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Into the Darkness Video Lecture #3: The Means (Noir & the Studios)


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This is the official discussion thread for Video Lecture #3 of the #NoirSummer course. This is where you can discuss "The Means" Lecture. 

 

Key topics covered:

1. The Genius of the Hollywood Studio System

2. A versus B pictures

3. Visual Motifs in Film Noir (Place and Peterson Article)

 

Let the discussions begin!

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Another great lecture, and holy cow is that some great reading material to keep me busy all week. A couple of scattered thoughts here first:

 

Apparently Ulmer's claim that Detour took only six days to shoot might be wrong. A shooting script his daughter held on to had a schedule of 14 shooting days, while Ann Savage's contract said she was signed for three 6-day weeks. Regardless of the production, it's hard to argue with the results. It certainly looks like it was done quickly on a shoestring budget, and that only adds to it's power.

 

I'm delighted by how similar my own thoughts and deductions seem to be to what you end up discussing in the lectures. This is a lot of fun. One thing that's hinted at in the lecture, but has really been an obsession with me lately, is the idea of the noir film as a closed universe. You hint at it with the Noir Country label as well; the idea that noir films take place in their own world that's sealed off from what most of us experience. There are a lot of noirs that feel like the characters are in purgatory, where if they tried to leave town on one street, they'd simply enter another street across town. This is most prevalent in Murder, My Sweet, where it seems like only 5 real people exist in the entire world. Dark Passage presents this idea, as well, as Bogart keeps running into the same group of people who keep sending him back to the beginning whenever he seems about to get out of the city. Dark Passage, as the title implies, at least presents it's characters with a real escape. A lot of noir films just feel like once the credits roll, everyone resets to their starting positions and begins again.

Also, I don't want to get too off track, but I love the studio system for a lot of reasons mentioned in the lecture. I love that during this time a writer or director could just be handed a mandate to provide a certain type of movie, and then have pretty much creative control over the final product. There were some restrictions, of course, but if the budget was adhered to and the requisite genre hallmarks were present, directors could pump out some great offbeat works. I think Roger Corman might be the last true proponent for this style. He would famously give people a budget and a timeframe and a genre and let them do whatever they want. There's a reason so many great filmmakers got their start with him. James Cameron, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme. I don't think I'd ever want a full return to the studio system, because I love the idiosyncracies allowed auteurs these days, but it still made for some memorable works.

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First off lets talk about today's daily dose.  We can immediately see that as Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past walks into the cafe our noir hero is attracted by her instantly.  You can also feel a connection between them right away as they talk.  The use of shadows as discussed in the lecture today pretty much means that no good can be coming up.   Second, I personally love the studio system because they made so many classic films with so many great actors and directors and of course the whole team of movie makers.  I wish they would go back to that way of making movies because the movies nowadays are so predictable and boring.  Not to mention we are seeing way to many remakes to movies that should not be remade.  Hollywood has lost it's imagination today which films noir worked so hard to create.  I personally prefer the B films more often than the A films because with the B films you can concentrate more on the film itself and not the famous stars or directors making the film and they are not flashy or fancy which makes things seem more real to me.  

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The beginning is shot in the hot sun, in somewhat of a documentary style except with the internal monologue of the main character as opposed to a separate narrator.  The scene moves in and out of the coolness of the shadows with Jane Greer ultimately moving out of the sun and into the shadowy cantina.  Somewhat mysteriously, Greer is handed a drink, but she leaves before drinking it.  We learn that Mitchum has been offered $40,000 to find Greer.  He has frequented the cantina each day until she finally walked in.  Greer informs Mitchum of another cantina where she sometimes frequents, and apparantly she would be more comfortable talking to Mitchum there.  She mentions 58th street, implying that she's familiar with New York City, perhaps her past, and also that Mitchum would be familiar with 58th street, perhaps his past.  With the scene of Greer walking over the threshold from the sun and into the shadows, the film literalizes the films noir element of action taking place among the shadows.  There is mystery as to why Greer is hiding out and why Mitchum has been called upon to stalk her, as well as to why Greer, apparantly, is willing to meet and talk with Mitchum instead of running from him.

