[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

[Noir City 2012: The Stuff Bad Dreams Are Made Of]

At the 2006 film festival I saw a gorgeous new 35mm print of The Window, introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. One could draw a straight line from that screening to last week, where I spent every day at SIFF at the Uptown, watching 13 of the 14 films in the 2012 Noir City lineup. noir foundation mug

The best night was Sunday, and not just because we all got to feel superior for coming out to noir instead of watching the Oscars. It kicked off with The Great Gatsby, an adaptation I didn’t even know existed until the Noir City schedule came out. It’s quite a treat, starring Alan Ladd as Gatsby. Is it noir? Well, it does include the perfect casting of Shelley Winters as Myrtle. And any film with Elisha Cook Jr has at least a little noir going on.

I’m looking forward to the Baz Luhrmann Gatsby later this year, mostly because I think Carey Mulligan as Daisy will be worth the price of admission & Joel Edgerton as Tom sounds interesting, but Ladd was a fantastic Gatsby. Leo has a lot to live up to.

It was followed by Three Strangers, which was the biggest surprise of the series for me. I can’t say it enough: Peter Lorre as a romantic lead! Amazing!

Geraldine Fitzgerald, rocking some seriously crazy eyes, has obtained the statue of a Chinese goddess which will, if you follow the rules, grant a wish to the three strangers of the title. Fitzgerald recruits Lorre & Sydney Greenstreet to make the wish with her, and of course nothing goes according to plan. It’s quite a character study & a commentary on fate. It’s not available on VHS or DVD, but if you have TCM it pops up there from time to time. Recommended!

Perhaps the most unlikely evening was the double feature of so-called “comedy noir”. The first pick was Unfaithfully Yours, which about five minutes in I realized I had seen before, but never in the theater.

It’s a Preston Sturges film, starring Rex Harrison as a symphony conductor who believes his wife has been stepping out on him. Structurally it’s pretty interesting; a large portion of the film is made up of fantasy sequences. More importantly: it’s hilarious. Also, it’s available on DVD, so you can check it out!

The second film that night was The Good Humor Man, which was basically film noir by way of Looney Tunes. It has the bones of a straight-up noir picture: an everyman encounters the femme fatale who poses as a damsel in distress and lures him into the underworld. However, this is the first noir I’ve seen where the final shoot-out includes cream pies. It was a tad too golly-gee slapstick for my personal taste, but I can definitely appreciate it as an exercise in stretching the definition of noir.

Other highlights included Thieves’ Highway (available on Criterion), Laura (a classic, and definitely fun to see again), Naked Alibi (for Gloria Grahame), & Pickup (a solid B picture with Beverly Michaels as a helluva dame & writer/director/producer Hugo Haas as the utterly sympathetic Czech immigrant she’s trying to scam).

What were your favorites? I’m already looking forward to next year!

[Noir City 5]

We learned a number of lessons at Noir City 5. We learned that it really is best for doctors not to get involved with patients, we learned that one twin is always evil, we learned about caffeine intake and anger management, and we learned what happens when felons don’t learn about Stop, Drop, and Roll. See? Film can be very educational.

I love the series for the films, of course, but also for Eddie Muller’s introductions. The world of classic noir intersects with the creative challenges of the Hays Code, the personal and professional tragedies of the Hollywood blacklist, and the current race against time that is film preservation, and Muller does a fantastic job of bringing that all to us.

The series brings me back to the good bits of junior high: watching commercial-free black-and-whites on AMC in the early 90s, with introductions by Nick Clooney & Bob Dorian. Looking at my life now, they have a lot to answer for!

I made it to thirteen of the fourteen features, which is a new record for me. My favorite feature this year, unsurprisingly enough, was Don’t Bother to Knock, starring Marilyn Monroe as a babysitter with a tenuous grasp on reality, and classic noir lead Richard Widmark as a pilot looking for a little distraction. Bonus: a gorgeous young Anne Bancroft (in her first film role!) as the lounge singer who’s just dumped Widmark.

All of the action takes place within a hotel, and more-or-less in real time, both of which add to the terrifically claustrophobic noir feel. It’s available on DVD, and is one of the better introductions to noir from this year’s series.

Other notable features:

* Angel Face, with Robert Mitchum as the ambulance driver-turned-chauffeur who gets caught in Jean Simmons’ web.

* High Wall, where Audrey Totter is a doctor convinced of Robert Taylor’s innocence and commits several ethical violations to prove it.

* Loophole, your classic story of an average-Joe getting caught up in the underworld; in this case, being framed for a bank robbery. Other viewers seemed frustrated by a lot of bad decisions he made, but it made sense to me. When you don’t have a devious mind yourself, it’s hard to anticipate what folks with devious minds will do.

