Tuesday, April 16, 2019

CMBA 2019 SPRING BLOGATHON, FEMME/HOMME FATALES OF FILM NOIR: Nightmare Alley (1947)


The Classic Movie Blog Association Spring Blogathon runs from April 16th to the 19th with a focus on the Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. Click HERE for the fascinating articles.


Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, con man extraordinaire whose biggest fall guy was himself.

Stan is a fellow whose confidence often crosses over the border into arrogance. Carlisle is handsome and has a surface charm that wins him many admirers, especially among women. If life hasn't always been easy, at least the immediate pleasures he desires have come his way.

Confidence is an important component of a "confidence man". Like others in that dubious trade, Stanton has the confidence that he is always smarter than his mark. The gullible, for their part, have complete confidence in him. It is a circle that feeds on itself.

Novelist William Lindsay Gresham's 1946 publication Nightmare Alley exposed the seedy world of the carnival and the "spook racket" basing the fiction on his real-life experiences as a carny. Jules Furthman, the prolific and versatile screenwriter of Shanghai Express and Bombshell wrote this 1947 film. Edmund Goulding directed the film, having worked previously with Tyrone Power on The Razor's Edge. Lee Garmes, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Shanghai Express paints the sordid background of the film with a dream-like sheen.

Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell plays Zeena Krumbein, a carny mentalist who was once the Queen of the Big Time with her husband Pete played by Ian Keith. Blondell gives us a character who has seen it all yet despite her jaded exterior has a strong emotional core. Ian Keith is phenomenal as a totally broken man. Zeena's infidelities drove Pete to drink and ruined their prosperity. Guilt has driven Zeena to try to make things up to her husband, but that doesn't keep her from spending time with the attractive Stan. For his part, Stan has his eye on the "code" which made the Krumbein's mind-reading act the best in the business. Just think what he could do to the chumps once he got his hands on that code.

Ian Keith, Tyrone Power

Stan, however, is shown to us to be just as susceptible to a well-turned con as any rube. Pressured into sharing the code, Zeena consults her Tarot cards before making a decision. The cards show success for Stan but danger for Pete. Zeena decides to keep the code as her safety net. Desperate to change her mind, Stan finagles Pete into a position where the poor man loses his life. Yet prior to his demise Pete works the magic of his spiel on Stan, touching on his vulnerabilities. After Pete's death, Stan is haunted by the Tarot reading. Can he bluff his way beyond these fears?

Coleen Gray, Tyrone Power

Coleen Gray plays Molly, a pretty young woman who works an act with the hulking Bruno played by Mike Mazurki. She's a friend to everyone, and sweet on Stan. She has been helping Zeena teach Stan the code after Pete's death. Stan has taken to the act as if born to it and he also proves an asset to the carnival when he bamboozles a local sheriff played by James Burke who had intended to shut them down. High on this successful proof of his brains and ability, Stan spends the evening with a willing Molly. When the rest of the troupe, especially Zeena and Bruno realize what has occurred, marriage is forced upon the couple. Stan realizes this can be turned to his advantage as Molly is comely and knows the code. When next we see the couple they are on top of the world performing in a top-flight Chicago night club. They are raking it in and they are stars, but it is not enough for Stan.

Helen Walker, Tyrone Power

Stan sees a way to make the suckers pay by using the spirituality that was beaten into him in an orphanage. He no longer does the phony mind-reading bit alone but has begun to receive messages from the beyond. His success catches the eye of a quasi-psychiatrist, Lillith Ritter played with a calculating precision by Helen Walker. She records the innermost thoughts of her well-heeled patients and with Stan's reputation as a seer, they begin soaking the saps. Stan even falls for Lillith's own brand of the racket by revealing too much of his inner life.

The biggest con of his life to this point is so close to fruition. Taylor Holmes as a millionaire seeking his lost love is willing to back a tabernacle to Stan, the conduit to the other world. All he requires is physical proof of Stan's abilities. Stan convinces Molly to portray the spirit of the dead woman despite her fears. Molly fears for Stan's soul in his use of spirituality and she is shaken by the faith of the rich, lonely man. Molly breaks down during her act and Stan's perfidy is revealed. He leaves town a broken wretch without even the money he was supposed to have split with Lillith. Yes, the great Stanton Carlisle had been played by an expert.

Tyrone Power, Roy Roberts

It is a quick downward spiral for Stan on his own among the hoboes and drunks who are now his kindred spirits. He can't get a job as a mentalist but one carnival owner offers him a position that ages ago would have repulsed Stanton Carlisle. Stan can be the carny geek. He'll be given a bottle a day to keep him going and a place to sleep it off at night. All he has to do is perform grotesque acts to draw the crowds. Stan accepts that this is now his lot in life, but like others before him breaks down hysterically under the shame and pressure.

