The Fourth Annual Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, June 3rd-6th, 2004
by Alan Rode
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Some writer stated that heaven’s stars always shine brightest in the dark desert sky. The Palm Springs Film Noir Festival that wrapped up last weekend certainly validated this assumption.
The husband and wife duo of Art and Barbara Lyons outdid themselves by programming a superb lineup of fourteen distinctive and rare noir films in the sylvan laid-back setting of the Camelot Theatre in Palm Springs.
For the fourth year, the festival was highlighted with personal appearances by some of the legendary stars from the era of classic film noir, courtesy of festival co-producer and long-time Hollywood casting director Marvin Paige.
The festival also included special screenings of several short films from the latest generation of hard-boiled filmmakers such as Kevin Ackerman and Grant Kramer. Ackerman’s “Lonely Night,” a twisted tale of American Gothic gone amok and Kramer’s “Say Goodnight Michael” demonstrated that this festival is grounded both in the past and the present when it comes to cinematic noir stories.
Giving added heft to the festival were detailed film introductions and celebrity interviews and Q&A’s presented by film preservationist Jay Fenton, noted noir author Eddie Muller and your humble correspondent.
The opening night screening was a tribute to one of Hollywood’s legendary actresses, Eleanor Parker. Although Miss Parker was ailing and sent her profound regrets, the sell-out audience’s reaction to “Caged” (1950) was far from muted.
This honored film garnered Oscar nominations for Miss Parker, a best Supporting Actress nod for monolithic Hope Emerson as a sadistic matron and best story/screenplay honors for Virginia Kellogg and Bernard Schoenfeld.
Parker’s cinematic metamorphosis from a frightened youngster taking the fall for an armed robbery rap who is injection-molded by “the system” into a hardened, cigarette-flipping moll is a tour de force performance that still has no equal.
This ultimate women’s film noir features stellar supporting work by Agnes Moorehead, Jan Sterling, Betty Garde, Gertrude Michael, and Lee Patrick.
Miss Parker’s memorable performance and iconic career were given oratorical tribute during the post screening appearance by legendary sci-fi author and screenwriter, Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, a long time friend of the Parker family, spoke eloquently of Ms. Parker’s career and life.
Another close friend and neighbor of Miss Parker graciously received the festival’s annual award from host Art Lyons amid a roaring ovation for the great star and long time Palm Springs resident. It was a memorable conclusion to a special opening night.
The following day”s screening led off with a rare 1950 film, “Gunman in the Streets” aka “Gangster at Bay” directed by Frank Tuttle and lensed by the legendary Eugen Schufftan.
A classic “man on the run” story filmed on location in Paris, this picture was never released theatrically in the U.S. and has been viewed commercially only within the last two years.
Feline-eyed Simone Signoret portrays a distinctive, cigarette-puffing fatale with tough-guy Dane Clark never better while snapping off terse dialogue and exercising an itchy trigger finger.
“Kansas City Confidential” (1952) is a classic Phil Karlson directed caper film featuring an intricate plot concerning an armored car heist by a gang of thieves whose identities are unknown even to one another!
John Payne plays a framed ex-con out to unravel the setup with Colleen Gray as the love interest and Preston Foster as the criminal mastermind who pulls all the strings.
The true delight of this film was observing the actual robbery team, played by a trio of film noir’s rankest plug-uglies: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. Hollywood just doesn’t have character actors around anymore like these three heavyweights.
Post screening special guest, Coleen Gray stated that while she preferred her roles in “Nightmare Alley,” “Kiss of Death” and “Red River,” over her appearance in “Kansas City Confidential,” there was no doubt that the caper flick still held up as a entertaining film. In a moment that would have no doubt titillated Hollywood columnists from a past era, Miss Gray shyly mentioned to both author Eddie Muller and the Camelot audience that she “had a thing” going with leading man John Payne during the filming. Payne, who once owned the rights to the James Bond novels, but couldn’t get any backing for filming them during the 1950’s, definitely got around.
