Don't mess with the man upstairs.
Stranger on the Third Floor is sometimes cited as a proto film noir, coming a year before the first official noir, 1941's The Maltese Falcon. In this day and age, any vintage crime film is called a film noir on crowdsourced websites like IMDB, so depending on where you look film noir isn't as pure a cycle as it used to be. But in this case the debate is fair. The film is about newspaper journalist John McGuire, who serves as a witness at a sensational murder trial, while his fiancée Margaret Tallichet frets about the impact of recognition on their lives. The two of them are planning to move out of their boarding houses and find a place together, but McGuire's building has lately been haunted by a mysterious stranger played by Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. Who is he? Why is he hanging around? Is he somehow connected to the murder?
Gene D. Phillips, in his book Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Film Noir, cites Stranger on the Third Floor as a film that “codified the visual conventions of film noir.” It has flashbacks, a brilliant nightmare sequence, a sense of growing dread, a false accusation (or possibly two), a narration (though not of the hard-boiled variety), and a usage of angles and shadows that is extravagant. Where it differs from film noir is in its general lack of cynicism and world weariness. In fact, it's the opposite. McGuire ponders whether doing his civic duty by testifying will have consequences, but at no point does he feel like a sucker for doing so. He believes in society and its basic functions. The Maltese Falcon, by contrast, offers civic duty as an option, but Sam Spade acts as he does because of his personal code. Duty is secondary, and ultimately, so is love.
Despite these differences between Stranger on the Third Floor and canonical film noir, casting the net wide enough to include this movie makes sense. It definitely gets its influences from the same places as film noir, particularly in German Expressionist cinema of the early 1900s. Interestingly, Lorre would feature prominently in The Maltese Falcon, as would Elisha Cook, Jr., who plays the defendant at the trial. So the connection between Stranger on the Third Floor and film noir is concrete on that level at least. All that said, does our opinion matter? Watch Stranger on the Third Floor and debate whether it's a film noir yourself. You'll see a visual masterwork regardless of which cinematic bin you stick it in. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1940.
Monroe finds herself in a room with no space to maneuver.
It says plenty about Don't Bother To Knock that we queued it up last night, popcorn and adult beverages in hand, having forgotten that we already watched it several years ago. That has less to do with the overall film than with Marilyn Monroe, but we'll get to that in a minute. The film was based on Charlotte Armstrong's Mischief, which was serialized in 1950 in Good Housekeeping magazine, and deals with a mentally disturbed babysitter watching over a child in a fancy New York City hotel suite. Along with Monroe it stars Richard Widmark and Anne Bancroft, with their three characters suffering respectively from derangement, detachment, and disillusionment—three ailments suggested to be caused or exacerbated by life in the big city. Widmark as a cynical single looking for easy action and Bancroft as a world weary torch singer working the hotel lounge don't have any problems a change in luck wouldn't solve, but the movie revolves around Monroe, who, thirteen credited roles into her career at this point, gets a chance to stretch her range as a nutty nanny in need of a lot more than just kind words to get back on the beam.
Monroe's performance in this heavy drama is tough to judge. To us it feels a bit flat, but contemporary reviewers generally liked it, and it's fair to say it helped her climb that last rung to the superstardom she'd reach a year later with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Watch that film and you'll see that, while Don't Bother To Knock asked her to stretch, it did so by requiring that she suppress her natural charisma. That's no easy trick for an actor, let alone someone as incandescent as her, and that, in short, is probably why we forgot we'd already watched the movie. Monroe was so big in her other performances that this flick went down the memory hole. Her iconic movies feel as if they could only have starred her. This one feels like it could have starred anyone. Monroe just isn't Monroe in it. But that probably means her performance is a success. Watching it afresh, we can tell you it's certainly a must for Marilyn fans, and will probably work for vintage film fans of all types. But those unschooled in the oldies might walk away from this effort thinking, Meh, I don't get all the Monroe fuss. But the fuss was appropriate and deserved. Don't Bother To Knock—not a film noir as labeled on many sites, by the way—premiered today in 1953.
There's a severe Price to pay for being a bad wife.
