August 23, 2014

FILM NOIR 101 is HERE!

I’m not much of a self-promoter so I promise to only do this once! My new book from Fantagraphics, Film Noir 101, has just been released. The book is available in stores and on Amazon, Barnes& Noble, Books-a-Million, and other sellers. It can also be purchased directly from Fantagraphics.

Film Noir 101 is a large format (it’s scary-big, an Amazon reviewer described it as about the size of a place mat) coffee table book chock full of full-page reproductions of classic noir posters. I did all of the digital restoration myself, so you won’t see any scratches, tears, or fold lines. The colors, however, are magnificent. I believe very strongly that these are the best reproductions of classic noir posters that have ever been published — and Fantagraphics pulled out all the stops in terms of production design and print quality.


The book was born right here on the pages of this blog. Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth enjoyed my 100 Greatest Posters of Film Noir countdown, and asked me if I’d consider developing a book along similar lines. After a great deal of discussion we decided that it made sense to make the book as much about the films themselves as it is about posters, so those of you familiar with the countdown here on the blog will find lots of brand new stuff in the book. (Here’s a secret: the book celebrates the posters, but ranks the films!)

Gary also asked me whom I’d like to write the intro for the book, and William Friedkin, Academy Award winning director of The French Connection was really my only choice!  Let’s not forget that Friedkin also directed The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Killer Joe. (Sorcerer just came out on Blu-Ray!

I’m going to be doing a ton of events in the coming weeks and months to promote the book. Hopefully I’ll be able to meet some of you in person who I’ve gotten to know so well on-line. Here are a few highlights:

On Friday, September 12 I’ll be introducing a noir film at the Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle. The following day, Saturday September 13, I’ll be giving a talk and signing books at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery.

On Saturday, September 27 I’ll be in Los Angeles at the WEHO READS: NOIR festival. I’ll be giving a lecture about the design of classic noir film posters at the West Hollywood library that afternoon, and then signing books afterwards with the wonderful people from L.A.’s best bookstore: Book Soup. Also on display in the WEHO library throughout the month of September will be a collection of classic noir posters curated by yours truly.


Here’s a link to a recent interview with more details about the book. I'll chime in in a few weeks with details on east coast events! 
















July 12, 2014

OVER-EXPOSED (1956)



I haven’t written much about Cleo Moore or Hugo Haas aside from an earlier essay on The Other Woman, in spite of seeing the lion’s share of their respective pictures. I’ve always intended to do some sort of magazine length piece about the director and his peroxide muse, but the moment never seems right. However I had a chance to take a look at Moore’s 1956 film Over-Exposed on the Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 2 disc, released by Columbia Classics in 2010. My initial viewing was via a rough bootleg, so the high quality transfer here was a welcome surprise.

This is the rare Cleo Moore outing minus Hugo Haas, and it’s refreshing to see the actress with her name above the title and out from under the big Czech’s pervasive lack of self esteem and his bittered pleas for Hollywood recognition. On the other hand, worn-out Lewis Seiler, who directed Moore the previous year in Women’s Prison (on the same disc as Over-Exposed), is asleep at the wheel. Nobody out there is shouting that this would-be Monroe was a great actress, but surely she wasn’t hopeless — see her sexy splash scene opposite Robert Ryan in Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Throughout Over-Exposed Moore appears to have only just learned her lines, just a take or two away from getting it right, but Seiler is either too easily satisfied or simply too anxious to get the movie in the can. It makes for a frustrating viewing experience. 

The story here takes a backseat to cheesecake, with many of the scenes contrived to get Moore into a series of cantilevered gowns and swimsuits by legendary Columbia costumer Jean Louis (picture Rita/Gilda singing Put the Blame on Mame). And although the 5' 3" canary blonde was at best a poor man’s bombshell, Moore never looked better than she does in Over-Exposed, and if Marilyn or Lana saw the move there must have been a few moments when even their eyebrows perked up. Spectacular cleavage aside, Moore plays Lily Krenshka, a small town girl who arrives in the Big Apple only to get busted after she landing a job as a hostess in a clip-joint. Lily’s perp walk is flashpopped by Max West, an aging, drunken photographer who somehow manages to convince her to pose for swimsuit photos in his apartment studio. Intrigued by the possibilities of a life on the other side of the camera, Lily stays on with West, tending to his alcoholism and reviving his flagging business, all while learning the ins and outs of the photographer’s life (via a nice montage). Eventually she leaves the nest with a camera of her own and a sexier name — Lila Crane, but finds career opportunities few and far between. Spurned by the legitimate news agencies, she finally lands a position as a barely-clad picture grabber at a Manhattan nightspot. Before long Lila shrewdly develops herself into one of the top portrait and advertising photogs in the city, but will her reckless ambition and her casual willingness to photograph anyone, at any time, doing anything, bring it all crashing down?

