Lake, Ladd and a Lady

Continuing to liberate titles from the Universal library, TCM’s Vault Series this week offers “Dark Crimes,” a three disc set of noir (or at least noir-like) films that, amazingly enough, have never been released on American home video: the two middle entries in the Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd cycle, Stuart Heisler’s “The Glass Key” (1942) and George Marshall’s “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), plus Robert Siodmak’s first American noir, the 1944 “Phantom Lady.”
A review here in the New York Times.

I’ve always found the Siodmak film a little disappointing — despite the striking cinematography by the great Woody Bredell, it turns into a standard whodunit, with the marginal novelty of a female detective (the stunning Ella Raines) and not much of the real noir spirit (it’s a perky, cheerful kind of noir). It seems even more disappointing once you’ve seen “Pieges,” Siodmak’s last French film before his departure for Hollywood, which follows the same basic formula with the added interest of a startling, “Psycho”-style twist that involves one of the stars. “Phantom Lady”‘s most famous sequence — that steamy basement jam session, in which Elisha Cook, Jr. drums himself into an erotic frenzy as Raines, disguised as a hooker, stares him down with those cold, blue eyes — is shot in a stylized, self-conscious fashion that I used to assume was directly inspired by Gjon Mili’s amazing 1944 short “Jammin’ the Blues,” shot by Robert Burks, edited by Norman Granz and featuring Lester Young, Harry Edison, Sid Catlett, Barney Kessel, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones and others. But as it turns out, “Jammin’ the Blues” was released on May 5, 1944, while “Phantom Lady” came out on January 28 of that year. Did Siodmak somehow get an early look at it, or did the influence run in the other direction? Or is it all just one of those spooky, film noir coincidences?

135 comments to Lake, Ladd and a Lady

  • Stephen1947

    This set is not yet listed at Amazon – what is the release date?

  • Stephen, Amazon doesn’t always pick up the TCM manufactured-on-demand releases. The set is currently available through the TCM Shop, where it’s being discounted to $29.99.

  • Barry Lane

    Dave,

    I met George Raft once. And, if Ladd was tiny at 5’6″, Raft was no worse than an average old guy at about the same height. So, either Ladd was considerably smaller or his height issues are urban legend. My understanding, never laid eyes on her, Patricia Morrison comes in at about the same 5’6″. To be verified…Yes?

    Sidebar: Raft was a very nice guy.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I have always found Marshall’s THE BLUE DAHLIA and Siodmak’s PHANTOM LADY disappointing, and the Siodmak enormously overprized by many cinephiles starting in the seventies. In a letter to James Sandoe dated 0ctober 1947, Chandler complained that his original screenplay for DAHLIA had been rewritten by the director: “I threatened to walk off the picture, not yet finished, unless they stopped the director putting in fresh dialogue out of his own head.” In the same long letter he wrote (in response to a critic who had panned he editing)that “the direction was so bad that the cutting, which was very expert, was not able to conceal it.” Chandler gives examples of scenes in the film that are useless and dull “a holdover from theearly days of the motion pictures when the movement itself was exciting.” Marshall may not have been such a bad director, but Chandler certainly had a point there. The letter was reprinted in the book “Raymond Chandler Speaking” (1962).

    It had never occured to me to see a relationship between the wonderful short “Jammin’the Blues” and the silly scene of orgiastic drumming in PHANTOM LADY, but it’s an interesting point. Elisha Cook Jr is no Joe Jones though.

    Dave (and whoever else cares)I am sorry I have remained silent for so long; I have been busy with one thing and another, and perhaps also a bit lazy.

  • Barry Putterman

    Jean=Pierre, it should be emphatically understood that I, for one, very much care. Your deep knowledge and thoughtful contributions have been gone missing for far too long. I always look forward to hearing your views even when, as is the case with PHANTOM LADY, I’m not in agreement with them.

