Saturday, August 24, 2019

Liliom(1934): A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood.. or What Happened When 2 Germans and a Frenchman Met in Budapest

This is my contribution to the "Vive La France Blogathon" hosted by the dynamic duo of Christian at Silver Screen Modes and Patty a.k.a The Lady Eve at The Lady Eve's Reel Life. Click here for more cinematic inspiration from the land of the City of Lights and beyond.

Liliom (1934)

Why "Liliom"? This French film takes place in Budapest and was directed by Fritz Lang, who made a stop in France on his way from Germany to America. So, what makes it so French? Mainly, this guy:

Is that you, Charles Boyer?
Mon dieu! Was there ever an actor more French than Charles Boyer? The French typically do not transplant well to Hollywood. Yes, Chevalier was the charming boulevardier and Louis Jordan was quite dreamy in any language, but French mega-stars like Danielle Darrieux, Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin dabbled but headed back home after a few films. Even great directors like Renoir and Clair found the atmosphere in Hollywood inhospitable. But Boyer - boy was he the American's image of a French man. He was smooth, he was sophisticated, he paid attention to the fit of his clothes, his lower lip pouted in that sexy French way and he was slightly untrustworthy where the ladies were concerned. This was the Boyer I was used to:

Hmmm... I know you're a rogue, but you're so suave.....
But this is not the Boyer of "Liliom." In "Liliom" we get the pre-Hollywood stardom Boyer, and he is rougher, shaggier and more dangerous than the impeccably groomed continental into whom he was transformed.

The story of "Liliom" has had several incarnations, the most famous being the basis for the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Carousel." Based on Molar's play, it depicts the story of Julie, a chamber maid, and Liliom, a carousel barker, who flirts madly with the ladies to drum up business for the owner of the ride, who happens to be in love with him. The owner's control over Liliom makes his love affair with Julie difficult, but ultimately he decides to leave the carousel and strike out on his own with her. 

Liliom and Julie: love at first carousel ride
Having no particular skill or desire for honest employment, Liliom becomes filled with resentment towards society (shown in his self-fulfilling prophecy of his treatment by the local police) and towards Julie, whose devotion never waivers no matter how badly he treats her. Upon learning of Julie's pregnancy, Liliom allows himself to be dragged into a scheme of robbery and ultimately kills himself rather than be caught and confined to prison. On his deathbed, he confesses his guilt and accepts that he will have to face God for what he has done. Julie is left to raise their unborn child alone. 

We next find Liliom in purgatory, sitting before the magistrate who looks exactly like the police chief he faced on earth. He is given once chance to earn his way to heaven. Bringing something special (a star) to his daughter, he meets her and tells her of the himself, the father she never knew. He tells her the truth of himself, but she refuses to believe he was such a bad man and their confrontation results in Liliom reverting to type and striking her.  The magistrate is unhappy with Liliom, who simply states he can only be himself, and it appears that he is headed for a trip to hell, However, back on earth, when his daughter tells Julie of her meeting with the stranger, she asks if it was possible for someone to strike you and have it feel like a kiss. Julie says yes, and because his daughter, like Julie, felt the love through Liliom's anger, he squeaks his way into heaven.
Purgatory is a lot like earth... unfortunately for Liliom
If you know "Carousel, " you can see (and hear) how heavily it rests on this story. Songs are based on dialogue from the film and Billy Bigelow and Julie, although transported from Budapest to Maine, are exactly like the Julie and Liliom of Budapest.

Speaking of the love story of Julie and Liliom (or Billy), it is a hard one to watch. It's difficult not to be mad at Julie. Liliom beats his wife and treats her terribly, yet she stands by him and offers unconditional and gentle love. Of Course, Liliom knows he's a scoundrel - it's his signature move - but the story is not about Liliom's love for Julie. It is about the gift of Julie's love for the unworthy Liliom and how he squandered it. The cop on Heaven's beat gives him that one last chance and, true to character, he almost blows it. Because he is still the same man he was on earth, Liliom does not know how to show love, but, as we knew from Boyer's sensitive portrayal in those rare quiet moments, he does love. And so he is saved. Barely.

