Monday, September 13, 2010

Not Necessarily Noir

Elliot Lavine was back at the Roxie for two weeks recently. Lavine has, by my count, programmed three successful noir series at the Roxie in the past 18 months. This time, he programmed Not Necessarily Noir. Lavine was a former programmer at the Roxie and seems to be their permanent guest noir programmer. As his valedictory for Not Necessarily Noir, Lavine stated his intention to return to the Roxie next spring with another noir series.

The ambiguous series title (partially chosen for its alliteration according to Lavine) was more noir than not in my opinion. I certainly appreciate the genre (although some purist claim it is not a genre), I have to admit to showing signs of noir fatigue. Since January 2009, I count seven multi-week film series in the Bay Area with "noir" in the title and a couple others which had strong elements of noir in its programming goals. Rolling Thunder, Thief and Cutter’s Way which appeared in this Roxie series also screened in March 2008 at the Castro Theater as part of their Rolling Thunders: The Second Dark Age series.

For the past twenty years the Roxie has been presenting a steady diet of pure bred 100% All-American Film Noir. Now comes an exciting new cavalcade of boundary benders that beg the issue of just what constitutes the whole notion of noir—a whopping twenty-four films of mixed genres, spanning the years 1941 through 1999—all with a decidedly bent perspective on the human condition.

This breathtaking array of dark cinematic diversity offers up a thoroughly mixed bag of styles and genres—from the demented and disquieting horror noir hybrids of the 1940s (The Face Behind The Mask and House Of Horrors) to the cold war shivers induced by 1950s sci-fi noir (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Creeping Unknown), to cult western noir from the 50s (Day of the Outlaw and Terror in a Texas Town), to 1960s mindbenders (Mirage, The Sadist, Mickey One), to the brutal violence of 70s shockers (Obsession, Last Embrace, Blue Collar, Hardcore, Rolling Thunder) to the post-mod neo-noir of the 80s and beyond (Breathless, Thief, Cutter’s Way, Bad Lieutenant).

Of the 24 films offered, I watched 14 of the films.

Not Necessarily Noir
Mirage starring Gregory Peck; with Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and Kevin McCarthy; scored by Quincy Jones; directed by Edward Dmytryk; (1965)
13 West Street starring Alan Ladd and Rod Steiger; (1962)
The Strange One starring Ben Gazzara, George Peppard and Pat Hingle; (1957)
Something Wild starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker; scored by Aaron Copland; (1961)
Terror in a Texas Town starring Sterling Hayden; written by Dalton Trumbo (under a pseudonym); (1959)
Day of the Outlaw starring Robert Ryan and Burl Ives; directed by Andre DeToth; (1959)
A Town Has Turned to Dust starrring Rod Steiger and William Shatner; written by Rod Serling; directed by John Frankenheimer; originally a Playhouse 90 episode; (1958)
Last Embrace starring Roy Scheider; with Christopher Walken; directed by Jonathan Demme; (1979)
Obsession starring Cliff Robertson, Genevieve Bujold, and John Lithgow; written by Paul Schrader; directed by Brian De Palma; (1976)
Romeo is Bleeding starring Gary Oldman and Lena Olin; (1993)
Breathless starring Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky; (1983)
Blue Collar starring Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto; written and directed by Paul Schrader; (1978)
The Woman Chaser starring Patrick Warburton; (1999)
Hardcore starring George C. Scott, Peter Boyle and Season Hubley; written and directed by Paul Schrader; (1979)


Of the ten films I missed were six which I've seen in 35 mm before - Thief, Cutter’s Way, Bad Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel and Abel Ferrara version), Rolling Thunder, The Face Behind The Mask and Mickey One. I've seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel directed version) before but only on television.

That leaves three films which I missed and had not previously seen: The Creeping Unknown, The Sadist and House Of Horrors.


My favorite film of the series was Romeo is Bleeding. I didn't recall the film by name but as I started watching it, I realized I had seen the film before. I recall seeing it on television or VHS multiple time. The film features a tour de force performance by Lena Olin as the impossibly sexy and sociopathic assassin Mona Demarkov. Opposite her is Gary Oldman (looking a lot like a young Mickey Rourke) as a crooked cop who is no match for Demarkov. The plot involves the slow death spiral of Oldman's character (who by my count had three names; if you look closely at the wedding invitation in his scrapbook, the name is not Grimaldi). His demise is hastened immeasurably by his encounters with Demarkov. Olin and Oldman have an unmistakable on-screen chemistry but everything in the film eclipsed by Olin's performance.

Amoral, vicious, sexy, dangerous and irresistibly seductive, the audience watches Olin as she rampages across film like no one else I can remember. She is a femme fatale on cinematic steroids. Even though her performance is flamboyant, Olin reigns in her performance. After killing, seducing, etc. Olin and Oldman have a scene where she discusses her losing her virginity. Olin delivers the lines in such a convincing manner that I forgot I was watching a film. Of course, later Olin venomously tells Oldman that all the sexuality between them was a lie. I can't adequately describe Olin's performance. Her performance frequently pegs the needle on noirish malevolence but I never found myself thinking she was over-the-top. In fact, I couldn't help but notice how I was attracted to Mona Demarkov and just like Oldman's character, she would chew me up and spit me out. Like Peggy Lee said, "But what a lovely way to burn..."

