Sunday, March 18, 2018

Noirsville Iconic Noir Image of the Week

Gilbert de Chambertrand was a Guadeloupean writer/photographer born in Pointe-à-Pitre on February 13 , 1890 and died in Maisons-Alfort in 1984.

Paris Street 1930s

Sunset Blvd (1950) Rebloged from Down These Mean Streets Blog

This Blog post originally appeared     Tuesday, March 13, 2018on   Down These Mean Streets         Musings of a Noir Dame - Margot Shelby

Sunset Blvd (1950)

"I AM big. It's the pictures that got small."
Sunset Blvd was written and directed by the great 
Billy Wilder for Paramount. The picture is a scathing
indictment of Hollywood and the monsters it produces; 
a macabre comedy, full of stick-the-knife-in-and-twist-it
slowly humor; sordid melodrama and Noir, from which 
it borrows the flashback structure, fatalism, 
the sucker and a different kind of femme fatale who lures 
with money, not sex. As far as Noir goes, this is one of the 
bleakest. The movie also has more quotable dialogue 
than any other film I can think of.

It’s a Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie as brutal as any to 
ever come out of Tinseltown. I think only The Player (1992)
can match it in cynicism. Sunset Blvdruffled the feathers 
of a lot of Hollywood luminaries. Nobody likes to have his 
soul laid bare quite so savagely. Louis B. Mayer wanted to 
have the movie destroyed in the interest of industry honor. 
Lucky for Wilder his home studio Paramount held him in high 
esteem. He had given them a few box office successes.

The movie isn’t quite a hate letter to Tinseltown, for that there’s too much compassion and 
nostalgia in it. It stays just this side of outright condemnation, because the audience can feel 
Wilder’s love for the Silent Age and the studio system which was coming apart at the seams 
in the 50s. There’s also some positive portrayals in movie. Cecil B. DeMille for example, 
playing himself, is shown in quite a favorable light.

The film opens with the spectacularly audacious shot - now considered one of the most iconic opening shots in movie history - of Joe Gillis’ dead body floating face down in a swimming pool. He then proceeds to tell the audience how he ended up there. The picture’s sardonic voice-over narration is provided by a talking corps. Now that’s creative.

Two-bit screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is down to his last buck and on the run from the repo men. By accident he ends up at the crumbling estate of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), former Silent movie star and now a recluse, who lives there with her strange and creepy butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). She’s desperately been trying to resuscitate her career and has been writing on a script for Salomé for years, impatiently waiting for that one coveted phone call from Cecil B. DeMille inviting her back to Paramount. Unfortunately the script is melodramatic tripe that nobody wants to read. Joe sees the prospect of some impressive 
money looming in the future. He knows Norma’s script is useless but makes her believe 
he can do a patch-up job on it and so accepts an invitation to stay at her house. But things 
get weird quickly. Norma turns out to be the original cougar. She pays off his bills and he 
becomes her boy toy. His life gets even more complicated when he falls in love with fellow 
writer Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). But Norma’s possessiveness and jealousy know no 
bounds. Joe should have paid a little more attention to the fate of John the Baptist.

An icon of the Silent era, Swanson - like so many others - came close to being reduced to nothing when sound arrived. She continued to make movies, but her kind of films had simply fallen out of favor with the public. Thankfully she proved to be a shrewd and successful business woman so her life didn’t go off the rails. 

Norma Desmond is a reminder that Tinseltown habitually treats its stars as disposable commodities, quickly kicking them to the curb to let them rot in obscurity if they don’t fill the studio’s coffers. When she was a star people worshipped the ground Norma walked on. “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit”, says DeMille of Norma. It’s hard to weather such unmitigated awe and adoration with any kind of cool aplomb. Fame is addictive. As a result, Norma has an ego the size of a small planet and it needs feeding constantly. Like a black hole, she consumes all light and life around her.
In a stroke of genius Wilder often photographs Norma’s hands like the greedy talons of a bird 
of prey, desperately clawing at life but grasping nothing.

