The late, great movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote that film noir is “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.”
The term “film noir” was first coined by the French to describe certain hard-boiled American films released in France soon after the end of World War II. It’s a genre of movies that I love, and starting today, Friday, June 5, and running every Friday, up to and including Friday, July 31, TCM — Turner Classic Movies — will air a total of 121 films noir in its Summer of Darkness film festival. All but nine of the titles are from the classic film noir period of the 1940s and the 1950s. Two are from the 1930s and the other seven are neo-noirs made after the 1950s. Again, to be clear, these 121 films will be shown just on Fridays.
Today, like most Fridays during this festival, TCM will air 13 movies. I’ve seen most of the films in the festival, and there are countless gems. Let’s talk about three that will air today.
First is “Woman on the Run,” from 1950, starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe. It was directed by Norman Foster. Foster was associated with Orson Welles and his Mercury Productions for a while. He also directed some baby-boomer boy favorites: the Davy Crockett segments of the “Disneyland” TV series.
Foster co-wrote the screenplay for “Woman on the Run” with Alan Campbell, a writer who was married to Dorothy Parker twice.
The dialogue at the beginning of the film especially seems to be a throw-back to 1930s cinema. At the very beginning of the film a man who is walking a dog late at night witnesses a murder. When the police arrive this exchange ensues with the witness:
Inspector: Are you married?
Frank: In a way.
He then sneaks away from the scene of the crime.
Next, the police interview Frank’s wife, Eleanor, who is played by Ann Sheridan with terrific steely noir aplomb:
Inspector: How would you describe your husband?
Eleanor: I couldn’t. I haven’t been able to in a long time.
When the Inspector finds some psychology books in the apartment he says: Books on psychology. I wonder why? Does he have a problem?
Eleanor: I wouldn’t know.
Inspector: Why won’t you help us?
Eleanor: What do you want me to do?
Inspector: Answer a few questions.
Eleanor: Go ahead.
Inspector: Where does he go when he’s not at home?
Eleanor: I haven’t the faintest idea.
…Inspector: Who are his friends?
Eleanor: I don’t know his friends. The dog is our only mutual friend.
Inspector: You always go to sleep when he walks the dog?
Eleanor: No. Sometimes he goes to sleep and I walk the dog.
Alert Nick and Nora Charles. But “Woman on the Run” is not a comedy romp. Its dialogue is sharp and hurts as if you’ve just stepped on a rusty nail. The movie plays like a delicious black and white sundae, gently stroking your taste buds with what seems like some innocent fun and banter and then hitting you hard, unexpectedly, like a nausea-inducing drop from the top of a roller coaster.
As with all exceptional noirs, the photography, by Hal Mohr, seems like a character unto itself, aided by the on-location shooting in San Francisco.
What’s even more surprising and remarkable about “Woman on the Run” is that seeping through its noir fundamentals is a story about the redemptive power of love.
Sheridan started in pictures when she was 19, after winning a beauty contest. She made lots of movies for Paramount and Warner Bros., including comedies and musicals. In the mid-1960s she was on the TV soap “Another World.” In a 1965 interview that can be found in the book “Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames,” Sheridan was asked her opinion of “your overall position in cinema history — how does it strike you.” Sheridan responded, “It doesn’t strike me at all. There’s no position, really. It’ll be just one of those things that’s written off, for heaven’s sake. It won’t mean anything.”
Unfortunately, I think Sheridan is not remembered by most. But as to why, I like what film critic and historian David Thomson has written about Sheridan in his book “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film” — that she “always appeared too intelligent to be merely a glamour queen. … [She was] far more versatile than Hollywood ever allowed.”
“Woman on the Run” is proof of that. Sheridan died of cancer in 1967, far too young at 51.
“Woman on the Run” airs on TCM today at 7:15 p.m. PT (10:15 p.m. ET). Earlier, at 2:45 p.m. this afternoon, PT (5:45 p.m. ET), is “Johnny Eager,” the second of my three recommendations.
Unlike most noirs, “Johnny Eager” is a glossy MGM production starring Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Van Heflin. And it’s one of the few noirs that’s an Oscar winner in a major category: Heflin won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as alcoholic lawyer Jeff Hartnet. This 1942 release features a fascinating love triangle, with both Turner and Heflin vying for Taylor’s affections. Of course, this being 1942, Heflin’s bromance is disguised through his alcoholic haze.