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The studio system always interested me. As a long time classic movie lover, I can tell a MGM, RKO, Universal, Warner Brothers film from each other. Now I have more detail why.

I also understand when I watch b-movies, for me 60% are mediocre, 20%watchable and 20%gems.

It explains why watching b-movies is like searching for gold, because when i find a good b-movie, it's gold.

RKO film noirs are always the best to me, followed by Warner Brothers, but RKO noirs are more authentic to me. The paramount films are the funniest.

But the one thing I'm on the hunt for is 20th century fox films, noirs or not seem to be an untapped source- They're classic movies are very good, but hard to find.

Any one know a source of 20th century fox films- noirs or not- but from the 1930s to 1950s??/

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Any one know a source of 20th century fox films- noirs or not- but from the 1930s to 1950s??/

 

Fox actually put out quite a few DVDs under their Fox Film Noir banner. Nightmare Alley, House of Bamboo, Laura, and a bunch of others. They're still available for purchase if you're so inclined. Just search amazon for 'Fox Film Noir'

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Thanks!! :P  I did my search and was also reminded of these classics as well that others on board may like

Dangerous Crossing, Black Widow, Call Northside 777, roadhouse.. been  a while since i've seen them, but they are good films

Fox actually put out quite a few DVDs under their Fox Film Noir banner. Nightmare Alley, House of Bamboo, Laura, and a bunch of others. They're still available for purchase if you're so inclined. Just search amazon for 'Fox Film Noir'

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The studio system always interested me. As a long time classic movie lover, I can tell a MGM, RKO, Universal, Warner Brothers film from each other. Now I have more detail why.

I also understand when I watch b-movies, for me 60% are mediocre, 20%watchable and 20%gems.

It explains why watching b-movies is like searching for gold, because when i find a good b-movie, it's gold.

RKO film noirs are always the best to me, followed by Warner Brothers, but RKO noirs are more authentic to me. The paramount films are the funniest.

But the one thing I'm on the hunt for is 20th century fox films, noirs or not seem to be an untapped source- They're classic movies are very good, but hard to find.

Any one know a source of 20th century fox films- noirs or not- but from the 1930s to 1950s??/

 

I also recommend Columbia noir films as well.    While Columbia didn't have iconic noir actors under contract (well unless one considers Glen Ford) like RKO had (Mitchum)  or WB (Bogart),   they did release many fine noir films.    4 with Bogart (either post WB or on loan out);  In a Lonely Place,  The Harder they Fall,  Knock On Any Door and Dead Reckoning,  the Glen Ford noirs Gilda,  Framed, Human Desire, and The Big Heat,  and other solid films like The Reckless Moment and others late in the cycle like The Lineup, So Dark the Night and Nightfall.  

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thanks james! i like columbia films as well and reminding me of Dead Reckoning. I really liked Bogie with Lisbeth Scott, i like bogie and bacall together, but lisbeth scott was like lauren bacall's sister from the wrong side of the tracks. she was always more authentic to me than bacall in noir

I also recommend Columbia noir films as well.    While Columbia didn't have iconic noir actors under contract (well unless one considers Glen Ford) like RKO had (Mitchum)  or WB (Bogart),   they did release many fine noir films.    4 with Bogart (either post WB or on loan out);  In a Lonely Place,  The Harder they Fall,  Knock On Any Door and Dead Reckoning,  the Glen Ford noirs Gilda,  Framed, Human Desire, and The Big Heat,  and other solid films like The Reckless Moment and others late in the cycle like The Lineup So Dark the Night and Nightfall.  

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thanks james! i like columbia films as well and reminding me of Dead Reckoning. I really liked Bogie with Lisbeth Scott, i like bogie and bacall together, but lisbeth scott was like lauren bacall's sister from the wrong side of the tracks. she was always more authentic to me than bacall in noir

 

Liz Scott is indeed more authentic in the noir films she made than Bacall,  but that is because the Bogie \ Bacall noir films are overtly romantic films and this takes away from the noir vibe of these films.    Of course I understand why romance was added to those films since they were the Pitt \ Jolie of their era. 

