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    Birthday Firsts

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    The creative artists marking birthdays are commemorated on our label by their firsts. Although the sterling film noir classic Kiss of Death (1947) is rightly and primarily celebrated as Richard Widmark’s first time on screen, it also marked the first starring role for the talented Coleen Gray (1922-2015), who would have turned 95 today. Following brief, uncredited appearances in State Fair (1945) and Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), the Twentieth Century Fox contract player moved into the big leagues with her staunchly tender performance as Nettie, the second wife of a struggling ex-con (Victor Mature) who perilously tries to carve out a new life while serving as a mob informant and faced with the potential blowback from Widmark’s unregenerate psychopath Tommy Udo. Though she would continue on four more decades in a sturdy movie and TV career, Gray was best remembered for playing, as David Colker wrote in her 1992 Los Angeles Times obituary, the “‘good girl’ of film noir.” Colker wrote: “She didn’t get the memorable femme fatale parts that went to such actresses as Audrey Totter and Lizabeth Scott. Gray was more likely to be cast as the woman who struggled in vain to keep the man she loved from going down a dark path. ‘When I started out, I wanted to be a sex goddess,’ Gray said in a 1999 Los Angeles magazine interview. ‘But I guess I was the wholesome type.’” She subsequently appeared to great effect in the shadowy worlds of Nightmare Alley (1947), Red River (1948), Kansas City Confidential (1952) and The Killing (1956), all of which proved that Kiss of Death was no fluke and that the dark-haired dame could deliver. 

    For director Jerry Schatzberg’s shattering The Panic in Needle Park (1971), prodigious American composer Ned Rorem, turning 94 today, delivered his first-ever narrative-film music, a spare yet emotionally acute score for a piercing, poignant study of two hardscrabble Manhattan junkies (Al Pacino and Kitty Winn) whose passionate romance is entangled in their dangerous heroin addiction. However, prior to the film’s release, the filmmaker decided that the film played more effectively in cinema-verité style with just the urban landscape audio, and omitted the score. Rorem was philosophical – and pragmatic. Four years later, he adapted portions of the score into his 1974 orchestral suite Air Music, which would win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Forty-five years later, the intact unused score recording tracks were rediscovered and issued not only as a synchronized Isolated Score Track on Twilight Time’s The Panic in Needle Park hi-def Blu-ray but also as a standalone soundtrack CD from Kritzerland [available here: http://www.kritzerland.com/panic_needle.htm]. The work of a noir icon in the making and a gifted musical legend venturing into a new arena are reflected in TT’s discs of Kiss of Death and The Panic in Needle Park, from the label where stars and soundtracks are first and foremost.