Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Noir City XVI #6: My Mind's Playing Tricks On Me

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

On Sunday, before our date with Jealousy's Dr. Monica, we denizens of Noir City were plunged into the bizarro world! Up was down, left was right and Sydney Greenstreet was good while Humphrey Bogart was bad! Of course, Bogie's been the heavy before--his work in the 1930's was primarily in this vein--but after Casablanca, audiences probably didn't expect their romantic ideal to revert to being a heel. But here's Bogie as a wife-killer in love with his much younger sister-in-law in Conflict, a movie Jack Warner demanded Bogart make because Warner hated Bogie's newfound status as a romantic leading man. 

Though made 2 years earlier, Conflict wound up on the 1945 roster of releases. In addition to presenting Bogie as a real heel named Richard Mason (whom he plays with committed enthusiasm), Conflict also casts Sydney Greenstreet as the film's hero, criminal psychologist Dr. Mark Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton is first seen holding court amidst a group of believers and one skeptic (much like Thomas Mitchell did earlier in Flesh and Fantasy). Mason wears his disbelief on his sleeve as obviously as he wears his forbidden desire for Evelyn (Alexis Smith), the sister of his mean ol' wife Kathryn (Rose Hobart). These two emotions cross paths when Mason brutally bumps off Kathryn, then makes a critical mistake about his alibi that only Dr. Hamilton notices.

Conflict is very sly and very clever. Based on a story by the great Noir City staple Robert Siodmak, the film starts to play us--and Richard Mason--like a fiddle. You see, despite watching Richard dump Kathryn's lifeless body into her car then push it down a mountain canyon where it conveniently becomes buried in a massive pile of logs, we're led to believe that Kathryn is not dead. She keeps showing up, first in a letter written in her handwriting, then on the phone, and then in person, seemingly disappearing into thin air when she's pursued by her murderous husband. This drives Mr. Mason bonkers, and even worse, throws a King Kong-sized monkey wrench into his plans to woo a vulnerable Evelyn.

Is Kathryn really still alive? You'll have to see Conflict to find out. The solution is well worth your time. And you may even reflect afterwards, as I did, on whether the roles truly are reversed for Greenstreet and Bogart. One could make a credible argument here in Noir City that Greenstreet's still the villain, albeit in a very, very dark way.

No such ambiguities about villainy are present when evaluating Janis Carter's Jill Merrill in 1946's randy radio play-turned-B-movie, Night Editor. Miss Thing is rotten to the core, an adulterous blonde who gets off on violence and can wrap dopey horndogs around her little finger with minimal effort. In other words, she's our kinda dame here in Noir City! She's the femme fatale in this surprisingly naughty tale based on the popular radio program created by Hal Burdick. Each tale is recounted by a newspaperman, a device the film easily adapts.

Jill's current squeeze is family man and police detective Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), whose home life is presented as the dullest episode of a bad 50's sitcom. He barely touches his wife and runs from his house like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character in order to rendezvous with Jill on a shady lover's lane. In the midst of a heated makeout session, Jill and Tony witness a brutal murder: a woman is beaten to death with a tire iron right before their very eyes. When Cochrane turns on his headlights, he gets a good look at the killer. But Jill talks him out of pursuit--after all, how will he explain to his wife what he was doing on lover's lane?

Jill gets all hot and bothered by the murder, but Tony's conscience starts to gnaw at him. The gnawing becomes a full-on shredding when Tony discovers the murderer hiding in plain sight at the victim's bank. It's here where Night Editor really gets interesting. Cochrane puts in his due diligence to create a case against the killer, but the guy is not only not phased by it, he provides a really tight alibi. AND he runs off with Jill, leaving Tony to stew in his own guilty conscience and overheating loins.

To say more would be criminal, but I would like to point out one thing: Look at this picture and tell me what movie this reminds you of: 

We see you, Sharon Stone, and we know where your most famous movie got its ideas! Like I said before, there's nothing new under the sun. (How did the censor not see this in 1946?!)

I gotta be honest: I'm not as high on The Blue Dahlia as perhaps I should be. I mean, it's fine, well-acted (especially by William Bendix) and any pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake is always welcome. But this thing takes its sweet old time twisting itself into pretzel after pretzel before ending with a solution that feels as if someone spun a wheel with all the characters' names on it and picked whomever it landed on as the film's killer. Regardless, one could do far, far worse than this movie, wich was written under intense pressure and in a boozy haze by literary legend Raymond Chandler. 

