The Champ: THE KILLING (LA)
Everyone who reads this blog knows how much I love Sterling Hayden. Next to ASPHALT JUNGLE, this is probably my favorite Hayden film. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel, CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White. The plot is pretty standard, though it’s served up in an intriguing series of overlapping flashbacks. A diverse collection of characters from all walks of life come together to pull a brilliant racetrack heist that promises to bring in a cool two million. A crooked cop, an ex con, a cashier, a bartender, a sharpshooter and even a pro wrestler. Of course, it’s Film Noir, so complications ensue, primarily fomented by a bleached blonde Marie Windsor. Windsor looks much better as a brunette, but she still steals the show as henpecked Elisha Cook Jr’s greedy, unfaithful and astoundingly sexy wife, who spends most of the movie in a negligee. The rest of the ensemble cast is also dynamite and the dialog (penned by hardboiled legend Jim Thompson) is sharp, vicious and memorable. (Hayden to Windsor: “You got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart.”) I’ve seen this movie a hundred times and I never get tired of it. It’s the kind of film that utterly sucks you in every single time you see it. You know every step of the heist as well as the guys on screen, but you still get caught up in the breathless excitement of watching it unfold with such flawless precision. And did I mention Marie Windsor? Man, is she something.
One of the first things that special guest Colleen Gray had to say about THE KILLING was how unfair it was that she got top billing (as Hayden’s sweet little muffin of a girlfriend in only two short scenes) over Marie Windsor, who she claimed should have won an Oscar. I love Colleen Gray (the Leech Woman, herself!) and think she’s a great actress (NIGHTMARE ALLEY, KISS OF DEATH,) but I’m gonna have to agree with her there. KILLING really is Windsor’s movie. That aside, Colleen was full of spunk and great stories. I particularly enjoyed hearing about what is was like working with Hayden. She described him as “a stone wall,” “strong and silent” and “very focused.”
The big unexpected thrill for me was meeting the stunningly beautiful Marsha Hunt. Hunt’s wonderful book THE WAY WE WORE is my bible of 30s and 40s fashion and eighty years later (!) she is still just as fabulous, chic and elegant as ever. I felt like a peasant standing next to her with my boyish haircut and scuffed mary-janes but she was utterly gracious and charming. When Alan Rode (who seems to love playing my personal cheerleader – you’re the best Alan!) told her about MONEY SHOT and the fact that I’ll the first woman to be published by Hard Case Crime, she congratulated me and told me to go out and strike a blow for all of womankind. You got it, Ms. Hunt. And don’t worry, I promise to do it in better shoes!
The Challenger: THE SLEEPING CITY (NY)
Bellevue. A benign, gentle, even pretty word that has scared the pants off New York City kids like me for more than 200 years. Bellevue was where they would lock you up if didn’t behave. Of course, there’s much more to America’s oldest public hospital than just the psych wards, but the word Bellevue was practically synonymous with crazy to us kids and that hulking brick edifice looming over the East River was like the boogyman of buildings. So, needless to say, when I heard about this movie I couldn’t wait to see it. A Film Noir shot on location in what was once the scariest place on the planet to my over-active six year old imagination? How did I miss this one for so long?
The film starts off with an unintentionally hilarious disclaimer featuring star Richard Conte in doctor drag, explaining what a swell place Bellevue really is and how nothing like the following story could ever really happen there. I’m sure he’s right, but I remain as unconvinced now as I was when I was six. There’s monsters in there. I’m sure of it.
The plot of SLEEPING involves a cop (Conte) with a medical background who must go undercover as an intern at Bellevue to get to the bottom of a homicide and suicide that may or may not be connected. Gorgeous Colleen Gray is as sweet and dangerous as morphine in the role of the ward nurse mixed up in all of this but the real star of this movie is Bellevue itself. The claustrophobic stairwells and crowded wards and sinister basement hallways make you feel locked up tight along with the terrified patients, ovverworked nurses and stir-crazy, sleepless interns. There’s one brilliant moment where a more experienced intern is showing the newbies around and shows them a beautiful view of the New York skyline. He tells them to take a good look, since that’s the last they’ll ever see of that and then turns around and leads them back down into the bowels of the hospital.
I really loved this movie and I was absolutely thrilled to see it on the big screen. Still, as much as I enjoyed it, I’m afraid this bout has to go to LA for THE KILLING. That puts LA back on top at 5-4.
Talking with Keith over the course of the festival about the esthetic differences between New York Noir and Los Angeles Noir, we hit on what I think is a really perfect analogy. Rats and Lions. The New York movies tend to be claustrophobic and trapped, following small stories of small, desperate creatures willing to fight to the death for a single crust of bread or chew their own legs off to escape when the walls start closing in. The LA movies follow broad, sweeping stories of big predators after big game in a sprawling concrete Serengeti where opulent, glamorous feast and grim, hopeless famine lay close as lovers and you never know which one is right around the corner. Of course, it’s not that cut and dry across the board and there are exceptions on both sides, but I still think the fundamental concept holds water.
Tonight, PITFALL vs. A DOUBLE LIFE