Edward Arnold is also top-notch as a district attorney.
The bon mots in this one come from the sharpened quills of John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant.
The picture was directed by legendary producer-director Mervyn LeRoy. It was LeRoy who cast Lana Turner in her first picture — five years earlier in “They Won’t Forget.” In his 1974 autobiography LeRoy wrote, “The legend that [Turner] was discovered sitting on a stool at Schwab’s Drugstore (on Sunset Boulevard) is, like so many Hollywood legends, a nice fable, but completely untrue. The first person to spot her was Billy Wilkerson, then the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. He had seen her in a little café that sold only soft drinks, and he was the one who brought her to [Warner Bros.’ chief casting director, who then brought her to LeRoy for a part in “They Won’t Forget.”] In an unforgettable career LeRoy produced “The Wizard of Oz” and directed “Little Caesar,” “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” “Golddiggers of 1933,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Little Women” (the version with Elizabeth Taylor), and “The Bad Seed,” among many others.
Here are a couple of juicy stories about Robert Taylor, courtesy Charles Higham’s 1993 biography of MGM kingpin Louis B. Mayer called “Merchant of Dreams.” In 1939 Taylor married Barbara Stanwyck. Writes Higgins, “A year or two after the marriage, there was a party at the Taylors’ house. Their friends hid in the darkness, with Miss Stanwyck’s conspiratorial approval, ready to jump out and issue birthday greetings when Taylor came through the front door. A key turned in the lock; from the faint light issuing from a not-fully-curtained window, the guests could see Taylor’s form. Suddenly, he was heard to say, ‘Okay Barbara, I’m feeling horny and I’m coming right upstairs.’ With that, they were astonished to see him remove his clothes and start, naked, toward the staircase. Somebody who apparently did not see him, and had been scheduled to turn the lights on at the crucial moment, did so.”
Higham also writes about Robert Taylor and Lana Turner during the shooting of “Johnny Eager.” Taylor was 30 years old, and Turner was 20. Taylor’s wife, Barbara Stanwyck, was 34. Says Higham, “Taylor fell in love with Miss Turner and told Stanwyck he wanted to marry [Turner]. Miss Stanwyck hid in her maid’s house for days, depressed and angry that Taylor had betrayed her. Lana Turner told Taylor that nothing could come of their relationship, and he went back to Stanwyck….” Taylor and Stanwyck eventually divorced in 1951.
My final must-see film noir of the day is “Born to Kill,” the 1947 classic that TCM will air at 10:45 p.m. PT tonight, which is 1:45 a.m. ET.
This one is in my top-five of all film noirs. It’s a must see that I don’t want to say too much about for those of you that have never seen it. Stars Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor are extraordinary. A better noir script you will not find. It’s directed by Robert Wise, the same man who later made a film 180 degrees from “Born to Kill”: “The Sound of Music.”
Bob Porfirio says of “Born to Kill” in the book “Film Noir,” that it is “an excellent example of an RKO style, not only for its visuals, but also for its offhanded depiction of perturbed sexuality and extreme brutality.”
Tierney, who died in 2002 at age 82, is so convincing in this movie that when he was still alive I always thought that if I somehow ran into him on the street and if he didn’t like me, that he would kill me. Of course my nightmare wasn’t ameliorated once I read the following, several years ago, in Jerry Roberts’ “The Hollywood Scandal Almanac”:
“October 9, 1951 – A Day in the Life of Lawrence Tierney
“The headline in The New York Times about Lawrence Tierney on this date proclaimed ‘Actor Held After Affray.’ Previous headlines about the bartender, steelworker, actor were collected by the Los Angeles Times in Tierney’s Feb. 28, 2002 obit: ‘Film “Dillinger” Booked on Drunk Charge,’ ‘Court Warns Film Actor to Be Good,’ ‘Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor,’ and ‘Tierney Goes to Jail Again.’
“….By 1958, Tierney had been arrested in either California or New York eleven times, mostly for brawling and drunkenness. He was stabbed in 1973 outside a New York bar. In 1975 a New York woman leaped to her death from a fourth-story window when Tierney dropped by to say hello. ‘She just went out the window,’ he told police.”