For the second year, Turner Classic Movies’ weekly trip to Noir Alley – hosted by Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation – is taking February off for the channel’s “31 Days of Oscar,” when all it airs are films that won or were nominated for Academy Awards. But there are a fair number of noirs that have competed for Oscar gold, and TCM is scheduled to show five that took it home over the next 31 days (three of them on Feb. 2). Set your DVR and you’ll have a month’s worth of Noir Alley substitutes to fill the gap until Muller returns to the airwaves in March.
The first noir film to grab the Academy’s attention was 1940’s The Letter, which received seven nominations, including Best Picture. The first one to chalk up a win, however, had to wait until the following year…
On TCM: Sat. 2/2 at 11:45 a.m.
Winner: Best Actress (Joan Fontaine)
Other Nominations: Best Picture, Music (Franz Waxman)
Made by Alfred Hitchcock while on loan to RKO from David O. Selznick, this was the suspense specialist’s fourth American picture and his second with Joan Fontaine, who was previously nominated for Best Actress for Rebecca, but won for her performance as Lina Aysgarth, who comes to suspect her husband Johnnie (Cary Grant in full-on cad mode) is plotting to murder her for her inheritance. Of course, how she fell for him in the first place is a puzzler since his oft-repeated nickname for her is “monkey face.” Have some self-respect, girl.
As it turned out, Suspicion was the first time Hitchcock encountered serious interference from the Breen Office, which objected to the film’s original scripted ending in which Lina willingly drinks a glass of poisoned milk brought to her by Johnnie, who is indeed a murderer. The twist was that he was to unwittingly mail a letter from Lina incriminating him, which Hitchcock believed would satisfy the Production Code’s edict that criminals had to pay for their crimes, but Joseph Breen also frowned on suicide, which Lina’s act could be seen as. Instead, an alternate ending was devised in which it’s dramatically revealed that Johnnie is totally harmless and Lina was just being paranoid. To modern eyes, this conclusion can’t help but ring false, but that didn’t prevent Suspicion from receiving a Best Picture nomination in a crowded field that also included John Huston’s seminal private eye film The Maltese Falcon (which is being shown on Wed. 2/27 at 10 a.m.)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
On TCM: Wed. 2/6 at 2:30 a.m.
Winner: Best Actress (Joan Crawford)
Other Nominations: Best Picture, Director (Michael Curtiz), Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth), Screenplay (Ranald MacDougal), and Cinematography, Black-and-White (Ernest Haller)
A key component of Joan Crawford’s comeback after a series of flops, Mildred Pierce certainly starts with a bang – six of them, to be precise – as a gun is unloaded into a man who says only “Mildred” before expiring. From there, it’s not long before the title character is taken in to police headquarters, where her story unfolds in two lengthy flashbacks. Unhappy in her marriage and only wanting the best for her two daughters, particularly the snooty Veda (Ann Blyth), Mildred separates from her husband and gets a job as a waitress. Before long, she starts a restaurant that becomes an overnight success and catches the eye of a rich loafer, but just as Mildred refuses to believe she is spoiling Veda (who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices she has made for her), she also won’t listen when her no-nonsense assistant (Eve Arden) tries to warn her about her new beau.
While it may not be as hard-boiled as most noir films, especially the ones based on James M. Cain’s other novels, Mildred Pierce has a lot to recommend it, and Crawford’s performance puts her on the shortlist of strong female noir protagonists who aren’t femme fatales. That role is actually filled by Veda, who not only has her mother wrapped around her finger, but also most of the men in the film. It’s a subtle turn, but not so subtle it was overlooked by the Academy, which sent a Best Supporting Actress nomination Blyth’s way. She and Arden may have split the vote, though, because the winner in that category was Anne Revere for the decidedly un-noir National Velvet. Meanwhile, anyone interested in seeing Crawford’s third (and final) Oscar-nominated performance can tune in Sat. 2/2 at 6:15 a.m. for 1952’s Sudden Fear.
The Third Man (1949)
On TCM: Sat. 2/2 at 8:15 a.m.
