The 2005 Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
by Alan Rode
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The fifth year of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival featured a celebrity-studded bonanza of rare films and insider Hollywood details that delighted film historians, film noir buffs and movie fans alike. Many of this year’s attendees traveled from out of state and in some cases, from other countries to attend what has become the nation’s most informal and fun-filled film noir festival event.
Along with ‘master caster’ Marvin Paige, wife and co-producer Barbara Lyons, Camelot Theatre manager, Jason Bruecks and film archivists Jay Fenton and ‘Dark Marc’ Dolezal, Lyons fielded a similar winning festival team from previous years in the hopes of exceeding audience expectations once again. It was my privilege to again assist Art with the moderator duties during this year’s festival.
Opening night featured the glitterati of Hollywood premieres with audience members decked out in their classic film noir best and hobnobbing with the stars.
My film noir weekend was quickly made memorable when I was introduced to legendary star Eleanor Parker and briefly conversed with her about “Caged” (1950) and some of her memorable career highlights.
The opening night film was “Seconds” (1966) a picture that bombed during initial release, but has become a cult favorite over the years. The film depicts a mysterious organization that provides “rebirth” services to disconsolate middle-aged men. John Randolph is under study as he becomes remodeled into Rock Hudson. The unintended consequences of this startling change subsided to frequently plodding pace that culminates with a memorably shattering ending. This film is generally recognized as one of beefcake star Hudson’s finest screens performance.
Whether this picture is accurately categorized as science fiction or fantasy rather than film noir is a topic of debate between film historians. What I found undeniably impressive about “Seconds” is the surreal quality of James Wong Howe’s camera work, Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting musical score and quality work by an ensemble of character actors headed by Randolph, Murray Hamilton and Will Geer.
Salome Jens, who played the female lead opposite Hudson, was the post screening Q&A guest. Jens’ detailed version of her “spontaneous” nude scene in the film which required her to vault into a huge grape crushing vat stuffed with a horde of like-minded free spirits brought the house down and sent the opening night audience home delighted.
Friday morning’s screening of “Blonde Ice” (1948) was introduced by film restorer Jay Fenton. The Pennsylvania-based archivist provided four rare films for this year’s festival and has performed yeoman work with recent restorations of “Blonde Ice”, “The Chase” (1946) and “Bury Me Dead” (1947), all available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. “Blonde Ice” is classic “B” film noir; low production values and obscure performers sandwiched around an effective story about perverse obsession. A ruthless femme fatale (Leslie Brooks) turns to murder when her love life doesn’t meet expectations. This film might be considered a cinematic bridge between “Double Indemnity” and “Fatal Attraction”!
“I Was a Communist for the F.B.I” (1950) is a time capsule touchstone to the ‘Red Scare’ period courtesy of film archivist ‘Dark Marc’ Dolezal. The incessant jingoism and race baiting in the script would be laughable if one didn’t recall the actual misery and fear engendered during this shameful period of American history. The fact is that legitimate Soviet espionage efforts in the United States ended in 1945 escaped the notice of both Congress and the screenwriters of this ‘epic’. Frank Lovejoy lends dignity to the fact-based story of an undercover FBI agent penetrating the Communist Party in Pittsburgh, Pa along with solid support from Dorothy Hart, Phil Carey and Paul Picerni.
The effervescent Picerni was a smash hit during the post screening Q&A. The veteran character actor, still active his 80’s, is a gifted raconteur whose memoirs, co-authored with film historian Tom Weaver, are due for publication this year and should not be missed by any self-respecting film buff.
After taking the stage with Marc Dolezal, Picerni immediately launched into a series of uproarious reminiscences spanning an acting career that began in 1946.
After revealing that gangster Johnny Roselli directed him to ” never change a-your name from Italian…” (Picerni:” that was during the years when the Mafia ran Las Vegas, you know, when it was fun…”), the actor told the audience about his summary dismissal from the set of the “House of Wax” (1953).