“Ruthless” (1948) has been called “Citizen Kane Jr.”; a flashback-laden tale about a merciless tycoon who crushes those in his orbit during his ascent up the corporate ladder. Envisioned by director Edgar Ulmer and blacklisted scriptwriter Alvah Bessie as an indictment against predatory capitalism, this film was significantly edited prior to the original release with Bessie’s name stricken from the credits and replaced by pseudonyms.
The picture that survives retains both the style of the legendary Ulmer and the artistic vision of Bessie. Zachary Scott puts his best heel forward as the rapacious magnate with Louis Hayward playing as his boyhood chum. Diana Lynn does well in an unusual dual role along with that rotund blusterer, Sydney Greenstreet as a cuckolded industrialist seeking vengeance.
The evening screening of Noir novelist William P. McGivern’s “Rogue Cop” (1954) was highlighted by the special appearance of star Anne Francis. A faultless 35mm print of this Roy Rowland directed picture caused me to reassess this picture. A film that I previously regarded as average at best went way up in my estimation when viewed in its original format on the big screen.
Veteran star Robert Taylor, trading in his suit of armor from “Ivanhoe” and “Knights of the Round Table,” realistically portrayed a corrupt cop who is jolted into becoming a Don Quixote-like crusader when his younger brother is threatened by the gangsters who pull the strings. A silver haired George Raft bares his fangs effectively as the crime boss with a stunning Janet Leigh playing the love interest of younger brother Steve Forrest.
Miss Francis shines as Raft’s mistress, an alcoholic “B” girl who is handed over as rough trade by Raft to a group of Neanderthal thugs after adorning George’s head with a bucket of ice cubes.
The vivacious Anne Francis shared the stage with host Art Lyons after the screening and reminisced about this film and her stored career in Hollywood.
The still youthful looking Francis launched into a series of entertaining anecdotes ranging from her Ossining, N.Y. birth presided over by the doctor from Sing Sing Prison, to co-star George Raft and her “Honey West” fan mail from a generation of fantasizing adolescent American males.
In response to my query about “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), Miss Francis recalled a spirited political argument on location between screen legends Walter Brennan and Spencer Tracy. The altercation concluded with Brennan turning his back on Tracy and walking away down the location rail tracks raising three fingers behind his head for Tracy’s benefit.
“Walter was reminding Spence that he had three Oscars to Tracy’s two,” concluded Miss Francis.
And people have questioned Hollywood’s accounting ability!
The Saturday screenings led off with another noir rarity, courtesy of film archivist and restorer, Jay Fenton.
“Street of Chance” (1942) is the first of many Hollywood films adapted from the short stories and novels of ultimate noir stylist Cornell Woolrich.
In a prototypical Woolrich tale of innocent people trapped in a web of dark circumstances, Burgess Meredith awakens in a lost section of New York City, suffering from amnesia and wanders into a black fog of stalking cops, a missing wife and murder. Claire Trevor and Sheldon Leonard are perfectly cast as the femme fatale and tough cop in a picture enlivened by Woolrich’s compelling, if implausible plot twists.
After this screening, Jay Fenton discussed the vital and little known nuances of film preservation with a captivated audience. He revealed that many films from the classic noir era of 1940-1958 were actually destroyed by the studios in order to reuse the film reels!
Fenton spoke at length about the science of film preservation and emphasized that if it were not for private film collectors, many of the vintage films would be lost forever. Film noir buffs everywhere owe a great debt to Jay and his fellow film collectors.
The afternoon screening of “The City that Never Sleeps” (1953) turned into a special event. While I was discussing the picture before the screening with star Mala Powers, the widow and daughter of the film’s producer/director John Auer arrived at the theatre and were delightfully reunited with Miss Powers, an old friend.
When another alumni of “The City That Never Sleeps,” veteran character actor Wally Cassell popped in, the theatre lobby became the site for a delightful, ad-hoc cast reunion.
After a brief introduction of both the film and the aforementioned principals to a sold out theatre, the audience enjoyed one of the most underrated films of the 1950’s, scripted by ace noir writer Steve Fisher.
Gig Young is a conflicted policeman who loathes the “men in blue” family tradition. He wants to leave the force and wife Paula Raymond for the twin allures of more money and gorgeous stripteaser, Sally “Angel Face” Connors (Mala Powers).
The Chicago-based story becomes darkly complex as both stars become entwined with the machinations of corrupt lawyer Edward Arnold and his alluring, but deadly wife, Marie Windsor. When the duplicitous Windsor teams up with bug-eyed heavy William Talman for a doublecross of her husband, all hell starts to break loose.
The still radiant Mala Powers hadn’t seen the film since the original Chicago premiere, but that duration time between screenings did not dim her memories of the frigid Chicago location temperatures or the pleasure of playing scenes with the accomplished Gig Young.
In a far-ranging conversation, she discussed her distinguished acting career that began as child actress with the Dead End Kids and included studying acting under Max Reinhardt and Michael Chekhov as well as her work in the Actors Lab and radio.
After major starring roles in Ida Lupino’s “Outrage” (1950) and opposite Jose Ferrer in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Mala’s career was temporarily sidetracked after contracting a nearly fatal malady while entertaining our troops in Korea.
She rebounded in notable films throughout the next two decades and continues to perform, most recently in “Mr Shaw Goes to Hollywood” at the Laguna Playhouse. Mala Powers is a talented actress and warm person who spent the entire weekend at the festival, watching the films, kibitzing with fans and signing autographs. Definitely a class act.
“Two of a Kind” (1951) is a schizophrenic film that can’t make up its mind if it is a dark tale or a serendipitous, tongue-in-cheek programmer.
Edmond O’Brien plays an opportunistic grifter that happens to reassemble a long lost heir to a wealthy old couple. After teaming up with a crooked lawyer (Alexander Knox) and a sultry con artist (Lizabeth Scott), O’Brien takes duplicity to surgical extremes when he willingly mutilates a finger in a car door to match the long lost son’s profile.
After Knox and Scott ease him into the family circle, O’Brien becomes alternately smitten with the effervescent Terry Moore and the smoldering Scott and well… this isn’t the usual dark gutter of film noir.
Terry Moore arrived about half way through “Two of a Kind” but she had ample time to delight the audience during our post screening discussion. She pointedly critiqued her acting in this early stage of her career and just about everything else before and afterwards.
The still-stunning star bubbled over while discussing her beginnings as a child star in radio, her early starring role in “Mighty Joe Young” (1949) and her Oscar nominated turn in “Come Back Little Sheba” (1952).
Moore also held forth on her well-documented liaison with Howard Hughes, the subject of two of her books and a movie script. In response to my query about a favorite film of the noir canon, “Shackout on 101” (1955), Terry spoke reverentially of the abilities of co-star, Lee Marvin who took her hunting in the nearby hills. Said Terry: “Lee Marvin, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn treated me like one of the boys.”
Whether donning an ermine bikini in Korea that had her banished from entertaining the troops in 1951, posing for Playboy in the 1980’s and finishing a marathon race two years ago, Terry Moore still retains the star quality and zest for life that enthralled the Camelot Theatre audience.
The neo-noir flick “Hickey and Boggs” (1972) starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, was the main event of Saturday evening. Introduced by Art Lyons as perhaps the “most existential film noir ever,” this picture demonstrates how much can be accomplished on a minimal budget with crisp dialogue, gritty L.A. location shooting and a solid story. While viewing this film, I could almost inhale the hazy smog and taste the greasy spoon atmosphere of downtown L.A.
Robert Culp took to the stage with Art Lyons after the screening and discussed his saga of directing and producing his film on a shoestring budget. With the unstinting support of “I-Spy” co-star and buddy, Cosby and producer Fouad Said who put up the money at the eleventh hour, Culp managed to bring in a distinctive picture inside a month at a mere $1.1 million.