Stan stole from Zeena the monetary value she had in the code and the piece of her heart and soul that belonged to Pete. Lillith stole from Stan his money, his success, and the part of him that was smarter than the chumps. The only thing Stan had that was worthwhile was Molly's love, and that he didn't steal; it was freely given.

The film attempts to leave the audience with hope. Molly has found Stan and is determined to help him. Tyrone Power's performance as Stanton Carlisle, a complicated mix of pride and helplessness, ambition and defeat leaves us with the disquieting thought that there is no return for this homme fatale of film noir.



The Classic Movie Blog Association collection of essays on the Femme/Homme of Film Noir is now available (free) on Smashwords.









59 comments:

  1. This movie ends five minutes too late, in my opinion, but that doesn’t keep me from admiring it. Now that I know more about Power’s career, I can better appreciate what making this film meant to him.

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    1. I hear you. It is the downward spiral that is the story, and should be the story's end. I have read that 20th Century Fox fought the movie all the way because of its depressing trajectory, so I can understand the "hope". It is Tyrone Power who keeps us with his doomed character.

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  2. It's a terrific, gritty film noir and features, in my opinion, Tyrone Power's best performance. The subject matter is perfect for a noir film and I'm surprised it wasn't exploited more often. I agree that the ending would have been more powerful without Molly finding Stan, but it doesn't detract from the potency of the rest of the movie.

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    1. Prior to seeing Nightmare Alley for the first time I had heard my dad speak of it, and of Tyrone Power's performance. I found Nightmare Alley to be everything he said it was.

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  3. Yay! You picked one of my favorite noirs. And yes, he was a fella fatale - and a mighty fine geek. As always, a most excellent post.

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    1. "...and a mighty fine geek." Oh, my side hurts from laughing.

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  4. A great selection for the blogathon CaftanWoman. This was Tyrone Power's best performance, in my opinion. And the movie and its plot was a hurdle for him to get produced at his studio. Yet it has a great cast and crew - thanks for reviewing it here.

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    1. Thank you. Power had such talent and it is a shame that he had to fight for such a worthy role.

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  5. I saw Nightmare Alley a while ago, and I remember feeling the creepiness all too well. The story is obviously a success because I remember it with a shudder, which I think is the point. Your post brings that shudder back!

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    1. It is a truly memorable movie. One of those admirably accomplishments that you don't want to revisit very often.

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  6. Excellent choice and Powers gives us a strong dark performance. Great choice and thanks for joining in.

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    1. It was my pleasure to join the blogathon. Nightmare Alley was a favourite of my late father so it is legendary in this family.

      PS: Take a peek over my left shoulder in my photo at the top of the page.

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  7. JOAN BLONDELL-I really like her in movies. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN as the sister of Katie (DOROTHY MCGUIRE). Both of them were great! LLOYD NOLAN played the police officer.(the name of Katie, Johnny & their children was NOLAN). Joan was in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, and DESK SET. Also a part in GREASE. For TV-the series HERE COME THE BRIDES(1968-70). I saw the show in the mid-late 80s. She was Emmy nominated for that show. TV-movie BATTERED with HOWARD DUFF as her abusive husband. A lot of people probably don't know that she was married to DICK POWELL before he was married to JUNE ALLYSON.(I just remembered that you said that Joan & June showed Dick in completely different ways in their books.) Joan was later married to MIKE TODD before he married ELIZABETH TAYLOR. (Joans first husband was cameraman GEORGE BARNES.

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    1. Joan Blondell had quite the interesting life and a long career. She definitely worked hard. I am surprised she didn't receive an Oscar nomination as Aunt Cissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or one for Nightmare Alley.

      PS: I watched Here Come the Brides during its initial run.

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  8. I remember BRIDES had some memorable episodes and guest stars. Bob Cummings had a dramatic role as the ex-husband of Lottie(Joan) and Jane Wyatt guest-starred as a woman who was bitter because of a failed romance(I think) with the dad of the BOLT brothers way back when they were young. Did you have a favorite of the brothers JASON, JOSHUA & JEREMY?-played by ROBERT BROWN, DAVID SOUL & BOBBY SHERMAN. At first I liked Bobby Sherman then I started liking Robert Brown so then sometimes it was a tie and other times it was Robert and then right behind him it was Bobby. Robert & Bobby! All them are still with us as is Bridget Hanley(Candy) & Susan Tolsky (I think that's her name) who played Bittie(or Bitty).

