Moderntimes Blog Mon, 02 Jan 2012 16:58:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Postage Paid: In Defense of Elia Kazan Fri, 21 Oct 2011 01:00:01 +0000 Michael Mills
Elia Kazan 1979
Elia Kazan 1979

Between 1945 and 1957 Elia Kazan directed 10 critically acclaimed motion pictures. He won Academy Awards as best director for Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and On the Waterfront (1954). He was nominated for best director for two other films during that period, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and East of Eden (1955). Kazan also directed two of the most profound and influential dramas in Broadway history, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and The Death of a Salesman (1948). His novel The Arrangement, published in 1967, became a best seller.

Kazan came to the fore during the post-World War II years, arguably the most controversial period in Hollywood history. His films of the period contributed much to the reputation of 20th Century Fox, and augmented further the luster and brilliance of Darryl F. Zanuck. Kazan, nicknamed “Gadge” was one of the great directors of his time. His post-war films remain as powerful and compelling as any produced in America. For a period of 12 years Elia Kazan had no peer!


In January 1952 Kazan was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In the early 1930s he had been a founding member of the leftist “Group Theater” in New York. And for a year and a half beginning in 1934 he was a member of the Communist Party. Kazan admitted in this initial session that he had been a member of the Party while with the Group Theater. He quit the Party, he claimed “in disgust”. He denied the accusation that the Group Theater was a “front” organization, and that its three directors where Communists. He was pressed by New York Congressman Bernard Kearney to supply the committee with the names of other members in the Group Theater he had known to be Communists. He refused.

Group Theater

Kazan and cast from Clifford Odets, "Waiting for Lefty"

Kazan and cast from Clifford Odets, “Waiting for Lefty”

By that spring Kazan began to have doubts about his testimony before the committee. Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century Fox implied that if Kazan did not disclose the other Group Theater members he knew to be Communists, that Kazan would never work in pictures again. He consulted with his friend, playwright Arthur Miller. Miller said it would be a personal disaster if Kazan was run out of the picture business. Kazan and Miller had always been frank with each other about the Communist business. Miller knew that, by now, Kazan was a fierce anti-Communist, but Kazan refrained from “red-baiting” around Miller. Arthur Miller was against the Marshall plan and the U.S. Policy in Korea. In making his argument to Miller, Kazan expressed “To defend a secrecy I don’t think right and to defend people who have already been named or soon would be by someone else… I hate the Communists and have for many years and don’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them. I will give up my film career if it is in the interests of defending something I believe in, but not this”. Miller put his arm around Kazan and retorted, “don’t worry about what I’ll think. Whatever you do is okay with me, because I know that your heart is in the right place”. Among the names Kazan gave the committee that spring were the great writer Clifford Odets, (who himself would later “name names”), Lee and Paula Strasburg, Lillian Hellman, Joe Bromberg, and John Garfield.


After the testimony, Kazan was maligned in toto. The “Nation” magazine slurred him with the lie that he did it all to save a Fox contract. The truth is that Darryl Zanuck called him into his office and explained that because Kazan was now such a controversial figure the studio could not pay his salary for the final picture remaining on his contract. “I had become an easy mark for every self-righteous prick in New York and Hollywood”. He drew Arthur Miller’s scorn in a letter Miller wrote to the “New York Post”. A side note here regarding Marlon Brando. Clifford Odets had a brief conversation with Brando before Odets gave testimony before the committee. “That was a terrible thing Gadge did in Washington,” Brando said. “I’m not going to work with him anymore. But he’s good for me. Maybe I’ll work with him a couple of more times, at least once.” Brando’s alienation was not so final that he refused On the Waterfront.

"Viva Zapata", 1952

“Viva Zapata”, 1952

Many years later Kazan said Viva Zapata, which he was filming during the time of his committee testimony, “was structured to expose the ineffectiveness of idealistic revolutionaries, I believe that democracy progresses, through internecine war, through constant tension –we grow only through conflict. And that’s what democracy is. In that sense, people have to be vigilant, and that vigilance is effective. I truly believe that all power corrupts. Such is probably the thinking behind every political film ever made in Hollywood”. This was a profound statement about his values and beliefs. Kazan never backed away from his statements. He declared several years later, “within two years I had no regrets”.

Lifetime Achievement Award

On March 21,  1999 Elia Kazan, age 89, received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Already the extreme Hollywood Left is crying foul. For the past 50 years, resentment for Kazan has continued unabated. J. Hoberman, critic for the New York’s Village Voice, admits that while Kazan’s career is worthy, the award is hypocritical. “There’s never been an industry acknowledgment of the careers that the blacklist cost”, if that has anything to do with Kazan’s merit? Bitter and unrelenting, writer/director, Abraham Polonsky quipped, “I’ll be watching, hoping someone shoots him. It would no doubt be a thrill in an otherwise dull evening.” Its As though Kazan was responsible for the transgressions of the entire period. Probably the most absurd statement regarding the Lifetime Achievement Award comes from Rod Steiger whom Kazan directed in On the Waterfront. Steiger said it wasn’t until the end of shooting that he learned of Kazan’s cooperation with HUAC. And in which galaxy was Mr. Steiger residing in 1952? “It was like I found out my father was sleeping with my sister”, he said. A bit over the top, even for the imperious Steiger!

The lone voice of reason seems to be that of “Los Angles Times” film critic Kenneth Thran, who adds, “The only criterion for an award like this is the work”. The filmmaker has already been denied accolades from “The American Film Institute”, and the “Los Angles Film Critics Associations”. It’s time for the Academy to recognize this genius. We applauded when the great Chaplin finally had his hour. It’s now time for Elia Kazan. To deny him now would be akin to keeping Pete Rose out of the baseball Hall of Fame.

Michael Mills

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The Best Actor Never To Win The Oscar Wed, 05 Oct 2011 21:09:21 +0000 Michael Mills Fred MacMurray, EGR, "Double Indemnity" 1944

Fred MacMurray, EGR, “Double Indemnity” 1944

That Edward G. Robinson never got the Oscar he so richly deserved, noting especially his chilling performance as Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf, is a pity! He must be regarded as one America’s finest film actors. In Caesar Enrico Bandello, he created the prototype for the modern American movie gangster. For the wonderful memories he gave me, this post if dedicated. Information about Eddie is extremely difficult to obtain. Any additional information on Edward G. Robinson is welcomed here.

Emanuel Goldenberg, forceful, authoritative character star of Hollywood films, memorable for his tough impersonation of gangster boss Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (1930) and many other characterizations of underworld types in Warner’s crime cycle of the 1930s. In the US from age–10, he grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and gave up plans to become a rabbi or a lawyer in favor of acting during studies at City College, where he was elected to the Elizabethan Society. He won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and, changing his name to Edward G. (the G. for Goldenberg) Robinson, began appearing in stock in 1913. He made it to Broadway in 1915 and over the next 15 years appeared with increasing recognition in a wide variety of plays, including The Kibitzer (1929), a three–act comedy that he also wrote with Jo Swerling. He made an isolated film appearance during the silent era, playing a supporting role in The Bright Shawl (1923), but it was only after the advent of sound that he began to be seen regularly in movies. After his great success with Little Caesar (1930), a performance that became a prototype for screen gangster portrayals, Robinson was typecast for several years in similar roles, but he gradually broadened his range and proved himself a highly skilled actor in a great variety of parts. He gave memorable performances in two screen biographies Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), the story of the German scientist who developed a cure for venereal disease, and A Dispatch From Reuters (1940), the chronicle of the man who pioneered the telegraphic news agency. Some of his best portrayals where in psychological dramas of the 1940s, notably Flesh and Fantasy (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945).

