Another Noir City at SIFF has come and gone…
The first night was a Cy Endfield double feature. It seems that Endfield was an American who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and ended up working in England. We first saw one of his last American films, alternatively titled "The Sound of Fury" and (as we saw it) "Try and Get Me!" , based on a real incident in San Jose in the 1930s (though this is set in a fictional California town in the 1950s).
A down-on-his-luck family man is desperately seeking work, when he runs into a vain, flashy stick-up man who want him to work as his driver. So he takes it, they do a few jobs, while a newspaper columnist whips up fury about a "crime wave". The pair then do a kidnapping, in which the stickup man viciously kills the kidnapee, and when they're caught, they're lynched by a mob outside the court.
Now, the newspaper guy is played by a familiar face by anyone who remembers the original "The Day The Earth Stood Still", namely, Richard Carson, who played Patricia Neal's boyfriend. But it's the stick-up man who's amazing -- because it's Lloyd Bridges. If you only remember him as a kindly old guy or fixture in Westerns or Sea Hunt you saw in afterschool reruns, this is (to use a cliche) a revelation. Especially in the last act, where he's a trapped rat. Just amazing.
So, Cy goes to England. And it turns out I'd already seen a film by him starring our next star - "Sands of the Kalahari" - last year. Well, same actor staring (Stanley Baker), but this, "Hell Drivers" (sounds like it should come with exclamation points, don't it?) is a gritty B&W British drama about a man, also desperate for a job (as we learn later, he's an ex-con) who signs up with a shady trucking company hauling gravel run by an exploitive boss who runs them too hard, led by a nasty foreman and pace-setter. But our man needs a big payout to help his kid brother back home and win back his ma's respect.
Ok, not exactly original in the story department. But it's the supporting cast of "Hell Drivers!" that's little short of amazing. To Wit:
The exploitive boss? William Hartnell, the first Doctor.
The foreman? A really nasty Patrick McGoohan
Our man's only friend (an Italian)? Herbert Lom
Two of the other truckers? Gordon Jackson - and who's he wrestling on the floor with? Oh, why it's Sean Connery, of course.
And the kid brother? David McCallum. (who may actually be a kid at that point. He looks about 15)
The second day's offering started out with one of the all-time classics of American movies, Sunset Boulevard. I dragged scarlettina to this because *gasp* she's never seen it.
What more can you say about this? (well, if you're *me*, probably quite a bit, but I don't what to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it). It did occur to me that, in the vexing protean question of genre for this film, you could call it a classic ghost story, a house haunted by two ghosts who simply don't know that they're dead yet. "Hotel California" a quarter-century before its time.
This was paired with an odd little film, Repeat Performance (when I described to my mom, she remembers seeing it, but not the title). A woman shoots her husband on New Year's Eve, and somehow gets the whole year to live over. She's an actress, he's something of a failed playwright (and an alcoholic, which is portrayed very accurately, and it seems the actor had the experience), and over the previous year he'd had an affair with a bitch of a playwright, tried to kill her, and so she shot him instead. Now she tries to change destiny and makes rather a mess of things. One of her best friends is a poet, who I think is coded as gay, played by Richard Basehart in his first screen role. She tells him to avoid a certain woman who will have him committed to a nut house, and he does at first, only to cause a meeting between the husband and the playwright lover... it's that kind of story. (Props to scarlettina for recognizing the "certain woman" as Lovely Howell from "Gillian's Island"). The organizer and host, Eddie Muller, the "Czar of Noir", compared it to a Twilight Zone episode, and I think it's a fair comparison.
So, like Sunset Boulevard, it's a about a tormented writer, only here you're not rooting for him. Indeed, he's a jerk. In fact, that's the problem with this story. EVERYONE would be better off if these two just got a divorce. In Sunset Boulevard, everyone, even sweet little Nancy, is compromised by the system to a greater or lesser degree.
Eddie always tries to have at least one night of Pre-Code pictures, the "roots of Noir" -- in no way, he prefaces, would these be considered "Noir", but he likes to show themes that existed before, and what was lost when the Code came it. And these things are almost impossible to find, but both of these were Universal pictures produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. , and according to Eddie, Universal is *excellent* about film preservation.
First up was 1931's A House Divided, William Wyler's second talkie. It stars Walter Huston as a fisherman on some remote island who looses his wife in the opening credits (I thought it was the West of Ireland, but it's supposed to be the Pacific - while clearly Southern California. But we see Huston's character reading the Seattle P.I. at some point, so.......), and decides quickly that he needs a mail-order bride to do all the woman's work he won't do (and won't let his "weak" "delicate" son do it, even though he's just contemptuous of him). When a different bride arrives, with more interest in the son, then the fun begins.
