Feeling Blu: Joseph Losey’s Stranger On the Prowl (1952)


With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.


Spare me the bunk: Jim Dawson’s LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL reviewed!

LABH coverI came of age as a movie lover in the early 70s, a great time for slim softcover film books packed with useful information and plenty illustrations calculated, it seemed to me, to bend impressionable minds toward the iron will of cinema. At some point between the ages of 9 and 10, I cleared the shelves of my boyhood bedroom of the myriad Big Little Books and Johnny West action figures to make room for what became dozens of trim genre overviews (Ivan Butler’s HORROR IN THE CINEMA, Carlos Clarens’ AN ILLUSTRATION HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM, Robert F. Moss’ KARLOFF AND COMPANY: THE HORROR FILM) , director monographs (Peter Bogdanovish’s FRITZ LANG IN AMERICA, James Leahy’s THE CINEMA OF JOSEPH LOSEY), collected essays (Andrew Sarris’ THE AMERICAN CINEMA, AGEE ON FILM), and “movies of” filmographies (Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi). Any book I could stuff into the pocket of my Husky Youth shorts as I headed out the screen door for a long summer day of reading and no exercise was a first class ticket to good times and I still feel that way. So I was delighted when Jim Dawson’s LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL: PULP FICTION’S MEAN STREETS AND FILM NOIR’S GROUND ZERO! landed on my desk this week. Published in 2012 by The History Press, the book boasts a slim 150pp page count and a selection of silvery black-and-white photos, among them archival shots of downtown LA’s long-gone Bunker Hill section and production stills (not frame grabs) from such shot-on-location films noir as NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), CRISS-CROSS (1949), SHOCKPROOF (1949), ONCE A THIEF (1950), (1951), CRY DANGER (1951), THE TURNING POINT (1952), and KISS ME DEADLY (1955), which was released the year that the City of Los Angeles signed the death warrant for Bunker Hill.


If the name Bunker Hill conjures for you more than anything else a costly victory for the British against our American colonists in 1775 then perhaps a quick précis is in order. At the time of its annexation by New Spain (by way of Mexican explorers) in 1781, Los Angeles (specifically downtown) was distinguished by the presence of three promontories that rose above the landscape to afford staggering views of the river basin and afforded an excellent defense against prospective invaders. After the American Civil War, a French-Canadian real estate developer named Prudent Beaudry bought one of these at a sheriff’s auction for little more than $500. The parcel bore the name of the Mott Tract. The forward-looking Beaudry envisioned a residential community sprouting on the elevated area and even created his own aqueduct to redirect water from the LA river to what he envisioned to be communities for the affluent and privilged. To this end, he planted trees and paved streets and the landscape bore the fruit of hundreds of Queen Ann style Victorian homes, whose spires, cupolas, verandas, and gables evoked an almost fairytale ambiance. In 1875, Beaudry named the area Bunker Hill, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of that storied battle of the American Revolution.

Bunker Hill 1903

In many ways, Bunker Hill was a victim of its own success. Beaudry had created such a paradise that a lot of people wanted to live there and with the advent of modernization as the 19th Century yielded to the 20th and as street cars linked many parts of Los Angeles into a viable network and as business flourished downtown the area began to attract the middle and lower classes. As the upper crust jumped ship for the leafier, more exclusive confines of Beverly Hills to the west and Pasadena to the east, the grand Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill were subdivided, turned into hotels, apartment buildings, and flophouses. Innovations such as the incline railsways (pictured above) known as Angel’s Flight and Court Flight, meant to ferry bonneted housewives and the help between the shops and home, now became  public transportation for the hoi polloi. Bunker Hill became overcrowded, its landmarks neglected, its streets, alleys, and parlors magnets for crime. It was in its degradation that Bunker Hill became a frequent film location for Hollywood studios.


As Jim Dawson lays it out in LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL, the creation of what know as film noir came about by form following function. The desire of the Hollywood studios to make affordable fare for moviegoers led to the acquisition of hundreds (hell, maybe thousands) of cheap pulp crime novels to be turned into B-pictures, films to played on the bottom half of double bills in support of a more prestigious, star-studded film. Wartime belt-tightening after 1943 left Hollywood filmmakers with considerably smaller budgets for their art directors to work with, prompting directors (many of whom had learned their craft in Europe) to take it to the streets, where atmosphere was cheap and the sets, as it were, were already standing. The use of actual LA locations was actually nothing new — silent moviemakers had employed downtown Los Angeles, Echo Park, Silver Lake, and neighboring communities as backdrops for years (that’s not a rear projection of downtown’s bustling Broadway below Harold Lloyd as he hangs from the hands of a skyscraper clock in SAFETY LAST!) and it was only the advent of sound that brought the cameras back into the studio. And yet Hollywood’s return to the streets had a profound effect on the American film industry, though it took the French (who coined the phrase “film noir”) to explain it, as we were too busy washing our cars and rounding up Reds. Dawson gives a fair, accurate accounting of the French response and is equally thoughtful in his own right when explaining the difference between films of this vintage that are shot in downtown LA versus those that avail themselves of studio sets:

“The problem is that Times Square is real, and Paramount’s street is phony. Times Square is a random collection of architectural quirks by different builders from different periods of time, haphazardly repaired, visibly cracked and worn down and given an accretion of grime; it’s a chaotic, noisy place where countless people have worked, dreamed, passed by and passed on. Paramount’s street, on the other hand, is a prop, a facade. Nobody ever lived there… A director can dress it up, hide it in shadows, add cards and send in a phalanx of extras… but he can’t make it look real, especially when the editor mashes it up with a street that is real.”

Cry Danger 1951

By the end of World War II, Bunker Hill (and the surrounding areas, which shared similar topography and architecture) had baggage, it had history, and those layers are all apparent on camera. The place looks not so much lived-in as stepped-on, which reflected the world weariness and defeatism of the film noir dramatis personae. Jim Dawson’s affection, his obvious devotion to the area extends not just to sharing vintage photographs from the era but in relating the history of those buildings, right down to their street addresses and the names of the people who owned them. (The home pictured above in a scene from Robert Parrish’s CRY DANGER was not on Bunker Hill but rather perched atop nearby North Hill Place, above Sunset Boulevard, and can also be seen in Kurt Neumann’s THE RING.) In this way, such tumbledown residences as the Foss-Heindel home (315 South Bunker Hill) seen in Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of M, the Julius Brousseau Mansion (238 South Bunker Hill Avenue) seen in THE MONEY TRAP (1960), and “The Castle” (325 South Bunker Hill Avenue) seen in KISS ME DEADLY assume a stature not unlike those of recurring film noir character actors — veritable Jack Elams, Timothy Careys, and Percy Helton. You knew them when you saw them, even if you didn’t know their names. You looked forward to seeing them again… and, many years after the fact, you read about their passing and you mourned.

Bunker Hill redevelopment LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL is the kind of book that makes you misty. You may well get caught up in it and forget that these places are no longer there, that the bulldozers and wrecking balls moved in at some point in 1955 and, over the course of several years tore down the houses and flattened the hills and that the area now, as undistinguished a plot of the downtown business district as any other, is unrecognizable. (The Bunker Hill affair represents an example of urban renewal that has no precedent or peer in the history of urban planning. End to end the project lasted more than fifty years.) The book’s portability makes you want to stuff it into a backpack and go to there, to walk where Mitchum, Lancaster, Powell, Meeker, Duryea and all the rest wore out their shoeleather; you’ll want to Google Earth the footprints of those grand old homes, and stand, if only for a minute, where film history was made.

Long story short: if you care about film and/or film noir, buy this book. I’ll let the last word on Bunker Hill go to Jim Dawson:

“Central casting couldn’t have picked a better ‘rough neighborhood’ for its new genre of dark and stark crime dramas, in which the last scene never faded out with a kiss — unless it was the kiss of death.”


To order directly from The History Press ($19.99), click here.

To order from Powell’s Books ($19.99), click here.

The Peter Cushing nobody knows

Cushing portrait

I don’t mean that literally, of course… it just feels that way sometimes, that there is a whole other side to Peter Cushing that no one ever talks about. Fans of the late and greatly missed actor are as one in their belief that the man was a consummate performer but it saddens me how few of that number will follow him into a non-horror film. Getting the jump on Pierre Fournier’s Peter Cushing Centennial Blog-a-thon by one day, I’ll be taking a look at just a scattering of the man’s non-genre roles, made before and during his tenure as one of the Kings of Hammer Horror.


It’s the End of the World and I Feel Fine

If you are reading this, then the world didn’t end. I never put any stock in that whole Mayan calendar silliness–if I had, I wouldn’t have spent any time writing this. And so it is with absolute confidence in the continuation of the world that I am writing this, marking the non-pocalypse by paying tribute to some of my favorite end-of-the-world movies.

Let’s start by noting that in most cases, what we really mean by end of the world movies are not movies about the literal destruction of the planet. Every once in a while you get a Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the world is actually blown to smithereens, but those are the exceptions. The real point is to explore the end of the world as we know it, that is, the end of civilization.

In my mind, you can divide these movies into three sub-categories, and I’ll offer an example of each.



