Live at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
by Alan Rode
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The Palm Springs Film Noir Festival was a smash hit. This second annual celebration of dark film concluded this past Sunday evening an unqualified success, largely due to promoters Art Lyons and Craig Prater’s staying focused on the important themes.
The 2002 festival motto, “It’s all in the story,” was the principal determinant in this year’s selection of finely written cinema. In an era when Hollywood feature films increasingly rely on cartoon characters, arterial bleeding and endless sex to lure the obligatory youth audience, quality screenwriting is going the way of the tea cozy. All twelve films on the Palm Springs schedule had tightly written scripts, well-woven stories and compelling denouements.
Co-promoter and noted author Art Lyons thankfully disavowed the academic approach often associated with film noir. While the debate of whether film noir is a movement, genre, or cycle was touched upon, the essential noir attributes of human fate, perversity and moral transgressions viewed through the prism of dark settings and haunting stories required no intellectual heavy-lifting.
During the premiere introduction, Craig Prater advised the audience that it has become nearly impossible to locate quality 35mm prints of these vintage films. As a result, the schedule selections were presented in DVD, VHS and 35mm; whatever formats was available. The lack of original 35mm prints irked only a few purists. In whatever format available, these classic films were put up on the screen to be enjoyed and appreciated.
Most importantly, this unique festival was all about having fun. There were no prohibitive signs in the Camelot Theatre restricting photos or autographs. Between screenings, lobby tables were set up for the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, and film noir web site Dark Film Discussions. Both were the focal point for kibitzing and informal booksignings. From the celebrity guests to the confirmed “noirheads,” the atmosphere was festive, friendly and relaxed.
The first film screened on opening night was His Kind of Woman (1951), starring the evening’s special guest, Jane Russell. The Camelot Theatre was reminiscent of a old time Hollywood premiere. The opening film served to accentuate the excitement. His Kind of Woman (1951) is a crisply scripted send-up of an interesting, if improbable, story about a tough guy set up to have his identity borrowed by a deported gangster trying to reenter the U.S. Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell lead the star-studded cast. Vincent Price steals the picture playing a hammy film actor turned improbable hero. Russell and Mitchum never looked better against the backdrop of one of the best sets RKO Studio boss Howard Hughes ever bought. The film dragged a bit at the end with what seemed like one of the longest fights in screen history.
Jane Russell, still glamorous at 80, joined Arthur Lyons on stage for a post screening discussion. She gently disparaged the picture, excepting Price’s performance, and remarked that director John Farrow got so fed up with the meddling of Howard Hughes that he walked off the picture with Richard Fleischer brought in to finish the film. This episode explained the prolonged ending and illustrated the obsessive micromania of Hughes that finished off RKO Studios in the mid-fifties with the eccentric billionaire ending up as the world’s most famous recluse some years later. Not that Miss Russell had anything to say about her former boss. She described Hughes as a shy man who was a great boss and a friend who was loyal to a fault. Her words were even warmer when speaking about her close buddy, the late Robert Mitchum. She spoke of Mitchum as a “poet” who was a lifetime friend and multi-talented Renaissance man. Russell summarized by wishing that she made some better films but overall had no regrets, “I had a great time.”
The next day’s film schedule began in earnest with In a Lonely Place (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. This movie is a quintessential film noir that hits you in the gut. Bogey plays an iconoclastic Hollywood writer with a hot temper who is implicated in the killing of a young hatcheck girl. He falls in love with his sexy neighbor (Grahame) who rekindles his ambition before their relationship founders under the pressure of a murder investigation and his own demons. This lyrical film was directed by a young Nicholas Ray and produced by Bogart who obviously injected more than a tad of his real persona into the main character.
An added dual delight with the film was the guest appearance of actress Martha Stewart, who played the ingenue hatcheck girl plus noted film noir expert and author Eddie Muller. Muller introduced the movie and subsequently divided the post screening Q&A duties with Art Lyons for the balance of the festival. Stewart, former wife of famed nightclub performer, Joe E. Lewis discussed her film career and described the legendary Bogart as a consummate professional actor “who was always on time, always knew his lines and was always trying to make things better.”
The second screening, He Walked by Night (1948) is a prototype subgenre film noir that served as a template for Jack Webb’s Dragnet radio and television series. This film invented the format that was resultantly cloned for so many follow-on police procedurals. A young Richard Basehart ably portrays a sociopathic killer who earns his inevitable reward from the L.A.P.D. in the Los Angeles sewer system. Photographed by noir master John Alton and bearing the directorial aura of the uncredited Anthony Mann, this B film is a true genre pioneer.