Now, there are some elements of this that show up in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and other stories, but the really amazing thing is Huston, who is NOT the little old prospector in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre", he's huge, hale, and dangerous, like John Brown, and has a very naturalistic style of acting very much at odds with the clearly 1930s Universal look of the production.
Second was "Kiss Before the Mirror". A lawyer suspects his wife of infidelity after she displays the same sort of behavior as the murdered wife of his client, who killed his wife for being unfaithful.
This was by James Whale, and since the story is set in Austria, from a novel, they just reused sets from Frankenstein. And speaking of Oz, the man who played Oz in the original 1939 film plays the attorney. The murdered wife is a young Gloria Stewart (Old Rose, from Titanic). And I'm sure Amy would laugh uproariously at the courtroom hysterics, even if set in Austria.
So this night was "African American Film Noir Night" which was only half true.
The first film was a strange tale of film in and of itself. After the success of Richard Wright's Native Son (and a stage adaptation by Housman and Welles) , people thought it should be made into a movie. The problem was it wasn't exactly material that a studio would touch - I mean, both interracial touching and Communism? Mortal danger for the Republic.
So some crazy Frenchman decided to film it in Argentina. Starring the author himself, Richard Wright, as Bigger Thomas. Filmed by a guy who became president of Bolivia. Twice.
Wright is NOT a good actor, but he's no worse than most of the others here; and all the ADR work (because all lot of these people were not native speakers of English) make it not the greatest acting movie. The mom and the girlfriend were the only two who were good actors. And the film never got a release in the US, because the potential distributors wanted to hack it to pieces, making the story incomprehensible.
But it does work as a noir, both in the look of the film, and the lurid story. I mean, replace Wright with John Garfield, make him a poor Italian or Jewish kid who screws up royally and can't think his way out, and that's a fine noir right there.
I of course love indie low budget films, and that certainly reminiscent of those - you've got plenty of people eager to make movie who have no idea what they're doing...
Eddie Muller told a whole story about how he was first shown this film (by an Argentinian guy who also had the complete Metropolis), with the cameraman (who was the two-time president of Bolivia), when he was simply asked "Is this noir?"
The second film Eddie showed, "Intruder in the Dust", was an example of the way Hollywood handled the "race question". I think he would agree (I should ask) that this really wasn't "noir", but it was interesting, much more polished and professional, but also more "white" and more distant from its African American character. In fact, the whole thing plays like a dress rehearsal for "To Kill A Mockingbird". Only with fewer girls (but with one kick-ass old lady). It wasn't a bad film, though the film - the physical condition of the celluloid - was pretty miserable.
This night was Suspense night.
First up was a brilliant new digital restoration of a late "noir" film(1962) , Experiment in Terror. This was the only film besides Sunset Boulevard in the series that I'd even heard of. Lee Remick and kid sister Stephanie Powers (and I mean kid- she's just a teenager) are threatened by a bank robber who wants Remick to rob her bank for him (he's Artemis Gordon from Wild Wild West). They are defended by FBI agent Glenn Ford. It was directed by Blake Edwards, better known for comedy, who brought along Henry Mancini for a nice musical score. All beautifully shot in San Francisco (ok, not as beautiful as Vertigo, but then Edwards ain't Hitchcock, either)
(there's one scene where the baddie surprises Remick in a restaurant restroom, and then slips away. Fer christsake, woman, run after him, jump him and kick him in the balls!!! You KNOW the cops are watching you!! and you know they aren't sure where he is!! No, no, this is a woman in the early 1960s, too timid. Too bad. Most of the women I know today would have run after him, jumped him, and kicked him in the balls)
Eddie's definition is that classic "noir" basically ends with "Psycho" which came out the same year, by being more matter-of-fact about sexual-psychological aberration. Those familiar with my anal definition of Science Fiction vs. Fantasy may be surprised to learn I'm more flexible about what's noir, but that's because the term Film Noir is ad hoc, after the fact, from without, and somewhat arbitrary.
