What’s Screening: February 5 – 11

Only one festival this week. SF IndieFest opens it’s two-week run Thursday.

The Roxie‘s Mad Men Weekend–four films over three days–doesn’t quite qualify as a film festival, but it comes close. The films, all made in the 50s and 60s, allegedly influenced Matthew Weiner’s television drama. Serena Bramble, author of Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion, will be on hand for each screening.

And now, some movies:

A Brokeback Mountain, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:20

Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Unable to come out of the closet, he can’t openly acknowledge who he really is without rejecting another, equally important part of his identity–the strong, manly cowpoke. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and his wife. One of only a handful of films that significantly changed society for the better.

? Lyrical Nitrate, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby will present a lecture/demonstration on the beautiful visuals of tinted nitrate prints from the early days of silent film. “This is an emotional approach to film history, an investigation of mood that is only enhanced by traces of decay and disintegration.” Sadly, no actual nitrate film will be screened–probably because it’s a fire hazard.

B+ The Red Balloon¸ Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

Here’s a children’s masterpiece from France that doesn’t need subtitles. I first saw The Red Balloon in a museum screening at a very young age, and it stunned me with its wit, charm, simple story, and semi-sad ending–I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. Director Albert Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The result is 34 minutes of pure charm–admittedly, not enough for a full feature. I don’t know what else the Balboa will screen to fill out the experience. Read my full review.

A- Landfill Harmonic, Rafael, Monday, 6:30

Cateura, Paraguay is not really a town; it’s more of an inhabited garbage dump. But out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert, performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives. The screening will be preceded by a live musical performance by children from San Rafael’s Enriching Lives Through Music.

A Sweet Smell of Success, Roxie, Friday, 7:00

Burt Lancaster risked his career to produce this exploration of the seamy side of fame. He plays New York gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker–a truly repellent and despicable person who happily bathes in the adulation and fear of those around him. Tonight’s main victim: a whinny Broadway press agent desperate to get his client into Hunsecker’s column (Tony Curtis in a great performance). To make things worse, Hunsecker–who’s based loosely on Walter Winchell–has a rather too-close relationship with his kid sister. From a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. Part of the Mad Men Weekend.

? A Night of Les Blank Films, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00

Three movies–none quite feature length–from the great, late East Bay documentarian. I saw Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers ages ago and barely remember it. I’ve yet to see Yum Yum Yum. But I’m tempted to give the whole triple feature an A based entirely on Always for Pleasure, a 58-minute celebration of New Orleans street parades–not just during Mardi Grass, but after funerals, on St. Patrick’s Day, and just about any occasion. You can read my longer discussion.

B The Fifth Element, Clay, Friday and Saturday night, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

This big, fun, special effects-laden science-fantasy adventure refuses to take itself seriously. It never manages to be particularly exciting, but it succeeds in being rousing and intentionally funny eye candy. It’s also one of the few futuristic movies that’s neither utopian nor dystopian, making it feel–for all the silliness of the plot–relatively realistic.

A The Apartment, Roxie, Saturday, 7:00

Billy Wilder won a Best Picture Oscar for this serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both attractive women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves. Read my Blu-ray review. On a Mad Men Weekend double bill with The Swimmer.

B- To Catch a Thief, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday

More like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not one of his best by a long shot, To Catch a Thief nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun. Besides, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco, photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad.

A- Battleship Potemkin, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:15

Make no mistake; this ground-breaking movie is brilliant but simplistic Communist propaganda. The workers and sailors are all good comrades working together for a better world. The officers, aristocrats, and Cossacks are vile filth who deserve to die. A couple of them are so evil they actually twirl their mustaches. And yet, the story of mutiny, celebration, attack, and escape stirs your blood. And it does this primarily through editing techniques that were revolutionary in 1925 and still impressive today. The Odessa Steps massacre is still amongst the greatest action sequence ever edited. Read my essay. The PFA will screen the film with the recorded Edmund Meisel score on the new 35mm print.

