Thursday, January 31, 2019

Noir City XVII #5: Kiss Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang BANG!

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

1956 came to Noir City in screaming Technicolor on Wednesday night. The final film in what I'll call the Deadly Kiss trio played to rousing effect. Tuesday night's double-bill started the trend of titles with smooches in them, with Kubrick's Killer's Kiss and Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly roughing up the audiences at the Castro Theatre. I'm gonna do a reverse Wizard of Oz here and start with the more recently seen color film before going back to Tuesday's black and white ones. Because the only thing more murderous than femme fatale kisses is Father Time's assault on my short-term memory. 

Robert Wagner is probably best known to millenials for his work in Austin Powers. For my generation, he's one half of Hart to Hart. But in my Mama's time, he was a suave matinee idol who could have probably coasted by on those credentials well into old age. Alas, the sirens of noir beckoned him (with an assist from Darryl Zanuck) to turn to the dark side. Zanuck brought the rights to Ira Levin's first novel as a vehicle for Wagner and other Fox contract stars. When the film was ultimately made by Crown Pictures, Zanuck loaned out Wagner and his co-stars, presumably because he knew the result would be this deliriously lurid and mean version of A Kiss Before Dying. This version precedes the 1991 Sean Yong/Matt Dillon remake that's so bad it makes that 1988 version of D.O.A. directed by Max Headroom's creators look like Citizen Kane.

But I digress.

Bob Wagner plays an awful, awful, awful sociopath named Bud Corliss. He's 25, in college and dating Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward), whom he has not-so-conveniently knocked up. Of course, you conldn't say "knocked up" in a movie back then, nor could you say "pregnant" or else the censors would freak out. ("I guess they still believed in the stork back then," said Eddie Muller in his introduction.)  Lawrence Roman's adaptation not only enraged the censors by having Woodward utter the word, the screenplay also has Corliss pushing her off a 12-story building to her death. I bet the language-policing censors didn't have a problem with that.

Again, I digress.

Before he resorted to brute force, Corliss tried poisoning with arsenic the gal he chriestened "Dory." Director Gerd Oswald masterfully directs the suspenseful sequence where Corliss outwits a locked chemical closet's door and an absent-minded chemistry student. Oswald also handles the plot's surprises with gasp-inducing panache. The scene where Corliss discovers that Dory tolerates arsenic better than any other allegedly poisoned human being was as shocking to the audience as it was to the attempted murderer. Wagner's reaction alone is worth the price of admission.

Since Corliss has already mailed to Dory's sister a "suicide note" written unbeknownst by Dory under the guise of a Spanish language translation, he has to kill Dory before the letter arrives. What happens next is surprisingly vicious for 1956, though, to be honest, we'd seen some rather extreme censor-defying displays in Kiss Me Deadly here in Noir City the night before. Dory is so gullible and so in love with this heel that she never sees her demise coming. Woodward is on record saying she thought this was her worst picture, and though I think the movie is very good for the most part, I found her character to be as aggravatingly naive as Carol Marsh's character was in Brighton Rock. "Woman, don't you have eyes?!" I wanted to yell at the screen as Dory swooned over Bud's callousness.

Speaking of being naive, Corliss' Mom is played by Oscar-winning vet (and former femme fatale) Mary Astor. Astor sports a short hairdo that's as daring as Mia Farrow's in that other great Ira Levin adaptation, Rosemary's Baby. Mama Corliss is also absolutely clueless about her son's penchant for evil, though he insults her at every turn and even shames her fashion sense when she shows up for a rich family's party. That party is being thrown by Dory's dad, who has no idea that Corliss killed his daughter. He does know that Corliss is about to ask his other daughter, Ellen (Virginia Leith) to marry him. That's right, Corliss wants to get his hands on that Kingship fortune so much that he's now dating the sister of his former fiancee.

I told you this guy was a real [CENSORED BY THE 1956 BREEN OFFICE]!

