Category Archives: Film Noir Movies

You know what’s a really good movie about cops and corruption set in 1950s Los Angeles?

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“I know Titanic will probably win, but this really is the best movie of the year.”

Those words were said by me to my parents right after we watched the modern classic cop drama L.A. Confidential soon after it hit theaters in 1997. Based on the novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential was directed by Curtis Hanson, who was also co-producer and co-wrote the screenplay. This movie has a stellar ensemble cast: Kevin Spacey (more on him in an upcoming aside), Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and David Strathairn.

Those last three actors were completely new to me. I was quite surprised to learn Crowe and Pearce weren’t Americans. The latter is an Australian born in England, while the former was born in New Zealand and lives in Australia. In the film, there isn’t a hint of an accent other than American in their performances.

Throughout the movie, everyone is in fine form. The acting is so good and the characters are so well realized, even the secondary characters are spot on.

And as the characters go, no one is pure in this story.

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, front, from left: James Cromwell, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey; back: Russell Crowe,

Cromwell is terrific as the corrupt Capt. Dudley Smith, but just how far will his corruption go? DeVito nails his role as the sleazy celebrity gossip peddler Sid Hudgens, who bribes Spacey’s character (Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes) to arrange celebrity busts for the headlines and increasing sales of Hush Hush magazine. Vincennes also gained fame through those arranged busts and that helped him land the role of technical advisor, a role he relishes, on a very Dragnet-like TV cop show.

Crowe as Officer Bud White is a cop who provides muscle in helping Capt. Smith rid Los Angeles of organized criminals, but not organized crime. You see, Dudley wants to replace the former crime boss who had been busted on a tax evasion rap. That way he can be the fine upstanding Captain of the world’s finest police force, while secretly controlling and profiting from the organized crime he’s supposed to oppose.

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Basinger won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Lynn Bracken, a high priced sex worker made to look like movie star Veronica Lake. She’s part of an expensive stable of call girls made to look like Hollywood stars run by local millionaire Pierce Patchett (Strathairn). He is said to treat his “employees” well as he caters to a more exclusive clientele. His slogan is “Whatever You Desire.”

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And then there’s Sgt. Edmund Exley, son of a legendary cop who was killed on duty. That murder was never solved. Exley, a highly intelligent, scheming, and ambitious, if naive, cop, is determined to live up to and perhaps surpass his father’s legacy.

On Christmas Eve, chaos erupts in the jail cell area of police headquarters. Earlier in the evening, two cops got in a minor skirmish with a group of Hispanic men, who had initially gotten away. But they’re caught and brought in and the over-served police officers celebrating the holiday mete out some payback punishment of their own.

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The press was there and caught the violence on camera and it was big news the next day. Embarrassing news for the LAPD and they needed to save face. That’s when Exley’s smarts and ambition took him from a Sergeant to a Detective Lieutenant. It also made him an enemy of every other cop in the precinct, including Officer White.

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Then came the Nite Owl.

But, first, a short aside.

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Kevin Spacey is in this movie and he’s not very highly thought of at the moment. He’s been accused of sexual misconduct with one case involving a minor. He’s also on trial for sexually assaulting an 18 year-old man.

Our legal system has the presumption of innocence as it’s baseline, but these accusations can’t help but taint the work Spacey has done over his career, much of it outstanding performances, such as his role as Jack Vincennes.

In most cases involving entertainers being flawed human beings or maybe having social and political views I don’t agree with, I try to consider the art and not the artist. It’s not always easy. It’s easy for me to not watch the Spacey movies that I thought were crap (Hurlyburly? Have you seen it? It’s horrible!), but Se7en? The Ref? The Usual Suspects? Baby Driver? Should I give up watching those?

Your answer might be yes. And that’s fair. You might think less of me for it, but I’m going to keep watching the art, while grimacing at the artist when it comes to Kevin Spacey. What you do is your decision.

Aside over, now back to the blog.

