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Showing posts by: Jake Hinkson click to see Jake Hinkson's profile
Fri
Nov 14 2014 10:30am

Noir’s Goon Squad: Percy Helton

For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.

Born in 1894, he came from a vaudeville family and grew up on the stage, working for a time with the great George M. Cohan. He performed on stages large and small (including Broadway), and he began doing occasional film work as early as 1915. He finally committed himself to movies in 1947 when he played a drunk Santa Claus in Miracle On 34th Street—the same film, incidentally, that marked the film career debut of Helton’s fellow Goon Squad member Thelma Ritter. Helton, not unlike Ritter, was marked by this late arrival into films. Sure, you can comb back through some old silents to find glimpses of the young Percy Helton, but for most moviegoers he seemed to have be born 53 years old.

[We need more guys like him...]

Thu
Nov 6 2014 12:00pm

Fire, Brimstone, and a Loaded .38: The Rise and Fall of J. Frank Norris

J. Frank Norris was a fundamentalist preacher who believed in the literal interpretation of scripture, but he was a little lax on the whole “turn the other cheek” injunction. On July 17, 1926 a man named D.E. Chipps stormed into Norris’s office at the massive First Baptist Church of Fort Worth and threatened to kill the preacher. Norris—one of the most powerful religious figures in America at the time—pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

The killing scandalized Texas and riveted the country as the preacher was put on trial for murder, but the killing of D.E. Chipps was not Norris’s first experience with bloodshed, nor was it his first time to tangle with the law. In some ways, his whole life had led him to that courtroom.

[Let's start at the beginning...]

Wed
Oct 29 2014 3:00pm

Comics without Capes: Crimes by Women

Crimes By Women was a ten cent comic book published by the Fox Features Syndicate from June of 1948 to August of 1951. It was an anthology series that showcased a series of femme fatales, gun molls and full-tilt psychopaths engaged in all manner of sexual seduction and wanton violence. It was, in a word, trash.

Trash has its appeal, though, and—more importantly—it can tell us something about the shifting currents of a culture.

Fox Features Syndicate was the brainchild and ongoing concern of one of the most interesting figures in the early days of comic books. Victor Fox was a Russian immigrant who had been born in England before his family settled in America in 1898. Short (only about 5’2”) and bursting with energy, Fox had an obscure early life that was later shrouded in myth. There was talk of a career as an illegal boiler-room stock trader, of a conviction for mail fraud, of a side job as an accountant for National Allied Publications (which later became DC Comics) that gave him the idea to start his own business ripping off his old bosses. (Comics legend Jack Kirby, who later worked for Fox, compared him to movie gangster Edward G. Robinson.)

[That's a bold claim...]

Wed
Oct 22 2014 10:15am

The Cowboy Rides Away: John Wayne and The Shootist (1976)

This is the second entry in a series on the final Westerns of the great cowboy stars. The previous entry looked at Gary Cooper and The Hanging Tree.

Don Siegel’s The Shootist is an elegy. Made three years before John Wayne’s death from cancer, it tells the story of a gunfighter (or a “shootist” to use the archaic newspaper term) who rides in from the range, gets a room in town with a prim widow woman and her impressionable son, and settles down to die. The film is an elegy for many things—for the Western itself, for the idea of the cowboy hero, but mostly it’s an elegy for the man who, more than any other, defined the idea of the American film hero for the entire world.

By any standard, John Wayne had an amazing career. Born Marion Morrison, he started out in pictures in the 1920s as just another tall, good-looking guy in crowd scenes—a football player here, a solider there. (In the 1928 Noah’s Ark, he survived the botched flood sequence that killed three extras.) Raoul Walsh gave him his big break playing the lead in the epic 1930 Western The Big Trail. The film was a flop, and Wayne spent most of the next decade riding the range in cheapie oaters, playing second fiddle to guys like Tim McCoy and gradually working his way back up the call sheet. His second big break—the one that actually succeeded in breaking him out of the world of Poverty Row horse operas—was John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. He was 32, a bit old to be playing someone called the Ringo Kid, but there was no doubt he was a star. Those nine years had taught him how to work a camera, how to pace his walk, how to listen to other actors. (“I’m a reactor,” he once said of his approach to his craft.) He looked like he’d been born with a gun in his hand, and though he famously didn’t care for horses, you can never catch him thinking about what he’s doing with one. He rode like it was second nature.

[And we watched him like it was second nature...]

Wed
Oct 15 2014 11:30am

God and the Gangster: How Billy Graham Tried to Save Mickey Cohen

Publicity makes for strange bedfellows. So does crime. So does religion, for that matter. Add publicity, crime, and religion together, and you get the fascinating story of how the Reverend Billy Graham set out to save the soul of the most notorious gangster in the history of Los Angeles: crime lord Mickey Cohen.