Jeffrey Hunter shows up as a classmate of Dorothy and Bud. Hunter would later play the Son of God in Nicholas Ray's Rock Me, Sexy Jesus, I mean King of Kings. Here, his son of a homicide detective character looks a lot like Clark Kent. Ellen is far tougher than her sister--she pieces together that Dory's death may not have been suicide--and her slow realization of the true nature of the man she loves has some delicious Hitchcockian undertones. 

A Kiss Before Dying is our only blast of color so far, presented to us on 35mm and in that format that makes the Castro Theatre screen's curtains open REEEEEEALLLL wide (aka Cinemascope here). When evil Bud finally got his, the audience's response was as loud as the film's color scheme. 

You may think me as big a heel as Bud Corliss for saying this, but I am not a Stanley Kubrick stan. Granted, Dr. Strangelove is currently #6 on my all time best movies list and I'm a diehard fan of The Killing (which I covered at Noir City XV) and Barry Lyndon. But I've probably disliked as many of his films as I've liked. I consider Killer's Kiss one of the latter; it's a movie that looks like a pages of newspaper photos come to life. Your hands would smudge the screen if you touched it. This peril-filled tale of a boxer and his mobster's moll girlfriend was made by Kubrick after he obtained a $75,000 loan. He shot it in his hometown of NYC (probably the last time he ever shot there) and didn't bother to sync the sound, opting instead to do what we'd eventually come to expect from Kubrick, i.e., shoot miles and miles of footage. 

Killer's Kiss is a great origin story for Kubrick. You can see his style being born right before your eyes. The story takes a backseat and lets the visuals and the editing drive the car. Kubrick wrote, edited and directed, and he gets good performances from his cast, though again, this is a picture that's more concerned with the mood it evokes than its narrative. Setting a dangerous mood is always welcome here in Noir City.

I've covered the brutal, rough and unapologetically bleak Mike Hammer movie Kiss Me Deadly elsewhere, so just a few brief words. Ralph Meeker's Hammer could give Wagner's Bud Corliss a run for his money in the heel department--and he's the HERO! Such anti-heroes rarely come better than this, though I admit Mike Hammer has never really grown on me, not even in his Stacy Keach TV adaptation or in the supremely nasty Larry Cohen-scripted iteration of I, the Jury, which was my introduction to the character. Eagle-eyed readers will look at the poster above and see where the Noir City poster designers got their ideas.

The movie that put Robert Aldrich on the map was supposed to be presented at Noir City in its truncated format (suitcase opens, KABLOOEY, everybody dies, yay! Apocalypse, cue Quentin Tarantino homage machine!). Instead, it was shown with the restored 1997 ending (according to Eddie's introduction of Killer's Kiss--I missed the Kiss Me Deadly screening). In that version, Mike Hammer lives to brutalize another day, angering all those censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency and whoever else had pearls to clutch in 1955. Only in Noir City can we be presented with "a happy ending" and have that deemed a mistake. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Next up: Holy Curtiz! Is that Elaine Stritch?!!
Last time: Noir City XVII #4: The Absent-Minded Confessor

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Noir City XVII #4: The Absent-Minded Confessor

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Fred MacMurray's acting career has lived as double a life as one can find here in Noir City. Who among us of a certain age (let's go with my age--48) doesn't remember being introduced to good ol' Fred courtesy of reruns of his sitcom My Three Sons or airings of The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber on The Wonderful World of Disney? In those features, Mr. MacMurray was so nice! Lord, he was lovey-dovey! 

And then you see Double Indemnity for the first time. Or The Apartment. And then you realize that Fred MacMurray's career is a retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Which side you like better says a lot about you! As for good ol' Fred, he proved equally adept at sunshine and darkness. But you know which side I'm here for today.

