Classic Film Noir from the American Cinematheque: The Seventh Annual Film Noir Festival

| March 29, 2005

The American Cinematheque serves up the rarest of films noir during April at the Egyptian and Aero Theatres in Los Angeles Noir aficionados who yearn to view obscure gems not available commercially or rarely shown on television need look no further than the Seventh Annual Festival of Film Noir starting Thursday, March 31st.
While the renaissance of film noir as a popular cultural touchstone continues unabated, the ability to view some of these period classics in their original 35mm content remains an elusive prospect. The screening schedule for this festival reflects renewed vigor to transcend the typical film noir offerings available at the local video store or constantly recycled on cable television.
For the seventh year of this popular series, host/programmer/author, Eddie Muller has combed the vaults of Hollywood and the British Film Institute to come up with some true film noir rarities that have not been seen in their original 35mm format since original release.
Lady without a Passport (1950), Singapore (1947), and Wicked as They Come (1954) showcase such stars as Hedy Lamarr, Fred MacMurray, Ava Gardner and Arlene Dahl in three of their seldom-seen and most underrated films from the classic noir period.
The Whip Hand (1951), perhaps the most wacky example of over-the-top Red Scare-period pulp films, and The Hidden Room (1949), helmed by famed Hollywood Ten director Edward Dmytryk–filmed while sentenced to temporary Blacklist exile in the U.K.–are on the screening schedule courtesy of the British Film Institute.
In addition, there are restored 35mm prints of Gordon Douglas’ overlooked Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) starring ultimate noir baddie Dan Duryea (check out Tony Curtis’ film debut as a mute hitman) and one of Joan Crawford’s greatest performances in Possessed (1947).
This innovative screening schedule is studded with special events throughout the first two weeks of April at both the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.
These extras include Eddie Muller (author of “The Distance”) introducing a special boxing noir double feature of Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1957), plus a special evening of “Lucy Noir,” featuring the famed comediennes’ serious noir pictures made before the days of Ricky Ricardo and Ethel Mertz at Desilu Productions.
The fact is, film noir remains both a writer’s genre and a cinematic movement continuing to present a bridge between then and now. A great example of this can be found in the presentation of a contemporary noir classic. The festival is proud to close with a screening of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) with the film’s screenwriter Barry Gifford as special guest. This rare Q&A appearance by the author of Wild at Heart and Adventures in Film Noir is a seminal event that film fans and lovers of popular culture should not miss.
Film reviews and commentary from the festival will continue with periodic updates from the festival, so please check back often.
Click here for the screening schedule at the Egyptian and Aero Theatres.
Opening Night 31 March 2005
An auspicious opening night featured two seldom seen film noirs that both share a foreign intrigue storyline that could only be crafted in Hollywood.
Lady without a Passport (1950) showcases the talents of Hedy Lamarr and John Hodiak against the backdrop of location shots in pre-Castro Havana that faultlessly transition to San Fernando Valley sets.
Hodiak is an undercover immigration officer working in Havana trying to crack an alien ring run by that velvet voiced and saber-scarred heavy, George Macready.
An ostensible tough egg, Hodiak quickly becomes soft-boiled for Lamarr, playing a Hungarian refugee whose last stop was Buchenwald, who is relying on Macready to get her into the U.S. via low-flying plane. The evitable showdown builds as the two men square off over who gets to go home in the end with Hedy. Definitely a cause worth fighting for.
The gorgeous 35mm print highlights the innovative camera work of the underrated director Joseph Lewis (Gun Crazy). Many of the low angles, alternating two shots and pullbacks from close-up to long distance are Lewis trademarks that added heft to this particular production. The visual theatrics and solid pacing are ample compensations for a pedestrian script that limits an extremely talented cast.
Always on trivia watch, I spotted an extremely young Stephen Hill, formerly the crusty D.A. Adam Schiff, in television’s Law and Order making his 1950 film debut.
Singapore (1947) stars Fred MacMurray as a pearl smuggler returning to the post WWII British colony to seek a hidden stash of illegal pearls and his lost ladylove, the lip-smackingly-beautiful Ava Gardner.
