John Garfield as Frank Chambers, restless drifter-turned-diner worker
Laguna Beach, California, Summer 1945
Film: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Release Date: May 2, 1946
Director: Tay Garnett
Costume Supervisor: Irene
As #Noirvember continues, let’s step away from the trench coats and fedoras to see how our hardboiled anti-heroes dress for a day at the beach. An ode to deviance that originated from James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice was adapted twice by European filmmakers before Hollywood dared to tackle it during the golden age of noir in the 1940s.
The lascivious source material had presented a challenge for presenting the story in a way that would satisfy the draconian Motion Picture Production Code and, even before it was published, a synopsis of Cain’s story had been deemed “definitely unsuitable for motion picture production” by the pearl-clutching Hays Office. After the two European adaptations were released, MGM was finally ready to proceed with its own version, inspired by the success of Double Indemnity, another piece from Cain’s poison pen centered around adultery and murder. By this time, nearly a dozen years into the rigid enforcement years of the Production Code, American filmmakers had mastered the art of stylized shadows and suggestive innuendo that allowed—and often enhanced—these films noir set in lurid worlds filled with unscrupulous and unsavory elements.
“It was on a side road outside of Los Angeles,” Frank Chambers begins his story, as the down-on-his-luck hitchhiker stumbles into the Twin Oaks diner boasting a $1.25 “best in the world” chicken dinner. The simple sign, “Man wanted,” echoes both the restaurant’s staffing needs as well as the sensuous needs of Cora (Lana Turner), the ambitious young platinum blonde who runs the roadside lunch room with her proud yet oblivious husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway)… and, even if you haven’t read or seen it, you probably already see where this is going.
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham, aka Jeff Bailey, laconic gas station owner and former private detective
Bridgeport, California, to San Francisco via Lake Tahoe, Fall 1946
Film: Out of the Past
Release Date: November 25, 1947
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Costume Credit: Edward Stevenson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Regarded among the best of classic film noir, Out of the Past showcases the genre’s quintessential elements: shadowy cinematography (thanks to Nicholas Musuraca), a story of double-cross and intrigue told in flashback, a charismatic antagonist, an alluring and ultimately deadly femme fatale, and—of course—a tough-talking, chain-smoking private eye light on words and sentiment:
Baby, I don’t care.
Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson, larcenous armored car driver
Los Angeles, Summer 1948
Film: Criss Cross
Release Date: January 19, 1949
Director: Robert Siodmak
After directing the actor’s debut screen performance in quintessential film noir The Killers (1946), Robert Siodmak reteamed with Burt Lancaster three years later for Criss Cross, a quick, moody thriller that begins in media res with Steve Thompson (Lancaster) in the evening shadows of a nightclub parking lot, embracing his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo).
As De Carlo makes her plea to the camera that Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller called “noir’s defining moment”, we learn that the former spouses are forced into secrecy to avoid detection from Anna’s slick gangster boyfriend Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), with whom Steve is planning a six-figure “chance of a lifetime” heist the following day.
James Shigeta as Joe Kojaku, LAPD homicide detective
Los Angeles, Summer 1959
Film: The Crimson Kimono
Release Date: October 1959
Director: Samuel Fuller
Costume Supervisor: Bernice Pontrelli
Are you among the many movie buffs who observe #Noirvember, the month-long celebration of shadowy cinema often set in worlds populated by gumshoes, gunsels, and femmes fatale. Defining film noir is often as murky as the outlines of the shadows in some of its seminal works, though even applying the infamous Potter Stewart rule yields at least dozens of crime dramas produced within and beyond the United States during the 1940s and ’50s.
Earlier this year, the Criterion Channel again showcased a collection of noir from Columbia Pictures, the erstwhile Poverty Row studio that churned out some of the most quintessential high-talent noir in including Gilda (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and In a Lonely Place (1950) as well as an array of criminally underseen B-movies that balanced their low budgets with high quality. One of my favorites from the collection was The Crimson Kimono (1959), directed by former crime reporter and World War II veteran Samuel Fuller.