Lang's depiction of purgatory has the look of his German expressionist films. It is eerie, mesmerizing,  romantic, dark and somewhat magical. His view of justice, both on earth and beyond, validates Liliom's view that, for the non-privileged, it is a rigged system.

This cop is everywhere!
It is interesting to see Boyer in his natural French element, before the transformation. His star power is undeniable. Boyer had a few false starts earlier in Hollywood, never seeming to click, but shortly after this film he made one more trip across the Atlantic and made his mark. Poorly received at the time, "Liliom" was viewed as a French/Hungarian/ German mish-mash. Lang, however, always had a soft spot for the film and, seen today, it is impossible not to make those mental comparisons with "Carousel" or to deny that Charles Boyer was one Frenchman who was going to survive the transplant from his native land to Hollywood. An actor of charm, depth and staying power, he became our ideal of the sophisticated, romantic Frenchman, a true Hollywood creation.


Charles Boyer

With Hedy Lamarr in "Algiers."
Can you blame her for coming wiz him to the Casbah?
More than just a leading man, Boyer shared the screen with such imposing leading ladies as Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. From cads to heroes, his range and work remains impressive. I like him more and more each time I see him.

Terrorizing Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight." 
He was married to the same woman, British actress Pat Patterson, for 44 years. 2 days after her death, Boyer committed suicide, a tragic end, yet somehow befitting our ideal of the romantic Frenchman.

Madeleine Ozeray (Julie)

Ms. Ozeray had a sterling and important career both on the French stage and in French film. Judging by her success in her native country, she was wise to stay put.

Fritz Lang

The master of German expressionism made a number of unforgettable classics in Germany ("M," "Metropolis") before making that one stop in France (to evade the Nazis) and then sailing on to Hollywood where he had a few more classics up his sleeve (Scarlet Street," "The Woman in the Window," "Rancho Notorious" - to name a few).

Franz Waxman

A German Jew who, in 1934, received a beating from Nazi sympathizers in Berlin. "Liliom" was his first original film score before relocating to America, where his great work included the scoring for such films as "Sunset Boulevard," "Rebecca," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Philadelphia Story," and "A Place in the Sun." Again - so glad he and Lang stopped in France on the way to Hollywood.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

This Magic Moment: The Apartment

While a film may be 2 hours or more in length, there are those special moments - unforgettable moments - that linger in the heart and mind. These moments can crystallize in a flash all we need to know about a character or their story. They are the poetry of motion or a word or a look that jolts the senses and tells us all we need need to know.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and a broken compact mirror from "The Apartment" (1960):

The set-up: C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), the up and coming executive who loans out his apartment to his cheating married boss, is sweet on Fran Kubelik, the company elevator girl. At an office Christmas party, C.C. shows off his new hat to Fran while Fran hands him her compact to check his look.

The moment: Looking into the cracked mirror, C.C. realizes that the girl he adores is the girl who is sleeping with the boss. 

The feeling: I'm heart broken for C.C.'s loss of innocence in his adoration for Miss Kubelik and also for Fran, as she states she likes the broken mirror because it makes her look like she feels.

Brilliance in a moment that tells us all we need to know about these 2 and that we must root for them to the end.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Biff Grimes: Character Crush 'Cause Character Counts

This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Who's your Character Crush Blogathon hosted by the dynamic duo of Silver Screenings and Front and Frock. Click HERE for more cinematic affairs of the heart.
Oh for a man of character! They are few and far between in this world, aren't they? Thankfully we can escape into the world of movies where a man's word is as good as his heart because that's the kind of hairpin he is.

Father & son: Biff aspires to be a dentist and practices all
he learns from a correspondence course on his willing pop.

