Thursday, June 4, 2009

I Wake Up Dreaming Redux

I caught two additional films from the encore week of films from I Wake Up Dreaming at the Roxie.

The series was a tremendous success in terms of audience size. None of the screenings that I attended were sold out but the crowds were big. The crowds at the two redux screenings were much smaller.

Private Hell 36 starring Ida Lupino, Steve Cochran & Howard Duff; directed by Don Siegel; (1954)
The Port of Forty Thieves; directed by Don Siegel; (1944)

Several of the films featured John Alton as cinematographer. I think all the films were on 16 mm and some of them were in pretty bad shape. I believe The Devil Thumbs a Ride and New York Confidential were screened on 35 mm.


My favorite films from the festival were:

Private Hell 36 was by far my favorite film of the festival. I'm glad that I was able to catch it during the redux week. I missed the original screening to see Ms. 45.

Ida Lupino and her husband Collier Young had screenwriting credits for Private Hell 36. At the time of the film's release he was her ex-husband. Don Siegel was the director. He would go on to direct Clint Eastwood in several popular films in the 1970's (Dirty Harry, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Coogan's Bluff and Escape from Alcatraz).

The plot involved two cops that are investigating $300,000 in stolen cash. After finding the money, they make a fateful decision to pocket some of the cash. One partner, Howard Duff, is wracked with guilt and fear of getting caught. The other partner, Steve Cochran, who instigated the filching is driven by greed and the need to impress his girlfriend (Ida Lupino). Eventually, Cochran loses his morals and plans to kill his partner to keep 100% of the cash.

If the plot seems deceptively simple, it's not...there's no deception about it. The film telegraphs the plot to anyone with a casual knowledge of noir. What makes the film engaging are the performances of Duff and Cochran (and to a lesser extent Lupino). Right from the start, you can see that Cochran is the type of person that takes risks when he investigates a burglary without calling for backup. Duff seems like the type of person that would have lived his life in quiet desperation but once he goes along with the theft, he becomes irritable and miserable. Lupino vacillates between a wise cracking, tough cookie out to make a buck to a supportive girlfriend looking for the white picket fence.

There is something about Lupino that makes you feel she was born to play the bitch. Her character isn't particularly bitchy compared to While the City Sleeps, Road House or The Hard Way but I kept expecting her to take a devious turn or spit out a catty remark.

So like many great noirs, Private Hell 36 combines a character study with elements of the police procedural. Throughout the film, you can feel the characters suffocating from the after effects of their crime as well as the tightening vise of their captain's suspicions.

The title refers to camper 36 where the cops stash their stolen loot.

A close second to Private Hell 36 was New York Confidential which features the fabulous raspy staccato of Broderick Crawford's voice. Crawford seems to deliver his lines as if he was late for an appointment. Crawford plays a mob boss who fashions himself as a modern CEO but never extricates himself from the messy business of La Cosa Nostra. Richard Conte plays his protégé and Anne Bancroft (unrecognizable to me) plays his dissatisfied daughter.

Again, this films focuses on the complex relationships Crawford has with Conte and Bancroft but has enough crime capers to keep you interested. Conte kills a man by hiding his pistol in a folded newspaper. Mike Mazurki has a small role as a hitman and they film skillfully builds suspense as he tries to escape a highrise in an elevator. Having just committed a murder, the elevator excruciating stops at every floor on the way down.

The key to the film is the poisoning effect the Mafia has on its own. Crawford drives his daughter to suicide even though he only wants the best for her. Conte who is the smartest of the bunch has to kill his mentor and still can't escape his fate. For all their faux business professionalism, the gangsters in this film are misguided and violent men who can only look forward to a violent death.

The film was based on various Mafia incidents in the 1950's. Crawford's character must have been partially patterned on Frank Costello. There is a meeting of "the Commission" like the Apalachin Meeting two years after the film was released. Another character was clearly patterned on Senator Estes Kefauver. For it's time, it must have had that "rippped from the headlines" feel.

A funny piece of trivia is that Conte plays the son Crawford never had but in real life, Conte was 8 months older than Crawford. Despite having romantic intentions towards Conte, Bancroft was 20 years his junior.

The Pretender was notable for Albert Dekker's descent into madness. I would say paranoia but how does the saying go? It isn't paranoia when they really are out to get you. Dekker has his eye's on Catherine Craig's fortune. He wants to marry her but she hints of a fiancé. The problem is that Craig has so many guys hanging around and is so private that she won't identify her betrothed. No problem, Dekker hire a hit man (through a middle man) to kill her fiancé. Dekker says to look for the engagement photo in the society pages of the newspaper.

You guessed it, Craig cancels the engagement and eventually marries Dekker. Their photo is in the paper but Dekker cancels the hit. The only problem is the cutout man gets whacked and Dekker isn't sure if the hit man got the cancel order. So he becomes a recluse and highly suspicious of his wfie's household staff. Unable to tell her the true reason for his bizarre behavior, she begins to suspect he is going insane. I won't give away the ending but Dekker (who is usually relegated to supporting roles) nailed this role and made for a highly entertaining movie.

City of Fear was a police procedural involving the improbable story of a container of radioactive Cobalt-60 in Los Angeles. An escaped prisoner grabs a metal cannister of what he thinks is heroin. It turns out the government is performing experiments involving exposing Coblalt-60 to prisoners. The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game as the cops look for the con and the con avoids the police. All the while, Vince Edwards, as the escaped convict, develops a hacking cough and extreme fatigue. The casual handling of such highly radioactive material was quaintly amusing but the dragnet aspect of the film was above average and kept me interested.

The two Lawrence Tierney films were notable for the amoral gusto that he brought to each role. I thought he was more menacing in The Devil Thumbs a Ride but I liked the plot of The Hoodlum better. Neither film was particularly noteworthy except for Tierney's textbook portrayals of hardened killers.

Framed which I saw at the 2008 Noir City was also entertaining. Glenn Ford plays a stubborn hot-head but Janis Carter steals the film as the femme fatale. She kills her married boyfriend (Barry Sullivan) and comes within a skosh of getting Ford to drink coffee laced with rat poison.

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