Proceed with caution—Nazi crossing.
Marjorie Reynolds gives her best transfixed look in this promo image made for her 1944 film noir Ministry of Fear. The swastika leaves no doubt who the villains are. They take over a New York City brownstone and use it as a base of operations for various dastardly doings. The film is uneven despite being helmed by the legendary Fritz Lang. Reynolds, who also acted under her real name Marjorie Goodspeed, as well as Marjorie Moore, appeared in dozens of movies but wasn't quite what you'd call a star. Her signature moment probably came when she sang the song, “White Christmas,” in the 1942 film Holiday Inn. She performed it twice—once solo, and once as a duet with Bing Crosby. She didn't appear in many crime movies or thrillers, so we probably won't see her here again, but this is quite a shot to go out on. You can read what we wrote about Ministry of Fear here.
In the Ministry of Fear they bake better than they spy.
Fritz Lang was one of the most important directors of his era, both in his native Germany and in the U.S., and was a pioneer of the film noir form. Movies like Scarlet Street and especially The Big Heat are essential noir viewing. Ministry of Fear dates from a bit earlier and finds Lang saddled with what we consider to be a substandard script that through sheer artistry he makes into a watchable film. Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, and Dan Duryea headline in a spy tale that revolves around Lang's favorite villains—the Nazis. Jewish and German, he left his homeland for Paris and beyond during the ascent of the Nazis during the 1930s, so the subject was personal for him, and was one he'd dealt with in previous films such as Cloak and Dagger and Hangmen Also Die.
In Ministry of Fear Milland plays a man who spends two years in a British asylum and is released at a time when World War II is raging and London is being bombed. He goes to a charity carnival and is enticed into guessing a cake's weight for a chance to win it, and because he's been given the correct answer by a fortuneteller, is victorious. But it's soon clear that the correct weight wasn't supposed to be given to him, and he isn't supposed to have won the cake. But he really wants it and resists attempts by the carny folks to take it back. He loses it during a train ride when a passenger beats the snot out of him for it, and at that point finally realizes the obvious—sweet though this confection may have been, it wasn't sought by various and sundry for its flavor, but because inside was something important. He wants answers, and he'll have to risk his neck to get them.
Generally with movies it's best to simply accept the premise, but there are limits. We were never clear on why it was necessary to put this important item in a cake. We understand subterfuge is involved in the spy game, but why not just hand the item over in an alley, or a pub bathroom, or a parked car? And if food must be involved, why a cake? Why not a haggis, or something else very few people want to just gobble up on the spot? A dried cod maybe. A blood sausage would have done. Plus they're easy to transport. You can just stick them in your pockets. And in a tight spot a whack across the nose with a blood sausage is far more effective than shoving cake in someone's mug. The cake gimmick was probably—strike that—certainly better explained in Graham Greene's source novel. We haven't read it but we're confident about that. It could have been Lang who screwed the pooch, but it was more likely Seton I. Miller. He was screenwriter as well as executive producer.
In any case Milland bumbles his way through a train trip, across a moor, in and out of a crazy séance, and into a maze of misdirection to the eventual revelation of what's inside the cake, but the whole time we kept thinking the movie should be called Ministry of Cut-Rate Spies. We don't mean to say it's a total loss. It isn't like the Eddie Izzard comedy routine, “Cake or Death.” You won't choose death over cake. But it's a pretty uninspiring flick. The old dramas that have survived have done so for a simple reason. Most of them are good. Ministry of Fear isn't bad. It's just meh. It's like a cake that fell—it's flat and dense, but teases you with how yummy it could have been. It premiered in England today in 1944.
Here, have your cake. And eat it too. Heh. I prefer blood sausage for train trips, but I guess it's better for you I'm not shoving one of those in your face, eh? Wow, you sort of... crush the shit out of your cake before eating it. Have I been eating cake wrong the whole time I've been in England?
Baxter's bad night is about to get a lot worse.
