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    Friday, February 26, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) 

    This year’s festival came to a close with a salute to the man Eddie Muller called not a noir actor but a noir artist: Richard Widmark.

    I’d been itching to see Slattery’s Hurricane since reading Eddie’s article about it in the Noir City Sentinel, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. It’s the least known of Widmark’s films from this era, and is also the only original screenplay by novelist Herman Wouk.

    Here’s your slambang opening: Widmark’s Slattery coldcocks a guy, steals a plane, and flies directly into the titular windstorm. The ex-Navy pilot then reflects back on the life that brought him to this point. Think of it as a borderline psychotic version of The Spirit of St. Louis. The long chain of circumstance involves Slattery’s fragile girlfriend Veronica Lake; his ex-lover Linda Darnell, now married to an old pal; and a “candy” company that didn’t hire Slattery to fly to the Caribbean to pick up cocoa leaves.

    Very adult stuff, so naturally it ran head-on into opposition from the censors. Eddie correctly called this “a wounded film,” with much of the strongest material excised or heavily edited. Still, those phantom limbs are felt. You can see the movie that Slattery’s Hurricane was meant to be, even though it doesn’t play out onscreen. Widmark’s bristling performance holds the enterprise together, as do the harrowing flight sequences; director André De Toth was a pilot, even though he only had one eye. Lake, then married to De Toth, appears without her trademark hairstyle and is shockingly vulnerable. She would never star in a major studio film again.

    Next: Pickup on South Street, one of the best B movies ever made and one that lost its FBI seal of approval because of writer/director Samuel Fuller’s affection for characters scrabbling out an existence in the margins of society.

    We’ve seen Pickup several times, so we skipped the screening to have one last round (or two) of drinks with the Czar of Noir and settle up. Rosemarie and I sold hundreds of dollars worth of FNF merchandise during the run of the festival, and were down to the dregs by closing night. It may not be as impressive as the haul the Foundation takes down during Noir City San Francisco, but that festival is in the 1400-seat Castro Theater and has cigarette girls moving the merch in the aisles. Seattle had two people at a table, and that cigarette girl costume chafed something fierce.

    My thanks again to Eddie, the FNF, and SIFF Cinema for what has been the most successful Noir City Northwest yet. Great films and strong turnouts all week long. It’s an amazing feeling to watch rarities like Slattery’s Hurricane or Wednesday’s Fly-By-Night and realize that the only people in the world seeing that movie on that day are in the room with you.

    Noir City rolls into Los Angeles in April, and elsewhere later this year. Do yourselves a favor: watch The Endless Night, which received an encore screening yesterday, then go to the Film Noir Foundation website and kick in a few bucks. (UPDATE: Or buy the swag that Rosemarie and I were selling, including Annual #2 in which I appear.)

    Time for me to catch up on some more current movies.

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    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Deported (1950)/Fly-By-Night (1942) 

    Few names are more revered in the annals of film noir than that of Robert Siodmak. He directed some of the classics of the form: Phantom Lady, The Killers, Criss Cross. Last night Eddie Muller showed a pair of rarities that bookend the noir and Hollywood phases of Siodmak’s career. Neither one is exactly noir, but both are fascinating.

    The German expatriate was considering a return to Europe when he was offered Deported. One of the few studio films to be shot overseas at the time, it’s a fictional account of Lucky Luciano’s forced return to Italy following his cooperation with the U.S. government during World War II. From prison, Charley Lucky used his control of the waterfront rackets to shut down Axis spies, and his contacts in Italy provided intelligence during the run-up to the invasion.

    “Vic Smith,” aka Victor Sparducci, (Jeff Chandler) isn’t a player at Lucky’s level, but he did do his bit to help Uncle Sam during the war. Now he’s being sent back to the country he barely remembers, watched by the police and hounded by an ex-partner. As he falls for a beautiful contessa (the Swedish actress Märta Torén), he hatches a brilliant plan to bring the hundred grand he stashed in New York into the country.

    Deported is an authentic curio, and I liked it quite a bit. It feels like a European film, moving at a different rhythm. There are some striking scenes of Italy shot by William Daniels, and a sense of the deprivation there after the war. I must mention Marina Berti, bewitching as Gina. The apocryphal story is that Luciano, a die-hard movie fan, met with Siodmak during production to tell him how much he loved The Killers ... and that Siodmak used him as an extra in a movie based on his own life. I didn’t spot him, but then I wasn’t looking for him.

    Siodmak burst of the B movie ghetto with Fly-By-Night, a blatant attempt to cash in on Alfred Hitchcock’s success The 39 Steps. Here the innocent man caught up in espionage is played by Richard Carlson, who would go on to be a ‘50s sci-fi stalwart in It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Nancy Kelly, mother of The Bad Seed, is the gal along for the ride.

    The script, by one of my heroes Jay Dratler, manages to hit all the comic suspense notes in diabolically inventive ways. And Siodmak stages some impressive stunts on a limited budget. It’s easy to understand why he was earmarked for bigger things. Fly-By-Night is a treat, one of the best faux-Hitchcock films ever made.

    Alas, there is exactly one (1) print of the movie in existence. Last night, it unspooled in Seattle.

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    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Red Light (1949)/Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) 

    It was a hoarse Eddie Muller who took to the stage on Tuesday night. SIFF, working him like a government mule, has sent him out to preach the gospel of noir at area schools this week. During his visit to Reel Grrls, he showed The Endless Night. First question: “Why is everyone so angry?”

    And thus is the next generation of noirheads born.

    Eddie billed Red Light as biblical noir. He meant this in every sense. A copy of the Good Book is integral to the plot, and there is divine intervention. Trucking magnate George Raft goes on the warpath after his chaplain brother is murdered. It was tough for me to feel his pain because li’l bro is Arthur Franz, who played the title role in The Sniper.

    Red Light is a truly odd duck of a film, a tough melodrama shot through with schmaltz and religious undertones. It uses Ave Maria as its action theme. The Coen Brothers must have seen it because Stanley Clements, aka Mr. Gloria Grahame, plays a hotel bellhop who clearly influenced Buzz in The Hudsucker Proxy. There’s also a bizarre flashback featuring a blind veteran and a window washer with no sense of personal space. The script is something of a shaggy dog story; you know exactly how the bible business is going to pay off. But Raft is surprisingly effective within his limited range, and veteran studio hand Roy Del Ruth stages a vigorous ending.

    Walk a Crooked Mile was made semi-documentary style, and you know what that means: location shooting and stentorian voiceover. Dennis O’Keefe, joining Dick Powell and John Payne in the parade of song-and-dance men who remade themselves as hard cases, is an FBI agent investigating security leaks at a government energy facility. He teams up with Scotland Yard’s Louis Hayward to smash a red spy ring. A minor but solid suspense film. Director Gordon Douglas also made Frank Sinatra’s Tony Rome movies and Zombies on Broadway starring Bela Lugosi and the comedy team of Brown & Carney, the utterly destitute man’s Abbott & Costello.

    Both of last night’s movies were partly filmed in San Francisco and feature Raymond Burr as a villain. Burr’s best known for playing heroic leads in Perry Mason and Ironside, but those TV shows were before my time. I’ve never seen an episode of either one. I’ll always think of Burr as an overweight, sweaty psychosexual lunatic from movies that are even more before my time.

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    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Inside Job (1946)/Human Desire (1954) 

    So about Sunday ... the double feature was devoted to John Garfield. I’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice a time or three, and I watched He Ran All the Way not all that long ago – and didn’t particularly care for it. (Great opening 20 minutes, but it gets very stagy very quickly.) Consequently, I chose to forego them both and dine with the czar instead. But I was on hand to sell merch and hear Eddie’s introduction, which touched on how the former Julius Garfinkle spearheaded the Group Theater-born school of naturalistic acting that prefigured Clift, Brando and Newman; Postman’s transformation from the definitive work of noir fiction to high-class women’s picture; and the blacklist’s effect on the careers of everyone involved with He Ran All the Way. When Eddie wrapped up by noting that he’s in regular contact with Garfield’s daughter and she asked him to tell the audience, “Julie sends his love,” I almost regretted my decision. I’ll revisit Postman again soon.

