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.
Good thing they were both professional actors. They could act like this wasn't weird.
We have a feeling this promo image of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame made for their 1953 film noir The Big Heat never got published. Handout photos such as these were provided by studios—in this case Columbia Pictures—to the press for usage when writing about various movies, but what newspaper or magazine would have used this? It's beyond provocative for back then, and in fact its bizarre, coercive feel would make the internet explode even today, were any two stars to pose in this way. Amazingly, promos for vintage thrillers often featured female stars sitting or kneeling within phallus range. In fact, we've seen enough to consider putting together a collection. We'll give that some thought while you glance at another example we shared a while ago.
Gloria Grahame's three-step plan for dealing with a problem—aim, fire, assess.
These photos of U.S. actress Gloria Grahame come from one of our favorite old movies, the film noir The Big Heat, in which she starred with Glenn Ford. How many good films was Grahame in? Plenty, including The Bad and the Beautiful, Crossfire, the amazing In a Lonely Place, Human Desire, The Glass Wall, and Odds Against Tomorrow. Outside the drama/noir genres, she was also in It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of the most watched U.S. films of all time, and Oklahoma!. In The Big Heat she plays the prototypical film noir bad girl who wants to be good but has a hard time getting there. We won't say more. Just check it out. The photo is from 1953.
They'll have to choose what they hate more—their circumstances or each other.
The Noir City Film Festival rolls on with Robert Wise's 1959 thriller Odds Against Tomorrow. Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan star in a heist story that brings a touch of underground jazz and an edge of racial tension to the narrative mix. It would play nicely on a double bill with In the Heat of the Night, but fits at Noir City too. In fact it might be the darkest film noir on the bill. Belafonte is in debt to mobsters and Ryan is broke and feels emasculated being supported by his girlfriend. When ex-cop Ed Begley brings the two together for a lucrative robbery both see it as the only answer. The robbery has the same problems associated with any heist, with the added complication of Ryan's racism.
Some reviews of this film try to suggest equivalence between these two characters. Uh, no. Belafonte's separatist leanings and distrust of whites in a society that is unfair toward him is a precaution; Ryan's separatist leanings and distrust of blacks in a society that favors him is oppression. This is a basic sociological truth as it relates to power in any society, and it's irksome that some reviewers miss this. Belafonte respondsto aggressive hate with reactive hate. The expectation that he possess superhuman forbearance while his oppressor can be merely human removes context and wrongly demands that everybody behave identically despite their different circumstances and different locations within the spectrum of power.
Much of the movie examines Belafonte's and Ryan's respective attitudes along these lines, with the heist coming in a flurry of action at the end. The robbery is basically foolproof, but only if the powder keg of racial resentment doesn't blow it sky high. The points Wise is making here, which originate with William P. McGivern's novel, are simply these: cooperate and succeed, or fight and fail. All Ryan needs to do extend the hand of respect, but because of his prejudice he fails again and again, which hardens Belafonte's already suspicious attitudes. Who do these two hate more—their circumstances or each other? That's what Odds Against Tomorrow asks, about its characters, and the U.S. Festivalgoers will leave the cinema talking about this one.
The thrill of the Chasse.
This promo poster from Colombia Pictures was made to promote the Belgian run of the film noir Chasse à l'homme, better known as The Glass Wall. This is an interesting one. Starring Vittorio Gassman and Gloria Grahame, the movie is set at the end of World War II and tells the story of a Hungarian refugee who arrives in New York harbor as a stowaway on a ship. Onboard immigration cops catch him, but he eludes them and jumps ship to search for a war buddy who can prove he has the right to legal residency under a special exemption for those who aided Allied soldiers. He must find this friend who can prove his bona fides, and do it within twenty four hours or be permanently barred from the U.S. A photo in the morning paper alerts the public and Chasse à l'homme becomes a double manhunt—the hero's search for his buddy, and the cops' search for the hero. The film is obviously a piece of light propaganda concerning the desirability of life in the U.S., but as a noir it also shows a darker side to American society, such as when Gloria Grahame is under threat of eviction, and when the landlady's son tries to force himself on her. Gassman was an experienced actor by this point, and Grahame, as noted on the poster, had already won an Academy Award for The Bad and the Beautiful. Both do solid work here. The movie opened in the U.S. in March of 1953 and reached Brussels, Belgium today in 1954.
Caught between the dark and a hard place.
