[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.

[Bran Nue Dae for Night Train]

* Bran Nue Dae is based on the 90s Australian musical about an aboriginal boy in the late 60s. He’s been attending boarding school with the eventual goal of becoming a priest, but he changes his mind for a few excellent reasons, and runs away, landing in a road movie as he tries to get home.

It’s pretty goofy (especially the final 10 minutes) but it has a huge heart, and I quite enjoyed it. (Also, days later I am still singing about how there is nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine. So there’s that.)

I couldn’t help but think, though, especially as the credits rolled by with lists of the various stage production casts, that if a similar film had been made in the States, the producers would have had a serious conversation about casting a white guy with a tan in the lead. And then they probably would have done it. Taylor Lautner, I’m looking at you.

* Night Train was the second half of a Jerzy Kawalerowicz double feature, and one I almost skipped out on because I was so bored by the one about possessed nuns. Thanks to the fact that I am painfully cheap I opted to give it a chance, and I am glad I did. It’s a Polish noir set almost entirely on an overbooked overnight train to the seaside. The cast of characters is great, all your noir staples of mysterious men and blonde bombshells eyeing each other with suspicion, flirtation, or both, and among it all trying to guess if one in their number might be an escaped murderer. It was totally entertaining, and would not at all have been out of place as a Noir City selection.

(Yes, the title of this post is a cheap Truffaut reference. I couldn’t help it. I apologize!)

[Rebel Without A Cause]

I can’t bear to let Legion sit at the top of that page, great fun though it is, so let’s finish this post up.

A week ago Friday, for all of 6 bucks, I got to see Rebel Without a Cause in a sold-out theater, bookended with remarks by screenwriter Stewart Stern, and shown with a short film cut together from the production reunion ten years ago.

God, I love Seattle.

Stern spoke of course about James Dean (improvements he brought to the film, the impact of his death, their utterly charming first meeting) and just when I was thinking I would have loved to see the film with a predominantly queer crowd, he took what turned out to be his only audience question, one regarding the development of the character of Plato.

The answer turned into a meditation not only on Plato and Jimmy (including autobiographical elements), but on masculinity in general, male intimacy in particular, and his experience at the Battle of the Bulge specifically. Such a gift!

(And people wonder why I can’t get interested in spending $15 on Avatar. I have 9 bucks left! I’ll get a coffee and see Truffaut’s Small Change for my birthday. It’s not a difficult decision. Except for being a little concerned for myself, going to a children’s film festival without an actual child.)

…wait, I suppose I should say something about Rebel itself. Maybe. But we all know it’s great & influential, and if you haven’t seen it, you probably should. It’s certainly a weirder movie than expected, a teen melodrama where, watching it over 50 years later, you really wish everyone would get some intense family therapy.

[Weekend Roundup]

Apparently I spent the weekend at the movie theater. Here we go:

A Serious Man is the newest Coen Brothers film, a Job story set in the Minnesota town they grew up in, a Midwest Jewish suburban hell. As it ended, I couldn’t help but think of You, the Living. It has the same sort of grey-blue hope, in one full fable rather than a series of short ones. Michael Stuhlbarg is perfection in the lead (though not the title role), always amazed at what’s happening to him, wondering what he did to deserve it, what he can do to make things change, and what God might have to say about all of this. Ask the rabbi? Good luck with that.

Somehow it seemed to make perfect sense to follow it up with Salesman, a documentary in the 69 series by another set of brothers, David and Albert Maysles, who also filmed Grey Gardens. It follows a group of Bible salesmen as they travel their territories, and as one, Paul Brennan, tries to break his losing streak. Faith is being exploited everywhere — the company exploits the salesmen just as they exploit their customers — with the result that God is nowhere, but audience sympathy is everywhere. Rent & medical bills are due, and $50 for a Bible in the late 60s is an extraordinary amount of money, but as Brennan sucks down cigarettes in cramped hotel rooms and rented cars, you really want the poor guy to make a sale before the company sends him home to Boston and his wife who repeatedly reminds him not to drive too fast.

SIFF Cinema ran a mini Hitchcock festival all weekend, but I only made it over for one double feature: Strangers on a Train & Dial M For Murder which were a lot of fun to see with an audience, Robert Walker & Ray Milland making for a set of delicious villains.