Posts Tagged ‘film noir’

For the Love of Film (Noir): On the Road to Key Largo

Friday, February 18th, 2011

This post contributes to the rich film-noir blogathon currently hosted by Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. 

Funds donated by clicking on the image below will go to the Film Noir Foundation. Donors are eligible for prizes, but the real prize is getting to help restore the 1950 film The Sound of Fury—and getting to read all the great posts the blogathon is attracting!

When as a child I first visited Paris with my godmother I was astonished to find that many French people were aware of the relatively obscure place in which she lived, Key Largo, Florida.
The reason for this familiarity was not a knowledge of U.S. geography but a knowledge of American film history. 

As early fans of classic directors like John Huston and as countrymen of the critics who invented the term “film noir,” the French knew and loved Huston’s 1948 noir gangster movie set on, partly shot on, and named after my godmother’s home Key.

Key Largo always merits a visit. It grips today’s viewers yet remains a true product of its time.
A melodrama of postwar malaise, the film takes place in and around the Largo Hotel, a resort owned by James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his widowed daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall).
Humphrey Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a footloose former soldier who steps off a bus on Route 1 and becomes involved against his will in the hotelkeepers’ conflict with underworld kingpin Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his henchmen.
In the course of an hour and 41 minutes, the disillusioned McCloud learns to commit himself to the cause of right—and to the cause of Nora Temple. He also braves a hurricane that changes everyone’s plans.
The movie is a goldmine for social historians. It can be viewed as a metaphor for Americans on the brink of the Cold War, learning like McCloud to become involved in a new fight. 

The hero’s decision at the film’s finish to end his rootless existence and settle down with the Temples also mirrors our culture’s postwar emphasis on the importance of home as haven.

Key Largo is more than just a story for its time, however. It is a lush, well paced picture with glorious black-and-white photography by Karl Freund.
It is also a primer in American film acting, featuring a range of diverse yet complementary styles.
On one end of its spectrum are the minimalist Bogart and Bacall, whose faces and voices come across as almost expressionless. 

Only a couple of gestures and a few mutual looks indicate that Frank and Nora have fallen in love in the course of the film, but those gestures and looks are so well choreographed that they speak volumes.

In contrast, Robinson delivers a powerful, cigar-chomping personification of evil, filling the screen with his body and voice.
Claire Trevor joins him in the ham portion of the thespian spectrum with a magnificently campy performance as his character’s alcoholic, over-the-hill moll. The role earned her an Academy Award. 

When she takes center stage to reprise her old nightclub routine in a creaky voice, Trevor’s character provides the film’s most moving moment.

Every time I think about Key Largo the film I long to visit Key Largo the place. I dream of flying down to Miami, then traveling—like Bogey’s character—on a Greyhound bus along Route 1.
I don’t exactly have the time or the funds to take this trip, however, so I settle for recreating my favorite tropical spot at home.
Since I’ll never look like Bacall or Claire Trevor my costume is a simple lei. Nevertheless, I do work hard to make food that features the Keys’ signature food, key-lime juice. And of course I watch Key Largo.
If you’d like to have your own Key Largo party, don’t make do with the juice of ordinary limes; it hasn’t got the subtle, rich flavor of the key lime.
Many supermarkets carry Nellie & Joe’s key-lime juice. You may also order juice by mail from Floribbean; this company also sells such goodies as key-lime salsa, jelly, and savory oil.
Or call my favorite key-lime store, the Key Lime Tree.
This emporium, located (where else?) on Key Largo not far from my godmother’s home, offers a plethora of key-lime products, from beverages to fudge to fabulous soap, plus OF COURSE key-lime juice. 

Last time I checked in, its owners would even ship out a small key-lime tree to help you add some scenery to your Key Largo bash.

Settle yourself under the tree’s thorny branches; sip a key-lime beverage; and prepare to spend an evening with Bogart, Bacall, and company.
I have already featured several key-lime recipes on this blog. These include key-lime chicken; tropical fruit salsa; key lime-white chocolate chip cookies; and everybody’s favorite, key-lime pie.
I thought readers might like a cocktail to accompany a viewing of Key Largo, however. What could be more appropriate for this stormy film than a hurricane?
This tropical drink packs quite a wallop. Claire Trevor’s Gaye Dawn (a PERFECT Florida Keys name!), who drinks her way through the movie, would appreciate it, although she doesn’t at all appreciate the natural disaster from which it derives its name. 

