Once again, the Odienator finds himself in the company of thieves, femme fatales, easy victims and suckers greasing their own slippery slide into the gutter. No, I’ve not gone back to my old neighborhood! I’m at The Film Noir Preservation’s Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco. I covered the fest in 2010 for Slant Magazine’s House Next Door, and I had so much fun I had to return. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Noir City, and once again, the spectacular Castro Theater in San Francisco is hosting it.
To celebrate this milestone, Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller has come up with 26 movies celebrating the darker side of human nature on film. I plan to cover all 26 in some fashion over the next several days. As always, some of these films are not on DVD and more than a few are curiosity pieces I can’t wait to feast my eyes on. Next Saturday’s screening of The Great Gatsby, for example, is on my must-see list. There is also a big 1940’s style bash entitled “Everyone Comes to Eddie’s” that I will be attending. If you’ve ever wanted to see yours truly dolled up as a detective-slash-gangster, this will be your chance.
A great time will be had by all, and since noir is my favorite genre of film, I expect to be in Heaven until January 29th.
Last night, Noir City X opened with a festival tradition of San Francisco-based noirs. 1951’s The House On Telegraph Hill and 1947’s Dark Passage. The former features Valentina Cortese 23 years before her Oscar-nominated turn in Truffaut’s superb Day for Night, the latter features Bogie and Betty Bacall in a strange, fascinating and twisty tale of plastic surgery, murder, and a really pissed off Endora from TV’s Bewitched.
Let’s start with The House on Telegraph Hill. Directed by Robert Wise and shot on location in San Francisco, Hill tells the tale of a Holocaust survivor Victoria (Cortese) who impersonates her best friend Karin after Karin dies. Karin’s infant son, Chris, was sent to America to live with her aunt before the Nazis imprisoned her. After Germany surrenders, Victoria sends a cable to Karin’s aunt, only to find out that the aunt is deceased. Eventually, she winds up in the titular San Francisco domicile, where she meets Chris, now 10, his governess Margaret (Fay Baker) and Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), the man who looked after Aunt Sophie before she gave up the ghost.
Shot by veteran cin-togger, Lucien Ballard, House on Telegraph Hill tosses in elements of Rebecca, Gaslight and any movie featuring a large amount of bequeathed money and a group of people waiting in line for that money. Wise enjoys twisting the tale for us, with seemingly villainous intentions turning into noble ones and vice versa. Cortese is excellent, and quite fetching, but I really got a kick out of Baker’s Margaret. This extreme blonde feels like Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca’s daughter, and for a while she and the film keep you guessing on what her intentions are. Throw in some truly suspenseful sequences involving explosions and a cut brake line on a car speeding down one of San Francisco’s patented hills, and you have a genuinely entertaining flick.
Speaking of Mrs. Danvers, Agnes Moorehead joins Bogie and Baby in 1947’s Dark Passage, the film that opened this year’s festival. And as expected, she’s mean as hell. Shot in San Francisco, Passage does something I hadn’t seen before in a film of this era. The first act is told from Bogie’s character’s point of view, using a startling amount of first-person subjective camerawork by director Delmer Daves. We don’t see Bogie until at least 25 minutes into the picture. We hear him, see his hands and even his silhouette, but not the actor himself. This lends a Being John Malkovich air to the proceedings—you are Bogie—and when Lauren Bacall looks directly into the camera and talks to us, it’s really, really sexy.
The plot is too involved to get into, but this is one wickedly crafted noir. We are kept in the dark about character’s intentions for much of the film, and there is almost a horror-movie element in the film’s plastic surgery subplot. (“I can make a fella look like a bulldog if I don’t like ‘em,” says the back-alley plastic surgeon working on changing prisoner Bogie’s appearance.) Dark Passage ends with the decades-earlier precursor to that moving last scene in The Shawshank Redemption, but not before sending a character to one of the most brutal deaths ever filmed in the Hays Code era.
Tonight, Noir City brings us Angie Dickinson in the flesh, introducing The Killers and Point Blank. I’ll be back to talk about that tomorrow.