Edward G. Robinson, 1938

Edward G. Robinson, 1938

Robinson’s personal life was beset by problems in the 1950s. Despite a well–known record of activity for patriotic causes during and after WWII, his name was linked by Red Channels with Communist–front organizations. He was called to testify before the House Un–American Activities Committee but was cleared of all suspicion and won a clean bill of health. In 1956 he was forced to sell his famous art collection, one of the world’s largest privately owned, as part of his divorce settlement with his wife of 29 years, actress Gladys George. During this period he was also troubled by the maladjustment of his only son, who got into frequent frictions with the law and attempted suicide several times. Despite the personal setbacks, Robinson continued his busy acting career on television as well as in films. In 1956 he returned to Broadway after a long absence, scoring a success in the role of an elderly widower who marries a young bride in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. His film appearances during the 1960s were mainly in the supporting capacity. In the Academy Award ceremonies that took place shortly after his death of cancer in 1973, Robinson was awarded a special Oscar in recognition of his achievements in films, in a magnificent career that spanned five decades of cinema. His life provided the basis for the 1979 play Manny, by Raymond Serra, who also played the title role.

New York Times, January 27, 1973: By ALDEN WIMAN

“HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 26, Edward G. Robinson, whose tough, sinister appearance on movie screens concealed the soul of a gentle man, died today at the age of 79. Robinson succumbed at Mount Sinai Hospital where he had undergone tests in recent weeks. The cause of death was not immediately determined.”

“Edward G. Robinson was a skilled actor of the stage and screen whose vivid portrayal of motion picture gangsters, among them Little Caesar, during the 1930s marked powerful mobsters who ruled the underworld during the Prohibition era. So effective was Robinson interpretation of the gangster that many of the underworld characters found themselves affecting the Robinson character chomping down on cigar butts while snarling orders out of the sides of their mouths.”

The Sea Wolf, 1941

“The Sea Wolf” 1941

“But while Robinson was making his mark on others, he himself, remained strangely unaffected. In real life he was a man of great kindness and courtesy whose generosity scarcely knew bounds. Between 1939 and 1949 he made more than 850 contributions totaling $250,000 from relief and entertainment agencies, to cultural educational and religious groups. His art collection comprised perhaps the outstanding group of privately owned paintings in the United States. During the course of a marital settlement it was sold in 1957 for $3,250,000.”

“Robinson was born Dec,. 12, 1893, as Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Rumania. One of Robinson’ brothers was hit on the head with a rock during a schoolboy pogrom and years later, in America, died probably from the effects of the blow. To escape this persecution the family managed to scrape together the fare for steerage passage and came to the United States. “At Ellis Island I was born again,” Robinson wrote later. “Life for me began when I was 10 years old.”

Made Speeches to Friends

As a boy, as soon as he had mastered English, he made speeches to his family and friends. His favorite was Theodore Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, which he had committed to memory. He hoped to become a criminal lawyer “to defend the human beings who were abused and exploited.” With this purpose he entered Townsend Harris High School and after that City College. It was at City College that the youth decided to forgo his law career to be an actor. He loved to perform before people. But Robinson’s study of the theater told him that there had been many little men in the theater. He won a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Art with a sizzling and effective delivery of the Brutus and Cassius quarrel scene from Julius Caesar.

Destroyer, 1943

“Destroyer” 1943

He was 19 when he entered dramatic school and shortly thereafter changed his name to Robinson “a name I had heard while sitting in the balcony of the Criterion Theater.” He played in stock in Cincinnati, in vaudeville as a Chinese man in a skit at Hammerstein’s. He finally broke into the legitimate theater in 1915 in a play called Under Fire. He got the part because he was multilingual, an attribute called for in the script. Role followed role and the youngster received many good notices. He joined the Theater Guild and played a great variety of roles. In such productions as The Adding Machine, The Brothers Karamazov, Right You Are, If You Think You Are, and Juarez and Maximilian. He was starred for the first time in The Kibitzer, a play of which he was the co–author. In January, 1927, Robinson married Gladys George, an actress.

Robinson had experimented with several screen roles in silent pictures but he was not happy with the result. With the addition of sound to the shadows, however, Robinson’s interest was renewed and he tried his first talking–picture The Hole in the Wall, There followed The Widow from Chicago and a short time later, in 1931, Little Caesar. Of Little Caesar a critic for The New York Times wrote:

Little Caesar becomes at Robinson’s hands a figure out of a Greek tragedy, a cold, ignorant, merciless killer, driven on and on by an insatiable lust for power, the plaything of a force that is greater than himself. The film contained a climatic line that itself became a classic, Little Caesars parting words as he lay slumped under a billboard after he had been shot by the police…”

“Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

Rico's End

Rico’s End

It was sometimes said that Robinson was selected to play the role of Little Caesar because of a resemblance to Al Capone, the Chicago vice baron. Robinson doubted this theory, and there was no real–life resemblance. Hollywood makeup artists, however, always managed to make Robinson look as sinister as Capone was reputed to be. A more reasonable theory was that Hollywood sought him out because of his success as Nick Scarsi, a character in a play entitled  The Racket. is play was so real, Robinson once remarked, that it could not be produced in Chicago, in any event, his portrayal of Little Caesar came to be considered a classic, and there followed others in the curled lip mold Smart Money, Five Star Final, Bullets or Ballots,

The actor thought Five Star Final, one of his finest tough guy pictures. In it he played Randall, the editor of a muckraking tabloid. This film, released in 1931, along with many of his other movies, has been revived from time to time on television. Robinson’ first real departure from his two–fisted type of role on the screen was Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet in 1940, and even this film about syphilis was billed as “the war against the greatest public enemy of all.”

Appeared in 100 Films

From 1929 to 1966 Robinson appeared in more than 100 films. His name, until recent years, usually meant good box office. in all, his films grossed well over $50–million, and this figure is a modest estimate. His own earnings were high and he lived appropriately. Robinson was the first Hollywood star to entertain in France after the invasion of Normandy. He sold war bonds and it was said he turned his regular weekly radio dramatic show Big Town into a soap box in favor of the American way. The American Legion gave the program a citation and he was commended for his “outstanding contribution to Americanism through his stirring patriotic appeals…” But because he had allowed his name to be linked with so many causes, inevitably there were those with a Communist tinge. Robinson was named in Red Channels in connection with 11 Communist front organizations. But Robinson carried his case to the House Un–American Activities Committee and eventually won a clean bill of health.

Woman in the Window, 1944

“Woman in the Window” 1944

After 28 years as a movie actor Robinson returned to the stage in Middle of the Night and scored a success. At the age of 63 he was a forceful and vital figure on the stage and the youthful cast said that they found it difficult to match his boundless energy. In Middle of the Night he portrayed an aging widower who married a much younger woman. Early in 1958, while he was still appearing in the Paddy Chayefsky play, Robinson was married to Jane Bodenheimer, a 38–year–old dress designer known professionally as Jane Arden.

After his stage success, the actor performed occasionally on television and played featured roles in several other movies. In all he appeared in 40 Broadway plays and more than 100 films. Among his most recent movies were A Boy Ten Feet Tall, Cheyenne Autumn, The Cincinnati Kid and Sammy Going South. It was while making this picture in 1964 that he suffered a mild heart attack.

Robinson was an excellent actor and was to have received a special Oscar for his “outstanding contribution to motion pictures” at the Academy Awards ceremony March 27, It would have been his first Oscar.

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Stanley Kubrick & Marie Windsor Wed, 28 Sep 2011 19:05:14 +0000 Michael Mills
Marie Windsor

“I didn’t know I was doing film noir, I thought they were detective stories with low lighting! Even Kubrick, in 1955 during filming of The Killing, never used the term film noir to my knowledge.

Kubrick had all his shots laid out before he started, all sketched out by his wife, who was quite a good artist. He had them all around his office. I guess that’s why we made it in 21 days, with very few takes. The scene where I took my eyelashes off we did in two takes.

He didn’t direct in front of anybody else. He’d say, Marie. Come over here a minute. We’d go behind the scenery, and he’d say, In this scene I want you to be really tired and lazy. I’d had some stage training, and he was trying to get me not to use my big voice.

Though I’m sure Stanley was full of energy, he didn’t seem like it because he was so quiet and he moved very calculatingly–rather slow physically. Whereas Abraham Polonsky Force of Evil, 1949 was bouncing around, very full of energy and electricity.

