No one wakes up screaming in the movie. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler. The original title was Hot Spot, but it didn’t matter what they called it. The Butcher Always Phones In the Afternoon. The Painter Stopped Whistling. The Big Thing. I didn’t expect much in the way of noir-flavored cynical grit and sweaty dame-mad guys, since it had Victor Mature and Betty Grable. But it was terrific. Watched it twice, since the commentary track had the invaluable Eddie Muller, whose book – linked over yonder – is the indispensable Film Noir guide. Many movies are tagged as the first Noir (heh: there’s a carol. The First Noir / the roscoes did shoot / at a guy who’s in love with a skirt dissolute) but this one makes a good claim, and they weren’t even trying. All the visual elements are there – high contrast, Venetian blinds, lots of smoke, hats and more hats – and apparently no one involved with the project ever did anything like it again, or was particularly aware they were doing something novel in the first place.
See, if newspapers ran headlines like that, we wouldn’t be in trouble. We should also use urchins to hawk them outside buildings. But no, we had to be respectable. Anyway, this was the model:
Carole Landis. A Wisconsin gal. Birth name: Frances Lillian Mary Ridste. Nicknames: The 'Ping' Girl; The Blonde Bomber; The Chest Since much of the film is in flashback, we got to see her do something more than deploy the strategically buttressed assets, and she was pretty good. I’ve never been a big Grable fan – Landis had more punch and sparkle. But not enough. She made made almost 50 films, then took a pill supper. (Sorry, it’s almost impossible not to write in bad Black Mask style about these movies.)
When we first meet her, she’s working in a Los Angeles cafeteria where they project an out-of-focus picture of New York outside the window:
Rear-projection haunts the entire movie, with one notable exception we’ll get to. Note the restaurant in the back: CHILD’S It was a local NYC chain, the star of its very own entry in the Matchbook Museum. According to this old menu, that’s probably a shot of Broadway.
Anyway: Victor Mature gets collared for the murder, and this shot – from the opening scenes – shows you how perfectly they nailed down the noir style from the get-go.
That’s everything – the lights, the hat, the looming power, the guy on the hot seat, all existing in some sort of Beckett-like netherworld. You can take these pictures out of context, print them off and frame them – on their own, they’re fascinating compositions.
I doubt there's a place on earth where people wouldn't understand the basics of that situation.
More Rear-Projection Follies, and for some reason Victor Mature reminded me of Charles Krauthammer:
The other fellow is a forgotten actor whose career, like Landis’, was cut short. Laird Cregar. Huge guy with a soft voice, almost like Vincent Price, but a bit dreamier. He’s the best thing in the movie, and the movie knows it:
Of course, there’s this fellow. There’s always this fellow:
You know that beak, that scowl, that irritable face – Charles Lane. His first movie was in 1931; his last was in 2006. The bird lived to be a 102.
Anyone else we might recognize?
Elisha Cook Jr.! Yes! There’s our Trek connection. It’s always amusing to see him get slapped around in these movies; most people of my generation came to Noir first via the classics, shown in revival houses, and Cook was in “The Maltese Falcon” as the dead-eyed gunsel Bogie bats around. But he’s knuckle-fodder in all these films.
He was 92 when he earned his headstone, and his last credit was "Magnum PI."
As for Grable:
Mueller, in the commentary, advises that this image be frozen and kept for all posterity, as the image of the pre-war American housewife. The kitchen, the hair, the drapes, the apron. It’s a nice place, a woman’s world. Because this is where the men live:
The grim world of doubt and shadow.
I mentioned the rear-projection problems. This shot is supposedly taken outside the New York Public Library, but you can tell it’s a process shot.
It is New York, though – and they sent a second unit to New York to shoot this shot of 5th Avenue:
Rogers Peet. The name stuck out, because for a year or two construction in Manhattan revealed this ghost:
The bones of these old films are all around, but we don’t see them; we’ve been cursed with the gift of color.
So rent it, and watch it twice – once for itself, and once for the commentary. It’s a nifty piece of work, and it’s amusing to think that they almost invented a genre without even trying.
One question: how long would it take them to remake it? Click Next.