Friday, February 20, 2009

Noir City

SIFF is holding their annual “Noir City” film festival February 13 – 19 at the Seattle Center. This year the theme is “Newspaper Noir” with most of the movies set in the world of tough, gritty urban newsrooms of the 40s and 50s. How appropriate, how “ripped from today’s headlines”, as it were. I don’t know if you could make a believable crime film set in a contemporary newsroom. Unless boring your readers and destroying circulation are crimes, it’s hard to imagine most modern reporters being capable of something like murder. It’s just beyond them. But the newsrooms of the 40s and 50s – or their mystique, at least – are a different matter entirely. They crackle with noir potential. There’s some sort of connection between noir and the newspaper world of that time – urban, nocturnal, full of desperate and shady characters. Somehow press-themed pulp titles with cheesy taglines immediately spring to mind (Cub Reporter - “He buried more than the lead!” or Copy Girl – “There wasn’t a guy in the newsroom who hadn’t put her to bed, too!”).

I’m going to try to see as many of these films as possible and report back on them. I probably won’t see them all (the laundry doesn’t do itself, you know), but it’s hard to resist any kind of series featuring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Howard Duff (three times), Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Claude Rains, Tony Curtis, Raymond Burr, Ray Milland (twice), Charles Laughton, Alan Ladd, Donna Reed (twice), Dan Duryea, Broderick Crawford, and Shelly Winters. On the directorial front the festival has films by Fritz Lang, Richard Brooks, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, Anthony Mann and a host of lesser known but quintessential film noir directors such as Phil Karlson and John Farrow. Heck, even Samuel Fuller manages to make his presence felt (see below). Another attraction of this festival is the introduction of each film by host Eddie Muller (whose name itself sounds like that of a character from one of the movies). He gives some background on each film, tells us what makes it unique (and often how rare the print is), situates it within the tradition of noir, and – yes, I admit it – is the source of just about all the fascinating film trivia which you’ll pick up from this post. He is an excellent host.

Friday, February 13

Deadline USA (1952)
This film is a gem. Clearly, it’s the Citizen Kane of the newsroom/crime genre. Humphrey Bogart is Ed Hutcheson, the editor of New York Day, which has just been sold to its competitor and is being closed down. With pink slips issued and the clock ticking, Bogie tries to save the paper by solving a murder and nabbing the city’s leading mobster Thomas Rienzi (played with Gandolfini-esque smolder by Martin Gabel).

The film’s attitude towards the press is just this side of worshipful. How worshipful, you ask? Well, every time Bogart starts talking about how closing down newspapers undermines freedom and endangers democracy “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays in the background. (That this entire festival is being co-sponsored by the doomed Seattle Post-Intelligencer added much irony to his speeches.) Meanwhile, Bogart’s newsroom of tough, cynical, hard-drinking, wise-cracking reporters (Jim Backus is one of them) follow every lead to bust the bad guys. In the end, Bogart’s in the room with the printing presses ready to run off the last paper, the edition which will indict Rienzi. The mobster calls him there and starts threatening him. Bogart’s response? He gives the order to turn on the presses. When Rienzi asks what all that noise is, Bogie shouts into the phone “That’s the press, baby! The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”

The performances in this film are all outstanding and the dialogue has the fantastic 40s-style crackle. When one of the paper’s photographers makes a cheap crack about a murder victim, Bogart fires him on the spot. “That was your mistake,” he tells him. “But I’ve been working here four years,” the man protests. “That was my mistake,” Bogart replies. Later, he playfully suggest to the septuagenarian Ethel Barrymore (who resembles an elderly Gore Vidal in drag) that they get romantically involved. She eyes him icily, smiles, raises her scotch to her lips and mutters, “You’re too old.” (Oh, Christ! It is Gore Vidal!)

Scandal Sheet (1953)
Based on the novel The Dark Page by Samuel Fuller, Broderick Crawford stars as the unscrupulous editor of a sleazy New York tabloid. When his estranged wife shows up and threatens to blackmail him, he kills her and tries to cover it up. Soon his own scandal-mongering reporters, led by John Derek (yes, that John Derek), are trying to solve the crime, drawing the net ever tighter around Crawford. Meanwhile, circulation skyrockets.