Elisha Cook was a darling, and full of the devil. A wired–up little fellow who was always busy, busy, busy. The Killing was the first time I’d worked with him, and I didn’t work with him again until Salem’s Lot 20 years later. I got to know Sterling Hayden fairly well. He was a quiet man, who got more complicated as the years went on. Timothy Carey–he, is really weird. When I won the Look award for Best Supporting, Kubrick wanted to shoot publicity shots with his house for a background. You can’t believe this guy. He slept on a tom mattress with no sheets, windows that had burlap hanging instead of curtains. It looked worse than skid row, but Kubrick really thought he had charisma.

Kubrick had a part for me in Lolita as Shelly Winters’ best friend, but there was a problem in England with the EADY plan, and there was no way that they could squeeze me in. I haven’t seen him in a long time, but we exchange Valentine’s cards. I feel people have more time to think about it if they get a Valentine. Christmas is too crazy with other things.

No extra time was spent on the low key lighting for these films. George Diskant, the cameraman on The Narrow Margin, 1952 was excellent with tricky lighting situations because we were on the train in such confined quarters, but in all those pictures we moved very fast. I can’t remember anybody saying, Let’s get this show on the road.

I’m 5′ 9″, and there were two stars in my life who didn’t mind that I was taller than they– George Raft and John Garfield. Raft told me how to walk with him in a scene: We’d start off in a long shot normal, and about the time we got together in a close-up, I’d be bending my knees so I’d be shorter. I had to do a tango with Raft and I learned to dance in ballet shoes with my knees bent.”

Roy H.Frumkes, “The Perfect Vision 15”, (Fall 1992): 138

Michael Mills

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Midnight Ramble & Early Black Hollywood Thu, 01 Sep 2011 06:00:36 +0000 Michael Mills The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

The motion picture industry most likely began in Los Angles in 1902 when Thomas L. Tully opened the first theater exclusively for moving pictures. From its earliest days, when movies were thought of as peep shows, the Negro was presented in an unfavorable light.

The year 1915 is a significant date in motion picture history. This is the year of the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film version of Thomas Dixon’s pro South, Ku Klux Klan, novel, The Clansman. In terms of advancement of the medium, it must be regarded as one of the most significant films ever made. Subsequent to its release, movies were crude at best, with uneven lighting and quick jerky movements, the acting, melodramatic and exaggerated. From an artistic and technical outlook, it was a masterpiece of conception and structure. Though much has been written about it’s overt racism, it gave rise to the modern narrative film.

The Reconstruction scenes in The Birth of a Nation are especially harsh. The black members of Congress are portrayed as arrogant, lustful, and are shown drinking heavily right on the House floor. They are depicted going about the business of the country coarsely reclining in their congressional chairs, with bare feet plopped upon their desks. When the film was released small riots broke out in Boston, and other cities. A fledgling NAACP (formed in 1910) sought in vain to have the film banned. The Nation magazine declared it “improper, immoral, and injurious… a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens”. The Birth of a Nation was popular for a decade and doubtlessly did much damage to race relations.

Existing as early as 1918 were small studios such as the Norman Studio and Lincoln Pictures. They made dignified pictures in an attempt to shatter the abrogating stereotype of Black Americans. The films they produced came to be known as —Race Movies. Lincoln Pictures, especially was noted for the quality material upon which its films were based. In 1918 Lincoln Pictures released a film entitled The Homesteader, written by a Midwesterner named Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux, sometimes referred to as the Cecil B. De Mill of race movies, went on to produce over 40 films, and was active until his death in 1951. In 1987 he received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.


Except for a hand full of players, the star system had not yet been developed. Black parts, let alone black stars were not favored in the current order. That was all about to change however, as the decade of the 1920s, and the Jazz age approached.

Hal Wallis's Our Gang

Hal Wallis’ Our Gang

Between The Birth of a Nation, and The Jazz Singer (1927), there were about two dozen films with important black characters or scenes. None were as openly anti-Negro as The Birth of a Nation, but except for one or two, most adhered to the established stereotypes. The decade of the 1920s did however, see a decline in the number of Blackface white actors that dominated the pre-talkies. It should be said here that for reasons unknown the Blackface roles of Al Jolson, (arguably the most famous entertainers of the first half of the twentieth century), were acceptable to black performers1. Moreover, Jolson demonstrated a genuine respect to black artists.

Interestingly it was The Our Gang comedy series about the adventurers of a group of children produced by Hal Wallis beginning in 1918 that begin to crack the pre-World War I anti-Negro stereotype. Comparatively speaking their record of fair play was well above the average. The original cast included Allen Clayton Hoskins (Farina), who became one of the most popular child stars in Hollywood. He and Sammy Morrison (Sunshine) stood equal and were as much a part of the gang as were the white children.

With the coming of sound, the talking and singing voice of the Negro, would most distinguish him or her from white society. The period from 1927 to 1939 (when the next great anti-Negro film was released) the number of black parts greatly increased.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry—Stepin Fetchit

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry

Hearts in Dixie (1929), was film of major importance for two reasons. First, it was the first Hollywood film to feature an all black cast. Second and more importantly, the film introduced to wider audiences, one of the film industry’s most polemical figures ever —Stepin Fetchit. Born Lincoln Theodore Monroe Perry in Key West Florida in 1902, he took the name Stepin Fetchit from a race horse on which he had won money. Fetchit had been seen earlier in bits, but this was his first starring vehicle. His great talent was used, by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro. He was active in films until 1976, and died in 1985. Stepin Fetchit was and continues to be one of the most mystifying characters in motion picture history.

Also released in 1929 was Hallelujah about a black cotton worker who accidentally kills a man and then decides to become a preacher. It too featured an all black cast. Released by MGM, it was director King Vidor’s first talking picture. Hallelujah was the second all-Negro feature produced by a major Hollywood studio. It was vital in the it gave black performers significant roles. Hallelujah had a freshness and truth that was not attained again for thirty years.

An exceptional though controversial film of the early 1930s was The Emperor Jones (1933). The screen version of Eugene O’Neill’s play starring Paul Robeson, it’s about a train-porter who becomes emperor of a Caribbean nation. Mainstream critics praised it as one of the best films of the year, while black critics were divided. Some thought it well that a black monarch be chronicled, and for the first time, a white character be presented as his lackey. Others, however emphasized the dubious Pullman-porter, chain-gang, and voodoo scenes as particularly trite. They pointed to the finale which has Robeson, the emperor, groveling on his belly in the spirit-infested jungle.


Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington

Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington

Another exceptional film of the early 1930s was Imitation of Life (1934), based on the book by Fannie Hurst. The story contains a sub-plot about a beautiful light skinned black women (Fredi Washington) who tries to pass for white. She is the daughter of a black “mammy” type servant played by Louise Beavers. The two principals were caught in the middle of a journalistic controversy between Fannies Hurst, and Sterling Brown. Brown was professor of the history of the theater at Howard University and film critic for the magazine Opportunity. He charged that the characters of the two women were outrageously slanted. Hurst, on the other hand claimed that she portrayed them with “integrity and accuracy”.

The same period saw films favorable to blacks, Arrowsmith (1931), in which Clarence Brooks portrays a dignified doctor in the West Indies. A reviewer of the Associated Negro Press termed it ”the best legitimate part ever allotted to a colored actor in the history of the movies”2. Another was The Singing Kid (1936), where Cab Calloway and Al Jolson pal around as equals. Flying Down to Rio (1933), has Etta Moten singing and dancing the Carioca. The Spirit of Youth (1938), a thinly masked autobiography of Joe Louis did much to propel his popularity among white audiences. With the acceptation of Arrowsmith though, these films must be considered lightweight. Though they at least did nothing to further the prevailing stereotype.

The 1930s also witnessed the further impetus of Oscar Micheaux and the Black independents. A notable film of this group was Dark Manhattan (1937), a gangster film produced by George Randol and Ralph Cooper. Beautifully photographed by Roland Price, it was the first all-black cast motion picture with modern story, settings, and costumes. There immediately sprang up a number of companies attempting to make all-Negro pictures in the fashion of Dark Manhattan. However, owing to their lack of experience with the craft and subject matter, these independent efforts blanched in comparison.

