Thursday, February 6, 2014

Noir City XII #7: The Last Stop On The Train To Darkness

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

 The Castro Theatre, from its balcony

So here we are at my final dispatch from Noir City XII, a journey interrupted by an incredibly bad Super Bowl and a redeye flight directly into a New York City snowstorm. I missed the final two movies of the festival, but I'd seen them before. The last day focused on Hollywood's interpretation of the Far East, which is as good a place to start as any.

Fred MacMurray is just one of a long list of old movie stars I was introduced to by Disney movies. MacMurray may have been an absent-minded professor for Uncle Walt, but it's Ava Gardner who can't seem to remember anything in 1947's Singapore. Pearl smuggler Mack Gordon (MacMurray) begins the film telling us about Gardner's Linda Grahame, a woman he falls in love with in wartime Singapore. The Japanese invasion cuts their whirlwind courtship short on the eve of their wedding, leaving Gordon injured and Grahame presumed dead.

After the war, Gordon returns to Singapore to sneak a huge payload of stashed pearls past Richard Hadyn's Chief Inspector. While attempting to steal them from his old hotel suite, Gordon runs into Linda Grahame. She doesn't recognize her name or her fiancee--she's got the dreaded amnesia! She's now married to a wealthy plantation owner who took care of her while they were interred in a POW camp during the war. 

Memory loss isn't Mack Gordon's only problem beginning with M; he also has to deal with Mauribus, his old shady business partner. Mauribus wants his cut of the pearls, and is willing to send his fabulous henchmen Sacha (George Lloyd) to intimidate and/or smack up Gordon. Sacha is a lot of fun, and he proves that people threw shade as early as 1947. (Watch his reaction when he bitchslaps the incapacitated Gordon). 

Though gleefully convoluted, Singapore's ending packs suspense, changes of heart and a sweet bit of happiness that director John Brahm allows to play out in understated fashion. Gardner and MacMurray's chemistry carry the day, with the latter proving yet again how versatile an actor he was. Whether playing a Billy Wilder heel, a comic foil or the father of three sons, MacMurray was always great.

While watching this next feature, I thought of another MacMurray character, Double Indemnity's Walter Neff. On Argentina Noir Night, we find director Hugo Fregonese, whose brief Hollywood career included Joan Fontaine's Decameron Nights. For his native country, Fregonese made Aprenas un Delincuente (Hardly a Criminal), which tells the tale of a bank employee (Jorge Salcado) whose greed leads him to rob his employer. He discovers a way to outsmart the laws with a technicality that will allow him to get away with the money after serving a maximum of 6 years in prison.

Unfortunately, Salcado is way too impatient to wait this sentence out. Flashbacks show how deeply his greed goes (he's one rotten little bastard of a kid), and current-day scenes show him seeething as he thinks his own brother is trying to swindle him. This paranoia leads Salcado to escape prison, leading the police on a wild goose chase that can only end badly.

Fregonese's films, in Hollywood and Argentina, concern themselves with characters trying to escape situations. Like Walter Neff, Hardly a Criminal's anti-hero attempts to use his knowledge of legal loopholes to execute his crime. He and Neff come to the same conclusion: They don't get the money. To quote Neff: Pretty, isn't it?

The French coined the term film noir. Noir City XII said thank you with a Saturday chock full of French movies. The day began with the earliest film in the entire series, 1937's Pepe Le Moko. Pepe Le Moko holds a special place in my Looney Tunes loving heart for two reasons: Its title and its remake starring Charles Boyer provided the inspiration for this guy:

I've got Jean Gabin's name and Charles Boyer's voice...

Marilyn Monroe once sang that "the French are glad to die for love," and the uber-French Jean Gabin is more than happy to prove her right. As Pepe Le Moko, Gabin's suave jewel thief is the most famous cat in the Casbah. He's so cool that the entire Casbah in Algiers has his back. He's so cool that he hangs out with the inspector (Lucas Gridoux) who vows to catch him. They even have a bet on how and when Pepe will get caught. Pepe could easily have the inspector killed, but I sense he delights in outsmarting him.

Though Pepe has a way with the ladies, one of the "fairer sex" leads to his downfall. She's Gaby (Mireille Balin), a Parisian tourist who represents both lust and freedom to Pepe. He drops his gypsy lover Ines (Line Nono), who has been loyal to him since he entered the Casbah, and plans to run off with Gaby. 

With all the dialogue about slapping and abuse, the French have some effed up ideas about gender equality in 1937. At least they adhere to that old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. It looks like betrayal, but I found Ines' actions a deserved leveling of the playing field between the sexes. 

The tres-French ending would be ridiculous if director Julien Duvivier and Gabin didn't play the ripe melodrama to the hilt. Gabin is so good that you surrender to his pathos. His fate is the true representation of Noir City XII's tagline: "It's a bitter little world...but it's beautiful too."

