Saturday, January 23, 2016

Noir City XIV #1: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Deaths

by Odienator

(for all dispatches, go here)

Movie theaters are a hotbed of voyeuristic activity. When the lights go down, the eyelids go up, nosily invading the lives of others. Here in Noir City, the audience's retinas are often singed by the most unsavory of observed antics--heinous acts committed by desperate dunces and meticulous dames. And we, the denizens of this Town Without Pity, love to feel the burn every year. In its fourteenth incarnation at the lovely Castro Theater in San Francisco, the Film Noir Foundation's Noir City Festival promises 11 days of movies representing this year's tagline: The Art of Darkness.

Noir City XIV kicked off with the ultimate statement on movies-as-voyeuristic-enterprise, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The 1954 Jimmy Stewart-Grace Kelly thriller is a favorite of many fans and critics alike, but I cop to never particularly caring for it. Every 10 years or so, I revisit it to see if my indifference has wavered or waned. I always end up at the same conclusion: There are things I love about this movie, but I can never commit to its pervy Peeping Tom creepiness.

Last night's screening was my second viewing in the past six months. Would experiencing the movie with the always enthusiastic Noir City crowd change my perspective?

Hitchcock is at the height of his visual storytelling powers here. The camera tells as much of the story as John Michael Hayes' screenplay (adapted from a short story by Noir City perennial Cornell Woolrich). Hitch pans all over his set in the opening sequence, giving us the geographical layout of the piece while introducing its players. Without dialogue, we learn that our protagonist, L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is a photographer of foreign lands and luscious blondes, one of whom we'll meet shortly. A rising weather thermometer gives way to a car crash photograph, which is then followed by a pan to Rear Window's MacGuffin, a huge cast adorning L.B.'s leg.

Our man of action has been incapacited for the past 5 weeks thanks to an admirably successful yet equally stupid attempt to get the perfect race car photograph. An observer by nature, L.B. has taken to watching his neighbors across the yard. We're introduced to them early on: 

  • Miss Lonelyhearts, a woman who is unlucky in love.
  • Miss Torso, a young dancer who entertains a series of male visitors when not dancing in her window half-naked. (She'd command the attention of All That Jazz's Joe Gideon for sure)
  • The Newlyweds, who pull down the shades and screw like rabbits for the entire movie
  • The Songwriter, who is struggling with his latest composition (he's played by Ross Bagdasarian. Look him up, kids, to see what cultural phenomenon he's responsible for--if you dare!)
  • An Older Couple Who Sleep on the Fire Escape in a valiant attempt to combat the summer heat
And of course...

  • The Wife Murderer, Lars Thorwald, played by the guy who was always good on TV but is always trouble here in Noir City, Raymond "Perry Mason" Burr.

It's Burr who gets L.B. Jeffries' suspicions in a tizzy, causing him to ignore the advice of his insurance company nurse Stella (the great Thelma Ritter) and the affections of Lisa Fremont (a scorchingly hot Grace Kelly). Not even the dynamic designs of Edith Head can keep L.B. focused on Lisa. In fact, he tells Stella that Lisa's too perfect for his down-and-dirty life. Ritter gets some fantastic comeback lines (and one of her six Oscar nominations) as Stella, warniing L.B. of the dangers of his spying. She also tells him to marry Lisa, which L.B. won't do because this is the 50's and he's supposed to be all macho and rugged or whatever.

When L.B. suspects that Thowald has murdered his wife, Stella and Lisa think he's looney tunes. However, these logical women soon become as entrenched in L.B.'s obsessions as L.B., risking their lives to prove that Thorwald is guilty. 

All of this is admittedly a lot of fun. Hitchock toys with us the way he toys with Bagdasarian's clock in his cameo. A shot of Thorwald figuring out his crime has been discovered is justifiably famous, and the sequence which contains it is a masterpiece of suspense. And yet, I've always run lukewarm on this movie, because L.B. Jeffries creeps me the hell out. Perhaps I can't accept the guilty finger Hitch points at me, a movie lover. Or perhaps I could never buy that it's possible to ignore Grace Kelly at one's beck and call in favor of staring into Perry Mason's window. 

The verdict is still out, but I will say this. I liked Rear Window more this time than any other viewing I've had.

Also playing on opening night was Howard Franklin's 1992 tribute to Arthur "Weegie" Fellig, the famous NYC photographer whose work graced Gotham's newspapers back in the 1930's and 1940's. Armed with an original style, Weegee's work demands to be seen by anyone with an interest in the fine art of photography. His work is also a perfect fit here at Noir City, and though Franklin could not get the rights to Weegee's story, The Public Eye is a fine tribute to him.

Like L.B. Jeffries, The Great Bernzini (Joe Pesci) will do anything to get the perfect photograph. Unlike L.B., Bernzie prefers the aftermath of the carnage to being an actual participant in it. The dead bodies of unlucky crime victims are one of Bernzie's favorite motifs, and he's willing to slightly modify the staging of the bodies to capture the Public's Eye  ("people love to see the dead guy with his hat," he says more than once after tossing the hat back into the frame).

Franklin tosses The Great Bernzini into a rather convoluted Mafia plot that features an early appearance by Stanley Tucci and a femme fatale role for Barbara Hershey. Hershey's been in this territory before (see The Natural), but Franklin and his cin-togger Peter Suschitzky bathe her in hues that evoke the finest 50's Technicolor after its been dragged across a grimy street. She's very good in the role, playing her cards so close to the vest we're unsure of her true intentions. 

Suschitzky is one of The Public Eye's MVP's. He makes excellent use of black and white to simulate how Bernzie sees the world (everything to him is a photograph) and gives the film an old-time noirish feeling. The climactic mob massacre is especially memorable, a balletic orgy of live action carnage and still photography that's stunning to behold.

The other MVP of The Public Eye is Joe Pesci, who was fresh off his Oscar win for playing the type of guy who kept Bernzie in the photography business. In a rare lead performance. Pesci shows a vulnerability seldom seen in his work. He's perfectly cast as a guy who knows as many crooks as he knows coppers, all of whom have a begrudging respect for his work and his amorality. This may be Pesci's finest hour onscreen. 

Roger Ebert loved this movie, comparing it to Casablanca. When I read his review after seeing the film back in 1992, I thought Roger was crazy. I didn't like The Public Eye when I first saw it, but this viewing caused me to do a full 180 on it. It's far from flawless, but it's a fascinating, well-acted look at a guy whose life's work served as gritty slices of city life and unquestionable pieces of art.

My changed reactions to the opening night features prove that dunces always come to their senses in Noir City. Unlike most of those dumb dudes, I saw the light before it was too late.

Next time: Noir Loves Lucy.

No comments: