Noir City—The 8th Annual Festival of Film Noir at American Cinematheque
by Alan Rode
Running April 12-May 2, 2007
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The L.A. Film Noir Festival really gained traction this week with some superb screenings and great attendance for the hypercompetitive Tinseltown movie market.
Thursday’s double bill at the Egyptian was Cry of the City (1948)and City of Fear (1959). The former picture isone of the classic Fox noirs that has yet to be issued in DVD format- an omission that noir aficionados find baffling.
Darryl F. Zanuck returned to 20th Century Fox in 1944—as Otto Preminger sarcastically put it, the mogul was, “off filming the war”—realizing thatprewar Hollywood fare such as Andy Hardy and the traditional gangster pictures wouldn’t cut it anymore.
The documentary style of filmmaking was first popularized at Fox by Louis De Rochemont with The House of 92nd Street had melded with the overt post WWII noir realism popularized by Mark Hellinger at U-I with The Killers and Brute Force. Movie producers became locked in mortal combat with the Production Code dictates as overseen by prelate censor, Joseph I. Breen, as they struggled to bring reality to drama on screen.
Zanuck saw Cry of the City as the final piece of a trifecta ofurban realism along with Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and Kazan’s Boomerang!
The Fox mogul tapped Robert Siodmak as director for Cry of the City. Siodmak is one of the seminal if unheralded film noir directors who came from Europe with Wilder, Preminger, and Lang and brought the German Expressionistic style first to Universal beginning with horror (Son of Dracula).reeling off a string of exquisitely crafted, dark films: Phantom Lady, The Suspect, Christmas Holiday and culminating with The Killers, for which he was nominated for best director.
Where Zanuck wanted was street realism while Siodmakexcelled atthe craftsmanship ofstudio filming. For Cry of the City—it was acombination of the best of both worlds. The majority of the film was shot on the Fox lot with some second unit filmingaccomplished in the Big Apple to underscore the urban setting of the piece. The screenplay adapted from Henry Edward Helseth’s novel The Chair for Martin Rome, about two boyhood Italian friends who grow up to be opposing cop and crook, went through iterative drafts by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer until it was picked up by Richard Murphy, who penned Boomerang! and Panic in the Streets.
The cast is film noir’s version of the 1927 Yankees. The underrated Victor Mature is the cop, Richard ‘Nick” Conte is the crook. There is also ayouthfully misguided Shelley Winters and a gallery of noir character players including Fred Clark, Betty Garde, the always-slimy Berry Kroeger and film noir’s feminine editionof The Giant Behemoth, the great Hope Emerson in a terrific part as a massuese-jewel thief that precedes her Oscar nominated turn in Caged. Emerson had some great lines and scences- including one of the most memorable camera shots in noir when she passes through several doorways, turning on lights, as filmed through the front door walk-up window from Richard Conte’s perspective. The Egyptian audience loved Hope and reacted to her presence more than any other actor in the film.
Cry of the City includes the screen debut of Debra Paget and a striking performance by an eighteen year old actor who plays Richard Conte’s brother, who began his film career in the Adventures of Red Ryder, and who wasthe screening guest, Tommy Cook.
Tommy was great. He reminisced about the film including histerrific respect for Robert Siodmak (“great skill and taste at the level of a Hitchcock andWyler…”) and also recalledknocking on Victor Mature’sdressing room trailer doorwhen the star was being called to the set andobserving theentire trailer bouncing up and down. The dressing room rock was haltedwhen a sweaty Mature answered the door and said, “I’ll be out in a minute, kid.” According Tommy, there was abevy of beautiful girls parading in and out ofthebeefcake star’strailer during the filming. I cracked that a betterpunchline to this storywould have been Mature opening the door for Tommy and Hope Emerson exiting, but this wasn’t ahorror flick! Actually, TommyCook’smost insightful comment wasvisual.We watched the film together andat the finale when he stands over his dead brother, ‘Nick’ Conte andthere isa long tracking shot of Tommywalking back down to a wounded Mature,getting into acab with him andbawling. I stole a look at Tommynext to me and thetears were streaming down his cheeks.Cry of the City holds up, especially for Tommy Cook.
The second feature, City of Fear (1959), was a real hoot.
Vince Edwards is unbound as a escaped con with a vessel of cobalt 60 that he thinks is dope. All of L.A. is under threat as Edwards is slowly dying from radiation poisoning, but oblivious to it all. An interesting plot and some crackling dialogue end up being compromised by a budget that would buy dinner for three at Pink’s Hot Dog Stand and some really amateurish looking sequences and editing; the film was reputedly shot in seven days. The notion of three men in a bare office with a map of L.A. on the wall making life and death determinations for the entire L.A. metro areabecame intermittently amusing.That aspect gottrumped by a boffo finale when Edwards dies clutching the radioactive sphere as a blanket is draped over him with a ‘Danger- Radiation” sign placed on his back!
Film Noir at the Egyptian and Aero Theatres in Los Angeles
The 8th Annual Festival ofFilm Noir jumped off at the Egyptian Theatre last Thursday night. Although the American Cinematheque, the sponsor of this enterprise, there are some new wrinkles in the dark shading of this year’s festival:
Thursday’s opener wasAct of Violenceand Force of Evil.
