Friday, February 23, 2018

Noir City 2018: The Man Who Cheated Himself/Roadblock

Thursday was the last night of Noir City 2018 in Seattle (sigh).  When I first saw the line-up of films back in January I was as excited and giddy as a five-year-old on Christmas morning.  So many bright and shiny films I haven't seen!  But now it’s over.  So did it live up to my hopes?  You bet it did.  It was fantastic.  Two other things before I get to the movies.

First, Noir City is run by the The Film Noir Foundation and they rely upon public support to carry on their good works - among which was the restoration of The Man Who Cheated Himself (see below).  Go here and give.  

Second, Noir City 2018 has left Seattle but it will be playing in other cities around the country.  Upcoming destinations are Denver, Hollywood, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, DC.  Go here for details.

The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
San Francisco homicide detective Ed Cullen (Lee J. Cobb) is having an affair with wealthy socialite Lois Frazer (Jane Wyatt).  When she kills her husband, they try to cover it up.  The problem?  The rookie detective working the case is his own brother, Andy (John Dall), and he’s hot on the killer’s trail.

Directed by Felix Feist (who also did yesterday’s The Threat), this a very good film, although the performances of the two leads may jar with our expectations.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sedate and calm performance from Lee J. Cobb.  As an actor he was very effusive; you were never in doubt about his character’s mental state.  But he shows tremendous restraint in this movie - maybe too much.  I think he would have been more convincing if he had chewed up the scenery a little - like he did in On the Waterfront.  Wyatt is energetic and slinky as the femme fatale but she too doesn't entirely convince.  After all those years watching her as the Mom on Father Knows Best, I find it hard to believe her as a murderous temptress.  Even after she shoots her husband I expected her to go to the kitchen to get some milk and cookies for Cobb.  Despite these caveats, this film is still good fun.  John Dall delivers a nice performance as the upbeat rookie with the instincts of a bloodhound.  Lisa Howard is equally chipper and convincing as his spouse.  Noir City host Eddie Muller told us all about her life.  It was quite a story.  She became a journalist and got the first interview with Fidel Castro (apparently by sleeping with him).  She would be close to the Kennedy administration and was working on arranging a meeting between Castro and JFK which was abandoned after the latter's assassination.  It sounded like it would make a good movie.  If you could get the casting right. 

Lee J. Cobb, corpse (Harlan Warde), and Jane Wyatt in The Man Who Cheated Himself

The climax, in which Cobb and Wyatt attempt to hide from a pursuing Dall at Fort Point in San Francisco, is beautifully done.  Feist drops the music so that all we get are the sounds of wind and footsteps on gritty concrete as the characters wind their way through the abandoned labyrinth of the fort.  There’s a moment in the scene - and I don’t want to give it away, but it involves a scarf - when the tension and suspense rise to levels reminiscent of Hitchcock (who also did good work at Fort Point).

Roadblock (1951)
Charles McGraw plays honest insurance detective Joe Peters (wow, even his name is clean-cut) who breaks bad after falling for sultry gold-digger and model, Diane, played by Joan Dixon.  

This B film is a gem.  If the night’s first movie is an example of casting gone wrong, this one is an example of casting gone right.  McGraw and Dixon are both perfect.  He is as dogged in his pursuit of uncovering insurance fraud at the beginning of the movie as he will be in committing it himself later.  McGraw makes Peters’s journey into doom totally believable.  He can convey desire and insecurity with the slightest of means.  Dixon is delicious as the film’s femme fatale.  When she falls for Joe and marries him out of love we believe her, but, like him, we suspect that once her gold-digger instincts kick in she’ll be out the door.  And it’s this fear that drives Joe to destruction.  

Joan Dixon and Charles McGraw in Roadblock
Fear, lust, money, doom - what more do we need for a great noir?  Snappy dialogue.  And this film is brimming with it.  “Someday you’re gonna want something nice and expensive that you can’t afford on a detective’s salary,” the money-grubbing Diane tell Joe when they meet early in the film.  “Like what?” he asks.  “Like me,” she replies.  Later on she taunts him by asking whether “happiness can buy you money.”  After Joe beats up a suspect in an interrogation room (hey, this is a Charles McGraw movie), someone says about him: “I thought he was an easy-going guy.”  Joe’s partner replies, “He was - until he got married.”  

The climax of this film plays out in the LA river bed - itself as cinematically iconic as Fort Point.  And the last shot of the film, and of the festival, was pure noir: a lonely and heart-broken figure slowly walking away from us and into the distance while the music swells and the title announces “The End.”

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