Modern audiences may recognize James Shigeta as the patient and ultimately doomed Nakatomi executive in Die Hard. Here, a considerably younger Shigeta plays the charismatic Joe Kojaku, an apple-munching, piano-playing Japanese-American homicide detective called in with his partner Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) to investigate the murder of burlesque dancer Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall) on L.A.’s” Main Street” one brightly lit, jazz-filled night in August 1959. Continue reading
Cary Grant as Geoff Carter, regional airline manager and pilot
South America, Spring 1939
Film: Only Angels Have Wings
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Howard Hawks
Costume Designer: Robert Kalloch
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Calling Barranca, calling Barranca…
Set in the fictional “port of call for the South American banana boats”, Only Angels Have Wings begins with the arrival of Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), a Brooklyn musician who soon catches the eye of two American aviators, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn). While the daredevil duo gambles for the opportunity to take Bonnie to dinner, Cary Grant makes his swaggering introduction as Geoff Carter, a fellow pilot and manager of a regional mail carrier flying regular routes over the treacherous Andes Mountains.
Montgomery Clift as George Eastman, dangerously ambitious factory executive
“Loon Lake”, Missouri, Labor Day 1950
Film: A Place in the Sun
Release Date: August 14, 1951
Director: George Stevens
Costume Designer: Edith Head
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
With Labor Day weekend ahead, today’s post explores the style from one of my favorite movies set across the late summer holiday. A Place in the Sun was adapted by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown from Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, which was itself based on Chester Gillette’s 1906 murder of his pregnant partner Grace Brown in the Adirondacks.
David Niven as Raymond, bon vivant widowed father
French Riviera, Summer 1957
Film: Bonjour Tristesse
Release Date: January 15, 1958
Director: Otto Preminger
Costume Coordinator: Hope Bryce
Secluded for the summer at their villa in the Côte d’Azur, libertine Raymond and his equally free-spirited daughter Cécile (Jean Seberg) enjoy a comfortable and carefree season living la belle vie by the sea. In fact, Raymond and Cécile would have fared quite well had they needed to spend their summer in quarantine, as few outsiders enter their lives aside from whichever mistress (or two) Raymond is entertaining at the moment. These young women are typically no more than a few years older than Cécile, who grows particularly attached to his latest paramour, Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), to the extent that she joins Raymond in waking the vivacious blonde from her nude slumber and helps her apply sunscreen during one of their typical days spent on the beach.
While all may be cordial and close, there’s no getting between the fiercely intimate bond between Cécile and her father, of which Elsa comments: “You do not even need words… the perfect marriage!”
Troy Donahue as Johnny Hunter, college student and “silly sentimentalist”
New England, Spring 1959
Film: A Summer Place
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: Delmer Daves
Costume Designer: Howard Shoup
Sixty years after shaking up more genteel audiences with its frank but ultimately tame depictions of adultery and sexuality, A Summer Place may be most widely remembered for its serene theme song. Originally written by Max Steiner, it was Percy Faith’s arrangement of “Theme from A Summer Place” that transformed the instrumental ballad into a #1 hit that took the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking nine consecutive weeks in early 1960.
Gregory Peck as Harry Street, expatriate writer and former newspaper reporter
French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), Summer 1936
Film: The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Release Date: September 17, 1952
Director: Henry King
Wardrobe Supervisor: Charles Le Maire
Despite its wintry title, The Snows of Kilimanjaro was expanded significantly from Ernest Hemingway’s original short story for Henry King’s lush 1952 cinematic adaptation, featuring plenty of summertime fun in Côte d’Azur during its prewar heyday.
The rest of the world may have been suffering from the Great Depression, but Papa surrogate Harry Street has risen to literary stardom and is now living la belle vie, adrift in the Mediterranean while his latest paramour “Frigid Liz, the semi-iceburg of the semi-tropics” frolics in the warm sea around him. Though lovely, Countess Elizabeth (Hildegard Knef) is hardly the treasured Cynthia (Ava Gardner), and Harry admits he’s only attracted to Liz for her elusive qualities, describing in Papa-esque prose that “she was something to hunt down and trap and capture.”
In addition to today being the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, who entered the world July 21, 1899, today is also my 31st birthday!
Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud, taciturn war veteran and former newspaperman
Key Largo, Florida, Summer 1948
Film: Key Largo
Release Date: July 16, 1948
Director: John Huston
Wardrobe Credit: Leah Rhodes
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Released today in 1948, John Huston’s moody noir Key Largo marked the fourth and final of Bogie and Bacall’s on-screen collaborations, closing out their celluloid romance the way it began in To Have and Have Not (1944) with a talent-packed cast (including Dan Seymour as a heavy heavy) in a tropical locale shrouded in shadows, storms, and gunplay. The claustrophobia of our characters’ forced isolation against the looming summer storm outside and the raging tension inside made it particularly impactful viewing during months in lockdown.