  • I do think that some of the most interesting Siodmak is tucked away. “Pièges”, as Dave has already mentioned, is pretty fantastic (von Stroheim is great in his small role), and “Someone to Remember” (w/the wonderful Mabel Paige) is, for my money at least, as deeply felt and affecting as the very best of McCarey.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Thanks very much Barry! Re PHANTOM LADY, to me it’s a bit like Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: a film that owes almost everything to its superb photography. Maybe it should be enough. I did watch PHANTOM LADY again a few weeks ago and I must admit Bredell’s photography is extraordinary. That night scene on the subway is unforgettable, at the same time totally “noir” (that is, movie noir) style and as real as anything in so-called neorealism. I’ve been there at night waiting for a train, and you probably did too, and we know that it’s visually just right. But is it enough? It all depends on what kind of pleasure one expects from a movie, and that, like many other things, tends to change.
    I don’t know.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, the elephant in the room here is Cornell Woolrich. We had a discussion not that long ago here about Woolrich’s source novel. I said at that time that Woolrich’s novel defied narrative logic and the film took the basic story and normalized it in terms of 40s movie expectations. Possibly, if they had found a creative way to convey Woolrich’s sensibility in a narrative context that wouldn’t have stupefied the audience, they might have had a better film.

    In any event, I enjoy the parts of PHANTOM LADY much more than the sum of very many other films.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    Barry, it’s almost safe to say that all Cornell Woolrich novels defy narrative logic ( I say “almost” because I haven’t read all of them). The same thing could be said of many of those pulp or semi-pulp novels that fed noir cinema in the forties (and were so admired in France at the time where they were published, often in very poor translations, in the famous “Serie Noire”). There’s nothing wrong about enjoying the parts rather than the sum — and vice-versa; I do it both all the time. and this will be my closing vaguely zen remark on this immensely serious subject.

  • Blake Lucas

    I won’t claim this as an even vaguely zen remark but movies have their own internal logic, and when they are narrative (and this is true of all narrative forms), this logic can be, it seems to me, perfectly acceptable.

    The occasion for this observation is that one of the last movies I saw (about a week ago) was also a Woolrich adaptation (under William Irish in this case)–NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950), which played on the Leisen retro at UCLA and I’d long wanted to see again and would have bought the DVD discussed here awhile ago if this opportunity hadn’t come along. I believe most here know this excellent film, which plays with poise and grace, the characters and their emotions always seeming believable. But surely, looked at objectively, the narrative itself is not at all. It has more the logic and believability of a dream, even beyond the logic and believability of melodrama that it also has. And I think so many stories imagined first by Woolrich have this and movies drawn from him, as with the Leisen, are perhaps best if they don’t abandon it. Even when one is made to play with enough evident feeling of deliberation and accumulation of “realistic” (a loaded word here) detail that we readily accept this world as real (REAR WINDOW is the one I’m thinking of now), it doesn’t take too much reflection to grasp just how imagined and made up it actually is.

    So I don’t have that problem with PHANTOM LADY. However, I too think it’s somewhat overrated, far from the best Siodmak and especially some of those that followed (I agree that CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY is beyond it, and CRISS CROSS and THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON are way beyond it). As noted, it has a place for doing a lot to set in film noir iconography that would become pervasive. My feeling about PHANTOM LADY is fairly straightforward–I like it and think it’s at its best in the first half, the absorbing opening involving the eponymous woman and then Ella Raines out there doing her own detective work, with the wild Elisha Cook sequence a high point–in the second half, when Franchot Tone’s character comes in, it becomes a far more conventional movie, only distinguishable from many others by Siodmak’s continued stylistic attentiveness, even if he’s already given it his best, and by the allure of Ella Raines, which definitely doesn’t wear out.

    But I do think “This doesn’t really make sense” it not a great argument against a movie, and will let out way too many good and indeed great ones. If everyone had this criteria, the last Sight and Sound poll topper could never have won. There’s reason that reason knows not of, after all.

  • alex

    PL has a stunning set up with the odd-hatted mystery lady, a swell drum solo, and Bredell’s gorgeous, path-breaking chiaroscuro -quite enough for immortality, if not a masterpiece.

    Bredell would, of course, do more gorgeous work in UNSUSPECTED and THE KILLERS- the latter a MASTERPIECE.

    Too bad he didn’t shoot the finely scripted, quinessentially tough guy Vet noir
    BLUE DAHLIA.

