May 20, 2010


Like many of you I’m always surprised by the incredibly 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 appears that many enthusiasts still think this way. I stopped doing so because it gets in the way of a more meaningful and rewarding analysis, and consequently robs the films 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, meaningful, and altogether more difficult to put a finger on. The only way to know for sure is to watch enough, read enough, and learn enough to recognize the ties that bind — as elusive as they often are. Like so many other things in life the right answers come with education and experience. Thinking about film noir this way still allows for much discourse about what exactly it is and what films are representative, but while the disagreements and discussions serve to inch everyone closer to a shared truth, they also keep the films alive in our culture.

One of the many reasons film noir movies remain en vogue is how they resist being labeled, and thus generate so damn much discussion. 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, stars Richard Conte as a filmmaker who is lured to the west coast after a successful career in New York City. Conte’s Larry O’Brien is such a hot commodity his deal gives him the greenlight to produce 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 studio, unused since before the talkies. Larry’s production wheels start whirring when he learns of a sordid murder, 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 to make it into a 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. By the end of the film Larry’s prying brings the killer’s identity to light and the case is finally put to rest.

Hollywood Story is pure whodunit hokum. The story would seem better suited to 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, inner dialog, character development, and pace; even some ratcheted-up melodrama would be welcome. What we have is a routine mystery that solves itself, and by the time the killer is revealed most viewers will have stopped caring. The film does have a few redemptive qualities worth mentioning. First is that it’s a movie about movies and consequently promises a peek into the secret inner workings of the industry — difficult even for Angelinos to resist. 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 terribly 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 while the camera winces at her — especially in tight — she does well alongside Conte, and her performance improves a little as her character develops. 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 glimpses at stars of the silent period and one at a somewhat contemporary star, Joel McCrea. After all Sunset Blvd. features the famous “waxworks” scene with Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner, so Hollywood Story is obliged to follow with Francis Bushman and William Farnum.

As for film noir, I didn’t find much here and I’m confident that you won’t either. 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 an occasional nod 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 credibility in the industry, 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 of the stock variety. Another notion in play is that of the incompetent police force. Familiar-faced Richard Egan plays the cop here, and despite the fact that Richard Conte is an East Coast movie producer / director he is able to unravel a generation-old unsolved murder despite no personal connections and only a neophyte sense of L.A. culture. As Conte digs deeper into the case the police glom on to his efforts, but he stays forever a step ahead of them, and comes to lead 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.