Marriage and Murder Marathon: Watching five features Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro for the penultimate day, and the longest day, of this year’s Noir City festival. Over the course of nearly 12 hours, the festival screened five feature films about crime, attempted crime, sex, attempted sex, and marriages both nurturing and homicidal.

The festival’s theme this year is "Til death do us part," and many of the films dealt with murder as a very consequential form of divorce.

I’m skipping the closing on Sunday. I just can’t take it anymore.

Matinee triple bill with the Stones

These Stones didn’t play rock and roll music, but they sure could build suspense.

I’m talking about Andrew and Virginia Stone, a filmmaking team whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until Saturday. Andrew wrote and directed movies in all sorts of genres from the late silent period to the early 70s. His wife, Virginia, cut the films and sometimes worked as an assistant director.

During the 1950s, they made several noirs. On Saturday I saw three of them.

The Steel Trap
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I think we need to recognize a sub-genre of noir: Truly Idiotic Criminals.

Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, who played uncle and niece is Shadow of a Doubt, are man and wife this time around. He’s a bank employee who develops a complicated and essentially stupid plan to rob his own bank. To make things worse, he starts the ball rolling before he has all of the pieces in place. Then he tries to get himself and his wife (who doesn’t know what’s going on) to Brazil before anyone figures out that a million has gone missing from the bank. But because of his rush to get going, he has trouble getting passports and making plane connections.

The whole thing is reasonably entertaining and good fun. But I couldn’t really call it exceptional.

The film was projected digitally, probably off of a DCP. It looked fine.

Julie
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What a fun movie! And easily the best performance I’ve ever seen from Doris Day.

As befits my generation, I hit adolescence hating Doris Day. She represented all that was wholesome, virginal, and culturally conservative. The old joke was that, by playing a wife and mother in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, she risked ruining her image as a virgin.

She made Julie the same year, and her acting range is considerable. She’s not a mother this time around, but she’s a divorcee on her second husband.

Julie (Day) has serious marital problems. In fact, it soon becomes clear that she’s married to a psychopath (Louis Jourdan), and that she’s in line to be his next victim. She leaves home, he follows, and the chase is on. She gets very little help from the local cops and considerably more from a platonic male friend (Barry Sullivan). The climax puts her into a dangerous situation that I’ve seen in a handful of other movies. But outside of a comedy that played it for laughs, I’ve never seen done so well.

The 35mm print was a mess, scratched, torn, and jittery. The projectionist did a valiant job keeping it going–even if he had to stop it a couple of times.

Cry Terror!
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No, that title isn’t the new Republican Party campaign slogan. It’s an excellent crime thriller by the Stones.

An extortion plot that threatens to blow up airliners, a guilt-ridden father (James Mason) kidnapped along with his wife and young daughter, a brilliant criminal (Rod Steiger), and a serial rapist addicted to bennies (Neville Brand) all come together in this exciting tale.  Also in the cast: Inger Stevens as the kidnapped wife, and Angie Dickinson and Jack Klugman as members of the criminal plot.

I don’t want to tell you too much about this one. Even a traffic jam is suspenseful here. Edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

The 35mm print was excellent.

The evening show: Classic European Noir.

Last year, the theme was world Noir, highlighting dark and dangerous thrillers from other countries. Saturday night, this year’s festival returned to that theme, while also continuing to focus on marriage.

Both films were quite long compared to American noirs, with a total running time of over four hours. The show didn’t end until midnight.

Ossessione
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Did you know that Luchino Visconti made the first film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice back in 1943. MGM owned the film rights to the novel (their version would come out in ’46), but American copyrights didn’t hold a lot of sway in Italy during World War II.

You probably know the story: A drifter drifts into a small, roadside restaurant run by a mean-spirited, fat, disgusting slob and his beautiful but long-suffering wife. Once the drifter and wife get a good look at each other, looking isn’t good enough for either of them. Soon murder begins to look like the best solution to their predicament. But happiness proves elusive in their post-murder relationship.

