The Third Annual Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
by Alan Rode
May 29 - Jun 1, 2003
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Palm Springs’ darkest film festival glided down the fatalistic back alleys of film noir for the third go-round last week. Festival director Arthur Lyons created a unique cinematic event that transcended mere screenings of America’s darkest art form. From the opening night arrival of celebrities in classic cars, to filmgoers dressed down in period garb and post screening cocktail receptions where ‘noirhead’ film buffs, writers and stars freely mix in an convivial environment, this hard-boiled festival recasts classic film noir in a festive atmosphere.
A noted author of acclaimed detective fiction as well as the invaluable Death on the Cheap—The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Lyons demonstrated again that film noir is all about the story, not the method of presentation. The thirteen films shown over four days were a varied mix of 35, 16MM and DVDs. With a hospitable staff, state-of-the-art projection equipment, the Camelot Theatre in Palm Springs proved to be the perfect venue for this motif. And who needs cinematic purism anyway when the themes are fate, greed, lust, corruption and death? As film noir historian and writer Eddie Muller pointed out during one screening introduction “… in film noir, the lead character starts out by being screwed… and it goes downhill from there!”
Raw Deal (1948), one of the classic ‘B’ films of the noir canon, was the opening night feature. Made by the legendary duo of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, this Eagle-Lion gem stars Dennis O’Keefe as an escaped convict dodging a dragnet while emotionally triangulated between femme fatale Claire Trevor and good-girl Marsha Hunt. In addition to a tough script and shaded photography reminiscent of lithographic art, the picture features a terrific voice-over narrative by Trevor and a memorable performance by Raymond Burr as a sadistic heavy. After the screening, actress Marsha Hunt joined film historian Marc Kagan on stage for an in-depth Q&A. The ageless star reminisced about her career highlights including Pride and Prejudice, Blossoms in the Dust, starring roles on Broadway and related her unfortunate experience with the Blacklist, “a very sad time for our country.” Miss Hunt then turned the tables and questioned the audience about what and why they enjoyed about in film noir, concluding her delightful appearance on an upbeat, interactive note.
The Friday shows began the next morning with another dark Eagle-Lion film lensed by John Alton, The Scar (1948). Paul Henried assumes a dual role as an arch criminal on the run from the mob. When he stumbles across a respectable dead ringer M.D., Henried conveniently arranges for his demise and assumes his identity while wooing assistant, Joan Bennett. This underrated film features one of the darkest finales in noir and is exceptionally crafted. A surprise screening attendee was actor Patrick Macnee and his wife Baba. When I asked the debonair star of TV’s The Avengers what brought him to this early showing Macnee told me that his wife was the former spouse of the late director Steven Sekely who directed the film. “I am delighted to see the film, of course, but I am actually here for my wife…” ‘John Steed’ was never more gentlemanly.
The next feature was Repeat Performance (1948). Although scheduled guest Joan Leslie sent her regrets on missing the festival, this extremely rare print of a frequently overlooked film did not disappoint an enthused audience. Leslie plays a New York stage actress who gets a chance to relive an entire year in order to avoid killing her husband (Louis Hayward) on New Year’s Eve. A dark blend of stylish suspense mixed with New York society vitriol along with a dash of fantasy, this film was terrifically paced and delightfully played. Hayward, Virginia Field and Richard Basehart (his film debut) provide Miss Leslie stellar support.
Film noir archivist, “Dark Marc” Dolezal from San Francisco provided and introduced the late afternoon feature The Phenix City Story (1955). Perhaps the ultimate noir expose flick, this Phil Karlson helmed docudrama relates a fact-based story of corruption and vice gone amok in a Southern town and the efforts of a crusading D.A. to clean it up. The versatile John McIntyre plays the D.A. whose efforts against the Syndicate are literally short-lived with Richard Kiley as his son who takes up the reform gauntlet. An added treat at this screening was the appearance of actress Lisa Carson who played a supporting role in the picture.
The evening show was a personal favorite of mine, The Big Combo (1955), directed by Joseph Lewis and starring Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace, Brian Donlevy, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman. Conte radiates suave malevolence from every pore as crime kingpin, ‘Mr. Brown,’ locked in a one-on-one battle against crusading cop Cornel Wilde with Jean Wallace as the trophy blonde. The film is highlighted by some of best mood lighting ever by John Alton (again!) and deliciously hard-edged palaver by ace screenwriter Philip Yordan:
“First is first and second is nobody,” sneers Conte at a beaten middleweight whom he discards like yesterday’s newspaper.
“Do like I say and maybe you’ll get to die in bed,” Conte thoughtfully advises his ambitious underboss, Brian Donlevy.
Cornel Wilde opining regretfully about a deceased girlfriend who expired due to a recent overdose of lead, “… I used her like a pair of gloves that I put on only when I was cold.”