Norma used to be the brightest star of them all but now she’s been living in her decaying mansion 
in self-imposed exile for over 20 years. She barely sees anybody and has cut herself off completely 
from the real world while turning her mansion into a shrine to her lost fame and glory days, reliving 
them over and over again. She surrounds herself only with other fallen idols long past their 
expiry date who Joe calls disrespectfully “the waxworks”.

Her delusions aren’t helped by Max who’s enabling her. He’s forging countless fan letters to keep 
her happy. And when Paramount finally calls - seemingly about her script that she mailed to them- 
he hides from Norma the fact that it’s not her they want, just her exquisite vintage car.

The moment Joe sets foot on the dilapidated 
estate he remarks on its rotting splendor. 
Norma’s mansion is a mausoleum where 
time stands still. “The whole place seemed to 
have been stricken with a kind of creeping 
paralysis - out of beat with the rest of the 
world, crumbling apart in slow motion”. He’ll 
soon find out that everything is rotten on 
the estate. The decay has seeped 
deep down into the foundations. 

Many viewers likened Norma to a vampire. 
She feeds on other people and sucks them 
dry. In her clinging need to be loved, she 
even goes so far as attempting suicide 
to blackmail Joe into staying. In fact 
Sunset Blvd. plays very much like a horror 
movie. We have a haunted house complete with big pipe organ where a strange butler plays eerie 
music at night. There are the ghosts of Hollywood past, the undead - Norma, Max and the 
“waxworks” - forever damned to walk the earth in search of something long vanished. And weirdest 
of all there’s the midnight funeral for Norma’s feverishly beloved pet monkey that’s right out of a 
freak show. That alone would have been most people’s cue to leave, but Joe doesn’t heed the 
warning signs. He stays and so becomes Norma’s replacement chimp. The poisonous spirit of the 
mansion will possess him too. Horror movies don’t need blood and gore. Monsters come in many 
different shapes and sizes.

Swanson is phenomenal in her role. She gives a gutsy performance which could easily be 
dismissed as campy and close to parody.  But she plays it exactly right. It’s a performance within a 
performance. Norma is always in front of an audience, always posing for the cameras. She 
cannot let go. A theatrical acting style was part of the Silent Age and Norma never made it out. 
Holden’s natural acting contrasts sharply with hers.

Von Stroheim’s story in Sunset Blvd. is actually the one that comes closest to reality, lending the movie an air of uncanny authenticity. A once-great Silent director, he had a reputation for extravagance and a fanatical insistence on perfection regardless of costs. He and Swanson had a history. He had directed her in Queen Kelly in 1929, but was dismissed from the set after a disagreement with her. The movie was never finished and lost an astronomical sum. It is Queen Kelly that Norma screens nightly at her house. The film ruined von Stroheim’s career and Swanson’s suffered too. He made only two more talkies, and was then reduced to playing self-parodies in other directors’ movies. It was a spectacular fall from grace.  When Max says to Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” we’re supposed to substitute von Stroheim for von Mayerling. That is how famous he was in the 1920s.

Von Stroheim brings great pathos to his role. Max, as it turns out, is not only Norma’s butler but her 
former director and former husband too. He was the man who made her, and is now reduced to 
lackey status because he still loves her. The man’s a masochist. He thinks he’s helping her, but no 
doubt he’s partly to blame for Norma’s mental state, letting her live in a phantasy world, 
feeding her delusions, her denials and ultimately her illness.

Joe Gillis is a stand-in for all those wide-eyed 
hopefuls coming to Hollywood, just to be 
chewed up and spit out again. At the time 
William Holden was a bit like his character. 
After he had exploded onto the 
Hollywood scene in 1939 with Golden Boy
his career was going nowhere for the next 10 
years. Holden was bored with his roles and he 
literally leapt at the chance of playing Gillis. 
He made the right choice. Sunset Blvd 
made him one of Hollywood's greatest and 
revitalized his career for the next 15 years.