Although MacMurray more than holds his own with Gardner, the initial sequences between the two stars, presented in the form of an overlong flashback, began to inflict syrup poisoning until the film lurches back into the present.
Considerable ground is made up as MacMurray and the stash of pearls are concurrently pursued by customs agent, Richard Haydn and one of my favorite character actors, the rotundly sinister Thomas Gomez. Watching Gomez develop his evil schemes while slurping down oysters-on-the-half shell is probably most noirish moment in the entire picture.
MacMurray discovers that Gardner is suffering from that most common Hollywood malady of late 1940’s film noir plots–amnesia–and has married another man. Naturally, this is a situation the script cannot allow to remain static.
The proceedings are further enlivened by a parody of an American tourist couple neatly played for laughs by Spring Byington and Porter Hall (There are simply not any character actors around like these two anymore).
An incredibly cornball tie-up-all the loose ends finale left the audience totally delighted. Hokey endings in these films are usually an integral part of meeting my own expectations. Singapore was no exception to this rule.
Director John Brahm, a skillful craftsman of such dark classics as Rio, The Lodger, The Locket and The Brasher Doubloon, embarked on a successful and lucrative career in television shortly after directly this picture.
It was my personal delight to invite the late director’s grandson, Christopher, to this special screening so he could see his grandfather’s work on the big screen for the first time, courtesy of the American Cinematheque.
Late Breaking News from the 7th Annual Festival of Film Noir
Producer/writer Stanley Rubin will be the special guest at the April 2nd evening screening of The Whip Hand (1951). Among other topics, Mr. Rubin will discuss how Howard Hughes autocratically remade this film at the eleventh hour and why Rubin had his name removed from the credits. The personal appearance by Mr. Rubin who produced such renowned films as The Narrow Margin (1952) and Behind the High Wall (1956) is a special event to be savored by lovers of film noir and Old Hollywood.
The screening of Between Midnight and Dawn (1950) on Sunday April 6th has been cancelled due to problems with the print. Scandal Sheet (1952) a rip-roaring newspaper yarn penned by Samuel Fuller and directed by the renowned Phil Karlson will be screened as a most worthy alternative.
For those of you who are concerned about the preservation of films from the classic noir period, please check out the mission statements of both the American Cinematheque and The Film Noir Foundation.
Festival host and pugilistic novelist, Eddie Muller (The Distance and Shadow Boxer) will screen a 12 minute fight film of the final Rocky Graziano-Tony Zale bout of their classic trilogy bouts. This rare film is the perfect set-up for the dual screenings of Champion and The Harder They Fall at the Eqyptian and Aero Theatres on 7-8 April. Boxing aficionados should not miss this special event.
The First Dark Weekend
The first weekend of the festival moved into high gear with a trifecta of obscure noir films screened on Saturday 2 April at the Egyptian Theatre.
Arlene Dahl leverages her considerable physical assets into a one way ticket out of a squalid N.Y.C flat in As Wicked as They Come (1956).
Scripted by Ken Hughes and Bill Ballinger from Ballinger’s novel, Portrait in Smoke, this portrait of relentless femme fatale rancor really picks up steam after Dahl hits London after conniving her way into winning a beauty contest.
The statuesque blond stalks and bags a series of gullible executives whom she discards like used Kleenex after they are sucked dry. A Black Widow with the sniffles could not have managed it more neatly when Dahl ends up at the top of the heap, marrying the sugar daddy CEO of a multinational corporation. Old pro Herbert Marshall is particularly effective playing a cuckolded executive who reminded me of a zombie with a terminal hangover after Arlene turns him inside out on her way to the top.
Dahl’s bedroom-hopping master plan ultimately backfires. We finally find out why Arlene became the ultimate fatale ballbreaker and that her love for rakish Phil Carey, who shuttles in and out of the picture at opportune moments, might even be genuine.