 

e.g. if Bacall was cast in Dead Reckoning,  I wonder if the ending would have been changed to one similar to their other 4 films together. 

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Another great lecture, and holy cow is that some great reading material to keep me busy all week. A couple of scattered thoughts here first:

 

Apparently Ulmer's claim that Detour took only six days to shoot might be wrong. A shooting script his daughter held on to had a schedule of 14 shooting days, while Ann Savage's contract said she was signed for three 6-day weeks. Regardless of the production, it's hard to argue with the results. It certainly looks like it was done quickly on a shoestring budget, and that only adds to it's power.

 

I'm delighted by how similar my own thoughts and deductions seem to be to what you end up discussing in the lectures. This is a lot of fun. One thing that's hinted at in the lecture, but has really been an obsession with me lately, is the idea of the noir film as a closed universe. You hint at it with the Noir Country label as well; the idea that noir films take place in their own world that's sealed off from what most of us experience. There are a lot of noirs that feel like the characters are in purgatory, where if they tried to leave town on one street, they'd simply enter another street across town. This is most prevalent in Murder, My Sweet, where it seems like only 5 real people exist in the entire world. Dark Passage presents this idea, as well, as Bogart keeps running into the same group of people who keep sending him back to the beginning whenever he seems about to get out of the city. Dark Passage, as the title implies, at least presents it's characters with a real escape. A lot of noir films just feel like once the credits roll, everyone resets to their starting positions and begins again.

 

Also, I don't want to get too off track, but I love the studio system for a lot of reasons mentioned in the lecture. I love that during this time a writer or director could just be handed a mandate to provide a certain type of movie, and then have pretty much creative control over the final product. There were some restrictions, of course, but if the budget was adhered to and the requisite genre hallmarks were present, directors could pump out some great offbeat works. I think Roger Corman might be the last true proponent for this style. He would famously give people a budget and a timeframe and a genre and let them do whatever they want. There's a reason so many great filmmakers got their start with him. James Cameron, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme. I don't think I'd ever want a full return to the studio system, because I love the idiosyncracies allowed auteurs these days, but it still made for some memorable works.

 

Love this! I've been following your posts consistently, and I agree I think we tend to share a similar view of film noir. I find myself frequently agreeing with your posts, and wish I had more time to reply to more of them! 

 

Detour's production history is best detailed in Noah Isenberg's Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins. He did have a longer shooting schedule that most of the "legends' have it- but I tend to be in John Ford's camp on such matter - I am happy to "print [ulmer's] legend (a la the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) because the truth is that he made a masterpiece at a fraction of the budget and time and studio resources of Double Indemnity. 

 

Second, I see film noir as manifesting a worldview - it is a kind of world that allegorically traipses between stories embroiled in a doomed reality poised somewhere between purgatory and hell (not to get too Dante here, as in Divine Comedy, not today's Joe), in terms of its operative logics and philosophical boundaries, that is fairly consistent over several hundred films. 

 

Third, for reasons I argued in the lecture, I am a huge fan of the studio system - I think that studios figured out a great way in the 1930s and 1940s to produce an industrial-artistic pipeline that consistently resulted in watchable films by creating a system that rewarded skilled artists through regular production schedules, access to major talent, and studio-based resources that allowed a flourishing of the cinematic arts. 

 

Thanks for your post! I look forward to reading more of them. 

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Controlling every aspect of a film from concept to release was a wise thing--not only did a studio know its product it knew where it would sell and how much return it would get.  This was financially more sure than just putting a film out and hoping for the best.  With two tracks running (A and B) the studio had its jewels (A's) and the means to keep making its jewels (B's).  The competition between studios must have been killer.  The entire system was a closed loop that fed into itself and made it possible to crank a film a week because that is the only way it could happen.

 

The A vs. B system makes sense just like the  major and minor leagues make sense; you have to start somewhere and the bottom is usually the place.  The A vs. B movie system was an invaluable tool in weeding out talent, planning budgets and attracting creative types to a studio--contributing to that bottom line which is the point of any industry.  Again, that closed loop.