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    1. I suppose Jason (Robert Brown) was my favourite. I'm the eldest in my family so that could have something to do with it. I also liked the performance of Mark Lenard as Aaron Stemple.

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  9. Great analysis, as always. I first saw this haunting film a few years ago and was impressed by the script and the superb cast, and shocked by the ending. As you pointed out, the cinematography is dream-like.

    Also: That photo of Coleen Gray and Tyrone Power – those two are almost too beautiful for words.

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    1. Thank you.

      Ty and Coleen are one of those movie couples from whom we mere mortals must avert our eyes. The hubby places Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter at the top of the list. That is a discussion that would never end.

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  10. Great choice for this blogathon! Underrated film and character.

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    1. Thanks. It was a pleasure to revisit and write about Nightmare Alley

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  11. As always, a wonderful article. You really captured what makes this such an unique and gripping noir and the real greatness in Tyrone Power's gripping performance; he's also pretty easy on the eyes, at least in the beginning ;)

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    1. Thank you, Amanda.

      Mature Power had so much to give. Nightmare Alley is essential to appreciating his work.

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  12. I didn't watch it but I know that Tyrone worked with RUTA LEE. I really like Ruta especially on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW where she played a reporter posing as a college student trying to get dirt on Andy for her boss(ROY ROBERTS). Later she did a color ep. where she played a movie star named Darlene Mason. She also did two eps. of THREES COMPANY. Ruta worked with DON KNOTTS on her first ep. of ANDY and also on her second ep. of THREES COMPANY where Don played RALPH FURLEY. Ruta, one of the most elegant actresses Ive ever seen, was one of the women in one of your favorite movies SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. She got to work with LUCY and she did the MURDER, SHE WROTE episode with JASON BEGHE and SALLY STRUTHERS about the new exercise place. HOORAY to RUTA!

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    1. Ruta had a small, but pivotol role with Power in Witness for the Prosecution; an Agatha Christie play directed by Billy Wilder. Well worth the time.

      Perhaps we could consider Ruta's many guest appearances on Perry Mason as TV noir.

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  13. I've been meaning to watch this movie for years and never had the chance. Now, knowing that Tyrone Power is some kind of homme fatale in it only increases my wish to see it. Very nice review as always, leaving us wanting more.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Thank you so much. I am certain you will be impressed with Power, in particular, but truly the entire movie once the two of you cross paths.

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  14. A terrific choice, and a great post. He was an actor capable of very powerful performances, and this was a role that really required his gifts.

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    1. The roles have to come your way, and while I can see different actors being cast, I can't see anyone touching this performance.

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  15. Speaking of Ruta Lee earlier if you could put her in an ALFRED HITCHCOCK movie which one would it be?(especially as the lead). Even if the movie was remade for TV. I saw Marnie with Tippi Hedren, even though Tippi was good in the part is there other actresses you can see in the part? The young Marnie was played by MELODY THOMAS who turned 8 that year. She is now MELODY THOMAS SCOTT(married to ED SCOTT for more than thirty years). She has been playing NIKKI REED NEWMAN on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS for 40 years! Nikki is married to VICTOR NEWMAN played by ERIC BRAEDEN who has been on the show for 39 years! Melody was in THE SHOOTIST in a small role opposite THE DUKE, JOHN WAYNE -his last movie. She did an episode of DIAGNOSIS MURDER as herself with other Y&R actors including Eric and also Jeanne Cooper(Katherine Chancellor). Today-APRIL 18, 2019-MELODY turns 63. She is also known as being a big fan of I LOVE LUCY/LUCILLE BALL.

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    1. That's rather an interesting and difficult question about placing Ruta in a Hitchcock film. I think I could see her in The Man Who Knew Too Much and perhaps The Trouble With Harry.

      I watched The Young and the Restless when it began with the Brooks and the Fosters, but I didn't keep up with it. I remember that Diagnosis Murder episode. I believe Victoria Rowell being a regular on both shows had something to do with it. Fans adore that sort of a wink.

