Tag Archives: John Huston

Claire Trevor: Queen of Film Noir

7 Jun

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Claire Trevor is no stranger to Noir Film fanatics like myself. From 1933 to 1938, Claire made 29 films in which she was the heroine.

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She was gorgeous but these still glamour shots don’t really do her beauty justice. That’s because Claire cannot be truly appreciated unless she is in motion. She had such a unique and affecting acting style that her static attraction cannot capture what she was like in the dynamic.

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What’s even more interesting is that Claire became MORE beautiful as she matured. Her work in the 30’s was as the prototypical bad girl but her work in the 1940’s was more character-based and thus gave her the chance to really spread her wings.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love the young Claire in DEAD END (1937) as Francey opposite Bogart and for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Her portrayal of a desperate woman forced into prostitution only to be rejected by her hood boyfriend as a result is intense and magnetic. But it would only foretell the heights her acting would reach later.

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My ideal Claire Trevor movies are MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), BORN TO KILL (1948) and last but certainly not least, KEY LARGO (1948) in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart again, this time with his wife Lauren Bacall. The role of gun moll Gaye Dawn to Edward G. Robinson’s gangster Johnny Rocco finally won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You only need see the performance to understand what lengths Claire is willing to go to nail the role of a torch songstress-cum-alcoholic whose been kicked around a little too much.

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Claire said that the scene where Johnny Rocco forces her to sing unaccompanied for a much-needed libation was sprung on her at a moment’s notice by Director John Huston. Claire was horrified because she was unprepared but that’s exactly what Huston wanted. Her performance of a woman well passed her performance prime is haunting. It was easily the best performance in the movie, and when you’re talking a Noir full of heavy weights like Robinson, Bogart and Bacall – that is saying something!

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Claire eats the scenery in Key Largo every time she appears on screen. Her master of her craft and instrument are bar none. I only wish she was in the movie more, because her performance balances an otherwise sentimental and overly sanctimonious commentary on war, racism and a heavy-handed nod toward naturalism: nature taking a hand in wiping out an evil seed like Johnny Rocco is interesting as a metaphor but not so much in application. Claire, on the other hand, is the true force of nature in Key Largo and it would have been interesting to see her as a real threat for Bogart’s affections from the fawn-like, subdued Bacall. But alas, she was closer in age to Bogart than Bacall and we know how Hollywood is about casting mature love interests (i.e. they don’t like it).

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It’s interesting to watch Bogart and Trevor in DEAD END and then watch them in KEY LARGO. Both are acting greats, though Bogart is remembered and Claire largely forgotten. A true powerhouse, Claire retains the title of Queen of Film Noir even though Lisbeth Scott, Ellie Raines and Lana Turner each took their turn as the Noir ‘It’ Girl of the late ’30s and early ’40s. the difference is that Claire got better with every star turn, then every supporting role. She was a true craftswoman when it came to acting and she reinvested in every role regardless of how small.

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Once you get your fill of Bogart and Trevor, get a palate cleanser with Claire opposite Lawrence Tierney in BORN TO KILL. Tierney was a fucking lunatic in the Robert Wise directed Noir. His performance is lampoonish by today’s standards but Claire is right on the money as the equally-corrupt love interest who falls for a madman and tries in vain to save her family and herself in the end. Claire has a mature, smoldering sexuality that translates in motion on the silver screen. She is at the top of her game, even though the movie itself (other than Elisha Cook, Jr. who is equally brilliant) is dated.

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Claire is a class act no matter what vehicle she was put in – a race car or a clunker – she was able to make the most out of whatever material she was given. That’s why I consider Claire the thinking-man’s actress. Her instincts and talent translated so naturally to the screen that there have been very few whose beauty and acting chops made them what Claire Trevor was in her hey day: The Queen of Film Noir could hold her own against the best of them.

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Young or old, this man-killer is one of the greatest actresses of any Hollywood era. Do yourself a favor and check out TCM’s Summer of Darkness and learn more about the hugely talented and beautiful Claire Trevor. You won’t be sorry you did. And you may just fall in love with one of Hollywood’s greatest femme fatales – just don’t turn your back on her!

 

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Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not

17 Aug

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In the wake of Lauren Bacall’s passing this week it dawned on me that I have never written about her before or the fact that I grew up watching her and her forever leading man, one Humphrey Bogart. I’ve been a Bogart fanatic ever since I can remember. The guy remains my favorite male actor simply because he was the coolest of them all. I watched (or at least tried to) watch everything he had ever done – from Professor X (truly bizarre) to IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) the darkest noir he ever starred in and was incidentally about an unstable screenwriter (an oxymoron if there ever was one). But I digress, this is about Bogart’s greatest Leading Lady both on and off-screen: the ever-underrated Ms. Bacall.

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Lauren’s angles were legendary from the start. She was the personification of a cat in human female form. She watched you like a cat ready to pounce on its prey and it was that cat-like quality that brought her to the attention of Bogart when they were casting TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944). Of all the co-stars Bogart would ever have, Bacall was the closest in cool factor to the man who starred in the first noir, THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and became the cinema icon he is today. Of course, I will always love Mary Astor who starred opposite him in that most excellent of Noirs as the prototypical femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But whereas Mary played cool cats – Lauren WAS a cool cat playing a human.