The evening feature was a rare noir filmed in color, Slightly Scarlet (1956) directed by Allan Dwan and starring the Queen of Technicolor herself, Rhonda Fleming. Fleming plays a secretary caught up in a web of municipal corruption along with her nymphomaniac sister played by Arlene Dahl. John Payne and ultimate noir heavy, Ted de Corsia bring additional heft to the film. The clarity of the DVD image was excellent and beautifully photographed scenes by John Alton that show Fleming and Dahl in the same frame were almost overpowering. These sighs turned into applause when the still beautiful Rhonda Fleming took the stage with Eddie Muller for the post screening Q&A. A Hollywood native, she related the tale of her discovery by an agent while a teenager hurrying to high school and reminisced about her career in films. Fleming admitted to initially lacking confidence as an actress due to a lack of formal training and did not “seek the limelight.” Looking back, she stated that “The lines in the film seem corny now,” but added, “I think that I looked and acted pretty good.”
Rhonda Fleming’s list of charitable endeavors outstripped her screen credits many years ago. She spoke about the recently opened People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) Center in Hollywood and hosted a post screening fundraiser for the Rhonda Fleming Women’s Cancer Clinic at The Deck in Palm Springs.
Saturday’s events started off early with a “Women in Film” breakfast hosted by Casablanca Productions. This informal gathering, moderated by noted film festival host Fred Linch, sported a line-up of Ann Savage, Beverly Garland, Jane Russell and Mickey Spillane. All of the celebrities spoke of their careers and answered questions from the audience. Spillane and Garland were particularly funny. My question to Beverly Garland about the forgettable Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, filmed on location in the Amazon basin in 1956, provoked a uproarious monologue of primitive conditions, a director making passes, flies, dysentery, topped off by wrestling with a live boa constrictor! For his part, Mickey Spillane quickly disavowed his introduction as a “legendary author” insisting he was just “an old comic book writer.” He then launched into an amusing anecdote about a love scene he played with Shirley Eaton in The Girlhunters (1963). No actor, Mickey recalled that was having so much fun on a couch with Eaton that after “cut” was called three times to no avail, a wag on the set yelled for cold water to be poured on the overheated Mike Hammer. Happily, there was much more from Mickey later that evening.
Immediately following the breakfast I caught Woman on the Run (1950) with Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe. This tightly composed and skillfully written film shot in San Francisco was easily the sleeper of the festival. Sheridan is looking for her husband who is in hiding after witnessing a gangland rubout. Helping her are the police…and a killer. The final denouement at a seaside amusement park is particularly compelling. This movie is prima facie evidence that good writing makes the film.
After lunch, a brief film retrospective highlighting Beverly Garland’s first 50 years in show business was shown and then D.O.A. (1950) flickered onto the screen. This famous film, reviewed in Filmmonthly.com, is a personal favorite of mine. As Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) searches for his murderer after being slipped a fatal Mickey Finn, the young Beverly Garland (billed as Campbell) shows her stuff during a screen debut as a secretary mixed up in the convoluted plot. After the movie, the radiant Garland took to the stage and took charge. In a delightful and energized performance, the star held forth on O’Brien (“a great actor and fine gentleman”), Neville Brand (“Nice man.” But he was so drunk during his T.V series they had to hold him up!”), Roger Corman (“Roger was so talented he could do anything…but CHEAP!”) and her career as a movie & television star, successful hotelier, wife and mother. It was a bravura performance that reminded me of her days as a regular on the old TV charades program, Stump the Stars. Afterward, I suggested to her that she start a one-woman show on to Broadway. Garland smiled, thanked me and did not disagree.
In keeping with Art Lyons’ belief that contemporary film noirs (neo-noir) merit their place at this festival, Blood Simple (1984) was the third film of the day. The Coen Brothers debut effort has been interestingly described as a horror-comedy noir. A sleazy P.I. (M. Emmet Walsh) tracks a wandering wife for a bartender and when adultery is confirmed, the husband (Dan Hedaya) ups the ante by paying Walsh to knock her off. The double crosses proliferate along with ample blood spatter and uproarious situations. This unique film launched the Coen Brothers wildly successful career and is a must see flick.
The final film on Saturday evening was a special event. The Long Wait (1954), based on a 1951 Mickey Spillane novel, is an extremely rare film. The main protagonist is roughneck Anthony Quinn who suffers amnesia in a car wreck, finds his way back to his hometown and discovers that he is implicated in robbery and murder. As Quinn wades into a bevy of dames, crooks and corruption, all hell starts to break loose. This film is a complex, dark and not particularly fast moving tale that is well worth seeing. Lead heavy Gene Evans, 1950’s fatale Peggy Castle and Charles Coburn provide able support to Quinn.
