Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Friday, 1 March 2019

Free noir double shows the classics

Enjoy two classic gritty noirs

FOR ME, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) ticks all the boxes for an excellent little noir.
It is produced on the cheap by Edward Small Productions for an established but financially troubled distributor United Artists which, at the time, does not have a production studio of its own.
The cast is full of no names with the exception of lead John Payne who says he commands 25% of the profits to be in the thing.
The director is Phil Karlson who is an assistant director for 12 years and no one wants to give him a crack at sitting in the director’s chair so he goes off to fight World War II.

WHEN HE COMES BACK FROM WAR, Karlson works his way up to a major studio hit, the noir Scandal Sheet (1952). It should have made him but instead studio politics boots him back to the Bs where Kansas City Confidential awaits him. 
        The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther says the screenplay is illogical, the directing is routine, and the acting is lousy though none of these criticisms are true.
Now let’s look at the real picture. Can you believe who are the three young actors playing the crucial roles of two-bit but pathologically violent crims? They are Neville Brand, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam. This is like a Shakespearean stock company of noir. We have met Brand and Van Cleef before in our public-domain series but this is Elam’s first appearance.

The players

JACK ELAM IS MY PICK of the three pscychos. We meet him rummaging through dozens of cigarette butts looking for a choice one. (BTW, the first cigarette is on the lips of John Payne at 2.21, fashionably early as it should be in noir). Then the camera closes in on the face of Pete Harris (Elam) who is seriously strung out, maybe a junkie or physically or psychologically seriously ill. At one stage, Harris blurts out, “I’m not that sick”, but he’s not fooling anyone, certainly not himself.
Elam’s main claim to fame was as a villain in westerns but he had honorable bits in noirs, too, His first uncredited role in a noir was as a “man at a bar” in Quicksand (1950). He was also uncredited in One Way Street (1950). Elam had a substantial role in the 1953 noir Count the Hours directed by Don Siegel. His other Siegel noirs are Baby Face Nelson 1957 and The Gun Runners (1958). He had a small part in one of the great noirs Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Elam died in 2003, aged 82.

I HAVE OFTEN THOUGHT JOHN PAYNE, like Cornel Wilde, had too bland a face for noir. Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre had lived-in faces. Wilde and Payne had visages rented out on Hollywood billboards. But Payne is good in Kansas City Confidential where he is called upon to express stress, bitterness, toughness, and charm as the war-hero ex-con Joe Rolfe, toiling diligently in a menial job to show the world he is reformed.
Unfortunately redemption does not cut it in the noir sub-genre I have called “Fate torturing the working stiff”. (I tend to dismiss the debate of whether noir is a genre. Genre simply means kind and noir is a discernible kind of Hollywood film).
Payne was under studio contract from 1936-47, successively with Goldwyn, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox. None of the studios established a public identity for him as a “star” though he played in A-pictures. His last film with Fox was the smash hit and perennial favorite Miracle on 34th Street (1947) with Natalie WoodMaureen O'Hara, and Edmund Gwenn.
Working as an independent, he decided to toughen his image in noirs just as Dick Powell had successfully done. Payne, the former wrestler and boxer starred in Larceny (1948) The Saxon Charm (1948) The Crooked Way (1949) before Kansas City Confidential and 99 River Street (1953) both with Karlson directing.
As a free agent, Payne was shrewd enough to negotiate percentages and often all the residual rights for a film which made him a wealthy man thanks to the voracious appetite of the new television medium for content.
He also became a conspicuous supporter of the Republican Party.

COLLEEN GRAY PLAYS THE FEMALE LEAD in Kansas City Confidential   and shows you do not need a femme fatale to have a very good noir.
Gray plays the pretty, determined, soon-to-graduate law student, trying to help John Payne. Her positive role is important to the film as she represents the rule of law, even civilisation itself struggling against a corrupt dangerous world.
Some critics see the romance between Payne and Gray as representing director Karlson’s optimistic side. But that’s just window-dressing for the tourists. We residents of Noir City know that “happily ever after” stuff is just not happening even if the camera tries to con us.
Gray appeared in the noirs Kiss of Death (1947) Nightmare Alley (1947) The Sleeping City (1950) and Models Inc. (1952).
Like Payne, Gray was a staunch Republican creating the irony they were the leads in such an uncompromising anti-establishment film.