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  16. I think HOPE LANGE and especially MARTHA HYER would have been good as the lead in a HITCHCOCK film. I just thought of something-there was a remake of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN titled ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER where it was a man and a woman instead of two men. The leads were CAROL LUNLEY & PAUL BURKE. Pauls wife was played by MARTHA HYER. So Martha did get to be in a remake at least. Martha got to work with WILLIAM HOLDEN in SABRINA. I know you never saw HARLOW with CARROLL BAKER (or the other one with CAROL LYNLEY) but did you see THE CARPETBAGGERS? It had a great cast-CAROLL BAKER, GEORGE PEPPARD, LEW AYRES, ELIZABETH ASHLEY, BOB CUMMINGS, & MARTHA HYER. Besides Carroll another actor was in both THE CARPETBAGGERS and HARLOW. MARTIN BALSAM played the studio boss in both movies. Martin at one time was married to JOYCE VAN PATTEN (another actress that I admire her talent), the sister of DICK VAN PATTEN. Martin & Joyce had a daughter TALIA BALSAM who was married to GEORGE CLOONEY and is now married to JOHN SLATTERY.

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    1. Also I want to add that Martin Balsam was in PSYCHO. It goes back around to ALFRED HITCHCOCK!

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    2. Martin Balsam is a favourite of mine with 12 Angry Men topping the list.

      I saw Joyce Van Patten in a production of Same Time Next Year with Conrad Janis at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto back in 1975. My, how time flies!

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  17. Nice post about one of my favorite Noirs. This movie proves that Noir doesn't need detectives, femmes fatales, guns and gangsters to be true Noir. And Power proves that he was more than just another pretty face.

    As opposed to others I didn't mind the ending. I don't see it as a copout, it's not a happy ending. Because even if Stanton hasn't become the Geek, he has become Pete. Molly and Stanton are simply the mirror image of Zeena and Pete in the end, the nurturer and the hopeless down-and-out alcoholic. And that was never a happy arrangement. I doubt Stanton will pull himself together enough in the long run to get back on his feet.

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  18. Memorable film that I must revisit soon. I love your breakdown of the story and characters as it brought all vividly back, particularly the excellent description of Stan's fall. Terrific stuff!

    Aurora

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    1. Thank you so much.

      My dad had built this movie up to legendary status, and he was not wrong.

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  19. Thanks for this wonderful coverage of one of my favorite noirs. It's certainly one of the bleakest and darkest films of the genre, but the stellar cast, incredible look of the film & sharp script ensure that you're riveted to the screen throughout. I'm glad Tyrone Power fought to get cast in this one. It's certainly one of his best performances.

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    1. Thank you. Nightmare Alley is an outstanding film, and an outstanding film-noir. I don't know whether to thank the movie gods or Edmund Goulding, or just be thankful.

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  20. Thank you for your comments about MARTIN BALSAM & JOYCE VAN PATTEN. Do you know the work of PAUL BURKE, MARTHA HYER & CAROL LYNLEY? Also did you see any of these 3 movies?-ONCE YOU KISS A STRANGER, THE CARPETBAGGERS and PSYCHO?

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    1. I admire Psycho. I saw The Carpetbaggers years ago, but don't remember it very well. I haven't seen Once You Kiss a Stranger, but I am familiar with Paul Burke from the TV series Naked City. Carol Lynley is certainly a familiar face from all of her television appearances.

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  21. Psycho has some actors that I remember you said you like-JOHN MCINTIRE, LURENE TUTTLE & VERA MILES and earlier today you mentioned MARTIN BALSAM. What do you think of JANET LEIGH & JOHN GAVIN in this movie and others? John G. got to work with SUSAN HAYWARD & LANA TURNER. Plus he got to work with DORIS DAY in MIDNIGHT LACE. I remember (when I commented on MYRNA LOY) that I mentioned all that fog at the beginning of the movie and Doris running back to her apartment.

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    1. I adore Janet Leigh in so many different types of movies; action, suspense, drama, comedy, musical - she could do it all. In June I will have a post on Romanoff and Juliet. In that movie as well as Thoroughly Modern Millie, John Gavin showed a charming knack for comedy.

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  22. I remember seeing this a couple of years ago and recall it was incredibly bleak. Your terrific writing brought back the details and the feeling of the film. Power as Stan was central and tragic (a great performance) but it was interesting too to contrast the various women in his life. A film I need to revisit soon.

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    1. True. Very bleak. Very worthwhile, but not something you say to yourself "Gee, I'd like to watch Nightmare Alley tonight." Nonetheless, Tyrone Power's performance is worth the journey.

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  23. I'm not 100 percent positive, but I'm pretty sure that Stan Carlisle was the first homme I thought of when the blogathon theme was announced. What a great pick, Paddy -- and I loved your coverage of this great character!

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    1. Well, if he wasn't the first we can be certain he made himself known rather quickly, and whoever that other fellow may have been, he faded away.

      Appreciate your kind thoughts.