The supporting cast is solid with Annabella Sciorra as Grimaldi's long suffering wife, Juliette Lewis as his long-suffering mistress, Roy Scheider as soft spoken but menacing Mafia don and the always memorable Michael Wincott as Grimaldi's Mafia liaison.

Lena Olin in Romeo is Bleeding


13 West Street was a nice find. The movie stars Alan Ladd, in his penultimate film performance, as a victim of a beating at the hands of juvenile delinquents. The crime leaves him shaken but when the punks start threatening his wife, he begins to investigate and interrogate the suspects himself at the consternation of Rod Steiger who plays the police detective.

Ladd never quite reaches Death Wish depths but he does lose perspective and his much of his self-control as he becomes obsessed with catching the gang. Steiger plays his part as cool cop with a soothing voice who tries talk Ladd down from his increasingly frenzied efforts.


A Town Has Turned to Dust was not a movie but an episode of the television anthology series Playhouse 90. I've heard about this specific episode for years as it helped to establish his career. In the episode (which appears to be telecast live), Shatner plays a racist shopkeeper who leads a lynch mob. Rod Steiger plays the town sheriff who attempts to protect his prisoner from the crazed crowd. Having seen every Star Trek episode (multiple times), I immediately recognized Shatner's performance as textbook Shatner. Rage and fear were the emotions Shatner was able to the final episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk's body is inhabited by a psychotic woman. We know this because Shatner reinterprets his performance as Kirk to show more rage & fear.

Enough of my closet Trekkie predilections, Shatner was adequate as the town bully and at that juncture of his career, the performance must have seem revelatory. Steiger plays the sheriff as an alcoholic and the action takes place during a summer drought so Steiger plays the sheriff as a sweaty alcoholic. He's a bit of a coward and has a strong sense of self-loathing. We find out later the backstory of Steiger's character.


Something Wild starring Carroll Baker was an odd story about a rape victim. Carroll Baker was married to director Jack Garfein at the time of the filming. Baker plays Mary Ann Robinson, a college student in New York. She is raped one night but hides the incident from her parents. She begins to exhibit severe post-traumatic stress disorder. She runs away from her middle class home to live in a seedy tenement building. She drops out of school to work at a five and dime where the other workers mistake her distant behavior as unfriendliness. Pushed to the point of suicide, Robinson is moments from jumping off the Manhattan Bridge when Mike (Ralph Meeker) happens upon and saves her. He takes her back to his small basement apartment to recuperate. The film takes an unexpected turn as Robinson's white knight soon become her captor. Mike refuses to let Mary Ann leave and keeps her locked in the apartment when he leaves for work. Months go by as Mary Ann falls into a depression. Interestingly, Mary Ann seems to regain some of her spirit while under confinement. Although distressed, Robinson never attempts suicide while locked up.

Mike, who clearly has alcohol and emotional problems, inadvertently (or is it?) leaves the door unlocked one day and Mary Ann makes her escape. After receiving a less than rousing response from her mother, Robinson incredibly decides to return to Mike. The climax of the film finds Mike & Mary Ann married and living in the basement apartment. They appear happy as they are hosting a social gathering. Mary Ann's mother has tracked her down (or maybe Mary Ann sent her the address). The point is that Mary Ann rebuffs her mother's pleas to return to her previous life and chooses to stay with Mike.

The ending left me shaking my head. How likely is that marriage to be successful? The husband is a maladjusted kidnapper and the wife is a rape and kidnap victim who appears to have not sought any treatment. Did I mention that Mary Ann kicked Mike's eye out when he drunk? I suppose the ending was supposed to be the triumph of the marginalized over their circumstances. My cynical nature led me to internally state that the couple would be divorced in two years and lucky if both of them were still ambulatory and free of incarceration.

Despite the ending, for most of the film Baker was impressive as the victim if not a little predictable and one-dimensional. However, the plot kept taking unexpected turns that allowed for Baker's performance to adapt to the situation her character was in. That added some depth to Baker's performance which combined with the unusual kept me interested up until the end.


There were some misfires in the festival. I recall seeing the remake of Breathless as a teenager. At the time, I had not seen the original. I recall the film was universally panned but having watched the 50th anniversary reissue of the original Breathless, I wanted to make the comparison.

I can confirm that the 1983 version of Breathless is horrible but yet memorable. First, whereas Jean-Paul Belmondo was full of bravado and a bit of a poseur, Richard Gere behaves like a buffoon and acts like Belmondo's mentally retarded brother with ADHD. Valerie Kaprisky, in the Jean Seberg role, is less capricious than Seberg's character. Kaprisky portrays the character with more sexuality and confusion.