B- Rebecca, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30

With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film doesn’t feel like one of his usual thrillers. Basically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she must compete with the memory of his dead first wife. This entertaining melodrama includes a fine, over-the-top performance by Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to accept the usurper who has replaced her lady. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be. Part of the series Gothic Cinema.

A+ The Godfather, New Parkway, Tuesday, 8:45

Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable youngest son reluctantly and inevitably pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence. Read my A+ list essay. Preceded by The Kid Stays in the Picture, a feature-length documentary that partially covers the making of The Godfather. Warning: This is going to be a very late night at the movies.

A The Seventh Seal, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 12:45 & 7:00

A knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades plays chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) while the plague ravages the land. But while the knight thinks about eternity, his life-embracing squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) reminds us what it really means to be human. Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, it bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe. Yes, it’s the often-parodied Ingmar Bergman movie that became the cliché of 1950s European art films, but that never would have happened if it hadn’t been so good. Introduced by Barbro Osher and Linda Haverty Rugg. New 35mm print.

A+ Notorious, Stanford, Thursday

One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this dangerous and humiliating mission. And as she sleeps with the enemy on his orders, he reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story.

A Janis: Little Girl Blue, Rafael, opens Friday

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the best and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center. Read my full review.

B+ Youth, Rafael, opens Friday

Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. There’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

What’s Screening: January 29 – February 4

We’ve got two festivals this week, but both close Sunday: Noir City and the Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival.

But only three days later, the Pacific Film Archive will open again for business in its new digs.

B- 45 Years, Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, Aquarius, Rafael, opens Friday

Not much happens in Andrew Haigh’s chamber drama about a married couple approaching their 45th anniversary. The wife (Charlotte Rampling) discovers that her husband (Tom Courtenay) almost married someone else years before they met. They talk calmly to each other, and only once does one of them seem to be on the verge of maybe getting a bit warm under the collar. The film’s calm and even tone is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t help but sympathize with them and consider the inevitable problems of a long marriage, but the film gets dull the conflict seems silly. Read my full review.

A The Seventh Seal, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

A knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades plays chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) while the plague ravages the land. But while the knight thinks about eternity, his life-embracing squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) reminds us what it really means to be human. Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, it bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe. Yes, it’s the often-parodied Ingmar Bergman movie that became the cliché of 1950s European art films, but that never would have happened if it hadn’t been so good. Introduced by Barbro Osher and Linda Haverty Rugg. New 35mm print.

A His Girl Friday, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with some of the fastest dialog ever recorded, yet always clear and almost always funny. And as a side bit, there’s a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.

A Chimes At Midnight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Friday through Sunday

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles.

A+ Double bill: Casablanca & Notorious, Stanford, through Sunday

Each of these movies earns an A+ on its own. The people who made Casablanca thought it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, this story of love, loyalty, and adultery in Vichy-occupied North Africa came out almost perfectly. Read my article, Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. In Notorious, a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman proves her patriotism by seducing and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant–who sent her on this mission–grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. Read my Blu-ray Review.

B- Blazing Saddles, several CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday)

The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other movie genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles.

B+ Brooklyn, Lark, opens Friday

In this essentially American tale, a young woman immigrates from a small village in Ireland to the Big Apple, where she finds work, friendship, glamorous clothing, and romance. About halfway through the nearly two-hour runtime, things were going so well for her that I found myself wondering how the filmmakers could sustain the story. Then tragedy forces her to return to Ireland, and her home town becomes the collective villain, trying to keep her “where she belongs.” The film is set in the early 1950s.

Noir City

All screenings at the Castro.

B+ Scarlet Street, Saturday, 4:15 (complete show starts at 1:00)

If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. The last feature on a triple bill with the 1944 versions of The Lodger and Bluebeard.

B+ The Red Shoes, Friday, 7:15

This 1948 Technicolor fable about sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their work, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet sequence is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I’ve discussed The Red Shoes in more detail.

