May 20, 2010


Like many of you I’m often surprised by the inclusive definition some have of film noir. I once cared about whether or not a particular movie “qualified” as a noir — as if there were a checklist of traits used to keep score. It seems that many enthusiasts still think this way. I stopped doing so because it gets in the way of a more meaningful and rewarding look at the films, robbing them of much of their value and individual identity. A film can’t “add up” to noir status — just like a list of ingredients haphazardly thrown in a bowl don’t “add up” to a well-prepared meal. Something has to bind the ingredients together — something thematic, purposeful, and altogether more difficult to put a finger on. The best way to identify a noir for sure is to watch enough, read enough, and learn enough to recognize the ties that bind when you see them. Like so many other things in life, the right answers come with education and experience. Thinking about film noir this way still allows for debate about what exactly it is and what films are representative, inching all of us closer to a shared truth,while keeping the films alive and breathing.

That being said, there is a central set of about 200, maybe 250 films that most agree on, and the great thing about film noir is that it’s possible to pull any two at random from such a list and find that they have little in common. Nonetheless, we seem to exist in a world where any movie with a bad girl or a private eye is called a film noir, which has led to a multitude of movies being codified as such that just … aren’t. A few lists available in cyberspace attach the noir label to as many as 1,000 movies. Hollywood Story appears on most of these lists — but it isn’t an especially strong film noir.

Cashing in on the renewed interest in the silent film era generated by Sunset Blvd., Hollywood Story, released by Universal in 1951 and helmed by William Castle, stars Richard Conte as a filmmaker lured west after a successful career in New York City. Conte’s Larry O’Brien is such a hot commodity that his deal gives him the juice to greenlight any picture on any subject he wants. Larry’s introduction to the sights and sounds of L.A. comes from agent / war buddy Mitch Davis (Jim Backus), who takes him to scout a decrepit silent film studio. Larry’s engine starts purring when he learns of a sordid killing, still unsolved, that took place on the lot way back in 1929. He decides the story of a murdered silent film director would be big box office and wants it to be his first picture. Over the next few weeks he researches the details around the crime and begins to develop the project. But as he learns more and more about the killing, various people in his life try to dissuade him from making the film — it seems everyone he knows in Hollywood is somehow connected. Eventually Larry’s prying reveals the killer’s identity and the case is finally put to rest.

Hollywood Story is pure whodunit hokum, with a story better suited for any one of the endless Perry Mason-style television dramas of the period. There’s little action, and the dialog simply pushes the complicated plot towards an obvious and inexorable conclusion. Missing is tension, character development, and pace. Nothing builds. What we have is a routine mystery that solves itself, and by the time the killer is revealed most viewers will have stopped caring.

There are a few redemptive qualities worth mentioning. First, it’s a movie about movies and consequently promises a peek into the secret inner workings of the industry. Second is man-around-town location shooting which provides plenty of shots mid-century L.A. and various Hollywood landmarks. The only problem is that most of these glimpses are second-unit shots that accompany the opening titles. And finally there’s Richard Conte, absolutely one of the greatest film actors of the fifties not accorded the respect he deserves by contemporary audiences — so consistently enjoyable he could do the actor’s equivalent of “singing the phone book.”

Yet Richard Conte is miscast in Hollywood Story. Besides being wrong for the part, he’s just too good for it — and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb. That’s not to suggest that the other cast members were second rate, but Conte is the only above the title performer in the cast. Some of the actors, Jim Backus and Fred Clark in particular, are simply using Hollywood Story as an excuse to chew scenery. The female lead is Julia Adams, and although the camera winces at her — especially in tight — she does well alongside Conte, and her performance improves a little with time. Adams has had a long film and television career, and at the time of this writing is still banging away at it, having appeared recently in episodes of Lost and CSI. The rest of the cast is unremarkable, though it does include a few moments with stars of the silent period and one with the relatively contemporaneous Joel McCrea. After all Sunset Blvd. features the famous “waxworks” scene with Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner, so Hollywood Story just had to respond with Francis Bushman and William Farnum.

As for film noir, I didn’t find much. There are one or two dark visuals, including a dramatically lit confrontation in a flop house and a well-conceived (given the rest of the film) cat-and-mouse at the close, but that’s it — and a few nods to a popular style does not a film noir make. Conte’s character doesn’t internalize any of the film’s drama, and neither do any of the others. There’s no cynicism, no obsession, no neurosis. As a matter of fact, Conte is so controlled, self-assured, and infallible that he epitomizes everything the noir protagonist is not. Frankly, he’s less a Hollywood player in this film than he is a pre-war private detective. He does all of his investigative work under the auspices of research for his movie — but he never actually loads a camera, and the movie doesn’t otherwise feature any scenes showing the nitty-gritty of movie making. Nothing is done to establish Larry’s Hollywood credibility, but he is made out to be one hell of a private eye. As for the girl — no dice. Adams’ Sally Rousseau enters the film bitterly, but she warms into the proper fifties sweetheart so fast your head’ll spin. The rest of the cast members are cardboard cutouts.

The film frustratingly introduces a few cynical notions that might have inched it closer to film noir, but it fails to capitalize on them. Coming back to the exteriors that frame the opening titles, it’s interesting to note that many of the shots depict television studios like CBS and NBC — odd because the film was made during the early days of Hollywood’s war with television, and espouses those values. In an early scene where a few characters are reminiscing about the early days of the movie business an ancient studio guard says,” You don’t see pictures like that anymore.” to which Fred Clark responds “Sure you do Pop, every night on television.” Yet the movie decides to drop it and never returns to the subject. Given the prominent placement of TV production facilities in the first few images of the film I expected TV or those working in it to play some part in the drama, yet it isn’t so. It’s bewildering, unless we consider that the opening footage may have been poorly-chosen stock. Another notion in play is that of the incompetent police force. Familiar-faced Richard Egan plays the cop, and despite the fact that Richard Conte is an East Coast movie maker he’s able to unravel a generation-old unsolved murder despite no personal connections and only a neophyte’s sense of L.A. culture. As Conte digs deeper into the case the police glom on to his efforts, but he stays a step ahead of them, eventually leading Egan’s Lt. Lennox around by the nose. Yet again the film fails to follow through: there’s no hardboiled rivalry between Conte and Egan, rather an almost a healthy respect; and by the end of the film Conte has to count on Egan to save his life.

Hollywood Story is a mediocre mystery made watchable because of Richard Conte. It doesn’t rate as a film noir, and in spite of its self-referential themes, nostalgia for the good ole days and lofty title — it would have made better fodder for hated television.

Hollywood Story (1951)
Directed by William Castle
Cinematography by Carl Guthrie
Story and Screenplay by Frederick Kohner and Fred Brady
Produced by Leonard Goldstein
Starring: Richard Conte, Julia Adams, Jim Backus, Fred Clark, and Richard Egan
Released by Universal International
Running time: 76 minutes


  1. Mark,
    It's good to see some praise in print for that neglected but elegant and occasionally powerful actor, Richard Conte. I have longed to see this film largely because he is in it, but I'm not sure if I feel that way now.

    The references to the silent era and what sounds like some fictionalized version of the William Desmond Taylor murder might just make it watchable...along with Mr. Conte. Thanks for sharing your impressions of Hollywood Story.

  2. Hi Moira! There was a time when I only knew Conte from The Godfather, but over the years I've come to really appreciate his work. Hollywood Story is absolutely watchable, even enjoyable — though it's the sort of movie that frustrates when you come to realize how good it could have been.