A bookish Resolution

Loretta Young’s private library, 1943:

Loretta Young with her library

So first of all, Happy New Year! I can’t deny I was glad to see the back of 2016, even though I was lucky enough to make some wonderful friends which outweighs all the bad stuff for me. There is something a little daunting, as well as exciting, about being at the start of a fresh new year, wondering what it will bring.  Do you ever make New Year’s Resolutions? Mine have been the same for years – to be tidier, to throw things away I don’t use, to keep my papers in good order, to stop biting my nails, to buy fewer red lipsticks, to keep in touch with my friends regularly instead of just thinking about them often and then writing apologetic emails once or twice a year. I fail miserably with most or all of them, so this year have decided to make just one main resolution which is to read more.  I’m a slow reader but intend to take advantage of every opportunity available to open a book which means having one with me at all times whenever I leave the house, reading while the dinner is cooking and most of all, trying to stay awake for more than 10 minutes in bed each night to get through at least 1-2 pages. I don’t have a set list of things I wish to read this year because my book choice depends on my mood but here are some I’m hoping to get around to:

‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley

‘Put out more Flags’ by Evelyn Waugh

‘Hunters in the Dark’ by Lawrence Osborne

‘Stoner’ by John Williams

‘Northanger Abbey’ by Jane Austen

‘Eugénie Grandet’ and ‘Le Père Goriot’ by Balzac

‘Les Trois Mousquetaires’ by Dumas

‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann

‘Ungeduld des Herzens’ by Stefan Zweig

Let me know if there are any books you have your heart set on this year. To finish off this post, I thought I’d include some Old Hollywood stars enjoying some reading for inspiration.

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James Stewart who rightly understood the need of a comfortable place to read.

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Rita Hayworth

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The famous photo of Marilyn Monroe reading ‘Ulysses’ by Eve Arnold, 1955.

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Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the set of ‘North by Northwest.’

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Bette Davis with the morning papers in 1939

Fred Astaire via the tumblr Old Hollywood Stars Reading:

Fred Astaire

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Sophia Loren

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Marlon Brando by Cecil Beaton, 1946

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Clark Gable

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Barbara Stanwyck – I dream that one day someone will bring me breakfast in bed.

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Gene Tierney in ‘Leave Her to Heaven.’

Happy reading!

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No(ir)vember: Laura (1944)

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Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ is not only one of the finest noirs but also one of the most popular, even among those who are not die hard fans of the genre like me. Is it the theme tune by David Raskin, or Gene Tierney’s exquisite beauty, or the witty dialogue which crackles throughout? To be honest, it’s all of these and more.

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The film opens with a murder mystery. Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating who killed Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Could it be her acid tongued friend, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her shady fiancé, Shelby (Vincent Price) or someone else? As the mystery deepens, MacPherson finds himself more and more drawn to Laura, reading her letters and even sleeping in the apartment underneath her portrait. She seems to have inspired a strange kind of devotion, even in her housekeeper determined to keep her memory unsullied, and in death, she represents female perfection. But who really was Laura?

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I can’t say much more without giving away a major plot twist which would somehow rob the first time viewer of the pleasure of discovering that for him/herself. So I’ll just say that this is a flawless noir, superbly directed by the great Preminger and with equally superb performances from the cast, particularly Clifton Webb whose first major screen role it was. Waldo Lydecker is truly one of the great characters in film, vicious and cynical and unafraid to destroy any potential rivals through the column he writes and his wit. Watching it again recently, I was also struck by the way this film influenced David Lynch in Twin Peaks whose whole plot revolves around the murder of Laura Palmer, another beautiful and enigmatic character who in death exerts a powerful fascination on all those around her but was not quite what she seemed.

A film to fall in love with.

No(ir)vember: Kiss of Death (1947)

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It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Victor Mature. A Hollywood hunk, he gave two of his finest performances in two great noirs, Cry of the City (1948) and Kiss of Death (1947), but was outclassed each time by Richard Conte in the former and Richard Widmark in the latter. It’s hard to believe it was Widmark’s screen debut. In just 15 minutes of screen time, he gives a mesmerising performance as Tommy Udo, taking psychotic to a whole new level. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nobody has ever had such a terrifying laugh and the wheelchair scene is still chilling with its deranged violence and cruelty.

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Convicted for at attempted jewel robbery, Nick (Mature) is happy not to name names until he learns that his wife has committed suicide after struggling with financial problems and that his young daughters have been placed in an orphanage. He decides to cooperate with the D.A. (Brian Donlevy) who’s trying to put deranged criminal Tommy Udo (Widmark) away. Nicks is released and marries Nettie (Colleen Gray), but when Udo goes free, he begins to fear for his family and his life.

Expertly directed by Henry Hathaway, this is a tightly structured and tense film that never lets up. Free to watch on YouTube.

No(ir)vember: The Stranger on the Third Floor

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Welcome to No(ir)vember, the time of year which gives me the perfect excuse to explore my favourite genre. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going over to the dark side where the women are beautiful but oh so bad and the men are losers and saps, lured by a seductive glance and the promise of one last job which will allow them to escape from this godforsaken city.
The term ‘film noir’ was coined in 1946 by Italian born French critic, Nino Frank who was describing American crime films from this period.
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Critics disagree on the point at which film noir died, but its beginnings are easier to pinpoint. In 1940, RKO released a B-movie called ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’, directed by Boris Ingster. Although it was just over an hour long and probably didn’t seem that much different from the standard melodramas typical for this period, the sense of paranoia and dramatic lighting set it apart. Journalist Mike Ward (John McGuire) gets himself a sensational scoop when he witnesses the murder of a shopkeeper across the street. He identifies a nervous taxi driver (Elisha Cook Jr.) as the culprit and it seems a straightforward crime when he is tried and sentenced to the chair. But Mike’s fiancée, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) believes the wrong man has been convicted, doubts that Mike comes to share when he sees a suspicious stranger entering an apartment in his building and believes his neighbour has been murdered.
That night, Mike has a terrifying nightmare that he is tried and sent to the chair for this murder which fills him with a sense of fear he cannot escape from. He goes to the police the next morning to tell them about the stranger, only to find himself arrested. Although not as famous as other noirs, this film remains a remarkable achievement with its sense of unreality, nightmarish visions and dramatic effects borrowed from German expressionism. Two things in particular stand out: Peter Lorre’s performance as the mysterious stranger and the dark vision of art director, Van Nest Polgase, who went on to design a film called ‘Citizen Kane’ the following year which used and developed many of these techniques (the magnificent overhead shots and the extraordinary scene in the library come to mind). Elisha Cook Jr. and Peter Lorre would go on to star in many classics of the genre, but it’s a pity none of the other actors had much success afterwards. Definitely one you need in your collection!
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