  • Gregg Rickman

    It is indeed good to have such heavy hitters as Jean-Pierre and Blake back amongst us. “The logic and believability of a dream” is an excellent description of Woolrichian cinema, including the Leisen, which I caught for the first time recently and is indeed outstanding.

  • Johan Andreasson

    “Barry, it’s almost safe to say that all Cornell Woolrich novels defy narrative logic ( I say “almost” because I haven’t read all of them).”

    I think very few people have read all of Woolrich, and with good reason it seems. Here’s the opinion of someone who should be an expert:

    “Purely on its merits as prose, it’s dreadful,” writes Francis M. Nevins, Woolrich’s literary executor and keeper of the flame. Nevins wrote an exhaustive, invaluable critical biography, ”First You Dream, Then You Dream,” as well as editing or co-editing all three of the Woolrich short story collections — ”Nightwebs,” ”Darkness at Dawn” and ”Night and Fear” — published in the past 20 years. (”Night & Fear,” with 20 prime Woolrich tales, comes out in January.) Even the author’s number one fan can’t stomach a lot of Woolrich writing. Of one early work, he opines, ”I pity anyone who feels compelled to read it.”

    The quote is from a very good article by Richard Corliss, in which we also learn that Woolrich had so few friends that he rarely put dedications on his novels. One of the few on which he did was “Phantom Lady”, and the dedication is to a hotel room he hated.

    Here’s a link to the complete article (It’s from 2003 and has some formatting problems – at least on my computer – but I had no trouble reading it):

    http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,557218,00.html

  • It’s good to have you back, Jean-Pierre! By the way, there is some controversy about who dubbed the drum solo in “Phantom Lady.” The AFI Catalog credits a musician named Dave Coleman, with whom I am otherwise unfamiliar; other sources say it was Buddy Rich. Coleman’s son has posted the whole sequence on YouTube:

    httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J99d_AlFKh8

  • Barry Putterman

    Blake, for the record, what I said was that the Woolrich novel didn’t make any sense. The second half primarily concerns the Franchot Tone character, a sympathetic protagonist who, we are told, was in South America at the time of the murder, as he desperately races against time to find evidence to clear his best friend. Only, at the climax, without any foreshadowing or evidence planting that I could detect, we find that he was the murderer. From my perspective, it lacked logic both externally AND internally.

    The second half of the Siodmak film, on the other hand, makes perfect sense; quite possibly, as you point out, to its detriment.

  • jbryant

    I caught NO MAN OF HER OWN about a year ago on Netflix Instant; just checked, and it’s still there.

    I always figured part of the ‘problem’ with PHANTOM LADY is that it’s sort of a transitional noir. After you’ve experienced ‘the real thing,’ some of those early efforts can seem a bit tepid by comparison.

  • Utterly incidental, but still…

    There was also a scantily-clad superheroine named Phantom Lady whose ‘Golden Age’ debut preceded the Siodmak by a couple of years:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_Lady

  • Robert Garrick

    Everyone talks about Alan Ladd’s height, but there are a number of major leading men who are in the same category: Gene Kelly, Al Pacino, and Tom Cruise are three who are about 5 foot 6 inches, give or take an inch. Bogart was five foot eight; Robert DeNiro is about the same.

    I was surprised, when watching Kelly dance “The Babbitt and the Bromide” with Fred Astaire in “Ziegfeld Follies” (1945) to notice that Astaire was actually taller than Kelly.

  • Robert Garrick

    The famous story about “The Blue Dahlia” (1946), a film I’ve always found almost impossibly tedious to watch, involves Raymond Chandler’s death-defying effort to finish the screenplay. Paramount was under tremendous pressure to complete the script, on which Chandler (never a fast writer under the best of circumstances) had experienced writer’s block.

    It got finished because John Houseman (the film’s producer) agreed to let Chandler write it at home, working around the clock for a week, in a state of constant drunkenness. There were two Cadillac limousines outside Chandler’s front door, with drivers, around the clock; there were six secretaries; and there was a direct line to the studio. Chandler apparently consumed almost no solid food at all; he survived on the alcohol and on injections of glucose administered by doctors who were presumably immune from the common law of malpractice.

