Mid-Century at the Movies: Film Noir Mod

by Lynne Rostochil


Back in 1961, newly appointed FCC chairman, Newton N. Minow, famously declared in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters that American commercial TV was a “vast wasteland,” filled with “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”

Here we are a whopping five decades later, and I shudder to think what ole Newt would have to say about television in the 21st century, with cat-fighting, plastic-faced Housewives screaming at each other and making women look shallow, two faced, and just plain mean and endless franchises of CSI (I think we’re on to “CSI: Dubuque” now).  Of course, there are some great shows out there, but, except for AMC and Sundance’s crop of excellent original programming, they are mostly on pay channels that I’m too cheap to buy.  So, even though some of today’s TV fare can be mildly amusing (and, more often, astoundingly ridiculous) in extremely small doses, I’ve opted out of watching mindless hours of shows about duck people, alligator wrestlers, hoarders, pickers, ax men, doomsday goofballs, Kardashians and the like and have chosen instead to devote my few TV hours a week to watching old movies that now comprise 90% of my DVR queue.

Lately, my queue has been filled to the brim with 40’s and 50’s film noir classics.  I just can’t seem to get enough of those low, crazy angles; long, overly-exaggerated shadows; and sax-laden, soulful themes — think  Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” or the quintessential noir theme, “Harlem Nocturne” — I like the Johnny Otis version best.  Along with the great music and camera work, I’ve been noticing that a lot of these dark, post-war tales of haunted men, overworked cops, and bewitching femme fatales also include some great modern design.  So, I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you in case you find yourself up in the middle of the night searching for something to watch, stumble across one of these cinematic odes to the dark underbelly of post-war city life, and decide to check it out.  Here we go:

“Out of the Past”
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey
Set decoration by Darrell Silvera

Perhaps the most iconic of the film noir genre is “Out of the Past” starring Robert Mitchum as Jeff, a man who unsuccessfully tries to escape his past and his obsession with the gorgeous but thoroughly manipulative Kathie (played to steamy perfection by Jane Greer).  Describing their doomed romance, Jeff says, “I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.”

Such perfect film noir poetry!

The reason that Jeff and Kathie are doomed is due to Whit (Kirk Douglas), Kathie’s repeatedly cuckolded mobster boyfriend and the person she once robbed and shot.  Whit also happens to be the owner of a great modern house out in the middle of the woods that is often, and very frustratingly, shrouded in shadows, but here are a few photos that hint at its beauty:

The house set for “Out of the Past” includes a vast, flagstone-laden back patio, where frienemies Jeff and Whit verbally spar over Kathie, who continues to expertly play both men like a card shark until the very last frame.  Oh yeah, this is such a great flick!


“The Whole Truth”
Directed by John Guillermin
Art direction by Anthony Masters

This isn’t one of my favorite noirs because Stewart Granger and Donna Reed’s lackluster performances as a couple trying to save their marriage amid accusations of infidelity and murder on the French Riviera make for a great, non-medicated sleeping pill.   However, their lame efforts are more than compensated for by George Sanders’ fun performance as a jilted husband and, even more so, by the couple’s jaw-dropping, hillside home.  It is a real stunner, so much so that I’ve watched this mediocre movie several times now just to lust over this residential set:

These photos show very little of the extraordinary set, so just watch the movie … or be smarter than me and DVR it and fast forward through Donna and Stewart to the good parts that include the house and George Sanders doing a devilishly great job of chewing up the scenery.


“Dark Passage”
Directed by Delmer Daves
Art direction by Charles H. Clarke
Set decoration by William L. Kuehl

Back when I was young and dumb, I couldn’t understand the allure of Humphrey Bogart.  I mean, how could a gravelly-voiced old man capture the heart of such an alluring, 20-years-younger dame like Lauren Bacall (on screen and in real life)?  I just didn’t get it … until I watched this movie for the first time.

For the first half hour or so of the movie, Bogart’s face is completely bandaged (due to plastic surgery to hide his true identity as an escaped con), and all you see of him are those sad-but-brilliant eyes that convey every raw emotion that the rest of him so desperately tries to hide.  Ding, ding, ding … I suddenly got it.  For all of that tough bravado, there’s a sad man looking for a little bit of happiness in an otherwise dreary, film noir life.  So from that moment on, I was under the Bogie spell and have been a huge fan ever since, even so much as to happily sit through his early gangster movies.

So, it’s no wonder, perhaps, that “Dark Passage” is one of my very favorite noirs.  It has beauty (Bacall), mystery (will Bogie ever be able to prove that he didn’t murder his wife?), the city (San Francisco in all its glory), and some amazing locations and sets.  Take a look beyond Agnes Moorehead (who, as usual in her screen performances, plays the bitchy friend) at the set of Bacall’s abode on trendy Telegraph Hill:

Here’s what Bacall’s Streamline Moderne apartment house, called the Malloch Building, looks like today:

Delicious … and so is “Dark Passage.”  So, watch it and see if Bogie’s eyes don’t hypnotize you into complete adoration.


“Mildred Pierce”
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Art Decoration by Anton Grot and Bertram Tuttle
Set Decoration by George James Hopkins

Who doesn’t love Joan “Shoulder Pads” Crawford in her Oscar-winning turn as a doting Mildred Pierce, who is beyond obsessed with pleasing her spoiled brat daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth)?  I mean, if there was ever a deserving candidate for endless amounts of child abuse, Veda would be it, right?  To reinforce the point, Mildred’s wise and happily childless best friend, Ida (Eve Arden) tells her, “Personally, Veda’s convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.”

But, Mildred doesn’t get it, and instead of spanking her rotten daughter as she deserves, blue collar Mildred Pierce sets out to make millions as the owner of a self-named restaurant chain and marry her blue blooded but impoverished beau, Monte (Zachary Scott).  One of the big perks of marrying Monte is having access to his swank beach cottage:

This lovely abode is also the scene of Monte’s mysterious murder, which culminates in Veda’s confession.  In closing lines of the movie, the relationship between mother and daughter remains unchanged as Mildred guiltily tells Veda, “I’m sorry. I tried,” to which Veda blows her off by replying, “Don’t worry about me; I’ll get by.”  Fade to black.


“The Big Knife”
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Art direction by William Glasgow
Set decoration by Edward G. Boyle

Based on a Clifford Odets play, somber Jack Palance is big time Hollywood actor Charlie Castle, who is fed up with playing the same boring characters and leading the same shallow life.  He wants to escape his beautiful nightmare of a life with his estranged wife, Marion (Ida Lupino) and their young son, but Charlie’s powerful studio boss, Stanley (typically over-acted by Rod Steiger) threatens to reveal Charlie’s shameful secret if he leaves.

If I were Charlie, I wouldn’t be griping too much.  I mean, the guy lives here, for goodness sake:

… And his friends aren’t doing so bad, either.  I guess they believe that more is definitely better when it comes to sputnik arms (and I have to agree):

So, while Charlie whines his way through the movie, I always find myself thinking, “Wa-wa-wa, you little baby,” and I find it very difficult to muster much sympathy for him.  I mean, wouldn’t you play yet another swashbuckler to get to live in his killer house?


Directed by Irving Rapper
Art direction by Anton Grot
Set decoration by George James Hopkins

Bette Davis gives me a headache.  Really … one big, giant headache.  Her incessant smoking and constant over-acting and screeching make me want to run at full speed out of the room every time she comes on.  But, I had heard good things about this movie and decided to take some migraine medicine and give it a try, and in the end, I was really glad I did.

In the film, Bette plays concert pianist, Christine, who was separated from the love of her life, fellow musician Karel (Paul Henreid), at the onset of the war in Europe.  So, imagine her surprise and delight when she finds him playing cello at a college in New York City after the war.  They are immediately reunited and marry soon thereafter, much to the disdain of Christine’s most recent paramour and benefactor, Hollenius (Claude Rains).

So, Bette Davis is tolerable in this movie only because all eyes are on the captivating and thoroughly scene-stealing Claude Rains in what I think is, by far, his best performance.  The only thing that comes close to matching Rains’ turn as Hollenius is Bette’s fantastic roof-top flat.  Oh, how I’d love to be a single girl in the city living in this place, and I might even consent to room with Bette herself to get the chance to call her abode home:

See, it’s pretty incredible, right?  Cool enough to stand living with the constant stench of Bette’s cigarettes … maybe.


“In a Lonely Place”
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Art direction by Robert Peterson
Set decoration by William Kiernan

You can always count on a Nicholas Ray movie being a little off kilter and a lot interesting, and “In a Lonely Place” is no exception.  In fact, Humphrey Bogart was so impressed with Ray’s work up until this point (beginning with his noir classic “They Live By Night”) that Bogie opted to produce the film himself as part of his fledgling Santana Productions.   While not a huge success when it was released, Bogart’s gamble has paid off over the decades, with “In a Lonely Place” now considered one of the best films ever made (it even landed a well-deserved spot on Time magazine’s All-Time 100 list).  And, personally, I think this is Bogie’s best film performance.

In the movie, Bogie plays hot-headed Hollywood screenwriter Dix, who has had more luck lately beating up old girlfriends and strangers on the street than he has had at getting his work produced. After his latest brawl at a local watering hole — POW! —

— a weary Dix wakes up the next morning to find that he’s a suspect in the murder of the bar’s hat check girl, whom he escorted to his courtyard apartment the night before.  At the police station, his new neighbor across the way, Laurel (Gloria Graham, who was also Ray’s wife at the time), tells the cops that she saw the girl leave, which lets Bogie off the hook … for now.  She also tells Dix that she likes his face, to which he replies, “You know, you’re out of your mind – how can anyone like a face like this? Look at it…” [leans in for a kiss].  Laurel quips, “I said I liked it – I didn’t say I wanted to kiss it.”  And thus a romance is born.