This 1949 Pocket Books paperback of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes is a rarity. The novel is abundantly available today, but the first edition paperback you see above is hard to find. The story was made into a 1950 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, but the final product bears little resemblance to the novel. Actually, the movie is a lesson in how source material can be completely cannibalized yet still made into a superior product. In a Lonely Place the movie, after all, is considered one of the best of the mid-century noirs. We said the same about it last year. But unlike the film, Hughes' novel leaves no doubt that main character Dixon Steele is a murderer. In fact, it's the central plot device—he kills a wealthy man and assumes his identity. The novel is said to be an inspiration for Patricia Highsmith's famed murderous grifter Tom Ripley. The nice art on In a Lonely Place was painted by Frank McCarthy, a prolific illustrator of paperbacks and magazine covers who toward the end of his career moved into fine art with frontier and western themes. We haven't featured him before but he'll doubtless pop up again.
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.
He's the guy who always ruins the party.
Bogart has an anger problem. You know someone just like him. He claims to be unaffected by the human condition and would have you believe all others are weaklings and he is strong. But of course when things don't go his way he flies into a rage, showing that he's actually frailer than most. Indifference and anger—two sides of the same coin for those unable to cope with the world as it is. When a female acquaintance of Bogart's is murdered his uncaring attitude makes the cops suspect he's a killer. Did he do it? Maybe—he's too indifferent to bother convincing the police otherwise. But when he meets his beautiful neighbor Gloria Grahame and the two become involved we see his defense mechanism fall away and be replaced by a renewed interest in life. Grahame becomes the receptacle for all Bogart's hopes, but can she deal with that level of need? More to the point—should she? Critics liked Bogart in this role at the time, and In a Lonely Place is today considered one of the best noirs. We have to agree. It's a psychological study of a personality type that has probably proliferated in America since 1950, which makes it relevant viewing in 2016. Highly recommended.
No matter how far she ran dissatisfaction followed close behind.
This gold colored June 1963 cover for Confidential magazine is entirely given over to actress Barbara Payton, whose self-penned hard-luck story appears inside and details her life troubles. The tale is well known and is one we’ve touched upon before—early marriage and early motherhood, followed by stardom, romances, and riches, followed by booze, drugs, divorces and crime. Confidential being Confidential, the editors neglect to mention that the story here is not an exclusive, but rather is excerpted from I Am Not Ashamed, Payton’s painfully revealing autobiography.
I Am Not Ashamed did not sell especially well, and was pretty much forgotten a few years after its release. But it reappeared by chance two decades later when Jack Nicholson famously lent a rare copy to Jessica Lange to help her prepare for her femme fatale role in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Today the book is widely available. Just a few seconds reading Payton’s words conjures the suspicion she had a ghostwriter, and indeed, it was the king of lowbrow literature Leo Guild who gave shape to the prose, which reads like gutter level sleaze fiction.
For example: “He hated what I had been [but] loved me for what I was. He tortured himself. Every part of my body reminded him of another man.” And this bit: “I had a body when I was a young kid that raisedtemperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame. One extends from my buttocks down my thigh and needed I don’t remember how many stitches.” Payton’s anecdotes are cringe worthy, but they read like she’d gotten a grip on her life. No such luck. After four more long years of drugs, drink, and disaster she was found dead on her bathroom floor in 1967.
Payton post-mortems usually describe her problems as self-induced, but that’s simplistic. In the 1950s famous men did anything they wished, but women had to be careful not to be seen doing the same. Still do today. That’s the part Payton had problems with. Even so, she had several happy periods during her life. One of those was the stretch she spent in Mexico married to a young fisherman. About this time she says, “We fished and I caught big ones, and we loved and for a couple of years it was beautiful. My big problems were what to cook for dinner. But it was inevitable the ants in my pants would start crawling again.”
We like that passage, because nearly all the stories about Payton declare, or at least suggest, that everything that happened after Hollywood stardom was part of a terminal plummet. That’s pretty much the default setting in American journalism—anything other than wealth and fame is by definition failure. It’s an idiotic conceit, even a harmful one, and Payton reveals that in Mexico she landed someplace solid and safe, and got along fine without money or recognition. Two years of happiness is nothing to take lightly. But she just couldn’t sit still—not because of where she was, but because of who she was.
And the spiral continued—cheaper and cheaper forms of prostitution, physical confrontations that resulted in her getting some of her teeth knocked out, and more. In all of these tales there’s a recurrent theme of lowly types taking advantage of her, but we can’t help noting that she was paid a mere $1,000 for her autobiography, an absurdly deficient amount for a former top star with a crazy story to tell, which suggests to us that guys in office suites take as much advantage—or more—of a person’s hard luck as guys in alleys. We have some scans below, and Payton will undoubtedly appear here again.
It was a wonderful Life.
An ethereal Gloria Grahame poses for a promo photo during a session that would produce a famous cover for Life. Grahame was a true great of acting who starred in the classics It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bad and the Beautiful, Human Bondage, and Oklahoma!, but who we prefer to remember for her film noir roles—among them: In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat, Crossfire, Sudden Fear, and Naked Alibi. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she took the town by storm and made an indelible mark in film. The above photo and cover below are from 1946.
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