    Monday’s movies? Both brand new to me.

    The authentic B picture Inside Job was aptly described by Eddie as “67 minutes of craziness.” Ex-con Alan Curtis, coerced by his old boss into robbing the department store where he’s working a straight gig, opts to hit the joint himself with wife Ann Rutherford. Sounds noir, right? Well, it ain’t. I don’t know what to call Inside Job other than baffling. Featuring a photo of a Robert Benchley lookalike in a bathing suit and the most annoying child actor in screen history. Curtis is the target of a police dragnet, but when he goes out in broad daylight – to buy a radio, yet – he doesn’t bother to shave off his distinctive mustache. Which I can understand; without the ‘stache, even the camera wouldn’t notice him. The truly downbeat ending makes it the weirdest Christmas movie ever. Tod Browning is credited with the story, the last time the legendary horror director’s name appeared on a film.

    It was unfair of Eddie to show a Fritz Lang movie next. The opening sequence of Human Desire, showing train engineers at work, is more suspenseful than all of Inside Job ... and nothing is happening. The film is based on Émile Zola’s 1890 novel La Bête Humaine, previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938. Glenn Ford, an actor Noir City has taught me to appreciate, is a Korean war vet returning to his railway job. He falls for the wife of colleague Broderick Crawford, unaware that her interest in him is spurred by the need to cover up a murder Crawford has committed.

    Human Desire is another showcase for Gloria Grahame and her stiletto vulnerability. The psychology of her character is so dark that the movie itself seems frightened of it. The beautiful quality of the print only emphasized the truncated scenes and abrupt ending. For its occasional skittishness, however, Human Desire has intensity and atmosphere to spare. From Fritz Lang, I would expect no less.

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    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Cry Danger (1951)/The Mob (1951) 

    It’s good to see your money at work.

    The Film Noir Foundation takes its mission seriously, funding restorations of movies that would otherwise be lost. Organization capo Eddie Muller explained the many hurdles in the process before the Northwest premiere of the Foundation’s latest effort, done in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Because Cry Danger was produced independently by star Dick Powell, it was at genuine risk of disappearing. The FNF’s intervention has given this underrated film – and VKDC favorite – a new lease on life.

    Powell’s Rocky Mulloy is released from prison after serving five years on a robbery charge when a witness resurfaces to back up Rocky’s claim of innocence. That the witness has never seen Mulloy before and alibis him only in the hope of making a few bucks is the first indication that Cry Danger isn’t going where you expect. Rocky looks up Rhonda Fleming, his ex-flame/current wife of his still-in-stir pal, and sets his sights on the man behind the frame, the “now 60% legit” Louie Castro (William Conrad).

    William Bowers’ script is a marvel of construction, especially as it was written with producer Powell looming over his shoulder. (“We just lost another fifty grand from the budget. Cut something.”) Cry Danger’s greatest asset is the character of Powell’s unlikely savior DeLong, a bibulous one-legged Marine and thinly-veiled self-portrait of Bowers. Richard Erdman gives what I rank as one of the greatest supporting performances of all time, abetted by classic dialogue. (“Occasionally, I always drink too much.”) Erdman is not only still acting, he has a recurring role on NBC’s Community as one of Greendale CC’s more mature students. Amazing considering his career began with Mr. Skeffington in 1944. Cry Danger is a terrific film well worth saving.

    Bowers and director Robert Parrish next collaborated on The Mob. I saw this film for the first time last year and was floored by it. Eddie explained why it’s not better known: when Columbia’s On The Waterfront became a hit, their earlier, lower-budgeted effort about corruption on the docks was forgotten.

    Time for some blasphemy: The Mob is better than On The Waterfront. It’s faster, funnier, more suspenseful and less ... psychological.

    Broderick Crawford is a cop sent undercover to investigate the rackets. (“I gotta go underground. You know, like gophers and Communists.”) On his way to identifying mysterious kingpin Blackie Clegg he’ll tussle with an authentic rogue’s gallery: Neville Brand, Ernest Borgnine, John Marley. A young Charles Bronson turns up for a scene. And Bowers’ treatment of Richard Kiley’s character, a too-friendly longshoreman, is an object lesson in screenwriting. A sensational double-bill.

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    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Larceny (1948) 

    A capacity crowd was on hand for the opening night of the fourth Noir City Northwest. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller gave the new converts the full spiel on the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to “preserving America’s noir heritage” and rescuing films from the “poor stewardship” of the conglomerates that own them.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny, and the kick-off double bill summed it up nicely. The first four films are also a mini-tribute to screenwriter William Bowers, a longtime VKDC favorite whom Eddie described as the Robert Towne of his day, brought in regularly to punch up scripts.

    Bowers’ work isn’t credited on Pitfall, but his fingerprints are all over it. Crackling dialogue, sharply-etched supporting players, tight plotting. Married insurance executive Dick Powell is no longer settled with being settled, chafing at his perfect life. A claim brings him in contact with Lizabeth Scott, a good-hearted girl who’s a magnet for men of poor character. Like shady shamus Raymond Burr, who found her for Powell and wants to make his connection with her permanent.

    I first saw Pitfall at Noir City several years ago and had a reservation or two about it. That’s because I went in with certain expectations. Revisiting it, I could appreciate Pitfall for the gem that it is. Burr’s character is a stalker plain and simple, played with a modern edge. Lizabeth Scott’s Mona, who does the right thing at every opportunity to no avail, breaks your heart. And Jane Wyatt as Powell’s pragmatic wife may be the hardest nut of them all.

    The more light-hearted Larceny is the movie Rosemarie was most interested in because it pairs up two of her favorite actors, John Payne and Dan Duryea. The twosome are part of a ring of con men who set out to fleece grieving war widow Joan Caulfield. There are only two problems: inside man Payne starts falling for Caulfield, and Duryea’s girl, who carries a torch for Payne, arrives to gum up the works. She’s played by Shelley Winters at her brassy best, delivering one Bowers zinger after another. Throw in noir favorite Percy Helton and a slew of lookers pining after Payne, and a good time is had by all.

    All that plus the FNF’s beautifully produced 2009 memorial reel and Serena Bramble’s extraordinary The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. For an amazing price of ten bucks, people. How can you go wrong?

    Rosemarie and I are selling FNF merch in the lobby before each show. (She’s the eye candy, I’m the numbers man.) We did land-office business yesterday. Our most popular item is the second edition of the Noir City Sentinel Annual, collecting the best of the pieces that appeared in the FNF’s subscriber newsletter. Eddie’s in there, as is Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott and other luminaries – plus several pieces by yours truly.

    Last night, I was asked to sign a copy of the book. That is a personal first that I won’t soon forget.

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    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Noir City Northwest: Your Reminder 

    This post is basically an excuse to run that banner.

    It starts tonight. Here’s the program. You know where I’ll be. If you’re in Seattle, come on out and see two movies for ten bucks. Movies that in many cases aren’t available on video and rarely if ever air on television. Movies presented by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller. Movies brought to you courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation. Movies the way they were meant to be seen.

    And if you’re not in Seattle, I will, in spite of multiple deadlines and an abnormally high tree pollen count, endeavor to bring you the coverage that this website is known for.

    Into the shadows we go.

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    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Movies: Race Street (1948)/Scene of the Crime (1949) 

    Noir City Northwest kicks off this coming Friday – if you’re in Seattle, come on out and say hello to yours truly at the Film Noir Foundation table in the lobby – and the time has come to get into shape. I’ve been on a vigorous training regimen, running wind sprints, downing extra cocktails. I’ve also got to keep those blogging muscles limber, so here’s a practice post on a pair of films noir.