Although Over-Exposed is ostensibly a crime film, it’s a stretch to call it a film noir. There’s no doom, dread, or angst, and with the exception of a scene near the end involving pock-marked love interest Richard Crenna, there’s little in the way of visual style. Most of the scenes are flooded with light, giving viewers a never-ending eyeful of a decked-out Moore, in spite of otherwise cheap production values. In trading Haas for Seiler we get to finally see what Moore could do in an unabashed star vehicle, but at the expense of Haas’s weird, and inherently noirish psychological peccadilloes. 

Over-Exposed exploits its star under the façade of a morally upright tale about runaway ambition, but such irony was obvious even in 1956. In the end contemporary viewers will find a film that merely reinforces those same old gendered mid-century stereotypes about “threatening” women who want to work in a man’s world. Faced with desperate circumstances after being arrested as a hostess (prostitute), Moore’s Lily/Lila admirably manages to lift herself out of a deplorable situation through a legitimate professional career. And although the script paints her as a careerist who eschews morality and a place in the kitchen for money and glamour, contemporary audiences will find little fault with her actions. After all, is it fair that Lila lives in a world where the quality of her photographs seems not to matter?

Over-Exposed (1956)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Screenplay by James Gunn and Gil Orlovitz
Story by Richard Sale and Mary Loos
Cinematography by Henry Freulich
Starring Cleo Moore and Richard Crenna
Released by Columbia Pictures
Running time: 80 minutes

June 28, 2014

WOMEN FROM HEADQUARTERS (1950)



“Around the clock you will rescue children from unfit homes, neglectful parents, and crime provoking surroundings. On patrol of public parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards, you will keep a vigilant watch over safety of children. Our files tell a meaningful story of lost and despairing wrecks of girls led out of the shadows of crime and from the brink of destruction and suicide by the friendly hands of policewomen.”

“And nothing will stand between you and the unforeseen danger of your every assignment except what you’ve learned here at the academy. There’s a snub-nosed police revolver in your shoulder bags or under arm holsters that’s for your protection in emergency. Keep that in mind: for emergency only. Congratulations and good luck to each one of you.”

Given that Women from Headquarters is a bottom of the bill crime programmer from Republic Pictures, shot in only twelve days, one’s expectations would surely be low. Not so fast though — with a director like George Blair and with John MacBurnie behind the camera, it’s safe to raise the bar a little. By 1950 these cats, along with other members of Republic’s crime quickie crew (producer Stephen Auer, editor Harold Minter, etc.) had established a track record of modest but surprisingly good stuff (Streets of San Francisco, Post Office Investigator, Alias the Champ, Federal Agent at Large, Unmasked, and Destination Big House). All that being said, it’s a shame that Women from Headquarters falls short of expectations in just about every way imaginable.

Joyce Harper (Virginia Huston) and Ruby Kane (Barbra Fuller) have been struggling by on their own for years — Joyce practically raised the younger girl. But when the war came Joyce joined the Army nurses’ corps, leaving teenage Ruby without the crutch of an older role model. Now back together in Los Angeles, the two women (Ruby’s just turned 21) are trying to make a go of it as roommates in the brave new post-war world. At first glance, Ruby appears to be making out better. She’s got a nice gig hopping cars at a drive-in off Sunset and a steady boyfriend — though Joyce hardly approves. For her part, Joyce is struggling. She’s been bouncing from secretarial job to secretarial job, unattached and unable to find fulfilling work that doesn’t involved getting pawed by her bosses. She says early on, “when I got out of uniform I came back to a world I didn’t fit into. I felt sort of lost and unhappy in the work I’d done before.”

Joyce finally discovers her purpose on the night Ruby gets busted. Her motherly suspicions of the younger girl’s beau Max were well founded. While out on a date at a local watering hole (Ruby likes to get loaded) Max slips into the back room to negotiate a drug deal with the proprietor, leaving Ruby alone with her drink. When a drunken barfly tries to get fresh, Ruby tosses her highball in his face at precisely the moment a girl-boy cop team braces the bar on a routine check. Surprisingly, it’s Ruby who gets popped — the lady cop, Sergeant Rogers (Frances Charles), is prowling for suspected jailbait. Rogers puts Ruby in the backseat and drives her home to Joyce, who verifies the girl’s age and gets her off the hook. In the course of their conversation, Rogers gives Joyce the low-down on the LAPD and tells her she thinks she’d be a great fit.

Rogers wasn’t kidding either. Joyce churns her way through the LAPD academy and upon graduation is assigned to a plainclothes unit working directly out of headquarters. In her first few months on the job she amasses a record that would make Edmund Exley piss his pants: busting up high class gambling dens, saving kidnapped children, and chasing down bank robbers. Joyce even brings in a cop killer. Unfortunately all we get to see of her exploits are a montage of newspaper headlines and B roll of crooks on the run.