Biff Grimes of "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) isn't your typical hero. Played in an incredibly sympathetic manner by James Cagney, he repeatedly plays second banana to his blowhard friend Hugo (Jack Carson) and is always a step behind his ne'er-do-well father (Alan Hale, Sr.). He has 2 critical weaknesses in his tough turn-of-the-century New York neighborhood: his basic decency and his romantic and chivalrous infatuation with the beautiful Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), the strawberry blonde of the title. 

All the boys at the barber shop long for Virginia

Biff is all bluff and bluster (in that charming Cagney way), but underneath he is honest, trusting, and maybe a bit naive (in the beginning). Outmaneuvered on that first double date, Hugo gets the luscious Virginia and Biff is stuck with suffragette wannabe  Amy (Olivia de Havilland). She, too, is all bluff and bluster, leading the shocked Biff to believe that she, a working woman (a nurse), smokes and, with the wink of an eye, might be open to premarital sex. Good girls in the 1890s didn't do or say things like that! As Amy later noted, she was without a date because "free thinkers usually have a lot of time on their hands."

Biff does manage a date with his strawberry blonde, but it is unsuccessful. While Virginia appreciates Biff's respectful ways, the material girl in her is drawn to sharpster Hugo, so much so that she runs off and marries him, leaving the ever hopeful Biff stunned and proposing to Amy as a consolation prize.

Virginia and Hugo: a deserving duo
As fate would have it, the gentle Amy and the trusting Biff were a good team, while the slimy Hugo and gilt-edged Virginia were also a match made in, if not hell, then at least purgatory. At Virginia's urging, Hugo hires Biff as an executive in his company. Virginia seems to enjoy torturing Hugo by keeping Biff around, as Hugo knows he sneaked in when a better man wasn't looking. 

Sitting behind a desk really wasn't Biff's style.
Biff is incredibly cute when he urges Amy to buy a new dress they clearly can't afford because he doesn't want Hugo and Virginia to show him up. But, Hugo, being Hugo, sets Biff up to take the fall for some shady practices  at his company and Biff goes to jail. Not only is Hugo dishonest, but he's also a coward (those 2 qualities usually go together, don't they?).

Biff kisses Amy goodbye before he is hauled off to jail.
It's upon Biff's release (with his dentistry diploma in hand) and his meeting with the patiently waiting Amy that reveals the truth about both characters: Biff has come to realize the depth of his love for Amy and Amy's patience is finally rewarded with the same love and appreciation she has shown all along.

Okay, so maybe I have a little girl-crush on Amy, too.

No pain killers for you, Hugo! We're doing this the manly way!
Fast forward to the present time. Biff is the neighborhood dentist (a dream fulfilled!) who finally gets an opportunity for revenge when, on a Sunday afternoon, he is the only dentist available to treat old nemesis Hugo's aching teeth. He's tempted to pay the lout back with a bit more gas than needed, but ultimately opts for pulling the tooth without any gas at all. Seeing the wedded misery of Hugo and Virginia only confirms what he has already learned: true love counts more than a pretty face. It took Biff a while, but this man of good character valued and loved the life he made with a woman of equally good character. Not only do they, presumably, live happily ever after, but a little Biff or Amy is on the way.

A note on the film: Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson make a dastardly duo, and some of the usual Warner Brothers suspects (George Tobias, Alan Hale Sr., Una O'Connor) are on hand (as well as a pre-Superman George Reeves ready to give Biff another black eye) to lend support, but it is the amazing chemistry between Cagney and de Havilland that gives this film its zest. There weren't many actresses that could hold their own in a great way against Cagney, but de Havilland matches him wink for wink and heartfelt look for look.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Me & Classic Film: Is This the End Of The Affair?

Warning: this conversation is personal

Me: It’s Me, Not You
I never thought we’d be having this conversation. Truly, I took for granted this could never end. You were everything to me. In this world of uncertainty, you were always there, a safe place. In a swirl of change, you remained unchanged. You and me – we had something special that no one person could pollute or corrupt.

Sigh, I guess we should go back to the beginning.

It was these ancient images and personalities, so powerful, which transported me to another world. It was a world of escape. So, yes, maybe at a tender age I needed a place that offered escape, comfort, familiarity, and acceptance. All of personal inner struggles melted when I became enveloped in your arms. You offered release of tears, of joy; you made my heart soar and you soothed the sores of a self a little too sensitive, a little too attuned to life’s slings and arrows, of the self’s fragility and self-doubt and the dreaded low self-esteem.

And suddenly, seemingly just like that, but really many decades later, I don’t need you for those things.

Classic Film: I get that you’ve changed, but may I present my argument?

Me: Of course, I owe you that.

Classic Film: While you may not need me for certain things anymore, there is much more that I can offer – things that have always been there, but you have not sought out.

Me: Tell me more.

Classic Film: Since your heart and psyche seems to be in good shape these days, I would suggest you concentrate on your head.

Me: How so?

Classic Film: I know you love a suspenseful story, yet you rarely venture into Film Noir. You should give it a try. And your exposure to foreign film classics is pretty thin, my dear. Why not watch a few? You might like them. And I know you love to observe fashion and costumes. Why not pay more attention to this? Bottom line: try something new with an open heart and open mind and give me a chance. I’ve been so faithful.

Me: Sigh… you’re making me fall in love with you all over again.You know me so well.

Classic Film: Remember… I’m always here when you need me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

It's National Classic Movie Day!

May 16th is National Classic Movie Day! And, as is tradition, Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting a blogathon. Wander on over HERE to read about everyone's 5 favorite films of the 50s.

Okay, so since my real most favorite films of the 50s (Sunset Boulevard, Singin' in the Rain to name 2) are probably on lots of people's lists and since I've written about them way too much, I decided to go with 5 films that are favorites, but not most favorite. The sub-genre of favorite-but-not-most favorite is a worthy one, too. No?

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
My love for this film takes on some extra poignancy due to the recent passing of one of my favorite stars, Doris Day. For my money, Doris was one of the most underrated of Hollywood stars. She could so it all in a way that looked natural and effortless - Judy without the neurosis.

Come on, Doris, he's not that bad......

Doris, as singer Ruth Etting, proves her acting ability in more than just sunny fluff. Of course, having a powerhouse performance by James Cagney as her gangster/obsessive lover probably helped elevate her performance. Cagney is amazing and kind of heart-breaking here. His love for Ruth is hopeless, no matter how hard he tries to strong-arm her into it, and Doris, as Ruth, is a gal who uses Marty's influence to get ahead and maybe, just maybe, has a bit of a yen for him (even though it disgusts her).  There is real and unexpected chemistry between Day and Cagney. Their relationship is, as they say, complicated, especially when true love Cameron Mitchell comes on the scene. Of course it ends happily for all (even Marty gets an ounce of satisfaction after a stint in the pokey after shooting Mitchell) because it was, after all, the 1950s.

The Court Jester (1955)

What can I say?

Hawkins: I’ve got it! I’ve got it! The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right, but there’s been a change. They broke the chalice from the palace.
Hawkins: They broke the chalice from the palace?!
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Griselda: Right.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.

It's better when you watch it:

It is hilarious, clever and Danny Kaye's talents are on full display. He has always been one of my favorites, but his movie roles did not always do justice to his special brand of zaniness that always had a touch of sweetness to it. A good man in a great role. And with Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury and the sly Mildred Natwick along for ride, what could be more delightful? It's a gem. It will uplift you on a dreary day.

Gigi (1958)

"a rock from some obnoxious little king is love..."
Gigi does not understand the Parisians
For me, this musical is perfection. Beautiful to look at and listen to, this romantic depiction fin de siecle Paris hits all of the right notes for me. Leslie Caron is a perfectly petulant French lass on the brink of womanhood, Louis Jordan is a perfectly petulant playboy, Gaston, on the brink of love and, best of all, Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold are golden as 2 Parisians who have fond memories of youth and love. 

Gigi celebrates Paris and love in all of its ages.