    You know you’re in trouble when William Bendix is the most charismatic member of your cast. That’s where we find ourselves in Race Street. The stolid George Raft is a bookie aiming to go legit in the nightclub business. But close pal Harry-then-Henry Morgan is bumped off when he refuses to pay protection money, and Raft decides to track down the killers himself. Bendix is his childhood friend turned police detective. The story’s no great shakes, and there are some odd directorial choices. Morgan’s potent death scene – a tumble down a brutally long flight of stairs – is ruined by a slow push-in at the end, and there’s a bizarre musical number featuring Raft’s torch singer sis filmed Spike Jonze style without explanation. I have higher hopes for another Raft noir, Red Light, scheduled for the festival.

    Sometimes actors can surprise you. Van Johnson gained fame as MGM’s all-American boy, but in Scene of the Crime he’s surprisingly plausible as big city cop Mike Conovan. When his former partner is gunned down under suspicious circumstances Mike sets out to clear his name, even if it means cozying up to former gangster’s moll Gloria DeHaven. All while long-suffering wife Arlene Dahl lobbies him to quit the force altogether, even conspiring with an old beau to land him a cushy private sector job.

    Charles Schnee’s script features pungent dialogue (DeHaven is described thusly: “Figure like champagne, heart like the cork”), still-shocking violence, and a nice mix of authentically shady characters, like Norman Lloyd’s stoolie Sleeper. Plus there’s a richness of detail at the margins. The killers are knocking over Syndicate joints, so the Outfit starts staging its own lineups. Moments like that lift Scene of the Crime a rung or two above the ordinary.

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    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Upcoming: Noir City 8 

    San Francisco at the end of this month, Seattle in February. First warning: yours truly will be working the SIFF Cinema lobby. Also, I’ll be selling FNF goodies.

    Here’s the promo, featuring 2009’s Miss Noir City Alycia Tumlin and the man himself, Eddie Muller.

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    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Movie: He Ran All The Way (1951)

    The last John Garfield post started an interesting exchange with fine novelist/friend of the site Ed Gorman. Ed suggested that Garfield’s persona might not have worn as well as other noir stars because it can’t be easily reduced. Think of Robert Ryan and you think of that peculiar combination of rage and sorrow. Dana Andrews is melancholy. Bogart is coolness under pressure. Lee Marvin is menace.

    As usual, Ed’s onto something. Garfield’s mercurial presence was used well in a number of strong films – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body and Soul, Force of Evil – but not one that you could point to and say, “That is John Garfield.” Plus there’s something boyish about him. Ryan, Bogart, Marvin – these are men, fully grown and set in their ways. Garfield still seemed malleable. I meant it when I said Garfield cast a long shadow, because in an era with far too few men onscreen, Garfield is the best model we’ve got.

    His youthful energy allowed him to play a role he was too old for in what would be his final film, He Ran All The Way. He’s a smalltime, slow-witted criminal still living with his mother (the pitiless Gladys George). After panicking during a payroll heist and killing a police officer, he picks up Shelley Winters, goes home with her, and takes her family hostage.

    The movie is a forerunner of the home invasion genre that took root during the post-war suburban boom. Like other films of the type, there are moments that strain credulity. (“Rush him now! Take the gun!”) But it’s also charged with an uncommon mood of paranoia, even doom. Director John Berry and cinematographer James Wong Howe keep the camera uncomfortably close to Garfield’s desperate face, using scenery to trap him in the frame. The actor takes care of the rest, right up to the closing shot. It’s our last image of John Garfield. He died of a heart attack at age 39, haunted by charges of being a Communist sympathizer.

    The latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Sentinel includes a terrific article by Jake Hinkson that looks at He Ran All The Way as a blacklist case study. You can read it online now.

    Upcoming: Noir City Northwest

    Looks like I’ll be seeing He Ran All The Way again shortly, the way it was meant to be seen. The schedule for 2010’s Noir City Northwest is up. Eddie Muller’s dark carnival hits SIFF Cinema after its run in San Francisco.

    This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny. It’s a doozy of a line-up. I’ve seen six of the fourteen films before, only one of them (Pitfall) on the big screen. I’m eager to catch the newly restored print of the crackling Cry Danger, while Rosemarie can’t wait for the aptly titled Larceny, starring John Payne and Dan Duryea as dandy grifters. Come that week in February you know where I’ll be, endeavoring to bring you the coverage you’ve come to expect.

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    Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Movies: A Phil Karlson Thanksgiving

    The Phil Karlson Thanksgiving Weekend wasn’t planned. It was an act of necessity.

    The problem is I’d become obsessed with that clip of John Payne and others performing “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” in Garden of the Moon. (Have you watched it yet? Go ahead. I’ll wait.) After repeated viewings of an impossibly young John Payne deftly tossing off Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, I needed to restore to my memory the older version. His face collapsed yet even more magnetic. In trouble and sinking deeper. The noir John Payne. That actor’s best collaborator was ex-prop man turned director Karlson. Time to revisit their finest hour.

    In Kansas City Confidential (1952), Payne plays an ex-con whose efforts to go straight mean nothing when he becomes the unintentional fall guy in a daring robbery. The simmering fury when he’s sprung from jail knowing that no one legit will ever trust him again is scorching. That bone-deep sense of betrayal, of hard work going for naught, charges the rest of the film, which despite the title is set mostly south of the border. Karlson as always keeps the action taut, and there’s the added bonus of what has to be the most badass crew in the annals of noir: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand.

    Appetite whetted, I craved more. And had it on hand, thanks to the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection. I’d wanted to see 5 Against the House (1955) for years, and not just for Karlson. It’s based on a Jack Finney story, adapted by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) and William Bowers (Cry Danger, The Mob). Imagine my surprise to discover it’s the rare Karlson film that’s a total misfire.

    5ATH begins as a tiresome college comedy then becomes a heavy-handed survey of the problems faced by returning Korean War vets taking advantage of the G.I. Bill before settling into a heist groove. The “perfect plan” posited by these aging students would be ridiculous under any circumstances, but on the heels of the ingenious scheme cooked up in Kansas City Confidential it’s downright embarrassing. There’s nice work by Brian Keith as the most damaged vet and a good climax set in an automated parking garage in Reno, but little else.

    ASIDE: Also in the Columbia collection is a superior Silliphant-scripted drama, 1958’s The Lineup (reviewed here), that features one of the greatest recent commentary tracks. My friend Eddie Muller and novelist James Ellroy tag-team on this one, Eddie providing a native San Franciscan’s view while Ellroy gives full vent to his obsessions. Eddie gave me a heads up after they recorded the track, saying, “It’s a wild one.” It lives up to that billing.

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, you can’t go this far and not go further. On to the Karlson films parked on the DVR.

    I’d seen 1955’s The Phenix City Story, but never with the reportorial prologue including interviews with several of the people involved in this true story. This segment made it easier to get scenes of still-shocking violence past the censors. Without it the movie opens with a haggard roadhouse number, ‘The Phenix City Blues,’ that swiftly presents the low-rent reality of life in an Alabama town choking on the vice aimed at soldiers in neighboring Fort Benning. Karlson and Georges Simenon make a natural match in The Brothers Rico (1957), with Richard Conte as an erstwhile Mafia accountant who thinks he’s made a clean break to become a cleaner, only to find himself doing the Organization’s bidding when his siblings go astray. With a dandy performance by Harry Bellaver as a local kingpin who orders hits and dinner in the same breath. They’re both tough-minded movies with a view of mobsters similar to the one articulated in Josh Bazell’s novel Beat the Reaper:

    Proudly ignorant, personally repellent, absolutely convinced that their willingness to hire someone to beat money out of someone who worked for a living constitutes some kind of genius and an adherence to a proud tradition.

    99 River Street, a John Payne/Phil Karlson film that screened at Noir City 2007, is currently available on Hulu and Fancast. You could be watching it right now! Here’s Ivan’s take at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. I look at Karlson’s final film Framed here.