Although it lacks the beautiful spender of, say, The Leopard, Ossessione still feels in many ways like a Visconte film. It’s slow, stately, and prefers people’s daily life to violence and suspense. It’s also very sexy, with two gorgeous stars (Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai) who can’t keep their hands off each other. This was before even the Italian cinema didn’t allow nudity, but the film doesn’t need it to feel hot.

The 35mm print was in good condition, but looked washed out, as if it came from a source quite far from the original negative. That’s hardly surprising. When a film was banned by Mussolini’s censors, the Catholic Church, and (after the war) MGM, you can’t expect it to be in mint condition.

Les Diabolique
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For the second film on the bill, we get something a little more fun from Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for The Wages of Fear. Les Diabolique isn’t quite as suspenseful as that masterpiece, and lacks Wages’ political themes, but it is far creepier.

The wife and mistress of a truly despicable man plot together to murder him, and dispose of the body in a way that should make it look like an accident. Of course things don’t go as planned. But the real problems pop up when the body isn’t found where they left it. Then odd occurances suggest that the husband is still alive. But how could that be? They killed him!

The movie has one hell of twist ending–even though I guessed it a few minutes before the big reveal. But only a few minutes.

I had no complaints about the 35mm print.

IndieFest Preview

I’ve managed to preview four films that will screen at next month’s IndieFest. Here’s what I thought of them, from "must see" to "must miss."

A Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla
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Imagine Milton from Office Space slowly turning into Travis Bickle. That’s pretty much what you get in this very black comedy from Australia. The main character has his own business–an ice cream truck–that brings him into contact with a lot of people. But he’s a very shy, lonely, and awkward man. He lives alone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He worships Clint Eastwood. He’s obsessed with a soap opera star. He spends most of his workday parked in a horrible location where he’s bullied by a very thuggish pimp. His cat just died, but he still puts food in the bowl every morning. He’s nearing a very dangerous boiling point. The humor drains away appropriately as darkness and violence takes over the movie. A remarkable, brutal, funny, and heartfelt little gem.

  • Roxie, Saturday, February 7, 7:15
  • Roxie, Tuesday, February 10, 9:30

B+ Beyond Clueless
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Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the teenage thrills, terrors, and transitions through the looking glass of high school movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or parent a teenager. And certainly entertaining.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women
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This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. It’s an effective way to highlight flaws in our culture, if not an original one (eight years ago I wrote and performed in a one-act play with the same theme). But two problems sink this attempt. First, the society in which it’s set–a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to make a satirical point about western society. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise.

D- For the Plasma
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Talk about a movie that doesn’t go anywhere. Two young women live in a house in rural, coastal Maine, where they’re supposed to check various cameras and sensors in the woods for early forest fires warnings. One of them has figured out a foolproof way to turn all this data into profitable stock market predictions. She’s getting checks for it, but she doesn’t seem to care. Neither does her companion. Neither did I. Both actresses are flat and dull. Almost nothing happens to them, and the few things that do don’t amount to anything. Even basic continuity is lacking; one scene ends with one woman locked in her bedroom and the other apparently unconscious in a ditch. In the next scene it’s as if nothing happened. I kept hoping it would turn into a slasher movie–and I don’t care much for slasher movies.

Disclaimer: When I viewed the movie, I noticed a mildly irritating visual stutter–as if one frame every second was repeated. I don’t know if this was a problem with the screener DVD or the movie itself. I decided to give the film the benefit of a doubt, which is why I gave it a D+ rather than an F.

  • Roxie, Sunday, February 8, 7:15
  • Roxie, Thursday, February 12, 7:15

Douglas Sirk Day at Noir City

On Sunday, the Noir City festival screened two potboilers from the late 40s, both directed by Douglas Sirk. Best remembered for his lush, Technicolor melodramas of the 1950’s, Sirk made a number of noirs before he broke into the big leagues.

Sleep, My Love
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Claudette Colbert wakes up on a train with no idea how she got there. She obviously has some serious mental problems. As the story unfolds, we discover a conspiracy devoted to creating and augmenting those problems. But who is in the conspiracy, and who really wants to help her? Can she trust Don Ameche, the husband who cares very deeply about her health, but possibly not in the way one would expect? Or Robert Cummings, the friend of a friend who just happens to fall into her life at a very convenient time.