People Will Talk (1951)

Dr. Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant): "I consider faith properly injected into a patient as effective in maintaining life as adrenaline, and a belief in miracles has been the difference between living and dying as often as any surgeon's scalpel."

Ah, I do like this film. Billed as a comedy (not suitable for children), it is a rather serious film about a young woman who is pregnant with unmistakable echoes of the 1940s and 1950s anti-communist witch hunts. Our hero, Dr. Noah Praetorius (Cary Grant) is a compassionate and holistic doctor and teacher. His methods of treatment (body, mind and spirit) are viewed with suspicion by the more conventional and small-minded healers in his community who accuse him of quackery. He meets a young lady at one of his lectures (Jeanne Crain) who harbors a secret - she is pregnant and without a husband. He marries her, she thinks out of pity, but it is because he genuinely loves her. He's just such a great guy. Check out his bedside manner:

Meanwhile, the doctor is also a fierce defender of his friend, Mr. Shunderson, a convicted murderer who was, literally, given a second chance at life by Dr. Praetorius. As the black hearted lynch mob tries to add this to all of his other accused crimes, Dr. P refuses to name names to save himself if it means hurting his friend. Grant plays this all with a very light touch, but this is pretty meaningful stuff. The doctor's generous and humane spirit triumphs, just as we always hope all such things conclude.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

Jayne out-Monroes Monroe as Rita Marlowe

Jayne Mansfield might have gotten top billing, but Tony Randall as the hapless Rock Hunter (otherwise known as "Lover Doll") steals the show, again proving my contention that Tony Randall makes everything better just by his presence. Take a sneak peek at the trailer:

A funny satire on television and pop culture, Randall and Mansfield, as the Stay-Put lipstick girl, shine and are supported by the always welcome Joan Blondell, Betsy Drake as Rock's true love, and a fun cameo by Groucho Marx.This movie makes me happy in so many ways, but mainly because Tony Randall, for once, gets the girl.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Joan Crawford: A Face and a Whole Lot More in "Our Dancing Daughters"

This is my entry in the Joan Crawford: Queen of the Silver Screen Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Films. Click HERE for more Joan.

"Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living." F. Scott Fitzgerald

1928's "Our Dancing Daughters" is generally accepted to be the film that made Joan Crawford a star. Since 1925 Joan had been toiling away at MGM first appearing as Norma Shearer's double in "Lady of the Night," and quickly working her way into supporting roles with important stars by the end of the same year. As Norma Desmond rightly proclaimed, silent stars had "faces," memorable canvases of expression that provoked emotion in the audience. With her large, expressive eyes and classically contoured face and profile, Joan clearly had a "face." But soon, film stars would need more than a face.

An unforgettable face

"Our Dancing Daughters" is the story of 3 flapper girls friends, all part of the "smart set." They go to parties, laugh a lot and flirt with boys.

Dorothy Sebastian, Anita Page and Joan Crawford
Diana Medford (Joan Crawford) is known as "Dangerous Diana," and is the leader of the pack. She is a good-time girl on the outside, appearing to be free and easy, but her frivolous persona masks a virtuous heart. Female virtue is really important in this film.

Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastian) is the fallen friend who must always, always pay for her transgression.

Ann (Anita Page) is the outwardly sweet and virtuous girl who is anything but. Schooled by a materialistic mother that money and prestige are all that matter, Ann is on the hunt for a wealthy husband.

Naturally, Diana and Ann fall for the same man (Johnny Mack Brown as Ben). Although he really loves Diana, he is fooled by her outward devil-may-care attitude and Ann's sweet and seemingly innocent demeanor. He picks the girl he thinks to be most virtuous. Beatrice, meanwhile, marries Norman (Nils Asther), the man who loves her but can't seem to get past the fact that he was not "the first." By the way, Nils Asther had one of the best sneers in the movies.

