Sunday, January 26, 2014

Noir City XII #1: A Bitter Little World, Complete With Zithers

by Odienator
(for all Noir City XII pieces, go here)

The tagline for Noir City XII is “it’s a bitter little world,” and no better words sum up the experience of watching 27 noir films with fellow diehard fans. The Castro Theatre is once again the venue, a drier, sunnier than usual San Francisco the locale.

This year, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller has given the proceedings an international flavor; there are films from Mexico, Argentina, Japan, Germany, Spain, Norway, Great Britain, France and the rest of South America. This is the first Noir City in the 6 years I’ve attended where I have not seen the majority of the films, adding an extra layer of excitement and anticipation to the proceedings.

Opening night, however, delivered two films I’ve seen before, Journey Into Fear and The Third Man.

Boasting a script adapted from an Eric Ambler novel by co-stars Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, 1943’s Journey Into Fear opened Noir City XII. Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie plays a man whose knack for going with the flow gets him entangled in espionage, murder and mayhem. Or something to that effect; Journey Into Fear barely makes a lick of sense because a third of it is missing. Decades before Harvey Scissorhands, Welles’ studio, RKO, took a celluloid chainsaw to this feature, pruning a 101-minute cut down to 68 minutes. The resulting feature is a hot mess in term of coherency, but Welles and his Mercury Players compensate with expert showmanship and an amusing sense of the absurd.

Reportedly too busy making the unfinished It’s All True in South America to finish directing this feature, Welles handed the reins to Norman Foster. His fingerprints remain on what’s left of the movie, however, starting with the opening scene. A hitman named Banat (Jack Moss) preps for his next assignment in his room. A phonograph record serves as his mood music, at least until it starts skipping. The redundant sound bite plays for what seems like an eternity, etching itself into your brain before Banat kills the noise. This aural aggravation has a chilling payoff later in the film; its sudden offscreen appearance negates the false sense of security Journey Into Fear has lulled its hero into.

Howard Graham (Cotten) and his wife, Stephanie (Ruth Warrick), are Americans on a business trip/vacation to Istanbul. Graham is a ballistics expert en route to meet his Istanbul company representative Kopeikin (Everett Sloane). Kopeikin drags Graham around Istanbul, ending up at a club where Josette (Dolores Del Rio) is performing. During a magic act that goes horribly awry, Graham discovers that the Nazis are out to kill him. Trusting newfound allies in Turkey, Graham sets off without his wife to find safety. The reason he would trust these people was probably left on the cutting room floor.

After the murderous magic act, Welles shows up as Colonel Haki, the officer keeping tabs on the increasingly in-danger Graham. Welles’ screen time is short but memorable. His intimidating physical presence is in direct contrast to his facial hair and attire. And his accent is as hilarious as the way he wears his giant trapezoid-shaped fur hat; he tips it on his head as if it were a pimp’s fedora. Haki promises to protect Stephanie while Graham takes the Slow Boat to Batumi. Of course, Banat and his employer Muller (Eustace Wyatt) are on the boat with him.

The actors bring a joyous theatricality that keeps Journey Into Fear afloat no matter how piecemeal the plot becomes. The film follows suit by going big at the climax, which features the most ridiculously rendered rainstorm I’ve ever seen. As a downpour to rival the Great Flood batters them, Cotten, Welles and Moss traverse slippery building ledges, shooting at each other while avoiding sudden death on the ground below. The cinematography and architecture in these scenes reminded me of a giddy, gothic Hammer Studio picture. I half-expected Peter Cushing to show up on a ledge looking for Christopher Lee.

If RKO’s butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons remains a travesty of cinematically epic proportions, their hatchet job on Journey Into Fear is a smaller crime. It almost feels like the filmmakers are rebelling against the editor’s vicious scissors, outrunning them by sheer force of will, craft and performance. Cotten even looks as surprised and confused by what he’s doing as we are. It makes for an entertaining and messy viewing experience, especially when factoring Dolores Del Rio into the equation.

Journey Into Fear was paired with another Welles-Cotten collaboration, 1949's far superior The Third Man. Co-produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Carol Reed (the first two filmmakers ever knighted by Britain), The Third Man is an unmatched classic. Its mere mention conjures up visions of post-war Vienna, Ferris wheels, the dangerously in love character played by the gorgeous Alida Valli, cuckoo clocks, sewers, odd camera angles and the greatest introduction of a villain ever filmed. Using dark cinematography and a cat long before Don Corleone, Welles’ Harry Lime made his famous return from the dead to thunderous applause from the Castro Theatre audience.

Also garnering applause was that zither-crazed score by Anton Karas, a band member Sir Carol Reed hired after hearing him play in Vienna. Roger Ebert once called it the greatest film score ever, an opinion with which I respectfully disagreed. One of the many blemishes on my critical record is my utter hatred of The Third Man’s score (“Shame on you, Mr. Henderson!!” Roger wrote in response to that revelation). It’s enough to drive me to murder. However annoying I find it, I must admit that Reed and Karas flawlessly integrate it into The Third Man. Its cues influence imagery and cutting, and I can’t imagine the film without it.

Graham Greene’s screenplay is a brilliant mix of humor, horror and tightly constructed plot. Cotten’s Holly Martins and Valli's Anna are two sides of the same coin. They’re both in love with the cherished vision of Harry Lime they’ve elevated in their hearts and minds, and they deal with the shattering of this perceived image in different, yet equally stubborn ways. This makes the last scene of The Third Man a silent, visual masterpiece. Both characters are left to voluntarily stew in delusions of their own making. Suitable punishment for anyone living in Noir City.

Next time: Anthony Mann's Mexico, Ida Lupino's Nail-Biter and hot Mexican babes with guns busting through windows like Shaft.

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