Hint: The theme of this year’s Noir City festival is "’Til death do us part," with the emphasis on death.

Anyway, the plot is outrageous and ridiculous, but that didn’t block my enjoyment of the movie a bit. Sleep, My Love is funny, clever, intriguing, and suspenseful enough to let you ignore the many improbabilities.

There’s an interesting Chinese-American wedding sequence that balances on a thin line between being ahead of its time and embracing the usual stereotypes. This results in a nice running gag where the new bride and groom get stuck in the back of a car when they want to get to their hotel room. The groom, by the way, is played by Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan‘s Number One Son in the 1930s.

The film was produced by Mary Pickford (yes, that Mary Pickford), some 15 years after she gave up acting. Of course it was released by United Artists, a company that Pickford co-founded in 1919 when she was a star, and of which she still was a major stock holder.

The festival screened yet another fantastic 35mm print from the UCLA archive. Although Noir City is calling this a 35mm restoration, the credits on print itself uses the less impressive word preservation. Considering how good it looks, I’m guessing that the source materials didn’t need a full restoration.

Shockproof
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What’s the longest sentence you can create with the  fewest words? "I do." With that joke, Eddie Mueller started his introduction to Shockproof, and reminded us that this year’s festival is about the darker side of marriage.

I was looking forward to this one. Samuel Fuller co-wrote the screenplay with Helen Deutsch. Until Sunday, I had never seen a movie written by Fuller but not directed by him.

I was disappointed. This potboiler about a parole officer who falls in love, and then marries one of his parolees, just wasn’t that interesting. The story was obvious, and the characters were clichés. As with Hitchcock’s Suspicion, the studio insisted on a more commercial ending, and as with Suspicion, that ending lets all the air out of the movie.

The bad ending doesn’t hurt as much as it did in Suspicion, but that’s only because this film didn’t have as far to fall. The first part of the film, where she moves into his house to take care of his saintly, blind mother, and he falls in love, is utterly ridiculous. His behavior is so unprofessional it’s illegal. In the third act, when they’re on the run, it’s just the same old same old–although I did like the gag where they stole a car with tin cans and a "Just Married" sign tied to the bumper.

The best thing about this movie: It’s only 79 minutes long.

Sony provided Noir City with a mostly excellent 35mm print. A few scenes looked like they came from warn-out sources.

Joan Fontaine, Poison, Marriage, and Murder: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, where I caught two double bills in the Noir City festival. The theme this year is "’Til death do us part," examining the thin line between marriage and murder.

It was a lot of fun. 

All of the films were in 35mm, and for the most part were excellent prints. Ivy, the best of the four, also had the best print. In fact, it was one of the best 35mm prints of a 40’s movie I’ve seen in years.

The Matinee

The matinee double bill was a tribute to the actress Joan Fontaine. It started with her Oscar-winning performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where she marries Cary Grant. In the second film, The Bigamist, she’s married Edmond O’Brien. As film historian Alan K. Rode pointed out in his introduction, that shows a major decline in star power over the 12 year’s between the films.

Suspicion
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Alfred Hitchcock’s third American film, and his first with a major studio (RKO) could have been one of his best. Fontaine plays a naive young woman who falls in love with a charming but untrustworthy gambling addict (Cary Grant). After their marriage, his petty thefts, his lies, and his manipulations get worse. And worse. Eventually, she begins to suspect that he murdered a friend, and is planning to murder her for the insurance.

In Hitchcock’s original ending (which was never filmed), she writes a letter to her mother, detailing her suspicions. After he murders her, he mails the letter. RKO objected. The company-approved ending is so lame, and so much of a letdown, that it sinks what could have been one of Hitchcock’s best.

The movie, released in 1941, is set in England. There’s no mention of war, and a supporting character actually goes to Paris on business. Not likely after September 1939. Perhaps the movie is set before the war, but it never explicitly says so.

 The Bigamist

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Of the four movies I saw Saturday, this was the only one not set in England (they were all shot in California). It’s also the only one where murder by poison–or any other form of murder–doesn’t play a part.