Hattie McDanial & Dooley Wilson

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart

Dooley Wilson, Humphrey Bogart

So much has been written about Gone With the Wind (1939), suffice is to say that while The Birth of a Nation was openly anti-Negro, GWTW, was at best clandestinely anti-Negro. Some black critics maintained the where The Birth of a Nation ended, Gone With the Wind began. The latter finished the job of removing from the public mind the Northern view of slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction, and replacing it with the traditional Southern view. Evidence of final victory was the awarding of the Oscar to Hattie McDanial for her role as Mammy in the Margaret Mitchell epic. When asked about her character, McDanial replied, “I’d rather get $7000 a week for playing a maid, than $7 a week for being one!”

Dooley Wilson’s (Sam) in Warner Brother’s Casablanca was probably the beginning of the end of the preponderant Negro stereotype that had dominated Hollywood since its inception. After Rick’s meeting with Ilsa, Sam senses trouble, and his sage advice to the heartbroken Rick, “lets take the car and drive all night, get drunk, go fishing and stay away until she’s gone”, suggests an equality in status. Moreover, it confirms Rick’s deference to Sam, and to Sam’s convictions.

1Thomas Cripps, “A Slow Fade To Black: The Negro in American Films 1900–1942”
2 Lindsay Patterson, “Black Films, and Film-makers”

For more information on Early Black Hollywood see my site, “Midnight Ramble”,  for more images, rare film posters, and related articles.

Michael Mills


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Two From Siodmak: The Killers & Criss Cross Tue, 30 Aug 2011 02:59:03 +0000 Michael Mills Robert Siodmak 1948

Robert Siodmak 1948

While such studios as Twentieth Century Fox, RKO, Paramount, United Artists and even MGM, produced the profusion of movies in the Film Noir cycle, it was Universal who dispensed two genuine pearls of the genre…
The Killers (1946), and Criss Cross (1949).

Here I discuss these two intriguing and well disciplined films, both produced by Universal and both directed by Robert Siodmak. Siodmak like the other German emigre directors Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger dominated the field of Film Noir. Robert Siodmak’s Noir credits also include Phantom Lady (1943), Cry of the City (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordon (1949), but his single Oscar® nomination was for The Killers based loosely on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name.

The Killers, opens as a pair of hired killers drift into a small New Jersey town with the intention of gunning down a local gas station attendant named Swede, Burt Lancaster in his film debut. The Killers await their prey at the local diner. When he fails to appear as scheduled they locate the boarding house where he lives, force their way into his room where he stoically awaits them. Making no attempt to escape, he is killed in a blaze of gunfire. His final words, “I did something wrong—once.” The film unfolds with similar disconnected flashback techniques used earlier in Citizen Kane (1941), and masterfully applied here.

Edmond O'Brien as James Riordan, watch trailer

Edmond O’Brien as James Riordan

The narrative begins when an insurance investigator James Riordan, Edmond O’Brien following a routine claim for a minor amount of money, begins to suspect something more complex because of Lancaster’s unwillingness to do anything to prevent his death. O’Brien’s investigation leads him to an assortment of questionable characters, and it becomes apparent that Lancaster was involved with a gang of thieves. He also learns that Lancaster’s double cross by a woman named Kitty Collins, Ava Gardner left him overwhelmed and distraught. O’Brien concludes that it was only a matter of time until Lancaster’s checkered past caught up with him.

O’Brien desiring to see justice prevail, poses as an underworld operative and is promised a bounty if he can convinces Lancaster’s old gang that he can unearth the missing loot they suspect Lancaster and Gardner swindled after a heist. Securing the gangs confidence, O’Brien locates Gardner, and she agrees to meet him with the express intention of having him killed by the same two men who killed Lancaster. O’Brien sensing the endeavor covers himself and the assassins themselves are killed. Gardner escapes leading O’Brien to the gang leader and real swindler Big Jim Colfax  Albert Dekker, who on his death bed confesses and implicates Gardner.

William Conrad

William Conrad

The Killers contains several classic Noir elements. The gunman portrayed by Charles McGraw, and William Conrad typify the persona of the Noir world. The corrupt cosmos that makes a promising young boxer turn criminal is typical Film Noir. The undercurrent of violence, dark motives, hopelessness are all Noir icons. The film exhibits the same hard-boiled style of Hemingway’s short story, though it ends with the killing of the principal. Script writer Anthony Veiller uses the killing sequence as a prologue in order to explain why Lancaster looses his will to live. Producer Mark Hellinger High Sierra (1941), Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), a former newspaper reporter supervised the entire production. The sensibilities of Siodmak and Veiller with the hard boiled realism of Hellinger blend to exemplify many of the most engaging aspects of Film Noir.

Though the protagonist is clearly Edmond O’Brien, it the broken down boxer Lancaster with whom we are most intrigued. The disjunctive use of time, the unrelated flashbacks, all combine to put us in the voyeuristic position of knowing not only what will become of him, but more importantly why. And despite our protestations he hopelessly falls for the omnipresent femme fatale, an unavoidable ingredient of the Noir cycle. Just as the old-time hood Charleston (Vince Barnet) advises him on the fallibility of listening to the golden harps, we too can only empathize his impending doom.

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, watch trailer

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo

When you double-cross a double-crosser, it’s a Criss Cross… Though it’s been a year since his divorce, Steve Thompson Burt Lancaster is still haunted by the memory of Anna Yvonne DeCarlo, his former wife. He finds himself back in Los Angles, and the nightclub where they spent time together. He is surprised to see DeCarlo on the dance floor. She tells him that she is planning to merry Slim Dundee Dan Duryea whose connections to the local crime syndicate provide her the wealth that Lancaster could not. She implies however, that Duryea’s wealth is no compensation for the physical intensity she and Lancaster shared.

After DeCarlo’s marriage to Duryea, Lancaster again plans to leave town. But as fate (a Noir requisite), would have it he runs into DeCarlo at the Union Station where she is seeing Duryea off on a business trip. Encouraged by DeCarlo’s hints of dissatisfaction with Duryea, Lancaster begins seeing her. This despite warnings from his boyhood friend now a cop Pete Rmairez, Stephen McNally On one occasion Duryea caches them together, and Lancaster sensing trouble improvises an involved scheme to rob the armored car company for which he works.

DeCarlo talks Lancaster into actually going through with the robbery, convincing him that she will abandon Duryea once the job is done. Duryea on the other hand believes that DeCarlo is having an affair with Lancaster, and plans an elaborate double-cross. During the holdup Duryea’s men kill Lancaster’s partner and friend and attempt to kill Lancaster, who is only wounded and manages to kill two of Duryea’s men. He is hospitalized and held up as hero. But because DeCarlo and the money have disappeared, McNally believes it was Lancaster who masterminded the heist. Duryea has Lancaster kidnapped from the hospital, but Lancaster bribes the kidnapper into taking him to DeCarlo. DeCarlo knowing that any moment Duryea will appear attempts to leave the wounded Lancaster, but before she can make an exit Duryea appears and kills them both.

Dan Duryea Yvonne DeCarlo Union Station Los Angeles

Dan Duryea, Yvonne DeCarlo, Union Station Los Angeles

From the very beginning of the film with the aerial shot of the nightclub parking lot we get the feeling of approaching fatality so familiar in the Noir cycle. As Lancaster and DeCarlo embark on their ill-fated intrigue, they attempt to convince one another that everything will work out… that it will soon be over. We have of course, no idea what they are talking about. The scene quickly shifts to the interior of the nightclub where last minute preparations, plans and alibis for the robbery are accelerating. Finally the heist its self gets underway. Through a series of complex flashbacks we are given details bringing us to the present.

The thrust of the film is established early with a flashback of the newly arrived Lancaster in the nightclub looking for DeCarlo. The point-of-view shot compels us to see what Lancaster sees. Through a series of long shots we see a couple frantically dancing to the beat of a rumba orchestra. We see that the woman dancing is DeCarlo, and without a word of dialog we are made to understand that Lancaster is still emotionally and physically obsessed with her —the basis for the entire story.

