Summer In The Dark: Santa Fe’s Festival of Film Noir

| July 18, 2003

The sun went down early last week along the Pecos Trail Road into Santa Fe, New Mexico as The Center of Contemporary Arts (CCA) Cinematheque brought forth thirteen of America’s greatest film noirs for Santa Fe’s Festival of Film Noir.
One of the nation’s leading artistic and eclectic communities, Santa Fe has quietly been in the vanguard of the international film noir revival due in no small way to CCA Cinematheque director Jerry Barron. A superb film curator and congenial host, Barron established the Summer in the Dark series back in 1997. “These films are easy to understand and the film noir festival is our most popular annual event,” declared Barron. The long lines of people streaming into the intimate CCA venue during the opening weekend provided ample testimony of the local enthusiasm for this festival.
This year’s program was a darkly exquisite tribute to the leading women of film noir. Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Linda Darnell along with other famed fatales dominated the CCA screen in all their 35mm glory during the opening weekend. An added plus to the weekend festivities was attendance by the ranking eminence grise of film noir, Eddie Muller. Muller is the author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir, The Art of Noir and new noir mysteries The Distance and Shadow Boxer. The acclaimed “Czar of Noir” greatly enlivened the proceedings with his cerebral and acerbic film introductions along with a Sunday afternoon book signing event. Muller’s informative commentary touched on the diverse aspects of film noir, from the major pulp fiction writers to European expatriate directors and insider Hollywood history. A perfect complement to the programmed films, Muller’s presence at these weekend screenings amounted to a fascinating Film Noir 101 class for a series of rapt audiences.
The festival opened with Beware My Lovely (1952) starring Robert Ryan as a nomadic loner hired as a handyman by widowed Ida Lupino. When Ryan turns out to be a psychopath, all bets are off for Ida who is by her lonesome in a 19th century house. While this Mel Dinelli story has become worn out by too many Hollywood iterations, both stars, particularly the always-dynamic Ryan, kept the audience’s eyes focused on the screen.
Eddie Muller introduced Double Indemnity (1944) as the first bonafide film noir because, “it was the first film to show audiences that terrific films can be made with some very bad lead characters …” And how! One of the truly seminal films of the last century pairs insurance salesman Fred MacMurray and wannabe widow Barbara Stanwyck executing a perfect scheme to bump off Babs’ husband for the insurance windfall. What they don’t count on is MacMurray’s relentless boss, Edward G. Robinson, who just can’t stop sniffing out a murder. Beautifully acted, scripted (by director Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler) and directed, this gem has been frequently imitated, but never equaled.
The evening screening of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) was a special event at this festival. Directed by Robert Montgomery, much of the film was shot on location in Santa Fe with numerous fiesta street scenes and interiors of the famous La Fonda Hotel. Montgomery stars as Gagin, a tough guy on a blackmail mission who runs into much more than he bargained for in the small Southwestern town of ‘San Pablo.’ Thomas Gomez, Wanda Hendrix, Fred Clark and the ubiquitous Art Smith lend stellar support. A frequently overlooked player of great ability, Gomez became the first Hispanic actor ever nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this film. Not surprisingly, Jerry Barron programmed this beautiful print borrowed from the Library of Congress for three screenings during the weeklong festival. The first show was sold-out and many Santa Fe residents who were initially turned away at the box office were able to return later in the week to catch part of their city’s history.
The opening evening concluded with a rare screening of The Reckless Moment (1949). Directed by pantheon craftsman, Max Ophuls, the film stars Joan Bennett as a well-to-do, innocent housewife who becomes enmeshed in murder and blackmail when she intercedes into her daughter’s affair with a lowlife con man. James Mason co-stars in this frequently overlooked film that features neat location scenes at Balboa, California and terrific camera work by Ophuls, whose Hollywood career was all too short-lived.
The Saturday afternoon screenings began with The Letter (1940). Bette Davis dominates as the well-to-do wife of a rubber plantation owner who shoots down a male friend, touching off a powder keg of blackmail and scandal in colonial Malaysia. While this melodrama penned by ace screenwriter Howard Koch is less film noir and more period Hollywood blockbuster, the direction (William Wyler), cinematography (Tony Gaudio) and musical score (Max Steiner) create an unforgettably synergistic film. Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband and Gale Sondergaard as a sinister Eurasian help Davis with the heavy lifting in this adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s play.
Criss Cross (1949) is a personal favorite of mine. From the beautiful opening aerial shot of nighttime L.A. set against a haunting Miklos Rozca score to the surprising denouement that had the sell-out crowd sighing, this Robert Siodmak directed heist film is almost poetic in its romantic fatalism. The youthfully virile Burt Lancaster (“U.S.D.A. beefcake…” remarked Eddie Muller) is juxtaposed with steamy Yvonne De Carlo and the fascinatingly sinister Dan Duryea. This picture garnered some of the best audience comments during the inevitable post- screening lobby discussions.