Billy Graham wasn’t the first dynamic man of god to gain a widespread following in the 20th century—he was preceded by the immensely popular outfielder-turned-preacher Billy Sunday and the notorious J. Frank Norris, among others—but with his huge public rallies in the late forties, Graham became the first superstar preacher to break into the national consciousness in a sustained way. Originally from North Carolina, he began as a Southern Baptist evangelist in the Youth For Christ organization, and though he lacked much in the way of formal training, he possessed a powerful stage presence and an instinct for showmanship. In 1949, he arranged several outdoor revival meetings in Los Angeles. These weren’t the first rallies Graham had ever held, but they were hyped by the newspaper machine of William Randolph Hearst. (Hearst had a soft spot for flamboyant religious types and had previously promoted both Billy Sunday and the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy.) Thousands of people flocked to the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to hear Graham’s sermons at an enormous pavilion made up of two interlocking circus tents called “The Canvas Cathedral.”

[But how does this connect to Mickey Cohen?]

Wed
Oct 8 2014 1:00pm

Noir’s Goon Squad: William Talman

We've recently featured a post on the noir career of Raymond Burr. Although he’s best remembered today as the stalwart defense attorney Perry Mason, Burr spent much of the 40s and 50s playing demented psychos and cold-eyed masterminds in film noir. It’s interesting to note, then, that William Talman—who played Perry Mason’s loyal opposition, district attorney Hamilton Burger—was himself one of noir’s premier goons. Not just that, Talman specialized in playing full-tilt nutjobs.

He was born in Detroit in 1915, the eldest son of a successful industrial electronics executive, and as a young man he thrived in sports—especially boxing. He went to college at Dartmouth but left after one year when he was involved in a joyride that ended in the death of a friend. He tried his hand at acting, but then the war stopped everything. Talman was drafted into the Army and served in the US Signal Corps, eventually rising to the rank of Major.

After the war, he began working in movies and from the start he was typecast as thugs with a demented streak. Talman had a strange face with weathered features (even as a young man), a severe mouth and off center eyes. His gravelly voice added to a demeanor that made him perfect for characters with bad intentions.

[On to television...]

Thu
Sep 25 2014 2:00pm

Bacall By Herself

In our series on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, we looked at the films the great screen duo made between 1944 and 1948. After 1948, however, the two never made another movie together. (Though they did star in the radio adventure series Bold Venture in 1951 and worked together on a 1955 television production of The Petrified Forest.) In the late forties and early fifties, Betty (her real name; no one ever called her Lauren) slowed down her participation in films to raise two children with Bogart. After Bogie died in 1957, her career slowed even further. Part of this was due to her close association with her former screen partner, of course. In the public mind, she was “And Bacall.” In some respects—as Bacall herself often pointed out—she never fully had a career of her own. The massive overnight success of her entrance into movies, and her connection with Bogart’s legacy, was its own kind of show business prison.

What this obscures, of course, was that Bacall was always a striking screen presence and a serious actor from the very beginning. Here then is a look at some of her most interesting films from the fifties onward.

[Where to begin?]

Wed
Sep 17 2014 3:00pm

The Noir Geek’s Guide to The Big Lebowski

The Coen Brother’s 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski has many cultural touchstones—the sixties, hippies, Vietnam, CCR, weed, Busby Berkley musicals—but the underlying structure of the movie goes back further to the days of 40s film noir. In a movie full of touches of genius (full disclosure: I’m a Lebowskiphile from way back), the initiating act of genius was the decision to make the film a modern day update of the hardboiled L.A. crime story. Of course, the Coens were well aware that Robert Altman did this back in the seventies when he brought Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe to the grimy, drugged-out LA of 1973 in The Long Goodbye. The Coens did Altman one better by celebrating/satirizing/sending-up every noir trope they can get their hands on.

Here then is a noir geek’s guide to the land of Lebowski:

1. The Big Lebowski, The Title: In the film itself, “The Big Lebowski” refers to the character played David Huddleston, the rich old man who hires “The Dude” to find his missing wife. The title, however, is a throwback to The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s novel about a rich old man who hires private eye Philip Marlowe to find his missing son-in-law. It’s evocative, too, of other noir titles like The Big Bluff, The Big Combo, and The Big Heat.

[Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.]

Sat
Sep 13 2014 1:00pm

Bogie and Bacall: Key Largo (1948)

In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Today we’ll look at John Huston’s Key Largo.