“House of Wax” director Andre de Toth (“a sadist”, according to Picerni) ordered him to put his head in a working guillotine with a propman above balancing the blade between his knees while puffing on a Chesterfield. Picerni demurred at possible decapitation and De Toth banished him after screaming at the actor that he was “…a chickenshit” for not taking the artistic risk. After all, reasoned De Toth, it would only hurt for a second if the blade slipped because of an earthquake or if the propman erred…
When Jack L. Warner found out about this particular stab at cinematic realism, he ordered the stunt to be conducted safely without the publicity and liability nightmares that would arise due to a beheaded actor. A relieved Picerni and the company reconvened the next day to complete the gag and the film. Whew!
“Crime without Passion” (1934) was emblematic of the evolutionary screening decisions made as this festival has matured into its fifth year. Art Lyons: “I’m getting the most response from that film… because people have said they have, ‘I’ve never heard of it’. It’s the first time we’ve done a precursor to film noir”.
This rare pre-code print provided by “Danger and Despair film group leader, ‘Dark Marc’ Dolezal was produced and directed by the legendary writing duo of Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. After an extraordinary opening sequence showing the descending of the Furies, Claude Rains dominates the proceedings as a lawyer above the law. Margo, wife of the late Eddie Albert, plays Raines’ mistress with Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and his wife Helen Hayes appearing in bit parts.
James MacArthur and legendary author Ray Bradbury formed an unusually appropriate post -screening duo. MacArthur, one of the most disarmingly friendly celebrities I’ve ever encountered, reminisced about his famous Mother and Dad along with his days co-starring on ‘Hawaii Five-O’ with Jack Lord. After listening to MacArthur, I wondered how many other adults can remember coming home from middle school with a book report due on ‘The Pearl’ and find the author, John Steinbeck, seated at his parents kitchen table to discuss the book with him?
Ray Bradbury, still hale at age 85, related an amusing anecdote of hiring on for a polish job on one of Hecht’s scripts for David O. Selznick and after expending considerable effort, the legendary producer decided to stick with the original script written by Hecht. In response to my question about writing the screenplay for “Moby Dick” (1956) with John Huston, Bradbury exclaimed, “Don’t get me started!” The great writer provided a succinct and witty account of his yearlong odyssey of struggling through his first screenplay on location in Ireland for the larger-than life director, a paradoxically charming and sadistic rogue.
The Friday night screening spotlight was focused on the legendary platinum blond Hollywood bombshell, Mamie Van Doren.
Still possessing the hourglass figure, accentuated by her Himalayan-sized cleavage, Mamie wore her trademark spike heels and was accompanied by a full entourage of publicists, fan club presidents, with husband and miniature dog in tow. The glamorous 72 year old star needed no concessions to age as the number of flashbulbs popping in the Camelot Theatre lobby were reminiscent of a yesteryear Hollywood premiere.
The audience enjoyed “Guns, Girls and Gangsters” (1958), an Edward L. Cahn directed cheapie that starred Maim alongside a leering gaggle of male character actors. The picture provoked some off center laughs: Lee Van Cleef’s goggle-like sunglasses worn throughout a pitch-black night convulsed the packed house.
During the post screening Q&A with Art Lyons, Mamie Van Doren projected a genuine charm that spoke to her Swedish small town roots from a small hometown in South Dakota. Her responses to loaded questions from Lyons about her famous Hollywood liaisons with luminaries such as Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes were unabashedly frank and naughty (“Do you want to know the measurements, too?”). The mention of former boyfriend and actor Steve Cochran did make Mamie’s eyes glaze over as she sighed that Big Steve was, “the greatest…”
I savored introducing “Try and Get Me” (1950) to a nearly packed Camelot Theatre the next morning. Based on an actual incident of a 1933 lynching in San Jose, California, the originally titled “The Sound of Fury” stars a brilliantly evil Lloyd Bridges. Bridges’ sociopathic Svengali entraps stolid Frank Lovejoy into roadside stickups that escalate into kidnapping and murder. This picture is one of the most disturbing and frequently overlooked of film noirs with the final denouement leaving the packed Camelot Theatre hushed.