Joe thinks he’s found himself a cushy setup,
but he gets a lot more than he bargained for.  
In true Noir fashion, he's doomed the 
second he sets foot on Norma's estate. She 
has her own ideas about their future. Joe is a chump who fatally underestimates Norma’s 
combustible mix of neurosis, fear and insecurity. He despises himself for being a gigolo, but still 
can’t bring himself to leave. Every once in a while he ponders going back to Ohio where he came 
from but that would mean admitting defeat. The question is does he really want to leave? He likes 
the lifestyle despite his claims to the contrary. Such is the corrupting nature of easy living. A 
gold cigarette case, expensive suits, shoes and watches are better than the poor house even if it 
means prostituting more than just his art. Roger Ebert suggested that he is content being a prisoner
and I’m inclined to agree. 

It all changes when he falls in love with Betty. She’s all good, sweet and pure and may have been 
his redemption. But Norma finds out and tries to disclose Joe’s dirty secret to Betty. It doesn’t 
work. Joe’s finally had enough and invites Betty out to the mansion to see the situation for herself. 
Unwisely Joe then throws the brutal truth in Norma’s face. About the fan letters, her script, DeMille
humoring her and hating the mere sight of her. But Norma can’t handle the truth. She has been 
teetering on the brink of madness for years and this is the last straw. Her world comes crashing 
down. She sends Joe on his way…with a few parting shots. Nobody leaves a star.

The final scene shows true cinematic genius, an image that sears itself into the brain. It is truly disturbing and a master class on brilliant acting. The homicide squad has arrived to take Norma away but she has slipped into complete insanity. Her big day, her big return, has finally come. Max tells her that she’s filming Salomé’s climactic scene, convinces her to come down the stairs as if it’s a grand entrance, not a descend into police custody. It is his last act of love for her. Joe comments: “Life, which can be strangely merciful, had taken pity on Norma Desmond. The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.” She graciously addresses “the crew” - assuring them that they’ll make many more movies together -  and the big man who’s finally come to see her. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The cameras keep rolling in her alternate reality, she’s back on top again where she belongs. Then mercifully the shot fades into hazy oblivion.

Madness can be a blessing. All is best in the best of all possible worlds. Norma got her comeback 
with Mr. DeMille, Max could direct her one last time, Joe got the pool he always wanted. 

Sunset Boulevard, the boulevard of broken dreams. Only the chimp got off easy. He’s the only one
who didn’t get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Neo Noir Image Of The Week

Airline Diner/Jackson Hole Diner, Astoria Blvd. - on the edge of Astoria & Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC

Noirsville Pulp Fiction Cover of the Week

Noirsville Tune Of The Week

Malcolm Earl "Mal" Waldron (August 16, 1925 – December 2, 2002) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. He started playing professionally in New York in 1950, after graduating from university. In the following dozen years or so Waldron led his own bands and played for those led by Charles Mingus, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy, among others. During Waldron's period as house pianist for Prestige Records in the late 1950s, he appeared on dozens of albums and composed for many of them, including writing his most famous song, "Soul Eyes", for Coltrane. Waldron was often an accompanist for vocalists, and was Billie Holiday's regular accompanist from April 1957 until her death in July 1959.

Mal's "Loser's Lament" is a part of soundtrack to an obscure movie from the late '60s"Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) (reviewed here). It's used in the films brilliant credit sequence and catches the bleak mood of the film perfectly. George Coleman on alto sax. Trumpeter Dave Burns, tenor saxophonist Charles Davis, bassists George Duvivier and Richard Davis, as well as drummer Alfred Dreares round out Waldron's tightly knit ensemble.

Noirsville Iconic Gif Of The Week

From Criss Cross (1949),  Yvonne De Carlo and Burt Lancaster

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sweet Love, Bitter (aka It Won't Rub Off, Baby!) (1967) It's Noirsville, Baby!

paean to bebop jazz. A Jazz Noir.

