Saturday, February 17, 2018

Noir City 2018: The Maltese Falcon/Quiet Please, Murder

On Friday night Noir City 2018 rolled into Seattle - one solid week of classic, well-known, and rare film noirs from the 1940s and 50s.  Eighteen films in all, featuring the likes of Joan Crawford, Humphrey Bogart (twice), Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Joseph Cotton, Sydney Greenstreet, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Jane Wyatt, Charles Boyer, George Sanders, Loretta Young, Alan Ladd, and Veronica Lake.  No Dan Duryea (sigh) or Ida Lupino (double sigh), but you can’t have everything.  And behind the camera there's Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Henry Hathaway, Julien Duvivier, Raymond Chandler (twice), Robert Altman, and William Faulkner.  You can see the full line-up of films here.  

In attendance was Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir (I feel there should be a little trademark symbol after that), host of TCM’s Noir Alley, as well as founder and president of The Film Noir Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving, discovering, and showcasing the movies of this quintessential American genre.  Have you made a donation to them?  I didn’t think so.  Go to their website and do so now.  I’m going to cover as many of these films as I can.  Sadly, I will not be able to see them all.  When I discuss a film I may give fascinating bits of information and trivia about it.  All of this info, it should noted, is not my own - I am generously filching it from Eddie Muller and the introductions he gives to each of these films.

The theme for this year’s festival is “Film Noir A to B - 1941 to 1951: Classy As and Trashy Bs!”  (Hmm…if you turned that “and” to “on” you would also have another interesting film noir theme.)  Just as on their original release the films are shown here as double features.  The first, the A film, usually features big stars and runs about an hour and a half.  The B film follows; it’s much shorter and has lesser names.  Eddie was emphatic that the ranking doesn’t refer to film quality, many of the B films are outstanding.  I agree.  In fact, I often prefer the B films.  They can be a lot riskier than the As and are often more memorable.  In addition, this year the films will be shown in chronological order, giving us a sense of the development of the genre over time.

The opening night of Noir City is typically quite festive.  People dress up in period clothing.  This year there was a band before the first show playing music from the 30s and 40s.  Also, there are now trivia contests held each night just before the B film.  Eddie selects someone from the audience and they have to "Name That Noir" based on the clues he gives.  I love it.  Back in the 40s movie theaters would show shorts in between the films, sometimes there would even be raffles.  You didn’t just go see the movie, you went out for “a night at the movies,” it was an evening of entertainment.  And here we are replicating that.  Perfect.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
A classic.  Directed by John Huston and based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name, what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said, excect that with every viewing I appreciate it more, I discover something new to admire in it.  To judge by the packed house on Friday night, I’m not alone.  After the screening someone near me commented to a friend “I always forget how tightly made this film is.”  That came through to me as well; there’s not a wasted scene in this movie.  This movie grows on you; with each viewing I get more and more goosebumps when Bogart says to Mary Astor “I’m sending you over, Angel.”  The final shot of her behind metal grates as the elevator door closes on her also gives me chills.

What stuck out for me on this viewing - and it may seem strange, but so what - is the expert use of hands in this movie.  The first time Humphrey Bogart kisses Mary Astor he grabs her face between his hands and when he breaks the kiss he holds onto her face and gently caresses her cheeks with his thumbs.  In hard-boiled-PI-land this is the equivalent of sending a woman love poems.  Why does Peter Lorre wear only one white glove - a la Michael Jackson?  (Or was Michael Jackson imitating Peter Lorre?  We'll never know.)  When the statuette is revealed at the end of the film, Lorre, now totally ungloved (why?), will briefly and hesitantly stroke the item - rather like the apes with the monolith in 2001.  When Sydney Greenstreet first meets Bogart they shake hands.  Then Greenstreet moves in and wraps his other hand around Bogart’s elbow so that Bogie’s entire right forearm is in Greenstreet’s grasp.  It’s a perfect expression of the latter character’s eccentricity and malevolence.  And in the final scene when Greenstreet realizes that the statuette is a fake his fury begins to overwhelm him until he puts his hand on the back of his neck to calm down.

This film holds a special place in my heart because it was the first classic film I ever saw on the big screen.  Back in the 1970s some film buff in Ridgewood, NJ, ran it for a week at a local movie theater, and a group of us Bogart-besotted 13-year-olds hauled off to see it.  I liked it, but I found it strange.  I'd never seen anything like it before.  The aesthetics of classic films were new to me.  The Maltese Falcon was lean and spare.  It didn’t try to make you feel good at the end.  It told its story and just finished. Now, of course, my aesthetics have entirely flipped.  The films of Hitchcock, Ford, Huston, et. al. are my models for good film-making and whenever I’m sitting through some contemporary movie (usually clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes) my inner mogul starts thinking “Too many irrelevant scenes! Cut, cut, cut!”

Quiet Please, Murder (1942)
A rarity.  George Sanders plays a murderous book forger trying to pull off the heist of a rare book in the Los Angeles Public Library.  The premise is odd but this film is actually quite good.  Along the way Sanders has to deal with a nosy private investigator, a femme fatale played by Gail Patrick, and his homicidally angry swindled customers.  Oh, and Nazis, too.  This is the first film in the festival to be shot after WWII began so it’s filled with wartime propaganda.  The bad guys are in some shadowy way connected to “that Hitler crowd.”  There are air raid blackouts.  Even the romantic plot was switched to serve wartime purposes.  Instead of “Boy meets girl” it becomes “Boy meets girl who already has a boyfriend in the army so the first boy backs off because he knows there’s a lotta guys out there fighting this war, mister, and they need to know their gals back home are waiting for them.”  Yeah, that old chestnut. 

But the main attraction here is, of course, the debonair and evil George Sanders.  In this film he plays, and there’s no other way to put it, a sexual masochist.  How some of this dialogue got past the censors is a mystery to me.  The S and M references are overt for 1942.  Equally amusing are his character's attempts to explain his kinky predilection using the psychoanalytic babble so popular in his day.  Nothing quite gets a laugh nowadays like some duffer earnestly invoking concepts like the super-ego, id, etc.  How quaint.

Why, oh why, hasn’t a biopic been made of the life of George Sanders?  His autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (now back in print!), is well-written, funny, and has rightly developed a cult following over the years.  It’s full of attitude and wit.  True, his view of women is antediluvian - he notes that you may need to slap them around from time to time - but when he starts giving detailed advice on how to hire and interact with a proper manservant, you start to wonder how much of this is real and how much is schtick.  His life was certainly eventful.  He had a tempestuous marriage to Zsa-Zsa Gabor (who emotionally slapped him around from time to time).  And in his final years he suffered from dementia, at one point dragging his grand piano onto his front lawn and attacking it with an axe.  Surely, that has cinematic possibilities. The big question, though, would be who to cast in the lead role.  What actor today could capture Sanders's suave malignity?  Colin Firth?  Christian Bale?  Daniel Day-Lewis?  

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