Two Pre-code Crime Flix at Roxie Noir Festival: I Wake Up Dreaming

Saturday afternoon, I made my way to the Roxie to attend a program in the theater’s current Film Noir festival, I Wake Up Dreaming. Like most of the 13 programs on the festival’s schedule, it was a double bill (the rest are triple bills).

It was a fun afternoon, but not an exceptional one.

The movies both came out of the early 1930s, well before the mid-40s golden age of film noir . While they were both crime pictures with a thick layer of cynicism, they lacked the dark, impressionistic lighting that gave Film Noir its name.

On the other hand, they’re both pre-code. They could be sexier, and even more cynical, than anything Hollywood would put out in the classic Noir period.

The very nature of the event made the movies more entertaining than they would otherwise be. The auditorium was reasonably crowded, and the audience responded enthusiastically to every joke–intentional or not.

So let’s get to the movies:

C+ Love is a Racket

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Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays a reporter on the Broadway beat. He actively wants to avoid the crime beat for reasons of personal safety, and he’s in love with a struggling actress (Frances Dee). That spells trouble. She’s written some bad checks, and a powerful and ruthless gangster wants to add her to his conquests. The story isn’t much, But a fast pace, occasional witty dialog, and an ending as cynical as they come keeps it reasonably entertaining. It was directed by the great William Wellman, but I wouldn’t count it amongst his masterpieces.

C+ Ladies They Talk About

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Before seeing this 1933 women-in-prison drama, I had no idea that the lady’s section in San Quentin had such an excellent beauty parlor. While some of the women appeared to have lost all interest in their personal appearances, most of them sported perfect hair and makeup. Fortunately, the extremely silly story about a beautiful bank robber and the man who wants to reform her stars Barbara Stanwyck. Her very presence on screen can make up for a lot of back writing. The always-upbeat Lillian Roth plays her best friend behind bars, and even gets to sing a song.

Now that I think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Stanwyck play a law-abiding citizen.

I’d seen this one before, some years ago, but I’d forgotten about it.

This year, all of the films screened come from the Warner Archive Collection, and Warner has made them available to the Roxie only on DVD. On a really big screen like the  Castro‘s, that would be a disaster. But at the modestly-sized Roxie, the two films I saw looked acceptable–even if they were a bit soft. They looked at least as good as 16mm prints. Blu-ray, DCP, or 35mm would have looked a lot better. But for these lesser-known titles, they’re just not available.

I Wake Up Dreaming runs through May 25.

Noir is a French Word: Two French Films at Noir City

On Saturday, the Noir City festival honored the nation that first recognized Film Noir as a genre, and gave that genre a name. Unfortunately, my wife and I were only able to attend the first two films.

A- Pépé Le Moko
You can’t talk about this 1937 thriller without talking about star power. This is not by a long shot the greatest film starring Jean Gabin (that would be Grand Illusion), but if there’s a better vehicle for Gabin’s talent, his looks, his sex appeal, and his ability to hold your attention, I haven’t seen it. Officially, this movie is about a brilliant criminal living in an impenetrable neighborhood where the cops can’t possibly find him. In reality, it’s about how wonderfully Gabin could spin his magic over an audience.

And that’s enough to make a wonderfully entertaining motion picture.

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That impenetrable neighborhood is Algiers’ Casbah, the "Arab section" of the city that was actually a melting pot of people from all over the world. With its steep staircases and winding streets, it’s a world onto its own, and one uncontrolled by the French colonial government. Director Julien Duvivier and designer Jacques Krauss use both real locations and (mostly) studio sets to create a filthy yet exotic setting that becomes the film’s second leading character.

Before the film began, festival founder (and self-proclaimed "Czar of Noir") Eddie Muller talked a bit about Gabin, his life, and his professional relationship Duvivier. It was a good talk.