“The Glass Web” (1953) is a rarely seen 3-D noir starring Edward G. Robinson, John Fortsythe. When a television mystery show needs some rating enhancement, t doesn’t hurt when the principals become enmeshed in a web of blackmail and murder. The gorgeous Kathleen Hughes plays a memorable vixen until persons unknown inconveniently strangle her. Robinson does his usual professional turn and the story within the story of a television series was an unusual twist.
WGGB-AM NYC radio host, Joel Blumberg invited the still-radiant Kathleen Hughes to the stage for the post screening Q&A. Miss Hughes was singularly impressed by not only Robinson’s skill as an actor, but also his acumen as a kisser, an attribute that Hughes said that she experienced with the veteran star on the set between takes. After commenting on the relative merits of other soft-lipped performers including Rock Hudson and Lee Marvin, Hughes husband, producer Stanley Rubin arose out of the audience to ask his wife if she had any other “kissers that you would like to talk about?” Kathleen quickly averred that husband Stanley topped them all as the top smoocher!
The Saturday afternoon screening of “The Narrow Margin” (1952) was a special event for me. Not only did I have the opportunity to introduce one of my favorite films to a packed house, but I has the distinct privilege of moderating the post screening Q&A session with Producer Stanley Rubin.
“The Narrow Margin” is probably the top “B” film noir ever made and one of the best films that came out Hollywood during the 1950’s. Two L.A.P.D. homicide cops (Charles McGraw and Don Beddoe) arrive in Chicago to escort a tough-as-nails criminal’s widow (Marie Windsor) via train to testify before a grand jury in Los Angeles. Mob hitman are dispatched to silence the witness by any means necessary before the train reaches Union Station in L.A.
The bitingly wicked script by Earl Fenton is highlighted by a dyspeptic stream of bare-knuckled billingsgate between the perfectly cast duo of McGraw and Windsor. The wonderful overlapping dialogue seemingly moves faster than the express train both are riding on. Dick Fleischer’s skilled direction broke new ground for inducing a visual and physical feel of claustrophobic action that made the audiences as a passenger on this thrill-packed journey.
A successful screenwriter, whose credits dated back to 1940, Stanley Rubin was ready and eager to get into film production by 1950. Rubin penned the screenplay for “Macao” with the implicit agreement with RKO that he would get an “A” film to produce if his script was accepted. The “Macao” script was a hit; however, the RKO brass reneged on the deal, not wanting to entrust a top production to a relative novice.
“The Narrow Margin” was the consolation prize that launched Rubin on a storied career as a producer in films and television that has endured for over a half a century. Rubin was a hands-on-producer, choosing the original story, “Target”, selecting Dick Fleischer as the director, making casting decisions and working on the script. As revealed by the genial producer during our post-screening Q&A, the story behind the story of “The Narrow Margin” was nearly as entertaining as the picture itself.
RKO head Howard Hughes held onto the film for a full year after it was in the can in 1950 because he wanted Rubin to have it remade with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell! Rubin demurred at remaking the entire picture and it was only released in early 1952 after director Richard Fleischer struck a bargain with Hughes to direct the finale of “His Kind of Woman (1951) in return for the bashful billionaire releasing “The Narrow Margin” as filmed.
Rubin also revealed that Hughes inexplicably cut several sequences from “The Narrow Margin” that undoubtedly would have strengthened the picture. A scene with McGraw reacting to the revealed identity of Marie Windsor was inexplicably thrown out along with a sequence deep in the picture where McGraw discovers that partner Don Beddoe was on the take and in league with the Mob.
Unfortunately for Stanley Rubin, Richard Fleischer and everyone else, only Howard Hughes had final cut at RKO during the early 1950’s.
The Saturday evening screening ‘was Quentin Tarentinos “Jackie Brown” (1997). Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s yarn, ‘Rum Punch’, this contemporary neo-noir film is emblematic of the eclectic screening mix of recent and vintage films that makes the Palm Springs festival such a diversely interesting event.
The Academy Award nominated star for Best Supporting Actor in “Jackie Brown” Robert Forster was scheduled as the post-screening special guest, but had to cancel due to location work on a film. One of the occupational hazards of scheduling a working actor as a guest at film festival is that obtaining work trumps nearly any personal appearance.