    Chandler’s work got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but I’ve always found it (and the rest of the film) to be undistinguished. George Marshall is not to be confused with George Sherman, or even (hello Barry) with George Roy Hill.

    “The Blue Dahlia” sure sounds like it should be good. It’s got a great title; it’s got a terrific cast (besides Ladd and Lake, there’s William Bendix and Howard DaSilva); and it’s got an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, for crying out loud. But it’s a major disappointment, with no visual style, no noirish lighting, and a script that reads like it was written by a drunk trying to finish an assignment on a tight deadline.

  • Oliver_C

    Alan Ladd’s height (or legendary lack of) did at least inspire this memorable poster for the cult movie Electra Glide in Blue:

    http://uk.movieposter.com/poster/A70-1990/Electra_Glide_In_Blue.html

    Also, it is worth noting that to play Jack Reacher, man-mountain protagonist of Lee Child’s pulp thrillers, they cast… Tom Cruise.

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, George Marshall may not be confused with George Roy Hill, but her certainly made a hell of a Secretary of State didn’t he.

    It’s true that Alan Ladd was not considerably shorter than a number of other leading men from the period. In fact, reference is made to Bogart’s lack of height in the parallel 1946 movie THE BIG SLEEP (you know, Chandler and all that. Plus, Ladd and Lake were pretty much the road company Bogart and Bacall during the 40s). But, there are reasons why the lack of stature tag stuck with Ladd rather than say, James Cagney (who hasn’t yet been mentioned in that regard). I think it has something to do with a lack of stature in other respects.

  • Alex

    “The Blue Dahlia” may or not have a dull script. (The film’s opening all the way through to the murder seems seems to me to work well, despite very flat direction, and the film seems to me an okay yarn in the viewinga nd a string one in abstraction; but maybe I should gag sooner and more intoleraby on that direction)

    Still, let’s not start discounting Studio era scripts on even partial grounds of alchies typing besides bottles.

  • Robert Garrick

    There is much truth to Dave’s characterization of “Phantom Lady” as a fundamentally disappointing film. If only it were better from start to finish.

    “Phantom Lady” is really two films. The movie begins hauntingly, at a bar, with “I’ll Remember April” playing on the jukebox, and continues at a high level for the next forty minutes or so. It’s a story about a secretary who secretly loves her boss and descends into the metaphorical bowels of hell to save him. Ella Raines, with the All-American name of “Kansas,” is wonderful as the secretary, and as she moves deeper into the New York night, the film gets darker and becomes more claustrophobic. The still from the film that accompanies Dave’s New York Times piece this week gets my vote as the greatest single image to come from the noir era. That scene was also the cover of Alfred Appel’s 1974 book, “Nabokov’s Dark Cinema,” which had been previewed in the pages of “Film Comment” and which accelerated my love of noir at a time when there were no books on the genre in English. Back then we had Paul Schrader’s 1971 essay, “Notes on Film Noir,” and that was it.

    Anyway: The first forty minutes of “Phantom Lady” are spectacular, but then the film takes a wrong turn and disintegrates. The story devolves into a conventional whodunit; the lighting is turned up; the visuals lose all meaning; and Franchot Tone’s character drains the life from the proceedings.

    Nevertheless, “Phantom Lady” remains magical for me. After William K. Everson taught his NYU “film noir” class one night back in 1976, I dragged him to a coffee shop and begged him to show this film, which was then quite hard to see. Everson hadn’t seen the film in years, and didn’t think it was very good, but after watching it again (thanks to my prodding) he changed his mind. Alfred Appel liked it too. Barry’s comments, above, are perfect: the parts of “Phantom Lady” are superior to the sum of many other films.

    Finally, let me add my voice to the chorus heralding the return of Jean-Pierre to the discussion.

  • Apparently, Luchino Visconti appreciated Veronica Lake so much that he tried to cast her in an Othello adaptation, to be shot in Venice during fall 1948.