B+ The Bad and the Beautiful, Friday, 7:15

The same year he made The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli used a Citizen Kane-like multiple flashback structure to tell the story of a talented, outwardly nice Hollywood producer (Kirk Douglas) who only seems evil to those who get close enough to know him . As realistic a look at how Hollywood changes and corrupts those who serve it as tinsel town has ever dared to make. On a double bill with The Big Knife.

An old marriage feels the strain in 45 Years

B- Relationship drama

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh

From a short story by David Constantine

The English seem to pride themselves on staying calm. Consider the country’s primary myth: King Arthur and His Round Table. It’s about a monarch who’s too polite to bring up the little problem of his wife shagging his best friend.

There’s no adultery in Andrew Haigh’s chamber drama about a married couple approaching their 45th anniversary. In fact, there’s nothing much to argue about. The two people at the center of 45 Years worry, talk, and feel alienated from each other. But only once does one of them seem to be on the verge of maybe getting a bit warm under the collar.

The film’s calm and even tone is both its strength and its weakness. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay–especially Rampling–show the roiling emotions beneath the calm exterior. We can’t help but sympathize with them and consider the inevitable problems of a long marriage.

But the movie suffers from an emotional monotone. People so skilled at hiding their emotions (I’m talking about the characters, not the actors) can be dull after a while. The stars never get a chance to spread their very talented wings.

But then, the film’s major conflict is hardly something to get into a row about. Geoff (Courtenay) had a girlfriend who died years before he met Kate (Rampling). He had told his future wife long ago about this previous lover, but only now does he slip in the fact that, had she lived, they probably would have married.

With almost perfect calm, Kate reacts way out of proportion. How can she trust the man she’s lived with most of her life? After all, 50 years ago, he almost married someone else.

Geoff is significantly older than Kate (the actors’ ages are nine years apart), and he appears to be slipping into senility. Kate feels the responsibility of caring for a husband who can’t always think straight. But she’s the one whose reaction–buried as it is–is all out of proportion.

All this is happening within the few days before Kate’s and Geoff’s big, 45th anniversary party. Occasionally Kate has to put aside worries about her husband to help plan the event.

I see two ways to interpret her reaction to the news. One is that the filmmakers didn’t realize that this revelation is an absurdly trivial conflict on which to hang a feature-length film. If that’s the case, this is a very bad movie.

The other is that Kate is a deeply insecure person, locked inside an outer shell of complete confidence. The revelation of Geoff’s former love stabs at that insecurity, but doesn’t quite puncture the shell. If that’s the case, this is actually a pretty good drama.

But only pretty good. The even emotional state just emphasizes the fact that this is mostly ado about nothing.

Of course the film ends at the anniversary party, where they dance together romantically with “their” song from that long-ago wedding. The song, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is a strange choice for celebrating a marriage. But it’s absolute perfect for ending this movie.

Marriage, alienation, and Alfred Hitchcock: Why Rear Window belongs on my A+ list

You hardly notice the knot growing in your stomach. The glamorous movie stars on the screen are doing little more than talking as they try to work out whether or not there has been a murder. Slowly you begin to realize, long before they do, that they’re putting themselves in danger. Your hand starts squeezing the armrest–or a loved one’s hand. Before it’s over, you may shriek in terror.

And you’ll enjoyed every second of it.

Most love Vertigo, but to my mind, Rear Window tops every other thriller created by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. He plays the audience like an organ, making us laugh, worry, clap, and scream at his command. And it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

But Rear Window is more than just entertainment. As James Stewart turns his binoculars on his neighbors, Hitchcock aims his directly at us. And what he sees isn’t pretty. We’re voyeurs but not friends; lovers, but not committed.

As a study of urban society wrapped up in the pleasant package of an escapist thriller, Rear Window makes my A+ list. These are the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today. I revisited this 1954 classic Friday night at the Castro, where it opened the Noir City festival.

One set, but what a set

The entirety of Rear Window is set in the small, Greenwich Village apartment of news photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart). Everything you see in the film is either in the apartment, or visible through the large rear window that looks out at his neighbors.