I try to give these pieces pulpy, faux noirish titles, but I'll never be as good nor as succinct as the real thing. Monday night brought us a 35-mm double-bill of corrupt cop capers, each brilliantly monikered by their filmmakers. It's 1954 in Noir City, and its denizens were treated to the aptly titled Pushover. Our pal, Fred MacMurray fits the description, and how could you blame him? The dame doin' the pushin' is none other than Kim Novak making her screen debut! Every Hollywood studio needed their dangerous blonde, and since the Columbia logo wasn't willing to ditch that torch and dye her hair, Harry Cohn got himself Ms. Novak.

MacMurray and Novak are joined by Phil Carey, the good cop to MacMurray's oh-so-bad cop. The police are after a criminal named Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards) who, in the film's opening sequence, robs a bank of $210,000. Richards adds murder to his wanted poster by shooting the bank's security guard. When Richards and the money disappear, police chief E.G. Marshall assigns Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) and his partner Rick McAllister (Carey) to the case.

Sheridan's first order of business is to go undercover with Wheeler's moll, Lona McClane (Novak, of course). They Meet Cute after a superbly lensed sequence by cinematographer Lester White tails McClane as she walks from a movie theater to her car. Her car has been tampered with by Sheridan,  we'll learn later, so he could assist her. When the car needs servicing at an all-night garage (say what?!), Sheridan offers to entertain McLane in a more intimate setting. "Your place or mine?" he asks.

"Surprise me," she says. (The audience ate this line up!)

McLane is not unfamiliar with dealing with wolves out to use her. So it comes as no surprise that she pegs Sheridan for a cop. What she doesn't know, at least initially, is that Sheridan and McAllister are right across the way from her apartment every night, looking into her window to see when or if Wheeler will turn up at her place. But Sheridan spills the beans eventually. You see, McLane puts a bee in his boxers about knocking off Wheeler, taking the stolen loot and running off to a future that is rated at least a hard R on the MPAA ratings scale. Since MacMurray did NOT learn his lesson from that other sinister blonde Phyllis Dietrichson, he agrees to McLane's deal. "I thought I was using you!" he laments. In that department, Sheridan is out of his league.

As Sheridan bides his time, an interesting side plot develops during these stakeouts. McAllister becomes smitten with McLane's next door neighbor. And how could he not be--she's played by the incredible Dorothy Malone! Malone's very good as a nurse who is completely oblivious to what's going on, but she'll get involved in more ways than one. In fact, her character Ann Stewart has a Meet-Not-So-Cute with Sheridan that becomes a major plot point later on. Her budding romance with McAllister is a nice, though equally voyeuristic counterpoint to the corrupt one going on next door.

If some of this sounds familiar to you, you've probably seen John Badham's 1987 comedy, Stakeout, which robs several plot points from Roy Huggins' excellent script. If Huggins' name rings a bell, you've probably seen The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, Baretta or any number of other TV shows he either created or wrote for over his illustrious career. This man knew how to write a crime story, and while Pushover goes where we expected it to go, it gets there in a very clever and entertaining fashion. Hell, even Jean-Luc Godard liked it!

"We didn't need the money," McLane cries at the end of Pushover, figuratively pushing her fingers into the bullet holes of the sadder but wiser Sheridan. In the immortal words of Ice-T, Paul Sheridan, you played yourself. 

Dante wasn't the only one putting numbers on layers of Hell. Noir City legend Ida Lupino was doing it too back in 1954! Private Hell 36 stars Lupino, who co-wrote it with her business partner and (by this time) ex-husband Collier Young. We've got another corrupt cop and a bundle o'cash to contend with here, but this time, the woman is a far more innocent party than he is. Lupino's nightclub performer Lily Marlowe becomes embroiled in a cop stakeout after she unwittingly handles some marked bills that were involved in a bank robbery. Since she can identify the man who gave them to her, the LAPD drags her along to the racetrack so she can pick him out. This takes a while, but she eventually gets her man, pointing him out to LA detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran).