I want to state this up front because I know that many people will disagree: Key Largo is not one of Humphrey Bogart’s best films.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really, really good. Since I’ve seen it, oh, 20 times or so, it must be doing something right. Still, when you consider that his credits include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and In a Lonely Place, you realize that Bogart simply made so many masterpieces that even a film like Key Largo has to get bumped down to the second tier. There it joins films like The Enforcer and Dark Passage. And that ain’t  bad company.

[That's where I want to go...]

Sat
Sep 13 2014 10:00am

Bogie and Bacall: Dark Passage (1947)

In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Today we’ll look at Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage.

Dark Passage doesn’t get any respect. It’s a fine film noir that has two things working against its reputation: 1) a hokey stylistic device, and 2) the fact that it is the least of the Bogart/Bacall vehicles.

I’ll deal with each of these criticisms in a moment. First however, the plot: Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a convict who has just busted out of prison when the film starts. He’s picked up by a talkative motorist named Baker (Clifton Young). It doesn’t take Baker long to figure out that Parry’s a fugitive, so Parry slugs him, takes off on foot and is picked up by another motorist. She’s Irene Jansen (Bacall), and surprisingly she already knows who Parry is and wants to help him. It turns out that Parry was convicted of killing his wife, and Irene followed his trial in the papers, convinced of his innocence. Before long, Parry undergoes a facelift and sets out to track down his wife’s killer.

[That's a tricky bit to pull off...]

Wed
Sep 10 2014 10:00am

Bogie and Bacall: The Big Sleep (1946)

In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. Today we’ll look at Hawks’ The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep is a movie that is nearly universally beloved by movie buffs, but it is also the source of some debate among noir fans. Everyone agrees that it’s masterfully made, and everyone agrees that it contains one of Bogart’s great performances. But is it noir? Many people say no. One must admit, too, that there are strong arguments in support of this argument.

[But it's not that easy...]

Thu
Sep 4 2014 10:00am

Bogie and Bacall: To Have and Have Not (1944)

In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. First up is Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not.

I have to be honest and declare right here at the beginning that I don’t think there’s a better movie than To Have and Have Not. There are greater films, and more profound films, and films of more ambition and more scope and more depth. But there’s not a better movie.

By now, we’ve all heard the famous (and maybe even partially true) story of how Howard Hawks bet Ernest Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst novel. He settled on To Have and Have Not as the biggest stinker and made a cinematic masterpiece by throwing out everything in the book and starting from scratch. There are a couple of things wrong with this anecdote, though. For one thing, the exact when and where and how of the story seemed to change every time Hawks retold it, sharpening and clarifying until it became a suitable testimony to his own prescience and talent. The other problem is that director Michael Curtiz actually adapted Hemingway’s original novel faithfully in 1950 and created the film noir masterpiece The Breaking Point starring John Garfield and Patricia Neal. Still, the core of Hawks’ anecdote nicely sums up his approach to the material. Hemingway’s novel was a story of moral defeat, of a man reaching, well, the breaking point. And that kind of thing had no place in the cinema of Howard Hawks.

[He had a much different interpretation...]

Fri
Aug 29 2014 10:00am

Batman at 25: Tim Burton’s Caped Crusader

Ah, 1989. It was a simpler time. Your faithful correspondent was 14 years old—amply pimpled, brazenly bemulleted, and already a devoted movie geek. The best thing that happened to me that year was that Lethal Weapon 2 came out. This was back when one could devote himself unequivocally to the hero worship of Mel Gibson. Like I said, it was a simpler time. Lethal Weapon 2 was a big hit that summer, as was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which gave us the perfect ending to the career of the good Dr. Jones. (Again, I repeat, simpler time.) But these two monster hits were not the big news that year because 1989 was the year of Batman.

Looking back, it’s easy to see now that Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t simply the biggest hit of that year (grossing 411 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of 35 million, which, adjusted for inflation, might well make Batman the most successful comic book movie in history); it was also the most influential. While Richard Donner’s Superman had legitimized the comic book movie as potential blockbuster material back in 1978, that franchise had been mismanaged by producers who didn’t appreciate the delicate combination of grandeur and humor Donner had brought to the material. By 1989, when producers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters brought the Dark Knight to the screen, the comic book movie was still a gamble.

[But did it ever pay off...]

Fri
Aug 15 2014 1:00pm

The Movies of 1944: When Strangers Marry

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key noirs of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, The Woman In the Window, and When Strangers Marry. Earlier this week we looked at Fritz Lang’s The Woman In the Window. Today we look at William Castle’s When Strangers Marry.