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  24. I remember that you stated that you have seen these people in plays-ANGELA LANSBURY, JANE POWELL & HOWARD KEEL, ALICE FAYE & JOHN PAYNE, DEBBIE REYNOLDS, JEAN SIMMONS, and JOYCE VAN PATTEN & CONRAD JANIS. I know that you are a big fan of musicals but do you like comedy or drama best in movies or plays? Also have you ever seen a play of LOVE LETTERS or THE GIN GAME? I saw THE GIN GAME on PBS with MARY TYLER MOORE & DICK VAN DYKE.

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    1. I haven't seen Love Letters, but that production of The Gin Game on PBS is a favourite. I believe I prefer comedy, although a good drama impresses me. A part of me thinks that if I am paying money to see something I feel like it was worth it if I laugh. Although, I must say that not many contemporary comedies do much for me.

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  25. I agree about contemporary comedies-even the previews for movies don't seem funny to me. Did you see the reunion of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW that aired in 2004? Are you a fan of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? The special they had in 2002 was just Mary talking to each cast member but only one at a time. In 2000(I think) ABC had a TV-Movie MARY & RHODA which also starred VALERIE HARPER(of course). There for a while MTM was on a roll when it came to being on TV again. From 2002 to 2005 she did quite a lot. She was great in the CBS movie BLESSINGS which aired in 2003. I like her in comedy and drama roles both. Im sure you do too being you like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE GIN GAME.

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    1. The Dick Van Dyke Show is a favourite in my family. We even named our cats Buddy and Sally. The show would calm my special needs son when he was little. When she was a teen, my daughter said she had a retro crush on Carl Reiner.

      I shared The Mary Tyler Moore Show with my daughter (DVDs), and it was wonderful to bond over such a classic show.

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  26. This film is high on my list of Movies I Would Take With Me To A Desert Island. I've always loved its sleazy atmosphere and oddball characters, and I think Tyrone Power does some of his best work here; not to mention Helen Walker, who's chillingly great as the psychiatrist (it's her best work, too). It's one of the best noirs out there - great post!

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    1. Thanks. I put Helen Walker near the top of the list as actresses who gave great noir performances. Here she's a villain, as in Impact (upcoming TCM choice for June), in The Big Combo a victim, and does the supportive little woman bit in Call Northside 777. Pretty impressive.

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  27. Besides PSYCHO what other HITCHCOCK movies do you really like? Around how many have you seen? Besides TIPPI HEDREN who would have been good in MARNIE and THE BIRDS? Also I think LANA TURNER would have been good in a HITCHCOCK movie.

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  28. Also I want to add that's cool about your cats being named BUDDY & SALLY. A while back I read in a magazine about a cat named TUNA. Then later another cat with the same name.

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    1. You got me thinking about Hitchcock, so I checked the list at the IMDb and I have seen 33 of Alfred Hitchcock's films. Some of my faves are Dial M for Murder, The Trouble With Harry, Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, and the original The Man Who Knew Too Much. I find Suspicion more interesting the more I watch it.

      PS: Our current cats are Beatrice named for the "B" in J.B. Fletcher, and Rosemary named after Rosemary Clooney.

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  29. I've always wanted to see this one. I didn't know Joan Blondell was in it--even more motivation. I feel like Blood and Sand didn't really give me Power's potential--and I'm too partial to the book version of The Razor's Edge to like him much as Larry. I think this will be the one when I can really see what others saw in him..

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    1. I believe you will see in Stanton Carlisle the realization of Power's potential on screen. It may then be easier to enjoy all of his career.

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  30. Besides TYRONE who are some men that you liked from the old Hollywood days, especially for their appearance? One that I like is JEFF CHANDLER. I didn't see him in a movie until 1987 when I watched STRANGER IN MY ARMS. It had JUNE ALLYSON & SANDRA DEE. Also MARY ASTOR who had worked with June earlier in LITTLE WOMEN. The first time Mary played her mother and in this one with Jeff she played her mother-in-law. PETER GRAVES played Marys son in flashback scenes with Jeff. Later Jeff and Mary were both in RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE. Back to Jeff, an OSCAR nominee. He was a good actor with a distinctive look. That hair! Also he had a great and unique voice.

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    1. Jeff Chandler is an actor I enjoy watching. I've not seen Stranger in My Arms and will have to check it out.

      Some of the fellows I find appealing are Joel McCrea, George O'Brien, and Dennis O'Keefe. Also, anyone with musical ability as part of their versatility like Dan Dailey, John Payne, and Gene Nelson.

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