After an exciting police car chase and crash, Bruner steals wads of cash from the deceased criminals' take. His partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, Lupino's current husband at the time) is unwillingly drawn into this plan. Bruner's theft is a rather improbable one--the money is marked and couldn't be spent in America without eventually being traced--but Bruner has a plan to sell it in Mexico. Lest I forget, Bruner has also fallen for Marlowe, whom he thinks will be impressed with his riches. Bruner hides the money in a rented trailer numbered 36.

Marlowe has her own ideas on what constitutes success, and they all involve legality and making it on one's own. But Bruner has even bigger problems: Farnham is a family man whose fears of losing his wife and kids weigh heavily on him now that he's involved in Bruner's scheme. Farnham's wife is played by Dorothy Malone, who did double duty on Monday's double bill. Young and Lupino script a very good party sequence involving the four leads, with crackling dialogue and an almost suffocating sence of guilt emanating off Farnham. He truly is in a private hell and Duff milks that for all it's worth.

In addition to her acting career, Ida Lupino worked behind the camera as a director and producer (her film company, The Filmakers, has a title coined by Lupino). But Private Hell 36 was directed by a young Don Siegel. Siegel's talents are on full display in this early feature, made two years before he'd helm the paranoia classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There's a gnawing sense of claustrophobia in Private Hell 36 that only hints at the good things to come from Siegel's talents. 

I love Ida Lupino so much I dressed up just for her before heading to the Castro Theatre. It was worth it.

Next up: Kiss Me Once, Kiss me Twice, Come on Pretty Baby, Kiss me Deadly!
Last time: Noir City XVII #3: Requiem for a Pickpocket

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Noir City XVII #3: Requiem for a Pickpocket

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Part of the fun of Noir City is discovering whose progeny may be in the audience or on the stage. In the past, the children of Dana Andrews, Victor Mature and Glenn Ford have joined us for their parents' features, providing useful information along the way. On opening night of this year's festival, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller brought to the stage Richard Fleischer's son, Mark, who spoke about Trapped, The Narrow Margin and his Dad's friendship with writer Earl Fenton. Fenton wrote several of Richard Fleischer's pictures, including the aforementioned two films and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. That may be my favorite of Fleischer's adventure pictures (sorry Conan the Destroyer--which I also like, mind you), if only because it features Kirk Douglas singing.

It's 1951 in Noir City and Michael's Da isn't singing in Detective Story; he's too busy making his criminal suspects hit the highest notes in their confessions. Kirk is fantastic as a rigid, jaded detective named McLeod whose notion of right and wrong is as binary as the machine language in UNIVAC I, which also made its debut in 1951. Detective McLeod has his sights on Karl Schneider (George Macready), a New Jersey doc whose medical specialty is dealt with quite frankly for the time. (He does abortions.) Since McLeod's reputation of roughing up his suspects precedes him, Schneider's lawyer Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson) negotiates a deal for Schneider to bypass McLeod and turn himself in at the 21st Precinct. This goes over as well as you'd expect, because the only thing McLeod hates worse than criminals are the lawyers who defend and "coddle" them.

But Sims is a dangerous adversary. He's the gust of wind that may knock McLeod off that tightrope of absolute righteousness he's been navigating. Both Sims and Schneider keep alluding that they're willing to turn stool pigeon over some devastating secret in McLeod's past. A hint of what that might be is cleverly hidden in an early scene between McLeod and his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). While making out in the backseat of a taxicab, the McLeods talk about doctors and future children and so on. Mary's the only person McLeod lets his guard down for, so when her husband turns his unflinching brand of judgment on her in the film's third act, Detective Story becomes one of noir's most emotionally violent productions.

As the anti-hero, Douglas really leans into his character's horrifying upbringing, using it as an entry point into McLeod's inability to see shades of gray. When the camera angles weren't reminding me how eerily young Kirk looks like young Michael, I wondered if Douglas were the most psychologically astute actor in Hollywood. He brings a complexity to the roles he plays, whether heels or heroes, as if he understands their motivations internally even when he can't fully explain them. Plus, he always allowed you to see the cracks of vulnerability running through his machismo. When he cries in Detective Story, his face looks like a statue whose marble has suddenly undergone a metamorphosis to clay.