We thought the French poster we shared for Anne Baxter's The Blue Gardenia was the best promo made for the movie, and we stand by that, but this U.S. promo in three-sheet style is pretty nice too. No artist is credited with this, as it's a photo-illustration. We think it has a film noir feel to it, but even though the movie was directed by German noir legend Fritz Lang, it isn't a noir—it's a mystery/drama, one that deals with gender issues, and for vintage film buffs it's certainly worth watching.
You've noticed that the name of the film echoes the Black Dahlia murder, still somewhat on the public's mind at the time, but there are no similarities between the crime and the film. That's just sneaky marketing. Well, whatever people thought they were getting when they ponied up their cash to watch this, what they got was an okay-not-great showcase for Baxter's top notch acting skills. The Blue Gardenia premiered in the U.S. today in 1953. You can read our detailed discussion of it here.
Gestapo goes to extraordinary lengths to cancel a Czech.
This striking poster for Hangmen Also Die might make you think you're dealing with a death row film noir, but it's actually a war drama about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. When a Czech assassin played by Brian Donlevy shoots the country's cruel German administrator Reinhard Heydrich and escapes into Prague's urban maze, the Nazis start executing people to force the population to turn over the shooter. As people die Donlevy struggles over whether to turn himself in. This was made in 1943 and qualifies as war propaganda, complete with flourishes such as discordant brass when Hitler's portrait appears onscreen, and a cheeseball closing song with a chorus of, “No surrender!” And to just bang the war drum even more, the movie premiered in, of all places, Prague, Oklahoma today in 1943, and the showing featured hanged effigies of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini, while regional politicians made a point of attending. That must have been some night.
But while Hangmen Also Die may qualify as propaganda, it certainly isn't untrue in any major sense. The film's two architects, German director Fritz Lang and German writer Bertolt Brecht, both left their homeland to avoid the Nazis, and we can only imagine that their personal experiences made this project deeply important to them. But even people working from personal experience need help, and they get a major boost from co-star Walter Brennan. You'll sometimes read about him being a great character actor and this movie proves it. Watch him in this, then as the drunkard Eddie in To Have and Have Not, and you'll find him physically unrecognizable. Only his distinctive voice identifies him as the same person. Meanwhile it's Donlevy who's asked to personify the classic moral dilemma of sacrifice for the greater good, and he's mostly successful at portraying it as a heavy burden. While we wouldn't call Hangmen Also Die a great movie, there's no doubt it occupies its niche comfortably.
Who's afraid of him? Nobody anymore.
Isn't this a great poster? It was painted for La femme au gardénia, better known as The Blue Gardenia. Every once in a while you come across an old movie that's so ahead of its time you can't believe what you're seeing. This one is about a woman's response to sexual coercion, and law enforcement's reaction to the aftermath. Basically, Anne Baxter, who's five-three and a buck twenty, ends up in the apartment of Raymond Burr, who's six feet and goes at least 230. Burr plies Baxter with booze, and when he later tries to get her horizontal a struggle ensues and he ends up dead. Baxter escapes the apartment, and thanks to the arrival of a very efficient cleaning lady nearly all the evidence of her presence is accidentally erased the next morning before Burr's body is discovered.
So Baxter's scot-free? Well, not quite. There's that whole guilt, edginess, and fear thing, which her roommates notice. And there are a few bits of evidence, which lead to police drawing ever closer. All these are good plot moves. Lacking an identity for the killer, the press begins calling her—the bit of evidence that exists indicates it's a her—the Blue Gardenia, which is a clear Black Dahlia echo. We liked that. And we also liked that, at this point, the film was a thriller built wholly around consent and power. But this was the 1950s. Of course they weren't trying to impart that lesson. What were we thinking? Instead, an ending so pat that it almost ruins the movie comes blundering over the horizon. Is it wrong to suggest watching the first 75 minutes of this and turning it off?
