Friday, January 31, 2014

Noir City XII #5: In Praise of Older Women

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

I've always been into older women, and there's a special section of Noir City XII made just for me. The more experienced ladies get their props from the Norwegians, the Argentine, and the British. If only they got their due from the Hollywood of today...

But I digress.

Since today's dispatch is all about the more experienced ladies, I'll begin with the first woman to direct a noir. You may recall Ida Lupino helmed The Hitch-Hiker, but she did so in 1953. Besting her is Norwegian Edith Carlmar, whose 1949 adaptation of Arne Moen's novel, Døden er et kjærtegn (Death is a Caress) made up one half of Noir City's Double Dose of Death night. Those Norwegians have a different take on the genre, though the outcome is no less dark.

For starters, there's nobody for the illicit lovers to off. When Sonja Rentoft (Bjørg Riiser-Larsen) and Erik Hauge (Claus Weise) begin their adulterous affair, Mr. Rentoft could care less. He quickly provides a divorce and runs off to America. Erik's fiancee, Marit (Eva Bergh), is left out in the cold but plans no revenge. And Erik's co-workers at the garage where he and Mrs. Rentoft first meet are all envious and supportive of Erik's adventures. There's no blackmail or secrecy to be found in Norway!

There's also no Hays Code in Norway, so it's blatantly stated that people are screwing their brains out in this picture. Erik has carnal knowledge of Marit despite the fact they're unmarried, and he's perfectly willing to be cougar bait for Sonja Rentoft. Since this is directed by a woman, it is made clear that the female characters are getting theirs too. "The sexual bliss is ecstatic," reads the blurb over at the Noir City website, and that bliss is for both parties. People are also open about affairs and sexual attraction.

Though it has none of the usual noir motives, Death is a Caress sneaks its true noirish intentions into its title. Erik and Sonja's relationship plays out like a normal dramatic relationship, and therein lies the kiss--I mean the caress--of Death. Suspicion abounds. Lovers tire of one another before realizing they're trapped in marriage. It's all the more suspenseful because it lacks the juicy dramatic artifice of pulp, at least until the bloody stabbings and strangulations plummet us straight down to the hellish depths of good noir.

The Brits fit into this dispatch with 1947's It Always Rains on Sunday, an Ealing Studios drama starring Googie Withers as a married woman whose former lover has just escaped from prison. Robert Hamer helms this kitchen-sink drama/slice-of-life noir adapted from Arthur LaBern's novel. The film unfolds like a novel as well, with Withers dealing with her new husband's idiosynracies and his angry daughters while also harboring the escaped convict for whom she may still carry a torch. The daughters have their own subplot, and it's sometimes several minutes before we return to Googie and her fugitive.

But when we do, Ms. Withers' character is in charge of the situation. Though dangerously still in love with her ex, she's unwilling to let him destroy the stable married lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. Withers plays it smart, even when finally succumbing to her baser instincts. I liked how the film shows all corners of its characters' universes rather than treating them as asides in service to the main plot. There's a meandering quality to It Always Rains on Sunday that doesn't take away from its central crime story. Instead, it enriches it.

Perhaps the most entertaining older woman thus far here at Noir City is Aunt Rosa, the blind matriarch in the second half of the 1952 Argentinean film No Abras Nunca Esa Puerta (Never Open That Door). Despite its horror movie title, this is a two-part anthology based on stories by famous noir author Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich is a favorite of Noir City denizens (movies based on his work pop up at the festival every year). Never Open That Door demonstrates why.

The first tale has a Frederick Knott quality to it. A wealthy woman finds herself at the mercy of a blackmailer. When the blackmailer forces her to remove all her funds from the bank, it leads to her suicide. Her brother takes matters into his own hands, working from the first-hand knowledge of how the blackmailer uses the telephone to contact his victim. It leads to a vengeful murder and a darkly comic ending centered on a ringing phone.

The second tale is a bit of a heartbreaker, though in Noir City that's always going to be tempered with the reminder that the audience may be the only ones with hearts to break. Aunt Rosa shows up here, with her helpful niece. Rosa's son, Daniel has disappeared for 8 years, without so much as a note saying if he's OK. Rosa repeatedly hopes and prays for her word from her son, and just like the son in The Monkey's Paw, Daniel returns as a new entity in the same body. Except in Woolrich's world, Daniel's a hardened criminal. 

Director Carlos Hugo Christensen uses silence to great effect in this section. Aunt Rosa is blind, but she knows her house and she uses her other senses preternatually. Genuine suspense abounds as Christensen and Woolrich lead this woman into terrifying, dangerous situations as she tries to outsmart her son's gang. The actress who plays Rosa is convincing both as a blind woman and as a mother who realizes that the son she loves and misses so much is now irredeemable. 

Aunt Rosa's tale ends on a bittersweet note that thankfully spares her while allowing the audience the full ironic brunt of the outcome. Before that happens, however, we're treated to Aunt Rosa in action. Noir City's audience once again erupted in cheers when Christensen's camera revealed blind Aunt Rosa pointing a gun to protect her homestead. And not for a moment did we think Aunt Rosa would be a bad shot if she had to use that heater. Bad-ass Blind Ladies Who Pack Heat are just another type of character you'll find here in Noir City.

Next up: Cyclists beware, the director of Gandhi turns out to be a ripe bastard, and Hugo Fregonese is driving me crazy.

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