Though adapted from a hit play by Sidney Kingsley, Detective Story never feels like a filmed stage performance. Director William Wyler and his screenwriters Philip Yordan and brother Robert Wyler run a tight yet busy schedule of events across the screen, carefully weaving in the storylines both comic and tragic. This thing moves like gangbusters, and Wyler's firm handle on the film's momentum is masterful. This is one of his best movies, earning him a much-deserved Oscar nomination for direction. The script also received an Oscar nod. And since Wyler is the director who has led more actors to Academy Award nominations than any other, both Eleanor Parker and Lee Grant snared nominations for their performances as well. 

Grant and Parker are the linchpins in their respective stories. Parker's tale is emotional and tragic, while Grant's tale is the comedy relief. Both make it seem effortless. Parker underplays against the volcanic Douglas, subtly hinting at the dynamics of their marriage--she's Sisyphus and he's the rock. Grant, in her stunning debut, gleefully swings for the fences, capturing every moment of her nameless kleptomaniac's wonder and awe as she awaits her night court hearing. Despite the difference in tone of their respective arcs, Detective Story sees these two women as kindred spirits: both of them impulsively grabbed something that looked great on the outside, only to discover that what was inside it wasn't worth the effort. For Grant, it was a purse whose monetary contents were less than the price of the purse; for Parker, it was a man whom she ultimately could not save from self-destruction. Such is the pricetag of shiny objects in the otherwise shadowy Noir City.

Maybe it's me, but almost every time I see William Holden onscreen, I want to punch him out. It's nothing personal, to be sure. He's just so damn good at playing people you want to slug (and kiss, preferably after you slug him). In The Turning Point, he's no different. Holden plays a cynical newspaperman constantly searching for the next big story. He may have that story when his childhood pal, attorney Edmond O'Brien returns to town to root out organized corruption on a task force. O'Brien's dad Ed Begley was a cop, so law and order is in his DNA, but Holden doesn't think his buddy's tough enough for the job. Holden thinks even less toughness exists in O'Brien's girlfriend, Alexis Smith, though she might have other more useful qualities.

We're never really sure whose side Holden is on, besides his own, that is, and it keeps The Turning Point intriguing. Is he undermining O'Brien or attempting to help him out by not revealing that O'Brien's dad Ed Begley is on the take from the criminal his son is trying to bring down. We certainly can deduce that he's operating as a villain when his bad boy bonafides lure Smith away from O'Brien. She and Holden have a great conversation that evokes the "let's talk killer to killer" scene in All About Eve, and director William Dieterle lets them smolder for a while before sealing the deal.

The Turning Point is as suspenseful as it is bleak. At times, it has a 70's paranoid thriller aspect to it, most notably in a sequence set at a boxing match, and there's a devastating price to pay for attempting to destroy well-structured evil at its root. The actors are all solid, especially Smith, and Holden's performance made me think of the story (possibly apocryphal) about him asking Billy Wilder to soften his very unlikable character in Stalag 17. Wilder told Holden to trust him and play the role as written because he's good at being a heel with whom the audience can identify.

Paramount made The Turning Point to capitalize on the public's hunger for the organized crime Congressional hearings that were all over the TV in 1952. So it seems ripe for a remake in today's political climate! But for now, we at least have this rarity, which Paramount provided on DCP for us to devour at the Castro Theatre. Eddie mentioned to us that while the studio refuses to print film anymore, they are at least digitizing their library of films. I'll use this good news to soothe the agita I get whenever I have to deal with getting critic screening information from them!

Finally, a few words on Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, featuring a career best performance by Thelma Ritter. It wouldn't be Noir City without at least one appearance by the guy who tormented Michael Douglas in Coma, Richard Widmark. While Widmark's Skip McCoy picks the wrong pocket and finds love in the midst of the Cold War, Ritter steals the movie right from under him. Her character, Moe, is memorably tough and heartbreaking; Ritter's usual no-nonsense persona, which made her unsusceptible to Eve Harrington's charm and pissed off enough to chew out the owner of Macy's, is supplemented by a world-weariness that's so potent and palpable you can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting over Sam Fuller's typerwriter as he wrote her scenes. Her final scene is so devastating that not even Fuller's camera can bear to watch it. He pans away, allowing Moe a rare modicum of grace.