The former film is a gritty post WWII vengenance tour through the bowels of downtown L.A., withprison campsquealer Van Heflin trying to stay ahead of revenge-laden Robert Ryan who is hot pursuit. As Heflin is distracted by a troupe of noir grotesques led by Mary Astor (as a shopworn hooker!), Taylor Holmes and Berry Kroeger, gorgeous wife Janet Leigh frets back home in Big Bear. A great solo noirentry by director Fred Zinneman.
Force of Evil is writer-director Abe Polonsky’s classic moral lesson on the interlocking relationships between business, crime and immorality played out in a urban setting between two brothers John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. In particular, Gomez soars in this film. Add in a pounding David Raksin score and Marie Windsor in a negligee and one doesn’t need anything more.
Opening night waspreceded by a booksigning reception for the hard-boiled anthology, L.A. Noir that washosted by the book’s editor-writer Denise Hamilton. I had the pleasure of meeting Denise, a formerL.A. Times beat reporter, a woman who has truly grabbed life by the throat andis definite femme fatale material. The best selling Demon Dog of noir literature James Ellroy was also on hand to offer his typically uproarious and expletive-laden take on film noir during a raucous screeningintroduction with Eddie Muller. Don’t let the profane blusterputyou off ,though. James is an extremelynicefellow who isexceedingly generous and considerate.
Friday night kicked off with a beautiful WB print of Armored Car Robbery (1950), one of my favorite films. After delivering what a friend of mine dubbed a ‘Charles McGraw-centric’ introduction, I zipped out of the theatre and into to West Hollywood to pick up the screening guest for Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Kim Hamilton.She played Harry Belafonte’s wife and appeared in many other memorable films, includingTo Kill a Mockingbird and The Leech Woman,along with innumerable television programs. Poised and striking, Kim wasextremely gracious during the Q&A that proceeded Odds, reflecting on her luck in playing Harry Belafonte’s wife, her impressions of co-stars Shelley Winters, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley and Gloria Grahame. She also noted that blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky was laboring by his lonesome in a room on the set while the interiors were being filmed in the Bronx.
Saturday was a Clifford Odets D/F. The Big Knife is Odets’examination of movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance with a 20-inch waist) crumbling under the pressures of stardom, an imploding marriage and blackmail. This overripe, talkymoviehas an all-star cast highlighted bya scenery-chomping performance by Rod Steiger, doing his best impression of what everyone thought Harry Cohn waslike; notverynice.
The second feature was a classic that is near and dear to my heart: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The back stories about this film arelegion—I recommend Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair’s The Bad & The Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties—and I won’t repeat them here.Watching this beautifully restored print (in large measure due to the yeoman work of restoration expert and friend Mike Hyatt) on the big screen with James Wong Howe’ssupple camerawork, while savoringCliff Odets lyrical dialogue (“I love this dirty town,” “You’re dead, son, go getyourself buried”and “Sidney, C’mere, I want to chastise you”) was apure delight. The Q&A between Eddie Muller and Susan Harrison (Lancaster’s sister in Sweet Smell) was apleasurable eventset the tablefor an epic screening.
Sunday night opened with The Port of New York (1949), a rarely seen Eagle-Lion film starring Yul Brynner, Scott Brady and Lynne Carter. I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this rarity and felt a bit disappointed. There are sequences that crackled withaction (helped by a young Neville Brand applying the muscle) but overall the script and even the high quality 16mm print (an archival copybelonging toYul Brynner’s daughter, maintained by the Motion Picture Academy)didn’t meetexpectations that were setfor me byT-Men, Reign of Terrorand Raw Deal.Any let down was more thanmitigatedby the time I spent with LynneCarter during the weekend. I located Miss Carter living in Scottsdale, Arizona, back in February and invited her out for the screening.Lynne was a lovely guest and was voluble about her careerin the movies and on stage with Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and other luminariesduring an extended conversation after the screening. Lynne was also married to William Talman, of film noir and Perry Mason fame, and it was fascinating to get some personal insights into an actor who has always interested me.Also gratifying was the surprise appearance ofthe late actor Scott Brady’s sons during the screening. It was a treat torepair into the Green Room afterwards to hear a few choice tidbits about Dad Scott and”Uncle Larry”—bad-boy actor Lawrence Tierney.
Iinitially watched The Breaking Point (1950) at Noir City in San Francisco last year. I watched it againlast night. This film just gets better. Hands down, this is John Garfield’s best performance, arguably Patricia Neal’s top three and is among director Michael Curtiz’sfinest pictures. Just a beautifully written, acted and shot film: the definitive version of To Have and Have Not with an endingthat leavesyou with thesensation of a kicked solar plexus. Sherry Jackson was only eight years old when she played Garfield’s daughter but recalled the charismatic star along with a plethora of memories from an incredible career in films and television that has spanned 52 years. The still-beautiful Jackson touched on such disparate subjects as Michael Curtiz, John Wayne, Star Trek and, prodded by Eddie Muller, her legendary Playboy layout that stirred legions of adolescent American boys in the mid-1960s.
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation. His biography of the classic noir heavy Charles McGraw will be released later this year. You can read about the book and pre-order it here.
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