Ken Hughes directed this film in the U.K. for Columbia. Shot in black and white, it is a nice bookend performance for Dahl alongside her more renowned Slightly Scarlet (1956). Arlene Dahl proves most assuredly that she was not just another pretty face in Hollywood during the 1950’s.
Perhaps Hollywood’s most absurdly magnified vision of 1950’s domestic Communism, courtesy of Howard Hughes and RKO, was next on the bill.
Interest in this rare print on loan from the British Film Institute was heightened by the special guest appearance of renowned producer, writer and gifted raconteur, Stanley Rubin.
Rubin, introduced before the screening by festival host Eddie Muller, informed the audience that he had taken his name off of the picture as the screenwriter of record and would revisit the issue after viewing the film for the first time in over a half a century.
The Whip Hand (1951) begins with a gaggle of military men in uniform jabbering in Russian and pointing to a map of the U.S. One doesn’t have to be bilingual to divine that a sinister Soviet plot with national security implications is in the works.
Cut to Elliott Reid, who bumps his head while fishing near a small town. He subsequently seeks to get patched up by the local sawbones and encounters a group of distinctly weird local residents. Reid quickly discovers that all the fish in the local lake mysteriously died several years back and the oddball people who showed up in town immediately afterwards are up to even stranger goings on.
The film gradually reveals that an infamous Nazi scientist (Otto Waldis) is now working for the Soviets and has turned the local lodge into a germ warfare factory, complete with human guinea pigs, that is manufacturing bacterial agents at top speed.
Of course, nearly all the town’s mysterious residents are Communist agents protecting the secret factory.
With all of this to swallow, it isn’t too hard to accept that fisherman Reid is coincidentally a reporter who wrote a story on the same Nazi scientist back in 1946… Are you with me so far?
Although The Whip Hand plumbs new depths of preposterousness, watching this curiosity was a lot of fun.
Heading the supporting cast is a massive Raymond Burr, resplendent with a shock of dyed-white hair and a garage sale scarf. Burr joyously hams it up over the unassuming Reid and his only ally, the town’s doctor’s sister (Carla Balenda), perhaps the most obtuse character role in cinematic history.
After the credits rolled, Stanley Rubin returned to relate a series of events that were in keeping with this oddest of film noirs.
Rubin’s original story concerned Nazis and specifically, Hitler, who escaped from his bunker at the end of WWII and made his way to the U.S. The former Fuehrer was living undercover in a small American town until he was discovered.
Rubin received a note from studio owner Howard Hughes asking him to change the story from Nazis to Communists. Turns out that Howard thought that Hitler and the Nazis were passe and that RKO and by definition, Stanley Rubin needed to properly target this particular production in order to address the current threat.
In a series of written exchanges between both men, Rubin refused to change his story (in addition to professional reasons, he did not want to add to the ongoing ‘Red Scare’ hysteria that was convulsing Hollywood). Hughes, never patient when his desires were delayed, much less thwarted, rapidly became adamant about the script changes.
At length, Rubin requested that Hughes remove his name from the credits and use a different writer which was exactly what happened.
Stanley Rubin neatly summed it up: “After watching this film for the first time in 53 years, I think that I made the right decision.”
The late screening was truly unique–a rare gem courtesy of the British Film Institute.
Obsession a.k.a. The Hidden Room (1949) was filmed under the joint banner of the Rank Organization and Eagle Lion by the renowned Edward Dmytryk.
Dmytryk, who was on geographical hiatus from the U.S. as one of the Hollywood Ten who initially defied the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC), crafted a superb psychological suspense picture that is on a par with some of Hitchcock’s best work.
Robert Newton dominates the production as a cuckolded doctor who devises the ‘perfect’ murder scheme. The British actor became a familiar figure to American film viewers for his scenery chewing portrayals in splashy costume productions such as Blackbeard, the Pirate and Long John Silver before his untimely death in 1953 due to acute alcoholism.
Newton seeks ultimate redress after being pushed over the edge by his serially unfaithful wife (Sally Grey) whose latest foray into infidelity with an American playboy (Phil Brown) cannot be abided.
“You’ve both heard of the straw,” purrs Newton to both Grey and Brown during the remarkable opening sequence.