  • Barry Lane

    Ladd and Lake precede Bogart and Bacall. The issue of size goes to the same kind of thinking in which Clark Gable’s dental health, and someone else’s sexual preference are included in summary’s regarding their work. I find this way of thinking and working offensive. We deal in image and magic. I have always been struck at how the physically beautiful image is often, in revisionist commentary used to diminish the magic and the beauty. Is this an effort at self-exaltation…? Well, could be.

  • David Cohen

    Dave:
    Dave Coleman shows up with a 40s bandleader named Freddie Slack, who played on at least two notable Capitol Records sides of the early 1940s: “Mean Old World” by T-Bone Walker and “Cow-Cow Boogie” by Ella Mae Morse. Given that Capitol was based on L.A., it’s not a stretch to imagine Coleman playing drums in a movie. (I have a really fine 2-CD collection of Capitol recordings of that era but the liner notes are terribly lacking, so I can’t tell what else these folks played on.)

  • Johan Andreasson

    Dave Coleman recorded in Hollywood with Dexter Gordon in 1943 or 1944, which would make it even more plausible that he was around to do the drumming in PHANTOM LADY as well:

    Dave Coleman And Friends
    Bill Harris (tb) Dexter Gordon, Herbie Steward (ts) Jimmy Rowles (p -1/4) possibly Jimmy Rowles (p -5) Al Hendrickson (g -1/4) possibly Al Hendrickson (g -5) Howard Rumsey (b -1/4) possibly Howard Rumsey (b -5) Dave Coleman (d)
    Music City Studios, Hollywood, CA, circa 1943 or 1944

    1. I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me
    2. I Know That You Know
    3. Dickie’s Dream, Pt. 1
    4. Dickie’s Dream, Pt. 2
    5. Take The “A” Train (incomplete)

  • Alex

    “The first forty minutes of “Phantom Lady” are spectacular, but then the film takes a wrong turn and disintegrates. The story devolves into a conventional whodunit; the lighting is turned up; the visuals lose all meaning; and Franchot Tone’s character drains the life from the proceedings.”

    I agree entirely. But WHY is Tone’s impact so ruinous? He’s authentically creepy. Is his presence perhaps too commanding, so much so that it usurps the Ella Raines POV meant to take over after Raines’ boss is encarcerated? Dunno.

  • Robert Garrick

    Not to put a damper on the proceedings, but even Pauline Kael (in “5001 Nights at the Movies”) reports that Dave Coleman did the dubbed-in-drumming in “Phantom Lady.” The consensus seems to be 100% on that.

    Kael also says that “Phantom Lady” is elevated by its “mood and pacing” (pacing?) but held back by its “ideas.” And she calls it a “B-picture.”

    Well, it’s not a “B-picture.” Just because it’s not “Lawrence of Arabia” doesn’t make it a “B-picture.” And there’s nothing particularly notable about the pacing in “Phantom Lady,” nor is there anything wrong with the film’s “ideas.”

    Moving on . . .

    Johan, the first song you mention, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” was playing on the jukebox in the opening scene of “Detour” (1945), which actually WAS a B movie, of course. The song fit the story, just as “I’ll Remember April,” the song playing on the jukebox in the opening scene of “Phantom Lady,” comments ironically on the participants’ inability to remember who they were with the night before.

    (“I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” is also sung in a nightclub, less meaningfully but still well, in “The Caine Mutiny.”)

    As for “Cow Cow Boogie,” what a great and historically important song that was! It came out of the first recording session ever for Capitol Records, in 1942; it was a huge hit, and it was written by none other than jazz legend Benny Carter. I actually mentioned it to Carter once (at a nightclub) and he was delighted that someone knew that!

    Ella Mae Morse, who sings “Cow Cow Boogie” like some super-sexy vamp, was seventeen years old when she made that recording. She had originally been hired by Tommy Dorsey at age 14, but Dorsey let her go when he found out her real age. For a good time, go find the cover painting (on Google Images) for Morse’s momentous 1954 album, “Barrelhouse, Boogie, and the Blues.”

  • patrick henry

    Chandler wrote a script, called PLAYBACK, for Joseph Sistrom (the uncredited producer of DOUBLE INDEMNITY), who was at U-I in 1948. Never got made, but it was published as RAYMOND CHANDLER’S UNKNOWN THRILLER (to avoid confusion with his 1958 novel PLAYBACK, which used aspects of its plot).