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    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

    Hear that sound, kids? It’s issue #28 of the Noir City Sentinel, trade rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hitting in-boxes around the globe. Why not cough up a few shekels and get yourself a copy?

    Eddie Muller, Don Malcolm and company have truly outdone themselves this go-round. The issue focuses on the role that the blacklist played in film noir. Included for your entertainment and enlightenment:

    * Several perspectives on enigmatic expat Joseph Losey

    * Alan K. Rode on the extraordinary career of writer, producer, Oscar winner and con man Philip Yordan

    * A blacklist case study from Jake Hinkson on He Ran All the Way

    * An astonishing piece by film writer Ehsan Khoshbakht surveying noir in Iran

    All that plus a report on the first Noir City: Lyon, Elvis noir, and more, not to mention a tribute to the cinematic union of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth penned by yr. humble correspondent. Please note that my contribution leans heavily on a terrific, little seen 1966 film called The Money Trap. It’s finally available on DVD from the Warner Archive, but it will also be getting a rare television airing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies on Wednesday, November 25 at 4:15PM EST, 1:15 PM PST. Schedule your travel plans and turkey consumption accordingly. This will be the first of several reminders.

    In the meantime, contribute to the Film Noir Foundation and get a Sentinel all your own. You won’t be disappointed.

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    Sunday, September 20, 2009

    Miscellaneous: All Thumbs Up

    Making up for the paucity of recent posts with a slew of recommendations.

    Noir City Sentinel. The latest issue of the house rag of the Film Noir Foundation is now available. This edition has several articles on director André de Toth, a roundup of some recent noir films, an appraisal of actor/wild man Timothy Carey, and more. Go. Give. Get.

    Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (2009). Libby Day is the sole survivor of the “Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas,” and it’s her testimony that sent her metal-obsessed brother Ben to prison for butchering their mother and two sisters. More than twenty years later, Libby has milked the tragedy dry. Desperate for cash, she agrees to investigate the murder on behalf of the Kill Club, a group of obsessives certain she got everything wrong.

    Some of the final plot turns strain credulity, and Flynn has a thing for coining hyphenated words. On a single page, Libby trance-drives past dusk-black elevators that she views with kitten-round eyes. This koala-cute authorial tic can be cough-syrup-cloying, but it’s a small price to pay for a supple voice that bounces between past, present and three distinctly different viewpoints to tell a haunting story of lives teetering on the precipice of disaster long before any blood is shed.

    The Ancient Rain, by Domenic Stansberry (2008). An elegiac Shamus Award nominee. Ex-cop and ex-spook Dante Mancuso is drawn into an investigation of a 1970s bank robbery staged by political activists, reawakened by and filtered through the paranoia of the months after September 11. Stansberry nails the mood of 2002 perfectly, as well as Dante’s sense of bearing witness to the slow-motion demise of San Francisco’s Italian community.

    The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone (2009). Europa Editions delivers again, with this posthumous novel by Pulitzer Prize nominee Stone. Retired Israeli state security agent Levin finds himself working as a private investigator when a sort-of friend asks him to shadow the wife he’s sure is being unfaithful. Again, the voice is the draw here, combining the world-weariness of Le Carré with the vinegar of Simenon. Or, to put it another way, it’s a tale told by God if He were in fact George Sanders. (For the record, that’s a universe I want to live in.) This brief novel is one of the best of the year.

    The Informant!, (2009). Proof that Hollywood does sometimes get it right. When I read Kurt Eichenwald’s book, I felt that he didn’t grasp how truly bizarre – and funny – the material was. But Steven Soderbergh, writer Scott Z. Burns and company certainly do, nailing a tricky tone from the outset. Burns’ adaptation is a marvel, deploying voiceover to great effect and paying it off at the end. Extra points for the score by Marvin Hamlisch, the pride of Queens College.

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    Wednesday, August 05, 2009

    On The Web: Ed Gorman

    Ed says far too many fine things about the Noir City Sentinel. Such as, “I’ve never read a book on noir that was as informative and just as much as downright fun” as the latest issue.

    Go read it for yourself. Then kick in a few bucks to the Film Noir Foundation and have the goodness delivered straight to your inbox.

    Speaking of noir ...

    DVR Alert: Glenn Ford

    As part of their Summer Under the Stars festival, Turner Classic Movies is dedicating this Friday, August 7, to the films of Glenn Ford. Gilda understandably gets pride of place, with the original 3:10 to Yuma not far behind. (One of Ford’s best known noirs, The Big Heat, will air on August 13 as part of Gloria Grahame Day.) Among the lesser known Ford films are two that I can heartily recommend.

    The first is Framed (1947), airing at 4:45PM EST/1:45PM PST. I saw this one at Noir City. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to enjoy Janis Carter, all legs and cheekbones and wildly darting eyes, in her I’m-gonna-say glory.

    The other is 1949’s The Undercover Man (10PM EST/7PM PST). TCM ran this neglected film for the first time last month, and I’m glad they’ve got it on the schedule again already. Expert noir hand Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy, The Big Combo) directs this account of Treasury agents scrambling to take down Al Capone, referred to throughout the film solely as “the Big Fellow.” Featuring a dandy performance by Barry Kelley as a Mob lawyer who’s got almost all the angles figured, a hair-raising foot chase scored to the plaintive cries of a little girl, and a scene with Esther Minciotti as an Italian immigrant whose speech about America, translated by her granddaughter, is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. Watch it and tell me I’m wrong.

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    Friday, February 20, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: Alias Nick Beal (1949)/Night Editor (1946)

    As is often the case at Noir City, our host and programmer Eddie Muller saved the best for last. But so did I, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll have you know I wore a suit tonight. Aside from weddings, I haven’t done that since my confirmation.

    And that religious note was appropriate, considering the evening’s A feature. Alias Nick Beal is a noir-inflected retelling of the Faust legend. It reunites director John Farrow, writer Jonathan Latimer and star Ray Milland from Monday’s The Big Clock. Milland plays Old Scratch, wheeling and dealing for the soul of politically ambitious D.A. Thomas Mitchell, last seen serving up thick slices of ham in While the City Sleeps. Audrey Totter, that “frosty Scandinavian parfait” to use Eddie’s phrase, melts beguilingly as the fallen woman who becomes Milland’s cat’s paw.

    The lapsed Irish Catholic in me was willing to forgive a few sluggish story patches – and George Macready as a man of the cloth – and embrace the sheer artistry on display. Milland has somehow figured out how to wear his hat at a demonic angle. His entrances are inventively staged and cued with a flourish by composer Franz Waxman. But no camera trickery is as spellbinding as the scene in which Milland, rehearsing Totter for an encounter with Mitchell, plays both roles. When Mitchell then delivers every line on cue, Totter’s reactions are astonishing. Watching a brand-new print didn’t hurt, either. Milland’s first appearance, materializing out of the fog, elicited gasps from a packed house.

    What better way to follow the ethereal Nick Beal than with “one of the raunchiest B-movies of the 1940s?”

    Night Editor was meant to bring the long-running radio drama to the big screen. It ended up being a series of one movie. The hokey framing device barely qualifies it for this year’s newspaper noir theme, as pinochle-playing pressmen pulling the overnight do a “remember when?”. Their first and only tale of woe is about a married cop played by the Brian Doyle-Murrayesque William Gargan. He’s got it bad for society dame Janis Carter. They’re parked at Lovers’ Lane when they witness a murder. Which Gargan, naturally, has to investigate without admitting he saw the entire thing.

    Carter, all legs and cheekbones and wildly darting eyes, is nobody’s idea of a good actress. That said, I adore her, and she’s almost great here as a deeply twisted woman who only comes alive when she’s being treated badly. The charisma-free killer is a roadshow version of David Strathairn’s Pierce Patchett in L.A. Confidential. The closing scene between Gargan and Carter is one of the weirdest goddamn things I’ve ever seen. And to my amazement, the wraparound gimmick not only paid off but almost brought a tear to my eye. Bear in mind I said almost. Night Editor is trash through and through, and a perfect way to end a great festival.