For her trouble here, Ritter received an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. The six-time nominee was so used to losing that she threw "come and watch me lose again" Oscar parties, according to the book Inside Oscar. Just because you lose doesn't mean you weren't great. Those are words we Noir City denizens can live by.

Next up:  A double shot of Dorothy Malone
Last time: Noir City XVII #2: The Monsters Are Still Due on Main Street

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

Monday, January 28, 2019

Noir City XVII #2: The Monsters Are Still Due on Maple Street

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

By 1951, film noir had at least one major entry that commented on race and featured a race riot. Joe Mankiewicz’s other 1950 film, No Way Out, marked the debut of Sidney Poitier as a doctor who has to deal with racism from patient Richard Widmark. It’s a jarring entry in Poitier’s studio system oeuvre, one where he gets to be angry and defiant without any Stanley Kramer sugar-coating. His last line in the film is as ice cold a kiss-off as noir has ever seen. Plus, there’s the aforementioned race riot where—and this is a bold as hell choice by Mankiewicz and his co-writer Lesser Samuels—the Black folks win.

Noir City isn’t showing No Way Out this year, but it is showing Sidney’s best bud, Harry Belafonte’s Robert Wise-helmed Odds Against Tomorrow, another pitch-black arrow in film noir’s quiver. And on Saturday afternoon, the top half of the matinee housed one of the harshest noirs I’ve seen at this festival. In fact, Saturday’s lineup was so intense that I had to cut and run after three of the four features screened. (Don’t worry! I’d seen Angel Face before and I hope Bob Mitchum will forgive me for being such a wuss. Otto Preminger certainly wouldn’t!)

Re: that first entry on the matinee bill: The Well is a rarely screened, double Oscar nominee (screenplay and editing) from director Russell Rouse and his co-screenwriter Clarence Greene. This duo, along with their producers, the Popkin brothers, liked to add gimmicky hooks to conventional stories. By the time this screenplay was written, 1951 had already had its own real-life Baby Jessica-style story about a child trapped in a well. This gave Greene an idea for his gimmick, but just the mere notion of a kid stuck in a well wouldn’t have much traction. After all, isn’t that what Lassie was barking about every week on her show? So Greene decided to really give Lassie something to yap about: The trapped kid in this story is a little Black girl, the daughter of the Crawfords (Ernest Anderson and Maidie Norman).

Keep in mind that this is 1951, when the country was still deeply and comfortably under the wingspan of Jim Crow. Rouse and Greene are shockingly frank about the subject matter here, both in language (which is as rough as you’d expect) and in viewpoint. This takes place in a town where it seems that the neighbors are living in harmony despite the unequal tenor of America’s views on race. But in reality, this place sits atop an unstable powder keg of racial tension. Interracial allegiances that appeared airtight could shatter in an instant with one misunderstanding.

That misunderstanding arrives with the arrest of an outsider named Claude Packard (the always welcome, ubiquitous citizen of noir movies, Harry Morgan), who is immediately blamed for the Crawford girl’s disappearance. He was last seen buying her some flowers and walking with her on a main street in town. Several witnesses, including a classmate, corroborate the details and even pick Packard out of a lineup. Packard maintains his innocence while also citing that he’s the nephew of the most powerful man in town, construction magnate Sam Packard (Barry Kelly). 

