Robert Cummings as Barry Kane, civilian aircraft mechanic
From Glendale, California, into the High Desert, Spring 1942
Release Date: April 22, 1942
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime thriller Saboteur—not to be confused with his earlier movie Sabotage—was released 80 years ago this month. Though production began just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the idea had actually been months in the making after Hitch’s original pitch to David O. Selznick. “We were in 1941 and there were pro-German elements who called themselves America Firsters and who were, in fact, American Fascists. This was the group I had in mind while writing the scenario,” Hitchcock later explained to François Truffaut.
Despite his traditional elements of the wronged man, the beautiful blonde, and the “MacGuffin,” Hitch identified several disappointments with Saboteur, most notably in the casting of his two heroes and the villain. Of leading male star Robert Cummings, who portrayed the accused saboteur, Hitch commented to Truffaut that “he’s a competent performer, but he belongs to the light-comedy class of actors,” though this wouldn’t stop him from casting him a decade later in a strong supporting role in Dial M for Murder. Continue reading
Bradley Cooper as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic carny-turned-nightclub mentalist
Buffalo, New York, Winter 1941
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the eve of the 94th Academy Awards, I wanted to revisit the “golden era” style of quadruple-nominee Nightmare Alley, Guillermo del Toro’s evocatively photographed adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel of the same name. Continue reading
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Marine hero-turned-mob boss
New York City and Sicily, Summer 1945 to Summer 1955
Film: The Godfather
Release Date: March 14, 1972
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Costume Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
The Godfather premiered 50 years ago tonight at Loew’s State Theatre in New York City, forever changing the cultural landscape. Adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, the saga to bring the mob-centric epic to the screen could have been a plot within the story itself, but eventually the massive reception to The Godfather cemented its enduring significance, reviving Marlon Brando’s career and making stars of its cast of relative newcomers—including Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, and Robert Duvall—as well as its determined director, Francis Ford Coppola.
Spanning the decade following the end of World War II, The Godfather follows the rise of Michael Corleone, a reserved war hero, as he follows the inevitable path of his father’s footsteps to Mafia leadership. Continue reading
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, aspiring writer based on future Beat icon Jack Kerouac
Queens, New York, Winter 1947
Film: On the Road
Release Date: October 12, 2012
Director: Walter Salles
Costume Designer: Danny Glicker
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Jack Kerouac was born 100 years ago today on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His 1957 roman à clef On the Road became a defining work of what would be called the Beat Generation, chronicling the author’s wanderings in the late 1940s with contemporaries like William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg, all thinly disguised in the novel with pseudonyms.
Kerouac had started work on the novel almost immediately upon returning from his travels, the original draft being a continuous, single-spaced 120-page “scroll” that he typed across three weeks in April 1951. This free-flowing stream of consciousness has been called the ideal medium that captured the mad impulses that drove his adventures with Cassady, represented by the larger-than-life character Dean Moriarty. Continue reading
Tom Hanks as CDR Ernest Krause, USN, commanding officer of USS Keeling
North Atlantic Ocean, February 1942
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Director: Aaron Schneider
Costume Designer: Julie Weiss
Military Costume Consultant: Steve McColgan
…the goods will be delivered by this nation, whose Navy believes in the tradition of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, October 27, 1941
Greyhound begins just over three months after the United States entered World War II and nearly five months after FDR’s address for Navy and Total Defense Day, in which he reinforced with the above words the protection that the U.S. Navy would offer merchant ships carrying supplies to support the Allied war effort. The eponymous “Greyhound” is the codename for USS Keeling, one of the American destroyers assigned to protect a 37-ship convoy on its way to Liverpool.
We join up with the multi-national convoy HX-25 as it enters its first of two days traveling through the “Black Pit”, the area of the North Atlantic considered most vulnerable as it was beyond the range of air cover. Leading the convoy’s military escort from the bridge of USS Keeling is straight-laced Commander Ernest Krause, played by Tom Hanks. Continue reading
Tom Neal as Al Roberts, hitchhiking nightclub pianist
Across the United States, especially Arizona to California, Spring 1945
Release Date: November 30, 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Wardrobe Designer: Mona Barry
On the last day of #Noirvember, let’s also kick off #CarWeek with a look at one of the best examples of “road noir” with Detour, the enduring B-movie that saw a limited release 76 years ago today on November 30, 1945, just over two weeks after its initial premiere in Boston.
Martin M. Goldsmith worked with an uncredited Martin Mooney to adapt his own 1939 novel of the same name into a screenplay. Known as “the King of PRC” for his reputation as an efficient director working for the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer filmed Detour in less than a month in the summer of 1945, with a shoestring budget of less than $100,000; for comparison, this was less than 10% of the final budget for that year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Lost Weekend. (Perhaps overstating his efficiency, Ulmer would later cite that he made the movie in six days for $20,000.)
