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I just finished re-reading Dashiell Hammett's classic,The Maltese Falcon. Because I've seen the movie dozens of times, I hear Bogart as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as Brigid O' Shaughnessy as I read the book. I hear the tremor in Mary Astor's voice, when as Brigid, she says, "I don't have to tell you how utterly at a disadvantage you'll have me... if you choose." In the book, Brigid is very young and very beautiful. She's selling damsel-in distress looking for her knight-errant. Her power comes from finding men who can fight, steal and even kill for her.
Now look at Mary Astor. She was thirty-five when she made this picture. Does she look like a damsel-in-distress? Hell no.
Imagine a different actress playing Brigid. Say Gene Tierney. At twenty-one Gene could have totally sold her helplessness. And then when Sam Spade says, "You're very good. It's chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice...," think how we'd feel. What is wrong with Spade—does he hate all women? In the end, we'd realize that our detective knows a whole lot more about human nature than we do.
Who would you choose?
Paramount is in a tizzy. It’s early in 1945 and Alan Ladd, their top earner, is headed back into the US Army in three months time and they’ve got nothing in the can. What is immediately needed is an Alan Ladd vehicle. Paramount settles on my hero, Raymond Chandler, and his half-written manuscript, The Blue Dahlia.
George Marshall starts directing from the beginnings of the script as Chandler continues to write.
The Blue Dahlia begins with a Hollywood-bound bus stopping at a corner and three war buddies getting off, each of them carrying a suitcase, each looking sheepish in their civvies. There’s Buzz who’s brain damaged and flies into rages, there’s the amiable George who has taken the responsibility as Buzz’s keeper, and there is their squad leader, Johnny, played by Alan Ladd.
The three men decide to stop for a drink before they resume life back home. Johnny is the only guy there with a wife to come home to, but he isn’t any more eager to leave the bar than his two friends. He raises a shot of whiskey and toasts his buddies, Here’s to what was.
What does he mean? Is he mourning a past that can’t be recaptured, or is he not looking forward to what’s ahead? When he arrives home, we get it. His wife, Helen, is entertaining all the people in town who didn’t go to war. And what a corrupt, disreputable bunch they are. The most corrupt of all is Helen’s new boyfriend, Eddie Harwood, the owner of a nightclub called The Blue Dahlia. The party ends when Johnny socks Eddie in the jaw, You got the wrong lipstick on, Mister, and Helen announces, Ladies and gentlemen, I think you’d better leave. My husband would like to be alone with me. He probably wants to beat me up.
I want to beat her up. So I’m not surprised when the housekeeper finds Helen dead the following morning. There are a number of people who have motive and opportunity. It’s the classic set-up used in every Perry Mason ever made: who killed the despicable victim?
There’s Johnny who has a boatload of motive. There’s Eddie Harwood, and Eddie’s boss, Leo, and there’s Buzz, Johnny’s brain-damaged buddy. But as far as the cops are concerned Johnny is their chief suspect. Johnny doesn’t trust the cops anymore than he trusts the rest of the civilian population. Enter Veronica Lake as Joyce who is eager to help Johnny. Why she is so eager to help is the unanswered story question. When she picks him up in a rainstorm he tells her, You oughta have more sense than to take chances with strangers like this. To which she replies, It’s funny, but practically all the people I know were strangers when I met them.
Joyce acts as Girl Friday while Johnny evades the police and searches for Helen’s killer. And then the shoe drops. Joyce is Joyce Harwood, Eddie Harwood’s wife. The look on Alan Ladd’s face when he’s introduced to her is what makes noir Noir. It’s that this-is-what-happens-when-you-begin-to-trust-someone look.
The most complex and interesting character in the film is Eddie Harwood, played by Howard Da Silva. He wins our sympathy (at least mine) when Johnny socks him. He looks like he could clean the floor with Johnny. Instead he reaches for a handkerchief and tells Johnny, You’re entirely right. The scene when he’s confronted by a blackmailer is worth the price of the movie. Eddie intimidates the blackmailer with a drink and a cigar. He’s uber polite and he’s dangerous as hell.
It’s a great set-up, but who killed the dame is the big question. Chandler doesn’t know. He’s leaning towards Buzz, the brain-damaged soldier. Nuh-uh says Paramount. They tell Chandler that the public won’t buy a war hero turned murderer. Chandler is in crisis. He tells the studio he’s unable to finish the script sober. The only way but he can finish on schedule is if he can write from home—drunk—since alcohol gives him the energy and confidence that he needs.