Unlike the townspeople, viewers know that Claude is innocent; in the opening scene, we see the Crawford girl fall into a well hidden in a meadow not too far from her home. But suspicion of strangers is characteristic of small towns where all the residents know each other, so rumors of death spread in both the White and the Black parts of town. Sam Packard makes matters worse--even he thinks his nephew may be guilty of murder yet he has a reputation to uphold. Sam throws around his power, offering Claude an alibi he refuses to take. Though Sheriff Ben Kellog (Richard Rober) is unimpressed and continues to hold Claude, the Crawford family senses a cover-up.

When Mr. Crawford (Ernest Anderson) confronts Sam and Sam is unintentionally injured, White townspeople see it as breach of etiquette and vow to strike back “to put those people back in their place.” Black members of the town sense yet another cover-up that will deny them justice and also plan retaliation. The town simmers toward its boiling point. Meanwhile, residents play a ferocious game of Telephone, with the stories getting more and more elaborately false and dangerous as the information gets passed on. Numerous scenes of race-based violence follow, ratcheting up the tension to unbearable levels. 

For a film made in 1951, The Well is surprisingly even-handed, never downplaying the anger of its Black characters nor ignoring their pain. Maidie Norman has a quiet, heartbreaking power as the worried mother. She figures prominently in the film’s tensely edited, gut-wrenching climax. Mrs. Crawford is allowed to be as memorable as Sheriff Kellog or the feisty waitress who isn’t above bashing in a head or two with her skillet in order to protect her Black cook from angry White rioters. 

As if tipping its hat to Lassie, The Well has a dog hero who tells its owner about the kid trapped in the well. Thankfully, this news travels as fast as the falsehoods did, and the town bands together to save one of its own, regardless of her color. This turn of events will play as rather corny to the cynical viewer, but I found myself so wrapped up in the story that I bought into its hopeful conclusion. 

The tagline of Noir City is "there are no happy endings." I was relieved that this was the exception. But I won’t lie—this film, with its racial slurs and its agonized scenes of violence and cruelty--ran me through the ringer and weighed heavily on me for the rest of the day.

Next up: The other two movies on this tough Saturday—and a little bit of Thelma Ritter.
Last time: Noir City XVII #1: Treasury of the Sierra Madre

 (Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Noir City XVII #1: Treasury of the Sierra Madre

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If that old adage is true, then I am most definitely sane. Because I am once again joining my fellow Noir City denizens at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and I expect to have the same amount of fun I've had the eleven prior times I've attended the greatest film festival in this and seven other scientifically approved universes. Guiding our descent into darkness is the one and only Czar of Noir, TCM superstar Eddie Muller.

The method to Eddie's madness this year was to subtitle this year's batch of goodies "film noir in the 50's." You know the 50's, the decade that everyone wearing a red hat with four words on it would love to return to, where Father Knew Best and mother twirled like Loretta Young at the beginning of her show. Well, these movies are out to remind us that darker forces were far more prevalent, stuff like McCarthyism and war and segregation. I foresee a delectable series of cautionary tales that remind us what's at stake in our current, turbulent times. These films will plumb the darkest nights of the soul, because as we denizens of Noir City know, it's a bitter little world.

This year's Opening Night was so jam packed that I barely got a seat despite arriving an hour early and having my usual Passport ticket. I sat so far up in the balcony of the majestic Castro Theatre that I was practically in the projection room. But the ticket sales go toward the Film Noir Foundation's restoration of the movies we noir addicts love so much, so I couldn't have been happier--I mean, more bitter (happiness is verboten in noir!) to sit in the nosebleed/make out seats. One of those restorations opened Noir City XVII as the top half of our first double feature, and it proved that the sold out crowd picked the right week to quit happy endings.

Lloyd Bridges, aka The Big Lebowski's Da, is best known in the 1950's for Sea Hunt, the 1958 series where he played a scuba diver looking for adventure. Bridges has a far less respectable profession in Trapped. Playing the awesomely named Tris Stewart, Bridges is a counterfeiter whose money-making plates were put out of circulation by the same folks who brought down Al Capone, the Treasury Department. Trapped begins with a screen thanking the Treasury for allowing their money printing process to be shown to audiences in 1949. I'm sure part of that deal was to add the usual (and always hilarious) stern narration warning viewers of the dangerous pitfalls of crime. We learn that the Treasury has numerous fail-safes on their printing plates to keep money from being illegally reproduced. And yet, people will try and the consequences will be dire. 