Edmond O’Brien plays the title character in this 1953 tale, although he only receives fourth billing. In San Francisco, he’s married to Fontaine. They run a business together, and are hoping to adopt a child.

In Los Angeles, he’s married to Ida Lupino (who also directed), and they have a baby. Most of the movie uses that classic noir device, the narrated flashback, to tell us how this came to be.

It’s a fun little pot-boiler. Odd for a noir, everyone here is trying to do the right thing. But that proves impossible, and the morality gets complicated and murky–as it should in noir.

The Evening Show

The second double feature centered on Edwardian London–noir with top hats instead of fedoras. And in each movie, the central character murders their spouse, with unpredictable results.

And the first film starred Joan Fontaine, linking this double bill to the matinee.

Ivy
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This was easily the best of the four movies I saw Saturday. After watching Fontaine as the naïve new bride and the happily-married businesswomen, it’s nice to know that she could do a great femme fatale.

As this 1947 story begins, Ivy (think poison) is married to a decent guy without much money. She has a lover on the side, but she wants to drop him. In fact, she wants to drop both of them; she’s looking for a richer husband.

She’s greedy and evil, but she’s also smart, quick thinking, and knockout gorgeous. She’s a genius at manipulating men. That makes murder, and framing an innocent bystander, relatively easy.

I won’t go into detail. Why spoil the fun?

The Suspect
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In the last movie of the day, a good man (Charles Laughton) is driven to murdering his dreadful wife–and every member of the audience sympathizes with him. His wife (Rosalind Ivan) is as despicable as a character can be without kicking a puppy. She’s hateful not only to her husband but to their grown son. He finds companionship with a much younger, much nicer, and much more intelligent woman (Ella Raines). Eventually, he’s pushed into a corner and he has no choice.

Of course, murder never goes smoothly in the world of classic noir.

But, from a good seat in a movie theater, it can sure be fun.

Even More Upcoming Film Festivals

On Thursday, I told you about the upcoming Noir City and SF Sketchfest festivals. I also promised to tell you about some other upcoming festivals. Here they are:

Berlin & Beyond, January 29 – February 3

The Bay Area’s German language festival returns with a modest selection of movies from Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. In 2008, B&B ran for seven days at the Castro; this year, it only gets three. On the other hand, it will do a day each in Palo Alto and Berkeley.

It opens with To Life!, about a Jewish, suicidal cabaret singer who rediscovers the joys of life. It stars Hannelore Elsner, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the screening. Other films that look promising (I haven’t seen any of them) include Inbetween Worlds and the centerpiece, Exit Marrakech, both of which deal in very different ways with the middle east.

IndieFest, February 5 – 19

I’m never sure if I should count IndieFest has a genre festival, such as DocFest and Noir City, or as a general festival, such as Mill Valley and San Francisco International. If it’s a genre festival, the genre is independent film. But that’s pretty much all you’ll see at Mill Valley and SF International.

But then, the independent films at IndieFest are arguably more independent than those at the bigger festival. Besides, when you’re talking about independent cinema, it’s best to keep the categories fluid.

The festival opens with David Cross’ Hits, about a small town’s reaction to a city council video going viral. It closes with Jacky In the Kingdom of Women, a gender-bending satire that I’ve seen and cannot recommend (I’ll tell you more about it later). The films in between, most of which I hope are better than Jacky, include:

  • Uncertain Terms: A drama set in a home for pregnant teens
  • Sex and Broadcasting: A documentary about a small, independent, listener-supported radio station
  • For the Plasma: Security cameras in the woods can predict the stock market in this sci-fi comedy. Both the New Yorker and IndieWIRE listed For the Plasma in their Best Undistributed Films of 2014.
  • Beyond Clueless: A documentary about teen movies.

Oh, and there’s the now traditional Big Lebowski Party.

Mostly British Film Festival, February 12 – 19

The full schedule isn’t out yet for this selection of films from English-speaking countries not on the North American continent. Think of them as foreign films without subtitles.