Rushed into production by Paramount and producer John "We Earrrrrn it!" Houseman in order to use Ladd before his mandatory military service, The Blue Dahlia was a huge postwar hit. Ladd and Lake provided enough sexy heat to kickstart the wave of baby boomers. And Chandler got an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for all his trouble. Getting lit off your rocker and writing a Noir is the best--and most respectable--way of getting the Academy's attention.

Next time: Teased by Michael Curtiz

Noir City XVI #5: You Don't Mess With the Monica

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

Lord Tennyson once waxed poetic about how "'tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." He might have written those words for Dr. Monica Anderson (a great Karen Morley). The good doctor nurses a major crush on her boss, Dr. David (John Loder), but she'd never show it. She acts like "one of the boys," and David sees her as such. When spunky lady cab driver Jane (Jane Randolph) mistakes as true romance the affectionate way David speaks to Monica on a phone call, he tells her that Monica's too sharp and too smart to hold any interest in him. Just like far too many men here in Noir City, Dr. David is WRONG!

Czar of Noir Eddie Muller called Jealousy, the B-movie half of Sunday's 1945 double feature, the "closest thing to an art movie we're showing." An art movie Noir sounds like a shot of bourbon followed by a chaser of castor oil, but never fear! Jealousy is helmed by a visual sensualist named Gustav Machatý. Machatý was responsible for Hedy Lamarr's scandalous 1933 film, Ecstasy, wherein Ms. Lamarr swam nude and got bizzy onscreen. While he can't go anywhere near that film's level of eroticism in post-Code Hollywood, he can still sneak some heat into tamer images. Notice how he first reveals Dr. Monica's love for Dr. David. Caught in a swoon after he leaves, Monica leans headfirst into a mirror, bumping against her own image like a cat head-butting its affection into a beloved item. 

Machatý fills Jealousy with tactile images like that, starting with the opening scene's taxicab locations superimposed over Jane while she narrates the film's introduction. This is really her story, a tale about a woman whose exiled Czech writer husband Peter Urban (Nils Asther) misses his home country so much that his depression renders him useless. Peter crawls into a bottle of booze every night and lashes out at Jane for supporting him with her cabbie work. It's no wonder Jane seems comfort in the arms of Dr. David. Her Brahms-inspired Meet Cute leads to a whirlwind romance that has an unforeseen obstacle: Doctor Monica!

At first, we think the Jealousy of the title refers to Peter. He knows about Jane and David, going so far as to threaten Jane if she tries to leave. But Peter's got stiff competition. Sure, Dr. Monica is friendly toward Jane, earning her confidence and being a kind, advice-giving girlfriend. And she's her usual supportive self where David is concerned, playing the supportive old chap role like she's the best male buddy ever poured into the female form. But the fear of losing the man she's secretly loved all these years also causes the heretofore wishy-washy Dr. Monica to grow a spine covered with spiky stegosaurus spikes. Jane and David were about to learn an important lesson: You don't mess with the Monica!

Many times in our beloved Noir, a woman uses her wiles to convince a fella to do her evil bidding. Not here! Monica does her own killin', and her plan to frame Jane for murder is so well thought out that she could easily get away with her crime. But fate is an equal opportunity demon here in Noir City, so one small detail becomes Monica's undoing. No matter! Monica goes out on her own terms, and Karen Morley's line about how killing--and killing again--is the ultimate way for a woman to show her love nearly brought down the house at the Castro Theater. As we often do when presented with something quintessentially noirish, the audience applauded lustily and rapturously. "Whoo! MONICA!!" someone yelled. Even the movie knew to end after that, leaving the fate of the accused Jane to the viewer's imagination. The things we do for love always lead to our downfall here in Noir City.

