Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Noir City XV #2: It's All Right There in the Title

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Lee Marvin is a repeat offender here at Noir City. His steely visage is always a welcome sight, but even Lee had to question what the hell he was doing in a film like Violent Saturday. According to Eddie Muller, Marvin hated the movie, saying his performance made him look like a fool. It's a rather unbelievable statement, especially when you consider that director Richard Fleischer cast Ernest Borgnine as an Amish person. Ernie is saddled with a beard and loads of "thee, thou, thy" dialogue. Thy cup will runneth over with laughter when you get a good look at Borgnine in full gear. As for Marvin, his awesomely garish blue ensemble is more suited for Studio 54 than 1954.

Why, Lee? Why?!

Violent Saturday is two parts caper film and three parts soapy, Peyton Place melodrama. The ever versatile Fleischer not only swings between the two disparate halves with ease, he does it in CinemaScope so the screen contains more soapy suds per square inch than the Academy ratio would allow. We meet the creepy Peeping Tom banker who ogles the pretty young nurse from outside her window as she undresses. We meet the Amish family who offers sanctuary to our hero Victor Mature. We spend time with the criminals played by Marvin, Stephen McNally and hte great J. Carroll Nash. And we bear witness to the lovely Sylvia Sidney, a librarian who has spent way too much time checking out books about petty larceny. Her eventual Meet Cute with the Peeping Pervert is just one of the many crowd-pleasing highlights Violent Saturday has to offer.

Everything and everybody is connected in this small town, and the characters' dramatic interplay is as intricately and convolutedly plotted as the film's central heist. Every kind of sin is explored, countered only by the piousness of that Amish family. When patriarch Ernie B. became an avenging angel for the Lord, we denizens of Noir City understood why this played as part of the Saturday matinee. This is the stuff lazy Saturday afternoons at the cinema are made for; the Castro Theatre crowd sopped it off the screen with a biscuit. 

When one thinks of noir, or of capers for that matter, director Federico Fellini doesn't immediately spring to mind, though one could make a strong case for the noirish underpinnings of La Strada. The Italian master lent his screenwriting skils to director Pietro Germi's Four Ways Out, which played the early half of the Saturday night double feature at Noir City. It came to us in a pristine, gorgeous 35mm print whose tactile black and white cinematography highlighted the broad strokes of neorealism peering out from beneath its larcenous storyline. This time, the mark is a soccer stadium's ticket revenue take, crammed in generic-looking suitcases carried by several career criminals and one out-of-his-league teenage boy. 

The young man's palpable fear of being caught leads him to make some understable yet very large mistakes that affect the rest of his crew. Though it's never clearly evident why someone so green would be in on this complicated scheme, Germi and Fellini use him as the film's desperate conscience. Though we know Noir City's advertised guarantee is "no happy endings" to its films, Four Ways Out offers a slight bit of respite when it comes to the young man's comeuppance. Fellini gives his final scene an operatic crescendo that would be shameless if it weren't so damn effective. 

Poor kid.

Also effective are the performances by Paul Muller as "il professore," the mastermind of the heist, and a young, unforgivably gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida as Daniela, a possibly duplicitous lover whose actions don't bode well for one of the criminals. For Lollobrigida's, and the filmmakers', troubles, Four Ways Out won the Best Italian Film at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. You'll never look at a town square fountain or a building ledge the same way after you see it.

Four Ways Out played on a double bill with Mario Monicelli's excellent, Oscar nominated caper classic Big Deal on Madonna Street. I skipped that one, if only because I'd done three prior movies and a brief stint in the enormous protest march that took up much of Market Street on Saturday. I had a good excuse to drop out of seeing the film, but you don't. Rent it or look for it on TCM.

I was present for The Big Risk, which deserves its own piece later in this series. In the meantime, let's continue with yet another famous director whom people tend to forget was majorly influened by, and contributed to, film noir.

In his introduction to 1956's The Killing, the Czar of Noir told us that Sterling Hayden and director  Stanley Kubrick had a major falling out over the film's bouncy, memorable flashback structure. Seems Hayden thought the non-linear nature of the film screwed with his performance. Hayden couldn't have been more wrong, and Kubrick's victory over his then much more powerful lead actor proves it. The film plays as Kubrick and his screenwrier Jim Thompson intended. If you wanted to know where Quentin Tarantino got that awesome idea to fragment the robbery in Jackie Brown into overlapping flashbacks, here is your answer.

