Noir Classics: I Wake Up Screaming (1941) by K A Laity

Films, K A Laity, Noir

Noir Classics: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

K. A. Laity

Even though I teach a course on film noir, there are some I still haven’t got around to seeing: I Wake Up Screaming was one of those. Released through the Fox Film Noir brand now, it’s one of those artifacts that reminds you ‘film noir’ was retconned into existence. At one point the film was called Hot Spot, which hits closer to the thriller genre it was planned to be. It’s a whodunit that begins with interrogation of the likely suspect, then works its way back.

The film went through a few changes. Betty Grable, who gets top billing, also had a song ‘Daddy’ which is about what you’d guess from that title. In a cut scene included on the disc, she ‘demonstrates’ the song for a customer in the music shop whilst fielding creepy eyes from her boss who has given her permission to leave early with the expectation that she ‘owes him’ now. All the more eye-rolling because I had just finished our required annual sexual harassment training exercise.

It’s impossible not to see a lot through modern eyes. Laird Cregar’s super-creepy stalker vibe outweighs the fact that he’s the cop in charge. And you can’t see Elijah Cook Jr and not think he must be guilty of something. Victor Mature’s smug sports promoter is supposed to have feelings for someone but you can’t find an expression on his face apart from the weight of those eyebrows.

Carole Landis plays the waitress turned celebrity gal-about-town with a tough gal bravado that works. Grable is kind of lost in the first half of the film but gets better in the second half. Maybe once she knew what kind of film she was supposed to be in, she knew better what to do. There are some fun plot twists and turns in a vintage New York setting – diners, the Lido Plunge, the Garden, all-night adult cinemas! – and good turns by supporting cast William Gargan and Alan Mowbray as a columnist and an over-the-hill actor also sweet on the Pygmalioned dame.

The weirdest thing has to be the music. Landis’ screen test has her singing a pop song based on Tchaikovsky. The other two repeating themes are really disconcerting. One is ‘Over the Rainbow’: I guess Fox wanted to get their money’s worth out of the tune but the whole audience is going to be waiting for Dorothy to show up. The Wizard of Oz was just two years before. The other theme is Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ composed for the 1931 film of the same name, but then recycled in half a dozen other films including Grable’s big turn with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Film companies have always had such contempt for art and artists.

Nonetheless it’s an entertaining film and I’m going to have to find time to watch it again with Eddie Muller’s commentary as I’m bound to find out a lot more background. The stories behind the scenes have some real tragedy.

Movie Titles by Jay Passer

Films, Jay Passer, Poetry

BIO: Jay Passer’s work has appeared online and in print since 1988. He is the author of 12 books of poetry and has been included in several anthologies. Passer lives and works in San Francisco, the city of his birth. These poems are selected from Passer’s newest collection, with each poem titled after particular movies the poet has seen throughout his life.

MARLEY & ME (2008)

was the last book my mom read

before she died

and she was very well read

she loved her Golden Retrievers

and anything related

to dogs

she fed them a special diet

which when she got sick

I had special instructions

not to deviate from

science-diet kibble mixed with

steamed tilapia and

hard-boiled eggs

not too hot, son!

every week I made them Frosty Paws;

the ingredients of which

haunt me to this day:

plain yogurt, peanut butter, bananas, and honey

all blended together,

poured into dog-tongue friendly

plastic cups, and frozen.

my mom was a high school teacher who also

wrote curriculum for English classes which

are in use in California public schools

to this day

it was her firm belief

that the afterlife

was a place called the Rainbow Bridge

where she would be reunited

with all the dead dogs

of her life

my sister told me about this belief of hers

because my mom knew

I would scoff and sneer

at such an absurd theory

I am allergic to dogs

so my mom’s Goldens always basically

repelled me

which is hard to justify

since the dogs in question are the friendliest,

smartest, most loving creatures

on earth

my mom broke her hip after the cancer diagnosis

she cried when I said, of course I’ll come

and help out

despite canine differences, she was my mother

even though after meals

she’d let the damn animals

lick the plates clean


Me and Bobo

Quote the dialogue

To the point where

Our friends

Disown us

Like sex

Awkward at first

Then after repeated views

It gets better

The line of women

The contour of mishaps

I was never a believer

Me and Bobo

Plus some other people

And a bunch of clanking liquor bottles

Went to a midnight showing

Like Rocky Horror

Or a Yogi Berra quote

“Deja vu all over again”