Winner: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Robert Krasker)
Other Nominations: Best Director (Carol Reed) and Film Editing (Oswald Hafenrichter)
The apex of director Carol Reed’s three-film collaboration with writer Graham Greene, The Third Man is set in postwar Vienna, a city divided and in ruins. This grim backdrop provides a palpable sense of place for the film’s noir-tinged story of friendship and betrayal, love and destruction, and a corrupt system that thrives on people looking the other way. Joseph Cotten stars as Holly Martins, a penniless writer of cheap western novelettes who has come at the behest of his school chum Harry Lime, who turns up dead the day of his arrival. The more Holly looks into the circumstances surrounding Lime’s untimely death, though, the more he comes to believe his friend was the victim of foul play. Holly eventually learns otherwise, though, when Lime finally appears in the guise of Orson Welles, himself no stranger to noir.
Welles’s entrance is one of the most justly celebrated moments in movie history, matched only by the film’s devastating closing shot. The scene for which Robert Krasker likely earned his Oscar comes in between them, though, when Lime is chased like the rat he is through Vienna’s sewers. As for Welles, his finest moment is the famous “cuckoo clock” speech, which neatly echoes his 1946 film The Stranger, in which he plays an escaped Nazi hiding out in small-town America whose hobbies include tinkering with clocks, among other things. Those interested in seeing what those others things run to are advised to catch The Stranger (a nominee for its original story) on Tue. 2/12 at 10 a.m.
Panic in the Streets (1950)
On TCM: Sat. 2/2 at 10 a.m.
Winner: Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt)
Noirs often live or die on the cleverness of the hardboiled patter their characters cynically bounce off each other, but the stories they sprang from received just as much attention from the Academy when nomination time came around. (Before Panic in the Streets, 1945’s The House on 92nd Street also won the Oscar in that category.) The yarn Edna and Edward Anhalt cooked up for Panic in the Streets is a real corker since it’s about a U.S. Public Health Service official trying to contain a potentially deadly situation when a dead body turns up on the New Orleans waterfront riddled with bullets and carrying the pneumonic plague.
Directed by Elia Kazan, whose previous noir credit was 1947’s Boomerang! (also an Oscar nominee for its screenplay), Panic gave Richard Widmark the chance to play an upstanding member of the community for once instead of the sadistic criminals he’d been typecast as since his memorable turn as Tommy Udo in 1947’s Kiss of Death, for which he received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. This time out the role of the heavy went to newcomer Jack Palance as Blackie, the small-time hoodlum who’s unwittingly exposed to the plague, with Zero Mostel (in one of his few film roles before being blacklisted) as one of his lackeys. Kazan, meanwhile, was able to soak up enough New Orleans atmosphere to recreate it on a Hollywood soundstage when he directed the screen version of A Streetcar Named Desire the following year.
The Naked City (1948)
On TCM: Wed. 2/27 at 12 p.m.
Winners: Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (William H. Daniels) and Film Editing (Paul Weatherwax)
Other Nomination: Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (Malvin Wald)
Like Panic in the Streets, the docu-noir The Naked City gets a great deal of mileage out of being shot almost entirely in real locations, which lent William H. Daniels’s photography a gritty realism his studio-bound contemporaries were hard-pressed to match. The inspiration for the television show of the same name, The Naked City was the final film for producer Mark Hellinger, who died before its release but as its narrator was the first person to deliver the famous closing lines: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
The Naked City was also one of the last films director Jules Dassin made in Hollywood before the looming blacklist forced him to seek employment elsewhere (and even then, five years passed between 1950’s Night and the City and his triumph with the French caper film Rififi). In it, Barry Fitzgerald stars as a wizened homicide detective put on the case of a dress shop model who was drowned in her bathtub, with Don Taylor as the strapping young detective who does a lot of the legwork on the case. Eventually the trail leads them to a series of unsolved jewelry robberies and a harmonica-playing wrestler, but until the pieces start fitting together the detectives have a lot of blind alleys to run down. With Daniels behind the camera, though, they’re definitely artfully lit alleys.