Post-noir classic's reputation keeps soaring even as its director's keeps falling.
Nearly ten years into this website we've mentioned Chinatown only once—when we wrote a few lines while sharing two Japanese promo posters. The above poster was made for the film's Australian run, which began today in 1975. The film has been discussed everywhere, which means we can't add much, so let's just call it an all-time masterpiece, and one of the most watchable and re-watchable movies ever made, filled with details you notice over time. For example, it didn't strike us until after a few viewings that Jack Nicholson does his own stunt in that culvert scene, the one where the water rushes down the sluiceway and pins him against a chain link fence. You wouldn't see many modern day stars get wet and cold for a moment that lasts five seconds onscreen. We also failed to notice the first few times that the police lieutenant, Escobar, is Mexican-American. It just didn't strike us. But he would have been an extreme rarity in the 1937 L.A. of the film, and the writing and/or casting choice there was certainly deliberate. Other details continue to emerge, and we've seen the movie five or six times.
As far as director Roman Polanski goes, we've talked about him before. But we'll add that art stands on its own, and people stand on their own too. Having created superior art should not absolve someone of crimes; having committed crimes should not serve to denigrate superior art. That's just our opinion. Plus, a director isn't the only one responsible for a film. The hundreds of others involved, including the select group pictured below, and especially the unpictured screenwriter Robert Towne—who is just as responsible for Chinatown as Polanski and won an Oscar for his screenplay—deserve credit. We will always criticize art for being inaccurate when it pretends to be truthful, or for promulgating false or harmful beliefs. Chinatown doesn't do that. Quite the opposite—it offers sharp insights into how and why Los Angeles became what it is. Meanwhile its subplot somewhat foreshadows Polanski's own crime, which makes the film ironic in the extreme. If you haven't seen it you simply must.
Gold may fill the pockets but it can also empty the soul.
We wanted to show you a bit more work from German artist Rolf Goetze. We settled on this West German poster for the quasi-western drama Treasure of the Sierra Madre because the film premiered in West Germany today in 1949. This is Goetze at his best. For that matter, it's Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and John Huston at their best too. That isn't just our opinion—Walter Huston won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance, and John Huston won both Best Director and Best Screenplay. If you're not familiar with the film, we'll just tell you it's a cautionary tale about the lust for riches, and it contains this classic and oft-mangled quote: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!” More Goetze poster work to be seen here and here.
It's nobody's Asphalt but their own.
The best poster for the movie The Asphalt Jungle was, beyond doubt, the one we showed you a while back painted by the Italian artist Angelo Cesselon. But that one came a bit later. The above poster was made for the film's initial release in 1950. We think it's very nice as well, if remarkably different from Cesselon's masterpiece. As for the movie, we could tell you it's a top effort, but you already know that. If you haven't seen it, definitely do. It's showing at the Noir City Film Festival tonight, but even at home it's worth a screening.
The law of this jungle is steal or be poor.
We don't need to tell you anything about The Asphalt Jungle because you've seen this film classic, right? So today we're all about the poster. Look at this beauty. It was painted by Italian artist Angelo Cesselon, complete with his distinct signature and its supersized “O”. Cesselon worked for many studios and mastered a distinct style featuring large character portraits such as the one you see here. His work is among the most immediately identifiable of the mid-century period. As for the film, when you get John Huston directing a heist story you can't go wrong. Don't let the poster fool you, though—Marilyn Monroe is a bit player. Why is she starring on the art? Because Cesselon painted it a few years after the film's initial release—by which time Monroe was world famous. The Asphalt Jungle premiered today in 1950.
Mitchum finds himself second to nun.
Above is an Italian poster for the World War II drama L’anima e la carne, which would translate as “the soul and the flesh,” but was better known as Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. It was directed by John Huston, who was one of the greats and the man behind what many consider the first film noir The Maltese Falcon, but he wasn’t a strong stylist. He looked at himself as more of a technician, and often took on projects merely because they offered an opportunity for travel. He shot Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, in Trinidad and Tobago, and it’s an African Queen-like tale of a marine marooned on a Pacific island with a nun, and the romantic feelings that develop.