While many scholars peg Double Indemnity as the first fully formed noir in terms of both style and theme, you can see the genre’s style and ethos taking shape in earlier films like Stranger On The Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and Street Of Chance (1942). By 1944 you can see all of this coming together in the low-budget mystery-romance When Strangers Marry. The film is an interesting specimen of the emerging noir style, but it is of particular importance because it launched the criminal career of noir’s greatest leading man.

[Everyone has to start somewhere...]

Mon
Aug 11 2014 3:00pm

The Movies of 1944: The Woman in the Window

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key noirs of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman In the Window. Last week we looked at Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady. Today we look at Fritz Lang’s The Woman In The Window.

The Woman In The Window is the kind of film that comes right up to the edge of greatness and then swerves at the last moment. In a sense, that’s a shame, but look at it this way: most movies come nowhere near greatness.

The film stands at the crossroads in the career of star Edward G. Robinson. In the thirties, he had been one of the premier tommy gun-toting hoodlums at Warner Brothers, but in the forties, as the gangster picture gave way to the film noir, Robinson moved on to play a far different kind of character. In 1944, he made the pivotal Double Indemnity, playing the fast-talking insurance investigator. But that same year he made The Woman In The Window, the first of his middle-aged loser roles.

[It was a role he'd get used to playing...]

Wed
Aug 6 2014 10:00am

The Movies of 1944: Phantom Lady

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key noirs of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman In the Window. Last week we looked at Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet. Today we look at Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady.

Sometimes when you’re watching a movie there comes a moment so wonderful that it strikes you like a revelation. You realize in an instant that you’ve lucked into something terrific. The first time I saw Phantom Lady, that moment hit me at about the ten minute mark. In the film Alan Curtis plays a civil engineer who has just had a fight with his wife. He heads to a bar for a drink, and while he’s there he meets a sad woman wearing a peculiar hat. She doesn’t seem to be in a mood to talk to anyone, but eventually Curtis convinces her to go to a show. She agrees, but on one condition: they will not exchange names. He agrees, pays for their drinks, and they take a cab to the show. Nothing much happens at the show and once it’s over, Curtis and the woman say goodnight.

[But the night doesn't end there...]

Sun
Aug 3 2014 11:00am

The Movies of 1944: Murder, My Sweet

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key noirs of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman In the Window. Last week we looked at Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Vera Caspary’s Laura. Today we look at Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is the most famous private eye to ever walk the mean streets of American crime fiction. He’s gotten more traction than Sam Spade (who only headlined one novel and a handful of stories by Dashiell Hammet), and he’s outlasted his most famous successor, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. As a literary creation, he’s iconic: the raincoat and snap brim hat, the cigarettes, the smartass remarks, the office bottle, the tendency to get knocked over the head and wake up next to a dead body. He is a pivotal American heroic archetype, the lonely but honest private investigator. If the English have Sherlock Holmes, then Americans have Phillip Marlowe.

[USA! USA!]

Sun
Jul 27 2014 11:00am

The Movies of 1944: Laura

To celebrate the 70th anniversary of film noir’s landmark year, we’re looking at the six key films of 1944: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman In the Window. The first film we looked at Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Today we look at Otto Preminger’s film of Vera Caspary’s Laura.

[Let's go take a look...]

Wed
Jul 23 2014 12:00pm

The Movies of 1944: Double Indemnity

This year film noir turns 70. While there had been some intermittent films leading up to the birth of the classic noir, in 1944 the dahlia bloomed with six key films: Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Phantom Lady, When Strangers Marry, and The Woman In the Window. In these films you have many of the key figures in noir making some of their first forays into the genre (directors Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak; writers Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Vera Caspary, Phillip Yordan; actors Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett, Dana Andrews—just to name a few). This onslaught of darkness came in the wake of the bleakest days (from the American perspective, anyway) of WWII. The basis of many of these films were older properties but it is the way these films came out—physically darker, psychologically denser, and ultimately more pessimistic—that marks the real birth of film noir. This post kicks off a new series which will explore these six landmark films.

[Up first, Double Indemnity...]

Sat
Jul 19 2014 11:00am

Orange Is the New Black 2.13: Season Finale “We Have Manners. We’re Polite.”

Well, here we are at the end, my friends, and look how far we’ve come. Orange Is the New Black wraps up Season 2 by tying up most of its major plot threads: the rise and reign of Vee Parker, the war between Vee and Red, Piper’s attempts to bring down Fig, the upheaval between Taystee and Poussey, the transformation of Crazy Eyes into Vee’s enforcer, and Healy’s attempts to turn Pennsatucky into his sidekick. And more. Much more. The show does some of this well, but I have to be honest and report that this is, in many ways, the weakest episode of the season.

[It was still good, it's just been that strong of a season...]