Right. Then came the Nite Owl.

The Nite Owl was an all night diner at which the customers and staff were murdered one night during a robbery. Exley was the first detective on the scene, but Capt. Smith took over the case the moment he arrived. It was soon discovered one of the victims was a former cop. He was Bud White’s partner before he was drummed out of the force for taking part in the Christmas Eve brawl.

That’s where I’m going to leave it. To go into any more details of the plot would risk spoiling a story that twists and turns its way through the seedy side of sunny California in the 1950s. There are betrayals, team-ups, double-crosses, some romance, terrific action, and one excellent out-of-nowhere gasp moment! I mean my mother, when she saw that moment, literally gasped.

The production, including using popular music of the time, is spotless as it captures the look and feel of what many think was a simpler time, a more innocent time, a greater time in American history. Except there never was a time of innocence. There was always a dark side to society. And there were always men and women willing to take advantage of it.

It’s brilliant!

If you haven’t seen it. Watch it! If you have, watch it again!

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Packing Peanuts!

Correction 2/1/19: I had the name of that crappy Kevin Spacey movie wrong. I said it was Hodge Podge, but the name is Hurlyburly. I made the correction.

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

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That’s Not How That Works

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There is a very real effect out there known as the CSI Effect. It’s what happens to lay people when it comes to their expectations of forensic science due to what they’ve seen on any of the numerous CSI TV series. For the purposes of artistic and dramatic license Hollywood has been exaggerating what forensic science can do for decades. And I just saw another example.

In 1948, 20th Century Fox released Call Northside 777, a film noir classic based on a true story. It stars James Stewart as the cynical newspaper reporter J.P. McNeal, who has been assigned to do a story on an ad offering $5000 (that’s more than $50,000 in today’s money) to anyone who can provide evidence that will free an innocent man from prison.

OK, stop right here and know that there are big spoilers ahead.

The innocent man is Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) and it’s his mother (Kasia Orzazewski) who has worked as a janitor for eleven years to raise the money. Wiecek was convicted and sentenced to 99 years for killing a cop in 1932, the height of the Prohibition Era. He was essentially convicted by the testimony of one eyewitness.

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James Stewart and Lee J. Cobb

McNeal thinks the story is a waste of time, but his editor (Lee J. Cobb) presses him to dig deeper. The initial story “Mac” wrote was getting good response, so the digging continued. Without me going through everything, the cynical reporter comes to believe Wiecek to be innocent. Despite the evidence uncovered by Mac being compelling, the newspaper’s lawyer speaks the hard truth that it isn’t the kind of evidence that will convince the coroner’s inquest to overturn the verdict.

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“Sorry, boys. But the evidence isn’t good enough.”

McNeal needs to get the witness to recant her testimony or find new evidence. Or drop the story.

The witness refuses, even though it’s learned that she didn’t recognize Wiecek as the killer at first. It seemed the police worked with her a little bit, because it’s also learned that she and the accused had been together with the police the day before she finally picked him out of a line up. However, the court transcripts showed testimony that she hadn’t seen the accused the day before she identified him.

If Mac could only prove the accused and the witness had seen each other the day before, that would discredit her testimony and taint her identification of the accused. He just needed to find the evidence.

With time running out before the newspaper’s lawyer was to apologize to the coroner’s inquest and drop the case, MacNeal found an old photograph showing Wiecek and the witness together being escorted into police headquarters. The indications were that the photo was taken the day before the line up, but could Mac prove the timing?

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“Enlarge that newsie!”

Up to this point, the film was pretty good. Not the best film noir I’ve seen, but I was enjoying it. And then it happened. This pedant has been bugged by this dramatic device for years. Lots of old cop shows have done it, I can remember a specific episode of Columbo that did it, and Blade Runner (1982) does its variation of blowing up a photograph to get details that just aren’t there. It’s just not possible.