He also requires from the studio two Cadillac limousines, parked outside his house with drivers available to run errands for him at any hour of his choosing and six secretaries available at all times for dictation and typing.
Believe it or not, Paramount agrees to his demands. And Chandler delivers the ending on schedule. Does Johnny solve his wife’s murder and learn to trust the blonde? I’ll leave it to you to discover.
There’s a postscript: shortly after the film was released, a young woman, Elizabeth Short, was brutally murdered and dismembered in Los Angeles. Elizabeth was called the Black Dahlia by the kids who hung out at the soda fountain with her. The name was picked up by the press and from then on her real-life story was entwined with the fictional one.
In 1954, ten years after Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray stars once again as an honest guy lured into sin . Pushover is a morality tale: choose the indolent blonde (easy sex, easy money) or the working life with an industrious little brunette. The blonde and brunette live next door to each other, their apartments lit like the windows in an Advent calendar. The two men watching them are cops: Fred MacMurray as Paul Sheridan and Phil Carey as Rick McAllister. They’re watching the blonde Lona McLane played by Kim Novak in her debut role.
Lona’s gangster boyfriend is on the lam after knocking off a bank and killing a guard. The cops have Lona under twenty-four hour surveillance as they wait for the boyfriend to show. Day after day the cops watch as Lona paces back and forth in her apartment. She doesn’t read, entertain or do housework, knit or paint landscapes. She smokes. She’s boring as hell, but she’s Kim Novak. All she has to do is breathe.
Contrast Lona with the little brunette next door played by Dorothy Malone. The cops watch her because she’s next-door and she conveniently leaves her lights on and drapes open. She comes home from a hard day at work and makes canapés and hangs curtains. Busy, busy, busy like brunettes everywhere. Phil Carey is intrigued with her in his sexist, patronizing way, but he’s big and handsome and appearances have even more cache in this story than in life. And that’s a high bar.
We know from the first five minutes that Fred MacMurray is going for the lazy blonde and the easy money. And that he most likely won’t succeed. It’s not called Pushover for nothing. The tension in the story comes from trying to figure out the Kim Novak character. She sleeps with MacMurray the night they meet, so I’m thinking the woman has an agenda. And then later she suggests that they kill her boyfriend and take the money. This is classic femme fatale behavior, but as the story progresses, she shows unexpected loyalty towards Fred MacMurray. I find myself asking is she on the level? Are these two the noir version of star-crossed lovers?
The cinematography in Pushover is beautiful and the score hilarious: pensive jazz for MacMurray and Novak, the march of the righteous for Carey and the other honest cops, music straight from Lassie Come Home for Dorothy Malone. I love watching MacMurray play the fallen man and Kim Novak is stunning. Pushover is not Double Indemnity great, but it’s definitely worth seeing.
I love Raymond Chandler. Trouble is my business, too. And if Philip Marlowe was a real person, I’d do my best to make him my next husband—just kidding. Just not. Naturally, when I got word that a new/old Marlowe movie crawled up from the Out-of-Print, I pressed the correct buttons on my computer and a week later, the movie arrived on my porch.
The movie is The Brasher Dubloon, and stars George Montgomery as Philip Marlowe. They should have never cast George Montgomery as Marlowe. Montgomery is a tool in this story. I could outwit Montgomery. He immediately falls in-love-or-whatever-you-call-it with the Crazy-Girl. Crazy–Girl is pretty but lacking enough screen presence to lure our detective into believing in her innocence. There’s a painful scene where Marlowe gives Crazy-Girl “love lessons”. Don’t make me explain.
The rest of the cast is an assortment of stock characters: squinty-eyed mobsters, brash coppers, imperious old ladies and furtive fences. At one point in the story, Montgomery opens and closes the outer door of the suspect’s office to trick the suspect into thinking he was alone. Good God, that’s the kind of trick we learned as eight-year-olds. But even with a less than stellar cast, the Dubloon is a pretty decent story based on Chandler’s High Window. And it has great windy sets.
Although Brasher Dubloon is worse than the regrettable Lady in the Lake (another unsuccessful Marlowe) it is not the worst Philip Marlowe ever!!!!! That prize goes to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Altman has fun with the private eye genre by setting a chain-smoking Elliot Gould with his rumpled suit and narrow tie smack in the middle of 1973 California. This Marlowe spends what feels like a half-hour on camera shopping for and feeding his cat. You read me correctly—Marlowe has a cat. Gould mumbles to himself, he smirks, he hides in the bushes, and smirks some more.
