackouts who learns that a friend and fellow flyer may be involved with smugglers.

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Border Incidents: Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and The Hanged Man (1964)

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“He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled further across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t get out of. Because no matter how you tried, no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains. He didn’t like it at all when they moved into this town, his destination. Because this was the center of the trap; it was a long way back to civilization in any direction. The thing to do was get out quick.” – Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy B. Hughes

 

Ride the Pink Horse is a grim procedural of hate. Published in 1946, it was Dorothy B. Hughes’ ninth novel, and second to be adapted into a film, following The Fallen Sparrow (1943). A cynical gunman named Sailor travels to a remote New Mexico town during their yearly “Fiesta”, a Southwestern Mardi Gras. He is tracking down his former mentor “The Sen”, a corrupt ex-Senator, for shakedown money. Sailor is a single-minded racist brute, circling the small town in ritualistic repetitions, until the map of the main square is in ingrained in your head (one of the early Dell paperback editions included a map on the back anyway). Sailor is an outsider, and no matter how often he treads the city’s streets, it continues to constrict slowly around him. Robert Montgomery’s 1947 movie adaptation for Universal-International alters many of the plot details, but captures the doomed fatalism of Hughes’ work. Typecast as a light romantic comedy lead, Montgomery took on greater risks as a director, starting with the POV experiments of Lady in the Lake (1947) and continuing through the elaborate crane shots orchestrated by DP Russell Metty in Ride the Pink Horse. It has been a certified cult film ever since Jean Cocteau programmed it at the Festival du Film Maudit in Biarritz in 1949, but it has been hard to see until next week, March 17th, when the Criterion Collection releases it on DVD and Blu-ray.

But this was not the only adaptation of Ride the Pink Horse. In 1964 Don Siegel directed the telefilm The Hanged Man for NBC, after his adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers was pulled from broadcast, deemed too “spicy, expensive and violent for TV screens.” This time he got his project on the air — the second made-for-TV movie ever shown. The setting is relocated to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, emphasizing the choked streets and vibrant colors that Robert Culp and Edmond O’Brien wander through with clenched determination.

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Nippon Noir: I AM WAITING (1957)

iam1In recent years I’ve seen a critical push to apply familiar terms like Film Noir to all manner of Japanese crime films made during the 1950s and 60s. The term has even been applied to the culturally specific Sun Tribe films (please see my previous post that discusses Sun Tribe films), Pink Films of an adult nature and the more experimental and political films that exemplify the Japanese New Wave. I don’t always agree with this “roping in” because it often limits our understanding of Japanese cinema which contains historical and cultural influences that often defy simplistic categorizations. But sometimes the term fits.

It’s worth remembering that after WW2 the Japanese film industry was largely controlled by the U.S. occupation forces and Japanese filmmakers faced immense pressure from American censors to make films that resembled Hollywood‘s own output at the time. And in postwar America Film Noir was thriving. The concentrated effort to destroy much of Japan’s cinematic history and modernize the country led to an onslaught of gun totting detectives, dangerous dames and cutthroat criminals in Japanese cinema that began replacing the sword wielding samurais, kimono clad ladies and gentle families that had previously populated the movies. Amid these changes filmmakers created their own distinct body of work that became more progresses and subversive after the American occupation ended. But the impact of Hollywood’s aggressively imposed influence is undeniable and in this postwar climate elements of Film Noir became deeply rooted within the Japanese film industry. One particularly striking example of this is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s I AM WAITING (1957), which makes its debut on TCM January 18th (1am PST/4am EST).

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January 10, 2015
David Kalat
Posted by:

The Ministry of Fear

So what do we find here? Two different fortune tellers, neither one genuine. A dead man who isn’t dead—or, put another way, a man who is killed twice. Two different characters who kill a loved one, a set of secret microfilm that is stolen twice, a fake blind man, fake cops, a fake delivery of some fake books to a fake address. Is Mr. Travers the same man as Dr. Forester, or is Mr. Travers the same man as Mr. Costa? Which Mrs. Bellane is the real one—or is neither one of them a real person?

OK, slow down. Take this one step at a time.

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KEYWORDS: Dan Duryea, Fritz Lang, Ministry of Fear, Ray Milland
COMMENTS: 9
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