Culp also discoursed at length about the creative process of acting, writing and directing with a rapt audience. No shrinking violet, the debonair star described himself as a “better writer than actor and a better director than writer.”
The Sunday morning screening of “The Strange Mr. Gregory” (1945) served the dual purpose of serving up vintage high camp entertainment to the festival while fulfilling Art Lyons’ desire to screen a legitimate “Death on the Cheap” film noir programmer from the 1940’s.
While this offbeat picture cannot be taken too seriously (my alternate title is “Mandrake the Magician visits Noir City”), the plot is innovative and the action moves quickly enough to ignore the cut-rate Monogram production values. Edmund Lowe is the hypnotist with an obsession with a colleague’s wife with Jean Rogers and Frank Reicher assisting in sorting out the mayhem.
“Nightmare” (1956) is a cinematic send up of a Cornell Woolrich novel of the same title about a New Orleans clarinet player who dreams of a committing a murder in a mirrored room and awakens spotted with blood and with a mysterious key in his possession.
This first version of this yarn was “Fear in the Night” (1947, helmed by director/writer Maxwell Shane and starring Paul Kelly and Deforest Kelley.
Mr. Shane made dubious history by filming the same story nearly a decade later as “Nightmare” with Edward G. Robinson as the cop brother-in-law to jazz musician Kevin McCarthy.
While consummate pros Robinson and McCarthy make this picture extremely enjoyable to watch, the script takes a far-fetched tale to frequently absurd extremes. Virginia Christine and Rhys Williams provide scenery-chewing support in a film that reminds me of an extended “Thriller” television episode.
Kevin McCarthy seemed to share this opinion of “Nightmare” when he took to the stage with Eddie Muller for the post screening Q&A. Still debonair at age 90, he commented that he wasn’t too sure what to say about the film that he just watched!
McCarthy then launched into a one-man stage show that captivated the capacity matinee audience. While intermittently using Eddie Muller as a straight man for comedic comments complete with eye-rolling double takes, McCarthy quoted chunks of Shakespeare he learned in 1937 and gave a stirring excerpt from his famous “Give ‘em Hell, Harry” one man road show. . When asked by Muller if he minded being remembered principally for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), Kevin McCarthy responded immediately, “No, because it’s a great movie that goes on and on with every passing year.”
After numerous anecdotes about luminaries including Marlon Brando, Kazan, Ronald Reagan and others, McCarthy related a poignant story on how he finally found himself as an actor and human being while at the University of Minnesota during the 1930’s. The veteran star exited to a standing ovation after nearly an hour on stage.
The late afternoon feature was “So Dark the Night” (1946), an extremely rare film directed by noir stylist Joseph H. Lewis. Another Jay Fenton contribution to the festival, the picture features a skilled, but largely unknown cast headed by character actor Steven Geray. Lewis’ staging of a French village as the backdrop for a baffling series of murders is masterfully done. While more mystery than film noir, this is a picture that was definitely worth viewing.
The Sunday evening festival closing feature was Samuel Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” (1964). One of the later pictures by America’s ultimate iconoclast filmmaker, this bizarre story about a prostitute’s attempt at redemption gone horribly awry still packs a considerable punch.
As “The Naked Kiss” star and special post screening guest Michael Dante put it, “There were not many actors portraying pedophiles in films at that time!” Dante, a recent recipient of the Golden Boot award for his distinctive work in Western films over 40 years in films and television, joined Art Lyons on stage for the post screening Q&A.
Dante shared vivid recollections of the passionate Fuller and the “Naked Kiss” shoot, his fellow actor and buddy Rod Steiger, war hero/star Audie Murphy and also related a touching story about taking Edward G. Robinson to his first major league baseball game.
At the Sunday night wrap party, there was unanimous agreement between sponsors, stars, and festival guests, that the fourth annual Palm Springs Film Noir Festival was the best edition yet. Everyone, especially yours truly, is counting the days until next year.
Alan Rode is a writer and noir afficiando living in a dark alley, just down from a mean street, in Encino, California.
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