    The script peaks early with a terrific courtroom scene (a flashback showing the heroine being unexpectedly acquitted of murder in a Southern town) but nothing that comes afterward equals it. Chandler seemed to have picked Vancouver as a setting in the belief that a Canadian Mountie would be a “nobler” type than an equivalent US police detective. This may well be so, but it makes for rather flaccid, sentimental writing. Still, I think it must’ve been a much more “personal” effort than THE BLUE DAHLIA.

  • Alex Hicks

    Robert Garrick,

    So if “Phantom Lady” is not “B-picture,” why? I thought the main –and certainly 1940s relevant- meaning of a “B-picture” is a movie made for release on the bottom half of a double bill– and that a film noir with the hardly stellar (’44) cast of Franchot Tone, Ella Raines and Alan Curtis was quite predictably one made for release on the bottom half of a double bill. Indeed, commercially wasn’t film noir cinematographic expressionism substantially the result of an effort to proviode some little extra glitz to low-budget, B-like crime film.

    I went to movie theaters some during what might be called the fading away period of noir (1954-1956) and all the remotely noir-ish films I remember seeing then – The Killing, The Killer is Loose, The Big Combo—were, as I recall, second bill . Indeed by the mid-1950s B&W plus crime nearly sufficed to define “B” (at least at the Capital Theater in Port Chester N.Y, whither I was, in those seemingly crime free suburban years, free to venture via bus or classmate’s Mom’s lift).

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, PHANTOM LADY is not a B picture. A and B pictures are classified in relation to what the norms of each studio was. At Universal, Joan Harrison did not produce B films, Ella Raines and Franchot Tone did not star in B films, and B films did not run 85 minutes. In 1944, the B pictures at Universal are the “Inner Sanctum” films starring Lon Chaney Jr. and running about 60 minutes.

    Similarly, THE KILLING and THE KILLER IS LOOSE (independents released through United Artists) and THE BIG COMBO (Allied Artists) are not B pictures. They may all have played at the bottom half of a double bill at some point in their theatrical lives, but not on first run.

  • Barry Lane

    B- Film has a specific definition. Essentially the manner in which a film is sold, i.e., whether on a rental basis or flat fee. By the mid-fifties there were no B-Films by studio definiton. It was the end of the double bill days and the films you mentioned were inexpensive A’s. And, Franchot Tone and Ella Raines may not have been Clark Gable and Myrna Loy but they were also not B-Stars. In that period, look for Chester Morris, Richard Arlen, Jean Parker. Tom Conway. And Franchot was getting big money.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘B- Film has a specific definition. Essentially the manner in which a film is sold, i.e., whether on a rental basis or flat fee.’

    That is good information.

    I have question about further definition of B-Film. Is same or different from ‘programmer’?

  • Barry Lane

    A programmer is a film more-or-less designed exclusively to fill a marketing need. Certainly not restricted to lower budget fare.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    “Programmer” is pretty much synonymous of B-Film: as its name indicates, it was a movie whose purpose was to complete (FILL IN) the program, which included the main attraction (the A film) and usually a newsreel and one or more shorts. Some critics have defined the programmer as distinct from the B film though, but it seems that in the motion picture trade both words meant much the same thing.

    In France the concept of B-Film has never been quite understood. Many critics and historians tend to use the term for movies that they either consider mediocre, or belonging to a specific genre, usually adventure and action. Many films called “B” are actually A films, not necessarily because they are “better” but because their budget places them above the B category. Below a certain budget amount a film was automatically considered a B picture by the producers and probably everybody else.

    Interestingly, an unexpectedly succesful B (a sleeper)can become an A, the main attraction : Tourneur’s CAT PEOPLE, Lewis’s MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, Mann’s T.MEN. It also happened with the first anti-nazi films (HITLER, THE BEAST OF BERLIN, HITLER’S HANGMAN…)

    B-wise, Barry P. and Barry L. have made excellent points at 12.13 and 12.16

  • Barry Putterman

    As Jean-Pierre says, sometimes “B” films get mistakenly defined by genre or content rather than budget and running time (the second feature “B” combined with the shorts usually ran about the same length as the main feature “A.”).