This is an outstanding film - tight and gripping. But the main appeal of it is Broderick Crawford. Large and loud, he dominates the screen and my only complaint with this film is that once he commits the murder he doesn’t do much more than sit at his desk and sweat a lot while the second bananas start to get more screen time. John Derek and Donna Reed (the love interest) are very good but they can’t compete with him. In the intro to the film Muller commented that actors like Crawford and Bogart would have trouble getting work today. I’m not so sure I agree with that. After all, if Crawford resembles anyone it’s…well, James Gandolfini (again) – both are big, fleshy, domineering men. Except Gandolfini can project a malevolence that would never have been acceptable in old Hollywood. Nonetheless, Crawford was an inspired pick for this role, which was originally supposed to go to Humphrey Bogart (with Howard Hawks directing). Crawford was a better choice. He's tougher, more threatening, rougher around the edges and utterly lacking in any elegance or charm. Perfect.

Saturday, February 14

The Unsuspected (1947)
Frankly, the story of this film makes absolutely no sense. Suffice to say that radio announcer Claude Rains is up to no good. The main appeal of this movie, though, is its visual style; this is Hollywood “high noir” at its most lush and moody. Director Michael Curtiz really knows how to deliver a visual punch (that final shot in Mildred Pierce is unforgettable) and this film has plenty of them. So don’t even try to pay attention to the story, just relax and soak up the ambiance…

Desperate (1947)
Standard “B” film fare. An innocent man (Steve Brodie) gets caught up inadvertently taking part in a robbery and has to go on the lam to protect himself and his wife. If the cops don’t get him, the bad guys - led by Raymond Burr - will. Not much in this about the press, but it was a solid enough outing, directed by Anthony Mann in his “B” phase. According to Muller, this is the first film to ever use the swinging overhead light for dramatic impact. Hitchcock later adopted it for the end of Psycho and Jean-Pierre Melville took it from Hitchcock and used in Le Doulos. Do these geniuses ever stop ripping off other people's ideas?

Sunday, February 15

Ace in the Hole (1951)
Missed this one.

Cry of the Hunted (1953)
Oh, boy, missed this one, too.

Monday, February 16

The Big Clock (1948)
Excellent adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s classic 1946 novel. Ray Milland plays the editor of a crime magazine published by press titan (and tyrant) Earl Janoth. When Janoth’s mistress is murdered, Milland is assigned to investigate but soon begins to realize that all the evidence is pointing at his innocent self. Charles Laughton is magnificent as Earl Janoth, you hate him from the first moment he steps off the elevator til the final moment he…well, gets back on the elevator. You hate him from the soles of his shoes to ends of his little mustache, which he doesn’t quite curl, but rather gently touches and strokes with his pinkie finger, as if it was a small animal he wanted to calm before eating. As an added bonus, this film has a second heavy, the scarred and saurian George Macready, who plays Janoth’s lawyer and right hand man. They are the best bad guys in the festival so far.

Strange Triangle (1946)
No film noir festival is complete without at least one femme fatale and Swedish screen siren Signe Hasso plays her in this taut “B” thriller about bank embezzlement and a scheming housewife. Hasso was billed as “the next Garbo” when she made her first Hollywood film in 1943 (the original Garbo had retired two years earlier) – but it was not to be. And you can see why from this film. She’s good, but not that good. She’s not beautiful or compelling enough to be a believable femme fatale (think Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner). Still, she and the rest of the cast give it their best in this 65 minute “B” feature. It’s pleasant enough.

Tuesday, February 17

Chicago Deadline (1949)
No one can mutter “Get me some coffee, will you, baby?” and make it sound so damn cool as Alan Ladd can. In Chicago Deadline he’s a reporter who stumbles across a dead body in a sleazy boarding house. That body belongs to fallen woman Donna Reed – that’s right, Donna Reed. As he begins to investigate the life of this good girl gone bad, the windy city’s seamy underbelly comes to light. This film is a true rarity, there’s only one known print in existence. And it’s a good film, too, whose only weak point, to my mind, was Donna Reed. I never quite believe that she’s a fallen woman. And I don’t think she believes it either. She’s too sunny, too serene, her idea of fallenness is simply to stop smiling and look very serious. Still, it’s always important for actors to try to play against type from time to time so it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. It’s also worth seeing for Alan Ladd, who never played against type at all. He’s a kick to watch, though – cool, smooth, and delivering his tough guy lines with a gusto untainted by the knowledge that many decades later some in the audience might regard them as borderline kitsch.