Next time: Bogie goes bonkers and Sharon Stone gets ideas.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Noir City XVI #4: Help, I'm Stepping Into the Twilight Zone

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

I'm a sucker for anthology movies. They're a lot of fun and usually full of stars or character actors earning their keep in the equivalent of a one-act play. But the problem with most of these movies is that they're hit or miss by nature. There's always one story that throws off the overall quality of the feature. And onscreen anthologies are best suited for science fiction, horror, fantasy or as a television series like Rod Serling's masterful The Twilight Zone.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find an anthology film gracing the screen at the Castro on Sunday. It was even more surprising to learn that the second feature on the bill was originally another story in that anthology. Universal Studios, home of monsters in the '30s and unforgettable trash in the '70s, separated the first story of Flesh and Fantasy and padded it out to a separate 65-minute feature. This was a major faux pas by the skittish studio, who thought legendary French director Julien Duvivier's dreamlike tales were far too surrealistic for mainstream audiences. So they added 28 minutes of backstory and a hideous fake ending to Duvivier's first tale and called the result Destiny. Universal also added some very clunky wraparound introductory segments to Flesh and Fantasy that so angered Duvivier that he never made another Hollywood movie.

Faced with all these unnecessary extras, we denizens of Noir City had to do some judicious editing in our heads to imagine what Duvivier's original vision would have looked like sans studio interference. One could see the exact moment in Flesh and Fantasy where Duvivier's section of Destiny would have been attached. Czar of Noir Eddie Muller gave us hope that, with the Film Noir Foundation's help, we might one day get to see these four tales as Duvivier intended. For now, however, I must play the hand I've been dealt.

Destiny stars Gloria Jean as a blind woman and Alan Curtis as the fugitive who enters her orbit while on the lam. Curtis' intentions are far from noble. Once he gets her father out of the way, Curtis plans to have his way with what he thinks is a helpless victim. But it's hinted that Jean's blindness gives her mysterious powers. She interacts with friendly animals as if she were a Disney princess. She is preternaturally attuned to where people are in the room. And she may or may not be able to control the weather, including lightning and rain. That last thing dooms Curtis, whose body is fished out of a river at the beginning of Flesh and Fantasy

Sounds great, n'est-ce pas? Well, I've only described the part of Destiny directed by Julien Duvivier. We still have to contend with the parts directed by Reginald LeBorg. There's a 28-minute backstory for Curtis' felon. He's fresh out of jail for a crime he committed. He soon becomes the innocent fall guy in a bank robbery committed by his former partner. The dialogue and direction in this section is rather terrible, so when the Duvivier section kicks in, it's like night and day.

Making matters worse, Destiny is so adamant about redeeming Curtis that it tacks an unbelievable romantic ending on the film, not only resurrecting the dead but conveniently forgetting that the deceased attempted to rape a blind woman. Jean is clearly older in this section, a continuity error LeBorg doesn't even try to fix. The best thing I can say about Destiny, besides championing the great Duvivier section, is that it was presented to us in a welcome 35mm print.

Universal's tampering with Flesh and Fantasy is far less intrusive than in Destiny, but equally as unwelcome. Robert Benchley stars in the introductions to the film's stories, and though I love Benchley, Rod Serling he ain't. Thankfully, Duvivier's vision isn't diluted by these intrusions. His three tales are star-filled affairs teeming with great, imaginative visuals by the legendary Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano. This hat trick pairs Charles Boyer with Barbara Stanwyck, the gorgeous Betty Field with ugly makeup and a beautiful mask and Edward G. Robinson with Thomas Mitchell and an evil version of himself who shows up in reflections imploring him to kill!

The most interesting of the three tales is Eddie G's. Based on an Oscar Wilde story, Mitchell plays a mysterious fortune teller whose soothsaying is very, very accurate. When skeptic Robinson has his palm read, Mitchell recoils from what he sees and attempts to lie his way out of the reading. Robinson persists, and is told that he's going to kill someone. Mitchell relishes playing this part, and his giddy touches are infectious.

But is Mitchell right? Slowly, Robinson starts to go insane, talking to himself via clever visual motifs. His attempts to rid himself of the nightmare are morbidly amusing in an Ealing comedy sort of way. I wouldn't dream of telling you the outcome, except to say it's as predictable as it is satisfying.

Since I'm such a big stan for Stany, I thought the best tale was the one with her and Boyer. Boyer is an acrobat whose tightrope act is dangerous and performed without a net. One night, he dreams that he falls off the rope, and as he falls, he sees Stanwyck in the audience screaming. She has on a distinctive pair of earrings, a detail that Boyer can't get out of his mind. The resulting dream causes him to chicken out  of his act on the circus' last night in town.

