Opening Weekend of the 5th Annual Festival of Film Noir at American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre
The darkest film festival in Hollywood was ushered in for its fifth go-around at The Egyptian Theatre this past Friday night. This film noir extravaganza started back in 1999 and has become an eagerly anticipated event by film buffs, Hollywood vets and an ever-growing audience of hip film noir aficionados i.e. “noirheads.”
A major challenge facing the festival programming duo of Dennis Bartok, from the American cinematheque and noted noir author and historian Eddie Muller was how to successfully raise the bar for the 2003 festival. Many films from the classic noir era are increasingly difficult to locate and screen. Due to the exorable march of time, the ranks of screen actors, directors and creative participants from the 1940’s and 1950’s who typically appear at these festivals are being sadly thinned. Happily, the smash opening weekend proved that passion for dark film will triumph over all.
Strangers on a Train opened the festival with a sold-out crowd in the Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre reveling in the screening of this classic suspenser. Penned by Raymond Chandler, this film is highlighted by the bravura performance of Robert Walker as the twisted Bruno Anthony with Farley Granger and Ruth Roman offering stellar support. No sooner than the wild Hitchcockian merry-go-round ending stopped spinning than the crowd was on its feet cheering for special opening weekend guest Farley Granger.
The elusive and still debonair star made a rare return to Hollywood after many years of living abroad and forging a stage career in New York City. Although Granger started his film career in 1943 at age 17, he expressed his preference for working in the theatre rather than film; “I like the idea of a beginning, middle and an end.” During the post screen Q&A with Eddie Muller, Farley emphatically professed his affection for Strangers on a Train primarily due to his admiration for co-star Robert Walker and what became a close friendship with director Alfred Hitchcock. According to Granger, “Hitch” was a “very, very special” director who was loved by his crew because he was so masterly and efficient in the business of filmmaking. Farley added that whenever someone blew a line during shooting, Hitchcock would say “Don’t worry, it’s only a moooooovie.” Granger’s spot-on mimic of the legendary director’s famous diction brought the house down.
Granger was joined for the post screening Q&A with his Strangers co-star Laura Elliott. Miss Elliott surprised many in the audience when she remarked on her film and television career. After nearly 20 feature films, she changed her name to Kasey Rogers and subsequently enjoyed a successful television career on Peyton Place and Bewitched.
An engaging double feature with both films being described as “protonoir” by Dennis Bartok concluded the festival’s opening night.
The Glass Key (1934), starring George Raft, Edward Arnold and Claire Dodd is the original version of Dashiell Hammett’s mystery, is a rarely seen film. While the smoldering 1942 version with Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake is markedly superior, this Frank Tuttle helmed effort is well-paced and holds up extremely well. Edward Arnold is a superb actor who is always worth a look and George Raft is, well…George Raft.
Film historians frequently cite Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) as the definitive “first” film noir and with good reason. But this 64 minute RKO “B” entry about an innocent man headed for the chair with the key witness realizing his error late in the game really has a lot going for it. Director Boris Ingster skillfully applied the ace cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca to compose some surreal dream sequences that are reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The cast is headed by the delightfully creepy Peter Lorre and further bolstered by the eye-bulging anguish of noir character stalwart Elisha Cook Jr. I found this film irresistible: Can the scene of Lorre gliding into an all-night diner to order raw hamburger meat not entrance anyone?!
The second day of the festival commenced with the screening of Dark City (1950)- the ultimate film noir title and a pretty good flick. Charlton Heston, in his initial starring foray, is juxtaposed between nightclub chanteuse Lizabeth Scott and a brand-new single Mom played by Viveca Lindfors. Turns out that card mechanic Chuck, along with associate lowlifes Ed Begley and Jack Webb, swindled Lindfors husband (Don Defoe) of his business assets in a crooked card game. When the distraught hubby decides to commit suicide, revenge comes stalking in the personage of big brother Mike Mazurki. The beautiful 35 mm print of this William Dieterle directed film partially mitigated the disappointment of scheduled guest Lizabeth Scott missing the post screening Q&A due to a personal emergency.
Saturday evening had Farley Granger front and center again for They Live By Night (1947) and Rope (1948).