Like sex

Unto death

I see it now:

I’m out of my element


Maybe your first fuck

Or your second

It wasn’t recorded

In the future

But they’ve come back to change things

They send robotic assassins

To seduce you

Because it’s your first time

The landscape is wary of apocalypse

You got one shot

To change the fate of humanity

So you run

A woman depends on you

She will spawn your child

Because desperation is beyond

Human survival

Maybe the only fuck

Ever that meant


Now you are a woman

Maybe the only sequel to

Ever make sense

As the mushroom cloud comes

In a dream


one fine day

I put the guitar back in its case

and went out and

bought a Royal portable typewriter

at the Goodwill

for $15


in the end it could’ve been

the Eiffel Tower

the Golden Gate

the Washington Monument

the Tower of Pisa

the Taj Mahal


but nothing beats a half-buried

Lady Liberty

for pure shock value

GUN CRAZY (1950)

we got hitched in a tavern

after giving carte blanche

to our primal instincts

as it turned out

you were the femme fatale

but at the crucial moment

I didn’t hesitate

to condemn us both

to blissful damnation


midweek matinee at the 4 Star, Clement and 23rd

a foggy gray day in the outer Richmond.

there was nobody popping popcorn

I bought my ticket from a ghost.

inside the theater I kept waiting but nobody else

showed up;

I might as well be watching this from my

smart phone, I thought.

I was treated to an on-screen jewel, a still-life

punctuated with incisive scherzos of violence;

yet on the whole glacial in movement,

for example

it took 5 minutes

for her to put on her earrings.

I was alone in the theater, once-in-a-lifetime

so nobody noticed

when I wiped away the tears with a grubby hand

lacking any silk handkerchiefs.


In the outskirts of Rome

the walls are crumbling.

The Tiber meanders

beneath bridge arches and the snake

of human desperation sets

anxious streets on edge.

A father finds his dignity

peeled away by random acts of corruption.

He barks at his son.

He slaps him,

then offers to get him drunk.

The kid is still in short pants.

The father rushes across the street

in agitated search of his purloined bicycle

as his son trots behind,

dodging traffic.

Their coats are ragged and torn,

Neo-realist post-World War.

The father paces

back and forth,

and finally sheds his last shred

of morality,

repeating the insidious act

and of course,

is promptly


The Tiber claims

late afternoon sunlight,

the streetcars

are full to brimming with chaos,

mobs jostle and accuse

as the son rescues

his father’s hat

from the dust of the street

following the skirmish.

The father is promptly absolved

though in solemn duress;

his son grasps his hand.

As the crowd

swallows the both of them.

Art Noir: Female Human Animal (2018) by K A Laity

Art, Films, K A Laity, Noir

Female Human Animal (2018)

Dir. Josh Appignanesi

Starring: Chloe Aridjis

Here is another film that dwells at the intersection of art and noir: Female Human Animal isn’t a heist though, nor is it a con. Instead it’s a film that brings together many unexpected strands for a story that doesn’t neatly fit any genre. Nevertheless the noir ambience is pervasive and used to great effect with the surrealist nature of the narrative. There is a great overlap between noir and surrealism historically.

What’s also unusual about the film is that the star plays a version of herself immersed in events that were really happening: Aridjis was co-curating the Leonora Carrington exhibit at the Tate Liverpool and writing her novel Sea Monsters (2019). There was a terrific conference connected with the exhibit, which is how I learned about the film; Catriona McAra has written an insightful chapter on the film and Aridjis’ works for Leonora Carrington: Living Legacies (2020). Carrington ‘haunts’ the film in documentary footage spliced into the main narrative, offering advice or hauling up short her protégée with incisive critique. It’s glorious to see so much of her art all together: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas looks particularly gorgeous and I had no idea some of the tapestries were so huge. The arresting And Then We Met the Daughter of the Minotaur is a focal point both visually and psychologically. If you’re unfamiliar with the artist, this film will whet your appetite.