Detour was my gateway to film noir, thanks to a multi-pack DVD that I was gifted in high school that included many pulp classics like D.O.A., The Hitchhiker, Quicksand, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, many of which—like Detour—were regularly available in budget-friendly home video releases as they had fallen into the public domain. Clocking in at just over an hour, the story may be simple, but it contains all the characteristic noir themes and stock characters, including the femme fatale (and how!) and the wrongly accused man whose questionable ethics and unfortunate circumstances launch him headway into increasingly dangerous circumstances.
Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, smooth private detective and “a chap worth knowing”
San Francisco, Spring 1941
Film: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly (credited for gowns)
Now considered a seminal film noir, The Maltese Falcon celebrated its 80th anniversary last month. Dashiell Hammett’s excellent 1930 detective novel had already been adapted twice for the screen—once as a “lewd” pre-Code thriller and recycled as a zanier mid-’30s vehicle for Bette Davis—before Warner Bros. finally got it right.
The Maltese Falcon was the directorial debut for John Huston, who had faithfully adapted Hammett’s source material for his sharp script and demonstrated his sense of methodical efficiency, resulting in a masterpiece that benefited from the formula of director of photography Arthur Edelson’s low-key cinematography and a perfect cast led by Humphrey Bogart as the wisecracking gumshoe who “don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Continue reading
Denzel Washington as Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, laid-off aircraft mechanic and World War II veteran
Los Angeles, Summer 1948
Film: Devil in a Blue Dress
Release Date: September 29, 1995
Director: Carl Franklin
Costume Designer: Sharen Davis
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Like a man told me once: you step out of your door in the morning, and you are already in trouble. The only question is are you on top of that trouble or not?
With its dark themes and moral questions, film noir emerged as a cinematic sanctum for depicting the struggles of returning World War II veterans. Movies like Crossfire (1947), Act of Violence (1948), and Thieves’ Highway (1949) showcased the psyche of servicemen who had been to hell and back, depicting them not solely as one-dimensional heroes but as three-dimensional humans whose postwar life requires them to come to terms not just with the trauma encountered overseas but also the impact of returning to a changed home. (I recommend reading more about the connection between veterans and noir in James Barber’s recent article “How the Struggles of WWII Veterans Came to Life in Film Noir” for Military.com.)
Protagonists made cynical by their experiences continued as a theme through the development of neo-noir, whether that’s J.J. Gittes trying to put Chinatown out of his mind or Easy Rawlins, whose lifetime has seen his mother’s early death, his father forced to leave, racial inequities, the scars of wartime service, and—where we find him at the start of Devil in a Blue Dress—just having lost his job at the Champion Aircraft assembly plant. Continue reading
Burt Lancaster as Ole “Swede” Anderson, ex-boxer
Philadelphia, Spring 1938
Film: The Killers
Release Date: August 30, 1946
Director: Robert Siodmak
Let’s kick off #NoirVember with a memorable scene featuring birthday boy Burt Lancaster. Born November 2, 1913 in Manhattan, Lancaster remains an icon of American film noir, having made his debut in The Killers, which also marked most of the screen-going world’s introduction to the alluring Ava Gardner.
The Killers‘ straight-outta-Hemingway opening introduces us in finem res to Lancaster as “The Swede”, an ex-boxer with a sketchy past who has been tracked down by the two eponymous killers to a small town in New Jersey. Despite having spent the last six years in hiding, the Swede makes no attempt to flee his assassins, who efficiently complete their gruesome task and leave insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) to reconstruct the decade of mistakes that led from Anderson’s career as a boxer to that of a marked man by the mob.
As with all great film noir, the Swede’s undoing begins with a dame… Continue reading
In recognition of POW/MIA Day, observed on the third Friday of September, let’s delve into one of the first major movies to shine a light on the POW experience.
William Holden as J.J. Sefton, USAAF Staff Sergeant and prisoner of war
“Somewhere on the Danube”, December 1944
Film: Stalag 17
Release Date: May 29, 1953
Director: Billy Wilder
Wardrobe Credit: J. Allen Slone
I don’t know about you, but it always makes me sore when I see those war pictures… all about flying leathernecks and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerrillas in the Philippines. What gets me is there never was a movie about POWs… about prisoners of war.
… and so Clarence Harvey Cook (Gil Stratton) begins his narration, setting the scene for the week leading up to Christmas 1944 when he and his fellow downed colleagues discovered a potential informant—er, a “dirty stinkin’ stoolie”—in their barracks.
After two airmen are shot trying to escape, suspicion eventually falls on J.J. Sefton, the cigarette-dealing but cigar-chomping staff sergeant whose cynicism has already rendered him unpopular with most of the Americans aside from Cookie, who serves as Sefton’s unofficial batman and describes him as “one of the most unforgettable ch-characters you’ve ever met.” Continue reading