* The Dark Mirror, featuring brilliant performances from Olivia de Havilland as the sisters, some unfortunate pop psychology, and a few more ethical violations; and Among the Living, which is an entertaining (granted, ridiculous) flick featuring bloodthirsty villager-types in what might easily be Brooklyn or Queens, and a barely legal Susan Hayward setting her cap for the murderous twin. Of course.

I already can’t wait for next year, fourth row center with my Americano from Caffe Zingaro. Bring it on.

[Rest of February in film]

I’m about to dive into another run of movies this week, so let’s finish off Noir City, etc, before that happens and I get even more behind!

* Chicago Deadline suffered from the fact that I had had a very long day, but is worth checking out if only for Donna Reed as a fallen woman. Ace!

* While the City Sleeps was a great alcohol-soaked flick, with Vincent Price as the son of a deceased media magnate, manipulating all his employees to make the most of a serial killer story, and Dana Andrews as the ace reporter.

* The series finished off with Alias Nick Beal & Night Editor. The first was a Faust story, worth it for Ray Milland’s crazy eyes as well as breathtaking cinematography, particularly when Beal appears from and disappears into the fog. The second was unapologetically trashy, and required viewing for anyone who thinks that the Golden Age of Hollywood was a time of great moral purity.

* Back in the 21st century, we saw Coraline in 3D, and I am not sure if that helped or hurt my experience of it. Would I have felt more connected to the story if there wasn’t an extra layer of technology? Or was that extra zing to the visuals required? I do not know. I do know that I recommend seeing it in the theater, because it is beautiful, but I wonder if I would have liked it better in 2D.

* Medicine for Melancholy is a terrible title for a great movie. I had pretty much no interest in seeing it based on the title alone, but luckily elements of Seattle media (by which I mostly mean the Slog) went on and on about it, so I gave in. At this rate, I really should get a membership to the Northwest Film Forum in addition to my SIFF one.

But! The movie! It’s about a couple spending the day together after a one night stand. It’s also about San Francisco, and a few other things I won’t tell you. Just see it, if you have the opportunity. It’s funny and awkward and true, and a beautifully shot, desaturated, unromanticized view of the city. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome. And the director is cute. Hey, all of these things are important.

[Long weekend]

Friday Deadline USA & Scandal Sheet kicked off the third Noir City series down at SIFF Cinema. I preferred the first for its several great women, particularly the reporter, but the second is the closest to straight-up noir. Both made for an awesome start to the festival.

Saturday I was eaten by the Madrona Fiber Arts Festival & didn’t make it back to the city in time for any noir. Woe. (I watched a little Dexter season 2, which certainly has its elements of noir. Well-lit, neo-noir maybe.)

Sunday brought Ace in the Hole, which was easily one of the most cynical movies I have ever seen. It certainly lived up to its billing. If it were released today, the script could be essentially unchanged, except maybe tidying up the portrayal of Native Americans (though, really, that was very much another point criticizing the majority) and the addition of a Twitter hashtag for Leo. Very good, unsurprising as it’s Billy Wilder, but I don’t need to see it again any time soon.

If Cry of the Hunted, the B reel, were to be released today, it would instantly have a LiveJournal community and a ficathon, and I would be on the sidelines of fandom complaining about how there weren’t enough stories about the women. It was basically on crack, but a lot of fun.

Sunday night I took a little break from noir, crime, and the freezing SIFF Cinema. Wendy and Lucy was picked up by the Northwest Film Forum for a week after its original Seattle run ended, so taken were they with it. And deservedly so. Michelle Williams (a criminally underrated actress, in my opinion) plays Wendy, a woman traveling from Indiana to Alaska with her dog Lucy. We meet her in Oregon, where things start falling apart. Some people are helpful. Some people are assholes. It’s a beautiful slice-of-life film, heartbreaking & true. I need to put other work by the director in my Netflix queue now.

First up on Monday was The Big Clock, which was great. It’s a pretty traditional noir, with an innocent person getting caught up in someone else’s nefarious plot or sleazy circumstances. It was also the second film in this series with Sherman Potter Harry Morgan (ahaha IMDb pulls up “Dexter” stories on his page). He was a cigar-chomping photographer in Scandal Sheet, but here he was a heavy with no lines at all, which is interesting for an actor with such a distinctive voice. Anyway, The Big Clock is available on DVD and definitely worth a watch for Charles Laughton’s twitchy media mogul & Elsa Lanchester as a totally loopy artist.

It was followed by Strange Triangle, which I have nothing to say about at all. It was very formulaic and it’s been a long weekend. So be it.