The movie did well at the box office, but while there’s plenty of entertaining action, the romantic aspects are generally tepid. When a man and woman are marooned together, possibly for life, we accept that thoughts of romance can develop, but it would have been nice if there were some other reason for it to happen than the fact they’re—for all intents and purposes—the last people on Earth. Mitchum loves Kerr, but she’s not funny, or charming, or unusual in any respect. She’s just there, behaving exactly as you’d expect a real nun to behave. If she had a spark that lit Mitchum’s flame we’d have liked the film a lot more. The romance angle is a red herring anyway—Mitchum’s Corporal Allison has zero chance to woo Kerr’s Sister Angela, and considering the lack of heat between the characters, it’s probably for the better.
As an aside, the movie has a terrible title, don’t you think? Not that it matters in terms of the final product, but you’d never think a film called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison features two stranded Americans dealing with serious hunger, nearly drowning, and generally being put through a wringer reminiscent of Naked and Afraid (but without the naked). Later they dodge Japanese troops, almost get bombed, and barely escape being blasted by a grenade. The title came from Charles Shaw’s novel, but it should have been changed. We can thank the movie for one thing, though—it made Mitchum fall in love with Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso, and led directly to him releasing an album of the music.
Hey ho! Hey ho! Huston and Ferrer must go!
Today in 1952 protestors comprising members of the 17th District American Legion Un-American Activities Committee demonstrate outside the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles against director John Huston and actor José Ferrer, whose new film Moulin Rouge was premiering that night. Why was the American Legion pissed? Basically because in 1947 Huston helped form the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (HUAC), and because Ferrer was a liberal. The anti-communist hysteria was in full swing at this point, and more than five-hundred names had been added to anti-communist blacklists.
Today there are numerous HUAC apologists, and their arguments boil down to nothing more than: “But there were communists in Hollywood!” Certainly that was true, but U.S. government incompetence and opportunism destroyed many more innocent people than communist spies were ever caught. A moral effort in crime fighting never hurts more innocent people than criminals. When it does, history laterlabels such periods tyranny. HUAC has been labeled exactly thus, an assessment that is extremely unlikely to change. And of course, it’s worth pointing out that being a communist was not equivalent to being a spy, nor was it a criminal offense. At least not yet—two years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower made communism illegal in the U.S. with the Communist Control Act.
I have dysentery, I’m covered with mosquito bites, and there’s a leech on my balls. Next time let’s do the all-inclusive cruise.
Above, a thoroughly pulped out cover for C.S. Forester’s 1935 adventure tale The African Queen, published in this Bantam paperback edition in 1949. This is a great book with a letdown of an ending, in our opinion, but when John Huston made it into a film in 1951 he greatly improved the last act and the result was an all-time cinema classic. The beefcakey art here is by Ken Riley.
Beat the Devil flopped in 1954 but today is appreciated as pioneering camp cinema.
We’ll tell you right now that we are not neutral when it comes to John Huston’s Beat the Devil. We love it. It has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, and the exquisite Jennifer Jones, so we loved it immediately. If only audiences had felt the same. The movie was such a flop that not only did it lose money, but its copyright went unrenewed, causing it lapse into public domain. But keen observers, after they got over being misled by the promotional campaign into thinking the movie was a standard Hollywood adventure, soon realized that what they had on their hands was something new—a camp satire bringing together some of the most distinct voices of 1950s cinema.
And we mean voices literally. You have Humphrey Bogart with his famous lisp, Gina Lollobrigida with her vampy Italian drawl, Jennifer Jones trying on an English lilt, Peter Lorre with his trademark Germanic accented sniveling, and more. The accents are your first clue that the movie is going to be all over the place.
The plot concerns a group of raggedy adventurers who hope to buy uranium-rich land in East Africa. Problem is, they need to get there. Seems straightforward enough, but the cosmos itself is aligned against them—cars fail, boats sink, betrayals ensue, information gets garbled, and just about any other obstacle you can imagine appears.
