Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Postman Always Rings Twice - Notes

Here is a sneak peek at the program notes for the last film in our Noir Series this year, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE:

The Postman Always Rings Twice caused a furor when it was originally published in 1934. It was tried for obscenity in Boston and was reviled as having “several disgusting scenes, and the characters are scum,” but Cain was also celebrated as having “developed the hard-boiled manner as a perfect instrument of narration.” It was rumored that this book would be included as part of a “black list” of projects deemed unworthy for the screen, as determined by the Hays Office. The film’s path through censorship is succinctly summarized in the catalog of the American Film Institute:

Material contained in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library provides the following information about the film: In early Feb 1934, before James M. Cain's novel was published, a synopsis of his story was submitted to the PCA by RKO executive Merian C. Cooper. After reviewing the synopsis, the PCA persuaded RKO to abandon its plans to film Cain's story, calling it "definitely unsuitable for motion picture production." Columbia and Warner Bros. also expressed interest in the property, but Warner Bros. quickly rejected the story, "fearful that any attempt to get a screen story out of it would end in disaster." An internal memorandum of the Hays Office dated 9 Mar 1934 indicates that M-G-M production executive Eddie Mannix purchased the rights to the story only "two hours" after the PCA convinced Columbia studio executives to kill their plans to acquire the rights. In the memo, Joseph I. Breen, the Director of the PCA, noted that Columbia and RKO were likely to "set up a squawk the minute they hear Metro has purchased this story, which we persuaded them not to purchase."

The Breen Office made several impassioned pleas to M-G-M to drop their planned film, warning of the dangers of filming a novel that it called "unwholesome and thoroughly objectionable" in its general theme. Breen later elaborated on his objections, stating that many of the story's elements, including "numerous sexual irregularities," the explicit treatment of criminal acts and the "emphasis upon the dishonesty of the lawyers and representatives of the insurance companies," would prevent the film from gaining the PCA's approval. By Apr 1934, M-G-M agreed to abandon the property, and it was shelved for six years. In 1939, a short time after the release of a French version of Cain's story, entitled Le Dernier Tournant , Breen stated in a letter to MPPA treasurer Col. Frederick L. Herron that "you will be glad to know that the film is a fairly complete flop. Very few of the critics liked it and I understand that the public hisses it from time to time. Some of this material might be used in defense of our industry when people over there claim that we make mistakes in refusing to permit certain stories to be filmed."

In early 1940, M-G-M submitted to the PCA a proposed treatment of Cain's novel as outlined by Czechoslovakian director Gustav Machaty and Albert F. Joseph. As indicated in a letter from Breen to Louis B. Mayer, the new treatment did not contain the novel's "adultery or illicit sex," and it would "not be a story about murder." The treatment deviated from the novel in many respects, namely in that no attempt would be made to murder "Nick," that the bathtub scene would be treated as an accident, and that "Frank" and "Cora" would have no guilt in Nick's drunk driving accident. Despite M-G-M's willingness to alter much of Cain's story, Breen wrote Mayer that the material "still continues to be pretty sordid stuff, and questionable from the standpoint of popular entertainment." Machaty and Joseph were not mentioned in conjunction with subsequent versions of the script or story, and the extent of their contribution to the final film has not been determined.

Various treatments and scripts were submitted by M-G-M to the PCA between 1940 and 1945, and in May 1945, the PCA approved a revised temporary script. In an Apr 1946 NYT article, Cain notes that while some "details about sex were omitted," nothing else was changed in the story's adaptation to the screen to win the approval of the PCA. Regional censorship reports contained in the MPAA/PCA file indicate that the film was banned in Indonesia, Switzerland and Spain, and that deletions to the picture were made in other countries.

By the time the film hit the screen, there was little interference from the Hays Office, and the film was not even censured by the Legion of Decency.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Human Target 1.3

Here is episode number 3 of the Fox show. There's some more fun fight choreography, plus a motorcycle chase and the introduction of a character I hope we'll see more of. One thing I like about this show is that it deals with big things in a very personal way, sort of the DIE HARD effect. Show the large event from the perspective of someone who only becomes a major player by "Chance." Har-har. I crack myself up.

Friday, February 19, 2010

From Dana Andrews to Shutter Island

I'm not big on multiple posts per day, but this post's timeliness is today and today only.

Last night I introduced the Dana Andrews film WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS at the Dryden Theatre (Videos coming soon! I promise!). Today, I came across this review by Ann Hornaday for the film SHUTTER ISLAND that opens this weekend. In it she states: "Teddy, a World War II veteran haunted by what he saw liberating Dachau, as well as the death of his wife, recalls the world-weary antiheroes played by Dana Andrews in so many noir classics."

