[Noir City 2019]

Noir City rolled into town last month with 20 movies in 7 days. I saw all of them which was a first (usually they have some repeats and usually I skip at least one, neither of which happened). It was also possibly a terrible idea from which my apartment will never recover.

It did turn out that I had seen two titles almost ten years ago, but I didn’t realize it until twenty minutes in, when suddenly the endings came rushing back to me. This is easy to do with film noir – many films have titles that bear little connection to the actual story. Plus, many films have similar titles, lots of “night” and “murder” and “dark” and “city”, and even this series had one day where three of the four movies had “kiss” in the title. So, considering how long I’ve been attending, only two surprise repeats was pretty good.

I’m not going to write about all twenty because who cares, but my favorites were usually the ones that were gay or the ones who had particularly great women, surprise surprise.

Private Hell 36 is one of a few dirty cop movies this time around, but the best one because a) Ida Lupino and b) it was pretty gay. Jack (Howard Duff) and Cal (Steve Cochran) are partners, they drink out of the same cup, they’re constantly referred to as boyfriends (and aren’t bothered about it), and when one decides they’re going to steal cash from a crime scene, the other isn’t thrilled, but also he doesn’t put up a fuss. Be gay, do crimes, amirite? Ida Lupino, who cowrote the picture, is of course terrific, a nightclub singer who jams her unused cigarette holder in her bra & complains about how this is her first time losing a man to another man. Also, there’s this poster:

In The Crimson Kimono, the murder of a dancer at the top of the picture is almost incidental to the love triangle. Again, the two men are partners, but also they’ve been together since the Korean War (where one gave blood to save the other’s life!) and not only do they live together, they clearly are planning on doing so forever: they put their money into their home & they talk about how things will be easier when one of them makes sergeant. The marketing angle on the picture is that one of the detectives is of Japanese heritage, with taglines playing up “an American girl and a Japanese boy!” and though the text of the film argues that race is the challenge they need to get over to be together, the emotions are clear: the true issue is the betrayal of falling in love with someone new, a witness in the case. Also James Shigeta is a dreamboat. This is my jam.

Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, William Wyler’s Detective Story is nearly a bottle story of a film, spending the vast majority of a single night in a single location: the squad room. Lee Grant’s unnamed shoplifter stole the show and my heart from the beginning, but moved me most at the end when a guy is getting fingerprinted and she tells the young girl who’s sweet on him not to worry, that it doesn’t hurt. Bless.

The primary plot involves Kirk Douglas chewing some scenery as he pursues a butcher of an abortionist who turns out to have a connection to his wife, but the real gold is all of the side characters, from the shoplifter to the other detectives (especially William Bendix) to a pair of burglars.

There’s a lot happening on screen all the time, and the whole picture feels very lived-in, both in the characters relationships to each other and to the set itself. There’s a bit where an officer keeps catching the gate behind him with his foot before it hits him, and in the moment you believe that he’s worked in that station for years. It reminded me of how the characters in After the Storm instinctively ducked when others opened the refrigerator. A beautiful detail.

You can’t have a film noir festival without some femmes fatales, and the best this year were Barbara Stanwyck (of course!) getting her claws into Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordon (tagline: “no man really knows a woman like her, but every many goes for a woman like her!), also Jean Simmons in Angel Face, hard to watch now knowing how poorly she was treated on set by Preminger. Art doesn’t justify abuse, but Simmons deserves all the praise.

Other favorites: The Well, not technically a noir, but with a noir vibe. A young black girl is missing. We know she’s fallen down a disused well, but the town thinks a white unemployed miner (Henry Morgan) might have harmed her. Biases lead to rumors lead to incidents that are blown up into bigger rumors that lead to more violence, ever farther away from helping the actual child and when, deep in the film, one character asked, “what little girl?” the entire house gasped. You don’t get that experience at home.

Odds Against Tomorrow, a nicely structured heist movie starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. They have parallel introductions, where you learn everything about each character by how they interact with children playing outside, the building staff (especially the elevator operator), and then the heist organizer (Ed Begley) himself. Extra points for young Cicely Tyson behind the bar, Gloria Grahame just in general, and Mae Barnes performing “All Men Are Evil”, which has yet to leave my head.

And a few classics: Pickup on South Street (always love me some Richard Widmark, and Thelma Ritter was perfection) and Pushover (Fred MacMurray, dirty cop!

Finally, I’ve recently been added to the staff recs wall at the Egyptian (a tremendous honor, for real), so here’s my Noir City pick

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