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Lauren was 19 when she met Bogart (who was 44) on the set of To Have And Have Not and they married not long after the film was completed. They were married until Bogart’s death in 1957 at the too-young age of 57. Yet in those thirteen years I have no doubt that Bogart was his happiest because he had found his soul mate in Bacall. And Lauren, the adoring wife that she was – curtailed her career to support Bogey as well as raise their two children. However, when she did appear on screen it was opposite Bogart in three of their greatest movies – THE BIG SLEEP (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947) and the classic KEY LARGO (1948).

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Watching The Big Sleep is watching Bacall come into her own opposite Bogart. She’s as tough as they come, which is to say it’s only a matter of time before her steely-exterior begins to buckle and melt in time to let Bogart in by the end of the movie. Their rapport is so full of energy and sexual chemistry that it transcends the often impossible plot-line. Bacall earned her stripes in The Big Sleep and made her into a legitimate star in her own right. No longer was she the 19 year old ingenue but a woman who could play complex characters opposite a giant of the cinema. I heartily recommend everyone watch The Big Sleep with an eye towards catching Bacall’s understated delivery as a very bad rich girl. A role that has rightly become a cinematic archetype in the subsequent decades.

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As happens in many a Hollywood Studio era film (as well as every other facet of life) DARK PASSAGE was a mess from the start. Bacall mentions in one of her interviews that the script was, well, crap and incomplete when she and Bogart started filming. But even with sub-par material nobody cares because hey, it’s Bogart & Bacall. That and the title are worth a viewing…maybe with some fresh popped corn on a dark and stormy night. And maybe it will get you in the mood for a double-feature. Rather, the main event and essential-viewing for any Bacall retrospective: the astoundingly powerful Key Largo.

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Wow, is Key Largo good. Great, in fact. With a supporting cast of legends such as Lionel Barrymore and Edward G. Robinson, not to mention directed by John Huston (reteamed with his Maltese Falcon leading man) Key Largo has something for every classic movie watcher. And what makes me giddy every time I watch this movie is watching Bogart and Bacall fall in love all over again. She the respectable and grieving widow of a fallen soldier opposite Bogart’s disillusioned WWII hero who rises to the occasion one more time to wipe out the world of villians like Robinson’s Rocko. Every time I watch this it’s obvious that every role has been cast by a professional actor at the top of their game – not the least of which is Ms. Bacall. Again, her acting is understated but no less intense than the combustible sexuality she portrayed in To Have and Have Not. Only this time she is more mature, more self-assured with the womanly-sensuality of a soul that has loved and lost — and slowly opening herself up to love again. It is a wonderful performance by a wonderfully beautiful actress who is learning her craft and excelling with every role. I love falling for Bacall in Key Largo. The hurricane hitting landfall in the movie is obviously a metaphor for the conflict occurring between the characters (and the opposing idealogies they represent in post-WWII America). Less obvious is the transition it marks which was occurring in cinema at that time. For me, this was the last movie Bogart would star in as a realistic love-interest. Don’t get me wrong, he was still knocking it out of the park opposite Katherine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951). But in Key Largo BACALL is the eye of the storm – the emotional center of the movie and a modern heroine who can stand on her own for what she believes in.

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Lauren Bacall would come fully out of Bogart’s shadow in films, TV and especially the theater after his passing in 1957. She was the embodiment of class and brass balls – a woman as famous for her intelligence (she was a political activist in addition to a fashion icon) as she was her movie-star looks. And what endeared her to millions was her stalwart loyalty to the legacy of Bogart himself. After all, she was a strong woman who was respected for her integrity and prowess off-screen as much as on – something Bogart was known for as well. The two really were kindred spirits in this world. Just like I know they are now, together again in the next. Bogart & Bacall in Heaven. Now that’s a movie I’d run out and see any day.

CINEMUSES: Mary Astor, The Ultimate Femme Fatale

9 Jan

There is something so deliciously bad-ass about Mary Astor. She was the ultimate femme fatale, Brigette O’Shaunessy, from The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. The first and arguably best Film Noir, Falcon is as perfect in its structure and form as Casablanca. And as perfectly beautiful and virtuous as Ingrid Bergman was as Ilsa, Mary Astor is as the beautiful, deadly and duplicitous Brigette.
Now, the very definition of a femme fatale is a woman so beautiful and beguiling that a man would willing walk into his own open grave to please her. She must be so intoxicating that a man would off-himself if only to have her one-time. Mary Astor was smoking-hot in Falcon, but she was also smart, brassy, quick-talking and utterly shameless in manipulating men. Sparks flew between her and Sam Spade. They only grew more intense when she killed his partner, Archer. And by the end, she’s so messed up Bogart’s insides that he almost considers doing time for her. Almost.

To be honest, I haven’t seen many Astor movies. They’re hard to find and many of them were lackluster, never talking full advantage of Astor’s formidable talents. She was a force to be reckoned with, on and off the screen. One of her earliest appearances was opposite Clark Gable in Red Dust, with Jean Harlow. I’ve got to tell you that Jean, though I love her, couldn’t hold a candle to Astor’s sexual attraction with hair slicked back and an animal stare than threatened to vanquish everyone in her sights.

Off-screen, Astor was a free-spirit and got into trouble with the powers that be and press for her sexual escapades. She wrote a sordid autobiography and was open about her sex life when such things were considered tawdry and unbecoming a lady. Mary was quick to call bullshit when she saw it and stood her ground. She had to. She made several movies opposite Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre – a tough crowd by any measure. But that’s what I love about Mary – she gave as good as she got.

Mary Astor should have been a much bigger star in my estimation. She had the beauty, brains and balls to take on any comers, and I only wish that I had met her – only to be vanquished immediately. of course!