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!)

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