How many people does it take to kill one dirty old man? Before Quai Des Orfevres ends, you'll hear confessions by a jealous husband, his songbird wife and her loyal best friend, a woman who not only goes into the crime scene to retrieve someone else's fox stole, but who also takes the time to wipe off fingerprints.

We're firmly entrenched in the world of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot, director of the terrifying  Les diaboliques and the spectacular The Wages of Fear (which also played here at Noir City XII). In 1947, Clouzot adapted this novel for actress Suzy Delair, who plays Jenny Lamour. Lamour is a performer who, in a bid to go to Hollywood, disregards her husband's concerns and gets flirty with the aformentioned dirty old man. After her plans go murderously awry, Lamour runs to her pal Dora (Simone Renant). Dora, who's apparently far more adept at cover-up than the novice Jenny, risks her freedom to retrieve evidence from the crime scene.

Meanwhile, Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) investigates the murder. He suspects everyone, from Jenny to her hotheaded husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) to Dora. Maurice was last seen threatening to kill the victim, but Dora was last seen taking a cab to the scene of the crime. Clouzot's affection for tenacious, meticulous Inspectors is reflected in Jouvet's fine performance and the title of the film (which is Parisian slang for the police hq). He also gives Jouvet a memorable piece of comedy with that pesky fox stole Dora retrieves from the crime scene, leading to the film's best line.

Quai Des Orfevres also reflects Clouzot's love for screwing with the audience: He gives us so much information that it seems we're ahead of Inspector Antoine, then Clouzot pulls the rug from under us with a flourish of plot twist. This is lighter and funnier than the director's more famous classics, but deserves a place beside them nonetheless.

French Noir Night featured two movies by famous directors. One was an American making a movie in France, the other a Frenchman making a movie in America. The American, Jules Dassin, made Rififi, perhaps the quintessential caper film. Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible reboot pays homage to it, and many other heists films owe it a debt. I've written about it before, so I'm going to focus on the other film.

It's only appropriate for this Jersey City native to end his Noir City dispatches with a film about Manhattan. I saw it every morning growing up, glistening just across the Hudson River, and I spent almost 20 years working there. Jean-Pierre Melville, director of classics like Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai, casts himself as a French journalist in Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (Two Men in Manhattan). He's investigating the disappearance of a French United Nations representative who missed an important vote. Moreau (Melville) knows the rep is a carouser, so he sets out to interview the rep's many mistresses. Perhaps he'll find the missing man with one of them.

Assisting Moreau is his buddy, Pierre (Pierre Grasset), a photographer straight from the trashier days of Confidential and the National Enquirer. Moreau awakens Pierre from the slumber brought on by Pierre's latest conquest (who seems oblvious to Moreau's presence). As the two Frenchmen roam the night in the city that never sleeps, viewers are treated to great black and white footage of the NYC of 1959.

Though shot in America, Two Men in Manhattan never loses its French-ness. There's a wonderful jazz performance (by Glenda Leigh), numerous scenes of macho, masculine behavior, men casting irresistable spells on women, sleek montages of the city streets at night and a suspicious car that shows up so many times that it becomes an intentionally funny running joke: one expects Jerry Lewis to pop out of it at any moment.

Director-screenwriter Melville is clearly in love with his location, and he infuses it with the same kind of idealized, occasionally misguided foreigner's gaze that Sofia Coppola brought to Lost in Translation. He also brings a touch of morality to the proceedings, staring from under Moreau's hooded lids at the sleazy sinner who inhabits Pierre. Melville and Grasset make a fine noir duo, and while their adventure isn't as dark and dangerous as many of the other Noir City features, it kept me riveted to the screen. Seeing my favorite city on the screen was the perfect end to my last Saturday night in Noir City.

See you noir lovers next year, for unlucky Noir City XIII!

I clean up nicely here in Noir City, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Noir City XII #6: The Grisly Death of Innocence

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

Perhaps the biggest score of Noir City XII was 1953's El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire), an Argentinean remake of Fritz Lang's M. Brought to Czar of Noir Eddie Muller's attention by film historian Fernando Martín Peña (who also ran the subtitles on several of the films from Argentina), a newly struck, gorgeous 35mm print of El Vampiro Negro received its first American showing at the Castro Theatre. It deserves more widespread attention, and numerous repeat showings. This may be the most harrowing picture I've seen at any of the 6 Noir City festivals I attended. 