Take a noir, flood the sets with California light, throw out the story, cast a smirky, ironic Marlowe BUT keep the femme fatale. What does that say about Altman? The femme fatale and her doomed husband (a brilliant Sterling Hayden) are the only serious characters in this farce. Altman has a jolly time making fun of the women in the cast as well . Marlowe’s next-door-neighbors are a group of nude or semi-nude yoga practitioners. Thankfully, no one practices downward-facing-dog; they just prance across their balcony waving chiffon scarves. There’s one other woman in the cast, and you won’t like what Altman does to her.
I hate this picture, but if you like camp, you might be amused by it. No you won’t.
You’ve got a mobster, Mike Lagana, who owns half the police force and all of City Hall. He’s an oily individual until crossed and then he gets ugly. There’s his second-in-command, Vince Stone, played by Lee Marvin at his thuggy best. Our hero, Glenn Ford as Sgt. Bannion, starts out pissed and by the first plot point he’s a boiling pot of mad.
Three dangerous men, but who rules this noir? Two women. That’s right.
Start with Bertha Duncan: the story begins when she finds her husband slumped over his desk from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She shows no heartbreak, no pity, not even surprise. She slides her husband’s confession from beneath his dead hand and makes a call to Lagana, the gangster. “Tell him, it’s Officer Duncan’s widow,” she says. Lagana takes the call.
Her husband’s confession in hand, the widow Duncan negotiates with Lagana off-camera. The result is she’s in clover. Name another story where the blackmailer lives in wealth and harmony. She deals just as effectively with Sgt. Bannion. All it takes is a call to City Hall and Bannion’s blocked from questioning the lady. She has Lagana, Stone and Sgt. Bannion all bending to her will.
Moving on to the second woman in this story: Lee Marvin’s girlfriend, Debbie Marsh, played by Gloria Grahame. She’s young and beautiful and full of sass. Watching her needle Marvin, in front of Lagana’s other toadies is what I’d imagine bear-baiting to look like. Debbie even taunts Lagana ("His Highness".) She says, "He's a man with a big hat that holds up the hoop, cracks the whip and the animals jump through."
Marvin orders Debbie to retreat to the kitchen. Lagana sadly shakes his head. Says, "She's a young girl, Vince. Don't let her drink so much." He can’t believe anyone would talk to him with disrespect. Marvin replies: "She keeps it up, she goes out of here on her ear. She's got no claim check on me." Really? She’s been yanking on his chain since the beginning of the story.
Debbie crosses the line with Marvin when she’s seen getting in a taxi alongside Sgt. Bannion. Marvin retaliates in a shocking act of violence. Debbie is broken— or is she?
She pays a visit to Bertha Duncan. The two women face one another, each clad in fur. Debbie tells the widow Duncan, “I’ve been thinking about you and me, how much alike we are. The mink-coated girls… We’re sisters under the mink.” I imagine Debbie is referring to their connection to the mob, but it’s more than that. Both of them are smarter than the other characters in the story, and that makes it interesting. You have to watch the movie to find out how Debbie brings down the crime syndicate. I can’t think of another noir where the woman wrests the glory from the designated hero.
Men have been blaming women for their own damn weaknesses for as long as they’ve been telling stories. A favorite scapegoat is the femme fatale, "deadly woman." Deadly has been luring men to their doom since Eve ate the apple and took the rap for humanity getting kicked out of paradise. Cleopatra, Circe, Delilah and Aphrodite (goddess of the sideways glance) are all members of this sorority.
It only makes sense that the cynicism in noir fiction would fasten on the femme fatale. Story after story, film after film dismisses the woman as wife and mother and loyal confidante and fixates on the deadly woman.
But not all femme fatales are created equal. There are the sexpots with an agenda. Examples are Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis from Double Indemnity, Lana Turner as Cora from The Postman Always Rings Twice, Claire Trevor as Helen from Murder My Sweet and Barbara Stanwyck again as Martha from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (the divine Stanwyck couldn’t play innocent if her hair was on fire.) In these stories the guy knows from the get-go the woman is big trouble, but he just has to have sex with her. It's the same impulse that gets a widow spider's head chewed off.
I'm a fan of the vulnerable femme fatale. As a reader and a viewer, I want to stand alongside the troubled male protagonist and hope that maybe, maybe she's telling me the truth and that a happy ending is possible. For that I give you Jane Greer.