    But, ironically, ever since RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK took what was typical of 30s and 40s “B” film genre and content and blew them up into big budget spectacle, we appear to be running in a parallel universe time warp. In fact, if our host’s description of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as spending two and a half hours to cover the ground of a single episode in a Republic serial is to be taken literally, we would now seem to have reached some sort of apotheosis in this trend.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    In his book “B” MOVIES Don Miller mentions close to two thousands films considered Bs, and while he includes all the Val Lewtons he does not include films like PHANTOM LADY, THE BIG COMBO or THE KILLER IS LOOSE. The vast majority of films mentioned are much more obscure than many films mistakenly called Bs.

  • skelly

    Junko,
    I’d be curious to learn about the A film / B film distiction, if any, in Japanese cinema. I was under the impression (perhaps mistaken) that the movie studios in Japan also had programmers and B-Pictures. For example, I had heard that Suzuki’s KANTO MUSHUKU / KANTO WANDERER played on the bottom half of the double bill with Imamura’s NIPPON KONCHUKI / THE INSECT WOMAN. Similarly Suzuki’s SHUNPU DEN / STORY OF A PROSTITUTE played on the bottom half of the double bill with Imamura’s AKAI SATSUI / INTENTIONS OF MURDER. In fact on English Language Wikipedia a contributor has noted that KANTO WANDERER “was a programme picture produced by the Nikkatsu Company to fill out the second half of a double bill with Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman”. I’m now thinking based on other comments above that when Western commentators refer to certain Japanese films as B movies they may really only mean genre driven studio films with lower budgets/shorter running times.

  • David Cohen

    I think, unfortunately, that the idea many folks have of B movies from the studio era is solely based on genres – basically anything that Quentin Tarantino might have liked.

  • These are all good posts on B movies.

    Only a few film historians or critics have spent much time writing about genuine B movies. Most of the celebrated films in film history are actually A pictures. Almost all of the movies recommended in Sarris’ THE AMERICAN CINEMA are A films, except for a few Ulmers and THE NARROW MARGIN (Fleischer).

    Despite their lurid reputation, many, maybe most B movies are genteel, family entertainment. ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE (Lew Landers), a genuine B movie just shown on TCM, is a sweet little mystery comedy that the whole family could enjoy.

  • Robert Garrick

    Many of Sarris’s top rated directors started with B pictures; a few of them ended there. Certainly Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Jacques Tourneur, and Joseph H. Lewis started as B directors, and Tourneur finished as the 1960s equivalent of a B director, making cheap horror films for AIP.

    Phil Karlson started as a B director, and never got too far above that. Ulmer went the opposite direction: He started with A pictures, but found that he was more comfortable with B’s, C’s, and D’s.

    There’s an essay by Sarris in “Kings of the B’s” called “Beatitudes of B Movies.” Sarris singles a few films out for special praise, including “Detour” (Ulmer, 1945), “When Strangers Marry” (Castle, 1944), and “Wicked Woman” (Rouse, 1953).

    Don Miller also thought that the Castle film was a B-movie high point, but “When Strangers Marry” (also known as “Betrayed”) is tough to find these days and you don’t see it mentioned much anymore. I’ve only seen it once, on AMC about fifteen years ago. I thought it was good, but I don’t remember it well enough to comment further.

  • Alex

    It’s been an uplifing experience to discover that the many double features I attended in the 1950s included overall, nearly twice as many A films as I thoought I was getting.

    On the down side, I must apologize to Mike Grost for dubbing some of his sentimental favorites “Z-Westerns” when, it now seem, some of them may have been D, C, and even B, pictures.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘I’m now thinking based on other comments above that when Western commentators refer to certain Japanese films as B movies they may really only mean genre driven studio films with lower budgets/shorter running times.’

    I think that is true Skelly. From reading Western critic, programmer as Barry Lane has defined is better term for Japanese second feature than B movie. Not so strict about second feature either, SHUNPU DEN/STORY OF A PROSTITUTE also having main feature release in some areas. Also, sometime new movie had second feature that was re-release of successful movie.