But Beat the Devil isn’t slapstick. It’s satire, which means it isn’t funny in a conventional way. In fact, maybe there isn’t a real laugh in the entire movie. Yet you have to smile when Marco Tulli introduces Peter Lorre’s character O’Hara as O’Horror, you have to marvel at Jennifer Jones’ crazy accent that sounds like an English version of Bogart’s lisp, and you have to watch with heightened interest during her famous calesthenics sequence, in which she has an entire conversation with Gina Lollobrigida while doing... well, we don't know what she's doing, but it looks like this.
Despite these and other charms, Beat the Devil is polarizing. Bogart declared that only phonies liked it. Huston, on the other hand, was well aware of its uniqueness and even told Jennifer Jones—who had already been nominated for four Academy Awards and had won once—that Beat the Devil would be one of her most remembered roles. True enough. The French and Dutch language poster you see above is for the Belgian release, and was put together by S.P.R.L. Belgique. Beat the Devil opened in France today, and Belgium this month in 1954.
Only the good go to sleep at night.
The French coined the term film noir, so it seems only fitting to feature a collection of French posters celebrating the genre. Above and below are fifteen examples promoting films noir from France, Britain, and the U.S., representing some of the best ever produced within the art form, as well as some less celebrated examples that we happen to love. Of those, we highly recommend seeing Le salaire de la peur, for which you see the poster above, and Ride the Pink Horse, below, which played as Et tournent les chevaux de bois in France. Just a word about those films (and feel free to skip ahead to the art, because really, who has time these days to listen to a couple of anonymous internet scribes ramble on about old movies?).
1953’s Le salaire de la peur is about a group of men stranded in an oil company town in the mountains of South America. In order to earn the wages to get out, four of them agree to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerine over many miles of dangerous terrain. The idea is to use the chemicals to put out a raging oil well fire that is consuming company profits by the second, but of course the film is really about whether the men can even get there alive. Le salaire de la peur was critically praised when released in Europe, but in the U.S., political factions raised their ugly heads and got censors to crudely re-edit the prints so as to reduce the movie’s anti-capitalist (and by extension anti-American) subtext. The movie was later remade by Hollywood twice—once in 1958 as Hell’s Highway, and again in 1977 as Sorcerer. The original is by far the best.
1947’s Ride the Pink Horse is an obscure noir, but a quintessential one, in our opinion. If many noirs feature embittered World War II vets as their anti-heroes, Robert Montgomery’s Lucky Gagin is the bitterest of them all. He arrives in a New Mexico border town on a quest to avenge the death of a friend. The plot is thin—or perhaps stripped down would be a better description—but Montgomery’s atmospheric direction makes up for that. Like a lot of mid-century films featuring ethnic characters, the most important one is played by a white actor (Wanda Hendrix, in a coating of what looks like brown shoe polish). It's racist, for sure, but within the universe of the film Lucky Gagin sees everyone around him only as obstacles or allies—i.e., equals within his own distinct worldview. So that makes up for it. Or maybe not. In any case, we think Ride the Pink Horse is worth a look. Thirteen more posters below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1937—Carothers Patents Nylon
Wallace H. Carothers, an American chemist, inventor and the leader of organic chemistry at DuPont Corporation, receives a patent for a silk substitute fabric called nylon. Carothers was a depressive who for years carried a cyanide capsule on a watch chain in case he wanted to commit suicide, but his genius helped produce other polymers such as neoprene and polyester. He eventually did take cyanide—not in pill form, but dissolved in lemon juice—resulting in his death in late 1937.
1933—Franklin Roosevelt Survives Assassination Attempt
In Miami, Florida, Giuseppe Zangara attempts to shoot President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, but is restrained by a crowd and, in the course of firing five wild shots, hits five people, including Chicago, Illinois Mayor Anton J. Cermak, who dies of his wounds three weeks later. Zangara is quickly tried and sentenced to eighty years in jail for attempted murder, but is later convicted of murder when Cermak dies. Zangara is sentenced to death and executed in Florida's electric chair.
1929—Seven Men Shot Dead in Chicago
Seven people, six of them gangster rivals of Al Capone's South Side gang, are machine gunned to death in Chicago, Illinois, in an event that would become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Because two of the shooters were dressed as police officers, it was initially thought that police might have been responsible, but an investigation soon proved the killings were gang related. The slaughter exceeded anything yet seen in the United States at that time.
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