Monday, January 28, 2013

Noir City 11 #1: A Strangely Merciful Life Taking Pity: Odienator in Noir City

by Odienator

The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City celebrates its eleventh incarnation January 25-February 3 in San Francisco’s gorgeous Castro Theatre. For the fifth time, I have a front row seat to the mayhem, murder, madness and mystery promised by my favorite genre of film. There are 27 films on the slate, each lulling me into a state of dangerous, sweet surrender. But I must tread cautiously: From pretty dames to the pursuit of happiness, everything in Noir City has a price tag that can quickly become a toe tag. And while none of the big-screen shenanigans will drive me to murder, they will leave me with an unsettling identification with the characters I’ll encounter. I have to live with the knowledge that I understand why Noir City’s denizens always succumb to their hearts of darkness. Sometimes I wish I could succumb to mine.

Such wishes are the seeds of destruction, and I can’t afford the flower pot in which to plant them. As a worthy consolation, however, I have the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, to lead me and my Castro Theatre brethren through the fields of those who reaped the destruction they sowed. Festival nights are broken into themes, with this year offering an African-American Noir night alongside the recurring (and wildly popular) San Francisco Noir night. There’s also a 3-D Noir night, which I dread for the obvious, one-eyed reasons, and my favorite night of every Noir City: Bad Girls Night. Several films at the festival are not on DVD, while others are making their world premieres after being restored. Also on tap is a brand new 4K restoration of the film whose main character was the beneficiary of the strangely merciful life I alluded to in my title, Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, Sunset Blvd.

Ms. Cummins in her heyday

My first dispatch from Noir City deals with the four D’s: Demons, Dames, Drivers and Desperation. The festival opened with Gun Crazy, Joseph Lewis’ influential lovers-on-the-run tale starring John Dall and Peggy Cummins. The latter appeared at Noir City, older than her three scheduled onscreen versions but still looking good. Ms. Cummins received multiple standing ovations before the film, and several more during the post-screening interview with Muller. She stole the show, and Muller wisely endorsed her grand larceny. 

The festival’s guest of honor also appeared in the Saturday matinee double feature of Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers, neither of which is technically noir, but whose darkness and grittiness made them cousins worthy of inclusion.

Cummins spoke of her Hollywood origins: She was  brought to Tinseltown by Darryl Zanuck to star in Forever Amber. The book version of Forever Amber was apparently so popular that Fox’s casting call for the lead rivaled Selznick’s for Gone With the Wind. Cummins won the part, but it was a short-lived victory. “Someone at the studio said I wasn’t pretty enough,” Cummins informed an audience who’d just seen her looking absolutely fantastic onscreen. She was dropped, and Linda Darnell appears in the version preserved for posterity. As a result of the recasting, Cummins went from Forever Amber to Deadly Is the Female, or as noir lovers would come to know it, Gun Crazy.

While I prefer the film’s original title, Gun Crazy remains an apt description. Lewis’ film influenced Godard’s Breathless and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and its potent fetishizing of guns keeps it from being too dated. This is a firearms boner to rival the one wielded by the NRA. It’s a microcosm of America’s love of guns, and it was made 63 years ago. Here is the story of a man who loves to shoot his guns. It’s the only thing he’s good at, and it becomes an obsession of his. Lewis and company barely hide the sexual symbolism from the censor, substituting Dall’s mastery of shooting for both masturbatory satisfaction and perceived expert cocksmanship. The latter is even more subversively notarized when Dall meets Cummins’ equal marksmanship at a carnival. Their shooting battle is a fiery game of William Tell, with matches instead of apples, and as each takes turns firing dangerously close to the other’s head, sexual arousal runs down the screen like Niagara Falls. The female is not only on the same erotic mastery level as the male, she’s more cunning in her execution. Dall wins the shooting contest because I think Cummins purposely misses her final shot. She’s playing coy to make him feel masculine.

The mixture of sex and guns made flesh by Cummins drives Dall to do her bidding. Addicted to excitement the way Dall is hooked on triggers,  Cummins leads the duo into a life of increasingly violent crimes. She can kill but he cannot, and he knows she sees that as a weakness. Cummins is spectacular here, toying with Dall’s sexual insecurity like a film noir Lady Macbeth. When Dall finally seals the deal, putting a bullet into his beloved, it’s a short-lived form of consummation, an affirmation of his manhood. Muller called Cummins’ character in this film “the most ferocious female in noir,” and after revisiting Gun Crazy, I can’t argue.

A far less ferocious, though still fine and flirty Cummins appears in two other films at Noir City: Curse of the Demon and Hell Drivers. Both are  from 1957 and written by blacklisted writer-director Cyril Endfield. Demon made me long for the days when I was 9 years old and watching movies on WOR-TV in New York City. This would have scared me silly and giddy back then. Staring at the demon in the title on the big Castro Theatre screen, I felt compelled to reunite with that prior incarnation of myself. I had a great time, helped by the gorgeous, atmospheric cinematography by Edward Scaife.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Curse of the Demon is more horror picture than noir, but stars a staple of noir, Dana Andrews. Andrews imbues his role with more conviction and credibility than a film like this requires, and his performance keeps the film from descending too far into the ridiculous. Andrews’ shrink is in town to evaluate a member from a devil-worshipping cult. This is for research purposes, as Andrews is a pure skeptic when it comes to the supernatural. His point of contact has been murdered by the titular demon before Andrews’ arrival, and Andrews teams up with the victim’s niece (Cummins) to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, a deliciously evil Niall MacGinnis is cursing people (including Cummins’ uncle) with some kind of parchment paper covered in runes from Stonehenge (or something like that). You may never want to take anything handed to you again after you see what this guy’s modus operandi is. He even has the Lucifer beard, which should be enough to convince that disbelieving Mr. Andrews. But no, Andrews has to get cursed himself, and even then, he keeps applying science to whatever happens to him. This is an endearing characteristic of the film—it keeps trying to explain away all the great Val Lewton atmosphere Tourneur and Schaife provide.

Some of the creepy, shadowy images here are as stunning as the demon is goofy-looking. (The filmmakers hated that an actual demon was added post-filming by the producer. Its smoke-filled suggestion was more than enough.) Tourneur, who directed Lewton’s Cat People (as well as the noir classic Out of the Past), knows how to ratchet up suspense from things dropping into the corners of the frame. A sudden hand at the bottom right of the screen actually got me to jump, and the director’s sly nod to his former feline flick manifests itself as a scary yet hilarious attack on Andrews. Even when wrestling with an obviously fake panther, Andrews is committed. You gotta love movies like this, and without irony.

Hell Drivers is a suspenseful, gritty British drama about truckers who risk their lives for a corrupt trucking company. It’s The Wages of Fear with ballast instead of dynamite, featuring a “Who’s Who” of soon to be famous British stars. Led by the British Jack Palance, Stanley Baker, Hell Drivers also stars a pre-Bond Sean Connery and a pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, who is superb as Baker’s rival for truck-driving superiority. Playing Baker’s rival for Cummins’ feisty, jeans-clad secretary is a pre-Pink Panther Herbert Lom. As an Italian immigrant who befriends Baker even when the other men turn on him, Lom provides Hell Drivers with its tragic, broken heart. Even after being betrayed, Lom still helps Baker in his quest to unseat McGoohan’s corrupt foreman.

Baker’s prize if he should best the cheating alpha-male McGoohan is a solid gold case. Like most things in Noir City, it’s a shiny, overpriced object of desire for whom payment is more than just monetary.

Next time: More Cyril Endfield, a dash of Laurence Tierney, pre-Code naughtiness and Ms. Desmond’s close-up.

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