Filmed on VHS it has the grainy, gritty feel of 70s crime films. From the start, the Chloe character (to distinguish her from the real person) seems on edge, uncomfortable, almost cornered. Like many people at a turning point in their lives, she cannot enjoy the good things before her and instead longs for escape with a vagueness that invites trouble. Soon a mystery man appears, but it is she who must pursue him as he proves elusive. So much noir hinges on a folie à deux, yet this film manages to both exploit the audience expectations and turn them on their heads. It’s as much a meditation on creativity and the boundaries you need to create as it is a psychological stalking. A fascinating mash up of noir sensibilities in the art world: I recommend it for those who want something beyond the old standards.

See the trailer here. It’s available through Amazon Prime in the US and BFI in the UK. Here’s an interview with Aridjis and Appignanesi. Here’s another review.

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973) by K A Laity

Crime Fiction, Films, K A Laity, Kim Morgan, Noir, Private Eye, Pulp, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973)

I read the novel so long ago (back in my L. A. days so looooong ago) I could only remember the basics of the story. There were probably more of them in the original script by the legend Leigh Brackett, but Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking always left room for improvisation and Elliott Gould—unlikely to be most director’s ideal choice to play Phillip Marlowe—works well here.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that likewise memory proves unreliable. So much has changed in the mean time, too. I’ve been soaking in noir and neo-noir for so long now it’s altered my view on the genre, mostly to be much more accommodating. I dug out my vintage paperback to read later and sat down on a sunny Saturday afternoon to visit 1973 Los Angeles with Elliot Gould and co and Vilmos Zsigmond’s singular cinematography.

The ginger cat is the one thing everybody remembers. I should write a book about ginger cats in noir. You can’t cheat a cat. Chandler loved cats. The scene feels genuine to any cat lover: having fallen asleep in his clothes, Marlowe is awakened by the moggy landing on his belly. Ouch. He has no choice but to drag himself out at 3am in his 1948 Lincoln convertible to the 24 hour food store. The car is a nice touch, signaling Marlowe a throwback to another time, Chandler’s idea of the P.I. as a kind of knight with a code.

Then there’s the candle dippers next door. The topless women would feel more gratuitous if they didn’t have a totally believable and completely natural hippy languor. Asking Marlowe to pick up boxes of brownie mix and doing elaborate yoga poses on the balcony at night. The iconic High Tower provides an unforgettable location for Marlowe’s home, outdone only by the Malibu Colony. Apparently the Ward’s house was the one Altman was living in at the time.

Nina van Pallandt embodies the concerned wife with just enough difference from the mostly Californian cast to make her thinking seem mysterious but believable. Sterling Hayden is a legend and manages to uphold that without chewing scenery which would be easy to do in the role of the writer who can no longer write, who is drunk and angry with the world, not necessarily in that order. Allegedly inspired by Chandler’s own struggles as his wife was dying. Ward’s death is changed from the novel and pays off much better, especially in how it affects Marlowe, who develops a fondness for the difficult man. The drinking scene with Hayden and Gould was largely improvised and has an authentic feel.

Henry Gibson, best known at the time as a gentle poet on Laugh-In, is super creepy and menacing in a really unsettling way as the dry-out doctor trying to extort money from Wade.

Jim Bouton, better known for baseball and even more so for his tell-all memoir Ball Four about that career, makes his film debut as the pal asking Marlowe for a lift to Mexico with some suspicious injuries including a clawed face.

What feels most 70s about this movie is the cops. Well, not that they’ve changed much in L.A. according to my friends who still live there. That gritty, don’t care about anything attitude and the clothes—those awful seventies clothes that modern films never quite get right—they provide a good target for Marlowe’s dogged resistance. The ink interrogation scene is another improvised scene.

I had to look it up, but yeah, there’s a portrait of Leonard Cohen in the Ward’s house because Altman was a fan. Speaking of fans, I love the gatekeeper at the Colony and his impressions of the stars.

A cool thing: except for ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ that opens and closes the film, all the other music is variations of the theme tune by Johnny Mercer and John Williams—even the dirge played in the scenes in Mexico. It’s a great thematic device that gives the picture aural coherence.

The changed ending is often credited to Altman, but it was part of Brackett’s original script which was shopped around for some years before finally coming together with this unexpected group of talents. It works. The final scene is almost an inverse of The Third Man’s iconic ending, with a harmonica in place of the jaunty zither.