 

I enjoyed watching DETOUR not only for its story but for the ways Ulmer could make the movie happen.  As I watched the film I found myself rooting for him, for his creativity, in making the story of Vera and Al talk to me. I am a diehard fan of "Plan 9 from Outer Space_ so when I see a cheaply made film I pay extra close attention to the actors and sets to see whether the director knows what he's doing.  I keep an eye on the editing for the same reason.

 

I now have a deeper understanding of why noirs look like they do, why they feel like they do--they are little worlds of despair and tragedy that are as self contained as the studio system that created them.

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Another very cool and interesting lecture!

 

Here's a couple of shots from movies (some I posted before in other topics) that directly relate to what has been addressed in the lecture; camera angles, lighting, mise-en-scene, etc. 

 

This is a shot from MURDER, MY SWEET. This is just before Marlowe escapes the house of Amthor. It's probably meant as a PoV shot for Marlowe, looking at the hall and stairways. The angle and shadows make for a disorienting feel. Also notice how the stairs' shadow looks like a man's contour on the wall. 

CHkesCVVAAA8ibe.jpg

 

This shot is from THE GANGSTER

It shows a number of the cast sitting at different tables in the ice cream parlour. It not only connects four plotlines in one shot, but also manages to display the isolation of all the characters despite them being together in the same room.

 

CHdUFYRUwAAnuRY.jpg

 

This shot is from THE GLASS KEY.

A choker close up with low key lighting portraying the mad despair of henchman Jeff (William Bendix)

 

CHS0mGiUcAA1Xoh.jpg

 

 

A formalist shot from GUN CRAZY, near the end when our two protagonists are 'caught and trapped' in the swamp near the climax of the film. Again a simple, and beautifully lit mise-en-scene as a metaphor for maybe the bars of a prison. A prime example of how to become creative with low/no budget.

 

CHuti2vWEAAm4p7.jpg

 

This shot is from CRACK-UP. 

A typical Noir setting for a climax sequence; on a shipyard. The low angle and lighting make the ship look intimidating and grotesque and manages to block out the shot to lead our eyes to the left top corner where our protagonist Steele (Pat O'Brien) can be barely made out.

 

CH4hTllVAAAh6kz.png

 

 

But it doesn't necessarily need to be dark to create a sense of confinement or entrapment. This is a shot from MYSTERY STREET. Again at a typical Noir setting; a train station. But this time shot in broad daylight. The trains on both sides block the frame to not only put focus on the killer, but also on the tiniest escape route possible.....

 

CIBbT9OWIAADPcZ.jpg

 

And then this final one from HOLLOW TRIUMPH/THE SCAR. This film is basically a master class for all possible tricks used in Film Noir. You can analyze it shot by shot and apply all the techniques mentioned in the lecture. 

This shot uses low key lighting, moves in to a choker close up, but the best bit is the lamp. Look at the stand, where the face is a fantastic visual signifier for Muller's double identity play. Talk about using a simple prop for maximum effect....

 

CIKxhvJWwAAp3Qj.png

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I haven't had a chance to listen to the lecture yet, but thanks so much for posting all these examples. Helpful and (pardon the pun--I just can't resist!) illuminating! I especially like . . . you know, I really did try to pick one, but I don't think I can! All of them are fantastic for all the reasons you already mention.

Another very cool and interesting lecture!

 

Here's a couple of shots from movies (some I posted before in other topics) that directly relate to what has been addressed in the lecture; camera angles, lighting, mise-en-scene, etc. 

 

This is a shot from MURDER, MY SWEET. This is just before Marlowe escapes the house of Amthor. It's probably meant as a PoV shot for Marlowe, looking at the hall and stairways. The angle and shadows make for a disorienting feel. Also notice how the stairs' shadow looks like a man's contour on the wall. 

CHkesCVVAAA8ibe.jpg

 

This shot is from THE GANGSTER

It shows a number of the cast sitting at different tables in the ice cream parlour. It not only connects four plotlines in one shot, but also manages to display the isolation of all the characters despite them being together in the same room.

