Thursday, February 21, 2019

Noir City 2019: Nightfall/The Burglar

Tuesday was night five of Seattle’s Noir City 2019 film festival and it was entirely devoted to movies adapted from the works of David Goodis, one of the masters of American crime fiction.

Nightfall (1956)
Frankly, the premise for this film is a bit of a muddle.  Here's the best I could do: Two campers (Aldo Ray and Frank Albertson) encounter a pair of bank robbers (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) in the wilderness.  Aldo Ray’s pal is a doctor.  He's brought his doctor bag on the camping trip (sure, why not).  But the thieves' bag with the $350,000 looks just like the doctor's bag.  The thieves shoot the doctor dead, then they shoot Aldo Ray - but he fakes being dead.  In their hasty escape, the killers grab the wrong bag.  When they later realize that Aldo has their loot, they hunt him down, determined to get it back at any cost necessary.  Meanwhile Aldo meets a model (Anne Bancroft), and they start up a romance.

Brian Keith and Rudy Bond
A disappointment.  This film has all the right parts - directed by Jacques Tourner (who directed the 1947 classic Out of the Past) from an adaptation by Sterling Silliphant and Goodis himself - but when they come together the result is a little underwhelming.  Is it well-made?  Yes.  But a spark is missing from it.  It’s a can of soda gone flat.  And the story is a little implausible.  Aldo Ray is always getting out of jams due to amazing coincidences.  And I couldn’t help but find the initial killings and mix-up at the camp-ground unbelievable.  Aldo is shot and falls, but the bullet missed and piece of rock opens a bleeding wound on his head when he hits the ground.  The killers see this, think he’s dead, and leave.  Really?  Surely they would administer, as most professional criminals would, one in the head - just to make sure.  (By the way, One in the Head would make an excellent movie title.) 

Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray
Nevertheless, the best part of this movie - and it’s worth seeing for this - is the moment in the end when the two thieves turn on each other.  They’ve been getting on each other’s nerves, and our nerves, too, and when they reach their breaking point and aim their guns at each other it’s an electric moment.  It’s like a gigantic coil suddenly gets twisted and is ready to spring.  How good is it?  It’s sit up in your seat good.  It’s that moment in Das Boot (1981) when the sub is at the bottom, the pressure gauge is past the red, and bolts start to pop off good.  Also good in this movie?  The acting.  Aldo Ray was very sympathetic as the poor lug who got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Bancroft was cynical and fetching as his love interest.  Rudy Bond, sweaty and chortling nervously, creates a truly detestable bad guy.  I was never a big fan of Brian Keith (“Why is this high school wrestling coach in a movie?” I would always ask myself when I saw him), but after seeing Nightfall I’ll need to rethink my position on him.  I was clearly wrong about his abilities.  In the face-off between Rudy and him at the end, the former asks Keith “You don’t like me, do you?”  Keith’s response is a quiet, almost whispered, “No.”  Keith puts a lot into that “no” - it’s a confession, a regret, a death sentence, and so much more.  It was great.

The Burglar (1957)
Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea) pulls off a jewel heist, but soon the police are on him.  Worse still, another gang is on his tail trying to grab his take.  And then there’s Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), a member of Nat’s crew whose beauty and hotness keep causing trouble with the gang.

This is an outstanding film.  It was an independent production and thus is a little technically rough around the edges, but director Paul Wendkos, working from Goodis's adapted screenplay, tells the story with assurance.  He borrows a little too obviously from Orson Welles.  Like Citizen Kane (1941) the film opens with a newsreel and there’s a chase through a funhouse at the end, a nod to 1947’s The Lady From Shanghai.  But Wendkos brings his own distinct voice to the material.  Wendkos has also been accused of stealing from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), but that claim isn’t true.  The Burglar was filmed in 1955, but it wasn't released until 1957 when Jayne Mansfield was a star.  In fact. the entire promotional push of the movie was centered on her.  So Wendkos wasn’t stealing from Kubrick, he was on the same page as him (which is always best).

Mansfield does a good job in this film, as do Peter Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy as the other gang members.  But the film belongs to Duryea.  Pensive, moody, old (he was in his late 40s when they shot this), world-weary - he’s probably the most sympathetic lead in the entire festival.  There’s something about an aging criminal which breaks the heart.  There’s a pathos to them that brings out our sympathy.  All those years but no big score.  Good enough to stay out of prison but not good enough to get out of the rackets.  A life of failure and puny accomplishments.  Duryea is perfect for this.  There was always something small-time about his thugs - that was a large part of their appeal.  They were tough enough to blackmail and threaten you, but they never had what it took to head up the syndicate.  They would never be the boss.  Duryea’s performance put me in mind of Jean Gabin’s performance in Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954).  There too, a weary, aging, criminal takes center stage.  One of the most memorable scenes from Grisbi is the one in which the tired, worn-down Gabin sits quietly eating crackers from a box - there’s anger, regret, and exhaustion in his every move.  So, too, it’s in Duryea’s quieter moments during The Burglar that his character’s plight moves us so deeply. 

Dan Duryea and Martha Vickers

Martha Vickers plays Della, a woman who picks up Duryea at a bar.  She’s very good and their scene together at her place is the best in the film.  Like Nat, Della is one of life’s small-timers.  As she tells her life story, the two grow closer.  Literally.  With each dissolve Wendkos places them physically nearer, until in the end Duryea is holding her (above).  It was lovely.  In fact, I wanted that to be the movie.  When the film went back to its plot, I was disappointed.  I wanted to see if these two damaged people could make a life together.  I wanted it to get all Anton Chekhov, but it was not to be…   

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