Everything that is old is new again. And if you like "new noir," come to the Dryden this weekend to see MISSING PERSON, the 2009 detective story. Our special guest will be Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon, the star of the film.

Agatha Nominations

We interrupt this blog to bring you this very special news!

Both Lorraine Bartlett (writing as Lorna Barrett) and Lisa Bork received Agatha nominations! Lisa was nominated in the category of Best First Traditional Mystery for the first book in her Broken Vows series, FOR BETTER, FOR MURDER. And Lorraine was nominated for Best Traditional Mystery of the year for the third book in her Booktown Mystery series, BOOKPLATE SPECIAL.

What makes this such very special news? Both Lorraine and Lisa are from Rochester! Along with Edgar-nominated Charles Benoit, this is getting to be a hotbed of crime fiction. I am so excited! Exclamation point!

I have links on the right side of the page to all three authors' websites. If you have a few free minutes, hop over to their pages and look around. Read a blog. Leave a message, say HI. And make sure to congratulate them. They deserve it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands - Notes

Ken Fox is a former writer for TV Guide and is currently enrolled in the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, preparing for a career as a film archivist. I was fortunate to have him fill in for me on the film noir program, creating notes for the wonderfully titled KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS:

The world of film noir is a shadowy, paranoid place where, as the defeated protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) learns, "fate can put the finger on you and me for no good reason at all." For the three screenwriters of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, that world became all too real in the years following the film's release. All three were targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee's anti-Communist crusade and had their lives derailed by the notorious Hollywood blacklist.

Unlike most writers who flocked to Hollywood during the Depression, Leonardo Bercovici was already a success when he arrived. He had written and produced a number of well-received plays in New York. In 1935, he created the popular radio show "Billy and Betty." Nevertheless, in 1937, he followed his writing partner (and a future HUAC friendly witness) Robert Rossen to California. Their first screenplay together--a vehicle for the Dead End Kids--was never produced. However, a second script, Racket Busters, was snapped up by Warner Brothers. This tough, pro-union B-movie was a hit. However, on the night of its July 1938 premiere, Bercovici returned to New York where he became increasingly involved in left-wing politics. In 1944, Bercovici joined the Communist Political Association.

While working for the Office of War Information, Bercovici found himself back in Hollywood where he would receive screen credit on four notable films: The Bishop's Wife, The Lost Moment (both 1947), Portrait of Jennie and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (both 1949). For a second time, Bercovici had "arrived" in Hollywood and this time he intended to stay. Or so he thought. Two weeks before he was to start pre-production on his directorial debut, he was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC. Refusing to name names or even confirm whether he was involved in the Party, Bercovici was blacklisted by an industry that vowed to fight the Red Menace by refusing to employ any one with Communist ties.

Coincidentally, Walter Bernstein had also come to Hollywood at the behest of Robert Rossen. Upon his arrival in 1947, Bernstein, an Army veteran and staff writer at The New Yorker, was put to work at Columbia by Rossen, now an up-and-coming writer-producer-director. According to Bernstein, what Rossen really wanted was a fellow Communist "to help him make his political ideas palatable to the studio executives" (Bernstein 6-7). Ten weeks later, Bernstein went to work for his own agent, Harold Hecht, who had just formed a production company with client Burt Lancaster. Their first project was an adaptation of Gerald Butler's 1946 bestseller The Unafraid. Bernstein was teamed with the leftist poet and documentarian, Ben Maddow, to adapt the novel into the spectacularly titled film Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Lancaster was slated to star opposite a pregnant Joan Fontaine and Citizen Kane's Gregg Toland was initially hired as director of photography. "Then true to hallowed custom," Bernstein later wrote, "another writer was hired to rewrite the script that had made all this possible" (Bernstein 9). That other writer was Bercovici. Bernstein was disappointed, but much bigger headaches--and heartaches--were awaited him back in New York. In 1950, he discovered that he had been blacklisted. Two years later, Maddow learned that he too had been branded unemployable by the industry (McGilligan 178).

