B-movie actor generates A-list headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Show business careers go off the rails for a wide array of reasons—lack of talent, lack of audience appeal, substance abuse, and a predilection for general mayhem all come to mind. Hollywood actor Tom Neal fits legendarily into the last category. From his debut in 1938 through 1951 he logged more than seventy film appearances. That's incredible output by any measure. Most of his roles were in b-movies, but there were some notable parts mixed in. His career highlights included Another Thin Man, the film noir Detour, and Crime, Inc.
Neal caused minor scandals early in his career, but he graduated to the majors beginning in early 1951, when he met tempestuous actress Barbara Payton and the two began dating. Payton had announced her engagement the previous year to debonair leading man Franchot Tone, but her ideas about commitment weren't of the standard variety. She was still married to an Air Force Captain named John Payton while dating Tone, and had allegedly slept with Gary Cooper and Steve Cochran while working with them on the 1950 western Dallas. When Neal met her, she kicked Tone to the curb and announced she and Neal would be marrying. But Payton was fickle, to say the least, and ended up dropping Neal and getting re-engaged to Tone. All this while still married to her Air Force guy.
One thing Hollywood people can count on is crossing paths with their colleagues at one point or another—especially if they're dating the same woman. When Neal crossed paths with Tone and Payton in September 1951 at her apartment, he intended to punish the man who had won Payton's hand. Everyone in Hollywood knew Neal had been an amateur boxer. Maybe the qualifier “amateur” gave Tone excessive confidence. Maybe he didn't know that Neal, who you see below with barbells overhead and a tube sock in his shorts, had accumulated a 31-3record in the ring. Maybe Tone slipped on a dollop of Beluga caviar. Payton said Tone simply had no choice about fighting because Neal attacked him. Whatever the reason, Neal floored Tone with his first punch, and continued to beat him afterward, delivering cheek and nose fractures. Tone lay in an eighteen hour coma in the hospital. Ironically, that was the day Payton's divorce had come through. 1951 had been a pretty good year for Neal up to that point. But from then onward he was Hollywood persona non grata. He'd had more roles in ’51 than he would the entire rest of his career. We wouldn't go so far as saying that means Tone had the last laugh, since it would have been a extraordinarily painful laugh, considering the injuries and cosmetic surgery that followed. But okay, in that karmic way that's never fully satisfying, Tone at least must have felt a bit of Schadenfreude. Neal was blacklisted, and Payton was his. The good times didn't last. Hesoon discovered that Payton—wait for it—had never stopped seeing Neal, including while Tone was in the hospital with a broken face. So there went that marriage. It seemed as if Neal had unequivocally won Payton's affections after all, and she does look happy in the 1952 photo above, but it's probably no surprise to learn that the two parted ways after a few tumultuous years, some broken windows, and at least one police intervention. Payton went on to have truly epic problems that would put a South American novela to shame. Neal nursed his severely damaged career along, landing only occasional minor parts, and by the time the ’60s rolled around couldn't beg, barter, or buy a role. He had been married for a few years during the late ’50s, and in 1960 he married again, to a receptionist named Gale (sometimes Gail) Bennett, who you see below. In April 1965 police were summoned to Neal's home in Palm Springs where they found Bennett dead. She had been shot through the back of the head with .45 calibre pistol, the slug entering her skull behind her right ear and ending up in a sofa cushion. Neal wasn't on the premises when police arrived, but was soon arrested, and claimed the shooting had been an accident, the result of a struggle over the gun after his wife pulled it on him.
Accounts of the killing vary, as they always do. In some, Neal shot Bennett as she was taking a nap. In others, they argued. We even found one that said Neal claimed the accident occurred while he and Bennett were making love. At trial Neal's defense attorney claimed a mystery man had pulled the trigger. We were struck, however, when we found that Bennett had secretly filed for divorce, and in the filing specifically mentioned Neal threatening her with a .45 automatic. If that detail struck us, it certainly must have made an impact on the jury. In the end, after a sensational trial, the dozen jurors convicted Neal of involuntary manslaughter.