Well worth a revisit if it’s been a while for you, too. If you’ve not seen it, a treat awaits. Bonus: here’s a great interview with Gould by Kim Morgan.


Out Now! Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained by The Fabulous Artisans

Films, Indie, Jeremy Thoms, Music, Neil Crossan, Orange Juice, post punk, Punk Noir Magazine

Stereogram Recordings are delighted to announce the release of “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” a brand new track by The Fabulous Artisans on September 25th. It was mostly recorded prior to lockdown, with finishing touches, mix and mastering completed in July.

Founded in 2007 and named after the iconic Orange Juice track, The Fabulous Artisans is a collaboration between Glasgow based Oscar and BAFTA award winning actor, former stand-up comic and singer Neil Crossan and Edinburgh based songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jeremy Thoms (also of The Cathode Ray and Stereogram label boss). “With a sound fed from Bacharach to Barry, Brel to Bowie, Cave to Collins, Magazine to Morricone and Wilson to Walker, this is timeless music for or from any era…

Written, arranged and produced by Jeremy Thoms, “Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained” is only the fourth new track The Fabulous Artisans have released since their warmly received debut album “…From Red to Blue” came out on Swedish indie label Bendi Records in 2008. It continues their lineage of mixing up the classic pop sounds of the past with a modern twist, whilst adding their characteristic big lyrical themes of life and death.

Released September 25, 2020

Lead vocals: Neil Crossan
Written, produced and arranged by Jeremy Thoms.

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale by K A Laity

Films, K A Laity, Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale

What a delight! Thanks to Ray Garton and Paul D. Brazill for leading me to Tod Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale. It’s a fun romp with magicians, psychics, trickery, grifters, and plenty of style. Currently airing on TCM, it’s also available in various versions online in the usual places.

I admit to giving short shrift to Robert Young because I first knew him as Marcus Welby M.D., a show my grandparents liked. What could be less cool than the gently ironic know-it-all elderly doctor? Yet he brings a witty humour to Miracles, which gives it charm. Most of the time the laughs walk a fine line along with the noir ambience and the spookiness. It’s a strange mix. Young’s Mike Morgan is a former stage magician who now makes elaborate tricks for other magicians. The opening war scene is a bit off-putting (including yellow face) but it turns out to be an overly-wrought saw-the-woman-in-half trick that Morgan is staging for a client. His house is a delight of tricks and surprises.

Morgan also devotes his time to exposing spiritual charlatans, admitting that there might be ghosts and whatnot, but he doesn’t want people exploiting the vulnerable with tricks. That kicks off the real plot when a gal in trouble (Florence Rice) runs into his shop to ask for help but can’t tell him the whole story. The plot is the least interesting part of the film and comes from Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat.

The fun is all the characters. Ray mentioned how little this seems like a Browning film. The one aspect that does is the characterisation, especially the brilliant cast of character actors. Frank Craven is a hoot as Morgan’s dad. He often ends up the victim of his son’s elaborate tricks-in-progress but he gets plenty of good lines. Henry Hull is cadaverous fellow magician Duvallo. The bickering La Claire couple (Lee Bowman and Astrid Allwyn) demonstrate that magic is just part of their acting on stage. The always delightful William Demerest plays a grumpy detective (the whole investigative team is a bit wacky).

Frederick Worlock is the mysterious Dr. Caesar Sabatt, accompanied by Gloria ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Holden as the equally mysterious Madame Rapport. Browning has the camera rest on her singular face and as it lingers a sense of the uncanny arises. Though she only has a few scenes, that otherworldliness serves well when it comes time for the séance.

There’s a locked room mystery that isn’t much of a mystery—after all, by the time the first body shows up we’ve seen all manner of trickery explained. But the staging of the murders within pentagrams, the noir-shadowed streets of the city, and the suggestion that real unexplained mysteries from the beyond may be at work combine to give the film an enjoyable stylishness that’s definitely worth a try.

Good fun!

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) by K A Laity

Films, Horror, K A Laity, Pulp, Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Having recently seen (and wrote about) Witch Hunt (1994) I was looking forward to seeing this mash up of supernatural and noir, largely because I figured Fred Ward would play the part of PI Harry Philip Lovecraft a lot better than a rather wooden Dennis Hopper did in the later film. That guess was correct.

