The Seventh Annual Palm Springs Film Noir Festival
by Alan Rode
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The temperature in Palm Springs, California, during the first weekend of June was as warm as the ambience at Arthur Lyons’ seventh annual Film Noir Festival in this desert oasis. In returning for my fifth year at this festival, I always think of this event as film noir’s version of Same Time, Next Year. Ihave an opportunity to become reacquainted with old friends, make new ones and hobnob with the celebs in a relaxed atmosphere that is just not present in other locales. There is nothing quite like Palm Springs to relax the body and soul for four days of non-stop film noir.
Art Lyons, a cherished comrade in noir and author of Death on the Cheap: The Lost “B” Movies of Film Noir invariably produces a fest renowned for movie star guests and obscure darkoddities (typically in 16mm or DVD) that frequently expand the foggy boundary lines of the film noir style.
The opening night screening of Cry Tough (1959), at the Camelot Theatres, was an emblematic launch. This seldom-seen venture by writer-producer Harry Kleiner, about a Puerto Rican ex-con struggling for redemption in Spanish Harlem, enthralled the packed house. John Saxon and a gorgeous Linda Cristal were a compelling duo of fatally mismatched lovers. A stellar supporting cast headed by vet Joseph Callieia was just as effective, though Don Gordon and Harry Townes initially struck me as incongruous choices to play Hispanic gangsters. Although this El Barrio saga has a few stereotypical creaks, the picture is laden with an oppressive sense of fatalism amid a hard-edged visual style that proved wholly authentic. Cry Tough is definite film noir.
John Saxon took to the stage, visibly moved after viewing a film that he hadn’t seen in its entirety for nearly a half century. Saxon was entertainingly candid in describing his whirlwind transition from Carmine Orrico, a 16-year-old New York photo model who wanted to mimic Tony Curtis’ hairstyle from The City Across the River, to a full blown Hollywood buildup by legendary agent Henry Willson, as John Saxon, initiating a distinguished five-decade screen career that shows no sign of abating.
From his seminal collaboration with Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa (1966), to being knocked across the room by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973), to a disastrously funny association with director Edgar G. Ulmer during the filming of The Cavern (1965), John Saxon proved to be an eloquent chronicler of his life and career amid the tumultuous changes of Hollywood, circa 1950s.
Four films were screened the following day beginning with a restored 16 mm version of The Amazing Mr. X, a.k.a. The Spiritualist (1948).
Although this Eagle-Lion gem with Turhan Bey, Lynn Bari and Richard Carlson has recently experienced a Wade Williams-produced DVD release and a new 35mm print available from Sony-Columbia, it was gratifying to acknowledge the fine work of film archivist and restorer, Jay Fenton, who brought this film to Palm Springs along with several other rare prints.
Macao (1952)is atribute to thecompelling visual power of legendary stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell on the big screen. Although writer-producer Stanley Rubin was on hand to discuss his original screenplay (and relate how Howard Hughes reneged on a negotiated deal for Stan to produce the film), this film is a glorious visual feast of Mitch and Jane, sultry Gloria Grahame, William Bendix, Brad Dexter and Thomas Gomez amid a whirl of foreign intrigue, lost diamonds, thrown knives, cigarette smoke and spinning roulette wheels. For me, Macao remains a “movie-movie” that is less about film noir and more about movie stars in their glorious courses.
The ageless Stanley Rubin, one of the best raconteurs in Hollywood, related his fascinating experiences with Howard Hughes, Robert Mitchum, Otto Preminger, Marilyn Monroe, et al, but maintained a gentlemanly decorum when I nudged him during our post-screening Q&A to dish a bit about ultimate noir femme, Gloria Grahame. Ever the class act, Stanley only acknowledged dating Gloria before meeting his actress-wife Kathleen Hughes. A beacon of genuine humility, Rubin wistfully noted that he wished the last line of Macao could have been from his original screenplay.
The rarely seen Appointment with a Shadow (1957) was scrubbed due to technical problems, and the compelling blind-alley noir, Quicksand (1950) was substituted. This underrated film stars a post-Andy Hardy Mickey Rooney, who embarks on the road to film noir perdition after “borrowing” a twenty-dollar bill from his boss’s till. Ensuring that Rooney rapidly circles the drain are a slatternly Jeanne Cagney and degenerate arcade owner Peter Lorre. Quicksand was preceded by a masterfully detailed introduction by my Film Noir Foundation colleague and cinematic scholar, the estimable Foster Hirsch.