Neal spent only six years behind bars before being paroled. That's a pretty sweet deal for what many suspected was a clearcut case of premeditated murder. Also, note that during the dust-up with Tone, one witness said Neal threw more than thirty punches after Tone was down. That could be construed as attempted murder, were you inclined to put a label on it, and if that was the plan it almost worked. Doctors thought for a while Tone would never awaken. Neal was a rough and tumble fellow, there's little doubt. But looks and a bit of charm will carry you a long way in life. Eventually, though, even those can run dry. Neal died eight months after his release from prison, aged fifty-eight, of heart failure, looking a shell of his former self.
We'd to hate to find out what the other thirty-five are like.
Private Hell 36. It doesn't mean anything, but what a great title. And it comes with two great promo posters. These are probably in the first two chambers of hell to lure you in. Made in 1954, this film noir co-stars and was co-written by Ida Lupino, who plays a woman who is convinced to help the police on a stakeout for a counterfeiter. She'd been passed a fake fifty but the police can't identify the crook unless she sees him and fingers him. As the days pass cop Steven Cochran takes a liking to her, and she to him. Star-crossed love in the noirish night. Lupino wants the finer things in life. Cochran wants to give them to her. When counterfeit bills start blowing on the wind, Cochran and his partner split over stealing the cash. You know where this goes—nowhere good.
Cochran is really good in this. As his decisions hurt those around him and his circumstances constrict his possibilities in the worst way, the performance he gives generates tension and empathy. Lupino does her usual great job, and the support from Dorothy Malone and Howard Duff is perfect, so in the end what you have is a solid film noir tinged with affecting interpersonal drama and working class pathos. In real life we don't feel the least bit bad for dirty cops, but that's the beauty of art—it puts you in other people's shoes and for an hour or two you understand. Private Hell 36 is short and to the point. It asks: If $80,000 landed in your lap would you keep it? In film noir, you better not.
She was a material girl living in a material world.
Above is a 1960 National Enquirer with Barbara Nichols on the cover, and editors claiming she said “men, money, and me” make a perfect triangle. Nichols was never a top star, mainly guest starring on dozens of television shows, but she was a staple in tabloids because she dated many rich and famous men but never married, which is why we suspect Enquirer editors came up with their cover quote. Some of her escorts included Jack Carter, Steve Cochran, Cesar Romero, and Elvis Presley. Nichols died in 1976 aged forty-seven due to liver dysfunction. It had initially been torn in an auto accident a decade earlier and gave her problem the rest of her life. We have a pair of nice femme fatale photos of her and you can see those here, and well as an awesome album sleeve here.
Mamie Van Doren makes her mark on a Generation.
We think this is a beautiful promo poster for The Beat Generation, but don't let its colorful nature fool you—the movie is surprisingly dark. It uses the beatnik counterculture as a backdrop, but really has nothing to with it, except to belittle it. Steve Cochran plays a Los Angeles detective chasing after a serial rapist. Through a random encounter, the rapist becomes aware of Cochran and decides to make his wife a victim. Will he get away with it? You'll have to watch the film. We can tell you its most dramatic aspect involves whether a rape victim can obtain an abortion. The never explored details of how she plans to do it don't matter, because we know she'll change her mind.
You can't blame the movie for being predictable in that respect, though. How else was it going to go in the 1950s? The main thing to keep in mind about The Beat Generation is that it was mismarketed—deliberately, we suspect—to trick younger cinemagoers into forking over their cash for a Trojan horse message movie. We're not big fans of that sort of chicanery, but it's well produced, reasonably good, and as a bonus features Fay Spain, Irish McCalla, Robert Mitchum's brother Jim, and Steve Cochran's chest hair. The Beat Generation premiered in the U.S. today in 1959.
Like an Oreo cookie, the best part of Highway 301 is the stuff in the middle.
