Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Film Noir icons don't die


Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in director Paul McGuigan's "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool." Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
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Hollywood actress Gloria Grahame would have been 94 on Nov. 28, had she not died of stomach cancer in 1981. She spent her final days in Liverpool at the family home of actor Peter Turner, half her age, who wrote a book about their affair called "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" (1987). The memoir was eyeballed decades ago by British producer Barbara Broccoli of the James Bond franchise dynasty, with Annette Bening in mind. Having lived as long as Grahame, Bening finally stars with Jamie Bell in this oddly incoherent biopic. Director Paul McGuigan favors flashbacks, surreal segues, and scenes replayed from different perspectives, over simple emotional truth. Opening Friday at the Clay, and next Friday at the Shattuck.

Grahame, an important presence in the film noir pantheon, is misleadingly labeled a femme fatale. Yes, male characters who attach her to themselves do sometimes get killed, but they were headed the wrong direction anyway, since birth. Gloria is so often slapped, punched, thrown around, insulted, ignored, strangled, beaten, shot, or run over, she's more accurately called a damsel in existential distress. The men she attracts are never knights in shining armor. They're there to use, abuse, destroy, and discard her. An authentic female presence in the dream factory, Grahame's easy to overlook or underestimate because the veil she lifts on men's treatment of women shows how dangerous it is to be desired.

Grahame was married four times, the last husband being her own stepson, whom she made love to while still married to his father, director Nicholas Ray, who found them in bed together. She was 13 years older than the son, and 12 years younger than the father. That Oedipal revelation put an end to the marriage in 1952, and to the December-May romance, at least temporarily. Husband #3 was wedged in there before she got back together with Anthony Ray and tied the knot in 1960 for a 14-year run, including children and custody battles with ex-husbands. The family dynamic was a scandal that tainted her career. Besides, she was pushing 40, and we all know what that means to a woman in or out of Hollywood.

Grahame had style as well as substance, an ironic awareness of men's weakness, an erotic mystique greater than the sum of her parts. She made some bad movies. She begged Howard Hughes to let her out of "Macao" (1952), starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, and her performance is strikingly minimalist. She later showed what she could do opposite Mitchum in "Not as a Stranger" (1955), a sultry horse-powered melodramatic mash-up of two deadpan sex gods. In "Human Desire" (1954), Fritz Lang's mostly wonderful version of Zola's "Bete Humaine" (1890), she gives a flawless performance stuck between monstrous husband Broderick Crawford and priggish lover Glenn Ford. Spoiler: She's beaten to death in the final frames, like a dog.

Grahame is a smooth-tongued, conscienceless con artist in Joan Crawford's post-war-paranoid apotheosis, "Sudden Fear" (1952), famously filmed in several San Francisco locations. Gloria plays Lady Macbeth to gorgeously grotesque Jack Palance's gigolo-cum-doting-husband who's only sweet to Joan because she's a rich old fool, gaga over him despite her cynical Broadway-playwright brains. "Fear" is a must-see for many reasons. The final 25 minutes are a miracle of suspense, silent and shadowy, wherein Crawford's face is a landscape of terror as her tidy murder plot goes awry cuz she's too nice to kill in cold blood. Grahame takes Palance's rough treatment as proof of love. Spoiler: The pair of rats is exterminated because they simply have it coming.

Grahame isn't on the cover of the 2016 Criterion DVD of "In a Lonely Place" (1950), only Humphrey Bogart. Another misogynist slap in the face. This toned-down adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes' 1947 novel dissecting the menace of masculinity recasts Bogart's character as a hair-trigger Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murder. Nicholas Ray directed his then-wife in this rare starring role, a jewel in her crown as icon of imperiled objects of desire. "It wasn't the way I looked at a man, it was the thought behind it," Grahame said of her technique. Movie acting is in the eyes. As philosophical as she is desirable, Gloria Grahame, having seen it all, projects a disabused knowledge of the female condition that makes her uncannily deathless.


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