Over the next few weeks, lovey-dovey Dix and Laurel spend a lot of time holed up at his cool, modern pad while, inspired by his romance, Dix begins to write a really great screenplay, including these lines that he shares with his new love, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”  Wow!

(I think my grandmother had those curtains.)

However, being a murder suspect begins to take its toll on the volatile Dix, and he begins to pick fights with just about everyone, including Laurel.  I’m not going to say anything else because I don’t want to spoil this movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it.  I will say that if you haven’t seen “In a Lonely Place,” you should make every effort to watch this, one of the best noirs out there, as soon as possible.

As for Nicholas Ray, he had a very difficult life and career but made some truly fascinating movies, his most famous (but not his best) being “Rebel Without a Cause.”  His work also heavily influenced the French New Wave directors of the early 60’s, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard, who in turn influenced a generation of American filmmakers in the 70’s and beyond, including Spielberg, Coppola, and Tarantino.  So, it’s definitely worth watching some of Ray’s work to see how truly important his legacy is in film history.


“The Strip”
Directed by Lazlo Kardos
Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons and Leonid Vasian
Set Decoration by Alfred E. Spencer and Edwin B. Willis

When I say Mickey Rooney, you probably think of a peppy Andy Hardy living the perfect small-town life in pre-war America, but in the 50’s, the mature Rooney starred in several low-budget noirs that weren’t very successful but have aged very well over the years.  One such flick is called “The Strip.”

Rooney plays a shell-shocked Korean War veteran who moves to L.A. to become a drummer at a little club, where the fabulous Louis Armstrong happens to be in the band.  Interactions with a mob boss (James Craig) and an ambitious nightclub dancer (Sally Forrest) that culminate in murder make for an interesting little movie.  There’s also some modern eye candy in the form of the mob boss’s plant-filled office, which you can get a tantalizing glimpse of here:

Yeah, I wish I could claim this office as my work space — I don’t think I’d ever leave!


Directed by Richard Quine
Art direction by Walter Holscher
Set decoration by James Crowe

This movie is little known today except for being Kim Novak’s film debut, and she definitely steals the show every moment she’s on screen.  In “Pushover,” Novak is a mobster’s moll awaiting her bank-robbing boyfriend’s return after a big heist.  An aging Fred MacMurray is one of the cops assigned to keep an eye on her every move through a pair of binoculars in an apartment across from hers.  Released the same year as Hitchcock’s much more elaborate and successful “Rear Window,” this movie also lures us into becoming unwitting voyeurs, and it’s kind of disappointing when we have to leave that world.  But, the set of the bar where Kim Novak hangs out more than makes up for that loss:

Although they aren’t pictured above, almost every wall surface in the bar contains a fabulous Frederick Weinberg sculpture like this:

On EVERY wall!  I got goosebumps as the camera followed Kim around the bar and more Weinberg creations popped up on screen.  Suddenly, they were the scene stealers of the movie, and Kim was just getting in the way of my view of them.  Sadly, the scene is a short one, but that bar set was great enough to make me watch this movie a second time just to get a glimpse of those great sculptures — oh how I’ve always wanted to add one of these babies to my mid-century collection of goodies.


“His Kind of Woman”
Directed by John Farrow
Art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino
Set decoration byRoss Dowd and Darrell Silvera

If  I had to live on a deserted island (somehow wired with electricity) with 10 movies to watch for the rest of my life, this crazy noir gem would be on my list, no doubt about it.  I love, love, love this nutty movie starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, have seen it a good dozen times over the years, plan to see it a dozen more, and try to get everyone I know to watch it and love it as much as I do.

The plot is kind of convoluted and involves mobsters, a hurricane, a movie star running away from his wife, a maybe-drunk pilot, special agents, etc., and takes place at a swank and ultra-modern Mexican resort:

Sexy … and I’m not talking about Robert Mitchum or Jane Russell!  Those sets … oh my!

Speaking of the stars, though, the chemistry between Mitchum and Russell is sparkling hot, and Vincent Price turns out a show-stopping performance as Mark Cardigan, a Hollywood movie star who believes a little too much of his own hype. Along with the zippy performances is some super snappy dialogue, such as this great exchange between Mitchum and Price:

Mitchum: I’m too young to die. How about you?

Price: Too well-known.

Mitchum: Well, if you do get killed, I’ll make sure you get a first-rate funeral in Hollywood, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Price: I’ve already had it. My last picture died there.

Love it!  And, the entire movie is filled with little gems of writing like this.  Did I mention that I LOVE THIS MOVIE?!

(deep breath).  Okay, I’m calm now, but after writing this little snippet about “His Kind of Woman,” I think I’m going to dig out my well-used copy of the movie and pop it into the DVD player right now.

So, until next week…