Beware of Birds: Crow Hollow (1952)

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Actress Natasha Parry, star of Crow Hollow (1952)

Crow Hollow (1952) is a little seen low-budget British B-movie typically categorized as Film Noir in the few books where I’ve seen it mentioned. After catching up with it recently I discovered that it had much more in common with Gothic mysteries, Gaslight (1940) inspired thrillers and classic “Old Dark House” movies. Directed economically by Michael McCarthy, who excelled in television and made a number of suspenseful WW2 dramas such as The Accursed (1957) and Operation Amsterdam (1959), the film lacks the stylish flourishes and sophisticated set pieces that the material cries out for. But it is held together by some sharp performances and a twisty plot based on a book by Dorothy Eden and it’s Eden’s involvement that drove me to watch Crow Hollow.

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Revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

blogopener2TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon on February 21 and February 24, exhibiting the film at participating theaters. John Huston’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed commentary. Check the Fathom website for more details.

Last fall, I showed The Maltese Falcon as part of a course on film noir. Though it is considered one of the earliest examples of noir, and therefore important as a foundation, I struggled with whether to show a film I had seen so many times. I thought of showing the less-familiar Stranger on the Third Floor, because it would be more interesting to me. But, I knew that the majority of the students had not seen The Maltese Falcon. As I began to pull together the course material, I grew more excited at the implications of introducing them to such an iconic film. This was their introduction not only to The Maltese Falcon but also the genre of film noir. They would be seeing it with the freshness and excitement of first-time viewers, and I had a part to play in that.

Film noir developed in the studio system during the Golden Age, and yet it defied many of the norms and conventions of that era. It was the genre that broke the rules—a big deal considering how entrenched certain norms, conventions, and formulas were during the Golden Age. For young people unfamiliar with the systems and practices of the studio system, noir’s defiance of those systems and practices would not be readily apparent.

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Nippon Noir: Snow Trail (1947)

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Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail aka Ginrei no hate (1947) begins with a bang. A montage of shadowy figures and fragmented images bombards viewers during the film’s opening credits while guns fire, alarms ring, windows break, trains whistle and sirens scream. We soon discover that three desperate men (Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura and Yoshio Kosugi) have just robbed a bank and in a bold attempt to dodge authorities, they make a dangerous trip to Northern Japan where they hope to lose their pursuers in the snow-covered Alps. None of the men are prepared for the hard climb ahead of them and they sorely lack the survival skills needed to endure a harsh winter outdoors. When they’re forced to seek shelter at isolated ski lodges and in abandoned ranger stations, it only complicates their dire situation. As the stress of their predicament begins to overwhelm them, tensions grow and soon the three outlaws are bickering among themselves. Their shaky solidarity gives way to fear, distrust and unrepentant greed but one man will eventually find bitter redemption amidst the demanding mountains.

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Fatal Charm: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

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On Monday, October 12th TCM is airing a batch of suspenseful films focusing on “Treacherous Spouses.” Most critics wouldn’t classify any of these films as horror but some of them contain genuinely horrific moments. The impressive line-up includes Experiment Perilous (1944), Suspicion (1941), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the day’s programming commences at 6am EST/3am PST with Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

You can’t go wrong with any of these fine thrillers but today I’d like to single out Cast a Dark Shadow, a gripping and remarkably grim British production starring Dirk Bogarde as a suave young Romeo who seduces wealthy older women for financial gain and then murders them in cold blood. Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes and featuring some stellar talent behind and in front of the camera, Cast a Dark Shadow presents an interesting early example of a seductive and unscrupulous serial killer who will stop at nothing to satisfy his basest urges.

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Nameless Fear: The Lost Moment (1947)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Lost_MomentI felt the past closing all around me like a fog, filling me with a nameless fear.
- Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings)

After enjoying many of the Susan Hayward films that aired on TCM last month, I decided to seek out some of her other work and in the process I stumbled across The Lost Moment (1947). And as regular readers know, I usually focus my attention on horror films and thrillers during the month of October and this neglected black-and-white gem that tells a haunting story about lost love and an unspeakable crime of passion is the perfect film to kick-start the season of scaring.

This surprisingly sumptuous Universal production takes place in Venice where an ambitious publisher named Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings), disguises himself as a writer and takes lodging in a sprawling waterway estate owned by the 105-year-old lover (Agnes Moorehead) of a renowned poet who disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He hopes to gain access to a stash of love letters written by the poet to his lady love but the woman’s stern niece (Susan Hayward) suspects that the publisher is up to no good. While attempting to find the missing letters, Cummings’s character uncovers many horrible family secrets hidden within the walls of the crumbling cobweb coated estate that he hadn’t bargained for.

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Q&A: Michael Kronenberg From the Film Noir Foundation

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NOIR CITY cover designs by Michael Kronenberg

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

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In Film Noir, Never Take the Stairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die

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

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

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FROM THE PEN OF DANIEL MAINWARING

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

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

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

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