The 35mm print from Rialto Pictures had seen better days. The scratches and white flecks didn’t ruin the film, but they detracted somewhat from the overall enjoyment. A greater concern: While much of the film had the wonderful sharpness of a good 35mm print, other scenes looked washed out, as if made from a copy several generations away from the original negative. I hope someone finds the money and footage necessary  to give this film a full restoration.

B Jenny Lamour (aka Quai des Orfèvres)
Murder, lust, a beautiful singer, a dirty old millionaire, a jealous husband, a tired cop, and a lesbian photographer turn this 1947 noir into a tight little entertainment. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to make the great Wages of Fear.

Although still dark, Jenny Lamour is considerably lighter than that masterpiece. This is noir as pure entertainment. The title character (Suzy Delair) is a rising singer, well-aware of the importance of her sex appeal in helping that rise. Things get so bad that her pianist husband (Bernard Blier) sets out to murder one of her admirers–a powerful and wealthy womanizer. But when he arrives at his would-be victim’s home, he finds that another murderer has beat him to it. And yet, the clues all point to him.

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The story captures the excitement and camaraderie of the theater world, brings in several fun (if not always realistic) characters, and provides quite a bit of suspense. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Muller gave a brief talk about this one, as well. He talked about Clouzot and his guilt as a collaborator during the occupation. He also noted that, while an American film of 1947 could only hint that a character is gay, a French film from that year could say in the open.

This time, Rialto provided the festival with a stunningly beautiful 35mm print.

Crime on both sides of the border: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, taking in the first full day of the Noir City festival. It was a long day–a triple-bill matinee, a short dinner break, and a double-bill evening show. Mexico was the common theme.

Technically speaking, only the matinee had a Mexican theme. It started with a Hollywood thriller about illegal immigration with a Mexican hero. That was followed by two Mexican movies. All three films were pretty obscure, at least for American audiences.

The evening event screened two classic, well-loved noirs, both recently restored. The first one ended in Mexico; the second was mostly set there, although the main characters were all American.

Amazingly, all three of the American films–made in the late 40s and early 50s–managed to avoid the most obnoxious of Mexican stereotypes. The Mexican characters were as intelligent, hard-working, honest, and decent as the American characters. On the other hand, since this was noir, that’s not saying much.

The Matinee

B Border Incident
Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of the most controversial subjects of our own time. If made today, this 1949 MGM thriller about illegal immigration would anger both sides. The immigrants are treated sympathetically– as exploited victims. Those who smuggle them across the border and put them to work picking crops are evil villains in the great noir tradition. Those in law enforcement–Yankee and Mexican working together–are virtuous and courageous heroes, motivated only by a desire to stop the exploitation of the workers.

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Border Incident gives us two detective heroes–one Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and one American (future senator George Murphy). Of the two, Montalban–a Mexican who was seldom cast as one in his Hollywood career–has the larger and more impressive role. Not that the casting measures up to 21st century enlightenment. Another major Mexican good guy, a farm worker who effectively becomes Montalban’s sidekick, is played by James Mitchell in swarthy makeup.

Leaving aside social and racial issues, Border Incident is a well-made thriller set mostly in rural areas. It provides suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. (On the other hand, I have never seen quicksand outside of a movie.)

The 35mm print was just fine.

B+ In the Palm of Your Hand 
The perfect crime goes horribly wrong in this Mexican tale of wealth and greed. Arturo de Córdova stars as a fortune teller who uses detective skills to convince his clients of his magical powers. When he discovers that a beautiful widow murdered her husband–with the help of her handsome but not-too-bright lover–the clairvoyant sees the chance to augment his income with some blackmail. But the widow (Leticia Palma) has other plans, and a talent for getting what she wants out of men.

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In the Palm of Your Hand becomes a story of a good man tempted into evil, with disastrous results. Palma creates the first of two great femme fatales I encountered on Saturday. And the flat tire sequences is a masterpiece of suspense.