This is a one-set film -placing the story in a confined space. Depending on whether you count Dial M for Murder, it’s the third or fourth such film he made in a decade. But he did it right with Rear Window, building one of the most impressive sets in film history. The backs of several apartment buildings create a makeshift courtyard. And above that courtyard are the windows in which we spy on other people’s lives.

And Jefferies spies on them, too. A lot. He’s recovering from a work-related injury, which leaves him confined to a wheelchair and his apartment. Boredom has turned him into a peeping tom. He spends his time watching his neighbors. He doesn’t know their names, but he knows their likes, dislikes, habits, and routines. He’s given some nicknames—Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, the Salesman, and so on.

He’s not alone all of the time. A nurse, played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter, comes in daily to give a massage, make lunch, and dole out philosophy. Ritter provides at least half of the film’s laughs; a great part for one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung actresses. And nightly, there’s his girlfriend (Grace Kelly)–a young woman so beautiful and aristocratic that you wonder why she settled on a middle-aged, self-described “camera bum.”

Then the Salesman’s wife–an invalid–disappears. Jefferies begins to suspect that the salesman murdered her, and sets out to convince his girlfriend, nurse, and–the most skeptical of all–the police.

Watching people watching people

There’s something inherently voyeuristic about watching a movie, and in Rear Window, you’re spying on people who are spying on people. Jeffries has his own collection of screens to watch, and the people he’s watching don’t know what he’s up to. Each of the windows looks a bit like a movie screen. And he often looks through lenses–either binoculars and later, as the story heats up, a camera with a very long telephoto lens. The audience is complacent complicit in his invasion of his neighbors’ privacy, and Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it.

Jeffries knows his neighbors by spying on them, but he doesn’t know them the way neighbors are supposed to know each other. He hasn’t talked to them. He doesn’t know their names. And they know nothing about him. The Greenwich Village created on a Paramount sound stage for Rear Window is a microcosm of urban alienation.

In one key scene, a woman discovers that her dog is dead–intentionally killed. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors,” she cries out. “Neighbors like each other; speak to each other, cares if anybody lives or dies.” And the speech has a temporary effect, causing a brief moment of community. There’s still some humanity in Greenwich Village.

The problem with marriage

According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Hitchcock’s wife and primary collaborator, Alma Revelle, had an affair in the late 1940s. McGilligan couldn’t find out if Hitchcock knew, and if he did, how he reacted.

But if you look at his films of the early 1950s, it’s easy to imagine that Hitchcock at least suspected. In Strangers on a Train, the protagonist’s philandering wife is strangled to death. In Dial M for Murder, the villain’s philandering wife almost meets the same fate.

Rear Window takes a more complicated look at marriage, but it’s still not a happy one. The killer has murdered his wife, and from the brief moments where we see them together, we can see why. She’s not only high maintenance; she’s a harpy–insulting her husband mercilessly.

And that’s not the only marriage in the film. A couple of newlyweds have moved into an apartment, and the appear to be very happy. It’s pretty clear that whatever they’re doing behind the closed window shade couldn’t be shown in a 1954 movie. But the last time we see them, they’re arguing.

(To be fair, an older couple seem to be happy together.)

And finally, there are the film’s romantic leads. Kelly’s Lisa is pressuring Stewart’s Jeffery into marriage. He’s reluctant, feeling that neither of them can adapt to the other’s lifestyle. He has a point.

Rear Window is a technically polished, thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of great films, but none surpassed this one.

Sunday Classical Music Noir Citys

Sunday’s Noir City was all about classical musicians; dark, evil, down-and-dirty classical musicians.

Well, not quite.

Humoresque

Talent isn’t enough to make you a great musician. You need to work hard. You have to devote yourself to your art. And you have to sleep with Joan Crawford.

In Humoresque, John Garfield plays a brilliant young violinist from the streets of New York, trying to eke out a living. The promise of success, and then the reality, comes from a wealthy, extremely alcoholic matron of the arts (Crawford). She’s married, but that doesn’t stop her from making beautiful music with her handsome fiddler friend.