There are three diverse motifs in Criss Cross

  • The typically Noir distinctions we see in the beginning with the nightclub parking lot scene, emphasized by the frenzied chords of Miklos Rozsa’s score, (Rozsa also wrote the music for The Killers). We are accustomed to night shots, wet pavement, and flashing car headlights within the Noir cycle. We expect that something is about to happen. But nothing does. With this ruse, we are put off-balance.
  • The scenes of Lancaster’s home, and the armored car company where he works are traditionally lit, characteristic of motion pictures of the day.
  • And finally witness the images of Lancaster in the hospital after the armored car robbery. Here we are provided with a range of surreal, Hitchcockian close ups that might be better suited for a David O. Selznick production.
Burt Lancaster 1946

Burt Lancaster 1946

What is so unusual about these distinctions is the way Siodmak integrates them so seamlessly. In doing so Lancaster’s fate is that much more of a tragedy —Criss Cross is one the more tragic films of Noir cycle.

Burt Lancaster was a physical actor, but his best work, in by humble opinion came in his early films of the Noir cycle. In addition to the aforementioned, he made; I Walk Alone (1947), Brute Force (1948), Kiss the Blood off My Hands (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and later, the excellent though underrated Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

by Michael Mills

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The Best American Film Ever Produced? Sat, 27 Aug 2011 18:05:36 +0000 Michael Mills Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

If the 1954 film, On the Waterfront is not the best American film ever produced, it is without doubt among the ten best post—World War II American films. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, and won 8 including Best Picture. It is ranked the 8th Greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute. The idea for On the Waterfront began with an expose series written for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson. The 24 articles won Johnson a Pulitzer Prize, and coupled by the April 1948 murder of a New York dock hiring boss, awakened America to the killings, graft and extortion that made up everyday life on the New York waterfront. The protagonist Terry Malloy’s fight against corruption was in part modeled after whistle—blowing longshoreman Anthony DiVincenzo, who testified before a real—life Waterfront Commission on the facts of life on the Hoboken docks and was to a degree ostracized for his deeds. DiVincenzo sued and settled, many years after, with Columbia Pictures over the appropriation of what he considered his story. DiVincenzo recounted his story to writer Budd Schulberg during a month—long session of waterfront barroom meetings—which some claim never occurred—even though Shulberg attended Di Vincenzo’s waterfront commission testimony every day during the hearing.

Budd Schulberg

Budd Schulberg, a former member of the Communist Party was Hollywood royalty, the son of B.P. Schulberg, head of Paramount Pictures, and Adeline Jaffe-Schulberg, sister of agent/film producer Sam Jaffe, best known for his 1941 novel, What Makes Sammy Run, his 1947 novel The Harder They Fall. Schulberg saw the subject as material for a future film project. “I had taken a rather unorthodox approach to the writing of the screenplay, applying not a month or two, but years of my life to absorbing everything I could about the New York waterfront, becoming a frequent visitant of the West Side Manhattan and Jersey City bars, interviewing longshoreman, union leaders and getting to know the fearless and outspoken labor priests from St. Xavier’s in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen,” wrote Schulberg in a 1953 New York Times article.

Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan, Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, was an acquaintance of Schulberg and as early as 1951 they were already working on an idea around Malcolm Johnston’s article. They submitted the finished screenplay to Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, who Kazan though owed him a picture. They were to meet with Zanuck the following month. However,the audience with the mogul did not go well. Zanuck envisioned the picture in CinemaScope and Technicolor. Kazan and Schulberg looked at one another in amazement, for without question the script was explicit; it was to be shot in Black & White. Finally Zanuck confessed, “I hate the script”. And impolitely reasoned, “who’s going to care about a bunch of sweaty longshoremen?” Undaunted, Schulberg and Kazan eventually met with independent producer Sam Spiegel, the man who had made The African Queen and The Stranger, and would later be responsible for such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Spiegel agreed to make the film, which would be distributed through Columbia Pictures.

Kazan on the set of waterfront

Kazan on the set

Kazan was was given a budget of just under $1.000.000. The 36 day shoot, was filmed in Hoboken New Jersey, as Kazan, in the manner of John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz and Fred Zinnemann, believed that the atmosphere in Southern California was an anathema to the practicality and realism then demanded by post—war audiences.The film reunited Kazan with Marlon Brando. The two had worked together on the groundbreaking A Streetcar Named Desire, and the underrated Viva Zapata.

To cast the film’s lead, Terry Malloy, Spiegel sent the script to Marlon Brando. Schulberg wrote, “Sam sent the script to Brando, and it came back with a refusal. But I had done the old trick of putting bits of paper between the pages, which were in place, so I knew that he hadn’t read it.” While Spiegel continued to work on Brando, Frank Sinatra agreed to play the part. Before he could sign, however, Brando changed his mind and accepted the role. Although the other leads; Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, were all Hollywood veterans, On the Waterfront’s leading lady came direct from the Broadway stage and Manhattan television studios. Said Schulberg, “ Eva Marie Saint we found in the Player’s Directory, it was her first picture.” Brando’s reading of Terry Malloy, ex-prizefighter and longshoreman, is one of the best ever recorded on celluloid. Marlon Brando would go on to a mediocre career throughout the remainder 1950’s and 1960’s, and not equal his celebrated performance again until 1972’s The Godfather.


A lead-in accompanying the movie’s pre-release advertising claimed that the “film will exemplify the way self-appointed tyrants can be defeated by right-thinking people in a vital democracy”, thus avoiding the main problem, which is how tyrants achieve power in the first place. Malloy defeats them not by persuasive convictions about democracy but by the old movie standbys, revenge and the strength that comes from love. The film’s rich texture and dialogue disguise the fact that Malloy is activated by a familiar adage, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”, but, as Brando makes clear, he is not accustomed to reflection. As events mount he uses his hands desperately in gesture, or is forced back on an insolent grin; His under-stated performance is at variance with the striking histrionics and over-acting of Rod Steiger, (who later claimed he never really trusted Kazan, and Brando left him to fend for himself) as his brother Charley, or of Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt Union boss, and a rather dotty Karl Malden as Father Barry.

Eva Marie Saint, Marlon Brando

Brando, on the other hand is most memorable in the love scenes with the equally impressive Eva Marie Saint, playing the neighborhood girl who encourages him in a quietly bantering way which effectively contrasts with the excitement of the rest of the film.

Oscar Night

On the Waterfront was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won eight. Ironically, the other three nominations were all for best supporting actor, where Cobb, Malden and Steiger split the vote. The film’s eight Oscars included awards to Kazan, for best director, Schulberg, for best screenplay, Sam Spiegel, for best picture, Brando, for best actor, Eva Marie Saint, for best supporting actress, Boris Kaufman, for best cinematography. Nominated but unceremoniously passed over was Leonard Bernstein who made a rare foray into film composing for his haunting score, matchless in post-war American films.

After 50-plus years the story no longer seems as fresh; both the fight against corruption and the romance fall well within time-worn movie conventions. But the impact of the acting and the best dialogue passages has not dimmed. It is still possible to feel the power of the film and of Brando and Kazan, who changed American film acting forever. So you be the judge is On the Waterfront the greatest American film ever produced?

by Michael Mills

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1946: Hollywood & the Great Directors Mon, 15 Aug 2011 03:45:17 +0000 Michael Mills Lana Turner John Garfield The Postman Always Rings Twice Director Tay Garnett

Lana Turner, John Garfield, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, director Tay Garnett

The year 1939 is regarded by most film historians as the pinnacle of success and legitimacy in the short history of Hollywood’s Golden era. That year gave us the likes of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and many more.

The manifest quality of these great classics is evident and needs no further elaboration here. There are a number of reasons for the achievements of 1939, chief of which was the great Hollywood studio system. If 1939 was a watershed year for Hollywood, then the next great shift came in 1946, Hollywood’s most successful year ever, in terms of attendance. The motion picture had grown up in the seven years since the release of Gone With the Wind. The great change of course came about with World War II, and it’s aftermath.