This film has never been released in the USA, and the 35mm print lacked English subtitles. Noir City used the Castro’s digital projector to display newly-translated subtitles live over the film image. That worked fine for the most part, but occasionally got out of sync.

B+ Victims of Sin 
The best flick in the triple bill was also the weirdest, and could reasonably be described as a noir musical. Actually, it’s a strange hybrid now called a cabaretera film, that combines melodrama with music. Like the earliest Hollywood musicals, they’re generally set in the world of live entertainment, allowing for realistically-motivated song and dance sequences.

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Victims of Sin sports a silly plot, ridiculous characters, and entertaining musical numbers. But what sets it above all that is the films’ star, a force of nature named Ninón Sevilla. A blonde firebrand and magnificent dancer with the energy of a firecracker, she lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Whether she’s dancing with a drummer in a cabaret or jumping through a window guns ablazing, she holds the screen like few others.

The Festival screened the only English-subtitled print of Victims of Sin. Aside from some difficult-to-read subtitles, I have no complaints.

The Evening Show

A Too Late For Tears 
Lizabeth Scott created the other great femme fatal of the day as a housewife willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune. When a stranger tosses a satchel of cash into the family car, her husband wants to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. But that poor man is no match for his scheming wife. Neither is the crook whose car the satchel was supposed to be tossed into.

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This is noir at its most entertaining. That paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder (the professional crook is downright decent by comparison). Filled with tricky plot twists, witty dialog, and almost no production values, it provides a chance to both root for a dangerous killer and cheer at her ultimate downfall.

The Film Noir Foundation recently restored Too Late For Tears. Before the screening, Eddie Muller explained the problems finding decent source materials for the restoration. At one point they almost acquired an original nitrate print, but the trail went cold when the print’s owner suddenly died (which sounds like a noir plot). The 35mm restoration print (the FNF lacked the funds to restore it digitally) proved uneven in image quality. But it was never so bad as to compromise the pleasure of watching this excellent  movie.

A The Hitch-Hiker
Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, the only woman director of the Hollywood studio era, The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that runs only 71 minutes. The story is simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police. Holding them at gunpoint, he forces his prisoners to drive into Baja California, where he hopes to cover his tracks and be safe forever. They know quite well that he only intends to keep them alive until he no longer needs them.

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This three-person tale is taut and suspenseful throughout. William Talman doesn’t bring nuance to the killer, but he brings a menace that could curdle water. I suspect that a generation swore off giving lifts to hitchhikers after seeing this movie.

The Library of Congress recently restored The Hitch-Hiker, and Noir City screened a beautiful new print. (And no, the picture above is not from the restoration.)

Noir City Opening Night

My wife and I arrived at the Castro more than 30 minutes before curtain time. It was already packed. A trio, the Fly Right Sisters, entertained us with songs from the 40s (or there abouts). The singers, along with many in the audience, were dressed appropriately.

Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a great night.

Journey into Fear

This was my first chance seeing Orson Welles’ third film, and the last he made on his RKO contract. The first two on that contract were Citizen Kane and The Magnificient Ambersons, so you would expect number three to be something special.

It wasn’t. It was a short, simple war-time thriller, with a good but not exceptional story and a strong sense of humor. It was a Mercury Theater production, and all the familar faces from Kane and Ambersons were there. Joseph Cotten starred as an American armaments engineer on business in Turkey for the war effort (this was made in 1943). Someone working for the Germans wants to kill him, and he finds himself on a rundown cargo ship with his would-be killer in the room across the hall.

Like almost every American film Welles’ made after Kane, this one was seriously tampered with by the studio, with more than a third of its runtime cut without Welles’ approval. As Eddie Muller noted in his introduction before the film, this reoccuring theme in Welles’ work was as much a fault of the auteur’s as of the suits. Welles had a habit of abandoning a project before it was through.