This French poster was painted by Roger Soubie for the cheeseball horror flick La nuit de tous les mystères, which was better known as House on Haunted Hill. Basically, Vincent Price offers $10,000 to anyone who can spend the night in a scary house, but in the meantime he hopes to get rid of his not-so-loving wife Carol Ohmart. That's not a spoiler—in the first few minutes of the film he tells her he wants her dead. And she him. The question is will he do it? Will she kill him? Or will they kiss and make up? You could watch and learn the answers, but in our opinion, considering how much more sophisticated horror became, this one is little more than an amusing cinematic curiosity, not worth watching, though it's notable for its exteriors of the iconic Ennis House in Los Angeles (see below). House on Haunted Hill opened in the U.S. in 1960 and reached France today in 1961.
Making a killing at the track is harder than they think.
Tonight the Noir City Film Festival is also screening Stanley Kubrick's 1956 crime procedural The Killing. The title refers not to murder but to making a killing—i.e. a highly profitable score. Sterling Hayden leads a cast that includes Coleen Gray, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor. Hayden and crew hope to rob a race track, and to do this they lay out a precise plan that includes causing a brawl at the track bar as one distraction, and shooting a horse mid-race as another. What could go wrong, right? But the crazy plan makes sense, and if you have trouble following it a stentorian narration breaks down the action for you. We didn't mind that so much—the entire premise of the movie is that it's a faux-documentary, so the voiceover is something you have to accept. But the trumpets and tympani on the soundtrack—wow—are way overcooked. Still, this is a nice piece of noir, occasionally running on parallel timelines, with plenty of directorial style from a twenty-eight-year-old Kubrick. Some might take issue with the film's heavyhanded irony, but it's all somewhat redeemed by the perfection with which Hayden delivers his final line. The Killing didn't do well at the box office, however as often happens with films from directors who later become icons, opinions have shifted over the decades. But even if modern day critics are in agreement that The Killing is a top effort, it still won't be everyone's cup of tea. You'll just have to judge for yourself.
It's sink or swim on the blue bayou.
Dark Waters, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1944, is an interesting movie that hinges on PTSD. They didn't call it that back when the film was made, but what would you call it when someone can't put a traumatic experience behind them, is nervous, prone to panic attacks, and is socially debilitated? The sufferer is Merle Oberon and her trauma is the terrifying experience of being on a boat that was torpedoed by a German submarine. She lost her mother and father in the attack, and barely survived a subsequent ordeal on the water. Take this understandably jittery person with an untreated disorder, stick her in a mansion on the creepy-ass Louisiana bayou, then have someone or someones try to drive her insane. Who's doing the scaring? Well, that's the entire plot, and you'll have to find out for yourself.
We don't think this is a top flick, but it has a pretty cool south Louisiana feel, which is worth something. There's even a fais do-do—a Cajun dance party. It also has Elisha Cook, Jr. as a hopeless suitor and Nina Mae McKinney as a maid, which is way too minimal a role for her, but that's the way it went for women of color in 1944. Dark Waters is fine for fans of gothic creepshows, but film noir fans should temper expectations. The movie is labeled a film noir on some crowdsourced websites like IMDB and Wikipedia, but it isn't really. It has a nice a nighttime swamp climax, but one set piece does not a film noir make. It's more of a gothic thriller on the order of Rebecca. Noir fans take note. Everyone else, enjoy. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Spy Novelist Graduates from Spy School
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, graduates from Camp X, a training school for spies located in Canada. The character of Bond has been said to have been based upon Camp X's Sir William Stephenson and what Fleming learned from him, though there are several other men who are also said
to be the basis for Bond.
1989—Oliver North Avoids Prison
Colonel Oliver North, an aide to U.S. president Ronald Reagan, avoids jail during the sentencing phase of the Iran-Contra trials. North had been found guilty of falsifying and destroying documents, and obstructing Congress during their investigation of the massive drugs/arms/cash racket orchestrated by high-ranking members of the Reagan government.
1927—La Lollo Is Born
Gina Lollobrigida is born in Subiaco, Italy, and eventually becomes one of the world's most famous and desired actresses. Later she becomes a photojournalist, numbering among her subjects Salvador Dali, Paul Newman and Fidel Castro.
1931—Schmeling Retains Heavyweight Title
German boxer Max Schmeling TKOs his U.S. opponent Young Stribling in the fifteenth round to retain the world heavyweight boxing title he had won in 1930. Schmeling eventually tallies fifty-six wins, forty by knockout, along with ten losses and four draws before retiring in 1948.
1969—Stones Guitarist Is Found Dead
Brian Jones, a founding member of British rock group Rolling Stones, is found at the bottom of his swimming pool at Crotchford Farm, East Sussex, England. The official cause of his death is recorded as misadventure from ingesting various drugs.
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