Forster graciously sent a brief video clip that expressed his regrets for missing the screening and the audience settled in to watch one of the most sardonic and dark films of the past decade. The wry ending of “Jackie Brown” still makes me look skyward and wonder why any man would not want to go to Spain with Pam Grier and a suitcase stuffed with cash?
“Guilty Bystander” (1950) was the Sunday morning screening. A true film noir rarity, the only known print was brought to the festival courtesy of restorer Jay Fenton.
An independent production starring Zachary Scott and Faye Emerson, this picture was greatly appreciated by the hard-core film buffs for the New York location shooting, rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin and final screen bow for renowned screen character actress, Mary Boland. These positives generally outweighed a rather leaden, overly talky script that had me stirring in my seat.
Frank Sinatra, the actor, was front and center during the afternoon screening of “Suddenly” (1954). This picture was the crooner-to-actor’s first film after “From Here to Eternity (1953) revived his career with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Written by Richard Sale and co-starring Sterling Hayden and James Gleason and Nancy Gates, this film holds up well despite the dated situations of a half-century past. Sinatra’s wolfish performance of a sadistic thug is neatly counterbalanced by a stolid Hayden, an always- peppery Gleason and the sincerity of Nancy Gates’ characterization.
As noted by Nancy Gates during the post screening Q&A, Sinatra was fervent in playing a role as a hired assassin who attempts to kill the President because “he didn’t have to sing!” She also recalled Sterling Hayden as “someone who would rather be on the sea rather than acting”.
The still youthful appearing Gates reminisced about her cinematic career that began as a 15-year-old starlet under contract to RKO (“it was my Mother’s idea). Some of her career highlights including working with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre along with a host of film and television starring roles during the 1950’s.
Although Miss Gates averred that she loved her acting career, she has no regrets about retiring in 1960 to raise a family. Nancy Gates remains a class act.
The afternoon screening of “Destiny” (1944) was the final and perhaps rarest, contribution by Jay Fenton to this year’s festival.
A half-hour sequence cut from Julian Duvivier’s anthology film, “Flesh and Fantasy” (1943) starring Alan Curtis and Gloria Jean was beefed up with additional scenes produced by dependable Roy William Neill and helmed by Reginald Le Borg. The resultant 65-minute “B” programmer was released by Universal as bottom of the bill cannon fodder and quickly forgotten.
“Destiny”-the working title of Universal’s “The Wolf Man (1941)- somebody at the studio loved this title- is a fascinating mix of trite programmer with an offbeat dream sequence that foists the picture to a higher level. Curtis is convincing as the victimized crook and one wonders where Gloria Jean’s talent could have taken her if Universal knew what to do with her.
“Destiny” was an enjoyable interlude to the grim festival closer, “The Night of the Following Day” (1968).
Starring Marlon Brando, Rita Moreno and that glowering malevolent, Richard Boone, this film was shot on location in France and depicts a kidnapping of a young girl that rapidly goes awry as the double crosses and screw-ups pile up. When the closing credits rolled on this picture, members of the audience appeared to divide along three lines of opinion: delighted, bemused or dissatisfied.
The minimalist script and production values of “The Night of the Following Day” was savaged by post screening guest, producer/director George Englund, author of “The Way It’s Never Been Done Before: My Friendship with Marlon Brando”.
Englund depicted the film as an artistic zero that was a pure financial deal that gave Brando a payday and vacation time in Paris with then-girlfriend Rita Moreno. Art Lyons offered his opposing viewpoint and members of the audience including Stanley Rubin joined in, turning the post screening Q&A into a lively referendum on the merits of this particular film. It was an invigorating close to the festival.
A gifted and acidic raconteur, Englund described his relationship with Brando with appropriate anecdotal detail. The author seemed intent on expressing the point that while the great actor was a seminal artist whose unique talents literally ‘changed the rules’, his middle years onward were characterized by an indolent laziness for learning lines and the general craft of acting. Perhaps it all came too easily for Marlon…
During the delightful festival wrap party when Art Lyons was honored for terrifically successful festival and friendships were renewed for another year, planning started for the 2006 edition. Only 352 days to go and counting…
Alan Rode is a freelance writer and film noir aficionado living in Southern California.
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