We have our Noir protagonists as detectives, femme fatales, newspaper reporters, truck drivers, wronged men, railroad workers, amnesiacs, the falsely accused, victims of circumstances, revenge seekers, gangsters, hit men, prisoners, telephone electricians, armored car drivers, ex cons, sailors, insurance salesmen gone bad, drifters, ex cops, bad cops, nut jobs, killers, hitch-hikers, kids looking in windows, writers, promoters, boxers, hash house owners, floozies, carnies, doctors, postal workers, secretaries, serial killers, housewives, radio program hosts, prostitutes, taxi drivers, and in this a jazz musician.

The film is based on the novel "Night Song" by John A. Williams, which itself was loosely based on the last years of the life of jazz great Charlie (Bird) Parker. The film is an eloquent portrait of the 1960's jazz scene. Though the story takes place in New York, the film was partly shot with Philadelphia, filling in for NYC. No matter it's all Noirsville.

"(Charlie) Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer." (source Wikipedia)

There is a very small sub genre of Classic Film Noirs and also Biographies or "true story based" films that have a quasi noir vibe, I call them Bio Noir's. Films such as Dillinger (1945), Young Man with a Horn (1950), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Bonnie Parker Story (1958), I Want To live (1958), Baby Face Nelson (1957), and Neo Noirs In Cold Blood (1967), The Honeymoon Killers (1970), Lenny (1974) and Raging Bull (1980). There are probably a few others out there.

Sweet Love, Bitter shadows Charlie 'Bird' Parker's story arc through the fictitious tale of Richie 'Eagle' Stokes, a quasi famous bebop sax player, who's life is a series of flying highs and gutter lows, boozin', geezin', screwing, and blowin'. He's got a jive ass crumb for manager whose sole qualification is that he used to sell zoot suits, a pusher who keeps him buzzed, and friends who give him shelter from the storm. When he's out of doe he panhandels, puts the touch on his admiring devotees, or pawns his saxophones.

Produced by Lewis Jacobs. Directed by Herbert Danska known for, The Gift (1962), and  Right on! (1970). Written by Herbert Danska, and Lewis Jacobs. The cinematography was by Victor Solow, and the soundtrack was by American jazz pianist Mal Waldron and his Orchestra, with Charles McPherson ghosting for Dick Gregory.

Richie 'Eagle' Stokes (Dick Gregory)
Keel Robinson (Robert Hooks)
David Hillary (Don Murray)
Della (Diane Varsi)
The film stars Dick Gregory, an African-American comedian, civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur and a perennial guest on countless talk shows during the 1960s, Robert Hooks (Trouble Man (1972)), Don Murray (A Hatful of Rain (1957), The Hoodlum Priest (1961), Twin Peaks TV Series (2017– ), Diane Varsi (Bloody Mama (1970), Johnny Got His Gun (1971)), Jeri Archer, Osborne Smith, George Wilshire, Bruce Glover (Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965), Chinatown (1974)), Leonard Parker (Malcolm X (1992)), John Randolph (The Naked City (1948), Fourteen Hours (1951), Seconds (1966), Serpico (1973), Prizzi's Honor (1985)), Woody King Jr. (Serpico (1973)), Florette Carter (probably Aroused (1966), she looks like the same actress who plays Angela and just spells the first name differently), Carla Pinza, and Barbara Davis (The Front Page (1974)).

The film begins with David (Murray) and Keel (Hooks) combing the streets looking for their friend Richie "Eagle" Stokes (Gregory), a cool cat, a sad genius, a beboppin' sax blower, a Jazz God, crusin' down his personal boulevard of decaying dreams. Eagle is a high flying junkie, a hard drinking boozer, and a reefer smokin' womanizer. They find him dead of an overdose on the bed in David's crib, a back room in Keel's coffee house "Sadik's."

The whole film is told in a long flashback after an unforgettable brilliantly filmed stylistically minimalist and abstract title sequence of a saxophone wailing Mal Waldron's "Losers Lament."

David is a self pitying drunk, an ex professor, a jazz hipster, who blows into Manhattan like trash in the gutter. He's from a hicksville flyspeck, Onondaga, up in fly over country, upstate New York. He's got a battered old suitcase heading to a flop hotel someplace.