    My thanks to Eddie Muller, a peerless raconteur and a tireless worker on behalf of film noir and film preservation in general. Also to The Film Noir Foundation – send ‘em a few bucks, you’ll be glad you did – and to SIFF Cinema. A special shoutout to the lovely Darcy, who glammed up the lobby in her vintage threads every night while selling compendiums of Noir City Sentinel articles to benefit the FNF.

    It’s always tough when Noir City comes to a close. I’m going to miss going to the theater to see movies that are adult in the truest sense of the word, about men and women grappling with fear and desire. Withdrawal is always tough. Then again, the festival does roll into Los Angeles in April, and I do have reason to be in that part of the world ...

    Let’s end this recap right. The old newspaper way.


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    Thursday, February 19, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: While the City Sleeps (1956)/Shakedown (1950)

    Context can be helpful. I’d already seen While the City Sleeps, but I was able to appreciate the movie anew thanks to the introductory remarks by Noir City host Eddie Muller. For instance, I had no idea that Charles Einstein, author of the novel on which the film is based, was the step-brother of Albert Brooks. More importantly, I didn’t realize that in all probability a good number of the actors onscreen are plastered. I only suspected it.

    It’s an odd, odd movie, made late in director Fritz Lang’s career when his budgets and apparently his casts were tight. As a result it has a baffling, hazy pace, with some scenes taking forever and others played in accelerated motion. Every set, even the homes of the great and the good, is threadbare, furnished at the finer flea markets of Poverty Row. Never before have I seen such ugly lamps.

    But the story is solid. When the wastrel son of a press baron inherits daddy’s empire, he pits his best newsmen against each other for the top job. Catching “The Lipstick Killer” will go a long way toward securing the spot. As Eddie said, it’s not a thriller so much as a drama about office politics. Think Executive Suite with the added bonus of a psycho played by Drew Barrymore’s father.

    The cast is like noir old home week. Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming. In fact, the entire enterprise feels more like a TV special. Ovaltine presents Palmolive Suspense Theatre, brought to you by Firestone. Fritz Lang said it was his favorite of his American films. A strange choice, considering that he made Scarlet Street. Maybe he’s proud of the fact that in spite of many obstacles, the movie still works.

    Seattle’s own Howard Duff has a supporting role in City, but he’s front and center in the juicy and long thought lost B-movie Shakedown. Duff is an up-and-coming news photographer who quickly figures out that the way to get ahead in the picture racket is to be underhanded. Soon he’s pitting two San Francisco crime bosses (Brian Donlevy and Lawrence Tierney) against each other while getting his own name all over page one. It’s the kind of movie they really don’t make anymore, because the main character is an unrepentant bastard. I liked it.

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    Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: Chicago Deadline (1949)/Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

    Believe me, I am well aware of how odd it is to turn my life upside down for a solid week to watch movies made decades before I was born, then stay up to ... what time is it?!? ... so I can post about them. I do it because there is no other way I’d prefer to spend my time. And because Noir City offers the chance to feel like I’m participating in something special.

    Consider, if you will, Chicago Deadline. Number of prints in the world: one, on loan from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. I’m now one of the few people who’s had a chance to see this movie, and I want to get the word out about it. Because it’s a gem, the first true find of the festival, and it deserves a wider audience.

    Reporter Alan Ladd discovers a young woman dead in a hotel room. As he goes through her address book, piecing together the sordid saga of her life, he begins to fall in love with her. Yes, it does sound a little like Laura, but the movie has a verve all its own, certainly a different ending, and a potent message about the many forms of loneliness in big cities.

    I’ve never been an Alan Ladd fan but he’s at his best here as a man eager to shed his armor of cynicism. He’s aided by an able supporting cast that includes June Havoc and Arthur Kennedy. One of the benefits of the Noir City format is the chance to see familiar faces in different roles. Shepperd Strudwick, billed as John Shepperd in yesterday’s dud Strange Triangle, is effective here as a hoodlum in love. And Donna Reed, who was the voice of reason in the opening night feature Scandal Sheet, is heartbreaking as the fallen angel who becomes Ladd’s obsession.

    Johnny Stool Pigeon is a hell of a title, isn’t it? It was going to be called Cocaine before the Production Code folks weighed in. There’s a sad story behind this one, too. We watched a brand-new print struck from the negative because the existing copies were lost in the 2008 Universal Studios fire. It’s worth keeping in circulation, a stalwart example of the B-movie directed by William Castle, who made many of the Whistler films. Narcotics agent Howard Duff and inmate Dan Duryea team up to infiltrate a drug ring. Shelley Winters is the party girl that each man in his own way is trying to save from an unpleasant fate. And an impossibly young Tony Curtis, still being billed as Anthony, turns up as a wordless triggerman.

    The evening wrapped up with an encore screening of The Grand Inquisitor, a short film by our host Eddie Muller starring actress Marsha Hunt. I’ve raved about the movie before. It’s still a startling, suspenseful piece of work. And guess what? You can watch it right now.

    Two nights remain in the festival. The four movies being shown are currently unavailable on video. These screenings could be your only chance to see them. If you’re in the Seattle area, come on out and join the party. And if you’re not, why not donate a few dollars to the Film Noir Foundation? With enough support, maybe someday Noir City will come to you.

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    Tuesday, February 17, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: The Big Clock (1948)/Strange Triangle (1946)

    Not much to say tonight, because one half of the Noir City double feature is close to perfect and the other ... isn’t.

    The Big Clock is simply dazzling, and I relished the chance to see it on the big screen at last. It’s a flawlessly engineered movie, based on a book by poet and journalist Kenneth Fearing, adapted by the legendary pulp author Jonathan Latimer. (Someday I will track down his once-banned novel Solomon’s Vineyard.) Media mogul Charles Laughton murders his mistress. Seeking someone to frame, he charges top investigator Ray Milland with tracking down her other visitor that night – not knowing it was Milland himself. Now Ray’s got to deflect suspicion when all the evidence points to him. It’s an ingenious premise that held up when it was remade forty years later as No Way Out.

    Laughton leads a grand pack of villains, with George Macready as his Smithers and Harry Morgan as his mute muscle. The Big Clock’s metabolism is so fast that the movie practically fizzes. It’s got the crackle and snap of a screwball comedy, with a third act that knows how to tighten the screws.

    Bringing us to Strange Triangle. A true B-movie running a mere 65 minutes, it’s about two men, one woman and a bank. A familiar story made somewhat interesting by its intimate scale. Or at least it would be if the femme fatale weren’t played by Swedish actress Signe Hasso. Ms. Hasso had a distinguished career on the stage, and was good in other films. But she’s a ... how can I put this? ... a handsome woman, who’s a bit, um, severe for the role. And her wardrobe – I’m looking at you, hat department – does her no favors. Still, the movie’s insistence that every man she meets is in her nonexistent thrall eventually exerts a fascination of its own.

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    Monday, February 16, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: Ace in the Hole (1951)/Cry of the Hunted (1953)

    In a festival devoted to newspaper noir, the inclusion of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, aka The Big Carnival, is a no-brainer. Perhaps the most scathing critique of the media ever made, from an undisputed master of the genre.

    Wilder was coming off an enormous success with Sunset Blvd. Yet his follow-up was condemned by critics and sank into oblivion for decades. To paraphrase Eddie Muller’s introductory remarks, attack the culture of celebrity, as Wilder had done in Sunset, and you will be lionized. But attack the culture, and you will be vilified. Luckily, Wilder would have the last laugh.

    A ruthlessly unsentimental Kirk Douglas plays disgraced reporter Chuck Tatum, stranded in dusty New Mexico and angling for a return to the big time. His meal ticket comes in the form of a man trapped in a cave. Tatum orchestrates a press frenzy around the poor bastard. But he soon learns that controlling the story doesn’t mean you get to write the ending. Jan Sterling gives one of the great supporting performances as the wounded man’s wife willing to play along with Tatum’s huckster act. And Wilder’s storytelling, keeping the focus tight on Tatum as the tumult slowly builds around him, is masterful.