  • jason fleming

    Betrayed is available from Warner Archive along with Macabre Castle’s first horror film.

  • Alex,

    I really dig your term Z-Western, as an overall category for B-movie Westerns and TV Western episodes. Z-Westerns are full of interesting material. Z-Westerns rule!

    Betrayed is an interesting film. It contrasts two concepts of masculinity, among the two male leads. And as always with Castle, there is off trail stuff, such as the Share The Ride program featured. And it has an early non-stereotyped look at black people.

    A good book on the very low budget B-movie thrillers of the era, like Betrayed:
    Arthur Lyons – Death on the Cheap, The Lost B Movies of Film Noir (2000). Lyons is a well-known writer of the Jacob Asch private eye novels.

  • Blake Lucas

    Definitions of B films that have been given seem accurate, but I’d add this about programmers, which Junko observed re some Japanese movies but is true of American ones too.

    Simply, after what are strictly speaking the real B films were gone, a lot of films were designed as second features for urban markets and were given budgets and schedules that, relative to true As, might make them seem like Bs, at least in these markets where they were strictly the second half of the bill and not the main feature. This was true in L.A. of all the Ranowns, for example, including the Batjac 7 MEN FROM NOW, though it got a little more share of the advertising space with the forgotten top-billed feature (can’t even think of the name of it now).

    But in other venues, a small town in Wyoming say, a Ranown could easily be top-billed or even play by itself and wouldn’t be considered a B movie. So, a programmer.

    But beyond this, in urban markets, I think of most movies that opened on double features as programmers if the movies each had a share of the advertising (somtimes equally too). Either one could be the main feature or co-feature and it might just depend on perception of the moment on how each might be positioned. These might both be As but rarely were prestige-seeking in terms of awards and such things; those movies mostly opened as single features in exclusive runs, however briefly.

    And finally, does it really matter whether something is an actual B movie, an A movie, or something in between? I finally caught up with THE TREE OF LIFE (which would never have been a B) the night after seeing Lew Landers’ CONSPIRACY (about an hour and it definitely was conceived to work as a B). If I said which of these I genuinely think is the better movie, I think at least some people here would believe me.

  • “I finally caught up with THE TREE OF LIFE (which would never have been a B) the night after seeing Lew Landers’ CONSPIRACY (about an hour and it definitely was conceived to work as a B). If I said which of these I genuinely think is the better movie, I think at least some people here would believe me.”

    Blake, as someone who has this year derived far greater pleasure from films such as SINGAPORE WOMAN (1941), COW COUNTRY (1953), and FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER (1954) than some very well-known, critically acclaimed films, I appreciated your above comment enormously. (I recently recorded CONSPIRACY, have made a note to catch up with it!)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  • patrick henry

    When CLASH BY NIGHT (the Odets play) was revived in NYC a few years ago, the Times theater critic reviewing it wrote “Fritz Lang made a B movie of it.” Unfair to Stanwyck, Ryan, Lang, Nicholas Musuraca and Jerry Wald.

    A nice B movie is THE FALCON’S ALIBI (1946), notable for Jane Greer and Elisha Cook, Jr. as a married couple. (Altogether believable in the movie.) I suspect that Howard Hughes must have run it in his private projection room more than a few times.

  • Barry Putterman

    The “B” movie, as it was traditionally known during the 30s and 40s, pretty much disappeared with the advent of television. The new medium killed off the B studios such as Monogram, Lippert, and eventually Republic. And once the majors gave up trying to deny TV’s existence, they joined in by producing series which re-created the B movie model on an even smaller scale in terms of budget and shooting schedule to accomodate the needs for weekly episodes.

    It is important to get the facts straight because, as Jean-Pierre indicated in general, the term B movie often gets thrown around inappropriately in relation to aethetic philosophy. On the positive side is David’s Quentin Tarantino example where “B movie” is romanticized to indicate an underground rebellion against the stodgy middle of the road. On the negative is Patrick’s Odets example where “B movie” is disdained as a cheap, shoddy bastardization of artistic integrity.

    The reality, as usual, is more complicated; and well worth getting aquainted with.