The wonderfully talented Nicholas Ray made his directorial bow with They Live By Night. Based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us and produced by the legendary John Houseman, this tragic love story framed within a tale of Depression era bank robbers is a gem of a film. The ill-fated love affair between the doomed couple who ‘were never introduced to the world we live in’ was beautifully realized by Granger and co-star Cathy O’Donnell. Terrific supporting performances by Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen add sinew to a production that seems transported back to the Midwest, but was actually filmed in the redoubts of L.A. During the post film Q&A, Farley Granger said that Howard Hughes initially shelved the film after taking over at RKO because there was “no T and A in it.” A harbinger of the mismanagement wrecked on RKO by Hughes, the film was finally released in Europe and then later in the U.S. where it bombed at the box office. This film has aged like fine wine through the years though and gets better every time I see it.
Rope (1948) is an unusual Hitchcock entry that cannot honestly be tagged as a film noir. Shot in 10 minute take sequences, this first color feature by the “Master of Suspense” is based on the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case taken to dramatis extremis as a filmed play. Two young men (John Dall and Farley Granger) murder a teenager for philosophical whimsy and then hide the body in a wooden chest while inviting friends to a party in the same room. The murder is incrementally deduced by the young men’s teacher/mentor played by a miscast James Stewart. Before the screening, Farley Granger told the Egyptian Theatre audience that the overt homosexual overtones of the story went over Lueulla Parsons’ head (“she never got it”) along with much of movie viewing public. Granger added that while he admired Stewart tremendously, the legendary actor was visibly uncomfortable with his character in this film. Rope is an acquired taste. I found it an interesting film, but overly stagy rather than suspenseful.
Sunday afternoon brought an exciting screening of a newly struck print of Force of Evil (1948).
Directed and written by Abraham Polonsky and starring the legendary John Garfield, this film is one of the seminal film noirs ever in my book. An uncompromising account of the numbers racket in New York City is given a lyrical, humanistic heft by the biting dialogue of Polonsky and the haunting musical score of film composer David Raksin. Garfield is never better as the rags to riches crooked lawyer (“I wasn’t strong enough to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to fight for a piece of it”). Thomas Gomez should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nod for his ace portrayal of Garfield’s tragic older brother.
The post screen Q&A following Force of Evil paired Eddie Muller and jazz bassist Charlie Hayden talking to legendary film composer David Raksin.
The 90 year old maestro, best known for his haunting melody ‘Laura’, boasts a resume of over 160 contributory and principal film scores beginning with his start as music arranger on Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1938). His striking and unique scores include Laura, The Big Combo, Whirlpool, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Pay or Die. Demonstrating a terse wit and a still-agile mind, Raksin shared reminiscences from his long career with luminaries such as Otto Preminger, (“an enormously powerful and tyrannical man… after our initial falling out, he asked me to come back… we got along fine after that”), John Garfield (“‘Julie Garfinkel,’ nice boy…he was a charming guy”) and Abe Polonsky (“his talent for being wrong has never, ever failed”)
The evening double feature led off with Samuel Goldwyn’s Edge of Doom directed by Mark Robson and starring Farley Granger, Dana Andrews, Joan Evans, Mala Powers, and Paul Stewart.
Filming Goldwyn’s solo entry into the crime drama genre was a downer experience according to prescreening guests Farley Granger and Joan Evans. Both stars related a dizzying sequence of continual rewrites, added characters and reshot scenes of a film that no one could seemingly come to grips with. Granger pronounced himself “disenchanted” with the entire experience. Fortunately, 50 years later, the film proved to be a well-crafted and bleak urban tale about an angry young man stuck in the ghetto who slays a priest during a rage over his inability to pay for his Mother’s funeral. Terrific N.Y.C. location cinematography is accentuated by earnest work by Dana Andrews in an offbeat role as a priest. An added plus is the sighting of one of the most delightfully dreary of film noir’s many dysfunctional couples, Paul Stewart and Adele Jergens. This extremely rare print was definitely a worthwhile experience.
The Seventh Victim (1943) was another Mark Robson entry made under the auspices of the Val Lewton production unit at RKO. More horror than noir, this film bears all of the trademarks of the Lewton unit films helmed by Robson, Robert Wise and Jacques Tourneur: beautiful, dark atmosphere, great lens work by Nicholas Musuraca and a fascinating story. Despite a few cornball moments, this film is emblematic of the best qualities of RKO “B” films during the 1940’s.
The Fifth Annual Film Noir Festival continues through April 16 at the Egyptian Theatre. Stay tuned for more reviews next week.