This film also featured a daring (for the time) portrayal of two of Conte’s murderous hitmen, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman, as gay lovers. Special guest Earl Holliman dispelled any doubt of misinterpretation when he took the stage with Art Lyons for the post screening Q&A. The still rugged star of over 50 feature films and numerous television episodes remarked about one scene with Van Cleef, “…we shared a pair of pajamas, Lee’s wearing the bottoms and I’m wearing the top to the pajamas and it’s pretty obvious what’s going on…” The genial leading man discussed his half-century career in films with stars such as John Wayne, (“an icon…”), Barbara Stanwyck (‘Missie’ was worshiped by her film crews…) and his Police Story series co-star Angie Dickenson. (“… She is still one of my closest friends. Once you are friends with Angie, you have a friend for life.”) Holliman’s delightful recollections and disarming friendliness with everyone was a festival high point.
My introduction of The Hitchhiker (1953) to a Saturday morning crowd paid homage to Hollywood’s only female director of the period, the great Ida Lupino. Ida began her career behind the camera substituting for an ill director in Not Wanted (1949). Her production company, “The Filmmakers,” formed with producer and husband #2 Collier Young along with screenwriter Malvin Wald, turned out a string of socially conscious films during the 1950’s including Outrage (1951), Never Fear (1951), Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) and The Bigamist (1953). The Hitchhiker is Lupino’s most notable directorial work. Based on the infamous Billy Cook killing spree through the Southwest in 1950, the picture focuses on the travail of two fishermen (Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien) on holiday in Baja California who are taken hostage by a sadistic killer they pick up on the road. William Talman turns in one of most heinous portrayals in film noir history. The film pulses with unrelenting tension until the final denouement. Although Hollywood subsequently strip-mined the serial killer theme to bedrock, Ida Lupino proved in this initial effort that quality writing and crisp direction create greater suspense than gratuitous gore and four letter nouns.
Ida Lupino was the perfect segue into the ‘Women in Film Noir’ panel discussion conducted on stage after the screening. Casablanca Studios V.P. and Women in Film Chapter President, Leanna Bonamici led a lively on-stage discussion with actors Marsha Hunt, Michael Alaimo, writer and film producer Maria Grimm Janis and film noir author Eddie Muller. The group discussed Ida Lupino, ( Hunt: ” I am breathless after watching Ida Lupino’s film…”) acknowledged how minimal production values frequently created the dark film noir settings (Alaimo: “… the budget for The Big Combo was probably $1.98…”) and talked about the role of women in film noir during a lively Q&A with a rapt audience.
The afternoon feature, The Come-On (1956) was probably the sleeper of the entire festival. Comely Ann Baxter is a con artist who finds herself enmeshed in a tangled web of deceit and murder between burly lover Sterling Hayden and suave John Hoyt. A punchy script, nice supporting work by Jesse White as a sleazebag private eye and many surprising plot twists make this rarely viewed film a real gem worth catching.
A rare 16mm print of The Brasher Doubloon, courtesy of Danger and Despair’s Marc Dolezal, was the Saturday afternoon screening. Based on Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, George Montgomery starred with Nancy Guild, Conrad Janis and Florence Bates. This film is not one of the best versions of Chandler’s work; Montgomery was badly miscast as Philip Marlowe—but the supporting roles are superbly played and the action is unrelenting.
Conrad Janis joined me on-stage after the screening to discuss the film and his multi-faceted career in films, television and music. The still energetic actor discussed his relationship with Brasher Doubloon director John Brahm (“…we didn’t get along. I had my own ideas about acting after being on Broadway…”) the start of his jazz career as a trombonist and band leader (“I had a forged I.D. and went to the Beverly Caverns every night to listen to Kid Ory’s band…”) and his television career that includes over 500 appearances from the ‘Kraft Television Theatre’ in 1947 to Frasier. After responding to my query about his work on live television with a terrific story about cram-memorizing pages of dialogue in the middle of a program, Janis related an uproarious anecdote about Robin Willliams baring it all before a live audience during the taping of a Mork & Mindy episode. Conrad wrapped up his visit to great applause after a discussion of the U.S. release of his 1994 directorial bow, The November Conspiracy, produced and written by his wife Maria.
