Tuesday, July 8, 2014

2014 Noir City

Noir City ran from January 24 to February 2 at the Castro Theater.  The program was billed as "International Noir" as there were films from around the world.

I saw 18 of the 27 films on the program.

Journey Into Fear starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio & Orson Welles; directed by Norman Foster & Orson Welles (uncredited); (1943)
Border Incident starring Ricardo Montalban & George Murphy; directed by Anthony Mann; (1949)
In the Palm of Your Hand starring Arturo de Córdova & Leticia Palma; directed by Roberto Gavaldón; Spanish with subtitles; (1951)
Victims of Sin starring Ninón Sevilla; directed by Emilio Fernández; Spanish with subtitles; (1951)
Too Late for Tears starring Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea & Arthur Kennedy; directed by Byron Haskin; (1949)
The Hitch-Hiker starring Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy & William Talman; directed by Ida Lupino; (1953)
Stray Dog starring Toshirô Mifune & Takashi Shimura; directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1949)
The Murderers Are Among Us starring Hildegarde Knef & Wilhelm Borchert; directed by Wolfgang Staudte; German with subtitles; (1946)
Berlin Express starring  Robert Ryan & Merle Oberon; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1948)
Death of a Cyclist starring Lucia Bosé & Alberto Closas; directed by Juan Antonio Bardem; Spanish with subtitles; (1955)
Death is a Caress starring Claus Wiese & Bjørg Riiser-Larsen; directed by Edith Carlmar; Norwegian with subtitles; (1949)
Never Open That Door starring Ángel Magaña, Roberto Escalada & Ilde Pirovano; directed by Carlos Hugo Christensen; Spanish with subtitles; (1952)
Hardly a Criminal starring Jorge Salcedo; directed by Hugo Fregonese; Spanish with subtitles; (1949)
The Black Vampire starring Nathán Pinzón; directed by Román Viñoly Barreto; Spanish with subtitles; (1953)
Two Men in Manhattan starring Pierre Grasset & Jean-Pierre Melville; directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; French with subtitles; (1959)
Rififi starring Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel & Jules Dassin;  directed by Jules Dassin; French with subtitles; (1955)
Singapore starring Fred MacMurray & Ava Gardner; directed by John Brahm; (1947)
Macao starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell & William Bendix; directed by Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray (uncredited); (1952)

Never Open That Door consisted of two films - Somebody on the Phone (Alguien al teléfono) and Hummingbird Comes Home (El pájaro cantor vuelve al hogar).

The Black Vampire was a remake of Fritz Lang's M.

Journey Into Fear, Border Incident, Too Late for Tears, The Hitch-Hiker, Singapore & Macao were Hollywood productions.  Berlin Express was filmed in Germany after the war but was a RKO film.

Of the Spanish language films, In the Palm of Your Hand and Victims of Sin were Mexican productions.  Never Open That Door, Hardly a Criminal and The Black Vampire were Argentinian films.  Death of a Cyclist was made in Spain

Stray Dog is, of course, Japanese.  Death is a Caress was made in Norway and The Murderers Are Among Us was the first German film made after WWII (sponsored by the Soviet Occupation Forces).  Two Men in Manhattan and Rififi were French made films.

I had previously seen Border Incident, Stray Dog & Rififi at the Castro.  I believe those are the only three "repeat" films of the eighteen I saw this year.

I had previously seen the nine films (in a movie theater) which I skipped at this festival - The Third Man, Drunken Angel, It Always Rains on Sunday, Brighton Rock, The Wages of Fear, Pépé Le Moko, Jenny Lamour, Riptide and The Shanghai Gesture.  Jenny Lamour screened under its French title (Quai des Orfèvres) at the PFA's Clouzot series in 2012.  Elliot Lavine screened Riptide under an alternate title (Such A Pretty Little Beach) in 2012.


The 2014 Noir City was the 12th annual rendition of the festival.  As mentioned, the theme was international noir and the audience was receptive.  The audience is always enthusiastic but seemed extra so this year.  Attendance seemed up from previous years.

They screened a Serena Bramble video like have for the past several years.

They also screened an episode of Noir House which is a on-line series based out of Australia.