With Blade Runner, I’m a little more forgiving, because it’s set in the future (2019!) and there’s technology far advanced to what we have now. (Next year is going to be interesting. Replicants, flying cars, cool computer devices that can turn corners in photographs.) But, in 1943, when this picture is set? No way!

Here’s what happens. Mac has part of that photograph enlarged first to 100x, then to 140x, and finally “as big as possible.” The part he’s interested in shows a newsie way off in the background, across the street, holding a stack of newspapers. What the intrepid reporter is attempting to do is zero in on where the date would be on the newspaper the boy is holding.

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100x

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140x

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Oh, please!

And there it is! The date! Proving the photograph was taken the day before the eyewitness identified Wiecek in that line up. Proving that the witness was mistaken or lying about not seeing the accused since the crime until that line up. Proving that she may have been influenced by the police to identify Wiecek in that line up.

Wiecek was set free.

(Uh, it’s a good thing no one suggested the newsboy could have been holding a stack of newspapers from the day before the photograph was taken. Cough! Cough!)

So, for me, the movie ended with an, “Oh, that’s impossible!”

By the way, I said the film was based on a true story. It is, but, according to Wikipedia:

“In actuality, innocence was determined not as claimed in the film but when it was found out that the prosecution had suppressed the fact that the main witness had initially declared that she could not identify the two men involved in the police shooting.”

Not quite as sexy, I guess.

Packing Peanuts!

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You know what’s a really good detective movie with a swell lot of thieves, a quick talking private eye, and a black bird? (And a not so good one?)

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In a span of ten years, Hollywood had produced three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). First in 1931, next in 1936, and finally in 1941. It’s the 1941 version that most people think of when this classic story is mentioned. And with good reason. It’s the best.

OK, full disclosure. I haven’t seen the 1936 version. That one is titled Satan Met A Lady which stars Bette Davis and, from what I can tell, it’s not very highly thought of. It’s also only very loosely based on the book. Hell, they even changed Sam Spade’s name! For shame!

The 1931 version is a bit slow and stagey. The actors deliver their lines rather like they aren’t sure they should be speaking. However, Una Merkel as Effie Perine, Sam Spade’s girl Friday, does add some nice sass to the picture. And the picture was made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, so it could be a little more blatant with its suggestions of sexual relations between characters.

The introduction of Spade, lecherously played by the handsome Ricardo Cortez, is quite eyebrow raising. He is seen bidding farewell to a woman, whose face we never see, at the door of his and his partner’s offices. The woman adjusts her stockings just as she takes her leave. Spade, after sexually harassing Effie for a quick couple of minutes, returns to his private office and straightens up the couch. Eyebrows raised.

Another Pre-Code aspect of this version comes when it more closely follows the book in the scene in which Spade needs to determine if Miss Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), his deceptive client and love interest, had stolen a thousand dollar bill. Spade demands that she disrobe in front of him so he can be sure she doesn’t have it. In the 1941 version, the detective takes her at her word that she hadn’t stolen it.

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Sam leching on Effie.

The main problem with this version is Cortez. He’s too handsome. Too much like Rudolph Valentino and too much of a dandy to be a hard-bitten gumshoe. And, I know the film intended to make certain the audience knows he’s a ladies’ man, but Cortez is way too creepy. The way he looks at virtually every woman in this movie isn’t merely to undress them with his eyes, it’s meant to give the message to the woman that, sooner or later, he’ll be having sex with her. It’s hard to imagine women of the 1931 movie-going public finding that attractive.

Perhaps, they didn’t, because the film did not do very well at the box office. That is probably why just five years later it was remade as that Bette Davis vehicle. However, that didn’t do very well either. And I didn’t see it, so I can’t say anymore about that film.

Then came the definitive version in 1941. Considered Hollywood’s first film noir, it was written and directed by first-time director John Huston and stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. This one got it right. Bogart is fantastic as the confident, tough, smart, and ruggedly handsome private eye. He’s been around and seen a few things in his time. He’s a ladies’ man, all right, and subject to the sexist behavior of the day, but he’s no creep. I can understand his appeal to women. He’s the men want to be him and women want to be with him kind of character Hollywood produces from time to time.