Ward immediately gets what the film is meant to be a plays the noir elements with an edge of satire and humour. He channels the classic Bogey Spade but with a sense of irony, knowing this is a crazy mash-up of elements and an exercise in nostalgia. Ward is an underrated actor who always bring a everyman sensibility and a weight of intelligent emotion to every part he plays. He brings life to the part and a reality despite the clichés, over-the-top dramatics and clunky dialogue.

Because the rest of Cast a Deadly Spell is not up to his abilities. That includes a young Julianne Moore who is given next to nothing to do apart from lip syncing to someone else’ song and carrying out every cliché in the femme fatale playbook. You can almost see her composing a strongly worded letter to her agent. Yet at moments she makes us believe in her Connie (heart of) Stone, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast.

David Warner phones it in. Lee Tergesen is quite good with very little help, despite being literally gay-bashed. I thought the role of Lovecraft’s witch partner, Hypolyta Kropotkin, was too small in Witch Hunt, but it’s miniscule in this film. Arnetia Walker gets very little to do except save Lovecraft’s ass.

The Lovecraft storyline intertwines with a Big Sleep-style detective narrative; nonsense with a virginal debutante (Alexandra Powers) that attempts to evoke both the Sternwood sisters at once. Needless to say the Lovecraft garbage is vile. It’s also incredibly boring and clichéd. Virgin sacrifice? Really? Oh hey, Necronomicon. Admittedly less of a cliché in 1991, but secret book of secrets has been a staple of horror films for a very long time.

Worse are the Gremlins. And they are really called that in the credits. Someone recently shared a meme about how cretins believe the moon landing was faked with an image of what SPFX looked like in 1969. The ‘old ones’ in this film really look like cheap knock offs of the Gremlins films (the first in 1984, which gives you an idea of the quality). Rubber monsters age poorly, but they would have looked out of date in 1991. I know, low budgets and all (this is an HBO made for tv movie) but Witch Hunt shows how much more effective you could be with more subtle effects. That movie is looking better now.

A shame because the concept of supernatural noir is such a great one and has been done really well (*cough* by people associated with this site). Fred Ward was so good. If you’re more forgiving of bad FX and hokey plots, you might find it ‘A great way to spend an evening!’ as Entertainment Weekly did. Potato, po-tah-toe.

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Anne Billson, Films, K A Laity, Supernatural Noir

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.

Film Noir: The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry by K. A. Laity

Films, George Sanders, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine


From the play that shocked Broadway!

Led down a little George Sanders rabbit hole the other day I finally got around to watching this film which was mentioned in some of the film noir books I have read, probably Brookes’ Film Noir. Partly I suspect that because he’s very interested in the overlap between noir and Gothic. This film is a great embodiment of that. 

Robert Siodmak directs, Joan Harrison produces; script by Stephen Longstreet based on the play by Thomas Job. George Sanders stars as Harry Quincy of the Corinth Quincys, who used to the tony family of the tiny town, though they lost their money in the Great Depression. His sisters Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and Hester (Moyna Macgill) keep the ancestral mansion with the help of Nona (Sarah Allgood). The house is all they have left of the glory days. Everything seems cosy until New Yawk City slicker Deborah Brown (Ella Raines) comes to the quiet mill and shakes up Harry’s life.

Mostly because his hypochondriac sister Lettie doesn’t want anything to change and relies on Harry bending to her every whim. Very gothic: borderline incestuous – I wonder if the ‘shocking’ play made more of that. But Lettie pretends to welcome the interloper, but just can’t seem to find a place suitable for her and Hester so the two can get married. Six months pass. Deborah manages to convince Harry they should just run off to the wilds of Boston and get married, then honeymoon in big bad NYC.

Lettie collapses. Or appears to do so. Harry starts glaring at the poison bottle Lettie bought to put down their old dog Weary. 

There’s some great small town shenanigans: the trial of public opinion, gossip, fence peeping, taking sides, soda counters, men singing at the club (a far cry from the Drones) ‘Pickle My Bones in Alcohol’ and then a twist that comes out of nowhere – well, literally it came out the Motion Pictures Production Code. I could imagine this being remade either without the twist or with one more cynical twist.

George Sanders is always watchable; Geraldine Fitzgerald clearly has a great time with the theatrical Lettie. Fun stuff!