Back Alleys and Dark Shadows: The Sixth Annual Film Noir Festival
by Alan Rode
The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian Theatre
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Hollywood’s darkest film festival made its annual bow this week at the historic Egyptian Theatre. One of the American Cinematheque’s most anticipated events, this year’s “noirfest” was happily co-programmed and hosted for the sixth consecutive year by the celebrated ‘Czar of Noir,’ author and dark film expert Eddie Muller.
The 2004 film noir festival put on by the Cinematheque continues to be in the vanguard of the nationwide renewal in film noir. This year’s theme focuses on the great hard-boiled pulp and crime fiction writers who made film noir what it was and still is.
For those cinephile purists who might grumble that they have watched many of these films on television or video/DVD, they are missing a key point.
As Eddie Muller succinctly put it, watching these movies is fundamentally about seeing film being projected by light on the big screen in the original format. With film noir, there just isn’t an equivalent substitute for the actual artistic vision.
Two of James M. Cain’s classic tales of ordinary people who cross the line and keep right on going towards perdition led off opening night.
Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce are woven so deeply into the fabric of Americana that a detailed explanation isn’t necessary. Suffice to say, if your spouse starts inquiring into accident insurance or you’re a single Mom with a burning ambition to live for your daughter, go watch both of these classics to be prepared for all contingencies.
Double Indemnity (1944) had the ‘dream team’ screenwriter duo of director Billy Wilder and ultimate hard-boiled prose stylist Raymond Chandler. Both men actually improved on Cain’s book for the screen. Although these two talented-laden heavyweights hated each other guts before the picture wrapped, what they wrought was a masterpiece of a fatalistic dead alley highlighted by wonderfully dyspeptic dialogue. Gorgeously lensed by John Seitz, this classic is beautifully realized by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson who nearly strolls off with the entire picture in his vest pocket.
Mildred Pierce (1945) is much more than Joan’s tour de force Oscar winner as the woman who rose to the top while enabling her daughter-from-hell, Ann Blyth to ruin both their lives. Randall MacDougall’s script pours additional vitriol to Cain’s story that is ably served up by ace director Michael Curtiz. The Warner Bros. stock company led by Jack Carson (his performance gives new meaning to the word ‘smarmy’), wisecracking Eve Arden, Zachary Scott, and Bruce Bennett were never better than in this film.
Dashiell Hammett ‘s The Glass Key (1942) led off a trifecta of Friday evening screenings. Dipped in cynicism and buffed with violence, this tale of big city corruption amidst family skeletons and murder has improved with age. The box office A-Team of Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd were ably supported by perpetually underrated Brian Donlevy and a surprisingly sadistic William Bendix as a murderous thug. Hollywood lore has it that Bendix accidentally cold-cocked the diminutive Ladd during one of their fight scenes with both men subsequently becoming fast friends.
A double-header tribute to the great Raymond Chandler followed on Friday night screenings. By way of introduction, Eddie Muller remarked about the irony of a failed, middle aged, oil executive educated in England becoming the ultimate cultural chronicler of America’s most storied megalopolis. Film noir appeals to so many of us because it is so thoroughly grounded in reality. Raymond Chandler’s life is an actual case in point.
Murder My Sweet (1944) is the definitive sendup of ‘Chandlers Farewell My Lovely that was published four years earlier. This film was a career watershed for both director Edward Dmytryk, who permanently ramped up to ‘A’ productions, and ex-hoofer Dick Powell who left the Gold Diggers in the dust by fashioning a new screen identity playing hard-boiled, weary tough guys. The sparsely lighted RKO sets (lit with cigarette butts according to Bob Mitchum, who should know…) were the perfect backdrop for Powell as gumshoe Philip Marlowe pounding the L.A. pavement for hulking thug Mike Mazurki in search of his missing ‘Zelda.’ Claire Trevor defines the term ‘femme fatale’ in a film that is simply extra special.