Hayden and his cronies knock over a race track on a very profitable day. The heist is complicated, and way too dependent upon a slew of people prone to human error and fits of uncontrollable jealousy. But the crew, and noir master Thompson, pull it off, tying every single loose end into a tightly pulled, ironic noose.

Helping to hang at least one character is Marie Windsor. She's the gorgeous, acid-tongued wife of Noir City stalwart Elisha Cook Jr. Knowing she's at least 6 furlongs out of his league, the nervous Cook will do anything to keep her happy, including telling her private details about Hayden's heist. This is a bad idea; Windsor's been seeing another guy--a favorite to Cook's 100-1 longshot of a husband--and this new horse wants a piece of the action.

Though she's billed way under the title, Windsor runs off with the picture. Her performance is the kind that wins Supporting Actress Oscars in a more just awards-centric world. Not even Hayden can compete with her. When he rebuffs her advances and tells her to "beat it," he almost seems more wounded than she is at the rejection. She even manages to hold her own in the unforgettable department against her gloriously insane co-star Timothy Carey and Colleen Grey, who plays Windsor's complete opposite. In a film with one of the most memorably complex heists, Windsor's performance commits an even more memorable theft.

(A special shout out to James Edwards, who shares the screen with Carey yet manages to leave a stinging, karmic-filled impression in a very short time.)

Last up is Cruel Gun Story, a 1964 Japanese crime tale starring Jo Shishido, the only male actor to benefit from getting implants. And no, they weren't in his boobs--they were in his face. You get used to his chipmunk-like appearance pretty quickly, however, because this movie is Vi-O-Lent! The climactic, over-the-top shootout, featuring explosions and waves of people being mowed down, evoked the coolness of Michael Mann merged with the gonzo batshit penchant for carnage wielded by Mel Gibson. Though nowhere near as gory as anything Mad Mel threw his camera behind, Cruel Gun Story has Gibson's thesis statement of attempted redemption through violent suffering: Shishido is doing this heist, and all that gunplay, to help his paraplegic sister get a surgery to allow her to walk again. Of course, redemption ain't coming for anybody in Noir City.

The emotional pull is definitely there in director Takumi Furukawa's most notorious picture, but it comes with a heaping side of admittedly delicious nihilism. Everything you need to know about Cruel Gun Story is right there in the title.

Next time: Lino Ventura and a Coen Brothers inspiration.
Last dispatch: Criss Cross Will Make Ya Jump Jump!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Noir City XV #1: Criss Cross Will Make Ya JUMP JUMP!

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Film Noir Foundation's 15th Noir City Film Festival opened last Friday night at the famed Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and the relevance of this particular day was not lost on the celebrated Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. Taking the stage to introduce the first double feature of our ten day tenure in Noir City, the Czar drew parallels between the topic of this year's slate and the event that had taken place earlier in the day. This year's entries widen the net ever so slightly to include 24 tales of robberies gone wrong. 

Before watching the first of these tales of cinematic folks losing their ill-gotten gains, we denizens of the United States of America bore witness to the beginning of a heist to steal the well-deserved rights of millions of our brethren. And while we denizens of Noir City relish and bask in the bitter little world that promises "no happy endings" for anybody on screen, we certainly don't want a similar outcome over the next four years. 

So, many of us marched on Saturday, myself included, and like the anti-heroes we've loved and hissed at over the past 15 years of this excellent festival, we will not accept the darkest fates without a fight. We will go down swinging, but rise up stonger.

Even though they're important, I shall end my real-world statements for now. I'm here to tell you about the movies, to help you escape into the world I've taken so much comfort in for the past 9 years I've participated in this festival. This year's tagline is "The Big Knockover: 24 Criminal Capers from Around the Globe. 50 Years of Hold-Ups, Heists and Schemes Gone Awry." When Robbie Burns said "The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men/Gang aft agley,"  he was talking about the inhabitants of Noir City 15. That ol' concept of "honor amongst thieves" has credence only if you're commiting the robbery by yourself, and sometimes not even then. 