Prior to 1946 the American film industry was a separate component in cinema annals—different by its sheer size, structure, and its success in world film domination. What happened after World War II was part of a worldwide transformation of both movies and society as a whole. Within half a decade however, that same American Film industry was beleaguered, defensive, and trembling for its mere survival.

The End of the Great Studios

In 1938 the government filed a suit with the supreme court “The United States vs. Paramount Pictures Inc.”, known as The Paramount Case. The suit contented that the major studios held an unfair advantage in that they controlled production, distribution, and exhibition of films through the ownership of their theater chains. The suit was postponed during the war and post-war years until 1948, when the high court ruled that the major studios must divest themselves of all theater ownership. This process lasted into the mid-1950s, and was a major factor in the demise of the Hollywood studio system.

I have always had great difficulty with the out-of-hand rejection by most with the Hollywood studio method of producing motion pictures. The studio system developed in the 1920s, had always attracted competent writers, directors and technical people. The Auteur theory, had not yet been developed. The so-called authors of the films produced by the great studios were the collective deliberations of the studio bosses. The film director was just another pinion in the great wheel that moved the movie industry. Though one would be hard pressed to classify John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wellman, Henry Hathaway or, Howard Hawks as sprockets, in a great wheel. Nevertheless the studio system was a key ingredient in the evolution of the great Classic era.

William Wyler, Best Years

Fredric March Dana Andrews

Fredric March, Dana Andrews, “The Best Years of Our Lives”

The Best Years of Our Lives, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, it was the last great film to come out of the studio system. It was director William Wyler’s first post-war film. Wyler had served in Europe during the war and made several documentaries about the conflict including the award-winning Memphis Belle, which chronicled the strain of a B-17 crew on its final mission over Germany.

The screenplay by Robert Sherwood tells of three men returning from war to the same hometown. They represent three different branches of service and three distinct social classes. The film is perhaps the most complete expression in Hollywood filmmaking of cinematic “realism”. Photographed by Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on Citizen Kane it strongly favors the style of French filmmaker Jean Renoir, in its use of the long take, of the moving camera, and of placing people relative to each other in different planes within the frame. It’s an epic statement with a running time of almost three hours. However, in terms of sheer popularity, The Best Years of Our Lives has fared less well than Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life released the same year. Perhaps the reason might be that it is overly composed and much to carefully planned. Moreover, in the wake of the Vietnam experience, post-combat rehabilitation has become a cottage industry. Wyler’s masterpiece will however remain the complete post-World War II Hollywood film.

1946 and the Rise of Film Noir

Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster, “The Killers”

1946 saw the flourishing of America’s most famous original style Film Noir. Distinctive in a dark and oppressive visual style, and in its narrative of desperation and entrapment that defied Hollywood’s conventions of the happy ending, and of good triumphing over evil. With its themes of paranoia and betrayal, of suspicious innocence and attractive guilt, of greed and desires in a world whose moral signposts have disappeared. Film Noir was a natural outgrowth of Hollywood’s post-war troubles. It drew its historical context from the hard-boiled crime and detective novels of the 1930s. The new style was able to thrive as the Production Code Administration grew more lenient during the war and immediate post-war years.

The great Noir directors; Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, Jacques Tourneur, et al, brought not only expressionist cinematography, odd angles, and dark shadows, but also a pessimism drawn from witnessing the rise of fascism in modern mass societies. Film Noir was shaped by the experience of war’s horrors, by the deep-rooted anxieties touched off by the dawn of the nuclear age, and by the difficult post-war adjustments faced by thousands of returning veterans.

Other Films of 1946

My Darling Clementine,in this classic western John Ford employs many of the styles used in Film Noir. His sterling adaptation about the relationship between Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp, and the OK Corral is still the best film on the notorious Tombstone Arizona gun battle.

Orson Welles’, The Stranger is about an ex-Nazi living in the sleepy town of Harper Connecticut. Welles’ superb portrayal of the psychotic Fritz Kindler, with a fascination for clocks is an amazing study in mendacity and evil deception. Edward G. Robinson is outstanding as Wilson an assiduous Nazi hunter who is at once aware of Welles’ charade. The use of the clock motif to thread together the hunter and hunted is pure Wellesion.

The Jolson Story, another in a long list of outstanding films produced by Columbia Pictures during the 1940s, and 1950s, directed by Alfred E. Green and starring the tragic Larry Parks. Writers Stephen Longstreet, and Sidney Buchman took great liberties with facts while nevertheless providing solid entertainment. The actual singing was performed by the great Jolie himself, who had much to with the entire production, and Jolson’s choice of Parks for the title role was indeed a stroke of genius.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, is a personal favorite of mine. Here director Tay Garnett remained as true as the “system” would allow to the James Cain novel. The protagonist, a drifter named Frank Chambers narrates the story in flashback much as Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity. The real tragedy of Postman is that by the end of the film we are convinced that Frank and Cora genuinely care for one another. As the fateful couple emerges from the courtroom, we are sympathetic. Would they survive?

Rita Hayworth

“Gilda”, director Charles Vidor

The Hollywood of today bares little resemblance to the Hollywood of 1946. Much skepticism has been written about the studio system; the standard seven-year contract actors were forced to sign, the accesses of the studio heads, the assembly line method of production, and the scheme of vertical integration, through the studio ownership of theater chains throughout America. It must however be noted that the great Hollywood motion picture industry did produce a culture that is forever American, and will forever be part of the remarkable “Classic Period”.

A complete list of films produced in 1946 may be sampled here, courtesy of the Internet Movie Database.
by Michael Mills
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Mystique: Humphrey Bogart, the Peak Years Thu, 04 Aug 2011 05:37:19 +0000 Michael Mills Humphrey Bogart 1941

Humphrey Bogart 1941

From hard-boiled Sam Spade to cynical Rick Blaine, from wise cracking shamus Philip Marlowe to down-on-his-luck Fred C. Dobbs, Humphrey Bogart created a gallery of unforgettable characters. Appearing in over 75 films, spanning 26 years, Bogart left an indelible mark on American cinema.

Humphrey Bogart’s early career was hardly noteworthy. His roles ranged from rich playboys to seedy hoodlums. In the film The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart, on the insistence of his Broadway co-star Leslie Howard, re-created his role of the cold-blooded killer Duke Mantee. The film was a huge success and gave a tremendous boost to his career. Although his immediate roles remained constrained to the hoodlums, and malcontents he had portrayed prior to The Petrified Forest , he remained steadfast in his pursuit of excellence.

By 1941 Humphrey Bogart was on the verge of cinematic prominence. His subsequent and now celebrated roles were about to garner Bogart the acceptance and adulation he so desperately craved. A recognition he relished, as he set out fortuitously to create the now famous “Bogart ” mystique, which would dominate the screen for the next decade. He was to remark later that there were few things about which he could feel genuine pride, and the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, was one of them.

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon 1941

Director John Huston, in his first directorial effort, and many feel his best, credits Bogart with the films amazing success. But Huston’s script and electric direction also contributed. As author of the screen play John Huston made every effort to remain faithful to Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Names, murders, and intrigues turn up quickly in this tale of an assortment of characters in search of a fabulous jewel encrusted crown.

In spite of the expertise behind the camera, the use low-key photography and Thomas Richard’s efficient editing, it’s the memorable characterizations on the screen that truly stand out. Mary Astor’s Brigid O ’Shaughnessy is a striking picture of feminine deceit and betrayal. Beautiful, unmerciful and cunning, she is able to shed tears on command. Sydney Greenstreet, in his film debut, plays the bloated Kasper Gutman, the man behind the search for the elusive bird. Huston accentuated Greenstreet’s huge bulk by shooting from low angles, allowing him to monopolize certain key scenes. But it is Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade that remains classic in its construction. Cynical, he still maintains his code of ethics. He is brash, but not foolhardy. He is courageous, but not without fear. Where people, especially woman, are concerned he demands loyalty and truth. He can spot a phony a mile away. He listens to Astor’s long alibi with a straight face and then smiles, telling her, “you ’re good, you ’re very good!” This is the film role that molded the image we remember of Bogart through the early years of the forties an image elaborated upon and reinforced in Casablanca, and one that all Bogart fans remember with great affection and admiration.