The website currently tells us about six of the movies to be screened, without giving us dates. Out of those six, we have two romantic comedies(Standby and My Accomplice), a "quirky" comedy (Gold), a biopic called Winnie Mandela, a story about modern Australian aborigines (Charlie’s Country), and Jimmy’s Hall, a drama about Ireland in the 1920s.

Upcoming Film Festivals

The end-of-the-year film festival drought is coming to an end. New festivals are on the way. Here’s two that we can look forward to in the coming weeks:

Noir City, January 16 – 25

Film noir festivals have become a dime a dozen, but Eddie Mueller’s two-week wallow in the dark side of escapist cinema always stands out. Mueller has a way of finding the best noirs, both famous and unknown, and presenting them with flair.

This year’s festival will concentrate on "how the bonds of matrimony affect an array of characters—those who crave a perfect and permanent union, those who’ll stop at nothing to preserve it, and those who will do anything to escape it." I guess armed robbery, deceit, and murder can get in the way of a happy marriage. On the other hand, they can give a loving couple something to do together.

Noir City will screen an appropriate 13 programs; all of them double or triple bills. I’ve seen only three of the 27 movies, but I’m looking forward to making an acquaintance with more of them.

SF Sketchfest, January 22 – February 8

For years now, I’ve debated with myself about whether I should list San Francisco’s big comedy festival. After all, it’s primarily about standup, not movies. But it includes film events, and some of their non-film events happen in theaters I cover, so I figured I’d list them this year.

Films to be screened include But I’m A Cheerleader, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Groundhog Day, and a Princess Bride quote-along.Mystery Science Theater fans will likely enjoy Shouting at the Screen with Wyatt Cenac and Donwill and RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard.

Also coming up

Other upcoming festivals include Berlin & Beyond, IndieFest, and the Mostly British Film Festival. I’ll have more information on those soon.

Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Sunday at Mill Valley Film Festival. Amazingly, I was actually in Mill Valley.

Here’s what I saw:

The 3D Sideshow

3D enthusiast and filmmaker Robert G. Bloomberg introduced this selection of shorts with a trailer to a 50’s 3D movie called The Maze. He followed this with his own Frogs & Friends–a selection of (mostly) still images of wildlife–often very tiny insects.

That one was wonderful, but the best movie in the show was unquestionably Jason Jameson and James Hall’s One Night in Hell. Stylistically Victorian, yet with a modern sense of humor, it followed Satan on his rounds, using the 3D for very funny effects.

I also liked Jeff Boller’s rock video, A Geek Like Me.

A Geek Like Me

Some of the shorts were pre-3D. They screened Georges Méliès’ The Infernal Cauldron, accidentally shot in 3D (I’ve already described how that happened). Also included: a colorized and 3D-converted version of the Safely Last climax; it was hilarious–almost as funny as the 2D, black-and-white original. And one of the two Disney shorts in the show started as an old, early, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon that exploded into widescreen, color, and 3D.

Speaking of big names, Fox provided a Simpson’s cartoon of Maggie in the world’s worst daycare.

In Order of Disappearance

Local Citizen of the Year Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is a peaceful man. But when his son turns up dead from a drug overdose, and he wasn’t using drugs, our hero sets out to make the bad guys pay. I’m not really a fan of revenge thrillers, and this one is exceptionally violent, both in the body count and in the gruesome nature of the deaths. But a strong sense of absurd humor helps the violence go down easily. When was the last time you saw a movie where the horrifically evil organized crime boss is also a high-strung vegan? A sick, twisted, yet entertaining thriller from Norway.

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I’m giving this film a B+, and can recommend it to anyone who likes dark and gruesome humor. Unfortunately, you’ll likely never get a chance to see it, as it’s not expected to get an American release.

Wild

Before the show began, we  were treated to Pixar’s new short, Lava, about a lonely volcano who finds love. Yes, the story is silly, but fun enough for a short.

After the short, Director of Programming Zoë Elton, who introduced one of the stars of the film, Laura Dern. Dern actually has a relatively small role in the picture, but the event was in her honor.

Elton interviewed Dern for a few minutes about being a second-generation actor and the people she’s worked with.

Then they screened the film.

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Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that tell us what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

It’s a powerful film, and I’m giving it an A. It opens later this year.

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