The festival screened Journey into Fear off an acceptable but not exceptional 35mm print. It showed some wear-and-tear, and the focus was a bit soft. Despite its important director, this is not a title anyone is bothering to restore. (Of course, a real restoration would involve recovering footage that was destroyed more than 70 years ago.)

The Third Man

This one really is one of the great movies of all time–and that’s not just my opinion. It regularly appears near the top of Greatest Films lists. Noir found its most fertile ground in the post-World War II disillusionment. And The Third Man, set and shot in shell-shocked post-war Vienna, is as disillusioned as they come.

Joseph Cotten stars as a struggling American novelist who comes to Vienna–an occupied city divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors–to take a job offered to him by old, very close friend. But he arrives to find the friend recently killed in a car accident. What’s worse, the friend has been accused of some very nasty blackmarket trading. As the writer looks into the story, nothing proves to be as it seems.

The film is immensely entertaining, often funny, and yet very, very bleak. Much of it was filmed amongst the rubble of a once-beautiful city where people now scamble for food. The protagonist learns that the best friend he grew up with is thoroughly evil–something he had never expected. The female lead (Alida Valli) is facing a life under Communism.

Outside of musicals, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film so well remembered for its score. Anton Karas, a local Austrian musician, wrote and recorded the score himself. Director Carol Reed was so impressed with Karas’ work that he superimposed the opening credits over a close-up of the instrument being played.

Noir City screened The Third Man is a beautiful 35mm print.

 

My Thoughts on Fargo

Saturday night, my wife and I showed Fargo to another couple. About half an hour in, immediately after the first set of grisly murders, one of our guests asked "Why are we watching this?" After it was over, she asked us why we thought it was a great film.

I never thought I’d have to defend Fargo. But it’s worth defending. Many motion pictures have dealt with issues of good and evil. But few have dealt with them as thoughtfully, as vividly, and as entertainingly as Fargo.

The following includes spoilers. I’m writing this on the assumption that you have already seen Fargo. If you haven’t, stop reading. Or better yet, see it ASAP (really, it’s worth it) and then return and read.

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Within the context of a darky comic film noir, set against bleak snowscapes (just watching this movie makes you feel cold), the Coen brothers juxtapose good and evilimage as a matter of character. Easily the most evil character in story, the large, hulking and sulking, violent Gaear (Peter Stormare) is totally withdrawn into himself. His partner Carl (Steve Buscemi) complains of four hours without a word spoken. And this is a man who can kill in cold blood, without even a thought that he might feel remorse.

At the other end of the moral scale, Marge (Frances McDormand) is fully connected to imagethe people and society around her. She’s pregnant (giver of life while Gaear takes it away), and happily married to an easygoing artist who clearly adores her. A small-town police chief, Marge has a way of putting people at ease. When an old boyfriend makes a clumsy pass at her, she lets him down in a way that doesn’t even acknowledge the pass. She starts out seeing the best in everyone, but is nobody’s fool.

It’s fitting that late in the film, Marge gives Gaear, now handcuffed in the back of her car, a lecture on right and wrong. "There’s more to life than just money." He sits there, poker-faced and apparently unmoved. I’d hate to be his prison cellmate.

Other characters fall in between them on the moral scale, but most veer towards evil (this is, after all, primarily noir). With the film’s most interesting character, Jerry (William H. imageMacy in a performance that made his career) the Coens show us how evil begins. We’re never told what exactly put him in such horrible economic straights that he’d contrive to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law, but we get the general idea. He’s self-centered, stupid, and cowardly. If he had Marge’s backbone, he would have gone to his wife and explained his situation. If he had had Marge’s brain, he wouldn’t have gotten into whatever fix he was in. But since he is who he is, he concocts an idiotic scheme that will end in disaster.