He's a broken man. He's  boozing because he killed his wife in an auto accident, he's lost his job, and his way. David's broke. Been sleeping in his clothes apparently, from all the dust on his coat. He pawns a hundred dollar "eye-talian" ring for a Jackson. Life's a drag.

Eagle dips into the same shop. He queues up behind David. He's wearing an ascot cap, shades, and a toggle coat, he's cradling his sax in a paper bag. Eagle is coolly maintaining, but he's also running on empty. He scopes out David and sees a kindred spirit, a just fell off the turnip truck, fellow busted flat loser. A damaged soul. Knowingly he gives him directions to the closest gin mill.

In the tavern David breaks his bill for a beer and a shot. Eagle joins him at the bar. David eventually recognizes him as jazz great Eagle Stokes. They both blow their wads talking music and getting drunk as skunks.


They cut into the night. Out on the cold concrete stroll, looking for some more scratch, Eagle spots an older white couple up at the corner. Turning to David......

Eagle: Wait here baby. And watch me good, and you'll never have to starve.
(Eagle walks up and successfully puts the touch on the old couple, then walks back)

Eagle: You see that baby.
David: (chuckles)

Eagle:Too weak to tell you to go to hell, Too guilty to tell you to kiss their as- (laughs), so they pay for it. They tell themselves it's like to keep you away man. And you know, I take it all man.
Bread, that's your only friend. Jenzie. Don't try to make your ol' lady, always around when you need it, and when there's enough it screams baby..... It screams to tell you!

Morning. David and Eagle. Three sheets to the wind. Passed out in a doorway. A cop rousts them awake. He's about to run them in when Keel, a good friend of Eagle finds them. Keel wants to leave David to the cop, but Eagle tells him he's jake, so Keel and Eagle, with David in tow head to Keels pad. Keel offers David a backroom crib at his coffee house in exchange for work.

Keel is an ex street preacher who now owns a successful coffee house down in the Village. Keel's reluctant at first charity, which in itself is somewhat racially motivated, soon sets David back on a trail to redemption. Keel's got a fly girlfriend Della (Varsi) who is white.

In the ensuing weeks, David starts to get a grip on life, integrating himself into Eagle, and Keel's lives. In the process he bridges boundaries, grasps black and white dynamics, encounters the complexes of racism, miscegenation, discrimination, impotence, forbidden love, he deals with drug addiction, and OD'ing, and gets immersed in the bewitching mystic world of jazz, jazz, jazz, that makes the outer world go away.


 Florette Carter 

When David finally gets back on track Eagle helps him buy some new threads to go to a professor job interview back at a college in Onondaga. David gets the job, but Eagle while waiting for David is roughed up by a baton wielding local hick policeman for standing around being black. David walking on the street with the college president sees the altercation but does nothing to stop it. He doesn't want to get involved or jeopardize his new job, he's back in "Whitelandia."

His guilt is overpowering. When Eagle finds out that David saw the whole deal go down, his depression sends him off to see a wealthy society dame Candy, (who represents Charlie Parker's patroness the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter) through her contacts Eagle gets the fixings for his fatal overdose of junk and makes his way to Sadik's where in Davids bed, he crashes and burns. Keel tells David that Eagle's cause of death was  "resisting reality."

The performances of the main characters are all good for such a low budget production. Dick Gregory's is particularly moving, Don Murray is very convincing as the kid who finally gets into the jazz candy store. Robert Hooks and Diane Varsi have some touching sequences but you get the feeling that there should have been more, either their relationship was somewhat tacked on to the predominant tale as an afterthought, or that some of their story was left on the cutting room floor. The film was re-cut and shown at art houses under the alternate titles of Black Love--White Love as well as It Won't Rub Off, Baby!  Which of the three versions of the film is on the EFORFILMS DVD reviewed here, is not known by me.

The film does include some dream segments and amusing fantasies. A real treat for jazz fans.  7/10