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The tale is a bit hard to follow on first viewing, but that doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment. The characters are so fascinating and the actors are all top-notch. This film is just crammed with great character actors. There’s Mary Astor as Miss Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, and, of course, Peter Lorre and his amazing portrayal of Joel Cairo (more on that character in the upcoming aside). Even the secondary characters have terrific actors in the parts, which includes the good cop/bad cop team portrayed by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick as the ever-reliable Effine Perine, and Elisha Cook Jr as Wilmer, Gutman’s young, tough-talking bodyguard. If ever a movie had the perfect casting, this one is it.

And now a short aside…

In the book, Hammett makes it clear that Cairo is gay. In fact, there are strong suggestions that Gutman is also gay and Wilmer is his kept boy toy. This brings up an interesting difference between the 1931 Pre-Code era version and the 1941 Code era version. The 1931 picture barely hinted at the homosexuality of Cairo and doesn’t make any hint regarding Gutman’s and Wilmer’s (other than as a figurative father and son) relationship, while 1941’s version was filled with subtle and maybe not-so-subtle hints about Cairo’s sexuality as well as Gutman’s and Wilmer’s sexual relationship.

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If you can’t see the phallic nature of that handle, you have a far less dirty mind than I.

Both versions make note of Cairo’s scented business card, but in Huston’s story it’s more emphasized. There’s also the moment of Cairo suggestively placing the phallic-looking handle of his umbrella to his lips as he attempts to find out if Spade has the Black Bird. Huston dropped other hints, including the very subtle gesture of Spade removing his hat as Cairo is led into his office. You see, in those days, a gentleman always removed his hat when a lady entered the room.

The hint about Gutman and Wilmer comes when Spade refers to the young tough as a gunsel. Sure, most everyone thought he meant the boy was a gunman, which is what the word came to mean. But when Hammett needed to replace the word catamite in the serialized version of his novel, he chose gunsel which, in the old days for even the 1930s, meant the same thing: A young man kept for homosexual purposes.

Short aside over, now back to the blog…

If the cast isn’t enough for you, there’s the crisp dialog. So well written by Huston, although his source material was pretty damn good. (Yes, I read it!) These characters just flow with such quotable lines as: “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it.” “A crippled newsie took ’em away from him. I made him give ’em back.” “You’re a good man, sister.” And that’s just Sam Spade! Then there’s the signature line from the film: “The… uh… stuff that dreams are made of.” Damn! So good!

And there’s the pacing, the cinematography, and the score. I tell ya, this is a damn near perfect movie. Maybe if the plot were easier to follow in the first viewing it would be perfect, but, come to think of it, maybe not. It might just be that the fact you can come back to the movie again and again and it gets better and better that makes it damn near perfect.

Over 1,140 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the plot!

Well, I’ll nutshell it for you: A “swell lot of thieves” will stop at nothing; not theft, not double-crossings, not secret alliances, not sexual favors, not even murder, to get their hands on the Black Bird, a small, black enamel statue of a falcon that could be worth millions. Caught up in the middle of it all is private detective Sam Spade, who, while under suspicion of murder, is determined to make sense of it and clear his name.

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If you only watch one version of The Maltese Falcon, you’d better make it the 1941 version.

It is my all time favorite film!

Update 9-5-18: I have recently listened to the audiobook of The Maltese Falcon and noticed two things (other than it being excellent). 1) Virtually all that excellent dialogue in the film was taken right from the novel. There were some changes here and there, but for the most part it was Hammett’s words not Huston’s, except the film’s final line. That was Huston’s. 2) The book, at least to me, wasn’t as explicit about Cairo’s sexual preference as I remembered.

Packing Peanuts!

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