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    Friday, July 13, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: Scarlet Street (1945)/Wicked Woman (1953)

    On the last night of Noir City, bad girls ruled.

    I was wowed by Scarlet Street when I first watched it on a lousy public domain DVD. Seeing a pristine print from the Library of Congress brings the full force of its fatalism to bear. Is there a better ensemble in noir? Edward G. Robinson as the middle-aged man making a final bid at living his dream. Joan Bennett as the aptly named Kitty March, the essence of lazy feline entitlement. And Dan Duryea using the insinuating instrument of his voice to great effect. (Disturbing observation: dye Duryea’s blond hair dark and he’s a ringer for Stephen Colbert.) Add an airtight script by Dudley Nichols and direction by Fritz Lang, and the result is hellish perfection.

    And then – oh, then – we have Wicked Woman.

    Amazon Beverly Michaels rolls into town, lands a job as a waitress, and proceeds to lay waste to the place. She’s a proto-Nomi Malone from Showgirls, drifting from city to city, getting into trouble, and flying into spontaneous rages.

    Michaels is something, blonde and six feet tall. She can’t act, but she doesn’t have to. She’s a six foot blonde. Director Russell Rouse loves her even if the camera doesn’t. He’s happy to show her shaving her endless legs, slapping around in her dirty bare feet, and tying her robe on. Three times. In seventy-seven minutes.

    Michaels has her fans, though. I think we were sitting behind one. An older gent, reeking of cigarettes and Brylcreem, who began singing “Theme from Wicked Woman” as soon as it started. Clearly he’s been carrying a torch for some time. I’m happy they were briefly reunited.

    The movie goes beyond awful, achieving a kind of Zen purity. The bad acting suddenly becomes naturalistic, as if you’re watching a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall documentary on when good girls stray. It’s trash. Sleazy trash. Sleazy, utterly transporting trash. (Update: Behold the trailer in all its glory!)

    Michaels eventually quit acting and married her director, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Pillow Talk. Thus providing one of noir’s rare happy endings.

    And that brought down the curtain on the debut outing of Noir City Seattle. I’m fairly sure I contracted emphysema from watching so many people smoke. My thanks to Eddie Muller for programming this extraordinary festival, and to SIFF Cinema and curator Anita Monga for hosting it.

    Why did so many people hie themselves to the theater in a summer swelter for seven consecutive days to see two movies a night? Perhaps because they appreciate craftsmanship. As Eddie noted after one screening, it’s unlikely that similar numbers will turn out fifty years hence for a revival of movies being made today, when everything is twenty minutes too long and the ability to tell a story efficiently seems to have been lost.

    But noir owes its fascination to more than just narrative economy. Here’s a quote from Jules Buck, who worked with the pioneering producer Mark Hellinger. It’s from the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, the newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation. Do yourself a favor and join.

    “We didn’t know from noir in those days. Hellinger just wanted to make tough stories, filled with the passion of life vs. death. What people call noir was simply movies that grabbed life vs. death by the throat and hung on no matter what.”

    The essential question of existence, stripped to its sinew and answered with dames and wisecracks. Fifty years from now, people will still be looking for that. And these movies will still deliver the goods.

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    Thursday, July 12, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: The Spiritualist (1948)/Nightmare Alley (1947)

    Is there magic in the film noir world? Sure. Rigging the lights so shadows fall just so or the camera catches cigarette smoke drifting heavenward like a lost soul takes a special kind of alchemy. Pairing up actors who can convey twisted animal longing in a single glance is no easy trick.

    But actual magic? No. There’s no room for illusion on these mean streets. If someone says they’re communing with spirits and you don’t see a bottle of rye whiskey, then you, my friend, are about to be rooked. Don’t say you weren’t warned. The best Noir City double-bill so far focused on the genre’s lowest of the low: the phony psychic.

    For me The Spiritualist, aka The Amazing Mr. X, is the find of the festival, the B-movie perfectly executed. Turhan Bey dazzles as the title charlatan out to convince a rich widow that he’s in contact with her late husband. But the true star is cinematographer John Alton. He establishes an otherworldly atmosphere in the opening frames that never lets up. The visual tricks he deployed sixty years ago still cast a spell.

    The B-movie set up the audience for the main attraction. Nightmare Alley, according to Eddie Muller, is not only one of the greatest noirs but one of the finest American films of the 1940s. I first saw it in what turned out to be its final TV airing for more than a decade owing to copyright issues, and have watched it again on the recent Fox DVD. But a 35MM print on the big screen is encountering a movie anew.