En route to America by ship, Boyer encounters Stanwyck. He's freaked out, as he's never seen her before outside of his dream. She even has the earrings he saw in his vision. He's honest with her about everything, and though she warns him to stay away from her lest the dream become real, the chemistry is too strong for either to resist. Plus, Boyer has another dream about Stanwyck that doesn't come true, so he believes they're in the clear to be together. Unbeknownst to him, we see the second dream play out in real life, which only heightens the suspense when Boyer takes to the tightrope.

Duvivier makes this section an acrophobic's nightmare. Boyer wobbles ominously on a tightrope that seems a thousand feet in the air. The director wrings so much suspense out of this that the audience in the Castro audibly gasped at one point. Does Boyer go splat? I'll never tell.

The Betty Field segment is as visually stunning as the rest of the film but feels the most slight out of the three. It's still very good, and the only tale that has a bonafide happy ending. Those types of endings are in short supply here in Noir City, so we'll take 'em wherever we can get 'em.


Monday, January 29, 2018

Noir City XVI One Stop Shopping

Dispatch #1: For Mature Audiences Only (I Wake Up Screaming and Among the Living)
Dispatch #2: Fifty Shades of Fleg (Quiet Please: Murder, Shadow of a Doubt, This Gun For Hire)
Dispatch #3: Then They Came For Me (Address Unknown) 
Dispatch #4: Help, I'm Stepping Into The Twilight Zone (Destiny, Flesh and Fantasy) 
Dispatch #5: You Don't Mess With the Monica (Jealousy)
Dispatch #6: My Mind's Playing Tricks On Me (Conflict, Night Editor, The Blue Dahlia) 
Dispatch #7: Murder, He Spoke (The Unsuspected) 
Dispatch #8  Kittens Can Still Scratch (I Walk Alone, Bodyguard, High Tide)

Noir City XVI #3: Then They Came For Me

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

As we chronologically navigate Noir City from 1941 to 1953, we've viewed films that were made before and after the United States became involved in WWII. As such, each movie has tried to incorporate some semblance of acknowledgement that the country is at war. So far, we've seen various mentions in passing, usually presented as a treasonous activity by the villains. But on Saturday night, denizens of Noir City were sideswiped by the timeliness of a powerful 1944 film by the legendary William Cameron Menzies

Though Menzies was commonly known for his art direction, he was also quite frequently called upon as a "director doctor," the guy who took control behind the camera to save films in trouble. As a result of both skills, Address Unknown is a crisply directed, great-looking feature that doesn't waste a single moment of its short 75-minute runtime. This was not made for a lot of money, but its technical proficiency resulted in Oscar nominations for music and art direction. The latter nod is interesting, as there is nothing very flashy about the art gallery, German mansion and theater where most of Address Unknown takes place. However, the way Menzies shoots these locales and the actors within them elevates the sets' status; at times an area can dwarf its inhabitants, and at other times, that same area can seem small enough to entrap and suffocate. 

Address Unknown tells the story of the rise of Nazism in Germany through the friendship of two business partners, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) and Martin Schulz (Paul Lukas, fresh off his Best Actor Oscar win for Watch on the Rhine). These two families are so close that their progeny have plans to marry. Max's daughter, Griselle (K.T. Stevens) puts the impending nuptials on hold so that she may pursue an acting career in Germany. She will accompany the German-born Martin back home for a year while Martin's heartbroken son Heinrich (Peter van Eyck) remains in Max's employ. 

Once the Schulzes are back in Germany, Max starts to notice a change in his friend. These changes are shown to us but are reflected to Max in the epistolary correspondence he maintains with Martin. Martin's letters become complimentary toward Hitler, then become even more ominous in their demands that Max not say certain things against the Nazis. When Martin suddenly asks Max to stop writing, Max becomes fearful for his Jewish daughter's safety. His fears are confirmed with a heartless, cruel two-sentence letter from Martin.

Address Unknown refuses to sugarcoat anything. Despite showing how the German government censors content, stokes anti-Semitic hatred and governs by fear, the film does not let Martin off any hooks. Herr Schulz has clearly drunk the Kool-Aid figuratively served to him by the high-ranking Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond). Lukas gives a daring, commendable performance. He plays the role in "I was only taking orders" mode for much of the film, only showing true cowardice in the tight closeups Menzies affords him once the powers that be finally come for him. As Martin Niemöller's famous saying goes, Martin learns that there is no one left to speak for him.