The real excitement started when Mickey Spillane took the stage with Art Lyons after the screening. The best selling crime fiction writer of all time (200 million copies and counting) dominated the proceedings with a series of incisive and frequently uproarious gems. He readily admitted that he has never been happy with any screen version of his stories, “because it’s Hollywood; they don’t read the book.” Spillane dispensed some writing wisdom (“any book that takes longer than two weeks to write is a waste of time” and “I write the ending first, then I decide how to get there”). He talked about the beginning of his career writing for comics such as Captain America and the Human Torch. His pithy anecdotes ranged from getting a gift Jaguar car from John Wayne for a weekend script rewrite job, behind the scenes escapades during nearly two decades of filming Lite Beer commercials, to his wife, a former South Carolina beauty queen. He mentioned that he is working on his final Mike Hammer novel which will have the two-fisted private eye and longtime main squeeze, Velda finally get married: “After all, they’ve been going together for fifty years.” After listening to and meeting Mickey Spillane, I formed a couple of firm conclusions. Foremost, he is a warm person with a genuine interest in people. He is also the youngest and fittest 85-year-old man I have ever observed. Mickey Spillane is definitely a living example of Culture Americana at its best.
The final day of the festival began with Suddenly (1954) starring Frank Sinatra as a cold-blooded hitman who holds a family (Nancy Gates, James Gleason and Kim Charney) hostage while preparing to shoot the President of the United States from their front window. Sterling Hayden as the Sheriff is paired off against Frank in a dramatic and effective film. Sinatra followed up his Academy Award winning performance in From Here to Eternity (1953) with this equally compelling and often overlooked gem.
The afternoon screenings were extra special for lovers of film noir. Detour (1945), is a film that actually merits its legendary cult status. Made for a piddling $30,000 in six days, this fatalistic essay based on a Martin Goldsmith novel captivated the audience for 63 thrilling minutes. In voiceover flashback, Tom Neal plays Roberts, a broke nightclub piano player who hitches a ride with a shady bookmaker who dies on the way to California. Not wanting to be blamed, Neal assumes the man’s identity, takes his car and proceeds to L.A. On the way, he picks up hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) who knows the bookie from an earlier encounter. When she turns on Roberts with a verbal broadside screech: “Where’d you hide the body!” his fate comes up snake eyes. The remainder of this film is a dark tour through the bowels of hell with Ann Savage portraying the most rabid vixen in film noir history.
When Miss Savage took the stage, she got a standing ovation for a performance accurately described as a “part of a lifetime.” She gave full credit to legendary Poverty Row director Edgar G. Ulmer for developing her character and the overall success of this film on a shoestring budget. For example, Ulmer had her exchange her carefully coiffured hairstyle for locks streaked with cold crème sans any makeup. Ulmer urged her to accelerate an already rapid and terse way of delivering lines, creating a character well described by Eddie Muller as a “harpy from hell.” Savage talked about her co-star in this and three other films, Tom Neal (“a devil”) whom she once had to belt across the chops for being fresh. She also spoke with great dignity and composure about her post screen life as a happy wife left bereft by her husband’s passing and her renewal in a new life that included being a private airplane pilot. It is worth mentioning that Miss Savage attended nearly every film on the three-day festival calendar, graciously signing autographs and visiting with friends and fans. Ann Savage is clearly a class act.
Nightmare Alley (1947) one of the darkest and best films of the 1940’s followed Detour on the Sunday bill. A classic tale of an amoral carnival performer’s rise and fall, it is a beautifully acted and compelling story. 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. This rare print, obtained by Dark Film Discussions Marc Dolezal, moved special guest Coleen Gray to tears. Miss Gray began by reverentially discussing co-star Tyrone Power whom she was so in awe of that a personal relationship proved impossible. She discussed her own screen career that was launched with three blockbusters, Kiss of Death, Nightmare Alley and Red River. She mentioned ruefully that while she prevailed upon fellow Nebraskan, Darryl F.Zanuck to lend her out for Nightmare Alley, he was not inclined to chase her around his desk. She also shared colorful recollections about legendary directors, Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Edmund Goulding. Of Stanley Kubrick, director of The Killing (1956), Gray commented dryly that what she received from the heralded Kubrick was “no direction” at all.
The Palm Springs Film Noir Festival’s final screening was Boomerang! (1947). Introduced by Marc Dolezal and film historian Marc Kagan, this Elia Kazan directed picture followed a docudrama lineage which began with Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street (1945) and was later continued by The Naked City (1948). Dramatized from a true story, a minister is shot dead in a small New England town, an innocent man (Arthur Kennedy) is railroaded and a courageous D.A. (Dana Andrews) faces down the political establishment and prevailing lemotion to prove Kennedy’s innocence. A character actor’s Hall of Fame is on display in this excellent film: Lee Cobb, Sam Levene, Karl Malden, Taylor Holmes, Ed Begley among others. This movie is one of Kazan’s most overlooked works made after Gentleman’s Agreement and before Panic in the Streets. It was a great choice for the festival closer. I am already making my plans for next year’s noir festival in the desert. It was simply a great time.
Alan Rode is a writer who lives in San Diego, California.
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