As the sepulchral, precise doctor, Newton executes a master plan for revenge that is both devilish and devious–I won’t spoil it–and exposes the psychological makeup of all three protagonists. Nauton Wayne adds heft as Scotland Yard’s version of Columbo whose investigative jousts with Newton are a delight to watch.
An interesting side story to this picture is the documented antipathy of co-star Phil Brown (remarkably effective in this film as well) towards director Edward Dmytryk.
Brown, who also worked as assistant director on the film, left the country due to his leftish views and association with the Actor’s Lab back in the 1940’s. He subsequently lived and worked in the U.K. for the next 40 years.
According to Brown, Dmytryk, never an actor’s director, was a cold fish that ended up informing on his friends and colleagues (including Brown) after famously recanting his political views and reviving his career.
Although none of this tension showed up on the screen, it is fascinating to note how the Blacklist affected nearly everyone who worked in Hollywood in some manner during the late 40’s through the 1950’s.
Sunday’s double bill headlined two American film noirs in gorgeous 35mm glory.
Hollow Triumph (1948) a.k.a. The Scar directed by Hungarian émigré Steven Sekely is a distinctive picture that is frequently overlooked in many film noir histographies and ‘best’ lists.
Paul Henried plays a dual role with diabolical twists and turns. As an arch criminal on the run from the mob after a double cross, he stumbles across a respectable M.D. who is a dead ringer for Henreid except for a scar on the doctor’s cheek.
Henried arranges to duplicate the scar and the doctor’s demise. He assumes the M.D.’s identity while wooing his assistant, Joan Bennett. Since this is film noir, an incidental complication leads to greater unraveling until the entire scheme implodes. The finale to this film epitomizes what film noir is all about.
This picture is especially notable for the dark lighting and expert camerawork of ace noir cinematographer, John Alton. In this picture, he creates a world of reflective store windows, dark shadows and lurking menace.
Hollow Triumph along with Alton’s other Eagle-Lion productions, including Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, and T-Men are emblematic of his unique treatise of cinematography, ‘Painting with Light,’ recently republished in paperback.
Trivia Watch: An extremely young Jack Dragnet Webb as a thug pushed off of ‘Angels flight,’ a once-famous tram in downtown L.A.
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller started out a copyboy in New York during the 1920’s and never got the newspaper ink off of his fingers. Thank goodness!
Scandal Sheet (1952) is a terrific Fuller yarn nicely realized by director Phil Karlson.
Karlson’s films always accentuate pacing and movement and Scandal Sheet is no exception.
Recent Academy Award Life Achievement Awardee, director Sidney Lumet stated that he watched Phil Karlson’s films to get a cogent sense of how to portray action. No one is better than Karlson on creating naturalistic action on film.
Eugene Ling, who collaborated on the script, ironically penned ‘Between Midnight and Dawn’ (1950) that Scandal Sheet replaced on the festival bill due to unforeseen print problems.
A big city newspaper editor (Broderick Crawford) assigns a reporter to investigate a murder that the editor committed and tries to manage the coverage!
This film is not a ‘whodunit,’ but a ‘what’s going to happen’ that has the audience leaning forward in anticipation.
John Derek and Donna Reed compliment Brod Crawford’s battering ram of a performance as the two reporters who forage through a maze of clues and red herrings.
An ensemble of veteran character actors who play their parts with effortless skill bolsters the picture: Henry O’Neill, Harry Morgan, Rosemary De Camp, Don Beddoe and Jay Adler.
Stay tuned for Boxing Noir on Thursday 7 April and another full slate of films on the following weekend!
Boxing Noir: The Sweet Science
It was Thursday night at the fights at the Egyptian Theatre courtesy of the American Cinemathque and festival host Eddie Muller.
Two classic boxing noirs, Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1957) were screened after a knockout introduction by the festival’s heavyweight champ of film noir.
Muller, author of boxing crime novels, The Distance and Shadow Boxer has the sweet science pulsing through his genes.