Embracing Ambiguity: Figures In A Landscape (1970)

[Warning! Spoilers on the road ahead.]

The first thing that you see in Joseph Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970) is the big black helicopter. It lingers in the sky like a giant buzzing insect or an angry bird of prey. For the next two hours it will pursue the film’s two protagonists (Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell) in a relentless game of cat and mouse over various terrains of uncompromising beauty. You will never find out who is pursuing them. You will not discover what they are running from. You will never know when these events took place or where. And last but not least, you will never know why they happen. If clarity, easy answers and conventional storytelling techniques are something you demand from cinema you’ll probably find FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE a frustrating viewing experience. But if you relish unexpected pleasures and are willing to embrace ambiguity the film might capture your imagination as forcefully as it does mine.


Live! In person! Me!

On Sunday, June 3rd, I’ll be appearing IN PERSON! at the New Beverly Cinema in West Hollywood to help present a double bill of Joseph Losey’s THE DAMNED (US: THESE ARE THE DAMNED, 1961) and Joe Cornish’s ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011). The two films, which I hold in very high regard, are great screen partners, focusing as they do on what might be termed juvenile delinquents (though the lawbreakers in the former are more in the young adult demographic) who find themselves caught up in extraordinary circumstances — a fiendish scientific conspiracy on the one hand, an alien invasion on the other — that point the viewer to the obvious conclusion that we never know who the heroes will be until we know what the villains will do. I’m really looking forward to this exhibition and, if you find yourself in the greater Los Angeles area, I hope you think about stopping by. [...MORE]

Spy Games: Dirk Bogarde – The Reluctant International Man of Mystery

British actor Dirk Bogarde never played James Bond but he did appear in a handful of interesting spy films made during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He may not have resembled the tough, no-nonsense brute that many associate with 007 but Bogarde’s devilish charm, quick wit, understated elegance and roguish good looks made him a good candidate for playing the British secret service agent or his evil nemesis. For my latest installment of Spy Games I thought I’d take a look at the various spy spoofs and espionage thrillers that Bogarde appeared in and discuss their questionable merits. While some might find Bogarde’s contributions to the spy genre unimpressive, I think the following films are indispensable fun and fascinating footnotes in the actor’s long and impressive career although Bogarde himself would probably disagree with me.

Most of the spy films Bogarde appeared in weren’t particularly successful at the box office and critics rarely gave them the time of day. In numerous letters and books that the actor published he openly admits that he often took these roles to pay the bills. There was little motivation to make these movies besides a paycheck but today they’re testaments to Bogarde’s incredible professionalism, renowned talent and passion for his craft, which is apparent in every one of these movies. No matter how flimsy the script was or how disengaged his fellow cast members became, Bogarde proves himself to be a consummate professional. He’s an actor’s actor if there ever was one.


Hate Binges: The Big Heat and The Lawless

The post-WWII economic expansion exploded in 1950, as the GI Bill’s low mortgage rates stoked a housing boom and pent-up consumer demand propped up retail. Success was there for the taking, but not for all. Two early 50s films that are hitting home video in impressive transfers,  Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950, on DVD 5/29 from Olive Films) and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953, now out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time), documented some of the anxieties caused by this enormous upheaval in American life, what would be the start of the greatest stretch of economic growth in U.S. history. More money meant more crime, and The Big Heat is a nightmare rendering of the American Dream, as good cop  Glenn Ford loses his nuclear family and just goes nuclear. The Lawless is an earnest morality play about the plight of migrant fruit pickers in Southern California, doing the work Americans left for office gigs (by 1956 a majority of U.S. workers held white rather than blue collar jobs).


Better Older Than Younger

As Hollywood’s newest stars get younger and I get older, I find comfort and inspiration in the career arcs of certain actors who might have made a big splash in their youth but stayed the course and became supreme masters of their craft. Some like Dick Powell totally reinvented themselves with an entirely new persona while others like Shelley Winters went the character actor route, grabbing some of the best roles for women available while working with the greatest directors. Here are just a few that make my short list.       [...MORE]

Goodbye Goddess: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor has always been one of my favorite actresses. She was an incredible natural beauty. Arguably the most beautiful actress Hollywood ever produced but she was also a brilliant performer when she wanted to be. She dominated almost every film she ever appeared in even when that film wasn’t particularly worthy of her larger than life presence. Taylor was a complex woman with a rich inner life who enjoyed living and one look into her deep violet eyes told you this. Inside of Taylor there seemed to be a volcanic mountain of pent-up emotion just waiting to explode. Her appetite for life was voracious but her heart was huge, open and warm. These are rare and wonderful qualities that you seldom find in today’s Hollywood stars.


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