CHARACTER ACTOR PRESTON FOSTER brings some deft subtlety to the role of disgruntled ex-cop Tim Foster.  A confident planner at the start of the film, he becomes the unsettled embodiment of the John Lennon aphorism that life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.
Foster, who was also a vocalist, played in mainly B-pictures, sometimes as the male lead, from 1929 to 1967. His other interesting though not universally well-regarded noir is The Big Night (1951) the last American film by blacklisted director Joseph Losey who continued a celebrated career in Europe.

Good line
Joe Rolfe (reminded of how he received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for valor in World War II): “Try buying a cup of coffee with ‘em.”

The director
Phil Karlson and Dean Martin on the set of a Matt Helm movie (James-Bond spoofs, 1966-69) 

DIRECTOR PHIL KARLSON gave a great 1973 interview with Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson.
As a child in Chicago during Prohibition, Karlson was employed as a cockatoo outside an illegal brewery so he grew up conscious of crime and violence.
Karlson tells a funny story how comedian Lou Costello financed the first film he actually directed rather than assisted. It was called A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944). 
“It was a nothing picture, but I was lucky because it was for Monogram and they didn't understand how bad it was because they had never made anything that was any good.”
It was funny but somewhat unfair on Monogram a relatively long-lasting B-studio that did foster good storylines and creative photography though on skimpy budgets and shooting schedules as low as a couple of days.
Anyway, Karlson’s second Monogram picture G.I. Honeymoon (1945) was a financial success as Karlson expected.
Monogram paid Karlson $250 a week and one year he made 18 pictures for them. ($250 a week is $3500 in today’s values, pretty good for a working stiff, but not the stuff of Hollywood excess for long hours and high creative demands.) Still, working for the Bs had benefits.

“It was a lot nicer working for the smaller studio because there wasn't any committee to worry about.
“When they gave it to you, you were in charge. You did it. Nobody told you what to do.
“Really, it was the greatest teacher in the world for me, because I could experiment with so many things doing these pictures.”
Karlson started to sneak in subversive scenes which went over the heads of his employers.
“I was trying to sneak in these things that they weren't ever conscious of. In fact, they were just the opposite. They were the most conservative, right-wing guys you ever could see. They had no idea what was going on as far as the actual content was concerned.”
We need to view Karlson’s pessimism in context of speaking out.


“I believe that you've got to speak up. It's unfortunate that I have to show it with a person. I would love to see a community get up.
“This goes back to Carl Foreman's and Freddie Zinnemann's High Noon (1952, with Jack Elam in a minor role) where the entire community walked away from the guy. They did the same thing with Buford Pusser, (Karlson’s successful biopic Walking Tall, 1973), they walked away from him. Once they elected him sheriff and they saw what he was doing, nobody wanted to back him up.”
Kansas City Confidential is probably the first Hollywood film to depict extra-judicial police violence (albeit, off-camera) against a suspect.
“This was so far ahead of itself that I say these pictures have been copied and recopied so many times.
“Unfortunately, Phil Karlson never got the credit for it because I've never been a publicity hound. I come from the school where what we want to be judged by is up on the screen, not by how well I know so-and-so or so-and-so.” 
Despite differing political outlooks John Payne and Karlson worked as a noir team,
“He's (Payne) got a wonderful creative mind himself. Kansas City Confidential was written in here with he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form. I did three pictures with him, and all three we did the same way. I did 99 River Street and Hell's Island [1955] with him. With Hell's Island, we took The Maltese Falcon [1941] and we did... The Maltese Falcon! In our own way.” 