Herbert Dalmas' script (adapted from the novel by Kressmann Taylor, a pseudonym for Kathrine Taylor) gets maximum mileage from the mail system, especially when Martin starts receiving "coded" letters from Max. The letters are meant to arouse suspicion--all mail is being read by the government and it's illegal to send anything they cannot decipher. While this vengeful action is firmly within the Noir tradition, Address Unknown has bigger fish to fry. It's a blatant statement, clear and unafraid in its straightforwardness. And it has terrifying parallels to some of the things we're seeing today. 

After the film, an acquaintance of mine asked me who would have seen it in 1944. Since it's a Columbia release, I assumed it would have played in regular theaters as the bottom of the double bill. The bigger question I had in return was "who would make something like this today?" With news outlets embarrassing themselves trying to show the softer side of blatant evil, I shudder to think that a film like this couldn't be made today. At least we have Address Unknown, which should be shown every chance it can get. We need to see this daring movie. Cautionary tales, even ones that trade the usual frivolity for utter seriousness, are par for the course here in Noir City.

Next time: A return to frivolity.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Noir City XVI #2: Fifty Shades of Fleg

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

Saturday's double matinee at Noir City offered we happy denizens a dose of Ladd and Lake, some catnip for bookworms, a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock and the most harrowing, timely feature the festival has ever shown. That last one deserves a piece all its own, so let's talk about the other three for now.

It was inevitable that George Sanders would eventually play something feline. His voice is that of the world's most contented cat, one who so relishes his mischief that every line he utters vibrates with self-satisfaction. And while Shere Khan the Tiger in Disney's The Jungle Book appeared a tad too cutesy to house such aural malice, his species is a perfect match for Sanders' impeccable delivery.

I bring this up because Sanders has a line in the deliciously titled Quiet, Please: Murder that conjured up images of a cat that had not only eaten the canary, but enjoyed every single flavor-invoking burp afterward. When Myra Blandy (Gail Patrick) points out that Jim Fleg (Sanders) is a masochist looking for the right sadist to tickle his fancy, Fleg simply responds "yes." The sexy purr with which Sanders underlines the word is magnificent.

That's right, folks! Jim Fleg is into all sorts of S&M, and the dialogue in Quiet Please: Murder is jaw-droppingly kinky by 1942's standards. The joys of giving and receiving pain always simmer underneath the trappings of Noir, but here they bubble close enough to the surface to burn the censor.  Director John Larkin and his cast get away with such deviltry by wrapping the randy proceedings in a plot that involves the theft of rare manuscripts from the Los Angeles Public Library. The plot makes absolutely no sense, but there's never a dull moment.

Fleg is a master counterfeiter of rare manuscripts. He steals the originals and makes flawless copies of them to sell to unsuspecting book collectors. His latest product is recreations of a 17th century manuscript of Hamlet, which he steals from the library in the film's opening scene. When the hapless library security guard tells Fleg he can take the manuscript "over my dead body," Sanders nonchalantly pulls a gun and shoots him. This is the level of subtlety we'll be on for the next 70 minutes.

Myra is Fleg's fencer, or something like that. Like Eve Harrington to Sanders' Addison De Witt in All About Eve, Myra and Fleg talk to each other "killer to killer." Perhaps she is the S in Fleg's S&M.  Myra has an offshoot plan of her own, which involves Richard Denning, Sidney Blackmer and the Nazis in ways I wish I had enough time to explain to you. It all comes to a head when everyone is locked in the library during an air raid drill. While the lights are out, all manner of double and triple crosses occur. 

The film's choice of Hamlet as the stolen text is not an accident. The melancholy Dane once said "Conscience makes cowards of us all," and Fleg has a masterful speech about how one's conscience can be the ultimate saboteur for those in love with committing evil. Sanders delivers this speech with the gusto you expect from him, highlighting the theme that one's conscience may indeed be the ultimate femme fatale.

“And introducing Alan Ladd” screamed an onscreen credit for This Gun For Hire, marking the first pairing of Veronica Lake with the man who would be Shane. Of course, we denizens of Noir City need no introduction; Ladd’s been here before, most memorably in the 1949 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This Gun For Hire also marks the return of another Noir City favorite, writer Graham Greene. Greene’s story of a professional hit man gets the Hollywood treatment, slapping Robert Preston’s good-guy cop in the role of protagonist. But the film also does something unusual for 1942: It makes Ladd into the kind of anti-hero more commonly found in features from later eras. There really is nothing new under the sun, folks.

