Sunday, May 29, 2011

I Wake Up Dreaming 2011

The Roxie recently concluded I Wake Up Dreaming: The Legendary and the Lost - their biannual two week noir festival programmed by Elliot Lavine. Lavine has captured current zeitgeist of Bay Area film programming. Having won the 2010 San Francisco Film Critics Marlon Riggs Award, Lavine was much praised for rediscovery of The Woman Chaser. I Wake Up Dreaming 2011 received a fair amount of press including articles in the Chronicle, SF Weekly and the Bay Guardian. The way some of the audience members fawned over Lavine made me a little uncomfortable. By and large, Lavine programmed a strong and consistent series.

Of the 28 films programmed, I had previously seen five but I dutifully caught the other 23.

Dementia; (1955)
Phantom Lady starring Franchot Tone; with Elisha Cook, Jr.; directed by Robert Siodmak; (1944)
Ministry of Fear starring Ray Milland; directed by Fritz Lang; (1944)
Street of Chance starring Burgess Meredith; (1942)
C-Man starring Dean Jagger & John Carrdine; directed by Joseph Lerner; (1949)
Guilty Bystander starring Zachary Scott; directed by Joseph Lerner; (1950)
Once a Thief starring June Havoc & Cesar Romero; directed by W. Lee Wilder; (1950)
The Great Flamarion starring Eric von Stroheim; directed by Anthony Mann; (1945)
Whsipering City; (1947)
Ruthless starring Zachary Scott; with Sydney Greenstreet; directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; (1948)
Customs Agent; (1950)
Smooth as Silk; (1947)
Cafe Hostess starring Ann Dvorak & Preston Foster; (1940)
Dangerous Blondes starring Evelyn Keyes & Allyn Joslyn; (1943)
I Love Trouble starring Franchot Tone, Janet Blair & Janis Carter; (1948)
Ride the Pink Horse starring & directed by Robert Montgomery; (1947)
The Web starring Edmond O'Brien & Vincent Price; directed by Michael Gordon; (1947)
The Violent Years starring Jean Moorhead; screenplay by Ed Wood; (1956)
Dance Hall Racket starring & screenplay by Lenny Bruce; (1953)
Chain Gang; (1950)
Cell 2455, Death Row starring William Campbell; (1955)
World for Ransom starring Dan Duryea; directed by Robert Aldrich; (1954)
The 49th Man starring John Ireland; (1953)

Cell 2455, Death Row was preceded by a short film called Justice and Caryl Chessman.


My favorite film of the series was probably the most anticipated one - Ruthless. Describted as a B level Citizen Kane or the Citizen Kane of film noir, Ruthless served an extra helping of melodrama but that didn't ruin my appetite for the film. Zachary Scott plays Horace Vendig, a man with relentless ambition. Born of middling circumstances, Vendig uses and betrays a series of friends and paramours on his rise to the wealthiest echelons of society. The film features a strong performance by Scott but his supporting cast shines. Diana Lynn as his first love, Sydney Greenstreet as his arch business rival and Lucille Bremer as Greenstreet's wife who betray him for Vendig are particularly noteworthy. The only shortcoming for me is the lack of explanation regarding Vendig's psyche. There are extended scenes of Vendig as a boy and the events that shaped him but nothing quite seems traumatic enough to explain his later behavior. Still, the expository scenes added quite a bit of perspective to Vendig's character.


I was also quite taken with Dangerous Blondes. Straying far from noir, Dangerous Blondes was closer to The Thin Man with Allyn Josyln and Evelyn Keyes playing the married couple. Much of the film is a comedy as husband and wife detective team try to solve a series of murders. On that front, the film didn't stand out from a number of similar films of the era. However, Keyes was an absolute delight - funny, sexy and sassy. Joslyn mostly played straight man to Keyes although his character did have a wandering eye and as well enjoyed the limelight. The two of them formed an effective comedy team and I wish the characters had been given a series.


Street of Chance was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel but the film adaptation is more notable for the solid performance by Burgess Meredith. The plot is a contrived as Meredith plays an amnesiac who regains his memories of his previous life and completely forgets the life he's been leading the past year or so. Unfortunately, he has gotten involved with some shady characters and a murder in his second life. The film never explains the amnesia and conveniently drops any mention of it in the last third of film.


Ride the Pink Horse was interesting for it depiction of the relatinship between Caucasians and Mexicans including a remarkable performance by Wanda Hendrix as Mexican woman who help Robert Montgomery elude his enemies. The ending scene where both Montgomery and Hendrix resume their lives (and attitudes) despite in the intense and intiminate bond they shared while in danger is quite a damning statement about race relations.

There were a number of film that didn't quite make the grade but were remarkable for B films with has beens and never weres.

The Great Flamarion featured a typically intense von Stroheim performance where he plays a sharpshooter who kills his assistant's husband on stage in "an accident." Of course, he was the chump as the woman was only using him to get rid of her husband.

I liked Once a Thief for the amazing performance by Cesar Romero as a ladies man who cons June Havoc.

Guilty Bystander also featured Zachary Scott as an alcoholic ex-cop searching for his kidnapped son.

Smooth as Silk was also enjoyable for the lead performance of Kent Taylor as a defense attorney who frames his ex-girlfriend for murder. Virginia Grey as the ex delivered an equally impressive performance.

The Web was also a nice vehicle for Edmond O'Brien to play the chump and Vincent Price as the evil mastermind who manipulate O'Brien into killing for him and making it look like self defense.

C-Man, Customs Agent and Chain Gang were similar but enjoyable films about men going under cover to expose corruption.

Phantom Lady has a great scene where Elisha Cook is a bebop, hophead drummer who takes his sexual frustrations out on the snare drums.


What didn't I like? Strangely, Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear was a little disappointing. It felt like a Hitchcock film. I didn't feel well during the screening so I wasn't concentrating. It deserves a second look if I ever get the chance.

The production values or at least the prints of Whispering City, World for Ransom and Cafe Hostess made it hard to understand the dialog and follow the plot.

The The Violent Years and Dance Hall Racket were just badly made films. The plot for each film was rambling and full of filler even though the films were approximately 65 minutes. The Violent Years was scripted by Ed Wood; no need to say anymore. Jean Moorhead had a lot screen presence and sex appeal though. Of course, she was the Playboy Playmate of the Month for the October 1955.

Dance Hall Racket was scripted by Lenny Bruce and he seemed to write it with the goal of giving every burlesque performer he knew a part including his wife and mother. There were lots of scenes that were one-shot jokes that weren't funny and didn't advance the story.


That leaves Dementia, an hour long film without any dialogue about a woman's nightmare which include getting pimped out and the most ominous fried chicken eating scene ever filmed. The film was quite good. Lavine said there is a version with Ed McMahon narrating the film. Thank god they didn't show that. The film was unnarrated as well as sans dialogue. For the most part, this device works although by the end, I was becoming aware of the self-imposed limitations of this choice. It gave the film a lyrical quality but eventually, I thought the lack of dialogue became a distraction. I also thought the star, Adrienne Barrett was miscast. Her role is credited as "The Gamine" but I thought she looked a little too world-weary to be the gamine. I guess dreams like that will age you.

Dementia reminded me of a film I can't place. I'm glad I saw it because I enjoyed but I don't hold in such high esteem as others.

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