Norman loves Bea, but he can't stop giving her a
hard time over a past romance.
Ann and Ben's marriage breaks Diana's heart and she decides to go away for a while. Meanwhile, Ann scorns her husband and is unfaithful. Ben, having enough of her lies, decides to go to Diana's farewell party. There, he and Diana reaffirm their love for one another and are confronted by a drunken Ann, who doesn't want her husband but wants the luxurious life he gives her. After a drunken outburst, she takes a fatal head first tumble down a flight of stairs and paves the way for Diana and Ben to finally get together.

Joan Crawford's star-making role revealed a fresh, youthful and compelling performer. Her face beautifully expresses every deeply felt emotion and, truly, you can't take your eyes off of her. I'm reminded of a quote by Louise Brooks who said Joan danced like a lady wrestler. She does put a lot of muscle in her dancing, but it's her acting and her presence that captivate.

A word about Anita Page

A drunken Ann puts on quite a show
As fabulous as Joan is in "Our Dancing Daughters," the film is almost stolen by the tremendous performance by Anita Page as Ann, the girl with cracked ice in her veins who was sinfully abused by her materialistic mother. Of the 3 leading ladies, her's was the sweetest face that masked the blackest heart and she played her part brilliantly. After a great start to her film career (she also starred in "Broadway Melody"), it slowed to a halt in the 1930s. 

By 1928, the film flapper had been firmly established. She was young, fun loving and carefree. After the sadness of World War I, gaiety, even forced gaiety, ruled the day.

Famous Film Flappers: Louise Brooks, Clara Bow,
Coleen Moore and Constance Talmadge
Louise Brooks, with her famous bob and insolent look, was a perfect embodiment of the abandon, desperation and decadence of the 1920s. 

Clara Bow, the most famous flapper of all and ever-famous as the "It" Girl was always fun-loving and always strong, but soft, and always had a hint of sadness about her.

Coleen Moore, one of the first film flappers, was also a fledgling flapper. She was tasting the joy of freedom, but only dipped one toe in the pool.

Constance Talmadge was, as Fitzgerald called her, "a flapper de luxe." She was fun and sophisticated and just slightly out of reach.

None of these actresses were able to carry their success of the 1920s into the 1930s.

And then there was Joan.

Joan Crawford was the one film flapper who was able to transition from the carefree woman to the free woman of cares. She successfully crossed the bridge between girlish flappers and full-fledged women of strength and freedom. She was oh-so-like the others, yet oh-so-different.

As we know, Joan got lots of fan mail and she took her fans seriously. Somehow, I suspect much of that mail came from female fans. She was the woman every modern girl wanted to be: strong, self-possessed and independent, but willing to surrender to romantic love. She was smart and competent and  yet, somehow always had to pay a price for that. Hmmm.. I have a feeling Joan would still be fighting that same battle today. Oh, and may I add that throughout her storied career spanning many different looks and styles, Miss Joan Crawford was always extremely well groomed and well dressed. She knew the importance of the full package and we, her fans, are grateful for her devotion.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Late Show (1977): Lily Tomlin: A Hypnotic Hippie Crashes a Symphony of Nostalgic Noir

Have you ever fallen under the spell of a film? Of course you have, otherwise you wouldn't be here. Certain films and characters have a way of mesmerizing us and drawing us into their world. Count me 100% under the spell of one Margo Sperling, the lady with the missing cat in 1977's "The Late Show." 

An unlikely femme fatale
The 1970s saw a surge in new versions of noir. From some great late entries into the genre ("China Town", "The Long Goodbye") to parodies ("The Black Bird", "The Cheap Detective"), the gritty gumshoes and grimy neighborhoods (usually of Los Angeles) had a brief moment of vogue. "The Late Show" is not a parody. With a tight, taut and quirky script by Robert Benton (who also directed) combined with a Robert Altman "feel" (he produced), it takes us on a journey of new age crashing into nostalgia that somehow feels so right.

"The Late Show"gives us an authentic and compelling performance by Art Carney as Ira Wells, the retired private eye from a bygone era. The time is the present, but Ira's mind and spirit are firmly planted in the past. When we first meet him we spy a tell-all he's working on called "Naked Girls and Machine Guns, Memoirs of a Real Private Investigator by Ira Wells." Ah, the good old days. 