Okay, the movie isn't completely trashed by the ending. It's just that we thought we had something daring on hand, and in reality it's a decent-not-great semi-noir from Fritz Lang that flirts with feminism but decides not to close the deal. However, the story was derived from a novella by author and playwright Vera Caspary, and we can't help wondering if the suits overruled her on a different ending. Probably not, but we'll have to dig that tale up and read it anyway. Regardless, we think the movie is worth watching just for Anne Baxter's bravura performance. And we love the platinum poodle cut she sports too. Plus there's Nat King Cole as, presumably, himself. The Blue Gardenia opened in the U.S. in 1953, and premiered in France today in 1954
The temperature rises and the bodies fall in Fritz Lang's tense film noir.
In the thriller The Big Heat, which is based on a novel by William P. McGivern and directed by Fritz Lang, Glenn Ford plays one of the toughest men you'll find in film noir—ass kicking detective Dave Bannon, whose clash with organized crime sends him down a rogue path that leaves people battered, bruised, bloodied, burnt, and blown up. He co-starred with Gloria Grahame, and the way the plot develops, she turns out to be every bit as tough. We can't tell you anything about the movie others already haven't about a thousand times, so we're focusing instead on this top notch promo poster, a framable classic in the panel format we love. You'll see this online only occasionally because it's way too rare for sellers to ever have in stock, but it's a fitting piece for such a great movie. The Big Heat premiered in the U.S. today in 1953.
She's a nightmare on Scarlet Street.
This beautiful photo features U.S. actress Joan Bennett and was made as a promo for her 1945 drama Scarlet Street, in which she plays a con artist who steals credit from a struggling artist for his critically acclaimed paintings. Directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, it's a solid film noir, well worth seeing. Check out its promo poster at this link.
Someone in the sleeping compartment isn't going to wake up.
Film noir teaches us that anyone can get in too deep, even a railroad engineer. In Human Desire, Fritz Lang's retelling of Emile Zola's 1890 novel La Bête humaine, Glenn Ford finds himself trapped between lust for Gloria Grahame and reluctance to kill to have her. He's already helped her cover up another killing and gotten in the middle of blackmail plot, but every man has his limits. This is flawed but canonical noir, with a cocky Ford, a quirky Grahame, a brutish Broderick Crawford, and Kathleen Case playing the loyal gal pal, who for our money is much more alluring than Grahame. Ford figures that out too, eventually. Too bad his realization is sandwiched between two murders on his train. Human Desire premiered today in 1954.
Just point me to the palest of your women. She's the one I want.
This Dutch poster promotes De indische graftempel, which was originally a West German production called De indische grabmal, and later given the English titles The Indian Tomb and The Tomb of Love. Made by Fritz Lang, this was the fourth pass at a 1918 novel by Thea von Harbou, but this version strays far from the source material. The book is about an architect commissioned by a Maharaja to build a fantastic tomb, but who later discovers it's for the Maharaja's wife, who will be killed for being a generally unfit spouse and placed in the structure as soon as it's completed.
This is an interesting plot premise, and as a bonus it must have made for some fun jokes between Lang and von Harbou, since they had been married for a time but were divorced when they worked together here. The adaptation they came up with relegates the architect to secondary status, and instead focuses on the wife Seetha, played by Debra Paget, who is having an affair with a Western lover named Harald, played by Paul Hubschmid.
Just to get right to the heart of it, this isn't one of Lang's best efforts. Despite good location work and excellent sets, the romance is silly, the adventure elements are uninspiring, and there's no emotional realism at all. But the movie is instructive in one area—it could be a case study for this year's Academy Awards race controversy. Every Indian role of consequence is played by a white person in shoe polish. This was the norm back then and it happened in hundreds if not thousands of films.
Now, after nearly a century of such silliness, some people are actually offended at demands that ethnic roles be played by ethnic actors, and lead roles be diversified. Those demands are beyond fair. For decades nobody made even a peep about white actors in brown makeup, let alone the industrywide denial of good roles to actors of color, but as soon as someone says maybe Joseph Fiennes shouldn't play Michael Jackson in a film or Star Wars should have a black lead it's suddenly racism against whites. You almost have to laugh. What's also funny is that Paget, though she's supposed to be Indian, is without dark coloration. This is another norm for the period—amidst the brown hordes the most beautiful woman is always the palest.