The rest of the evening belonged to the Queen of Technicolor, Rhonda Fleming, who was the special guest of a sold-out screening of While the City Sleeps (1956).
Even though this film was helmed by the legendary Fritz Lang, While the City Sleeps is an indifferently mounted picture that is rescued by an entourage of some of best actors then working in Hollywood. Any film that boasts Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Sally Forrest, and Rhonda Fleming simply has to be entertaining. And so it was.
When Rhonda Fleming took to the stage, she was genuinely touched by the standing ovation and looked, well—she looked like Rhonda Fleming in her prime: drop-dead gorgeous. Rhonda’s beauty and charm were savored by the capacity crowd who clearly bought the tickets to see her.
Miss Fleming’s appearance after the screening unfortunately lacked a great deal of meaningful discourse primarily due to the puzzlingly indifferent Alain Silver who served as the on-stage interviewer. Silver, one of the most righteously seminal writers about film noir, appeared to be mutely oblivious to his star guest; he didn’t even formally introduce her to the sold-out crowd. Rhonda Fleming and the audience deserved better.
The early Saturday morning screening of a restored 16mm print of Three Bad Sisters (1956) was a hoot. The film had all the ingredients of a soap opera folded into a film noir blender set on “liquefy.” A dysfunctional family squaring off over a dead father’s inheritance is highlighted by a suicidal sister, a dipso Aunt, attempted murderwith a horse as the weapon of choice, and multiple seduction attempts by a duo of curvaceous cuties in a varied ensemble of bathing suits, glued-on halter tops and tourniquet-tight dresses.
All of this action takes place amidst some of the most outrageous, over-the top dialogue delivered in eye-popping close-ups by Marla English, Sara Shane, and the baddest sister of them all, Kathleen Hughes. One memorable exchange has family tart Marla responding to an exasperated retainer’s exclamation to take her over her knee and spank her: “Would that be clothed or bareback?”
Kathleen Hughes hadn’t seen Three Bad Sisters since legendary producer Howard W. Koch stood up in the screening room after viewing the final cut and exclaimed, “Wasn’t that terrific!” Kathy’s verve as a guest matched that of the movie as we reviewed her Hollywood career from Roadhouse (1948) onwards, including how she met the love of her life, Stanley Rubin—”…he just kept calling me. and I didn’t want to go out with him…”—subsequently cementing one of Hollywood’s most enduring marriages, fifty-three years and counting. Kathy declared that “Three Bad Sisters is now my favorite movie.” No one in the audience disagreed.
No Questions Asked (1951) is an obscure M.G.M. noir that star and special screening guest Richard Anderson noted to be a sea change to the happy ending fare pioneered by mogul Louis B. Mayer at Metro. “Mr. Schary came in (to Metro) and recognized that audience tastes had changed,” recalled the still debonair Anderson. “Later that year, Mr. Mayer was denied his stock options and resigned. Joe Schrenck was overjoyed; they never got along.” The picture, starring the reliable Barry Sullivan and a duplicitous Arlene Dahl, was aided by an inventive insurance scam story that trumped the prosaic dialogue and by-the-numbers direction by long-time film editor Harold F. Kress.
The festival’s sole neo-noir entry, Suture (1993) is an interesting send-up by the director-producer partnership of Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Amnesia, film noir’s version of the common cold (I cribbed that line from my friend Lee Server…), is taken to doppelganger extremes witha set of twins—one of them Caucasian and the other African-American. According to Art Lyons, the audience was evenly divided between those who bought into this “identity concept” and those who couldn’t.
There was no division on how the audience felt about the Saturday night screening of Something Wild (1961) with star Carroll Baker in the house. A raw, disturbing film about a suicidal rape victim’s (Baker) rescue and subsequent imprisonment by a troubled, lonely mechanic (Ralph Meeker), the picture left the sell-out crowd reverentially silent in the wake of a genuine masterpiece. Brilliantly shot by the legendary Eugen Schufftan (Metropolis—yeah, that one) and a magnificent score by Aaron Copland, one can only wonder how this filmremains a relative obscurity.