Humphrey Bogart, Ingred Bergman, Casablanca, watch trailer

Casablanca 1942

Casablanca (1943), a screen classic, has become the representative picture of the 1940’s. It owes its success to a gallery of fine performances and to their almost miraculous interplay with each other. Directed with flawless skill by Michael Curtiz, the plot, in a screenplay by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, revolve around an assortment of characters coming into Rick’s Cafe, a night club and focal point of intrigue in Casablanca.

Bogart plays the cafe owner Rick Blaine, a former soldier of fortune who has grown weary of the gun running and fighting, and who is now content to sit out the remainder of the war in neutral Casablanca. The facade of his cynicism begins to weaken as he is haunted by visions of his Paris past, and the beautiful woman (Ingrid Bergman), he still loves and rancorously remembers. He is tormented by the bittersweet memories of his past love affair, memories triggered repeatedly as the strains of As Time Goes By, come from Sam, (Dooley Wilson), his piano-playing confidante. Bergman re-surfaces and is now married to an underground leader (Paul Henreid). She needs the exit papers, believed to be in Bogart’s possession that will guarantee her and Henrieds flight to freedom. He refuses her the papers, recalling his heartbreak in Paris. She explains to him that she had been married to Henreid all along but believing him to be dead she fell in love with Bogart. He weakens and helps get Bergman and her husband to safety.

The magic that developed between Bogart and Bergman made a new romantic figure out of the former tough guy. It helped him perfect the portrayal of the ideal man who all men wish to emulate. Casablanca brought Humphrey Bogart his first Academy Award nomination (he lost to Paul Lukas for Watch On The Rhine), and it won Best Picture for 1943.

The Big Sleep

Lauren Becall, Humphrey Bogart, The Big Sleep, watch trailer

The Big Sleep 1946

Having done justice to Hammett’s Sam Spade it was just a matter of time until Warner Brothers got around to casting Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. The Big Sleep (1946), is an incredibly complex detective thriller that defies comprehension in a single screening. Bogart is hired to track down a blackmailer, but quickly finds himself immersed in multiple murders, assorted double-crosses, and wanton mayhem. Even though one could hardly understand what was happening, Howard Hawks’ brilliant direction, and a well-chosen cast combine to secure the viewer’s interest. Concise dialogue by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett help to create memorable scenes eliciting the subtleties of Chandler’s novel. When Bogart enters the case he receives his instructions in a suffocatingly, humid, hothouse. The subtle humor and suggestive by-play of Bogart’s quick flirtation with bookstore clerk Dorothy Malone, and all of his encounters with Dorothy Malone, are a millennium ahead of their time. If The Big Sleepwas a flawed jewel, it nevertheless was an important contribution to the Bogart mystique. Within a year Bogart’s famous “image” period would come to an end.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Having had his day as an idolized star and romantic leading man, it was time for Humphrey Bogart to get down to the serious business of acting. Up until 1948 it had been Bogart playing Bogart in various shadings.The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is indisputably one of Bogart’s best films. Re-united once more with director John Huston, the film tells of the greed, distrust, and hatred of three down-on-their-luck wastrels who team up to search for Gold in Mexico. Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs is an amazingly complex creation whose slow disintegration into paranoia was brilliantly managed on camera. He is a born loser with no potential for change, suspicious, unfeeling, savage, and easily corruptible, he seems destined for a tragic fate. Tim Holt plays Curtin, a man who like Bogart, is tempted but whose conscience will not permit him to exercise his corruptible desires.

Tim Holt, Humphrey Bogart, Barton MacLane, Treasure, watch trailer

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948

Walter Huston, John Huston’s father, plays Howard, a toothless old codger, who knows all along what will happen when they find the treasure. Filmed on location in Mexico. It is mainly the interaction of these three men from their first meeting and uneasy partnership through their final confrontation. The result, a Bogart performance whose luster seems to brighten with every screening. The film won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston, leaving Bogart still in pursuit of the elusive statuette.

Since his death forty years ago, Bogart’s persona has become more steadfast than it ever was during his lifetime. Be it Woody Allen’s alter ego in Play it Again Sam; (1972), or George Segal’s, woeful The Black Bird (1975), a dreadfully, unfunny rip-off of The Maltese Falcon, the Humphrey Bogart mystique will be forever entwined in the American psyche.

Mike Rosenberg’s sterling Tribute, contains hundreds of images, and many anecdotes about Bogart. A must see for even the most incidental fan.

by Michael Mills

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Film Noir and the Femme Fatale Sat, 16 Jul 2011 01:16:06 +0000 Michael Mills High Heels on Wet Pavement

Los Angeles 1948

Femme fatale—is defined as “an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into danger or disaster”. To me the most engaging semblance of a “femme fatale” is the stunning image of Lana Turner, as the camera pans from her ankles upward in that breathtaking shot from The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946.


Lana Turner "The Postman Always Rings Twice"

Lana Turner

The most consistent aspect of film noir, apart from its visual style, is its protagonists. If a usable definition of the noir protagonist is to be formulated, it must encompass its most intrinsic character motif—alienation. The undercurrent that flows through most high noir films is the failure on the part of the male leads to recognize the dishonesty inherent in many of noir’s principal women. This tragic flaw destroys the central male characters in films as diverse as Scarlet Street 1945, The Locket 1947, and Angle Face 1953. It’s embodied in the John Dall character in Gun Crazy 1949, whose youthful fascination with fire arms eventually leads him into a relationship with a woman who not only shares his gun craziness but who also introduces him to the parallel worlds of eroticism and violence. A more extreme example of this confusion is exemplified with Dana Andrews in Laura 1944, and Edward G. Robinson in Women in the Window 1944. Robinson and Andrews are fascinated initially not by the flesh and blood women, but merely by paintings—images of them.

The overtly Freudian aspects of such relationships function as a foundation on which to construct a sequence of narrative events that typify the noir vision. Many of these male “victims” are not trapped exclusively by sexual obsessions. Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity 1944, initially considers whether he is capable of committing murder for a woman. Then he thinks about effecting the perfect crime (his entanglement with Phyllis’ phony insurance claim), “It’s beating the house”, he thinks “sort of like the croupier that bets on the turn of the roulette wheel, when he knows the numbers to play”.


Edgar Ulmer’s Poverty Row cult-classic, Detour, 1945, is fraught with outrageous coincidences that in most accounts would be far too absurd to confront, but in Ulmer’s skilled hands are accepted as legitimate premises. Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a disgruntled piano player in a New York night club. When his fiancée walks out on him for stardom in Hollywood, he decides to fellow her, and sets out to hitch hike west to join her. He gets picked up by an oddball character played by Edmond MacDonald who is carrying a large sum of money and happens to be driving all the way to California. MacDonald relates a story to Robert’s about a female hitch hiker he picked up earlier. In a blundering attempt to ravish her, she viciously attacked him, her finger nail marks clearly discernible on his face. As Roberts takes a turn driving, the MacDonald character mysteriously dies. Roberts thinking that the police will not believe his innocence in MacDonald’s bizarre death, hides the body and drives on alone. The next day Roberts picks up Vera, played with absolute aplomb by the very underrated Ann Savage.

Ultimate Femme Fatale

Jane Greer "Out of the Past"

Jane Greer

Out of the Past, 1947, while not a perfect example of the best of the noir cycle, contains many of the elements of the genre. It is best remembered as the film that introduced the erotic and lethal Jane Greer. The beautiful dark-haired Jane Greer came to Hollywood in 1945, a B player, she appeared in such obscure notables as Dick Tracy 1945, and The Falcon’s Alibi 1946. Out of the Past was one of only three noir films in which she appeared, the others being, They Won’t Believe Me 1947, and again opposite Robert Mitchum in the Big Steal 1949. Greer appeared in nine additional films through 1957. She took a brief hiatus until the mid-1960s, and has appeared off and on since.