If you cannot find passion-fruit syrup in your local grocery or liquor store, it may be found online at Amazon and other sites. Some bartenders take a shortcut and substitute 1/2 cup of Hawaiian Punch. This doesn’t strike me as appropriate for a celebration of film noir, however.

Key Largo Hurricane
1 ounce light rum
1 ounce dark rum
1 tablespoon passion-fruit syrup
1 tablespoon key-lime juice (more or less to taste)

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Serves 1.

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For the Love of Film (Noir): Ready for Her Closeup

Monday, February 14th, 2011

This post is my contribution to an internet event hosted by two wonderful blogs, Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. Last year the two collaborated on their first film-preservation blogathon, For the Love of Film. This year, they are focusing in on Film Noir. This dark (in more ways than one) film genre features paranoid heroes, shady ladies, and fateful drama.
Funds donated by clicking on this link (you KNOW you need to do it!) will go to the Film Noir Foundation. Donors are eligible for prizes, but the real prize is getting to help restore the 1950 film The Sound of Fury—and to read all the great posts the blogathon is attracting.
When Ferdy and the Siren announced that they were devoting this year’s blogathon to Film Noir, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to come up with a film to write about. To be frank, I’m not a noir girl. As a sometime intellectual I appreciate films noirs aesthetically, but as an eternal movie fan I like to identify with characters in films, particularly female characters.
Most noir female protagonists, while interesting, are hard to identify with. They’re too busy being femmes fatales, often literally. 

And then I remembered Norma Desmond, who taught me a lot about the way we relate to films—and about the aging process.

Norma Desmond is the iconic heroine (I see her as a heroine, anyway) of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Played with studied camp and seemingly effortless glamour by Gloria Swanson, Norma is a relic of a recent (in 1950) but almost forgotten (also in 1950) facet of Hollywood’s history, the silent-film industry.
When sound film came along, many performers’ careers were finished. And so it was that the premise of the film–that a woman of 50 who had been an enormous star 20 years earlier was now almost forgotten–could be believable.
Wilder took advantage of that believability by casting several silent-film greats as Norma Desmond’s bridge-playing cohorts; the film’s younger, irreverent narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), refers to them as her “Wax Works.” Swanson herself hadn’t been in a successful film in many years, although she had kept busy on the stage.
Norma Desmond deals with her exile from stardom by denying it, by trying to live as much as possible in the past. She fastens on to Joe, an out-of-work screenwriter, as a possible vehicle for her comeback (she actually prefers the word “return”).  

She hires Joe to revamp the script she hopes will re-launch her career and soon turns him into a kept man ensconced in her fading old mansion.

Joe grows more and more resentful, and Norma grows more and more delusional. Norma’s final murder of Joe is no surprise since it is previewed in the film’s opening shots. Nevertheless, Wilder managed to make the film’s ending sad, haunting, and more than a little scary.
When I first saw Sunset Boulevard I was about 20. I already had a major crush on William Holden and tended to see the film through his character’s eyes. To the young me Norma Desmond was a frightening old witch, and I rooted for Joe Gillis to end up with the more age-appropriate Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).
A reader at a studio, Betty criticizes Joe’s newest screenplay early in the film. Viewers later learn that she is harsh because she believes he has potential. The two end up collaborating on a screenplay late at night when Norma is asleep. Betty says she wants to work on the screenplay because she is ambitious, but she doesn’t want to work on it without Joe, with whom she is obviously smitten. 

She is presented as the anti-Norma, young and interested in promoting Joe (a traditional feminine attitude) rather than herself. She allows herself to be kissed by Joe rather than reaching out to grab him as Norma does.