One such victim of a fake 20 dollar bill is shown in an early scene unknowingly attempting to deposit it at the bank. The poor woman, whose hat brim is as straight and strict as the banker who delivers the bad news, looks traumatized. Indeed, she could be the star of her own noir, as $20 in 1949 is $210 in 2019 money. "You people should pay more attention!" scolds the cold-hearted banker as the woman ponders her financial ruin. I'm sure this sad scene put many wannabe counterfeiters on the straight and narrow!

Tris Stewart has no such aspirations. He's an opportunist who'll use any lucky break to advance his criminal goals. Since the woman at the bank had a $20 bill that was created by Tris' plates, the Feds spring him so he can find out where the plates are and who put them back into circulation. Tris easily outmaneuvers his chaperone, which was by design, so the Feds can follow the more honest footsteps of an escaped convict. Those footsteps lead right to his sexy moll, the tough-as-nails cigarette girl, Meg (Barbara Payton). Tris' plan involves high-taling it to Mexico with Meg after getting revenge on whoever stole his forgery-based works of art. Double and triple-crosses ensue! I won't tell you if Tris makes it to Mexico in one piece, but I will say the Feds won't need to build a wall to try and stop him.

Cinematographer Guy Roe's excellent work is on full display in this gorgeous restoration, projected in 35mm glory onto the huge and loving Castro Theatre screen. Trapped is also well-acted by a hardened Bridges and his fiery co-star, the scandalous Barbara Payton. During his introduction, Eddie Muller only alluded to the sordid details of Payton's life. "Google it," he told the crowd. Allow me to sweeten the pot: Payton's memoir has a title best befitting the pulpiest noir paperback. She called it I am Not Ashamed.

Director Richard Fleischer, one of the most flexible directors in Hollywood (Google it!), should also not be ashamed of his fine work on Trapped. But in keeping with the chastising narrators of so many films I've seen at Noir City, I must also point out that Mr. Fleischer directed Mandingo. That deserves plenty of shame. 

Perennial Noir City dame Barbara Stanwyck and noir's greatest director Robert Siodmak are back with 1950's The File on Thelma Jordon. Made 6 years after Double Indemnity, this film features yet another sultry and mysterious Stanwyck anti-hero, Thelma Jordon, who pulls booze-scented DA Wendell Corey into her seductive web. They meet cute, with wonderful, sharp dialogue by then-popular female screenwriter (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Ketti Frings, who adapted Mary Holland's story. Jordon has a wealthy aunt who, in a suspenseful sequence, is murdered off-screen by gunshot. Whodunit? The besotten (and very married) Corey thinks Aunty's heir did it, so he starts covering up for Thelma Jordon. Jordon is also married--or so we're told--to a scary man named Tony Laredo (this was clearly a night for brilliant monikers here in Noir City). What does Tony Laredo have to do with any of this? Is he the mastermind or yet another pawn helplessly sent across the chessboard to slaughter by our beloved Stany?

Frings, who wrote the fantastic Loretta Young noir The Accused, brings a different perspective to her dialogue and scene construction; she highlights things I doubt most men would have even considered. (Note how Stanwyck handles a drunken Corey's advances.) With that said, I found some of The File on Thelma Jordon to be confusing as hell, but it was all worth it for a climactic scene that once again puts Barbara Stanwyck in a murder-filled car. In Double Indemnity, she was in the backseat, orgasmically surveying the carnage as an observer. Siodmak and Frings put her in the driver's seat literally and figuratively here. The shocking result drew audible gasps from the audience, proving once again that, no matter how hard-boiled and "seen-it-all" we Noir City denizens are, we can still be shaken and stirred by the Masters of Noir. 

Next up: A really rough trio of Saturday Noirs.

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)