Starring the "Marilyn Monroe of Argentina," Olga Zubarry, El Vampiro Negro adds a maternal angle to M.  Zubarry plays Rita, a performer who endures less than ideal employment circumstances to make enough money to support her daughter. During a dressing room costume change, she sees a man in the shadows dump a child's body into a sewer. This man is a killer on the loose whom the police dub "The Black Vampire." Though Rita's screams are heard by numerous patrons of the nightclub, her colleagues and bosses tell her not to report her eyewitness account to the cops.

The homicide division, led by Dr Bernar (Roberto Escalada), makes it easy to understand Rita's trepidation; Bernar have a tendency to arrest anybody who shows up with information. Bernar's intensity is partially due to his feelings of helplessness at home. His wife suffered a paralysis that left the couple unable to have children. Catching The Black Vampire is a way for him to feel a protective parental instinct. Bernar realizes Rita is hiding something, and his interrogation takes an unsavory turn that imbues his character with a refreshing, sad complexity.

This type of character complexity is woven into El Vampiro Negro by screenwriter-director Román Viñoly Barreto. A scene between Rita and Mrs. Bernar late in the film is a haunting dialogue exchange between Zubarry and Gloria Castilla. Dr. Bernar is trying to take Rita's daughter away because of her nightclub job, and Rita appeals to his wife. Both actresses play on the theme of motherhood and how the loss of a child (and the loss of the ability to conceive) affects women. Barreto makes the interesting choice of leaving us out of the most damning part of the conversation, opting instead to play the aftermath out between the married couple.

A respect for contradictory, human personalities makes El Vampiro Negro so compelling. This respect extends to the child killer, Teodoro, a professor whose lousy luck with women has fueled his murderous tendencies toward little girls. Like Peter Lorre before him, Nathán Pinzón plays the murderer as a man fully conscious of his horrific desires but unable to control them. The sight of blood satiates his passions, and at times he resorts to self-mutilation to keep the demons at bay. But the demons usually win, and when Rita's daughter is taken by Teodoro, the audience is suitably terrified. We've come to know Rita, to like her and even be angry at her withholding her witness testimony earlier, so this development has a sick, karmic energy.

The child-in-peril motif can be a lazy way to generate suspense, but Barreto doesn't go for easy shocks. Teodoro responds to Rita's daughter in an unexpected fashion, which may be even sicker than what the audiences fears.

If you've seen M, you have some idea how El Vampiro Negro ends. A community of the less-fortunate bands together to confront Teodoro, and Pinzón passionate, pitiful declarations are as brilliantly rendered as those of his predecessor, Peter Lorre. 

Shot stunningly in black and white by Aníbal González Paz, El Vampiro Negro is the rare remake that's as good, if not better, than its source. Movies like this are the reason one goes to Noir City.

Spain's Noir City contribution to the cinematic slaughter of the innocents is Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist). It begins with the titular event, where adulterous lovers Lucia Bosé and Alberto Closas run over a cyclist on a deserted road. Bosé convinces Closas to leave the victim to die (it's a sadistic touch that we see this development through the victim's eyes). The lovers are soon blackmailed by Carlos Casaravilla, whose Rafa character is the kind of sexually ambigious, vicious wit Clifton Webb would have assayed if this were a Hollywood studio release. 

What Rafa has seen (or hasn't) is unclear to Bosé, but this being a noir, the guilty are strangled more by the thought of the noose than the actual rope that creates it. It leads to the pitch black jolt of irony lovers of noir expect, a throwback to the opening scene that reminds us that karma is cyclical. Or in this case, bicyclical.

Sir Richard Attenborough directed Gandhi, but before he helmed that hideously boring, Oscar-winning biopic, he threw salt into viewers' eyes as the lead villian in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. I include it in this entry not because innocence dies here, but because this was one instance when I wished it had. Somebody needed to shake some reality sense into the innocent character in this movie.

A few entries ago, I talked about the character I referred to as "the incredibly stupid, young girl in love." Brighton Rock has the quintessential version of this, a teenager named Rose (Carol Marsh) who falls madly in love with Attenborough's Pinkie. Contrasting her is the more experienced, jaded Ida (Hermoine Badderly), whose brassy, baudy nature hides a tenacity to protect Pinkie's paramour and expose him as the murderer he is.

Attenborough is fantastic, as is Badderly. But I could never warm to Rose, a girl who is willing to blow her own brains out as the ultimate act of love for a heel. She made me want to pull out my hair, but Greene and his co-writer, playwright Terrence Rattigan, have more sympathy for her than I do. Greene's Catholic sensibilities give Brighton Rock a far more charitable bent toward Rose. Greene's sensibilities also show up for Pinkie--Greene gives him a phone number that ends in 666. These two elements merge in the final scene, where a phonograph record does what all phonograph records eventually do. It starts skipping just when the song was getting good. This is proof that Noir City's black heart occasionally beats red.

Next up: Saying goodbye with France and Hugo Fregonese (who's driving me crazy).