    Jules Furthman adapted the singular novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Tyrone Power crosses over to the dark side like no matinee idol before or since as Stanton Carlisle, a carny who concocts a “mentalist” act that takes him from midway to mansions. But he soon learns that bogus religion has nothing on bent science, in the person of sinister headshrinker Helen Walker. Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell and noir staple Mike Mazurki round out a top-notch cast.

    I heard some grumbling on the way out of the theater that the story’s outcome was apparent from the start, but far from diminishing its impact that foreshadowing gives Nightmare Alley the force of tragedy. Ignore the studio-imposed “happy” ending. It only underscores how far into hell Stanton Carlisle has fallen.

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    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: I Love Trouble (1948)/Pushover (1954)

    Three, count ’em, three Mets in the starting line-up, and an inside the park home run from the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki. Do I regret missing the All-Star Game? Nope. Not when there’s noir to be seen. Especially two rare titles that have never appeared on video.

    What do they have in common? Screenwriter Roy Huggins, one of the stealth giants of popular culture. Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files. The man was the Stan Lee of television. I’ve already sung the praises of his film Too Late For Tears, which the Film Noir Foundation is in the process of restoring.

    Huggins’s debut feature is, in the words of Noir City programmer Eddie Muller, the “egregrious Raymond Chandler rip-off” I Love Trouble. All the elements are in place: wisecracking P.I. (played by a surprisingly effective Franchot Tone), gorgeous dames a’plenty, and a corkscrew plot that ultimately proves irrelevant. Several familiar faces turn up including a few from earlier in the week, like Raymond Burr and noir’s go-to guy for mittel European creepiness Steven Geray. Last night’s femme fatale Janis Carter is back, playing two roles when one is taxing enough for her and sporting an accent that veers between Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lupe Velez. It’s the kind of movie that only a noir fan could love. Naturally, I enjoyed it.

    Pushover, on the other hand, is a taut thriller that can be appreciated by everyone. It also gives the lie to the belief that Fred MacMurray never strayed to the dark side of the street again after Double Indemnity. He plays a cop who falls for a bank robber’s moll (Kim Novak, in her, ahem, unfettered screen debut). Meanwhile, his partner in the stakeout on Novak’s place shifts his attention to the nurse who lives next door to her (Dorothy Malone). Things, as they so often do, go wrong, and Huggins is merciless in piling on the complications.

    MacMurray could easily walk away from Novak and the sweet life she promises. But somehow he still finds himself on a rain-drenched rooftop, gathering her in his arms and saying, “You win.” In that moment is the essence of noir. Trouble on all sides of the path, and you just keep following it down.

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    Tuesday, July 10, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: 99 River Street (1953)/Framed (1947)

    I didn’t do it, y’unnerstand? It was Noir City Day 4! The whole thing’s a set-up!

    Phil Karlson is a treasured name among noir aficionados because he made spare, no-nonsense films. He also knew how to get strong performances out of actors like John Payne, a song-and-dance man who might otherwise have been remembered for freezing his charms off with Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade. Karlson was savvy enough to see the caged animal lurking underneath Payne’s nice guy exterior. (A new DVD of an earlier Karlson/Payne collaboration, Kansas City Confidential, streets today.)

    That trapped rage comes to the fore in 99 River Street. Payne plays an ex-boxer now reduced to driving a cab and about to have a night worse than any he spent in the ring. His wife leaves him for a two-bit jewel thief planning to make Payne a pawn. Payne’s only ally is a struggling actress (Evelyn Keyes) who causes problems of her own.

    Some implausible plot twists go down easy thanks to Karlson’s slick direction. The real gem here is Evelyn Keyes, getting to display several styles of acting in one role. It’s a bravura performance. Ms. Keyes is profiled in Dark City Dames by festival programmer Eddie Muller, a book I expect all of you to read.

    Eddie described 99 River Street as the cinematic equivalent of a Gold Medal paperback, but I’d say Framed is a better fit for that bill. Drifter Glenn Ford arrives in town and promptly lands in stir, only to find himself bailed out by Janis Carter and her cheekbones. She’s setting him up as part of an embezzlement scheme, but a strange thing happens halfway through the movie: the patsy gets wise. The devious script by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) has Ford and Carter each trying to one-up the other as the cops draw closer. Great fun.