His father, (also Eddie Muller), was the #1 West Coast boxing scribe out of San Francisco for a half century dating back to the 1940’s.
As Eddie noted during his intro, boxing is the most schizoid of American sporting pastimes, simultaneously peopled with characters from the uprightly noble to the sleazily venal. “This is why boxing is such great theatre,” declared Muller.
The evening screenings began with conclusive pictorial heft to the boffo introduction. A 12-minute film of one of the great middleweight bouts of all time, Tony Zale vs. Rocky Graziano in the third fight of their immortal trilogy from 1948, flickered onto the screen.
Even the crude camera work of the period did not disguise the toughness of these two rock-hard pros from a bygone era. Zale’s third round knockout of Rocky with a classic one-two combination made me involuntarily wince when repeated in slow motion. This bout was the real deal: the referee could have used a calculator-Rocky was out cold.
The archival boxing footage was a perfect lead-in to Champion (1949).
Beautifully realized by producer Stanley Kramer (who loathed boxing) and director Mark Robson, this picture rocketed Kirk Douglas to stardom and was nominated for six Academy awards.
Douglas was perfect in this role that fit him like a laced up boxing glove: the take-no-prisoners, ruthless bastard who steps on everyone on his way up until he ultimately self-destructs.
Even though the story has been endlessly imitated, the chronicle of fictional boxer Midge Kelly still packs a punch largely due to an ensemble of fine actors. The stellar supporting cast includes Ruth Roman as the wife who remains physically attracted to Douglas even though she knows he is rotten to the core, Arthur Kennedy as the lame good soldier of a brother, Paul Stewart as the sage, world-weary manager and Marilyn Maxwell as the ultimate gold digger. A beautiful new 35 mm print added bliss to pleasure while watching this classic.
While Champion is realized fiction, The Harder They Fall (1957) is pretty much the gospel truth.
Budd Schulberg’s script is adapted from the tragic true story of 1930’s heavyweight, Primo Carnera. The picture is distinctive for Humphrey Bogart’s final starring role before his death from cancer in 1957 and one of Rod Steiger’s best and most frequently overlooked performances.
For a detailed review of The Harder They Fall please click here.
Friday 8 April: Two by Mann…and McGraw
The trio of Friday films was led off by The Web (1947).
A complex plot of embezzlement and murder is brilliantly entertaining thanks to ace Hollywood script doctor and one-liner scribe, the late William Bowers (more about Bill Bowers on Saturday…) whose witty screenplay is enlivened by some of the finest actors in noir. This film remains amazingly obscure except to purists. The Web was an astute programming selection for this festival.
The cast is headed by Vincent Price (is there anyone out there who doesn’t love watching Vincent Price?) who plays a suave, duplicitous swine to the hilt. Price hires film noir’s most believably earnest male lead, Edmund O’Brien, as a private eye to ‘protect’ him from scurrilous accusations that just might have the ring of truth.
Price’s executive secretary and aide-de-camp is the ever-desirable Ella Raines, one of the most gorgeous and underrated actresses in Hollywood during the 1940’s. Perfect casting is achieved with William Bendix as the cop who keeps rooting around in the plot in order to save the day during the final denouement.
One of film noir’s most renowned directors, Anthony Mann, helmed the two late screenings. His daughter was a special guest of the Cinematheque to watch some of her father’s most distinctive work.
Anthony Mann cemented his directorial reputation as a noir stylist in partnership with ace cinematographer John Alton on classic “B” film noirs made at Eagle Lion Studios during the 1940’s.
Mann’s noir resume of Desperate (1947) , T-Men (1947) a huge box office hit by the way, Railroaded (1947) Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948) and Follow Me Quietly (1949) led to M.G.M production chief, Dore Schary bringing him to Culver City to complete another project that was begun at Eagle-Lion.
During the introduction, Eddie Muller advised the audience that the film was originally (and incredibly) called “Wetbacks.” After it became apparent that this title was gratuitously insensitive (and bad for the box office) even by 1949 standards, it was subsequently changed to Border Incident.