Bercovici would eventually move to Italy while Bernstein worked behind a series of pseudonyms and "fronts." Maddow's fate, however, was the most tragic and film noir-esque of the film’s three screenwriters. Writing in the shadows for so many years led him to a psychological breakdown (McGilligan 184). In the late 1950s, he arranged to meet secretly with a HUAC congressman (Bernstein 244). Maddow signed a statement that cleared himself while betraying old friends. He finally broke, just as the nightmare of the Hollywood blacklist had begun to subside.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - Notes

I was absent from the film noir program on February 11. It turns out my son had a birthday that day, and 6-year-olds are notoriously stubborn about postponing such things. In my absence two students of this year's L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation class took the reins for me and wrote program notes for the Joan Fontaine double feature screened that day. Mason Rader, a visual artist from New York City, is first up with his notes on BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT:

Shortly before leaving Nazi Germany for America, Fritz Lang directed what would become a prototype for all Hollywood film noirs, M of 1931. M’s plot centered around a dark anti-hero, child-murderer Hans Beckhert. Its menacing urban setting of skewed perspectives and chiaroscuro light and shade would become a signature of American film noir. The look of the film noir genre was largely derived the aesthetics of German Expressionist filmmaking of the 1920s. Lang, and other ex-patriot German directors and cinematographers, enriched Hollywood with their imported style of filmmaking. Lang went on to make many classic noirs, such as Ministry of Fear (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954). Beyond a Reasonable Doubt would turn out to be Lang’s last American film and his last noir. The classic film noir touches of oblique camera angles and ominous shadows are absent. The film’s utilitarian settings are bathed in fluorescent light. Evil does not lurk in the shadows. It is invisible in plain sight.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt represents a crystallization of Lang’s minimalist style stripped down to its essentials. The characters are driven through the film narrative in sets without extraneous props or scenery. The result is a film seemingly without style. The director’s production notes reveal Lang’s approach to cinematic storytelling. On a page he sketches two columns with the headings, “What the Audience Sees and Knows” and “What Happens But the Audience Doesn’t Know.” Characters are driven along a trajectory by an unseen hand. Is it the hand of fate’s or Fritz Lang’s? Jacques Rivette, future French New Wave director, wrote in his 1957 Cahiers du cinema review of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt “No concession is made here to the everyday... We are plunged into a world of necessity, all the more apparent in that it coexists so harmoniously with the arbitrariness of the premises” (48). In Beyond, fate can take the form of a speeding truck or a femme fatale whose grasp reaches beyond the grave.

The lead characters exude an aura of bland inscrutability. Dana Andrews plays a writer and social climber named Tom Garrett who is engaged to socialite Susan Spencer played by Joan Fontaine. Sydney Blackmer is cast as a newspaper publisher and father to the socialite. Philip Bourneuf plays the city District Attorney. In the aim of cleaning up society, the D.A. has built his political career on the bodies of executed criminals. Some of the executed may have been innocent of the crimes they were indicted for. The city newspaper publisher plans to expose that fact. He enlists Tom Garrett to plant false evidence that points to himself as the perpetrator in an unsolved murder case. In the process of uncovering the dirt behind the D.A.’s criminal cleanup, all the characters will get their hands dirty.

Lang’s dark preoccupation with fate, apparent in a number of his films can be traced to events in his personal life. In 1920, Lang’s first wife was discovered dead in a bathtub with a bullet hole between her breasts. Lang’s revolver was by her side. Minutes earlier she had discovered Lang making love to screenwriter Thea von Harbou in the Lang living room. As is the case in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, there were “no eyewitnesses, no direct testimony…only circumstantial evidence” with regard to the true circumstances of her death. Lang and Harbou reported it as a suicide. Others had their doubts. Before taking a bath, Mrs. Lang reportedly telephoned a friend and made plans to meet with her. There was no police investigation into the matter. Von Harbou became Lang’s second wife and his greatest collaborator, writing screenplays for all his German films, including M in 1931. She did not immigrate to America with the director. Instead she became a member of the Nazi party and continued to write screenplays throughout the war.

Ultimately none of the characters left alive at the end of Beyond are completely innocent. Interviewed about the film years later, Lang was asked, “Which is the most despicable character?” (Eisner 360). Lang found the guilt of the murderer comparable to the guilt of those who would profit professionally, financially or romantically from his capture and execution. Concluding his commentary on moral relativism, perhaps with a measure of self-reflection, Lang quoted Bertold Brecht, “Man is not good. Man is evil.”(Eisner 359).

Mason also delivered a personal introduction to the film. Here are his notes from that talk:

Writing about Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in his book “The Films of My Life”, French Film Critic and Film Director Francois Trufaut wrote, “The critics were outraged by the plot, but it shouldn’t have been surprising coming from a man the world had confirmed as a rebel. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt his rebellion turned to disgust.”

Lang escaped Nazism in the 30s only to end up in an America gripped in communist witch-hunts in the 50s. Lang was at the end of his rope when this film was made. His budgets were getting smaller and he wasn’t getting any respect. This would be Lang’s last film in America. His Hollywood films were just being rediscovered and appreciated by French new wave critics as he was leaving Hollywood. Lang had been an A level director in Germany producing lavish films in the 1920s. After 20 years in Hollywood he was still a B-director of westerns, war pictures and crime films…what we call now Film Noir. In his career in Hollywood he had made some great ones: The Woman in the Window, Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, Human Desire, The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat.

