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.