    The movie’s themes have been disseminated so broadly in this media-savvy society that its DNA is everywhere. Wilder’s problem was that he was too far ahead of the curve. A vaccine must contain elements of the disease in order to effect a cure. But releasing concentrated cynicism on an unprepared world in 1951? It could have damn near killed the patient.

    How do you follow Ace in the Hole? That, too, is obvious. With swamp noir. Cry of the Hunted is grade A B-movie hooey about L.A. prison warden Barry Sullivan hunting down an escaped con (Vittorio Gassman) in the Louisiana bayou. Joseph H. Lewis worked low-budget magic with Gun Crazy, but here he’s saddled with a scenario in which the only thing riper than the vegetation is the dialogue. At least he’s got the good sense not to take things seriously.

    Eddie alluded to a notable homoerotic subtext, but I didn’t see it. A pair of hard cases who’d rather play backwoods grabass than stay with their wives? An extended dream sequence after Sullivan glugs swamp water in which Gassman seems imprisoned in Sullivan’s bed, flexes for him in silhouette, and beats him about the face and neck with an andouille sausage*? That’s just two men celebrating each other’s strength.

    *Caution: sausage sequence may have been imagined.

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    Sunday, February 15, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: The Unsuspected (1947)/Desperate (1947)

    Numerous cocktails were consumed after this evening’s screenings, yet still I post. Let’s see if I live to regret it. Let’s see if I live.

    On night two of Noir City, the thematic net was cast a little wider. Media of all types, not just newspapers, were on display, as well as the evolution of the genre itself. The two 1947 films shown contrast the end of the ‘40s “high noir” approach, driven by expat filmmakers and emphasizing cinematography, with the nascent style of the following decade’s directors, primarily Americans with editing backgrounds, who focused on pace and put raw emotion onscreen.

    Michael Curtiz is the textbook example of the studio filmmaker. The Unsuspected marked his Hollywood debut as an independent producer. It’s based on a novel by Edgar winner Charlotte Armstrong, whose work is still inspiring adaptations like Claude Chabrol’s Merci pour le chocolate (2000). I give you our host Eddie Muller’s accurate one-word review of The Unsuspected: incomprehensible. Claude Rains plays a successful radio personality, a proto-Alfred Hitchcock, who has both a dead secretary and an amnesiac niece. It’s the sort of movie where poisonous swells swan around an estate firing barbs at each other. The slightest dip in quality would render it unwatchable, but Curtiz’s sumptuous visuals and canny performances by Rains and the divine Audrey Totter, one of Eddie’s Dark City Dames, make it a hoot.

    Desperate was the last film directed by Anthony Mann before the extraordinary run of titles (Railroaded!, T-Men, Raw Deal) that won him a place in the noir pantheon. Character actor Steve Brodie gets a crack at a lead role as a newlywed truck driver roped into a robbery by old friend Raymond Burr. Brodie and bride go on the run, but Burr will not be denied. Desperate is a minor film, subject to the peculiarities of B-movie logic; not many fevered manhunts include Czech weddings, two-plus trimesters of pregnancy, and multiple career changes. But Mann redeems the occasional lapse with a humdinger of an ending.

    OK, strictly speaking Desperate isn’t a media noir of any kind. But Brodie does it all for his one true love, which makes it a Valentine’s Day noir. And on February 14, that works for me.

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    Saturday, February 14, 2009

    Noir City Northwest: Deadline U.S.A. (1952)/Scandal Sheet (1952)

    I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, and briefly toyed with the idea of running an apologia in advance saying I might not post nightly during my third Noir City. But this year’s theme is newspaper noir, so missing deadlines seems like poor form. And considering that the very paper cosponsoring the festival is itself on the clock, I think the ironies are thick enough, thank you very much.

    Our host and programmer Eddie Muller is all too aware of them. He’s been asked more than once if this year’s “immersion in ink” represents a tribute or a memorial to that bygone age when being a newspaperman – not a reporter or a journalist – was the greatest job in North America.

    We began with Deadline U.S.A., a film that is not strictly noir but according to Eddie has the power to make every hard-bitten city desk jockey “puddle up.” Humphrey Bogart plays the editor of a prestigious paper losing the circulation race to the tabloids and about to be sold. He pins his hopes on one last big story, a takedown of the local mob kingpin. Deadline is historic in that regard, the first studio film to depict Italian-American organized crime. It’s also prescient; the arguments Bogart makes have been taking place in newsrooms and boardrooms around the country and a stone’s throw from the SIFF theater. Speaking of stones, you’d have to have a heart of one not to “puddle up” when Kasia Orzazewski, so moving as the mother in another journo drama, Call Northside 777, haltingly delivers Richard Brooks’s speech about how the newspaper taught her how to be an American.

    Hang on. I need a minute.

    This year’s festival attempts to recreate the theatrical experience of the era by pairing features with true B-movies, shorter programmers meant to fill out a bill. Thus was Deadline followed by its photo negative, Scandal Sheet. Broderick Crawford plays the brains behind the kind of rag that’s driving Bogart out of business. When he commits murder, it’s his own ace reporter (John Derek) who tightens the noose. Crawford, knowing a sensational story when he sees one, can’t help putting his crime on the front page even though every column inch could put him six feet under.

    Harry Morgan has a blast as a Weegee-style shutterbug. Phil Karlson, one of the finest noir directors of the 1950s, keeps the action lean and tight. It’s all based on a novel by Samuel Fuller, who in the same year made his own tribute to the fourth estate in Park Row. The greatest independent filmmaker in American movie history would still rather have been a newspaperman.

    Here’s the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s article on Noir City including a sidebar on the city’s contribution to the genre, actor Howard Duff.

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    Sunday, February 08, 2009

    Book: Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell (2009)

    Here’s how good this debut novel is. I am willing to ignore the fact that it was written by a doctor completing his residency. Who do these Type A types think they are?

    Peter Brown is already having a lousy day at Manhattan’s worst hospital when a dying patient identifies him as Pietro “The Bearclaw” Brnwa, a notorious Mafia hit man who escaped into witness protection. The book alternates between Peter’s efforts to prevent his old acquaintance from ratting him out, and Pietro’s journey to stone killer.

    Reaper is a perfectly turned comic noir. Too many recent entries in the genre start at over-the-top and proceed from there. Bazell smartly grounds the action in the reality of the hospital setting and lets it dictate the pace. He’s also genuinely funny, studding the book with sharp throwaway lines. Like Peter telling the hopeful Mob patient that ‘you have a chance’ is “surgeon talk for ‘I need a slightly longer Chris-Craft.’” Or the observation that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “seeks to sort out the vagaries of psychiatric malfunction to the point where you can bill for them.” There are a few plot holes I had to work to overlook – Pietro Brnwa to Peter Brown? WITSEC relocating him from New York to ... New York? – and I gleefully overlooked them. That’s another sign of how good the book is.

    Upcoming: Noir City

    Consider this reminder the bulldog edition. Noir City rolls off the presses and into Seattle starting this Friday. This year’s timely theme, in case you haven’t guessed, is newspaper noir.

    Seven nights of double-bills for only ten bucks a pop. Features paired with authentic B-movies in an experience that host and programmer Eddie Muller says is as close as you’ll get to actually going to the movies in 1948.

    I don’t expect Seattle to match up to San Francisco and its ability to sell out the Castro Theater night after night. But the Northwest can represent, dammit. If you’re reading this and you’re anywhere near the Emerald City, come on out. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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    Monday, January 26, 2009

    Noir City San Francisco: Wicked as They Come (1956)/Slightly Scarlet (1956)

    Whenever the dark carnival that is Noir City rolls into Seattle, as it will next month, Rosemarie and I are at every screening. But host and programmer Eddie Muller told us more than once that we weren’t getting the full experience until we took in a double bill at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, the place where Noir City was born. This year, we decided to rectify that.