Is the film unfairly criticized for not being the orignal? Perhaps. I last saw the film over 20 years ago and I recalled a scene where Richard Gere gets into the shower with Kaprisky. They frolic in the shower with the imprint of Kaprisky's feet against the shower door. All this is set to the soundtrack of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds. If I can recall that one scene 20 years later, the director (Jim McBride) and actors must have been doing something right. However, a memorable scene is not the same as a great or even enjoyable movie. If the film was a little bit worse, it would enter the realm of Showgirls - so bad it's good.

The film really boils down to Gere making a spectacle of himself. He and/or McBridge must of thought his fidgeting and singing to himself was evocative of youthful angst and confusion. It was so unsophisticated as to draw attention away from the plot and detract from Gere's performance.

The Woman Chaser starred Patrick Warburton whose voice is to be envied. Deep and full of gravitas but yet able to convey sarcasm, Warburton is known for his roles as Joe on The Family Guy and Puddy on Seinfeld. I was impressed with performance in Scream 3 as the arrogant detective who refers to Dewey (David Arquette's character) as Dew Drop.

The Woman Chaser was Warburton's film immediately before Scream 3. Partly a spoof on a noir conventions and partly a surreal illusion, the film serves as a vehicle for Warburton to shine as the amoral lead character - Richard Hudson, a used car salesman who sleeps with a number of women including his step-sister and a Salvation Army matron. Hudson's passion is to make a film about a trucker who runs over a girl. The scene where Warburton pitches the synopsis is classic. Actually, the film consists of many memorable scenes: Hudson's implied incestuous relationship with his mother including a ballet dance scene and Hudson's repeated manipulation of the Salvation Army woman. The film is presented in beautiful black and white (which was post-processed) and nails the fashion of Los Angeles in the 1960. It reminded me a little of Mad Men in that regard.

By the end, I found the film to be tedious. It would have been better suited as a short film (perhaps 30 to 50 minutes), in my opinion. I've heard of this film for a long time so I was anxious to watch it but my expectations were not met.

Last Embrace, Obsession, Blue Collar and Hardcore were flawed movies from the 1970s. I enjoyed parts of them but couldn't full commit to any of them. John Lithgow was memorable in Obsession and the feverish final embrace between Cliff Robertson and Genevieve Bujold was iconic if not disappointing within the context of the film. Last Embrace featured a small scene with prototypical Christopher Walken before he became famous for being Christopher Walken. Blue Collar was the grittiest of the three and Richard Pryor surprised me by his performance but Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto equal him. I learned quite a bit of Hardcore is all about Calvinism and it's interesting to George C. Scott dressed in loud 1970's shirts but Season Hubley as the prostitute steals the show. The overly obvious references to The Searchers became tiresome.

Terror in a Texas Town and Day of the Outlaw were presented a double feature. Terror in a Texas Town featured Sterling Hayden with a Scandinavian accent and was very similar to High Noon. We are treated to an unusual showdown between a one-armed gunfighter (with two guns on his gunbelt) vs. a whaler with a harpoon! The backstory of the film was more interesting than the film. Nedrick Young, who played the one-armed gunfighter, cowrote the screenplay but didn't receive credit because he had been blacklisted. The prolific Dalton Trumbo also contributed but was fronted in the credit by Ben Perry. Finally, Sterling Hayden famously "named names" but subsequently repudiated his actions and attempted to atone for them.

Day of the Outlaw was less allegorical. Filmed in Wyoming in the winter, it doesn't look like a typical Western. Robert Ryan played a tough cowboy who is on the verge of a showdown with a man he was cuckolding. At the moment they are about to draw their weapons (nicely filmed with a rolling bottle of whiskey), Burl Ives and his gang arrive. Ives was a military man who was involved in a infamous massacre. Now he is the leader of a criminal gang although he imposes military-style discipline to keep his men in check. Ives and his men terrorize the town for the rest of the film although they are unable to bully Robert Ryan.

Terror in a Texas Town and Day of the Outlaw were two of the more enjoyable entries in the series. Strong performances by the leading men are primarily responsible. I always though Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan resembled each other a bit. Not so much a direct physical similarity but rather their screen personae.

Mirage was an unabashed tribute to Hitchcock with nice performances by Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy. The Strange One was a Ben Gazzara vehicle. He played a manipulative military academy student who terrorizes his classmates. Having seen this film and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), I wonder what happened to Gazzara between those two roles and Road House (1989).


Overall, Not Necessarily Noir was hit and miss which isn't different from any film festival. I thought Lavine programmed more misses (perhaps near hits is more accurate) than his previous efforts at the Roxie. Regardless, I am grateful that Lavine has a screen to program. His unearthing of The Strange One and
Something Wild are reasons enough to support his efforts.

For reasons I am not aware of, the Roxie didn't offer festival or series passes for Not Necessarily Noir. I missed five days so I'm not sure if it would have been cost effective to get a pass but the absence of the offering gives me pause.

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