Jane Greer was the “real deal”, unlike many of the frivolous noir semi-goddesses (Lauren Becall, Martha Vickers, Jane Russell, or Laraine Day), her sexiness was derived from sheer cunning. She did not rely on the parodistic flirtations so common to the counterfeits of the genre—while entertaining actresses, they lacked the appeal and darkness of the authentic femme fatale. A fine actress, I’ve always wondered why Greer did not become an icon of the genre in the mold of Gloria Grahame or Lizabeth Scott. She possessed the perfect on-screen persona of a post-war desolation angle. When Robert Mitchum firsts encounters her in the Mexican café, in an early scene from Out of the Past, she describes the complete night spot where he might feel more at home, and as she turns to walk away she tells him, “I sometimes go there”. At that moment we sense the hero’s ultimate calamity. Later we witness her brutally kill two men, and as Mitchum watches in terror, we cannot be confident that in the end he will not wind with her, such is the power of her sexuality.

Later Femme Fatales

Robert Siodmak’s,
The Killer’s 1946 and Criss Cross 1949 are fine examples of Universal’s contribution to the noir cycle. In both films it’s the deadly female who topples the hero. Another Siodmak offering is the much downplayed, The File on Thelma Jordon 1950. Barbara Stanwyck portrays a different type of femme fatale than her Phyllis Dietrichson character in Double Indemnity, whom Thelma resembles in method and motivation. This time she ensnares Wendell Cory, playing assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall. Marshall is much more innocent that Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, who admits trying to beat the house, well before he meets Phyllis. From the beginning Thelma loves her victim, whereas Phyllis was not smitten until the very end in Double Indemnity. Where Phyllis and Walter are chillingly logical in their scheme, Thelma and Cleve are guilt-ridden, and clumsily romantic. In the end Cleve is not completely ostracized, or dead as was his counterpart Walter Neff. He is however, scarred immeasurably—an emotional Sisyphus, he must now forever bear the weight of his misdeeds.

What Happened

Gene Tierney "Laura"

Gene Tierney

The archetypal model of film noir had run its course by the mid-1950s. The requisite entry of that period, at least among most film critics of the day, was Robert Aldrich’s take on Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly 1955, by then though Spillane had moved from the hard-boiled pulp hero of the post-war years to the new antagonists of cold-war America, the new great fear of the moment—the “Commies”. Kiss Me Deadly was a greater influence on the French “New Wave” movement, than a further definition of film noir.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, strong, tough, independent women were being replaced by coadjutors and consorts. “Leading Ladies” who, though portrayed as capable and self-reliant had, however, moved well into the background. A prime example is Doris Day in Pillow Talk 1959. And so to the male protagonists, who were now being portrayed as gallant Don Juan’s or attentive Casanova’s, a fashion that was to reach it zenith with the James Bond films.

To me, the “classic noir period”, spanned the interval just after World War II, until the early 1950s. The central figures portrayed in these films, were too often caught in their double binds, filled with existential bitterness. They were drowning outside of the social mainstream. They came to represent America’s stylized vision of itself, a cultural reflection of the mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition. And often these characters were women, the femme fatales of a film style distinctly original, and wholly American.

by Michael Mills

¹Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, “Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style”
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Double Indemnity & Film Noir Fri, 15 Jul 2011 15:16:44 +0000 Michael Mills
Double Indemnity book cover

The perfect Film Noir, weak man, strong woman

By the fall of 1943, Barbara Stanwyck had starred in 43 films. She had shown versatility with many styles. However, there remained one type of role, and an integral part of the spectrum of any actress, that she had never done, and the time seemed right for it. It was still early enough in cinema history for audiences to be shaken up by a thoroughly evil woman.Stanwyck was well aware of the potential in the role of Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Wilder remarked later how Barbara jumped at the chance of playing it. In an interview for Movie Digest in 1972, Barbara, recalled, “when Billy Wilder sent me the script of Double Indemnity, and I read it, I realized that I had never played an out–and–out killer. I had played medium heavies, but never an out–and–out killer. And because it was an unsympathetic character, I was a little frightened of it. I went to his office, and I said to him, I love the script and I love you, but I’m a little afraid, after all these years of playing heroines to play the part of an out–and–out cold– blooded killer… Mr. Wilder looked at me and resolutely declared, “Are you an actress or a mouse?” Well, I hope I’m an actress I lamented. To which he bluntly replied, Then take the part.”, I did, and I have been grateful to him since”.

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurry

Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurry

In casting the characters, Barbara was Wilder’s first choice for her role, but he had great difficulty finding a leading man for the role of the besieged Walter Neff. In those days none of the big names dared play a murderer. When he proposed the story to George Raft, Raft said he would play the role only if the insurance salesman turned out in the end to be an FBI agent, an appalling thought, trying to pin down Miss Stanwyck as the murderer.Even with Rafts refusal, Wilder was convinced he had the makings of a great film. He approached Fred MacMurray who himself had some misgivings about accepting the part. It took perseverance and a great deal of work to bring together the final combination of Stanwyck, MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson,. Who would under Wilder’s superb direction, become one of the most memorable trios in film history.The screenplay, fashioned by Wilder and Raymond Chandler was based on the novel by James M. Cain. The film went into production in September of 1943 with a harshly made–up, brassily blond Stanwyck. The blond wig was Wilder’s idea, He used it, as he said “to complement her anklet. I wanted to make her look as sleazy as possible”. Cinematographer John Seitz recalled later that when Buddy DeSylva, then production head of Paramount, saw the first shots he remarked, “We hired Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington”. Wilder said later, “The wig was not much good, I must admit”. I thought it was perfect!

Barbara Stanwyck

Last time for Phyllis

Phyllis is so indifferent to the feelings of others that she is able to use them at her leisure. And, since she experiences no involvement, she remains free to operate without a sense of guilt. The killing of her husband finds her ablaze with satisfaction. And Walter who initially tries to pull out of their deadly arrangement is verbally poisoned. And now… Moreover, when he shows up later with murderous intentions of his own toward her, he’s faced with more of the same. What makes her so attractive is the way in which she operates. Walter hits on it when he says, “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.”

Six Academy Award nominations were given to Double Indemnity; Best Picture, Actress, Cinematography (Black and White), Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), Sound Recording to Loren Ryder and Best Written Screenplay. “The film was shot in newsreel style”, said cameraman John Seitz. We attempted to keep it extremely realistic. One of Seitz’s touches of realism was the effect of waning sunlight in the cheerless living room of the Dietrichson house, which he achieved through the use of some silver dust mixed with smoke. Enhanced by his low– key lighting, it wraps the characters in an atmosphere that is both realistic and an orchestration for their deeds.

Billy Wilder has not seen the picture in years. “I never look at my old stuff”, he claims, but regards Double Indemnity as one of his favorites, “because it had the fewest takes, and because it was taut and moved in the staccato manner of Cain’s novel.”

When the film was released, the New York Herald Tribune wrote; Billy Wilder has adapted James Cain’s story with uncompromising artistry. His staging makes the offering one of the most vital and arresting films of the year. With perfectly coordinated acting by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson and the lesser players, it hits clean and hard right between the eyes. Wilder has made a sensational contribution to filmmaking in Double Indemnity.

Of Barbara Stanwvck’s portrayal, the New York World Telegram had nothing but whoops and bravos for “the vicious conniving spirit she has woven into the girl. The Tribune found her “vibrantly malignant and attractive as the homicidal wife.” And The Brooklyn Eagle said she “has never given as striking a performance. She proceeds to give us a classic lesson in femininity.” It did. And Phyllis Dietrichson opened up a whole new direction for Barbara 5tanwyck. The fact that audiences not only accepted her as a heavy, but liked her, meant that she had added the final dimension to what she could play. Comedy or drama, heroine or villainess she would have her choice from now on.

In 1981, first time director Lawrence Kasden had a hit with Body Heat, using, virtually, the entire look and feel of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece. Though it was critically acclaimed, to most purists, it paled in comparison.

by Michael Mills

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