Though we can’t find much online about the making of the 1950 b-budget film noir Highway 301, we have a suspicion what happened during its production. The studio holding the purse strings, Warner Bros., had a look at the rough cut and said there’s no way we’re putting out a movie this intense. How intense is it? Influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “a straight exercise in low sadism.” So what does a studio do when it has on its hands a movie it thinks is likely to bad vibe audiences right out of the cinema? Simple—tell the audiences before the movie starts how it’s going to end. Get three sitting state governors—W. Kerr Scott of North Carolina, John S. Battle of Virginia, and William P. Lane, Jr. of Maryland—to announce in a prologue that crime does not pay, and that every member of the Tri-State Gang depicted in the movie ended up dead, except for one, who ended up in prison. Was Warner Bros. really responsible for such a blatant mutilation of Highway 301? It’s a very good bet, simply because a screenwriter can’t write a script that counts on the participation of three state governors. But for Jack Warner, well, all it would have taken was a phone call to each.
If you pretend the hamfisted prologue never happened, what you end up watching is one of the most underrated and entertaining noirs ever filmed. There are two robberies, a few shootouts, and other action pieces, but the intensity in this film is supplied by its unflinching exploration of the vagaries of fate. Taking an elevator rather than the stairs, choosing to hide rather than run, heading for the back exit rather than the front—it’s decisions such as that determine the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters, and which gnaw at the nerves of an audience that knows which choice is right but can only watch events unfold. At the center of it all is Steve Cochran as the gang’s murderous leader, a guy who solves every problem with a gun. The supporting cast includes Virginia Grey, Gaby Andre, and Robert Webber, and all are good in their roles.
While we know the Tri-State Gang will lose in the end, there’s still plenty of suspense supplied by Gaby Andre’s predicament—she knows too much and the only reason she’s still alive is because Cochran thinks she’s beautiful. But the spell will soon wear off and at that point she’ll be just another dead witness—unless she can escape. Fate continues to intervene. Will it intercede on her behalf? Or against? We know not to anticipate her survival based on her status as the protagonist female. The body count has already told us movie convention is no refuge. That’s the genius of Highway 301—there’s no respite from tension. Every sigh of relief catches in the throat as peril mounts yet again.
Writer/director Andrew L. Stone deserves a lot of credit for putting this together. He was an experienced hand at this point, but never before had he created something so innovative. Highway 301 ends on a down note with more moralizing, but sandwiched in between is a highly recommendable drama. Flawed, yes, but only due to the intrusion of front office types, we suspect. A re-release without the moral parentheses and intermittent narration would elevate this to classic status. The poster at top is classic in its own right. It was painted by someone who signed it Aziz, and the Arabic script in the lower right corner confirms it was made for release in the Middle East or North Africa, most likely Egypt, but don’t quote us on that.
Before moving back to items from other countries, we thought we’d share a few more pieces related to Germany—this time vintage posters. Below are seven excellent examples of thriller and film noir promo art that appeared in that country from 1932 to 1955. They are, top to bottom, Highway 301, Night and the City, Thunder Road, Notorious twice, because both posters are great, Night of the Hunter and Blonde Venus.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
The United States detonates a nuclear bomb codenamed Fat Man over the city of Nagasaki. It is the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan. 40,000 to 75,000 people are killed immediately, with tens of thousands more sickening and dying later due to radiation poisoning. The U.S. had plans to drop as many as seven more bombs on Japan, but the nation surrendered days later.
1969—Manson Followers Murder Five
Members of a cult led by Charles Manson murder pregnant actress Sharon Tate and coffee heiress Abigail Folger, along with Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent. The crimes terrify the Los Angeles celebrity community, and even today continue to fascinate
the worldwide public.
1963—Gang Pulls Off Great Train Robbery
A fifteen member gang robs a train of £2.6 million at Bridego Railway Bridge, Ledburn near Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, England. Thirteen of the fifteen are later caught, but some subsequently escape from prison, and one, Ronnie Biggs, is only recaptured in 2001 after voluntarily returning to England.
After two years of public outcry over the Watergate scandal, U.S. president Richard M. Nixon announces to a national television audience that he will resign, effective the next day. Vice President Gerald R. Ford completes the remainder of Nixon's term.
1947—Journey of the Kon-Tiki Ends
Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl's balsa wood raft the Kon-Tiki, smashes into a reef in the Tuamotu Islands after a 4300 mile (7000 kilomteter) journey from South America. Heyerdahl was attempting to prove—in rather circuitous fashion—that South American natives were descended from Pacific Islanders.
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