Trivia (or perhaps not)

KARLSON MADE WHAT HE BELIEVED what was one of Hollywood’s first social-statement movies, Black Gold [1947].
It is loosely based on a true story of a Native American bred and owned horse – Anthony Quinn is its fictitious trainer, Charley Eagle – prepared for the Kentucky Derby.
The Monogram film under the studio’s new name of Allied Artists had the unheard of budget of $400,000 and took a year to make because Karlson wanted to film across the four seasons (Of course he shot five other films for Monogram that year).
Quinn, of Mexican/ Irish descent, was not known to possess any Native American ancestry.

I WOULD LIKE TO THINK TWO CHARACTERS were named so Mario Siletti as Tomaso could introduce them to each other “Señor  Foster, Señor Kane.”
Charles Foster Kane was the Orson Welles character in Citizen Kane (1941).

The verdict

The whole movie

Our second feature

THIS 1946 FILM is my third favorite noir after Detour (1945) and D.O.A. (1949). We have already seen the first two on our way to viewing 30 noirs in the public domain, that is, free to watch.
I have explained I gave extra merit points to noirs of low budget and with unfashionable cast and crew.
Unlike the low-budget Detour and D.O.A. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is an A-picture, produced by Hal Wallis, Casablanca (1942) directed by Academy award winning Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and starring Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity (1944).
I have been unable to find the film’s budget but I suspect it would not have been too exorbitant as supporting Miss Stanwyck were character actor Van Heflin and newcomers Kirk Douglas (first film) and Lizabeth Scott (second film). I would guess a budget about the $1m for a return at the box office of $3.25m.

Great debut

KIRK DOUGLAS SEALED HIS ENTRY into a long career with his debut role. In some measure he could thank writer Robert Rossen for creating such a meaty part as Stanwyck’s weak husband, given a powerful position of district attorney by his wife, Martha Ivers, who owns the small city, which bears her name, Iverstown.
Could any actor emulate such a stunning debut? Well yes, one actually preceded it – Sydney Greenstreet, at the age of 61, in The Maltese Falcon (1941) which also marked the debut of director John Huston.

Femmes fatale: two into one won’t go

TWO ICONIC NOIR FEMMES FATALE are in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers – Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott. But you can have only one femme fatale and that's Ms Stanwyck so the beautiful, husky-voiced Scott becomes the ex-country girl, abused first by her father, and then by a cynical legal system eager to take away her freedom. It is a nice turn by Scott. Though she swallows her words in a couple of scenes, she extracts aching sympathy from the viewer.
Scott’s other noirs included Dead Reckoning (1947), Desert Fury (1947), I Walk Alone (1948), Pitfall (1948) Too Late for Tears (1949) Dark City (1950) Two of a Kind (1951) The Racket (1951 Stolen Face (1952).
For many of her roles, Scott was (unfairly IMO) criticised for her understated acting style.

In addition to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Barbara Stanwyck starred in two other classic noirs, Double Indemnity (1944) as femme fatale and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) as victim.
Other noirs include The Other Love (1947) The Lady Gambles (1949) The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) No Man of Her Own (1950) The Man with a Cloak (1951) Clash by Night (1952) Jeopardy (1953) and Crime of Passion (1957).

Van’s the noir man

VAN HEFLIN HAD A TOPSY-TURVEY FILM CAREER, perhaps shown by his 1950s ventures into television and European films. But he always had the habit of turning up in interesting noirs.
He won the best support Oscar for the noir Johnny Eager (1941) which led to prominent roles in films which mainly failed.
Returning from World War II, he landed the part of professional gambler and war veteran Sam Masterson in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Stanwyck was clearly the matriarch of the movie and told Heflin not to upstage her with that bit he learned from George Raft of twirling a coin in his fingers. Stanwyck threatened retaliation with her own bit. She previewed it by lifting her skirt and adjusting a garter. Heflin mostly kept the coin twirl to scenes without the female lead. What was even better than the business with the coin was Heflin’s sardonic lopsided grin, a persistent unspoken comment on human foibles.
The acting stakes end up a three-way tie of Douglas, Heflin, and Stanwyck and thus the viewer is the winner.
Heflin starred alongside Joan Crawford in the noir Possessed (1947). His next noirs were Act of Violence (1949, directed by Fred Zinnemann and The Prowler (1951, directed by Joseph Losey).