    I’m looking forward to the next three nights in the festival more than ever now that temperatures in Seattle are expected to hit the high nineties. Dark alleys may be dangerous, but they’re also cool.

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    Monday, July 09, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: Desert Fury (1947)/Leave Her To Heaven (1946)

    Day three’s theme was a cinch to figure out. Black hearts in Technicolor. Throw in Slightly Scarlet and you’d have yourself a party. Just check for your wallet and your kidneys on the way out.

    According to the fest’s program notes, 1947’s Desert Fury is a cult classic waiting to happen, ripe with homoerotic subtext. Lizabeth Scott returns to her Nevada hometown and mother Mary Astor, who runs a two-bit casino and asks to be passed off as Liz’s sister. Arriving on the same day is hard-luck gambler John Hodiak and the sidekick with whom he’s unusually close (Wendell Corey in his screen debut). Watching them all askance is town deputy Burt Lancaster. I kept waiting for Burt to ask, “What’s eatin’ everyone in this cockamamie town?,” then pound his undershirted chest and declare that he was “all man, see?”

    I think Desert Fury’s cult status may be a while in coming. For one thing, it’s never been available on video. For another, it isn’t very good. (I can’t rave about them all, can I? You’d lose respect for me.) The proceedings are too lethargic; to quote Rosemarie, “I saw the desert, but not the fury.” The good stuff, like an explanation of the true nature of the Hodiak/Corey relationship, is jammed into the closing ten minutes. The scenes that crackle are the ones between Astor and Lancaster, with him as the steadfast Boy Scout who relishes her attempts to corrupt him. As for the gay subtext, it’s there if you look, but we’re not talking The Big Combo here. I can’t swallow no more salami, indeed.

    I’d already seen the classic 1946 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven, but never on the big screen. The newly restored print was absolutely gorgeous. When I turn in tonight, the colors of Gene Tierney’s outfits will be starbursting on the inside of my eyelids.

    Tierney plays the comeliest psychotic in the history of motion pictures, the woman who “loves too much.” Once she falls for novelist Cornel Wilde, she vows to let nothing come between them. (There’s a TV movie remake starring Loni Anderson and Patrick Duffy. I’ve never seen it. But simply knowing of its existence diminishes me as a person.)

    On this viewing, I was struck by the performance of Vincent Price as Tierney’s spurned district attorney lover. He has a brief scene early and dominates the action late. His work here is a reminder of how sly an actor he was in the days before horror movies claimed him, playing well-born men of questionable morals.

    Last night Rosemarie dreamt an entire film noir, featuring her, me and Raymond Burr. These movies can be hazardous to your health. And we’ve still got four days to go.

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    Sunday, July 08, 2007

    Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Woman on the Run (1950)

    There are no introductions at weekend Noir City matinees, so it’s up to me to guess the day’s theme. I’m going to say shaky California marriages. Either that or heavies named Smiley.

    Pitfall was the movie I was most looking forward to in the festival’s line-up, because it’s based on a novel by Jay Dratler, one of the great unsung screenwriters of Hollywood. He didn’t adapt his own book, but I wanted to see the result anyway.

    Dick Powell stars as an insurance executive living the American Dream – house, job, marriage, son. And it’s slowly killing him. All it takes for him to regain some of his youthful vigor is a brief dalliance with down-at-the-heels model Lizabeth Scott. But the shady P.I. who tracked her down for the insurance company (Raymond Burr) has feelings for Scott as well, and he’s willing to ruin Powell in order to have her to himself.

    Powell’s disillusionment with the post-war ideal of success is a powerful motor, so I was disappointed to see his character quickly settle back into suburban contentment. But Burr’s sexually obsessed shamus makes a potent villain, and Scott plays a singular femme fatale in that she doesn’t use her powers for evil. She’s not a homewrecker; she’s looking for a white picket fence life of her own. It’s not her fault if men make fools of themselves over her.

    The discovery of a print of the long-thought-lost Woman on the Run gave birth to the Film Noir Foundation. It’s a classic B-movie, fleet and not an ounce of fat. A regular guy witnesses a murder and lams it. His estranged wife (Ann Sheridan in an unflattering hairstyle) teams up with ambitious reporter Dennis O’Keefe to track him down before the killer does, only to find herself falling for her spouse all over again. Norman Foster, who directed several Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto entries, keeps the action brisk and stages a breathless climax at a San Francisco amusement park that puts many a contemporary thriller to shame.

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