I recall a pair of tango dancers on the night they screened a pair of Argentinian films but I cannot recall their names.

Miss Noir City 2014, Evie Lovelle, performed a burlesque routine on the Castro Theater stage.  It was clear from her movements, costume, props and assistant that she was an experienced burlesque performer.

Czar of Noir Eddie Muller announced the creation of the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project. The project was created by the family of the late film preservationist whose restorations have screened at Noir City. The inaugural honoree, Ariel Schudson, knew Mysel and will work on restorations for Noir City.

The alcohol was flowing throughout the 10 day festival.  Eddie has become quite adept at getting liquor donated to Noir City.  I believe he mentioned that his temporary license to serve hard alcohol during Noir City only allowed him to serve 2 consecutive days.  Every third day was wine only.


My favorite films were two that I've already seen - Stray Dog & Rififi.

I've long stated that Stray Dog is one of my favorite films by Akira Kurosawa.  I almost skipped the screening.  I didn't really gain much from this viewing so I 'll stand by what I wrote in this post.  I enjoyed it just as much as I did during my previous viewings.  Stray Dog holds up to repeated viewings.  By coincidence, actress Keiko Awaji, who played the self-conflicted girl the killer was in love with, died at age 80 a few weeks before Noir City.  She was only 16 (like her character) when Stray Dog was made.

I saw a 35 mm print of Rififi at the Castro several years ago (before I started this blog).  Now that I think about it, Rififi and Stray Dog would make a great double feature.  Whereas Stray Dog is a policier which transcends the genre, Rififi is a caper film which approaches the sublime.

The plot centers around a jewel heist involving four career criminals -  Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner), Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and director Jules Dassin as César le Milanais.  In true gangster film style, three out of the four are identified by their home towns:  Tony from Saint-Étienne, Jo the Swede and César the Milanese (resident of Milan).

Tony just gets out of prison and is met by his friend and protégé, Jo.  Jo has a wife & son so Tony didn't rat him out to the cops which resulted in his extended prison term.  Grateful for his silence, Jo proposes a jewelry heist to Tony who passes.  Tony instead looks up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) only to confirm that she has taken up with the gangster Grutter.  As an aside, Grutter runs the nightclub L'Âge d'Or (reference to Luis Buñuel?).  Second aside, at some point, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has adopted an image L'Âge d'Or to accompany their tagline True Art Transcends Time.  The image is from an infamous scene of a woman (Lya Lys) sucking on the toe of a statue in a suggestive manner.  Is there a non-suggestive manner to suck on a toe?

Back to Rififi, after confronting his ex (Tony has some anger management and communication issues), Tony agrees to the heist but not any old smash and grab job.  Tony wants the contents of the safe so he can make enough money to lure back his ex.  I would think the belt-whipping he gave her would have ended any possibility for future rapprochement but who knows in 1950s Paris.  The job now requires a safecracker and Jo & Tony's friend Mario knows just the guy - César le Milanais.

Most of the film deals with the planning and actual execution of the heist.  I thought it was fascinating and the film was banned in several countries out of concern that it was a "how to" manual.  The highlight of the film is a 30 minute sequence without dialogue (and complete silence for much of the time) during which the actual burglary occurs.

The undoing of plan occurs when César le Milanais impulsively steals a diamond ring from the jeweler for a showgirl he lusts after.  The girl works for Grutter, Tony's sworn enemy.  When Grutter finds out who gave her the ring and reads about the jewelry heist, he puts two & two together and tries to muscle in.  One by one, the thieves are killed while Grutter holds Jo's young son hostage.  I won't give away too much of the ending except it's hilarious and sad.  Jo's son looks like he is on a sugar high while Tony, in agony from the bullet Grutter put in him, drives the boy back home.  The dichotomy between the grizzled criminal and his namesake is made comically clear.  When I saw the scene, I wondered if Dassin directed the boy to behave that way or if the actor was bored and fidgety and Dassin decided it would work better that.

Rififi has three things going for it.  First is Jean Servais in a role that I have to believe Jean Gabin was considered.  I'm sure Gabin would have been fine in the role, Servais plays the taciturn with a "still waters run deep" intensity.  Tony doesn't lose his cool except when he beats his ex-girlfriend which I guess is misogynistic expression of sexuality.  Even then, he barely says a word.

Next, the plot of Rififi is stripped of everything that could become extraneous; most obviously women.  The actresses play small and rather inconsequential roles in Rififi.  The film is about these four guys, the crime they plan and execute, and the criminal code of honor.  I wonder how a twentysomething woman in 2014 would react to Rififi.  The men in the film are a long way from vegan, tablet totting, New Age, metrosexuals.  I don't know if men really behaved this way in 1950s Paris, but they are entertaining as hell.

Rififi is a less is more approach.  By stripping away any direct or extended dialogue about the emotional state of these men, Dassin allowed the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.  Tony is crazy for Mado and resentful that she didn't wait for him.  Jo is settled into marital life.  Mario has this earthy, Italian woman who he adores probably because she has a healthy sexual appetite that matches his own.  César doesn't get much action so when a showgirl gives him some attention, he breaks from the plan to pocket a diamond ring to impress the girl.

Finally, Dassin is meticulous in his direction.  The plot is laden with these scenes where the focus is on the action and not the dialogue.  He makes spraying fire retardant into an alarm box exciting.  He gave himself the difficult role of comic foil.

Strong performance by the lead actor plus a sharply focused plot plus detailed direction equals a great film.


Journey Into Fear - set in WWII Istanbul (and later a tramp steamer bound for the Soviet Union), Joseph Cotten is an American weapons engineer who is drawn into intrigue involving a Turkish secret police officer (Welles), Nazi spies, an assassin and a sexy magician's assistant (Dolores Del Rio looking incredible considering she was 37 years old during filming).  Journey Into Fear was paired with The Third Man on the Noir City schedule.  The latter film captured the intrigue of post-WWII Vienna (in large part because it was filmed there).  Journey Into Fear looks like it was filmed on a sound stage.  In addition, the plot had a few too many false leads and twists; too clever by a half.  In comparison to The Third Man and many other films on the Noir City program, Journey Into Fear suffers.

Border Incident - a Mexican Federale (Ricardo Montalban) and US Border Patrol agent (George Murphy) go undercover to bust a illegal immigrant smuggling operation.  The film is not as powerful as I recall from my first viewing.  Actually, considering it was directed by Anthony Mann, filmed by John Alton and featured the incomparable Charles McGraw in the supporting role, Border Incident was slightly disappointing.  However, I will readily admit that high expectations and foreknowledge of the plot from my previous viewing were to blame for my mild reaction to the film.  The film presented a surprisingly sympathetic view of illegal immigration for 1949.

In the Palm of Your Hand - a astrologer/scam artist learns from his wife (who eavesdrops at the upscale beauty salon where she works) that a wealthy man has died just after learning his beautiful wife has been having an affair.  He targets the widow or does she target him?  I liked this film about a criminal getting in over his head due to greed, love & overconfidence.

Victims of Sin - a cabaret singer/dancer (the stunning Ninón Sevilla) rescues another dancer's baby from the garbage which puts her afoul with the cabaret owner/pimp/baby daddy.  Forced to be a streetwalker, she raises the baby boy as her own until a another club owner meets her, marries her and adopts the boy as his own.  All is well until the pimp kills the husband.  In a crowd pleasing scene, Sevilla kills the pimp with guns blazing.  You get the gist of the film.  Victims of Sin was a too melodramatic to be great noir and Sevilla's character was too selfless for my liking.  The musical numbers were smoking hot...just like Sevilla.  Victims of Sin is definitely worth a viewing if you haven't seen it.

Too Late for Tears - Lizabeth Scott plays a happenstance femme fatale.  Jane Palmer (Scott) and her husband are driving on a road one evening when a passing car throws a suitcase into the backseat of their convertible.  The suitcase contains a large sum of money.  Jane's husband wants to turn it over to the police but Jane convinces him to keep it for awhile.  The access to such a large amount of money brings out a new attitude from Jane.  She starts spending the money, lying to her husband, manipulating the criminal (Dan Duryea) who comes looking the money and ultimately t killing men left & right.  It's quite a showcase of Scott and very enjoyable in an "only in Hollywood" way.

The Hitch-Hiker - directed by Ida Lupino, this film involves two American buddies in Mexico on a fishing trip.  The pick up a hitch-hiker who turns out to be psychopath escaped from a criminal mental asylum.  The remainder of the film is a psychological drama as the two men's loyalty is tested by the sadistic killer.  Even at a modest 71 minutes, the film dragged at times.  Keeping the three men together in a car or on foot became an anchor on the plot.  The performances are fine but the script could have used another draft or two.

The Murderers Are Among Us was the first German film made after WWII.  It was filmed in the bombed out ruins of 1945 Berlin.  A young woman returns to her family's apartment.  She is a concentration camp survivor.  There, she discover an alcoholic doctor squatting.  Unable to displace the unsettled doctor, the woman befriends him.  The relationship is good for the doctor as his nightmares and obsessive behavior dissipate...until the chances upon his SS captain from the war.  The man committed war atrocities and the doctor's own complicity has haunted him.  He decides to kill the former officer who is now a wealthy businessman.

The backstory to the film is more interesting than the film itself.  The original ending had the doctor killing the man but the filmmakers were concerned about their Allied Occupational Forces censors so in the final version, the woman convinces the doctor to allow the man to stand trial (like the Nuremberg Trials which ended just as the film was released to German theaters).  The actor who played the doctor  (Ernst Wilhelm Borchert) had lied about his Nazi affiliation so his name was struck from the credits and promotional materials.

A film like this must be viewed within the context of its production.  The moral tone in the film was a result of collective German guilt and efforts to please the Occupational Forces.  On the flip side, for a concentration camp survivor, Hildegarde Knef (spelled Neff in her Hollywood films) was exceeding healthy looking and well dressed.  The Murderers Are Among Us must have been place on the Noir City program due its historical significance because I thought the film was mediocre at best.

Berlin Express - a bit of gimmick film.  The premise sound like a setup for a joke:  an American, an Englander, a Frenchman and a Soviet search for a German physicist.  That was the reality of postwar Germany.  If The Murderers Are Among Us was the first German film made in Germany after the war then Berlin Express is the first Hollywood film made in Germany after the war.

In the film, the German scientist is kidnapped from a train station in Berlin and the four occupiers search their respective zones for him.  Again, it was fascinating to see the bombed out city nearly three years after the war ended.  I can't recall much before a big showdown in a brewery.  I also recall the Frenchman was the perfidious one which surprised me a little since I would have assumed the Soviet would be cast as the villain.  I wonder what that says about US relations with France in the late 1940s.

Death of a Cyclist - one of my favorites from this year's festival.  Directed by Spanish actor Javier Bardem's uncle, Death of a Cyclist is a masterpiece tale of self-destruction.  Two lovers are driving on a deserted road back to Madrid when the strike a bicyclists.  Knowing that calling an ambulance or police will expose their extramarital affair (the woman is married), they leave the cyclist to die.  The resulting guilt and paranoia that an acquaintance (Carlos Casaravilla in a great supporting role performance) turn the two lovers against each other with fatal consequences.

Death is a Caress - in many noir films, a man meets a femme fatale who is married.  They decide they must kill the husband.  Sometimes the woman has duped her boyfriend and sometimes the guilt from the act (or fear of being caught) break the couple apart.  In this Norwegian film, the husband is quite amenable to stepping aside when his wife falls for a young car mechanic.  In fact, the mechanic's girlfriend doesn't squawk much either.  It doesn't seem to be much of a noir but the tension ratchets up after the couple weds.  The insecure man is unable to adjust to married life; specifically marriage to an older, poised woman.  Let's just say that for this couple divorce is not an option.

Never Open That Door - Never Open That Door was an anthology which consisted of two films:  Somebody on the Phone and The Hummingbird Comes Home.  Watching these Argentinian films, I realized how certain plot devices are ingrained in my consciousness.   Somebody on the Phone felt Hitchcockian to me.  A brother overhears her sister on the phone and assumes the other party is blackmailing her and takes appropriate actions; appropriate by noir standards at least.  The Hummingbird Comes Home has the prodigal son return home to his blind mother.  The young man has gotten involved in crime and has his associates with him.  They pretend to be something they aren't to fool the mother but a mother always knows; even a blind one.

Hardly a Criminal - another gem from this year's festival.  A bank employee learns that the maximum sentence for embezzlement is six years in prison.  Considering how much he can embezzle, he plans to steal the money, hide it, do the time and reclaim it after his sentence.  As is usually the case in these films, his perfect crime doesn't go as planned.  Nice exterior shots of Buenos Aires.

The Black Vampire - first there was Fritz Lang's M, then Joseph Losey's Hollywood remake (also called M) and then The Black Vampire from Argentina.  Having seen all three, I am partial to the original but The Black Vampire is very good.  The film follows a psychopathic pedophile (Nathán Pinzón who bore a resemblance to Peter Lorre).  Like the other two films, Vampire has the criminal underground policing themselves.  There is a subplot involving a cabaret singer witnessing the killer and a flirty police inspector which seemed out of place but otherwise the film sticks close to the major plot points of M.  If memory serves me correctly, Pinzón even whistles In the Hall of the Mountain King which Lorre used as his leitmotif in M.

Two Men in Manhattan - director Jean-Pierre Melville casts himself and Pierre Grasset as a news reporter and photographer searching for the missing French delegate to the UN.  The film functions as a NYC travelogue as the two men pass by all the tourist landmarks and nightlife spots.  As they follow the missing man's steps, they discover mistresses, suspicious characters and a corpse.  Melville makes 1959 NYC look fabulous on film and his characters (particularly Grasset's character) remind more of his later French noir films than the standard cast of American noir films.  On its own merits, Two Men in Manhattan is a good film but it was paired with Rififi which may have colored my thoughts.

Singapore - Fred MacMurray is Matt Gordon, a pearl smuggler returning to Singapore after the war.  Returning to retrieve some pearls he hid as the Japanese were attacking, Gordon is shocked to encounter his wife (Ava Gardner) whom he thought was dead.  Instead, she has amnesia and does not recognize him.  Gordon must evade the local police and other criminals who suspect he will try to smuggle the pearls out of Singapore while simultaneously trying to win back his wife who has married another man in the intervening years.  Don't they bigamy laws in Singapore?  It takes another whack to the head for Gardner to recall her previous life.  The amnesia was a little too much for me and I didn't think MacMurray and Gardner had much chemistry either.

Macao - Jane Russell had some serious sex appeal in the early 1950s!  Three foreigners arrive on a tramp steamer in Macao:  Jane Russell as a sassy, headstrong lounge singer; William Bendix as a  pantyhose salesman and Bob Mitchum as an ex-GI  who wore out his welcome in the US.  One of them is a NYPD undercover agent sent to lure Brad Dexter out to international waters so he can be arrested for a murder in NYC.  No extradition treaty?  Anyway, Jane gets a job singing in the club Dexter owns and making Gloria Grahame jealous, Mitchum sticks around for no particular reason except Jane Russell is nearby (I would too) and I can't recall what Bendix does.

Although Josef von Sternberg has the director's credit, Nicholas Ray finished the shoot.  Macao seems to simply be a vehicle for Jane Russell to sing and look good and for Bob Mitchum to be paired up with Russell.  The best I can say about Macao is that I liked it better than Singapore.


Now that I've completed this post, it occurs to me that the Hollywood films were the weakest on the program.  Of course the first time out, they were able to cherry pick the best films from each country.  I'll be curious to see what the festival programs next year.  They could run with the international theme for many years before running out of steam.  As long as I've revisited Stray Dog, I'll put in a plug for another of my favorite films by Kurosawa - High and Low (based on a Ed McBain novel).  Melville's Bob le flambeur would also be a welcome sight on the program.

I noticed that this year's Noir City poster uses the star and crescent image to dot the "i"s.  The star and crescent is most associated with Islam and appears on the flags of several Muslim nations.  That makes sense since there are several minarets behind the sheer curtain that Eddie is emerging from.  Typically Eddie is the victim in these posters.  However, with black glove on his right hand and his left hand ominously in his overcoat, it appears as those Ms. Lovelle is the one in danger.  Also that globe and airplane statuette seems familiar.  Was it in Gilda?

2014 Noir City Poster

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