Take a look at Greer as Kathie in Out of the Past. She’s young and beautiful. Her gangster boyfriend claims she shot him and stole forty K from him (mind you, this is back in 1947!) Her eyes get all dewy and her lip trembles and Ibelieve it when she says that yeah, she shot him, she hated him, but she never took the money. The poor detective (Robert Mitchum) doesn’t have a prayer. Talk about your dramatic tension. Time and again she lies to Mitchum, she almost gets him killed and I’m right there with him thinking maybe it’s a mistake. Far into the movie she says to him, “Don’t you believe me?” He says, “Baby, I don’t care.”
Wow. I’ve so been there. He’s being played. He knows it, I know it. It’s 1947. It’s Out of the Past. It’s relevant. Trust me.
Starring two of my favorite actors, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place is a story about Dix Steele, a screenwriter with a bad attitude and a volcanic temper. Turns out Dix is a World War II veteran which seems to be the root of his rage and cynicism. I’m reminded of the Alan Ladd character in The Blue Dahlia, another story of a disillusioned war veteran.
Back to Dix. He gets picked up for questioning about a young woman’s murder. She’s the hat check girl Dix hired the night before to tell him about the novel she’s just read and that he needs to write a screenplay for. The audience knows that although Dix is not the most chivalrous dude in the world, he didn’t hurt her. Dix becomes a suspect because of his smart ass attitude and his lack of sympathy for the girl’s death. He’s saved from being jailed by his neighbor who witnessed him sending the girl home.
The neighbor is Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray. Dix and Laurel quickly fall in love. He tells Laurel, there she is, the one that’s different. She’s not coy or cute or corny, she’s a good guy. I’m glad she’s on my side. She speaks her mind, she knows what she wants.
I love that he calls the romantic lead a “good guy.” Again, it reminds me of The Blue Dahlia where Veronica Lake plays the good guy role. Lauren Bacall in Dark Passage and Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle also play the good guys.
In most film noir, the wife and mother is as important to the story as wallpaper. The damsel in distress is often treated with a large dose of cynicism and the career woman often doubles as seductress. In film noir the seductress is despised. Either the protagonist doesn’t realize he’s being played and the audience despises her, (think Out of the Past, The Asphalt Jungle, Double Indemnity, On Dangerous Ground.) Or the protagonist is on to her and she disgusts him (think The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet.)
The woman-as-good-guy is not like most romantic roles. Her primary task is not lover, mother or domestic but pal and help-mate. In each of these stories the woman’s goal is believing in and helping the protagonist stay out of jail. Gloria Grahame’s role In a Lonely Place is sexier and more traditionally feminine than the other films I’ve listed. Another way her role is different from the other stories is that her belief in Dix is conditional. Her trust is undermined by the police, by Dix’s friends and by witnessing his rage first hand.
The story turns on whether the lovers can survive as a couple long enough for the murder to be solved. If you’re expecting a happy ending, you don’t know your noir.
Murder My Sweet (1944)
The only man who can compete with Humphrey Bogart as Raymond Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe is Dick Powell, an actor previously known for his roles in 1930s and 40s comedies and musicals. The name of the film is Murder My Sweet, an adaptation of Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.
The film opens with Marlowe at the police station. He's in an interrogation room, his eyes are bandaged, the police offer him a cigarette, he begins his story... And it's a good one about a huge ex-con just out of prison looking for his lady love (cute as lace pants) ; a stolen jade necklace and a blackmailing psychic.
Dick Powell's Philip Marlowe is a lonelier man than Bogart's Marlowe inThe Big Sleep.In the opening of this story, Marlowe pages through his little black book looking for a woman: Nothing like soft shoulders to improve the morale. Only Soft Shoulders has a date. That's the way it is for Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, and the way Dick Powell plays him it's easy to understand why he doesn't have a friend or a steady girl. He's not a very likeable guy. What he is is dogged. Once he accepts a job, he won't quit running down leads until he delivers what he's been hired to do. He can't be bribed, reasoned with, threatened or seduced: he's on a job and we can't help admiring his tenacity.
Claire Trevor plays a wonderful femme fatale: smart, sexy and ruthless. But here's something I don't understand: the more she puts the moves on our detective, the more his lip curls in disgust, the more sarcastic he becomes. Why does she not pick up on these cues? We the audience surely do. He still beds her, of course (another thing I can never understand about men—if you know you can't trust someone, why do you have sex with them?) Afterwards our femme fatale figures she's bagged him. But the way it works out, he's bagged her and we can't help despising her for not realizing she was played.
This story was redone (titled Farewell My Lovely) starring Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe. Murder My Sweet is the better film.