All that said, watching the spectacle of literally a dozen West German actors in brown make-up is actually quite funny in today's context. But the main attraction here is Paget, whose erotic dance routine before ranks of spray-tanned slaves and beneath a looming, twenty-foot-high, giant-boobed Hindu statue is one of cinema's great sequences. We don't mean great in terms of acting or dancing or directing. It's an immortal moment the same way Alicia Vikander looking at herself in a mirror in Ex Machina is, or Sharon Stone flashing her ragamuffin in Basic Instinct. It's one ofthose instances when mainstream filmmakers push everyone's comfort envelope and remind them that sex is actually the single most important aspect of all our lives. Save for a tiny subset of us, we all exist because of it, our existence can only be assured by having more of it, and pretending it isn't on all our minds much of the time is just a silly rule imposed by the people who conceived our civilizational costume party. In the envelope-pushing respect De indische graftempel is a roaring success. Otherwise, not so much. It premiered today in 1959.
In Cloak and Dagger Gary Cooper plays a physicist who causes a violent chain reaction of a different kind.
These posters promote the Italian run of the American War World II propaganda thriller Cloak and Dagger. The film even admits to being propaganda, with a dedication to the OSS in the ending credits. But since all states produce propaganda, and each generation’s is clumsy and laughable to those who come later, the silly flag waving here isn’t really the problem—rather it’s a tepid central romance, an unlikely plot, and an overcooked musical score that loudly punctuates every mood and movement of the characters. There are other flaws, especially with Gary Cooper’s fighting physicist, who begins the movie as a lab egghead but by the halfway point inexplicably unveils better fighting skills than the seasoned fascist killers on his trail. But whatever—willing suspension and all that. At least these action sequences are well staged—in fact, they’rethe highlight of the movie. And if you don't mind Coop's unsubtle moralizing about courage, country, sacrifice, and love, then Cloak and Dagger may hold some charms for you. For our part, we think seeing a cynic converted to the cause à la Casablanca is infinitely more interesting than a true blue patriot trying to convert others, but that’s the difference between drama and propaganda—in the latter the hero’s doubts are merely cursory if they exist at all. The promo posters above are by Renato Casaro, the one directly below is by Luigi Martinati, who we’ll revisit soon, and the last is illegibly signed, which means it goes into the unknown category. We’ll try to figure out who painted that and get back to you. Cloak and Dagger premiered in the U.S. in 1946 and made it to Italy as Maschere e pugnali today in 1948.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1945—Hollywood Black Friday
A six month strike by Hollywood set decorators becomes a riot at the gates of Warner Brothers Studios when strikers and replacement workers clash. The event helps bring about the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, prohibits unions from contributing to political campaigns and requires union leaders to affirm they are not supporters of the Communist Party.
1957—Sputnik Circles Earth
The Soviet Union launches the satellite Sputnik I, which becomes the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. It orbits for two months and provides valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere. It also panics the United States into a space race that eventually culminates in the U.S. moon landing.
1970—Janis Joplin Overdoses
American blues singer Janis Joplin is found dead on the floor of her motel room in Los Angeles. The cause of death is determined to be an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.
The newspaper Pravda is founded by Leon Trotsky, Adolph Joffe, Matvey Skobelev and other Russian exiles living in Vienna. The name means "truth" and the paper serves as an official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party between 1912 and 1991.
1957—Ferlinghetti Wins Obscenity Case
An obscenity trial brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the counterculture City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, reaches its conclusion when Judge Clayton Horn rules that Allen Ginsberg's poetry collection Howl is not obscene.
After a long trial watched by millions of people worldwide, former football star O.J. Simpson is acquitted of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson subsequently loses a civil suit and is ordered to pay millions in damages.
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