 

CHdUFYRUwAAnuRY.jpg

 

This shot is from THE GLASS KEY.

A choker close up with low key lighting portraying the mad despair of henchman Jeff (William Bendix)

 

CHS0mGiUcAA1Xoh.jpg

 

 

A formalist shot from GUN CRAZY, near the end when our two protagonists are 'caught and trapped' in the swamp near the climax of the film. Again a simple, and beautifully lit mise-en-scene as a metaphor for maybe the bars of a prison. A prime example of how to become creative with low/no budget.

 

CHuti2vWEAAm4p7.jpg

 

This shot is from CRACK-UP. 

A typical Noir setting for a climax sequence; on a shipyard. The low angle and lighting make the ship look intimidating and grotesque and manages to block out the shot to lead our eyes to the left top corner where our protagonist Steele (Pat O'Brien) can be barely made out.

 

CH4hTllVAAAh6kz.png

 

 

But it doesn't necessarily need to be dark to create a sense of confinement or entrapment. This is a shot from MYSTERY STREET. Again at a typical Noir setting; a train station. But this time shot in broad daylight. The trains on both sides block the frame to not only put focus on the killer, but also on the tiniest escape route possible.....

 

CIBbT9OWIAADPcZ.jpg

 

And then this final one from HOLLOW TRIUMPH/THE SCAR. This film is basically a master class for all possible tricks used in Film Noir. You can analyze it shot by shot and apply all the techniques mentioned in the lecture. 

This shot uses low key lighting, moves in to a choker close up, but the best bit is the lamp. Look at the stand, where the face is a fantastic visual signifier for Muller's double identity play. Talk about using a simple prop for maximum effect....

 

CIKxhvJWwAAp3Qj.png

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Don't forget the Serials. I remember as a kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s that every Saturday my friends and I would go to the 2PM matinee with double feature, 10 cartoons, newsreel, and the serial and all for just $0.12. Serials were a short clip that lasted maybe 10 minutes or so. At the end of each segment, the hero would be in big trouble with no way out. One had to go next week to find out what happened. It was great fun. 

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I think it's important to note too that while under contract within the studio system many of these people found themselves working with each other time and time again. Though not quite falling into the metaphor of the system being an assembly line, having the same elements or talent come together multiple times allowed them to really get to know one another. We see this not just in acting pairings (Bogey and Bacall, Lorre and Greenstreet) but also between directors and writers (Howard Hawks and Leigh Brackett) and cinematographers and directors (John Alton and Anthony Mann) among many others. Their increased familiarity and comfort with one another allowed them not only to bring out the best in each others' talents but I believe it must have also fostered a more creative environment that eventually led to the dynamic innovations so notable in film noir.

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I think it's important to note too that while under contract within the studio system many of these people found themselves working with each other time and time again. Though not quite falling into the metaphor of the system being an assembly line, having the same elements or talent come together multiple times allowed them to really get to know one another. We see this not just in acting pairings (Bogey and Bacall, Lorre and Greenstreet) but also between directors and writers (Howard Hawks and Leigh Brackett) and cinematographers and directors (John Alton and Anthony Mann) among many others. Their increased familiarity and comfort with one another allowed them not only to bring out the best in each others' talents but I believe it must have also fostered a more creative environment that eventually led to the dynamic innovations so notable in film noir.

 

Well there were pros and cons to the studio system and you have highlighted some of the pros.   A negative that sometimes occured was in casting since the studio was already paying actors whether they were making films or not.    Therefore producers were compelled to cast actors already under contract even when that actor wasn't right for the part.   Also while there were some great acting pairings,  these pairing were limited to the studio the actors worked for (e.g. Powell \ Loy,  Gable \ Crawford being MGM pairings while the examples you provided were WB).      Therefore there are not movies with a Powell \ Davis or Bogey \ Loy type of pairing.

 

As far as 'a more creative environment';  Well there are pros and cons there as well.   e.g.  if MGM and WB traded cinematographers and directors from time to time,  maybe MGM would have made better crime and noir films and WB would have produced dramas with more glamor.     But overall when a studio's A Team was given high quality material to work with they produced magic in tune with the overall identity of said studio.