Philip Raven (Ladd) is the kind of hit man who would shoot an innocent victim through a closed door then serve a saucer of milk to the mewling kitten who visits his window every day. When Raven is betrayed by his current employer, whose treasonous dealings include selling poison gas to the Japanese, he goes on the run. Since he’s been paid with marked bills that immediately flag him as a criminal, Raven has to procure money from another source. This leads to a Meet Cute only a pickpocket could love. Raven steals a sawbuck from the purse of Ellen Graham (Lake) while she’s in the powder room of the train they’re inhabiting. Graham calls him on it—she’s sharper than he thought—so he gives it back. The casual, smoldering way Graham asks “you wanna borrow a dollar?” afterwards is a prime example of the Ladd-Lake chemistry at work.

Alas, romance is off the table for these two. Graham is betrothed to Michael Crane (Robert Preston—yes, that guy from The Music Man). He’s the copper investigating Raven’s traitorous boss and his right hand man, Willard Gates (Laird Cregar, brilliant as a man who abhors violence but isn’t below committing it). Raven’s marked bills lead Crane to Raven, and when the latter makes the connection between his prosecutor and Graham, there’s trouble with a capital T in store for all involved.

To be honest, Preston is really no match for Ladd, a sentiment echoed by the audiences who demanded to see more of Ladd after this movie. While the film doesn’t side with him, it also doesn’t blunt the rare moments of vulnerability with which Ladd shades his performance. In fact, one can say that Raven’s own downfall has an air of tragic chivalry, a price paid by a man who knows the limits of his capacity to love, but recognizes the importance of that skill in someone else. There’s an unrequited romantic quid-pro-quo between Graham and Raven that’s—dare I say it—rather sweet.

I played hooky from the Saturday evening showing of Hitchcock's classic Shadow of a Doubt, as I'd seen it recently on the big screen. But I've always imagined that if Hitchcock had allowed his tradmark cameos to come with dialogue, he would have been seen trading perfect murder scenarios with Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers. While these two banter amusingly back and forth, a real murderer is in their midst, Joseph Cotten's iconic Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie thinks he has committed the perfect murders of widowed women lonely enough to be charmed by him. He moves from widow to widow, with Hitchcock using "The Merry Widow Waltz" as Charlie's calling card.

Uncle Charlie has nothing but disdain for his victims, but his namesake niece, Charlie (Teresa Wright) has nothing but love for her uncle. That love morphs slowly into hate as she discovers Charlie's true nature, a nature Cotten barely hide in his tour-de-force dinner speech. Wright is excellent at showing the loss of her innocence. Shadow of a Doubt gives her and Cotten numerous scenes of scary antagonism. How does one cope with the knowledge that the person they most admired is unworthy of such worship? The adage that one should never meet their heroes applies in triplicate here in Noir City.

Next time: A cautionary tale starring Paul Lukas.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Noir City XVI #1: For Mature Audiences Only

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

Film Noir Foundation's 16th Noir City Film Festival opened last Friday night at the famed Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and this year marks a personal milestone for me. This is my tenth time at the festival, and without fail I have loved every single moment of being a denizen of Noir City. I may not get the money, and I never get the woman, but I always go home satisfied. If nothing else, I have the relieved joy of knowing my luck is a lot better than the folks projected on the mighty Castro theater screen.

This year, celebrated Czar of Noir Eddie Muller has gone deep into the crates, pulling out films that I have never heard of before. The method to his madness this year is a return to the true nature of double features, that is, a bill featuring one "A-movie" and one "B-movie." The 12 double bills are presented in chronological order, highlighting the evolution of the genre. It's all right there in the Noir City subtitle: "Film Noir A to B 1941-1953."

Noir City XVI opened with a double bill from 1941. Assisting Eddie in presenting the first film was Victoria Mature, daughter of the star of I Wake Up Screaming, Victor Mature. In addition to belting out a kickass a capella version of Alfred Newman's Street Scene, which figures prominently in the film, Victoria dished about how it felt to see her hunky Papa onscreen in his youthful heyday. After all, he was 64 when she was born.

Eddie and Victoria talk about the star of One Million B.C.

