Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 Noir City

The 2013 Noir City film festival ran from January 25 to February 3 at the Castro Theater.  I saw 17 of the 27 films on the program.  The 10 films I missed were films which I had already seen.  Of the 17 films, I had seen one (Street of Chance) before which I didn't realize until a few minutes into the film.  That means I saw 16 new films or films which had not previously seen.  I recognized the ending of Try and Get Me! which leads me to believe I have seen it before but otherwise I didn't recall any of it up to the final scenes.

Curse of the Demon starring Dana Andrews & Peggy Cummins; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1957)
Hell Drivers starring Stanley Baker; with Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan & Sean Connery; directed by Cy Endfield; (1957)
Try and Get Me! starring Frank Lovejoy & Lloyd Bridges; directed by Cy Endfield; (1950)
A House Divided starring Walter Huston, Douglass Montgomery & Helen Chandler; directed by William Wyler; (1931)
The Kiss Before the Mirror starring Frank Morgan, Nancy Carroll & Paul Lukas; directed by James Whale; (1933)
Laughter in Hell starring Pat O'Brien & Gloria Stuart; directed by Edward L. Cahn; (1933)
Native Son starring Richard Wright; directed by Pierre Chenal; (1951)
Intruder in the Dust starring by David Brian, Claude Jarman Jr. & Juano Hernandez; directed by Clarence Brown; (1949)
The Other Woman starring Hugo Haas & Cleo Moore; directed by Hugo Haas; (1954)
The Come On starring Anne Baxter & Sterling Hayden; directed by Russell Birdwell; (1956)
Man in the Dark starring Edmond O'Brien & Audrey Totter; directed by Lew Landers; (1953)
Inferno starring Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming & William Lundigan; directed by Roy Ward Barker; (1953)
Street of Chance starring Burgess Meredith & Claire Trevor; directed by Jack Hively; (1942)
The Chase starring Robert Cummings, Michelle Morgan, Steve Cochran & Peter Lorre; directed by Arthur Ripley; (1946)
The Window starring Bobby Driscoll; with Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart & Ruth Roman; directed by Ted Tetzlaff; (1949)
Mary Ryan, Detective starring Marsha Hunt; directed by Abby Berlin; (1949)
Strange Impersonation starring Brenda Marshall; directed by Anthony Mann; (1946)

Try and Get Me! is sometimes listed without the exclamation point and is also known as The Sound of Fury.

One evening, (I cannot recall which) they screened Serena Bramble's The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir, a 6+ minute compilation of clips of noir legends such John Garfield, Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck, etc.  Ms. Bramble has contributed short films to Noir City for three years or more.

Alan K. Rode, Film Noir Foundation Board member and director of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, introduced Curse of the Demon.  Before the film, he said we were going to see the US version but after the film, Rode corrected himself and said they had screened the longer and original UK version.

Noir City seemed a little "off" this year.  I can't quite put my finger on it and it may be that 2 months have dulled my memory but the bloom is off the rose.  If memory serves me correctly, Eddie Muller hinted that Noir City has a limited life span.

In the past two months, I have also learned that Bill Arney, the Voice of Noir City and long-time resident of the apartment where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, hosts a television show called Cheese Theater.  The show consists of Arney screening public domain films with interviews and skits between segments.  It airs on Marin TV or Comcast Channel 26 at 10 PM on Saturday nights.  Cheese Theater also has a YouTube channel.

In hindsight, the best film of Noir City 2013 was one I did not see this year - Gun Crazy.  Peggy Cummins was the guest of honor this year.  Her best known work, Gun Crazy, was the opening night film.  Having seen the film before, I can attest to its quality.


My favorite film was Intruder in the Dust on the evening billed as African-American Noir Night.  Intruder in the Dust was paired with Native Son that evening.

Based on a William Faulkner novel, Intruder in the Dust confronted prejudice and Jim Crow society. Filmed in Oxford, Mississippi, the film focuses on Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), a proud black man accused of murdering a white man.  Young Chick Mallison (Claude Jarman, Jr.) has encountered Beauchamp and been suitably impressed by his bearing and presence.  Chick prevails on his uncle (David Brian) to defend Beauchamp.  The lawyer makes no effort to disguise his belief that his client is guilty but is honor bound to do his duty, i.e. defend his client (not just legally but from lynching).  With the help of the spinster Miss Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), the defense gets to work proving Beauchamp's innocence with little help from Beauchamp himself.

Intruder in the Dust did not feel like noir to me because Beauchamp and his defense team were confronting racism.  Murdering for money or a femme fatale is noir, murdering for the color of the victim's skin is...something else.  I'm certain more black men were lynched than insurance salesman killing clients to be with their wives.  For all their grittiness, noir films are exaggerations of post-war reality.   Intruder in the Dust shows an ugliness that most assuredly existed and depicts events which likely could have occurred...maybe not the boy and old woman solving a murder case but Beauchamp's situation and his attorney's ambivalence seemed realistic.

Juano Hernandez is tremendous as Beauchamp.  You can't take your eyes off of him.  He's like James Earl Jones' voice come to life.  Hernandez has a screen presence which commands attention and piercing eyes.

While in high school, I remember reading two novels by African American authors as part of my American Literature class - Black Boy by Richard Wright and Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin.  Native Son was not on the curriculum.  So it was some anticipation that I watched Native Son at Noir City.  Not only was the film based on Wright's novel but it starred Wright in the lead role of Bigger Thomas.

I doubt the 40+ year old Wright was the right actor for the role of the 20 year Bigger Thomas.  In addition to the age difference, his acting was a wooden at times.  The film is propelled by the plot which is more Greek tragedy than film noir.  The drunkenness and ignorance of the daughter of his white employer put Bigger in her bedroom as her blind mother enters.  Worried that she will expose his presence in the room (thus risking his employment and possibly life), Bigger silences the younger woman by covering her mouth but inadvertently kills her.  This sets Bigger's downfall into motion as he  first disposes of the body, then shifts suspicion to the woman's boyfriend and finally becomes a fugitive as the police search for him.

Unfamiliar with the story, I was riveted by Bigger's plight.  I took particular notice that the left-leaning Socialists/Communists were depicted as naive and ineffectual.  Bigger's most dangerous enemy was white society and the fear it had instilled in African Americans.  The film painted Bigger a tad too much the victim for my tastes but it made a convincing argument that Bigger's fate was largely determined by his status in society and one false step would doom him.

I cannot fully recall Muller's introduction of the film.  As I recall, the film could not get funding in the US so it was made with an Argentinian production company with some exterior scenes filmed in Buenos Aires.  The cast was not memorable the plot overcame any shortcomings in the performances.


The Window was very enjoyable.  It was about a boy (Bobby Driscoll) who witnesses a murder committed by his upstairs neighbors.  Because of his history of exaggerations, no one believes him when he tells his parents and the police.  That is no one but the killers who decide leaving him alive is a risk they can't afford to take.  Paul Stewart & Ruth Roman shine as the murderous couple from upstairs.

A House Divided features a memorable performance by Walter Huston as a rough and tumble fisherman who sends away for a mail order bride (Helen Chandler).  A fight with his grown son (Douglass Montgomery) leaves him paralyzed.  That's when stepmother and son begin to develop feelings for each other and all hell breaks loose.  An early talkie by William Wyler, A House Divided portends of great things from the directors.

Mary Ryan, Detective was a cut above the B movie standards which I believe it was.  Although Marsha Hunt was fine in the eponymous role, it was the bad guys and girls who were most memorable.  June Vincent, Harry Shannon, Bill Phillips & Katherine Warren round out the rogue's gallery which memorably features a turkey farm fronting a fencing operation.

Try and Get Me! is based on a famous lynching incident in San Jose in 1933.  Although Frank Lovejoy was the nominal noir protagonist, it was Lloyd Bridges' performance as the charismatic but sociopathic accomplice which remains in my memory two months later.  The finale was also memorable and featured the aforementioned lynching via a jailhouse riot amidst a fog of teargas.  I also recall the shriek Bridges let out as the mob grabbed him.


Man in the Dark and Inferno were, incredibly, 3D films.  3D and film noir don't seem to go together. Indeed, I thought both films would have been fine as 2D and that 3D didn't add much except a few gimmicks.  Man in the Dark use the sharp object into the camera trick while a lit kerosene lantern was flung directly at the camera in Inferno.

Man in the Dark even used the tried and true amnesia plot device in a thoroughly unoriginal story.  Between the 3D, sexy Audrey Totter and serviceable performance by Edmond O'Brien, the film plods alongs.

Inferno, which was filmed in color, was much better film.  The film made great use of the vista afforded by the Mojave Desert which wasn't enhanced by the 3D treatment.  A classic love triangle where Rhonda Fleming & William Lundigan conspire to kill her husband and his business partner (Robert Ryan).  The method of murder is unique - Ryan has broken his leg in the desert.  Fleming & Lundigan send the rescue party in the wrong direction assuming Ryan will die of thirst or heat stroke.  Robert Ryan is one tough SOB and crawls, limps and hobbles his way to revenge.  I have come to the conclusion that any film with Robert Ryan is a worthwhile viewing experience.


Hell Drivers is an entertaining vehicle for Stanley Baker.  I can't remember why but he goes undercover to bust up a corrupt trucking firm.  They haul gravel and they haul ass on narrow roads putting their own lives and other drivers' lives in danger but that isn't why Baker is infiltrating them.  What I do remember is Peggy Cummins filled out a pair of blue jeans nicely as the secretary and Patrick McGoohan was great as the #1 driver and psychopath.

Curse of the Demon was more of a horror film.  Dana Andrews is an American parapsychologist in England.  Initially skeptical of a satanic cult, Andrews gradually comes around.  Cummins is "the girl." The most memorable performance is from Niall MacGinnis as the leader of the cult.

The Come On features Anne Baxter & Sterling Hayden in swimwear.  Hayden encounters a pair of grifters (Baxter & John Hoyt) and tries to pry Baxter loose from Hoyt.  Hoyt ends up dead and a shady private dick (Jesse White) tries to blackmail the lovers.  It wasn't bad; it wasn't great; it was something in between.

The Other Woman seemed oddly familiar.  Directed by and starring Hugo Haas, the film co-stars busty blonde bombshell Cleo Moore.  Moore & Haas made seven films together; I think I have seen three of them at Noir City.  Cleo plays a movie extra who gets a shot at three line speaking part.  She flubs the lines (in a nice scene) and blames the director (Haas).  She vows revenge and eventually drugs and blackmails Haas' character.  Haas captures the crass beauty of Moore's character although the second half of the film focuses on Haas' character.  One of his better performance, Haas' character in The Other Woman allegedly represented his actual view on Hollywood and the studio system.


Everything else was flawed enough to forget.  Abrupt endings (Laughter in Hell), cop out dream endings (The Chase & Strange Impersonation) and legally dubious endings (The Kiss Before the Mirror & Street of Chance).

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