The Second Weekend of the 5th Annual Festival of Film Noir at American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre
by Alan Rode
The darkest show in Hollywood continued for a second weekend of fabulous film noir and special celebrity guests.
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A sparkling new 35 mm print of Union Station (1950) opened the weekend screening schedule on Friday night. This Chicago-based police procedural is set in the environs of that city’s famous train station and delineates the kidnapping for ransom of a blind heiress. William Holden stars as the principal detective-lieutenant who becomes involved with helpful secretary Nancy Olson while working the unfolding case. Miss Olson’s dual purpose role is to continually accuse Holden of being a modern incarnation of Inspector Javert, while she nimbly keeps two steps ahead of the police who are ploddingly solving the case as led by that ingratiating pixie, Barry Fitzgerald. A little of this formulaic stuff goes a long way, but the location photography from Chicago and L.A.’s own Union Station is terrific. Add in a neat supporting duo of snarling gang leader Lyle Bettger with his sleazy but heart-of-gold moll, Jan Sterling, and Union Station is an extremely satisfying film. After the screening, special guest Jan Sterling allowed that while she couldn’t remember a whole lot about this film, she still remained clueless why Hollywood consistently pigeonholed her as a woman of low caste in such noirs as Caged, Mystery Street, Ace in the Hole and The Human Jungle. The former wife of the late actor Paul Douglas was a classically trained actress who resided in London for many years.
The Friday night double feature was a pair of seldom-screened films that turned out to be festival highlights.
Black Tuesday (1954) directed by Hugo Fregonese and scripted by noir ace Sidney Boehm stars Edward G. Robinson and Peter Graves as they engineer the most daring of prison breakouts: they bust-out while literally walking the last mile into the death house! While Graves and a strong supporting cast turn in fine performances, this film belongs to the ultimate gangster-terrible as played by Robinson. Whether abandoning his confederates to the police, punching a guard in the groin, murdering a hostage in cold-blood or threatening to throw a priest down a flight of stairs into a hail of police bullets, Edward G. is in top form throughout. His seismic portrayal of mob boss ‘Vincent Cannelli’ in this film makes his better-known turn as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948) appear as a cranky high school truant in comparison.
The only known print of Fourteen Hours (1951) was a keenly anticipated event at the American Cinematheque. Beat cop Paul Douglas tries to talk suicidal loner Richard Basehart off the ledge of a N.Y.C. hotel before he jumps. Although possessing a storyline that has endured innumerable repeats, this Henry Hathaway directed film remains totally engrossing. The supporting cast is a veritable Who’s Who of some of the great screen character actors: Robert Keith, Howard Da Silva (terrific, as usual), Jeff Corey, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Faylen, Jane Darwell, Russell Hicks, etc. The film also features the screen debut of Grace Kelly and early appearances by Jeffrey Hunter and Ossie Davis. After the screening, noirmeister-extraordinaire and co-programmer Eddie Muller revealed that the film’s ending was changed before release by Darryl Zanuck. According to Muller, Zanuck altered the cinematic destiny of Basehart out of deference to the suicide of 20th Century Fox President Spyros Skouras’ daughter who leaped from a New York building shortly before the release of Fourteen Hours. True noir, indeed.
Saturday displayed the screenwriting talents of legendary writer A.I. ‘Buzz’ Bezzerides with Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and On Dangerous Ground (1952).
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) has been noted by director/writer Paul Schrader and others as the end of the classic film noir period. If true, it is a fitting genre epitaph. If not, it is still one terrific film. Mickey Spillane’s best seller, that featured illicit drugs as the McGuffin, is given a memorable send-up by Bezzerides who substituted the spectre of the Cold War and nuclear weapons as the fulcrums for dark suspense. Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer as a rampant tough-guy showing a startling mean streak never seen before among earlier screen shamuses. Unforgettable character performances highlight a dark L.A. mystery that ends with a cataclysmic “va-va-voom”!