    On Saturday night, we were part of a crowd over 1400 strong, the second consecutive sell-out of the festival. Things get off to a rollicking start with David Hegarty on the Castro’s mighty Wurlitzer organ, playing a mix of favorites from the ‘20s and ‘30s. He finishes the set with a rendition of San Francisco, the crowd clapping along as the Wurlitzer sinks below stage.

    The evening is a tribute to actress Arlene Dahl, so after a few welcoming words from Eddie Wicked as They Come unspools. Arlene plays a woman hell-bent on escaping her drab working class life, no matter how many seductions it takes. Wicked, based on the novel Portrait in Smoke by Bill S. Ballinger, is a familiar story complete with pat psychological explanation, but Arlene plays the bad girl with such relish that it goes down easy.

    Ms. Dahl, glamorous and fiery of both spirit and mane at age 83, is in attendance along with her son, actor Lorenzo Lamas. (Dude, it’s Renegade!) Eddie interviewed her on stage over champagne. She talked about her memorable first day on the MGM lot (watch the hands, Errol Flynn!), working with the great cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann on the Noir City discovery Reign of Terror, her relationship with John F. Kennedy. She won me over completely by speaking highly of Chez K favorite Dennis Morgan, her co-star in her first “official” movie My Wild Irish Rose.

    A redhead, Ms. Dahl said she was often used “to bring color” to films, but what she really loved was to play the femme fatale. The twain met in our next feature, Slightly Scarlet, which teamed Arlene with fellow titian titan Rhonda Fleming. I had seen the movie before, but never in Technicolor on the big screen. Yowza. In this James M. Cain adaptation the ginger goddesses play sisters – Arlene’s the bad one – who both fall for intellectual gangster on the make John Payne. It was every bit as delirious and unhinged as I remembered. I’m still fairly certain the ending makes no sense. And the capacity crowd ate it up.

    That was it for the movies, but there was more noir to come. We went to the fabulous Kayo Books, where I nearly wept at the sight of so many pulp classics up for sale. I should have brought a second empty suitcase with me. Still, I made a dandy haul that included some Fredric Brown, a copy of Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand to call my very own, and a Johnny Liddell thriller by Frank Kane, who wrote pretty much every episode of the old Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer TV series.

    Across the street from Kayo is the apartment building where Dashiell Hammett lived while he wrote Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. I stopped by to pay my respects, and later went to the corner of Bush and Stockton, where Miles Archer breathed his last in Falcon.

    Cocktail report: I’d long wanted to bend an elbow at Bourbon & Branch, and I’m happy to report it’s as good as advertised. The rye maple fizz on the new menu is extraordinary. I’d also heard great things about the Alembic Bar but was concerned that Haight-Ashbury would be a bit out of the way on this trip. I needn’t have worried. (Thanks, Todd and Chad!) The Alembic is worth making time for. Their Vieux Carré had me flying before I reached the airport. It was the perfect way to wrap up a fantastic weekend.

    More photos are up at my Flickr page.

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    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    DVD: The Maltese Falcon (1931)/Satan Met a Lady (1936)

    At last I have caught up with the two adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that preceded John Huston’s definitive 1941 version. In the process, I received an object lesson in screenwriting.

    No bones about it: 1931’s The Maltese Falcon is lousy. It’s stilted, and despite an interesting supporting cast – Thelma Todd, 42nd Street’s Una Merkel, the original Renfield Dwight Frye as Wilmer the gunsel – is hamstrung by having the one-dimensional Ricardo Cortez play Sam Spade. Mainly, though, it’s a perfect example of playing the notes but missing the music. Many of the beats and lines of dialogue that Huston took directly from Hammett’s novel are here, yet each one feels off.

    Brown Holmes – now that’s a moniker! – cowrote the ’31 film and received solo credit on Satan Met a Lady, which treats the story as more of a comedy. Prevented from using Hammett’s names, Holmes threw the Falcon out as well; here the MacGuffin is a ceremonial ram’s horn stuffed with jewels. He also reinterpreted the characters. Spade’s capable secretary Effie Perine is now a ditz, but one who may not be as dizzy as she seems. The Levantine Joel Cairo becomes enormous Englishman Arthur Treacher. And “the fat man” Kasper Gutman is a woman. Who is, to be fair, still pretty big.

    Spade, rechristened Ted Shayne, is played by Warren William, who had already portrayed Perry Mason and Philo Vance and would go on to be the reformed jewel thief The Lone Wolf. In Rosemarie’s words, Shayne is “whimsical to the point of derangement.”

    Again key scenes survive from the book, but Holmes mixes them up, reassigning dialogue and bits of business, playing them for laughs. The thing is ... it works. The documentary on the DVD had me hating Satan in advance, only using clips that made it appear foolish. As it happens, my main dislike was Warren William’s enormous hat. It’s a testament to Hammett’s novel that it survives adaptation even when pushed into Thin Man territory.

    Both movies are considerably shorter that the ’41 Falcon. One reason is that the scripts eliminate my favorite scene, where Spade blows out of his initial meeting with Gutman in order to test the fat man, only to return and learn the statue’s history. I understand why this edit was made; it’s a common note to collapse scenes so locations aren’t repeated unnecessarily. But we lose a great moment.

    It’s also worth noting that the two earlier films break the first-person POV hewed to so rigorously by Huston and taken to its logical extreme by Robert Montgomery in his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. After Miles Archer’s murder in the ’41 film, Spade appears in every scene. The other films accelerate the action by cutting away from Spade to follow the conspirators or the police. These moments by themselves don’t hurt the films, but they do break the spell.

    Satan Met a Lady will air on TCM as part of its Bette Davis tribute – Bette Davis is in it, did I mention that? – on January 26 at 11:15AM EST.

    Upcoming: Noir City

    This interview with my friend Eddie Muller paves the way for Noir City, kicking off in San Francisco this weekend. This year’s irresistible theme is newspaper noir. The exception is a special event this Saturday honoring actress Arlene Dahl with a Q&A and screenings of her films Slightly Scarlet and Wicked as They Come.

    Yours truly will be at that event. I’ll also be at every screening when Eddie brings Noir City back to Seattle next month. And while I won’t dress vintage, I will dress appropriately.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet introduces the spin-off site Killer Covers of the Week.

    This ad is NSFW. It’s also the funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks.

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    Friday, March 21, 2008

    Miscellaneous: Linkstravaganza!

    If you’re in the San Francisco area, you are obligated to attend this because I can’t: the North American premiere of a lost Grand Guignol play by Noel Coward. It’s directed by Eddie Muller, and the run begins tonight. Eddie told me a little about the play during Noir City, and it’s not to be missed.

    Speaking of Eddie, here’s the program for the 10th Annual Noir City Festival, kicking off April 3 at L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you are obligated to attend because I can’t. I recommend the program on April 12, when you’ll have an opportunity to see Eddie’s short film The Grand Inquisitor with star Marsha Hunt in person, and on April 6, when Eddie will be screening Wicked Woman featuring the one and only Beverly Michaels.

    Speaking of Wicked Woman, here’s the trailer again. The movie also stars character actor Percy Helton.

    Speaking of Percy Helton, he’s also in this Japanese TV commercial in which Charles Bronson marinates himself in a cologne called Mandom. (Thanks, Tony!)

    Speaking of ... OK, I’m out of segues. Here’s some other stuff.

    Via Neatorama, an espionage story told entirely through Google Maps.

    At work last night, I saw this video highlighting Big Dog, a DARPA-funded robot. To quote a colleague, “We need to kill this thing and send it back to Hell. It can carry a gun and it sounds like it’s powered by angry bees.” To me, it’s just a $500 million pack mule. But it’s still probably the first step on the road to this world. Via BoingBoing.

