It was a pleasure to participate in a three-part webinar in August, thanks to the Kensington and Chelsea library and their guest speaker from California, Steven C. Smith.
Moderated by the library’s Nicky Smith (no relation as far as I know!), author Steven Smith was a real discovery for me. I knew he had written two books – on Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner , but didn’t know he is a great Hollywood historian – and a very engaging and warm speaker.
For three Mondays in a row, Steven spoke for an hour at a time, interspersed with film clips from Noir classics. Followed by a Q&A session for another 15\20 minutes.
- The first theme was From Femme Fatales to Smiling Psychopaths, focusing on Ida Lupino, Gene Tierney and Richard Widmark.
Steven made it clear there is no exact definition of Film Noir, or when it began – he talked about the influence of German expressionist cinema, and the turmoil in America during and after the Second World War, and the fact that Noir can take a lot of forms. eg can a noir film be in color? ( yes, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN), or take place outside the States? ( yes, NIGHT AND THE CITY).
Steven quoted the Oxford dictionary definition of Film Noir – ‘a genre of crime film’.
It was writers like James M. Cain , Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler who provided the stories made into films in the 1940s.
Cain authored “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Double Indemnity” and “Mildred Pierce “; Chandler gave us “The Blue Dahlia “, “Murder My Sweet”, “The Big Sleep”; and Hammett gave us Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon.
We saw scenes from “The Hitchhiker”, “Leave Her to Heaven”,”Laura”, “Kiss Of Death”, “Moontide.”
Ida Lupino’s song,”Again” from “Road House” got to Number 2 in the 1949 Hit Parade.
Steven discussed the tragedy Gene Tierney experienced when she contracted German measles ( probably through a fan)and her daughter was born disabled . (Agatha Christie’s “The Mirror Cracked” used this theme for a murder plot.)
That famous scene where Gene watches Darryl Hickman drowning, without a flicker of emotion.
Richard Widmark, remembered for his murderous ‘Tommy Udo’ in “Kiss Of Death”, was described as having “a staccato, mirthless laugh” – Karl Malden called it a ‘cackle’.
In a Widmark interview, the actor told the story of being in a restaurant and a guy belting him – this was after “Kiss Of Death” and that shocking scene where he throws a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.
Steven explained that Widmark was the antithesis of his screen character . He avoided the Hollywood party scene and was married for 55 years.
- The second webinar was entitled, Murder For Sale, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler:From Novel to Film.
MGM had bought the rights to Cain’s novel, “THE POSTMAN RINGS TWICE” in 1934, bit it couldn’t be made because of the new Production Code – the novel ends with a double suicide.
MGM finally made it in 1946 and we saw a clip of Lana Turner’s classic entrance in the film.
Cain’s novel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY was filmed by Billy Wilder. Wilder’s long time collaborator, Charles Brackett , didn’t like the story and Wilder couldn’t get Cain, so he chose Raymond Chandler. Wilder loved Chandler’s writing , but not the man. Chandler had always written at home on his own. He and the younger Wilder did not mell, but they did come up with a great script.
(Cain, incidentally, loved the film adaptation.)
Steven suggested the name ‘Dietrichson’ might have been a homage to Wilder’s friend, Marlene Dietrich.
We saw the classic end scene when Neff confesses to Keyes, “I killed Dietrichson, me Walter Neff. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money or the woman.”
That scene in “Double Indemnity “ when Fred MacMurray passes a seated Raymond Chandler.
Dick Powell reinvents his screen image with Chandler’s “Farewell My Lovely” – filmed as “Murder My Sweet.” And Chandler liked Powell as his famed detective,Philip Marlowe.
Chandler had written “The Big Sleep” in 1939 ( when he was 51). When it came to the screen with Humphrey Bogart , director Howard Hawks wanted Chandler involved in the script but Chandler was tied to Paramount.
Not an easy book to adapt, the plot was so dense, even Chandler couldn’t remember every plot line he had written 5 years earlier.
”The Blue Dahlia” was written directly for the screen by Raymond Chandler.
Raymond Chandler worked on a draft of his novel, “The Lady in the Lake”, but it was rejected and eventually he didn’t want his name on the film.
It was another Philip Marlowe story, with the twist of the story being told from, literally,Marlowe’s point of view. ie he becomes the camera.
“Mildred Pierce” ,written in 1941, was filmed in 1946 and won Joan Crawford an Oscar.
”The Maltese Falcon” was written by Dashiell Hammett in 1929 and serialised in “Black Mask” magazine before being published in novel form.
Warner Brothers bought the rights and astonishingly filmed the story three times in a ten year period. First in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, then in 1936 as “Satan Met a Lady”, with Warren William and Bette Davis .
Steven describes “Satan met a Lady” as a knock-off of “The Thin Man”.
Finally, John Huston persuaded Warners to try again, and this time the novel was transferred faithfully, and the cast was first class.
As Steven Smith says, ‘The Huston version is head and shoulders above the others.’
- The third segment was entitled San Francisco Noir.
Some great shots of San Francisco in “Woman on the Run”, and in “Dark Passage” and “The Man Who Cheated Himself.”
For D.O.A (Edmond O’Brien), we see O’Brien running along Market Street – the street was not closed off for filming and it was members of the public he runs past.
It’s a stunning film, with O’Brien having been poisoned and only hours to live . When he visits a doctor, he’s told, “You’ve been murdered!” and he says, “You’re telling me I’m dead!” ( Well not yet, not until the poison does its work and he finds out who killed him.)
”VERTIGO” would need a discussion on its own, Steven said, when asked about it. Exteriors were done in San Francisco.
Steven Smith’s website is http://www.mediasteven.com. He is an Emmy nominated documentary producer, author and speaker. He produced over 50 episodes of A&E Biography, plus audio commentaries for blu-rays of Garden of Evil, Vertigo, The Day the Earth Stood Still.
He also did documentaries for the Film Noir Foundation’s releases of The Prowler, Woman on the Run, Too Late For Tears and Trapped.
So, kudos to Kensington and Chelsea library for giving us this excellent speaker for over three hours. Let’s hope he returns soon.
(I’ve just booked for another webinar hosted by the library in September on David Niven – 22 September.6.30pm in Britain. )
There are three decades in between Steven’s biography of Bernard Herrmann and his book on Max Steiner. Both are highly acclaimed. I’d love to interview Mr. Smith. Who knows!
In a Variety interview in 2020, Steven spoke about Max Steiner: “Steiner’s the one who first put it all together at the dawn of the talkies, this idea of how to write orchestral music under and around dialogue…….”