The Blue Dahlia (1946) boasts a Chandler Oscar nominated screenplay that were completed under the most unusual of circumstances. A lifelong imbiber, Chandler couldn’t come up with the ending to the story and finally presented producer John Houseman with an ultimatum to cure writer’s block and keep both of them from being fired by Paramount. Let him work at home, keep him supplied with a continuous flow of alcohol and provide a nurse to watch over him and Chandler would finish the screenplay! With no choice, Houseman agreed and the picture was completed on schedule.
The resultant picture is a classic example of 1940’s Hollywood, hard-boiled style. Alan Ladd returns from the war with buddies William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont and soon finds his philandering wife dead on in her apartment with him in the police crosshairs as the prime suspect. Of course, Laddie was teamed with Veronica Lake who was involved with sinister nightclub owner Howard Da Silva…well, no spoilers here.
Four films were screened on Saturday starting with The Fallen Sparrow (1943). Dorothy B. Hughes’ paean to the Loyalist idealism of the Spanish Civil War stars the relentless John Garfield with a beautiful, if miscast Maureen O’Hara. The complicated plot revolves around German agents, a dead N.Y.C, policeman and a missing battle standard. All ambiguities fade away when Garfield is in full throttle, bursting into rooms and dominating scenes with passion and punchy dialogue. Rotund Walter Slezak scores as a uniquely sinister villain with the comely Patrician Morison adding heft as the ‘other’ woman.
The talented Patricia Morison was the special screening guest at the Egyptian Theatre.
Still brimming with vitality, the comely star discussed both her film resume that was notable for circumstantial letdowns as well as her meteoric Broadway career of smashing successes with host Eddie Muller.
Her entire part as Victor Mature’s tragic wife in Kiss of Death (1947) was cut from the final release film. The production code of the day apparently could not stomach the portrayal of a wife who was raped and committed suicide even though Miss Morison related that she got a letter from Darryl F. Zanuck praising her performance.
Morison was being fitted with costumes for her role opposite Alan Ladd in The Glass Key (1942) when she was abruptly informed that she was being dropped in favor of Veronica Lake. The stated reason was her height difference opposite the vertically challenged Alan Ladd.
She was equally comfortable relating her towering successes on Broadway as Kiss Me Kate and in The King and I opposite, respectively, Alfred Drake and Yul Brynner.
I asked Morison about her role as a femme fatale murderess opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946). She responded that this film was a particular delight for her, speaking with great affection about Rathbone and Nigel “Willie” Bruce. Morison’s meaty role in this programmer included impersonating a charwoman that subsequently had her banned from the studio commissary when she showed up for lunch in costume!
The Saturday night double feature was what film noir addicts dream of. Two rare films based on the work of Cornell Woolrich. One of the most prolific writers of any material, Woolrich is literally the godfather of dark fiction that has been adapted for the screen. From Rear Window, Phantom Lady, The Night has a Thousand Eyes, and Black Angel to Deadline at Dawn, Woolrich specialized in putting people in circumstances where their innocence quickly fades as fate hammers them to bereft pulp.
The Chase (1946) is based on a vintage Woolrich tale of duplicit suspense. This bizarre film was well described by Eddie Muller who termed it, “as close as Hollywood got to David Lynch during the 1940’s.”
A man (Robert Cummings) finds a wallet on a Miami street and returns it to the rightful owner, a sadistic crime kingpin, played with verve by Steve Cochran. Cummings ends hiring on as a chauffeur to Cochran who keeps house with a beautiful wife, a mad dog and Peter Lorre as his sinister aide-de-camp. When Cummings lams it to Havana with Cochran’s wife in tow, all hell breaks loose…or does it?
Even though eccentric director Arthur Ripley appears to have lighted several scenes in this picture with the candles from a birthday cake, it is great fun. The poor condition of the extremely rare print underscores the need to accelerate preservation of these rapidly disappearing films.
More rare was the screening of I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948). This film was the producing debut of the legendary Walter Mirsch and has probably not been publicly exhibited since the original theatrical release. The print was loaned to the American Cinematheque by film noir archivist, ‘Dark Marc’ Dolezal of Danger and Despair. You just have to love a picture that displays a montage drawing of a noose with a pair of shoes dangling from it juxtaposed against the opening credits.