Pity poor Burt Lancaster. Director Robert Siodmak tells ya he's doomed in the first scene of Criss Cross. After the director's camera catches a glimpse of Lancaster in a passionate embrace, it turns its gaze on the object of his affection, Yvonne De Carlo. The gorgeous De Carlo stares directly into the camera and tells Lancaster how good things are gonna be once their plans have come to fruition. The unexpected positioning of the camera startles the viewer--this gorgeous lady is talking to us, for Cripes' Sake--and immediately we understand that the Birdman of Alcatraz is a goner with a capital G.

"I'm more than just Lily Munster, y'know."

De Carlo's on a "cigarette break" with Lancaster in the parking lot of the swanky hotel party attended by her criminal husband, the great Dan Duryea. Duryea, like Siodmak, is a fixture here at Noir City; to us denizens, he's the neighbor who comes 'round every year to borrow a cup of sugar laced with arsenic. Duryea is also in on the aforementioned plan, which involves the robbery of an armored car. But he's a suspicious loose cannon, always worrying what his wife is up to (and whom she's cozying up to) when she leaves the room. Lancaster knows this, but it's damned hard to resist the woman who inspired Stephen Sondheim to write I'm Still Here.

Screenwriter Dan Fuchs, who won the Oscar for Noir City 14 entry Love Me Or Leave Me, (which I wrote about here) really puts the screws to his characters. The brilliant Siodmak, perhaps the best noir director there is, captures every last turn of the screwdriver, culminating in a closeup of an angry, damaged Duryea that's the black-hearted bookend to De Carlo's opening scene. "Hold her tight," he coldly demands of Lancaster before issuing the nasty dose of revenge we've come to expect here at Noir City.

While we're on the subject of armored car robberies, let's drag John Payne into the conversation. He'll always have a special place in my heart for Miracle on 34th Street, but in Noir City, he's going to need far more help than the U.S. Post Office gave hm in that film. In Kansas City Confidential, Payne is framed by a crew of armored car robbers whose actions convince the police that Payne served as the criminals' distracting decoy. The thieves, played by Neville Brand, Jack Elam and a shockingly suave Lee van Cleef, constitute a fantastic trio of plug-uglies whose mugs director Phil Karlson can't help but caress with his close-ups. The trio know not of each others' existence; they are only given torn playing cards to identify themselves once the heat's off and the money can be distributed. This same plan will be executed numerous times this year at Noir City, and it will never go right.

Meanwhile, after the cops spend several days trying to beat a confession out of Payne, they let him go with not so much as an apology. It's a powerful sequence that still felt timely and shocking. Now defeated and angry, Payne starts following the trail to try to clear his name. He'll eventually run into the trio that left him holding the bag, with screenwriters George Bruce and Harry Essex providing some very clever ways for Payne to tussle with them. He'll also get to tussle, though in a much gentler, romantic sense, with Colleen Grey, who offers him the slim chance of a happy ending. Whenter he gets one I'll leave for you to discover. I will tell you this isn't the last we'll see of Ms. Grey on the Castro Theatre's wonderful big screen.

I covered John Huston's masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, way back at Noir City 8. Back then, I wrote:

"Sam Jaffe is memorable, and even a little tragic, as the German mastermind behind the heist. His gang includes Marc Lawrence, Louis Calhern as a lawyer and Sterling Hayden, still in full possession of his precious bodily fluids, as a shitkicker from Ken-TUCK-ee. James Whitmore shows up in a superb supporting role as a bar owner whose philosophy on cats results in one of noir’s greatest lines. Jean Hagen represents the ladies, and though she has far more screen time and is quite good, we momentarily forget about her for the two scenes that feature Marilyn Monroe. This appearance is so early in her career that she isn’t even credited. Huston uses her sparingly, but effectively. She gets a heartbreaker of a scene with the cops, and looks almost better in black-and-white than she did In color."

The film still held up at Noir City 15, where we don't mind reruns if they're as good as this one.

Next up: Lee Marvin, Sterling Hayden and a trio of International flicks.