When drifter Erik Stanton (Dana Andrews) gets eighty-sixed off a bus on the California coast for lack of $2.25, he runs into another hard-luck case, a hash slinger named Stella (Linda Darnell) who is one kind of Fallen Angel (1945). Stanton falls for Stella like a pole axed ox and quickly lines up behind the rest of the local suckers who are jockeying to get next to the sloe-eyed beauty. Director Otto Preminger parlayed his breakthrough success of Laura (1944) with another twisted tale of obsessive lust and murder. Both the breathtaking Darnell and Alice Faye light up the screen with wonderful support from Charles Bickford, Percy Kilbride and John Carradine.
The first screening of the evening featured a beautiful print of one of the strangest films ever made, Christmas Holiday directed by Robert Siodmak. Based on a Somerset Maugham story, the film opens with a WWII second lieutenant flying home to San Francisco with a ‘Dear John’ letter in his pocket. When bad weather forces his plane down in New Orleans on Christmas Eve, the 90-day wonder ends up in a roadhouse where he is paired off with a young chanteuse who asks him to take her to midnight mass in the Big Easy. The lady breaks down in church and relates in flashback, her whirlwind courtship and subsequent marriage to a seemingly nice guy who lives with his courtly Mother. Of course, the hubby is now in the death house and Mom reassembles an antebellum version of an Oedipal control freak. In an extraordinary instance of dual casting against type, songstress Deanna Durbin plays the female lead alongside Gene Kelly as the troubled husband. This unusual film works surprisingly well with first-rate performances by Durbin, Kelly and Gale Sondergaard as the overly devoted mother.
I had the pleasure of introducing the late showing of Mildred Pierce (1945). This revered Warner Bros. picture is the ultimate film noir Mother’s Day Card, courtesy of hard-boiled writer James M. Cain. Joan Crawford won her coveted Best Actress Oscar as the self-made female dervish who lays it all on the line for her daughter-from-hell, deliciously played by Ann Blyth. With superb mood lighting and direction by Michael Curtiz and wonderful supporting performances by Jack Carson, Eve Arden and Zachary Scott, it was compelling to watch this classic in its original glory up on the big screen.
The Sunday screenings opened with another Otto Preminger helmed effort, Angel Face (1952). When ambulance driver Robert Mitchum hooks up with a beautiful, but disturbed heiress played by Jean Simmons, the trouble comes in both forward and reverse. This interesting film is characterized by an over-the-top story that is successfully trumped by crackling good acting by the two leads, ably supported by Herbert Marshall and film noir’s invariable attorney-of-choice, Leon Ames. During the intro, Eddie Muller related that between the bad memories of repelling producer Howard Hughes’ amorous advances and enduring director Preminger’s Teutonic bullying, Miss Simmons could scarcely sit through a screening of this film several years ago in Hollywood.
Post World War II urban film noir went on display with the screening of The Dark Corner (1946). Despite nice N.Y.C. locations along with classic mood lightning in dark offices and side streets, this Henry Hathaway directed film struck me as overly talky and not particularly well paced. Mark Stevens as a framed private eye is in the doldrums until being bailed out by an appealing Lucille Ball (yes, that Lucy!). Dyspeptic Clifton Webb clips off the vitriolic dialogue that he patented in Laura with William Bendix cracking various skulls as a thug for hire.
Marilyn Monroe was the feature attraction to close out the festival’s thirteen-film run that would be repeated through 17 July.
Early Marilyn was on display in the intriguing Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) co-starring Richard Widmark and Ann Bancroft in her film debut as a lounge chanteuse). In one of most bizarre familial casting decisions of all time, Marilyn plays the troubled niece of ultimate noir schameil Elisha Cook Jr. Cook, an elevator operator, lands a babysitting job for his seemingly frumpy relation at a luxury hotel. When Monroe subsequently dons a borrowed negligee and comes on to jilted guest Widmark, who shows up toting a fifth of whiskey, her child-care responsibilities quickly become an intolerable burden and soon all hell is breaking loose. One notable scene has Marilyn crowning her ‘Uncle’ with an upright ashtray, sending Cook Jr. sprawling into a hotel bathtub! This film might be somewhat implausible, but was immensely entertaining- a real sleeper.
Later, Monroe, now the superstar with lip-smacking sex appeal a mere two years on, owns the spotlight in Niagara (1953). When Marilyn and Joseph Cotton honeymoon at Niagara Falls, betrayal and murder intrude, but who is the victim? Jean Peters acts well in support, but can’t compete close-up for close-up with Monroe. Gorgeously shot in three-strip Technicolor by Henry Hathaway, Niagara is by no means a great film, but provides solid entertainment what with both Marilyn and the Falls looking so spectacular.
My heartfelt thanks are extended to Jerry Barron who programmed a terrific festival and couldn’t be more hospitable and kind. Jerry really did an awesome job coming up with these titles. Obtaining quality 35mm prints of these vintage films has become increasingly challenging with each passing year. Many film noirs are sadly becoming unavailable or non-existent in their original format. At the risk of sounding preachy, film preservationists of the world must unite to save this unique part of our cultural heritage. I would also like to thank the staffs at the CCA Cinematheque and the La Fonda Hotel for their courtesy and helpfulness. For me, I am planning to saddle up and hit the Pecos Trail Road come next summer when the sun goes down.

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