Next up was the shorter "The Window", a strange sort of noir, evil twisted twin of Home Alone, in which a little kid witnesses a murder on a hot Manhattan night, but can't get anyone to believe him (mostly because he's previously demonstrated an active imagination). Dad is played by Arthur Kennedy (the reporter in Lawarance of Arabia) and the movie was shot almost completely on location in Manhattan - and not in the rich section. (Eddie's Trivia Point - it was shot before Naked City - trumpeted as the first film shot in Manhattan - but obscure and released later, so not credited as such; it was one of those films shelved because a certain executive didn't think it would do well, in this case Howard Hughes). It certainly is suspenseful, and I think Eddie's right, it's more suspenseful than Experiment in Terror, partly because it's more claustrophobic, set in the decaying tenements of Manhattan rather than the open, sunny spaces of San Francisco houses.
This night was 3-D Noir night at Noir City. So we were all crammed into the 3-D theater at SIFF Uptown.
First up was Man in the Dark, the second ever 3-D movie. A thief gets his mind wiped in an experimental brain surgery (woo-hoo, 3-D surgery from the POV of the brain!) and doesn't remember where he hid $100,000. His partners in the heist don't believe him, and neither does a persistent insurance agent. It all culminates in a chase across the roller coaster at the Santa Monica pier.
This being an early 3-D, there are lots of silly pop-outs (birds, spiders), and camera angles (firing guns right into the camera) but this being noir, some thug also tries to put out a cigar in someone's eye.
Second was the technicolor glory of "Inferno", sit in the California high desert (lots of Joshua trees). A rich wife and her geologist lover decide to leave her no-good alcoholic husband for dead when he breaks his leg on a camping trip (looking for a mineral investment) out in the desert. So they fake a location for the camp and send the search off in the wrong direction. The only problem is that the old guy refuses to die. A lot of the picture is survival in the desert. But there's also lots of noir betrayal. And Rhonda Fleming looks gorgeous in restored Technicolor. (there's some 3-D wackiness only at the end)
Bot these films have been digitally restored, so they look gorgeous. Especially the Technicolor of Inferno. And the latter has a complicated story; the studio contracted someone to restore it, then pulled the plug, and then he died. Another friend of Eddie's went through this guy's stuff to discover he'd finished the job. He showed the film to Eddie, and had him contact the studio. And then HE died. So Eddie says "I am well aware of the problem hanging over this"
But it looked gorgeous.
A lot of what get's shown at Noir City showcases the preservation work of the Noir Foundation, and last night there were three no-nonsense B-picture noirs that the Foundation has been working on:
"Street of Chance" - Burgess Meredith wakes up in the middle of a street after a bop on the head - with no idea how he got there, with strange initials on his hat and cigarette case, and when he gets home he finds he's been gone a year. And now someone's chasing him. WHAT'S GOING ON????? And of course what follows is a tale betrayal and murder... along with double amnesia (I told you these were B pictures, right?)
"The Chase" - Boy, this takes the festival weird prize. And presages David Lynch by a couple decades. A guy takes a job with a sociopathic gangster and eventually decides to help the gangster's beautiful wife escape this monster. Then the whole story doubles back on itself. Peter Lorre is very entertaining as the gangster's ironical, flippant #1 guy.
"High Tide" - two men are trapped in a wreaked car on the shore as the tide comes in. The story of how they got there - one of murder, betrayal, corruption - and newspapers - is told in flashback.
Night 8 - a Coda
We passholders this year got a special treat this year - it was a free pass into the 3-D re-release of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder".
Now, while Hitchcock is certainly known for thrillers, and is often lumped with "noir" -- he really isn't "noir" in my humble opinion. He didn't often draw from pulps, but rather stage plays, and Hitch was too much of a control freak to take the chances a noir director would have.
As for the film itself, well, it looks fine because it's a digital restoration, though I will say that Warner Color wasn't as good as Technicolor. (Though Ray Miland wore an awesome blue plaid suit with navy honeycomb pattern tie in the last act) But it largely felt like my View Master had come to life. Which was my original feeling about "Inferno".
If you've ever seen "Dial M for Murder" (which until today I never had) you might have wondered why there were objects in the foreground between you and the characters. Now I know why - to create depth of field. And it's not like 3-D adds to this movie, which was adapted from a stage play. Except for Grace Kelly's hand stretching out in the dark, there really aren't many "3-D" moments - it barely leaves one room. It was made during the end of the 3-d craze, and Hitchcock rightly predicted that it would be released "flat". And, again, it's really not a big-spectical piece to start with.
I suppose we have the luxury of hindsight we can see that other Hitchcocks would have worked better -- the huge set he built for Rear Window (his next film), or the vertigo of Vertigo. But I think the best would have seen North by Northwest (my favorite Hitchcock) - imagine the cropduster in 3-D? Or hanging off Mount Rushmore?
trimmed for your amusement..