Woolrich’s story of a pair of shoes being thrown out of a window at a yowling cat that implicates an innocent man in murder gets the full Poverty Row treatment with tinsel sets and laughable performances. Don Castle looked like he was perpetually amused to be on Death Row as an innocent man and the script by Steve Fisher was uncharacteristically hackneyed. I enjoyed the film immensely because I was laughing so hard at some of the cliches. As somebody noted afterwards, one should be suspicious of any film where perpetual screen cop Regis Toomey gets to kiss the girl!
Sunday’s double bill featured an all-time classic film penned by one of Hollywood’ greatest writers and an underrated and frequently forgotten picture from the noir canon.
High Sierra (1941) is one of the seminal films of the 1940’s. Scripted by the great W.R. Burnett whose incredible career spanned Little Caesar (1930) to The Great Escape (1963) and includes such classics as Scarface, This Gun for Hire and The Asphalt Jungle. This picture made a star of Humphrey Bogart and was a pivotal transition from the pure gangster films of the Thirties to the more complex, anti-hero pictures that reached full flower during the post WWII period.
Eddie Muller, tongue firmly inserted in cheek, praised the late George Raft for turning down this role along with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca which allowed Bogie’s career to reach its glorious zenith during the early 1940’s.
As Mad Dog Roy Earle, last of the Dillinger gang, Bogart crafted a paradoxical character, falling first for ingenue Joan Leslie and after being rebuffed, ending up in the arms of Ida Lupino. Ida, who excelled at playing the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, sticks with Earle to the bitter end finale near Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Mountains.
I’ve watched High Sierra many times, but until I saw it this terrific 35mm print, the ending didn’t hit me in the gut like it did at this screening. Definitely a compelling film experience.
The term ‘living doll’ isn’t a cliché term when it is applied to special screening guest, Joan Leslie. The vivacious and charming star was a mere 15 years old when she debuted in High Sierra as ‘Joan Leslie’ after a career as a child performer on stage and 14 films under her belt as ‘Joan Brodel.’
During Eddie Muller’s post screening Q&A, Miss Leslie went out of her way to praise the gentlemanly demeanor and assistance of both High Sierra director Raoul Walsh and Bogart who reined in their typical brambly language and rough kidding on the set for her benefit.
Miss Leslie went on to reminiscence about her starring roles opposite Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Sergeant York (1941) with Gary Cooper—both Academy Award Best Actor nods for each of these screen icons.
As a young star, Leslie demonstrated that she had a true artistic backbone and wanted to choose her own roles. When she sought to nullify her Warner ‘s contract signed as a minor, she ran afoul of tyrannical mogul, Jack L. Warner who first suspended and then blackballed her for a period during the mid 1940’s. Listening to Joan Leslie, one was reminded that the classic Hollywood period of the 1940’s was a relentless industry where the artists were indentured to the studio bosses with no prisoners being taken until the entire system flew apart during the following decade.
The second film on Sunday afternoon was Fallen Angel (1945) directed by Otto Preminger for Fox and scripted by Harry Kleiner. This frequently overlooked follow up to Preminger’s smash hit Laura (1944) is in some respects an even darker tale. When drifter Dana Andrews steps off a bus with two bits in his pocket and runs into luscious hash slinger, Linda Darnell, you know the sparks are going to fly. Andrews is rapidly conflicted between lusting for Darnell and yearning for the financial security of Alice Faye while being implicated in small town politics and murder.
Partially filmed in an antebellum looking Orange, California, this picture boasts a strong supporting cast headed by Charles Bickford, Ann Revere and Percy Kilbride with a neat denouement that takes care of business.
The Sixth Annual Film Noir Festival continues on April 9th and runs through the weekend. More dark ramblings to follow after this weekend. Stay tuned!
Alan Rode is a freelance writer and film noir aficionado living in Encino, California.
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