Gone with the Creeper

JANIS WILSON PLAYS MARTHA AS A TEENAGER in the long but crucial 16min preamble which blows out the movie run-time to almost two hours.
Wilson is very good and excellent in excitedly delivering the portentous line, “Did you steal it?”, when young Sam brings here a sandwich he has paid for.
Wilson was in two movies with Bette Davis before The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
After appearing in the horror movie The Creeper (1948) aged 18, she gave up acting saying she didn't photograph well. You would hope no-one in cinematic authority told her she was not pretty enough for the movies.
Wilson became a pianist, organist and choir director.

The screenwriter
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS received an Academy Award nomination for John Patrick for Best Writing, Original Motion Picture Story (Patrick’s Love Lies Bleeding).

The screenwriter was Robert Rossen, a polymath of noir as a writer, director, and producer.
He was severely injured by the real-life noir of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its attendant blacklists.
He wrote the noirs Out of the Fog (1941, with John Garfield and Ida Lupino) and Desert Fury (1947, with Lizabeth Scott). He wrote and directed Johnny O'Clock (1947) and wrote, directed, and produced All the King's Men  (1949, winner of three Academy Awards).
All this success could not prevent his being blacklisted for two years from 1951 until he made the humiliating decision to name 57 communists.
His career and health never recovered though he co-wrote, directed and produced the neo-noir classic The Hustler (1961).
Robert Rossen died in 1966, aged 57.

The director
Famed director Lewis Milestone with famed cinematographer James Wong Howe (not the shooter of Martha Ivers).

RUSSIAN-BORN DIRECTOR LEWIS MILESTONE received the first Academy Award for directing for Two Arabian Knights (1927) and repeated the effort with the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). He was also nominated for the first film version of the newspaper comedy The Front Page (1931). He also directed the controversial Rain (1932) which some regard as an early noir or what others might call a proto-noir.
During and after World War II Milestone expressed his anti-fascism through war movies. These displays of patriotism ironically may have worked against him as quite a few Republican and some Democrat politicians were ambivalent or opposed to America’s entry into the war.
During the 1950s, Milestone was gray-listed (unofficially blacklisted) by the studios. He found little work, went overseas and reluctantly ventured into television. One consolation of his TV work was that it included noirish series such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Suspicion, and  the western Have Gun – Will Travel.

Trivia (or is it?)
AS WE FOUND WITH THE STRANGE WOMAN (1946) “strange” derives from the Bible and means promiscuous. It also has the connotation of its more modern meaning of outsider. I mean, surely only strangers like the Heflin and Scott characters could be responsible for the impropriety in the sweet little city of Iverstown. Surely.
I wonder how many cinema goers would have picked up on the Biblical allusion in the title  The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. One scene  explained it  in The Strange Woman. Maybe it was mainly meant for one man who would have understood – Joe Breen, Catholic layman and chief censor from the Hays Office.

Good line
SAM MASTERSON IS LOOKING AT A PHOTO of Martha’s husband, Walter O’Neil, who is running to be returned as District Attorney and is tipped to become a Governor and run for President: “You still look like a scared little kid to me.”

The verdict

The whole movie

Our song
MUSICIAN DANIEL ROSSEN, solo artist and member of the bands Grizzly Bear and Department of the grandson of Robert Rossen

Next noirs
Some might consider our next noir double a little controversial as Rain (1932) screened well before the accepted debut of noir in 1941. The second feature is Beat the Devil (1953) often considered a parody of noir.
Both films, like the other 28 in our series, are in the public domain.
Join me at 8pm, April 5 (Hollywood time) for our previews and full screenings in your home.

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