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?

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