Most unfortunately, your humble author missed Foster Hirsch’s Q&A with Carroll Baker after the screening: I am still kicking myself. By every account, Miss Baker was stunningly frank, loquacious and moved to tears by both the film (written and directed by Jack Garfein, who was married to Baker at the time) and the repeated ovations of the crowd. You can always tell a film is terrific when large groups of people continue to talk about it the following day and evening. Something Wild was the hit of the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival.
The final day of the festival began with Port of 40 Thieves (1944). Here is a movie so obscure that the term “rarity” doesn’t do it justice. Art Lyons bragged to the audience that this was finally a film noir that Alan Rode didn’t know about! A Republic programmer, starring household names such as Stephanie Batchelor, Richard Powers and Lynn Roberts, is an early female-murderer-on-the-prowl yarn that was painlessly entertaining despite bottom of the barrel production values and staple plot devices.
The Price of Fear (1956) was another rare film noir about a hit and run frame-job orchestrated by a crime kingpin amidst multiple double-crosses and murder.
Helmed by character actor turned director, Abner Biberman (Gunga Din, Each Dawn I Die, The Roaring Twenties, and many others), The Price of Fear was ultimately sunk by a pair of totally mismatched lead performers, Lex Barker and Merle Oberon.
Oberon’s delicate beauty had faded with age by 1956and her appearance could no longer be disguised by either lighting or make-up. She never was an effective actress in any event. Merle was dwarfed by the towering Barker who periodically appeared like he wanted to put his fist through a wall simplyby being stuck pitching woo to a petite co-star who looked older than him… much older. There was simply no chemistry between the two actors: some of their extended scenes were akin to watching a lawn being mowed.
Much better were special guest Warren Stevensplayingthe principal heavy with memorable menace and the late Philip Pine as a sneering subordinate torpedo.
Warren Stevens is a trim eighty-seven and still looks like he can heft a .45 with the best of them. Imagine an actor who did an experimental television show with “another young actor named Greg Peck…” in Schenectady, New York back in 1940 and just completed his latest movie, Carts, this year. That’s 67 years of acting, folks!
Stevens, modest in reminiscing about his career on stage withradio host and film buff Joel Blumberg, projected the same confidence he brought to dozens of movies and literally hundreds of television shows. He spoke of Humphrey Bogart’s professionalism and generosity in “letting me do what I needed to do… he took care of me, a total pro.” He recalled sharing Edmund O’Brien’s seminal scene in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), remembered some of his most satisfying work on the Richard Boone Show, and was delightful in calmly deep-sixing the “director as auteur” theorem.
Asked which director inspired him, Stevens pondered and then said that “Joe Mankiewicz was an inspiration to all of his actors, but there was no other director I can recall who inspired me. I always knew what I needed or wanted to do. Usually, if I had an idea, the director would say ‘no,’ unless I made him believe that he thought of it first.” A fine actor and great guy, Warren Stevens.
Two more rarities were the final films of the festival.
Bewitched (1945) is an early take on schizophrenia, with Phyllis Thaxter taking murderous umbrage against her fiancée after her engagement party. Although a young Thaxter and the always capable Edmund Gwenn do their best, this picture remains an atmospheric curiosity at best.Arch Oboler’sponderous direction is burdened with a plethora ofdated, reaction close-up shots thatreflect his roots in radio drama and inexperience with film. A young Stephen McNally appears intermittently bewildered in this picture.
Blackmail (1947) was Art Lyons’ campy close-out to the festival. Advertised as “perhaps the worst private-eye movie ever made,” Blackmail exceeded expectations as simply one of the worst movies of any genre ever made. A “so bad it’s funny” picture featuring an extended fight scene with one of the combatants wearing his hat throughout, the leading man being knocked unconscious after being pushed into a swimming pool and putrid dialogue such as “That’s not marshmallows coming out of that gun.” Acting, direction and camera work were universally horrid. This picture moves into “Ed Wood with a fedora” territory and it was an uproarious way to end a truly memorable and unique festival.
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation. His biography of the classic noir heavy Charles McGraw will be released later this year. You can read about the book and pre-order it here.
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