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    Friday, February 22, 2008

    Noir City Northwest: Conflict (1945)/The Suspect (1944)

    The love triangle gone wrong. It’s a noir stalwart. So it makes sense to close out this year’s Seattle edition of Noir City with a pair of murderous husbands that doubles as a salute to filmmaker Robert Siodmak.

    Siodmak has a story credit on Conflict, and a nicely twisted story it is. Humphrey Bogart kills his wife because he’s fallen in love with her younger sister. It’s a perfect crime that has both the cops and psychology expert Sidney Greenstreet fooled. Until Bogie begins receiving hints that maybe the missus isn’t dead ...

    Conflict is smartly manipulative fun, with a strong Bogart performance; he goes crazy very well. I’d say it’s surprising that the film isn’t better known, but our host and programmer Eddie Muller explained why. Legal issues held up the movie’s release for two years. That meant it came out after the seminal noirs of 1944, like Double Indemnity and Laura. Conflict was dismissed as a copycat even though technically it blazed its dark trail first, and ever since it’s been treated as a footnote in Bogart’s career. Undeservedly so.

    The Suspect is another test of the flexibility of noir’s definition. It’s the classic story – guy falls for another woman, bumps off his wife, and tries to outwit the cops – but set in 1902 London. Siodmak directs what Eddie called “the best Hitchcock movie not made by Hitchcock,” inspired by the infamous Dr. Crippen case. Ella Raines, star of Siodmak’s Phantom Lady and a local girl, plays the other woman. But it’s Charles Laughton’s performance that makes the movie memorable. His character is a profoundly decent man, a killer who is not a killer at heart, and by the film’s end we’re rooting for him to get away with murder. If that’s not noir, I don’t know what is.

    And so we bring down the curtain. Fourteen films plus one short in seven remarkable days. My thanks to SIFF Cinema and especially to Eddie Muller. Film noir could not have a better champion.

    It’s 2:17 AM as I write this, but I made a pact with myself that I’d post about these movies every night, as if I were on deadline. I’ve realized that in a sense I am. To me, these films – about need and desire, desperation and hope – are still news. And they always will be.

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    Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Noir City Northwest: Night and the City (1950)/Road House (1948)

    A pair of movies starring Richard Widmark screening just before the Oscars serves as a reminder that the actor is still with us at age 93, and still deserving of a lifetime achievement award. Need proof? Watch Kiss of Death, Panic in the Streets, Pickup on South Street, Madigan. Or either film featured on Noir City day six.

    Night and the City received the full Criterion DVD treatment two years ago. I revisited the movie back then, but was still eager to see it again. So was Rosemarie, even though “it’s so hard to watch.” That’s because Jules Dassin’s film distills noir to its essence: failure. People struggle to make a name for themselves, to stake a claim to some small part of the world, only to be foiled by forces larger than they are, or by the indifference of others, or by their own weakness. It’s as bleak as movies get, and strangely beautiful.

    Much of that beauty comes courtesy of Widmark’s performance as Harry Fabian, whose only wish in life is “to be somebody.” He’s a hustler down to his bones, always looking for an angle. But years of disappointment have made him desperate. There are few moments as heartbreaking as when girlfriend Gene Tierney tells him he “could have been anything. You had brains, ambition. You worked harder than any ten men. But at the wrong things. Always the wrong things.” Gets me every time. And Widmark’s response ... extraordinary.

    A U.K. print was screened on Wednesday night. It’s not Dassin’s preferred cut; it’s several minutes longer and felt like it. But Harry Fabian registers in any version.

    An audience needs to be talked off a ledge after Night and the City, and Road House is the movie to do it. It’s a confection of pure Hollywood hokum. Ida Lupino, the not-so-secret star of this festival, is a chantoosie brought to the title establishment by rich boy owner Widmark. He’s got his sights set on more than a six-week engagement, but Ida goes off and falls for his best friend Cornel Wilde. Road House has everything you want in an overheated noir romance. It’s a swillin’, smokin’, singin’ ‘stravaganza. The singin’ is the only problem, as Ida does her own and has a somewhat limited range. To quote Rosemarie again, “It’s like she’s both Kiki and Herb.”

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    Wednesday, February 20, 2008

    Noir City Northwest: Reign of Terror (1949)/Border Incident (1949)

    Director Anthony Mann concentrated on noir for only a few years in the 1940s, but over that stretch he created some of the genre’s signature films. Railroaded!, T-Men, Raw Deal. On the last two, he collaborated with John Alton, the rare cinematographer who wasn’t afraid of the dark. It’s only fitting that Noir City day five spotlighted lesser known works from these masters of shadow.

    It’s official: Reign of Terror is the strangest movie screened in the festival so far. It’s the French Revolution as crime drama. The surprise is how easily history falls into the noir dynamic. You’ve got Robespierre (Richard Basehart), “fanatic of powdered wig and twisted mind,” as your kingpin making a power grab. The outside muscle (Bob Cummings) who’s not what he appears to be. Arlene Dahl as a femme fatale, and the cops all on the take. A few corners are cut with the story, but it’s refreshing to see a historical drama that doesn’t put the emphasis on spectacle and instead keeps close to the action.

    What I’d like to know is why the filmmakers gave France’s past the noir treatment. What’s wrong with American history? Feature it: Robert Ryan as Benedict Arnold, a twitching wreck eaten away by guilt. Or Dan Duryea playing Aaron Burr, always with the chip on his shoulder. “Al Hamilton says he’s a self-made man. Think it’s time somebody maybe unmade him.” Hell, I’d see it. Although that should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

    Border Incident is a lot less fanciful. It’s a taut, tough suspense film about a joint U.S./Mexican investigation into the murder of illegal immigrants. George Murphy and Ricardo Montalban play the lead detectives, and noir reliables Charles McGraw and Howard Da Silva turn up as the heavies. It’s sad to realize what’s changed in the span of fifty-plus years in terms of this issue: basically nothing.

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    Tuesday, February 19, 2008

    Noir City Northwest: Jeopardy (1953)/Woman In Hiding (1950)

    A: The theme of Noir City day four.

    Q: What is dames in distress?

    That’s a joke. Look at the first title. Come on, people, cut me some slack. All this noir is making me loopy.

    Jeopardy begins with a voiceover by Barbara Stanwyck that could come from the American Highway Council. Only her spiel turns strangely lush and poetic. Then there’s a kicker you don’t see coming. It’s a great set up for an entertaining odd duck of a film.

    Running a mere 69 minutes, Jeopardy still takes its time putting all the pieces on the board. Stanwyck, her husband (Barry Sullivan) and their son took a slow drive down Baja for a fishing trip. Just as they set up camp, Sullivan gets pinned underneath a collapsed pier – and the tide is coming in. Stanwyck seeks help, and the first person she finds is an escaped American convict (Ralph Meeker) who wants considerations before he’ll go Good Samaritan.

    Meeker is never over the top in his menace. His hoodlum is simply cagey and ruthless, perfectly willing to let Sullivan die if it’ll save his own life. Sullivan is saddled with a thankless part, but he does get one fantastic scene as the water is rising and he tries to impart some advice to his young son. Plus there are excellent physics lessons to be picked up.

    It’s hard to believe that Ida Lupino could ever be in distress, but Woman In Hiding does its damnedest. It’s directed by Michael Gordon, whose grandson Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a contemporary noir icon with the films Brick and The Lookout.

    Ida’s new husband Stephen McNally only married her because he has designs on the family business. When she discovers the truth, he tries to kill her – only Ida escapes and goes on the run, determined to dig up evidence before McNally locates her. Her only ally is an aimless war veteran played by Howard Duff, who would soon marry Lupino in real life. The movie is a minor effort but a fun one thanks in large part to plot twists provided by Roy Huggins, a man this website has declared a stealth giant of pop culture. It also follows Chekhov’s dictum that if a hydroelectric turbine is mentioned in Act One, it must be turned on in Act Two.

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