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i agree with that, i believe the studio system made better actors because often times they had to work to move from B actor to A actors. This whole studio system B-picture thing reminds me of the film, the bad and the beautiful.

But also it explains why there are alot of movies in that time that had similar plots but slightly different ending, cast, ect,, they were churning those movies out like being on an assembly line

I think it's important to note too that while under contract within the studio system many of these people found themselves working with each other time and time again. Though not quite falling into the metaphor of the system being an assembly line, having the same elements or talent come together multiple times allowed them to really get to know one another. We see this not just in acting pairings (Bogey and Bacall, Lorre and Greenstreet) but also between directors and writers (Howard Hawks and Leigh Brackett) and cinematographers and directors (John Alton and Anthony Mann) among many others. Their increased familiarity and comfort with one another allowed them not only to bring out the best in each others' talents but I believe it must have also fostered a more creative environment that eventually led to the dynamic innovations so notable in film noir.

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I remember feeling the same way when I watched this. This is a masterful shot.

 


 

This shot is from THE GANGSTER

It shows a number of the cast sitting at different tables in the ice cream parlour. It not only connects four plotlines in one shot, but also manages to display the isolation of all the characters despite them being together in the same room.

 

CHdUFYRUwAAnuRY.jpg

 

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I wanted to say thanks for the Place and Peterson article, I really enjoyed it. I'm writing a neo-noir and I sent a copy to my concept artist to let her see what I'm looking for in the cover. Very helpful!

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Thanks for the super helpful post rrrick

 

I enjoyed the lecture & readings this week. I think I am pretty knowledgeable about the big studios but I knew next to nothing about the Poverty Row studios & how they operated so this was all very interesting to me.

 

Although one nitpick in the Studio article I notice it said Cary Grant was loaned out by Paramount to do the Awful Truth & His Girl Friday but I am pretty sure he had already left Paramount at that time & signed non-exclusive contracts with both RKO & Columbia. So unlike other stars he was not owned by one studio. He also had a level of control like script approval other stars did not.

 

I know the above has nothing to do with noir but Cary Grant's contract is interesting because it gave him control most others stars did not have in the studio system.

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I love the Paramount noir movies, especially Lake and Ladd with William Bendix, and "Sunset Boulevard." Oh, "Sunset Boulevard!" Warner, too, such as "Mildred Pierce" and "Crime Wave," and can see what is meant by individual studio style, or brand trademark, as it were. I saw esthetic similarities between "Mildred Pierce" and "The Mask of Dimitrios." That said, I think I'm sympathetic to the underdog. I love the edgy Poverty Row noir films like "Detour," "D.O.A." and Gun Crazy." I hadn't thought about the reasoning behind B-movies, though, and found that aspect of the lecture particularly fascinating. More, please!

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I love the Paramount noir movies, especially Lake and Ladd with William Bendix, and "Sunset Boulevard." Oh, "Sunset Boulevard!" Warner, too, such as "Mildred Pierce" and "Crime Wave," and can see what is meant by individual studio style, or brand trademark, as it were. I saw esthetic similarities between "Mildred Pierce" and "The Mask of Dimitrios." That said, I think I'm sympathetic to the underdog. I love the edgy Poverty Row noir films like "Detour," "D.O.A." and Gun Crazy." I hadn't thought about the reasoning behind B-movies, though, and found that aspect of the lecture particularly fascinating. More, please!

 

Yes,  Paramount noir movies often don't get the same level of attention as those from RKO,  WB,  or 20th Century Fox,  but Ladd starred in many fine noirs (6,  3 with Lake),  and Stanwyck made two of my favorite noirs at the studio; Double Indemnity and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers as well as The File on Thelma Jordan and Sorry Wrong Number.

 

Other noirs worth seeing are The Accused with Loretta Young,  Ace in the Hole (dark as they get), I Walk Alone (Lancaster \ Douglas \ Liz Scott),  and of course Sunset Blvd.

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