While all of this is happening Ruby is suspiciously absent from the movie. Following her near miss with the cops, she and Max bolt the Southland for Chicago. We don’t see her again until much later, after Joyce gets promoted to the narcotics squad. The headline-grabbing lady cop learns that her old friend has returned to California when she discovers her in the infirmary at the city jail, pregnant and battered by Max, now a hardcore felon. Sharing her tale of woe with her old pal, the naïve Ruby delivers the movie’s campiest line: “I was married to a criminal dope peddler.” Joyce agrees to get Ruby out of the clink if she rolls over on Max, who is then expected to stooge on his supplier, and on and on up the chain until Joyce can hopefully expose “Mr. Big.” Max’s paternal instincts kick in when he learns that Ruby is knocked up, and he happily spills on his bosses, leaving Joyce and her blue crew to move in and clean out the garbage.

I don’t know about you, but the two quotes set off at the top of the essay are worth getting excited about. They suggest a movie about female police officers more concerned with rolling their sleeves up and doing good work than with keeping their makeup on straight. Too bad for us, secretary turned cop Virginia Huston never wears a uniform or pounds a beat in this movie, and her face — delightful as it is — is always perfectly, and frustratingly, composed. In fact, she somehow manages to get through the picture almost entirely without showing off any real police work, and the early promise of those “despairing wrecks of girls” are left to the speeches, while that snub-nosed police revolver stays forever hidden in her shoulder bag.

Women from Headquarters’s promise as a film noir is wrapped up in Joyce’s feelings of angst at her return from the war, and her unusual career response to those feelings. This inability of the returning veteran to reintegrate into domestic society is one of the cornerstones of noir; it’s only too bad that the film doesn’t do more with it, though surely we have to award Republic some points for the gender switch. While Joyce’s response to her newfound malaise is to defy societal expectations by pursuing a potentially deadly job in the police force, she outwardly displays none of the angst or inner turmoil that we hope for. Certainly we can’t blame the actress. For what its worth, this is the same Virginia Huston who played Robert Mitchum’s girlfriend Ann in that noiriest of noirs, Out of the Past. Huston’s filmography lists only 13 roles, but the majority were top shelf projects. We have to believe she could act a little.

Possibly the failure is the normally excellent Blair’s. He allows his cast to stumble through, and fails to manipulate his camera and the lighting with same verve that I’d come to expect from him. In the end, this is an instance when we have to accept the shortcomings of B material and make allowances. The story is too plot driven and the reels are simply too few to allow for an A picture exploration into Joyce’s psyche. Regardless, while Women from Headquarters’s failure to rate as a film noir is forgivable, its failure to entertain isn’t. The promise of the subject matter gives me shivers, the noir-style character tropes are evident, and the thing moves along quickly enough, but it’s a sloppily rendered paint by numbers picture that isn’t particularly worth looking at. If you want to see somewhat similar material handled the right way, check out 1953’s Code Two.

Women from Headquarters (1950)
Directed by George Blair
Written by Gene Lewis
Starring Virginia Huston, Robert Rockwell, and Barbra Fuller
Cinematography by John MacBurnie
Released by Republic Pictures
Running time 60 minutes



May 21, 2014

50 Extraordinary Noir and Crime Posters from Republic Pictures!

Herbert Yates’s Republic Pictures sprung to life after the merger of several Poverty Row studios (Monogram, Majestic, Mascot, Liberty, Chesterfield, and Invincible) under Yates’s leadership. The studio began cranking out B pictures, and more or less thrived throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Known primarily for their B westerns featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and even John Wayne, the studio nevertheless had a few prestige hits — either as production company or U.S. distributor — including Wayne’s The Quiet Man and Best Picture winner Hamlet

I’m a longtime admirer of Republic’s noir, crime, and mystery films. Be on the lookout for more and more essays in the coming year about some of the films featured in this post. But more than anything else, Republic had the most recognizable poster style of any studio in Hollywood, and perhaps the most striking — I certainly think so. The studio favored the use of inkwash-style illustrations instead of photography, and bold red typography almost always situated on a diagonal that violates the center of the composition. Pay special attention to the color pallette, and how the artists created depth by using cool colors and monochromatic illustrations in the backgrounds, against warmer, more detailed imagery in the foreground. It's masterful stuff! For a designer like me, the artists’ ability to control viewer eye movement and convey dramatic emotion via illustration is exhilarating! Enjoy!



1938
1940
1941
1941

1942

1944
1944.
Vera Ralston was married to Republic mogul Herbert Yates.
John Wayne reportedly departed Republic because he couldn't stand her!

1945
1945
1945


1945, re-release poster
1946


1946
1946



1946

1946
Does it get any better than this?
1946

1947

1947,  click here for my essay

1947

1948

1948



1948

1949



1949, Three Sheet
1950



1950, Three-Sheet

1950, click here for my essay.

1950
1950


1950
1950, Three Sheet
1950, Three Sheet
1950, Three Sheet
1951

1951

1951

1952

1952

1952

1953 

1954


1954

1955

1954


1955
1955
1955
1956
1957