Film noirs were originally low budget B-films. Dark and shadow disguised simple sets. Fritz Lang’s own German film M of 1931 was a proto-noir. German Expressionist cinematography of the 1920s was an inspiration for the noir look. This film would be one of the last noirs. This film has none of the look of classic noir. It is brightly lit. Not a shadow to be seen. The low budget film had now a T.V. aesthetic: clarity for that little screen.

Truffaut’s statement regarding Lang and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: “rebellion turned to disgust” might refer to how Lang starts with a group of unlikable characters and then proceeds through the plot to send each off to unexpected ends. Lang’s version of Fate has a fickle finger. Fritz Lang from his earliest films was concerned with Fate, love, death, guilt and its consequences. His first big film success was Destiny in 1921. An expressionistic and symbolic story: Death grants a woman three chances to save her lover, if love can triumph over death.

Destiny came the year after Fritz Lang’s first wife died in mysterious circumstances. Destiny’s screenwriter was Thea Von Harbou. She would be Lang’s greatest collaborator and greatest love. She was present at the death of Lang’s first wife Lisa Rosenthal. Lang’s wife discovered Fritz and Thea Von Harbou making love in the Lang living room one afternoon in 1920. After a shot they discovered her in nude in the tub with a bullet between the breasts. Fritz Lang’s own revolver was lying at her side. Lang & Harbou were initially charged with not reporting the incident quickly enough. Lang & Harbou being the only witnesses to the incident. Lang being an important film director, under the very powerful producer Erich Pommer at Germany’s UFA Film Studios…. the entire incident was expunged from the police records. There is no record of an inquest or even a Lisa Rosenthal Death Certificate. Lang had her body buried even before her family could make it from out of town to view the body. Questions later arose: It turned out Lisa Rosenthal called a friend, making plans to meet… after discovering Lang & Harbou, and before entering the bathroom. The overwhelming majority of gun death suicides are to the head or in the mouth. It turns out it is very rare for someone to commit suicide by shooting themselves in the chest. The position of the arm is very awkward.

Lang never spoke of his first wife in any interview. Any discussion of love of marriage in his life began with Thea Von Harbou, his second wife. Lang effectively erased Lisa Rosenthal from history. Only in the last decade has her story been unearthed and the mystery brought to light. Thea Von Harbou went on to be screenwriter to all of Lang’s great German Films from Dr. Mabuse to Metropolis to M… She also went on to become a Nazi. Fritz Lang’s first wife was Jewish, His mother born Jewish, converted to Catholicism. That was enough to make Fritz Lang a little Jewish in the eyes of the Nazi Regime that came to power in 1933. Lang made the decision to quickly leave Germany and Harbou.

Gossip regarding his first wife followed Lang until he left Harbou and Germany. He was able to make a fresh start in America. Harbou continued to be a successful screenwriter in Germany throughout the Nazi period. She was imprisoned for a year after the war for her Nazi past. In America Fritz Lang films returned again and again to stories of misguided love obsessions that ruin lives and lead to tragedy and murder. That could be a description of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It also could be Fritz Lang’s own story with Thea Von Harbou as his femme fatal and Lisa Rosenthal as his dark secret.


After completing Beyond a Reasonable Doubt Lang left America and returned to Germany to make to remake a two part epic fantasy film The Tiger of Bengal & The Indian Tomb: big budget and Technicolor. He was originally slated to direct them in Germany in 1920. The screenwriter was Thea Von Harbou and it was there Lang first fell in love with her.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where the Sidewalk Ends - Notes

Here is a sneak peek at my notes for this week's film noir, starting at 8pm Thursday, February 18 at the Dryden Theatre. It focuses on the lives and careers of director Otto Preminger, and the two stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. Interesting stuff, if I do say so myself.

Otto Preminger, Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews were three of Hollywood’s stars seemingly destined to enter into each other’s orbits. They all got their start in Hollywood around the same time and Preminger gave each of the actors work after they experienced personal problems in the 1950s. Over a 10-year period, combinations of two or more of these artists strove to make 8 films, including 2 classic films noirs that all three worked on together.

Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney each appeared in their first film in 1940, Andrews in Lucky Cisco Kid, and Tierney as the female lead in The Return of Frank James, opposite Henry Fonda. Tierney came from a brief Broadway career before Darryl Zanuck “discovered” her, while Andrews had been working as an ad man for a movie theater in Texas when he realized he could act, and hitch-hiked his way West. Tierney and Andrews first appeared on screen together in John Ford’s controversial Tobacco Road in 1941. Tierney was the 23-year-old spinster of a dirt farming family and Andrews was the son of the former landowner who in the end forestalls the family’s trip to the poor farm. They worked again later in the year in Irving Cummings’ Belle Starr. Tierney plays the real-life title character, and beat out the likes of Ida Lupino, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck for the role, while Andrews is the other man to Randolph Scott’s confederate bandit.

1944 brought Andrews and Tierney together with Otto Preminger on his sixth Hollywood film, Laura. Both actors made indelible impressions, Tierney as the ethereal Laura, and Andrews as the obsessed detective falling in love with a dead woman. Preminger’s visual style and brilliant camera set-ups gave a dark edge to the proceedings and Laura went on to be one of the original 10 films noirs, as identified by French critics.

Preminger went on to cast Andrews in two more dramas, the noir Fallen Angel in 1945 and the soapy melodrama Daisy Kenyon in 1947. In the first picture, Andrews is a shifty vagabond, torn between the woman he loves and the woman whose money he loves. In Daisy Kenyon, he is Joan Crawford’s adulterous lover, who might just lose his family to infidelity and his mistress to Henry Fonda.

Tierney and Andrews worked together again in 1948’s The Iron Curtain. “Wild Bill” Wellman directs the pair in the real-life story of Russian embassy employees that defect to Canada after the war. In 1949 Preminger cast Tierney as a psychiatrist’s wife duped and hypnotized by rival therapist Jose Ferrer, then framed for murder in Whirlpool.

The following year the three worked together again on Where the Sidewalk Ends. Also returning from the crew on Laura were directory of photography Joseph LaShelle and art director Lyle Wheeler. The characters played by Andrews and Tierney seem to be extensions of those created in Laura. Andrews is a cop whose obsessions have led him to violence, and Tierney is the beautiful but ineffectual woman who finds herself in an abusive relationship.

It is interesting that these parallels are drawn at the beginning of the decade. Both actors continued to find work throughout the first half of the decade, but Andrews quickly found himself succumbing to his alcohol addiction, and often worked drunk. Tierney had been having psychological problems, commonly attributed to her depression after giving birth to a special needs child, that put her in and out of sanitariums, and forced her completely off the screen after 1955.

It was Preminger that brought Tierney back to the screen after a 7-year absence in 1962 with a minor role in Advise & Consent, but it was one of her last film roles. Preminger worked one last time with Andrews in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, bringing him in for a supporting role. Andrews and Preminger continued making films through the 1970s.

Preminger died in 1986 and Tierney in 1991, both from diseases caused by smoking. (Tierney had been encouraged to start by Darryl Zanuck to lower the timbre of her Mid-Atlantic voice.) Andrews followed in 1992, from congestive heart failure attributed to his long years of drinking.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Human Target 1.2

I'm still working on the notes for this week's film noir, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. In the meantime, enjoy episode 2 of "Human Target," with more close-quarters hand-to-hand combat and plot twists that make flying fun. And can I just say the Jackie Earle Haley is a revelation in the past few years? After only knowing him from THE BAD NEWS BEARS, he has been great in LITTLE CHILDREN, WATCHMEN, and now this.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Human Target

There's a new show I'd like to champion. OK, so I've only seen two episodes so far, but I've liked them both. It's called "Human Target," and it's about a man with a dark past who is currently hiring himself out as personal security, only he goes undercover, draws out the threat, and eliminates it. It stars Mark Valley, who I mostly know from "Fringe," but is probably best known from "Boston Legal." Chi McBride is his handler/agent and Jackie Earle Haley, a revelation in LITTLE CHILDREN and WATCHMEN, is the tech guy that helps them both. I see it as a throwback to the good action shows of the '80s, with a lot of fun hand-to-hand combat, and an affable lead that has an excuse to get interested in the girl of the week. Take a look at the first episode:

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Charles Benoit and Dark Passage

I haven't been around for two weeks? It's hard to believe. I've been keeping busy, believe me. Like last week, for instance. I invited my good friend, author Charles Benoit, over for a conversation, and all these people showed up.

Actually, the event went off really well. The Curtis Theatre was packed, Charles was great, the crowd was great, the film was great, and I was grateful. Not only to Charles, but also to everyone who helped this event come together: Dan Wagner, Charlie Allen, Dresden Engle, Eliza Kozlowski, Deborah Stoiber, Antonella Bonfanti, Pat Doyen, and especially Jim Healy. These are some of the pictures from the event (oh yeah, a really big thanks to Kurt Brownell, too). I'm saving some for when I really need bail money.