Sunday, February 24, 2019

Noir City 2019: The Crimson Kimono/Odds Against Tomorrow

Thursday night was the end of Noir City 2019.  Sigh.  It’ll be another three hundred and fifty something days before Noir City 2020 begins.  Fortunately, there’s always Noir Alley on TCM to tide me over.  However, for those of you in Hollywood, Austin, Boston, and Chicago, Noir City 2019 is coming your way.  Go here for details, and check later in the year for updates about other cities being added to the list.  And since you’re in the Film Noir Foundation website, why not make a donation to support their efforts in film restoration, preservation, education, and appreciation.  After all, their efforts made my posts possible. Were you not entertained!?!  Of course you were.  So throw some bucks the FNF’s way in appreciation. 

And speaking of things to appreciate, before the night’s first movie, The Crimson Kimono, we were treated to a brief performance by Valtesse, a local women-owned and operated burlesque company here in Seattle.  Since The Crimson Kimono is a film about a stripper, it seemed apropos to feature some modern day practitioners of the art.  Now, I don’t know if Noir City 2019 will feature skin at its other venues throughout the country, but with its pre-show musical acts, audience members dressed in period clothes, and the nightly game of “Name that Noir” with Eddie Muller (note to contestants - "Oh, I saw that!" is not the name of a noir), these festivals are becoming a full evening’s entertainment. 

The Crimson Kimono (1959)
While investigating the murder of a stripper, two LAPD detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) both wind up falling in love with the case’s key witness (Victoria Shaw).

Written, produced, and directed by Sam Fuller, this is a well-done crime thriller.  The actors are good and the plot moves along quickly.  What makes The Crimson Kimono unique, though, is the way it confronts issues of racism and, more specifically, racial intermarriage.  In fact, the murder plot winds up being mostly a frame upon which Fuller can display and deal with these social issues.  James Shigeta is Japanese-American and when he and Corbett, who’s caucasian, first meet up with Shaw, herself caucasian, a love affair between the two white folks blossoms.  Of course.  That’s what film-goers expect.  But about half-way through the film Shaw and Shigeta fall in love instead and it throws the latter into turmoil.  Issues of racial identity and self-image come to the fore.  This being a Sam Fuller movie they’re addressed much more directly than they would be in most other films of the era.

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta

Odds Against Tomorrow  (1959)
Race also takes center stage in Odds Against Tomorrow.  Dave Burke (Ed Begley), a former cop, wants to rob a bank in upstate New York.  To pull off the job he brings in Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a musician drowning in debt, and Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a racist Oklahoman with anger issues.  Things do not go as planned.

A magnificent movie.  Although Robert Wise was the director, this was Harry Belafonte’s project.  It was produced by the Harbel Company, his production company, and the only reason he was not officially listed as producer was because of concerns that certain theaters would not show a film produced by a black man.  Subterfuge also surrounded the screenplay.  The adaptation of William P. McGiverns’s novel is credited to one John O. Killens.  Killens, though, was actually a front for Abraham Polonsky, a blacklisted screenwriter.  According to festival host Eddie Muller, Belafonte handed Polonsky a copy of the novel and said “Fix it.”  What needed fixing was the relationship between Ingram and Slater in the novel once the action of the story moves to the actual heist.  The book (which I haven’t read) apparently shows Ingram and the racist Slater managing to overcome their differences, work together, and recognize each other’s common humanity.  This was also the comforting theme behind 1958’s The Defiant Ones.  Belafonte would have none of it. His vision of race relations was much more harsh and, frankly, realistic.

This is an expertly and intelligently made film.  Belafonte's Ingram is probably the best and most honest depiction of an African-American man in American film up to that time.  He's a successful musician; divorced; one kid.  He's a man of pride and character.  His fatal flaw: he gambles and he's in debt to some ugly characters.  Slater is another matter, and Ryan's performance is both scorching and moving.  The world is passing Earle Slater by.  He can't find work.  He's supported by his wife, played by Shelly Winters, who loves him.  Despite the occasional dalliance with a neighbor (Gloria Grahame), everything in the world seems to grind him down.  His response is usually violence, and if he signs on to the heist it's because, strangely, it's the most hopeful thing in his life.  It's a chance to prove himself.  This films shows how both the criminality and racial animosities of the characters emerges naturally out of the nature of their lives.  Looking down on a black man is one of the few good things Slater has left in his life.  And putting a bullet in Slater's head would be Ingram's happiest way of dealing with his own personal failures and frustrations.
Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley, and Robert Ryan
Odds Against Tomorrow is a fitting end to a film noir festival centered on the 1950s.  By 1959 the genre was effectively ending; you can feel other concerns, other visions, taking hold of the movies.  In the US, neo-noir wouldn’t surface as its own genre/style for another decade or so.  The classic era had passed.  Yet in a strange way the ending of Odds Against Tomorrow references the beginning, or a least a possible beginning, of the film noir/pulp fiction mentality, specifically the ending of Raymond Chandler's novel The Big Sleep from 1939 (spoiler ahead).  The famous final paragraph of that book is one of transcendent, lyrical nihilism:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.
So, too, at the end of Odds Against Tomorrow, the heist has failed, our two heroes have unwisely faced off against each other atop gas tanks, which soon ignite.  The next morning the police recover their two bodies, but they're unrecognizable.  "Which is which?" a red cross attendant asks, looking at the corpses.  "Make your pick," a police replies indifferently. 

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