Nicholas Ray is the most romantic and poetic of film noir directors. On Dangerous Ground (1952) is Ray’s ode to a lonely urban policeman (Robert Ryan) who is held hostage by the violence and depravity of his job. After using his fists to extract confessions once too often, Ryan is banished to the hinterlands by his weary Captain (Ed Begley) to assist with an unfolding murder case. He falls in love with the blind sister of the murderer (Ida Lupino) and despite tragic events, the tough city cop discovers that life is really not the cesspool that he once supposed. Ward Bond adds additional heft as a revenge-obsessed redneck. The film also soars with a beautiful musical score by the legendary screen composer Bernard Herrmann. On Dangerous Ground is definitely one of the notable films of the early 1950’s.
Between screenings, the indestructible 94 year-old ‘Buzz’ Bezzerides joined Eddie Muller at center screen and regaled the Egyptian Theatre audience with a non-stop monologue about his life and career as a screenwriter. Whether it was concerning Jack Warner cheating him out money for writing Juke Girl (1942) or a touching story about his Mother who triggered his ambition to be a writer, Bezzerides’ continuing passion for life and his work (he still writes everyday) was remarkable to witness. In a touching moment, Bezzerides’ daughter told me that she wanted to stay and see On Dangerous Ground with her friend because the film features a cameo part with her father ” as he used to be when I was young”.
The Saturday night double feature highlighted the dual talents of Tony Curtis and director Joseph Pevney.
Six Bridges to Cross (1955) is a neatly made chronology of the entwined lives of Boston based crook (Curtis) and his friend and policeman protagonist, played by George Nader, over a period of twenty years. This earnest and straightforward film was a pleasant surprise—extremely credible and engrossing—and may well feature Tony Curtis’ best screen performance this side of Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Sidney Boehm folds the infamous Brinks robbery of 1950 into yet another top writing job with great Boston location work by Joe Pevney.
The Midnight Story (1957) is a benchmark noir that is representative of the conclusion of the so-called classic noir period in the late 1950’s. Shot in Cinemascope by Russell Metty, the film stars Tony Curtis as a disaffected traffic cop tracking down the murderer of a beloved priest in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Curtis is adopted by an Italian family led by Gilbert Roland and has to choose between love and loyalty as he wrestles with his conscience to bring a killer to justice. This picture skillfully mixes superb ethnic family characterizations and nice San Francisco location photography into a dark tale of passion and murder.
A special treat between screenings was a Q&A session with veteran character actress Argentina Brunetti. Brunetti played Gilbert Roland’s mother in The Midnight Story while she was only two years younger than the debonair leading man was. Now 95 years young, Miss Brunetti reminisced about a screen and television career that began with Gilda in 1946. While she mentioned that she wished that she could recall some specific recollections from The Midnight Story, it turned out not to matter one whit. She regaled the Egyptian Theatre audience with some uproarious and touching stories about Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth and many others from Hollywood’s golden age. Argentina Brunetti departed the theater to a well-deserved ovation. Her appearance was one of the highlights of the entire festival.
The following afternoon featured the rare screening of Abandoned (1949). This film was perhaps the best “sleeper” film of the festival and was reviewed by my partner-in-noir for the afternoon, Filmmonthly’s own Del Harvey. I have to add my own praise for the biting dialogue of scriptwriter Bill Bowers and my appreciation for director and special screening guest Joseph Newman. Listening to the 93 year old Newman talk about passing Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle on his way to school along with growing up living next door to Wallace Reid and Rudolph Valentino does raise the gooseflesh on this reviewers’ arms. Newman is a living oracle of early Hollywood and it is fascinating to hear about his life and times from a long-bygone and always fascinating era.
Nightmare Alley (1947) is one of the best films of the 1940’s that not many people of heard of was shown on Sunday evening. A dark tale of an amoral carnival performer’s rise and fall, it is a beautifully acted and compelling film that leaves the viewer alternately smiling and shaking their head. Tyrone Power stars in a career-stretching role with Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Mike Mazurki. Directed by Edmund Goulding, this film has been tied up for years over rights squabbles between 20th Century Fox and the estate of the late producer, Georgie Jessel. Special guest Colleen Gray reminisced with Eddie Muller about this film that remains her career highlight and hold a special place of affection to this day.
Kudos to Eddie Muller, Dennis Bartok, and the American Cinematheque staff for another terrific film noir festival. I’ve already got my calendar book-marked for 2004.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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