Mexican policeman Ricardo Montalban goes undercover with his American INS counterpart George Murphy to breakup an Imperial Valley alien smuggling ring run by Howard De Silva with a ruthless ranch foreman, Charles McGraw, leading perhaps the most despicable group of plug-uglies ever in one film.
This picture starkly depicts situations of uncompromising violence along the border and is as topical now as then. Beautifully shot in gorgeous black and white against jagged border country by John Alton. For a more comprehensive review of this film, please click here.
An added treat during this screening was being accompanied by the late Charles McGraw’s widow, Millie, to watch the distinctive character actor in both films that evening. Her verdict on noir icon McGraw’s work in Border Incident: “Boy, Charlie was mean in that one”! Amen.
Side Street (1950) is a classic ‘blind alley’ film noir. A young letter carrier
(Farley Granger) with an expectant wife (Cathy O’Donnell) succumbs to temptation and steals a bundle of cash from a lawyer’s office. Too late, Granger tries to give the money back and finds out he’s heisted hot dough from a gang of blackmailers and killers.
Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw represent law and order with two great femme fatales, Adele Jergens and Jean Hagen adding welcome distraction.
Kelly (who in real life went to prison on a manslaughter beef during the Roaring Twenties) also provides the voice-over narration that became so popular in these films from the mid 40’s onward.
Shot on location in N.Y.C., the film has a period feel and a gritty script by ace crime writer, Sydney Boehm. The film is enlivened by a wild car chase that climaxes in Wall Street. Great stuff!
Saturday Noir–A Doubleheader of
Duryea and Shelly
The two Saturday night screenings were two rarities that really underscored the quality of this year’s film noir festival.
Dan Duryea is one of the most emblematic and enduring of film noir actors. A free lance performer who owed no allegiance to any studio, he has one of the most lengthy and distinguished film noir resumes of any performer.
As preambled by Eddie Muller, Duryea created one of the most unique niches in Hollywood history.
With blond hair slicked back, wide shoulders and even wider lapels, “Dangerous Dan” was film noir’s dandified crook who purred danger while earning a reputation of backhanding women that period audiences somehow found irresistible.
Even though he was a Boy Scout husband and model family man, Duryea solidified his reputation as a heel in series of excellent pictures including: Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, Too Late for Tears, and Crisscross.
Duryea was on full display for Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) and Larceny (1948).
Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) was believed to be a lost film in 35mm, but thanks to the persistence of Eddie Muller and Dennis Bartok, a new 35 mm print was struck to the delight of a capacity Egyptian Theatre crowd.
Unfortunately, the film disappointed me. Visually, the location shooting in San Francisco and Vancouver by William Castle (who would go on to greater success with campy horror films such as House on Haunted Hill in the 1950’s and 60’s) was artful.
The cast headed by Duryea, an appropriately grim Howard Duff, Shelly Winters and in his film debut as a deaf mute hitman, Tony Curtis was fine, but the script was, to be polite, pedestrian.
Conversely, Larceny was the sleeper hit of the entire festival in my estimation.
Duryea and John Payne are a couple of con men who play the dodge on a war hero’s widow (Joan Caufield) in Pasadena.
The scam is complicated by moll Shelly Winters who is Duryea’s girl, but lusts for Payne who wants to kick Shelley to the curb as a bad job.
The complex plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep everyone focused, but the dialogue penned by Bill Bowers had the audience roaring in awesome admiration for some of the sharpest noir palaver this viewer has witnessed for a long time.
The byplay between Winters and Payne is especially rich:
“Don’t twist my arm, people will think we’re married,” snaps Shelly as the starcrossed pair argue.
Payne fires back, “I thought you had a brain, but didn’t realize that you donated it to that medical student.”
An added plus is the delightful appearance of that ultimate mousy character actor Percy Helton as Payne’s hotel manager who never can find his watch or keys:
“They’re probably under my ju-jitsu manual,” squeaks Percy.
Larceny was a great find by the festival and the type of delightful film that will always have film noir enthusiasts coming back for more.
Stay tuned for the festival wrap up next week.

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