James Cagney. White Heat. That is all.
James Cagney. White Heat. That is all.
In an apartment dripping with indulgence – crystal chandeliers, fur rugs, jewels and perfectly lined-up ornate perfume bottles – lies the dead body of singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). An unfired gun lies nearby and an expensive broach has been purloined by the murder. Three men visited (or attempted to visit) the singer in her double monogrammed apartment that night: her alcoholic ex-husband/composer and pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) who is determined to win her back, shifty nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) and lover Kirk Bennett.
Blame instantly falls on Bennett, caught fleeing the scene moments after Marlowe’s death, killing the chanteuse before she could divulge their affair to his wife Catherine (June Vincent) in all of its scandalous glory The Police are convinced that they have found their man – Bennet’s fingerprints are all over Miss Marlowe’s gun – yet Catherine is determined that her husband is innocent. Blair has an alibi, his drunken binge that evening ended with him locked into his apartment by his building’s clerk, which only leaves Marko. Posing as a musical act, ex-singer Catherine and Blair become regulars at Marko’s club, earning his trust and closing in on the safe, which may or may not, hold the only evidence that will spare Bennett’s life.
Lorre does not have to do much in Black Angel, a film based on the work of Cornell Woolrich, yet it is impossible to take your eyes off him when he is on screen. His character is far from wholesome yet there is likeability to him – who can resist those hang-dog eyes? He is perfectly cast as the nightclub owner whose hands are far from clean. Duryea makes a convincing drunk (no-one intoxication quite like Duryea), which is frequently heightened by flashbacks and hallucinations, the unsteady camera-work accurately conveying the nausea and queasy feeling that is common of imbibing too much strong alcohol.
There is no denying that the women in the film are superb: Dowling is on wonderfully bitchy form as the demanding Marlowe, bossing her assistant and ruling her narcissistic apartment like a true diva. Yet it is Vincent who the film belongs, her transformation from housewife in dowdy clothes (if that is even possible in a film noir) to stunning lounge singer with eyes as glittering as the missing broach. She could have played the role as a frantic, desperate wife, yet she is composed, in control and more than capable when pitted against Lorre.
Black Angel may be lesser known when viewed against Lorre’s formidable body of work, yet it is perfectly indulgent film noir.
*This is a modified, slightly tidier version of a post that appeared on my old website (silverembers.com) on 20 September 2014. I don’t use that site anymore, so please continue to follow me here instead! Thank you.
The time has come to dig out my winter coat. It’s a shortish, greeny-blue, faux-fur number and I have had it for five years. When it is cold I want to sleep wearing it, and I hate taking it off once indoors. It becomes second skin from November until March. Winter is a sartorially fun season – lots of layering, fabrics, accessories and jewels – and it’s easier to up the glamour stakes. My rules are: the fluffier, bigger, warmer and cosier the item the happier I feel. I love the Film Noir Femmes who enter a room dripping in fur and pearls and hats and carrying a muff (no sniggering at the back). Luxuriant, indulgent, decadent. In my head I resemble Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, but in reality I’m Jane Lane.
With two days left, it was time to step up a gear. There were still friends to see – those I kept missing during the festival and others who would not be attending – so a little strategic planning was in order. As previously stated, viewing priorities change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Intentions to The Big Sleep (1948) and The Long Goodbye (1973) fell by the wayside but my original priority remained and I excitedly joined the queue for ‘An Afternoon With Carl Reiner’/Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).
I cannot recall the first time I saw Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid but I do know that it was at home, it was during the nineties and it was very likely on VHS. I have always been surrounded by Film Noir and was spoon fed the images of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall since I was born. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I was the only girl in school whose Dad had movie stills of Bogart, Bacall and James Dean tacked up in his wardrobe. The photos were there before I was born and, almost forty years later, they are still hanging up there on their original sticky tabs from the seventies. (Hi Dad!)
The beauty of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is how it draws out everything that we love about Noir and gently pokes at elements we overlook or take for granted. It’s a funny film but we are not laughing at the Noir genre itself: we laugh because these are elements so recognisable – the slaps around the face, copious amounts of coffee and liquor, the midnight phone calls, the shoot-outs in offices. This was reciprocated by Eddie Muller – aka “The Czar of Noir” – whose introduction specified that some of his first experiences of the genre came from this film and opened them up to a whole new, younger, audience.
After the film we had the pleasure of seeing Illeana Douglas interview the film’s writer and director Carl Reiner. Such a treat – I could have listened to them talk all day. Aged ninety-four, Reiner is still as sharp as a tack, and his “oyster in a slot machine story” anecdote (use your imagination) had the audience in stitches. He gave plenty of context to the film – describing the writing/selecting the relevant scenes process as akin to a puzzle, and how its star Steve Martin (who co-wrote the film) stayed away from Noirs beforehand lest it influenced his portrayal. I learnt (and loved) the part about his crew being assembled of many individuals who had worked on some of the original films, for example composer Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity, 1944; The Lost Weekend, 1945) and the renowned costume designer Edith Head (winner of eight Academy Awards, including All About Eve, 1951; Roman Holiday, 1954; To Catch a Thief, 1956). It was to be Heads’s final film, an appropriate finale to a career spent dressing some of Noirs most infamous characters.
I did not stay for Reiner’s book signing but took a brief pause to catch up with friends Larry and Emily, who had texted to say that they were just around the corner. Although I had only talked with Larry prior to meeting we had a great chat and they were super nice and gracious of their time. Again, felt privileged to finally meet and talk face-to-face with people who I admire and respect after many years.
Then it was back over to Club TCM at The Roosevelt for A Conversation with Elliot Gould and to grab some Warner Archive DVD’s off Matt. Alec Baldwin was hosting and the camaraderie was lively, fun and funny. The only problem was the room itself. You know the Rior Grrl mantra “Girls to the Front”? Well, the same should have applied in Club TCM – especially “Small Girls to the Front” – as I, and many of my friends, stand at 5’0 and struggle to see a thing apart from people’s backs. Matt was struggling too. Here’s the proof. (And yes, we found humour in this and were probably the ones being shushed).
Then it was back to the TCL to see Craig and ‘Becca from This Cinematic Life. One of my favourite couples, we seem to have known each other for years and it was baffling that this would be another first. That’s the trouble with the Internet: we often forget that we are living in separate countries are not minutes away from each other. As I was going to The Endless Summer (1966) and they were seeing The King and I (1956) we basically spent the hour looking and trying the footprints outside the theatre. Very little time but a pleasure nonetheless.
On my way into the cinema I ran into Raquel. FINALLY! We kept missing each other at the Reiner afternoon and there, with no plan in action, had run into each other for the same film! We obviously marked this momentous occasion through Instagram.
Marya’s affection for The Endless Summer was a large part my choosing this film. She had talked so enthusiastically over drinks the previously evening that I would have kicked myself had I missed it. Having thoughtfully saved us places, I sat with Marya, Kristen and Raquel for the Bruce Brown interview and two hours of total relaxation.
The film is pretty self-explanatory – a documentary about surfers in search of “the perfect wave”. The film had no distribution deal in place on its release yet managed to bewitch audiences and critics with its simplicity and enthusiasm. Even though I would venture back across to Club TCM that evening for some of Forbidden Planet (1956) I thought about how appropriate The Endless Summer is in the context of TCMFF: the best moments are nothing particularly flashy or fancy – sitting with friends, talking, watching films – yet in these moments find what you are really wanting and searching for: the most sought after perfect wave.