Garfield and Crawford were magnetic stars, and it’s fun to watch them spark. Crawford is the real standout, knocking back one drink after another and swinging to emotional extremes.

For a melodrama, Humoresque has a surprisingly strong collection of funny one liners (and yes, they’re intentional). Oscar Levant plays the sidekick pianist, and gets to say most of the wisecracks. “She was born with a silver flask in her mouth.”

And, of course, it’s filled with great music. Isaac Stern worked as a music advisor.

The story slows down in the last half hour, which is why I give it a B. Most of it would earn a B+.

But I can’t really call this movie film noir. There’s no crime, no violence, and no sense of an inherently amoral world. Yes, it’s in black and white and occasionally shows dark shadows. But that doesn’t make it noir.

The 35mm print was hit and miss. Some reels were in excellent conditions. Others were badly scratched. At one point, the film broke.

Deception

The other film on the double bill was definitely noir. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good a movie.

But the pre-show was great. First, we were treated by a very good violin solo. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the violinist’s name.

Then Eddie Muller took the stage with Monica Henreid, the daughter of one of the film’s stars, Paul Henreid. She talked about her father’s long friendship with co-star Betty Davis, and how the famous cigarette-lighting scene in Now Voyager came about (it was his wife’s idea).

She told about her father’s political troubles. Working in his native Austria in the 1930s, and he was blacklisted for refusing to sign with the National Socialist Actors Guild. He eventually went to England. But when the war started, he became an enemy alien and was blacklisted there. Then he came to America, and had a good career until the 50s, when he was blacklisted again.

Onto the movie:

Betty Davis plays a musician, although we never see her make music. She’s far too worried trying to hide her past from her brilliant cellist of a new husband (Henreid). He’s just come to the US after some horrible experiences under the Nazis, and he’s too emotionally unstable to deal with the fact that she has been the mistress of a famous and brilliant composer.

Luckily for the audience, that composer is played by Claude Rains. Without Rains’ wonderful scene stealing, this stage-bound talky melodrama would be unbearable. Davis is best when she’s tough, and she’s not tough here. And Henreid is best only when playing a calm but fearless revolutionary; he’s not the artist type

And the story is just too dumb. All she has to do is tell her husband that she’s not a virgin, and her problems would be over. But by the time she finally confesses, there’s been a murder (I told you this one really is a noir).

Thanks only to Claude Rains, Deception gets a C+.

The 35mm print was uneven, but not never got as bad as Humoresque.

Saturday at Noir City

I attended three of the four movies screened at Noir City Saturday. They didn’t all adhere to this year’s theme: The Art of Darkness (ie, dark films about artists). But they ranged from reasonably entertaining to absolutely brilliant.

But the movies themselves aren’t the festival’s only attraction. Many people dress up for Noir City, usually in 40’s style clothing. So, before we get to the movies, enjoy these pictures:

The Dark Corner

Saturday’s matinee wasn’t really about artists, but on those who feed on art: curators, critics, and most important, collectors.

And the first film, Dark Corner, barely touched on the subject, with one of the villains running a gallery. Not much is made of that. But since the movie was enjoyable, I let that pass.

This 1946 potboiler manages to be both a pretty good noir thriller, and a parody of the genre–still new in 1946. Mark Stevens plays the hard-boiled private dick to a way-over-the-top extreme. When he picks up two liquor bottles with one hand and pours their contents into one paper cup, you know it wasn’t meant to be serious.

Lucille Ball plays his secretary/romantic interest…another hint that this was meant to be played at least partly for laughs. And yet it’s an effective mystery/thriller.

I give it a B.

The festival screened The Dark Corner in a perfectly acceptable 35mm print.

Crack-Up

The second movie in the matinee wasn’t all that great. But it really was about art critics, curators, and collectors. And also about forgers and criminals.