The evening belonged to the irrepressible Mickey Spillane. No one cared too much that The Girlhunters (1963) isn’t really film noir and is principally comprised of iterative scenes of Spillane either donning or removing a raincoat amid tedious conversations with costar Lloyd Nolan. The film was fun because it was all about watching Mickey playing his most famous character, Mike Hammer. The world’s most engaging octogenarian writer (“… my motto this year is ‘85 and still alive’…”) sat down with close buddy Art Lyons for a typically spontaneous and amusing Q&A. Spillane related anecdotes from his incredible career starting with penning Captain America comics in the 1930’s, to WWII pilot duties, the great Mike Hammer novels and uproarious stories about his Lite Beer commercials. Mickey also shared some of the secrets of his writing success with me at the Atlas Nightclub in Palm Springs during a post-screening booksigning:
“Any book that takes over two weeks to write is a waste of time… People don’t buy a book to read the beginning to the middle-they read it to get to the end. If you make the ending good, they’ll buy your next book. Like R.H. Macy said, you have to take care of your customers…”
Ah, Mickey, if only it was that easy for all of us.
The Thief (1952) led off the next day’s lineup of films. By way of introduction, I mentioned that besides being one of the best of the so-called ‘Red Scare’ pictures, the absence of any dialogue in this feature made it a truly unique film. In a compelling performance, the picture is dominated by Ray Milland who is under study as nuclear physicist passing secrets to a foreign power. Character heavy Martin Gabel and the beautiful Rita Gam in her film debut provided the principal support. The film is highlighted by a suspenseful chase in the Empire State Building staged by director Russell Rouse.
Film noir’s classiest femme fatale, Ann Savage, headlined the next film, Apology for Murder (1945). Another Dolezal contribution to the festival, this extremely rare “B” film is a prima facie example of Hollywood’s penchant for imitation instead of creativity. Apology for Murder is a carbon copy of that ultimate Paramount-released film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). This low-budget PRC impersonation starred Savage and Hugh Beaumont in the Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray roles and was quickly released in an attempt to cash in on the success of the original film. Apology for Murder premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where it was unceremoniously yanked after two days and remained buried for years. As Miss Savage related, the dead-ringer resemblance of her film to Billy Wilder’s classic was too much for Paramount to endure. The studio threatened to sue Sid Grauman and PRC who immediately withdrew the film from distribution. While this picture suffers greatly in comparison to the original version, it is quite entertaining, particularly when Ann Savage gets to bare her claws and double-cross Beaumont after they stage a phony accident to knock off her wealthy husband (Russell Hicks).
During her Q&A with Eddie Muller, Savage related several wonderful anecdotes ranging from her ultimate fatale performance in Detour (1945) helmed by legendary director Edgar G. Ulmer, her series of films with bad-boy actor Tom Neal, and working with the friendly and religious Hugh Beaumont. (An interesting footnote is that the future television Dad of Leave it to Beaver later became an ordained minister). In response to questions from the audience, Ann averred that the ‘B’ designator in films, “… does not stand for bad…” She discussed the challenge of working on projects with minimal budgets and virtually no rehearsal time; “… you either knew your lines or you didn’t work…” Ann Savage attended many of the films during the weekend festival and charmed everyone with her grace and cordiality.
A mint 35mm print of RKO’s The Window (1949) hit the screen on Sunday afternoon. One of the top films to come out of Hollywood during the late 1940’s, it is a compelling send-up of a Cornell Woolrich story about a youngster (Bobby Driscoll) who cries wolf to his parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale) once too often. When the boy witnesses his sinister neighbors (Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart) commit a murder, no one believes him… except the neighbors who plan to do away with Driscoll. As related by the insightful Eddie Muller, this film was one of the early vehicles to be shot solely on location in New York City circa 1947 but was inexplicably kept on the shelf for two years by an obdurate Howard Hughes. The picture is striking for its incredible photography, atypical of director and former ace Hitchcock cameraman Ted Tetzlaff, with a great claustrophobic, suspenseful mood and terrific performances by the entire cast. Driscoll won a special, miniature Oscar statuette for outstanding juvenile actor of 1949 for his work in this film and So Dear to My Heart. In a tragic outcome that is true-life noir, Bobby Driscoll ended up becoming a drug addict and was found dead in an abandoned Greenwich Village tenement in 1968, not too far from where The Window was filmed.
A Washington Post book reviewer aptly characterized Jim Thompson’s writing style thusly; “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.” The author of many dark and twisted stories including Pop 1280, The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, The Getaway, and The Grifters, Thompson held center stage for the finale film of the festival.
After Dark, My Sweet (1994) is a disturbing neo-noir film based on the Thompson novel about an ex-pug (Jason Patric) who gravitates into a kidnapping scheme with a amoral grifter (Bruce Dern) and his conniving girlfriend (Rachel Ward). Shot on location in Palm Springs and other areas of the Coachella Valley, it was an appropriate conclusion to a terrific film noir festival.
Congratulations, pats on the back and assorted hugs must go to Art and Barbara Lyons and all of the many people who combined their mutual friendships and shared passion for film noir in order to make this festival such a grand success. This is one noirhead who can’t wait for next year!
Alan Rode is a writer and noir afficiando living in a dark alley, just down from a mean street, in San Diego, California.
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