Retired P.I.s have a story to tell
Ira, living in a shabby rented room, overweight, hard of hearing and suffering from a bad ulcer and bad  knees, is pretty much the definition of over the hill. But, one knock on the door and things change.

A fateful evening's disturbance brings mortally wounded ex-partner Harry Regan  to Ira's doorstep. Shot while working on a case, Harry dies in Ira's room before revealing his killer and that old private eye in Ira comes back to life. His mission? Find out who killed Harry Regan.

Howard Duff's role is small, but pivotal
From there we meet an assortment of low lifes and grifters we would expect in a noirish private eye story: there's the fence (Eugene Roche as the guy too nice to be nice), The fence's fussy muscleman (John Considine), the shifty tipster (Bill Macy at his slimy best) and the gorgeous, duplicitous dame who is just a red-herring femme fatale (Joanna Cassidy as a classic damsel in faux distress). And then there is the wild card, the nut with the stolen cat, the real femme fatale. That would be Margo Sperling, played by the superlative Lily Tomlin.

Sleeze x 3 : Eugene Roche, Bill Macy and John Considine

Joanna Cassidy's Laura Birdwell should be the femme fatale,
but she's just a distraction
Ah, Margo. She is a magnificent kook. A failed actress, now talent agent and sometimes pot dealer, Margo reveals that Harry was the first private eye she hired to find her stolen cat. Ira reminds her he does not come cheap, but Margo really wants her kitty back. And so, the seemingly unrelated quests to find Harry's killer and Margo's cat become one.

Margo was NOT a Handmaid
Lily Tomlin's Margo bring the new age to noir. She is certainly not Ira's idea of a sexy dame, but as the two begin to work together they form a partnership that gives the other a purpose and sense of worth. Margo really does like the old guy, worries about him and ultimately admires him. Ira can't quite believe he likes this nut, but it is undeniable that they fit like hand in glove (if only she'd wear a dress). Tomlin's Margo is kind of unforgettable. Yeah, she's out there, but her delight in solving the crime proves she might just be the gal for Ira. All of her career failures lead her to him. Will he take the chance at happiness she so generously offers?

Because it's Lily Tomlin, there are some great Margo-isms (that could be Frankie-isms if you watch her in Grace and Frankie):

My shrink says I'm a very conflicted personality... plus my astrologer

Boy, it's really lucky for you that I just happen to be a very self-destructive person.

Does the Pope s--- in the woods?

While the private eye mystery of the film is superb (Benton's script was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay) the heart of story is the relationship between two completely different characters. No way should they give one another another look without a raised eyebrow. But somehow these two misfits connect, and although there is no romance for us to see, you know the partnership will blossom into something more. And it should. They are just so good together. And that is why Margo, not Laura Birdwell, is the femme fatale of the story. She offers Ira that elusive something, that Black Bird, that stuff that dreams are made of: purpose and respect and maybe love.

The beginning of a  beautiful friendship?
Neat little film noir homages  are served up to the knowing viewer. The opening Warner Brothers logo is the logo of the 40s, not the one used in 1977. A 40-ish song called "What Was" is sung by a sultry female and the photo we see in Ira's room is of Martha Vickers, the femme fatale of "The Big Sleep." Ira's desire to avenge his fallen partner echoes back to Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon," and speaking of "The Maltese Falcon", Harry Regan is played by Howard Duff, radio's Sam Spade from 1946-1950. And then there is this cute little exchange between Ira and Margo after an exhilarating, harrowing and dangerous car chase leads Margo to think she may have the stuff to be a private eye:

Margo: I feel like the Thin Man.
Ira: Who?
Margo: You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.

Recognize her?

So - look into my eyes (figuratively) - you will see this move and you will love it. Got that? See it. It melds past and present in a way few films can. I promise you will love it. 

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir Blogathon. Click here for more fatally fabulous females and fellas.