An art museum employee has a nervous breakdown after surviving a horrible train wretch. But no trains have been wretched. Obviously, someone has been playing with his mind.

That shouldn’t be surprising. A lot of his co-workers don’t like him, because his lectures are too much oriented to regular people. He also wants the museum to invest in an X-ray machine, which can help them study how the great artists created their works. But there’s a little problem here: An X-ray machine can also identify a forgery.

It was modest fun. I give it a C.

Again, I have no complaints about the 35mm print.

The Bitter Stems

Few experiences are as exciting as going to see a movie you’ve never heard of and discovering a classic.

This Argentinian thriller from 1956 can hold its own amongst the best thrillers of the classic noir period. We know within minutes that the main character–not a hero in any sense of the word but the person through who we see the story–is planning to kill his business partner. We know enough about noir to know that he will do the dirty deed, and that everything after that will go horribly wrong.

A flashback fills us in. The soon-to-be-a-murderer starts out as a journalist, but not a particularly good one. He’s frustrated with his assignments and his pay. Then he meets a con man. The two go into business. Their business is profitable and not all that illegal, but not strictly honest, either.

No need to tell you the rest of the story. Better to enjoy it yourself. I give it an A.


This is one of the best-made noirs I’ve scene. The dark, shadowy photography has a moody subtlety the heightens the experience. And that was greatly enhanced by one of the best 35mm black and white prints I’ve seen in a long time.

According to Eddie Muller’s introduction, Saturday’s screening was the film’s North American premiere, and this is the first print of The Bitter Stems with English subtitles. Although it was revered in Argentina in its time, it has been all but lost. But the negative was recently found rotting in a basement, and it has now been restored.

I didn’t stay for the last film, Girl With Hyacinths. It was just too late for me.

Rear Window and Noir City Opening Night

Friday night I came the Castro for opening night of this year’s Noir City festival. They were screening one of my all-time favorites, Rear Window, along with the obscure Public Eye from 1992.

After grabbing my seat in the 3rd row, I went upstairs to the mezzanine, where I examined the bookstore table. The covers looked fun, but I didn’t buy anything. My backpack was heavy enough already.

This year’s Noir City theme is “The Art of Darkness”–noir stories about painters, writers, musicians, and other creative people who barely make a living from their passion. The opening night double bill focused on photographers.

It clearly wasn’t about clockmakers. The Festival scheduled the double bill in such a way as to guarantee running late. Rear Window was set to screen at 7:30, and Public Eye at 9:30. Rear Window is just five minutes short of two hours.

The festivities started soon after 7:30, with this year’s classical music-themed trailer. Then the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, took the stage, pointing out that our society is built on money, but our culture is built on art. He introduced the model for this year’s poster (sorry, but I didn’t get her name), and then talked a bit about Rear Window. The movie started at about 7:50.

I’ll be posting a full essay on Rear Window soon for my A+ List. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. A news photographer confined to a wheelchair and his small apartment (James Stewart) has taken to watching his neighbors to relieve boredom. Then he begins to suspect that one of those neighbors committed murder. The movie is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining. The suspense builds slowly to a point that’s almost unbearable. And it says some interesting things about how we live our lives in the modern city.

But I’m not sure it’s really film noir. Most of it is in bright colors, and the murder is dealt with as something strange and unusual, not the inevitable consequence of our sick world.

The Castro screened Rear Window digitally, probably from a DCP. And it was the sort of DCP that gives digital projection a bad name. The long shots were slightly fuzzy with dots that didn’t look quite like film grain. And the close-ups had that ultra-smooth, waxwork look you find in early digital transfers.

Rear Window is a great film to see with an audience. People laughed and gasped in all the right places. Unfortunately, there was a guy sitting behind me who also laughed in all the wrong places–including the death of a small dog. Very annoying.

The movie ended around 9:45–15 minutes after the second feature was set to begin. Ten minutes later, with no hint of the intermission ending, I decided to skip Public Eye and go home. I didn’t want to be up that late.

And besides, I had to finish this article.

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