Out of the Past to the Present: A Weekend of Film Noir at American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre
by Alan Rode
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The memories of joyous anticipation during youthful Saturday afternoons at the old neighborhood theatre swirled through me while queuing up for the opening of the Fourth Annual Festival of Film Noir. The festival is being put on by The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and started this past Friday. As a confirmed (or certifiable) film noir junkie for some years, I look forward to this event with unalloyed pleasure. This year, I decided to try to run the table on the entire opening weekend, meeting my friend, Marc Dolezal, the “noirmaster” of the film noir website “Dark Film Discussions,” along with our families for a weekend of film noir and fun.
As I entered the Egyptian Theatre for the initial screening, I waved to festival co-host Eddie Muller who was deep in conversation with a semi-circle of people. Muller, the author of several terrific books on film noir, “Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir” and “Dark City Dames,” is the leading spirit behind the Film Noir Festival and has probably done more than any single individual to promote classic film noir during the last decade.
The festival opener was The Naked City (1948) with the film’s screenwriter, Malvin Wald in attendance for a discussion after the screening. Before the screening, the audience was reminded that this Jules Dassin directed classic was the first police “docu-drama” of its type. I’m happy to report that, 54 years later; this film still holds it own. The superb New York location photography by William Daniels, excellent script by Wald, casting against type of Barry Fitzgerald as the wry police lieutenant and reptilian evil of noir heavy Ted de Corsia made this film a delight to watch. The quality of the excellent 35 mm print of this film and others shown during the weekend on the big screen within the sylvan atmosphere of the Egyptian is challenging to describe to those souls who have only watched these movies on VHS tapes or television. “Worth the price of admission” is the only suitable phrase that comes to mind.
Screenwriter Malvin Wald began talking as soon he was introduced and didn’t stop until it was time to roll the next film. Wald opened by reminding everyone that his scripted tag line, “There are eight million stories in The Naked City.” has become a permanent part of lexicon Americana, most recently by Whoopi Goldberg during last weeks Oscars ceremony. He described how he conceived the police docudrama idea with Producer Mark Hellinger, broke new ground by spending time with the N.Y.P.D. case files and even segued into a minute discussion of autopsy protocols that caused nervous titters in the audience. After summarizing several career highlights, Wald related an interesting tale of studio politics that compelled him to share screenwriting credit with “a man I never met”. Wald claimed that in return for acquiescing to joint writing credit on the titles, Hellinger promised him that he could write the screenplay for one of Hemingway’s works that the producer owned the rights to. Wald concluded: “Unfortunately, Hellinger dropped dead three weeks later.” Only in Hollywood.
The second screening was a double bill of Phantom Lady (1944) and Christmas Holiday (1944). Robert Siodmak, whose body of film noir work is the principle theme for this year’s festival, directed both of these films.
Phantom Lady is a smooth adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s dark tale of a girl Friday (Ella Raines) seeking the missing witness who can spring her boss from the Death House. The haunting photography and rapid pacing captured the audience with Elisha Cook Jr’s orgasmic drum solo sequence earning a roaring ovation. Despite Franchot Tone picking up some off-center laughs with a somewhat dated turn as a psychopathic killer, there was excellent work by both Raines and steady Thomas Gomez as a tough police captain. I must also add that this festival attracts the most discriminating and knowledgeable of audiences. During the intermission, I quietly asked my friend if he knew what ever happened to Ella Raines. A man sitting two rows ahead of me, immediately pivoted and rattled off Ella Raines’ complete post screen bio including the acting credits of her daughter and the date of her death six years ago. Tough crowd.
Christmas Holiday may be the most incongruous title for one of the oddest movies ever made. The plot, based on a Somerset Maugham story, has a WWII second lieutenant with a Dear John letter in his pocket, flying home to San Francisco when bad weather forces his plane down in New Orleans on Christmas Eve. A drunken newspaperman takes him to a roadhouse where he is paired off with a young chanteuse who asks him to take her to midnight mass in the Big Easy. The lady breaks down in tears during the service and relates in a flashback, her whirlwind courtship and marriage to a seemingly nice guy who lives with his gracious and courtly Mom. The nice guy turns out to be a murderer and the mother is an antebellum version of “My Mother, The Control Freak.” Cast in the role of the ingenue was songstress Deanna Durbin with a young Gene Kelly as the sociopathic husband! This strange film works surprisingly well with first rate performances by Durbin, Kelly and Gale Sondergaard as the overly devoted mother.
The early screening on Saturday mustered some real star power. Panic in the Streets (1950) was shown along with a personal appearance by actor Jack Palance. Panic stars Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas and Zero Mostel with Palance making his screen debut as the principle heavy. The print was flawless and this dark suspenser, shot on location in New Orleans by Elia Kazan, is a truly excellent film. The crackling dialogue and whippet pace of a subterranean police manhunt for small time grifters who are pneumonic plague carriers kept the audience riveted. After the credits, Jack Palance was introduced to a loud ovation. The interview, conducted by Cinematheque film programmer Dennis Bartok, initially faltered as several questions dealing with minutiae such as wardrobe selection and scene motivation over a half century ago failed to pique the 81 year old Palance’s memory or interest. As both men settled in, the Oscar winning actor related a number of amusing and interesting anecdotes. Numerous questions about role and movie selection throughout his long career invariably provoked similar responses along the lines of, “the money was guaranteed…” Acting may be an craft, but it is definitely a job, even to an Oscar winner. Poignantly, Palance remarked that he would be attending an “an actor thing” this summer with Richard Widmark: “I liked Dick tremendously when we worked together in this movie and another one shortly thereafter. I haven’t seen him in over 50 years and am really looking forward to it.” For me, this comment drove home both the foraging existences of an actor and how very few of the original film noir alumni are still among us.
We skipped the late screenings on Saturday to recharge our collective batteries. I found out later that the widow of the late Dane Clark showed up unexpectedly to watch one of her husband’s best movies, Whiplash (1948). She was graciously invited back for the April 12th screening of Frank Borzage’s brilliant Moonrise (1948) starring Clark and Lloyd Bridges. One of the most charming attributes of the Film Noir Festival is the unexpected materialization of former actors, their families and associates. Earlier festivals were graced by the impromptu appearances of such noir luminaries as Beverly Michaels and the notorious and recently departed Lawrence Tierney.
Roadblock (1951) is a neat little RKO “B” movie starring one of my favorite film noir actors, Charles McGraw. With a face etched in granite and a guttural rasp of a voice, McGraw personifies post WWII classic film noir. Normally known for unabashed cinematic evil, he plays an insurance investigator who falls hard for a fast filly (Joan Dixon). Dixon loves Charlie’s embrace but has a sweet tooth for mink stoles, champagne and nightclubs. McGraw’s paltry salary envelopes don’t begin to cut the mustard. He opts for setting up a money shipment heist in order to finance his dream life with La Dixon. Predictably, things go awry with Charles becoming a man slowly trapped by his own ethical lapses. It was initially disconcerting seeing McGraw struck by the doldrums of lovesickness and female manipulation. Later, as he wore a sadistic grin after sending an automobile containing a crime boss over a cliff in flames, I felt reassured that McGraw wasn’t at all out of his depth.
The Fourth Annual Film Noir Festival is a unique event and the American Cinematheque deserves great credit for putting on this annual exhibition of classic film noir. The festival runs through April 14th. It is a must for all film noir aficionados and all lovers of films, period should check it out.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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