Norma says she is in love with Joe, but she wants him to bolster her ego and her career; his career is of secondary interest to her (if it is of interest at all).
When the young me watched Sunset Boulevard, she asked all the “what if” questions about Joe that the film encourages: what if Joe had gotten away from Norma; what if he had become a good, honest screenwriter; and so forth.
I saw Sunset Boulevard again in a film class when I was in my early 30s, as part of a discussion of classical Hollywood narrative. I found myself crying at the picture’s end.
I wasn’t crying for poor dead Joe, however. I was crying for poor live Norma. And I cry for her now each time I see the film.
I admit that the character has major flaws. She is vain, selfish, prone to emotional blackmail, and ultimately insane. Nevertheless, as another memorable Billy Wilder character later said, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Betty’s major appeal is that she is 22 years old. Anybody can be 22—or at least, just about everybody is 22 at some time or other.
Norma is hardworking, talented (she is luminescent in the scenes from her silent-film work projected in her living room, real footage of Swanson in the unfinished film Queen Kelly), and barely middle aged.
The scene in which she sails in to the Paramount Pictures lot to confer with her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, is touching. She meets several of the “little people” with whom she used to work—a security guard, an electrician, a hairdresser—and one gets a sense of what the young Norma Desmond might have been like. 

DeMille’s character describes her as “a plucky little girl of seventeen, with more courage and wit and heart than ever came together in one youngster.”

The older Norma may have lost some of her wit(s). She still has a lot of courage, if not quite enough to face what has become of her stardom and her audience. And she exhibits all too much heart.
It’s a tribute to the power of film—to the power of a good film, anyway—that I can relate to different characters and different storylines at different ages. 

Perhaps when I’m 65 or so I’ll identify with Max von Mayerling, Norma’s butler, who is also her ex-husband and former film impresario. In a sense Max is the most selfless person in the film, since he lives only to give Norma Desmond what she wants.

Or maybe I won’t identify with him. I’ve never been completely selfless.
Moreover, it’s hard not to remember that Max is played by Eric von Stroheim, whose reputation went a little overboard in the NON-selfless direction.
According to Billy Wilder, this egotistical, autocratic former film director threatened to sue the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nominating him as best supporting actor in Sunset Boulevard because he COULD NEVER BE a supporting player. (Wilder may have made the story up, but it’s plausible.)
We’ll see how the film strikes me when I hit 65.
In any case, I urge readers to watch the film again (or for the first time) and tell me whom they identify with.
On to a recipe……
I thought long and hard about recipe choice for this post. I might have selected something organic and vegetarian; Gloria Swanson was a noted health-food enthusiast and an early proponent of local, organic foods. 

I almost made the biscuits in this 1933 recipe (if you can call it that;it’s just cheese added to biscuits), which a Bisquick recipe booklet claimed was a Swanson favorite.

In the end I decided to honor Film Noir as a whole with a Valentine’s Day adaptation of the classic Icebox Cake. One if the visual signatures of many films noirs is a series of bars across the screen (often across actors’ faces) that symbolize the shadows that hover over the doomed characters, and the prisons that many film-noir protagonists create for themselves. 

When sliced at an angle, icebox cakes create lovely black-and-white lines that evoke the bars.

You can follow the growing tally of participants in this blogathon by checking out the lists at Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. And PLEASE don’t forget to donate to the Film Noir Foundation!

Film Noir Torte
Adapted from Nabisco
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
several tablespoons framboise or Chambord (raspberry liqueur)
1/2 pint raspberries (more if you like and can afford them!)
1 package (9 ounces) Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers (these flat, round chocolate cookies are difficult but not impossible to find; just ask around at area grocery stores)
Whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Fold in the vanilla and liqueur.
Gently crush 2/3 of the raspberries and fold them carefully into 1/2 of the flavored whipped cream. Reserve the remaining whipped cream.
Spread about 1-1/2 tablespoons of the raspberry/cream mixture onto a wafer. Top it with another wafer. Stack them standing up until you have 9 or 10 wafers; then gently lay the stack on its side on a serving plate. Repeat, adding to the horizontal stack, until you have used up the remaining wafers.
Cover the log of stacks with the remaining whipped cream.
Refrigerate, gently covered, for at least 4 hours.
Remove from the fridge just before serving and garnish the torte with the remaining raspberries. Slice diagonally so that black-and-white bars appear. 

Nabisco’s original recipe says its cake serves 14; in my family, it served 8 to 10.

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