I Wake Up Screaming sounds like a horror movie, but the only terrifying thing about Bruce Humberstone's early Noir influence is its score's near-constant use of The Wizard of Oz's Over the Rainbow. Initially, I questioned how a song from an MGM movie found its way into a 20th Century-Fox release, but after the seven bazillionth time it cued up on the soundtrack, I was praying for Dorothy's house to fall on me.

Assault by Harold Arlen aside, I Wake Up Screaming is an intensely entertaining whodunit co-starring WWII pinup gal Betty Grable. Grable plays Jill Lynn, the sister of Vicky (Carole Landis), a waitress whose sudden ascent into high society ends with her murder. This murder kicks off the film, which hops between past and present with alternating narration by Jill and the accused murderer, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature). Sports promoter Frankie is responsible for Vicky's introduction into the glamorous world of Hollywood: he makes a bet with his snooty industry buddies that he can turn the unrefined hashslinger into a perfect society dame. It's Pygmalion as if George Bernard Shaw had been possessed by Agatha Christie.

Dwight Taylor's adaptation of Steve Fisher's novel stacks the deck with potential murderers, including Noir City regular Elisha Cook, Jr. We can pretty much rule out Frankie's guilt, as it would be anti-climactic. But even Jill looks suspicious at one point. The most compelling suspect is Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar), the lead police detective on the case. He's first seen in a Jill-related flashback. During her interrogation by the cops, Jill remembers seeing a creepy looking man staring at Vicky through the restaurant window. When Cornell enters the room, Jill recognizes him but the cops disavow her panic.

Cornell is so convinced that Frankie is guilty that he starts stalking him, breaking into Frankie's house to watch him sleep or to surprise him. Cornell harasses Frankie mercilessly, and we start to suspect that Cornell is doing so to distract from the possibility that he's the killer. I won't give away whodunit, but I will state that Cregar gives a fearless and complex performance, especially when his motivations for torturing Frankie come to light. Cornell is in the Noir vein of determined thorns-in-the-side like Edward G. Robinson's adjuster in Double Indemnity, but his tenacity is emotion-based rather than detail oriented. Cornell is Les Miserables' Javert reimagined as a man whose desire to torment his obsession stems from a warped sense of romantic entitlement. And Cregar gives an unforgettable performance that will leave viewers conflicted.

Edward Cronjager's cinematography bathes the proceedings in the finest, shadowy traditions of the Noir features we've come to love. Many of those films seem to crib directly from Cronjager's work, either enhancing it or commandeering it. His ominous, sometimes playful use of shadows and angles are enough to send any Noir fan's heart into appreciation overdrive. Images like this are why black and white cinematography will always be better than color.

I Wake Up Screaming was paired on opening night with Among the Living, which Eddie called "a horror Noir." Its pedigree includes Dracula writer Garrett Fort, who infuses the proceedings with Southern Gothic terror and scary movie tropes. This one's bonkers, folks, with Albert Dekker as a set of twins, one good and one evil. The evil one, Paul, was supposedly buried at 10 years old, leaving the good one, John, to mourn the loss for decades. In reality, however, Paul had been driven insane by his mother's screams during her abuse at the hands of his father. Paul's descent is helped along by a nasty bit of head trauma delivered by his father. Rather than risk shame, the family hires Dr. Saunders (an evil Harry Carey) to fake Paul's death. Paul remains hidden in the attic for decades.

When the abusive father dies, John returns home for the funeral. John has everything going for him--he's a success married to an understanding wife (Frances Farmer). He knows nothing about the maniacal twin who likes to strangle people and then position their bodies to look like Edward Munch's painting, The Scream. But he's about to find out just how much trouble Paul can be.

Paul escapes from his attic prison and rents a room in town. His scraggly beard marks him as the "evil twin," so of course, he'll eventually shave it off so he can be mistaken for John. The catalyst for the close shave is Millie, an enticing, flirty troublemaker played by my favorite scenery chewer, Susan Hayward. Nothing is ever subtle about Susan Hayward; she makes Millie's sexuality run down the screen like a torrential rainstorm. I could imagine Joe Breen looking like one of Paul's dead victims when he saw this picture.

Millie's misidentification of John as Paul leads to scary scenes of mob justice, mayhem and murder, all rendered in the perfectly noirish cinematography of Theodor Sparkuhl. Somehow all of this works. Maybe it's not as the most credible of Noirs, but Among the Living is one of the more fun ones we've had here in Noir City.

Next time: Books, bobs and blues for Uncle Charlie.