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)
And no one can mutter “So long, copper” quite the way Dan Duryea can (below). In this beaut, he’s a gangster released to Federal Agent Howard Duff to help him bust open a drug smuggling ring. That is, if sexy Shelly Winters doesn’t get in the way! This film was fantastic. Everything in it works. The acting is good, the plot has many twists and turns, think of it as a “B+” film. Heck, even the title is outstanding. Festival host Eddie Muller and some audience members played a quick round of “Name That ‘Johnny’ Movie”: Johnny Angel, Johnny Guitar, Johnny Trouble, Johnny Gunman, etc. Well, hands down, this is the best “Johnny” themed movie title ever. This film was originally called “Cocaine” but the production code of the time wouldn’t allow that. In fact, all through the film it’s not really clear exactly what the drug being smuggled actually is. Cocaine? Heroin? Sudafed? We’re never told. And it really doesn’t matter. It’s a dynamite film nonetheless. It even features a very young Tony Curtis (listed as Anthony Curtis in the titles) playing a mute killer – which means you’ll never have to worry about him saying “I love you, Spartacus.” It can’t get any better than that.

Wednesday, February 18

While the City Sleeps (1956)
This film is pretty bad. Despite its amazing cast, which includes Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, George Sanders, Howard Duff and a mink-bedecked Ida Lupino, it never seems to rouse itself out of its (drink induced?) stupor. It is very slow paced. In fact, it should have been called While the Audience Sleeps or maybe While the Cast Sleeps It Off. It is also just plain weird at times. For instance, at one moment Ida Lupino, for no discernable reason, begins to click her lower teeth against the rim of a champagne glass she’s just drunk from. Huh? The story concerns a psycho killer who’s picking off pretty women in New York City but most of film is about the office politics of a news conglomerate headed by Vincent Price. The two stories never quite connect and we don’t really care about either. Director Fritz Lang can't seem to bring any of the elements of this tale together in a satisfying way. And when even Fritz Lang can’t effectively tell the story of psychopathic killer, we’re all in a bad way

Shakedown (1950)
Another gem. Howard Duff plays a “Weegee”-style newspaper photographer whose ruthless ambition gets him into trouble with the wrong kind of people. Duff puts in a magnificent performance: he’s callous, ambitious, manipulative, and criminal. It was based on a short story entitled “The Magnificent Heel”, and that’s an accurate description of the main character. And it’s a testament to Duff’s talent that he can still make us care about this repulsive character. Despite all the sleazy things he does, we never really want to see him destroyed. Like the other characters in the film, we want to see him reform. He’s not really such a bad guy underneath it all. Right? This is Duff’s film. You can’t take your eyes off him. And he plays this role for all it’s worth – shouting, strutting through the newsroom, at one point even pirouetting. He’s a ball of energy, a man on the make, full of moxie and chutzpah, and unencumbered by ethics of any sort. And if his fate is unfortunate, we also know that he would be the last person on earth to expect our sympathy or pity.

Thursday, February 19

Alias Nick Beale (1949)
In this noir-influenced retelling of the Faust legend Thomas Mitchell plays a politician who sells his soul to the devil (played by Ray Milland) in exchange for a governor’s seat. Darkness, deep shadows, dramatic lighting, fog – director John Farrow uses every device of “high noir” style to create a feeling of menace and dread. And he pulls it off, even eliciting screams of surprise at one of Ray Milland’s many creepy sudden appearances. The performances are all good and it’s a testament to Farrow’s talent that the deep religiosity of the film (in the end the Bible wins – like you doubted that) never becomes preachy or obnoxious. Many of the films in this series are new prints and this is one of them. According to host Eddie Muller this particular print had only ever been show one before. Well, it was gorgeous. I’ve never seen fog so luminous.

Night Editor (1946)
A cop (William Gargan) and his beautiful married girlfriend (Janis Carter) have a rendezvous on the beach. There they witness the brutal murder of a young girl. He’s horrified. She’s turned on. Thus begins one of the cheesiest, raunchiest, tawdriest, most over-the-top (and, hence, most enjoyable) “B” films of the 40s. This film is unbelievably kitsch. And it’s all thanks to Janis Carter. She is a magnificent femme fatale: rich, beautiful, icy, immoral, sexually degenerate and totally irresistible. The screen comes alive every time she’s on it. And the breathless ur-pulp dialogue between her and Gargan has to be heard to be believed; if you merely read it on the page, you would assume it was a parody of noir – and a very good one at that. This film was delicious. And a perfect way to end the festival.
So if you've enjoyed this posting (or enjoyed any of the movies in this festival) check out the organization responsible for rescuing and restoring America's Noir heritage - the Film Noir Foundation.

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