A large part of Fargo’s pleasure comes from watching Jerry self-destruct. The "mastermind" behind the kidnapping plan, he sees everything go wrong and his entire life fall apart. Six people are murdered in the course of the story, and he’s indirectly responsible for every single one of them.

in addition to character, the Coens play brilliantly with tone and genre. At first, Fargo seems simply a darkly comic thriller. The early kidnapping scene manages to be both horrifying and funny. The comic timing separates you emotionally from the violent act, and almost makes you root for the kidnappers (but not quite).

Then, as almost always happens in noir, the crime goes wrong. Gaear calmly kills a highway patrolman and two bystanders. The violence is gruesome and horrifying, Gaear’s utter lack of remorse–or any emotion–makes it even worse. Suddenly, we’re in a terrifyingly dark and violent film.

Fade out. Fade in.

Then we meet Marge for the first time, in bed with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch). Note the name the Coen’s gave him: Norm. He’s normal. Actually, he’s better than normal. When his wife gets a call in the wee hours of the morning, he insists on getting up first and making her breakfast. Marge and Norm are funny characters. We laugh at their eating habits (Arby’s) and their small-town Minnesota accents. (Of course, we laugh at everyone’s Minnesota accents. The Coens, Minnesotans themselves, know how to milk laughs out of white people talking funny.)

But we also admire this couple–especially Marge. Introduced immediately after Fargo’s darkest moment, she becomes the film’s primary shaft of light. When things look darkest, the Coen’s cut back to her, and we enjoy her humor, her empathy, and her ability to see through the bullshit that everyone throws at her.

She is, in a sense, a small-town, pregnant Columbo–the working-class cop who nails the bad guys with one more question.

And in the end, she arrests the baddest bad guy in Minnesota, returns home to her husband, and compliments on his painting.

The world is full of evil, but there’s a lot of good, too. At least sometimes, it prevails.

Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli

I caught two very different movies at two very different theaters, Friday night. Both films were very much worth catching.

The Wrong Man

The Pacific Film Archive has been running its Alfred Hitchcock series since January, but it took me until Friday to actually get to one of the screenings. I’m really glad I went.

Hitchcock made The Wrong Man at the height of his powers. His next three films would be Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Like Vertigo, The Wrong Man was a critical and commercial flop on it’s original release. Unlike Vertigo, it has remained obscure. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I know that it deserves a better reputation.

Although it uses one of Hitchcock’s favorite plots–the innocent citizen imagewrongly accused of a crime–it’s unlike anything he ever made. Based on a true story and apparently following it quite closely, it realistically shows you the reality of that situation. Manny, a professional musician with a steady, modest-paying gig (Henry Fonda), doesn’t escape from life-threatening adventures, track down evil spies, or meet and romance a glamorous blonde. He gets fingerprinted and put in jail. He gets out on bail, and hires a lawyer he probably can’t afford. His wife (Vera Miles–who is a gorgeous blonde) has a nervous breakdown.

Even Hitchcock’s cameo is different than any other. The film opens with him, in long shot and shadow, directly addressing the audience, and telling them this is unlike any of his other thrillers.

And yet, in many ways, this is very much an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Right from the start, as Manny leaves work in the wee hours of the morning, takes the subway home, and talks about money with his wife, Hitchcock’s sense of camera angles, editing, and sound provides an overwhelming sense of dread.

In many ways, this is one of his scariest movies. We know that we will never be mistaken for a spy, or discover that a favorite uncle is a serial killer, or be attacked by huge flocks of crows. But if we’re sufficiently unlucky, we might actually someday be arrested for someone else’s felony. And even if we’re eventually proven innocent, the experience could have lasting emotional and financial effects.

Warner Brothers provided the PFA with a seriously scratched print that has seen better days. Good thing this was a black and white movie; at least the print wasn’t faded.

From Up on Poppy Hill

From the PFA on the UC Berkeley campus, I walked west to downtown Berkeley’s California Theater, where I caught the latest animated feature from Japan’s fabled Studio Ghibli. It was a very special screening.

Like all Ghibli films, From Up on Poppy Hill has been dubbed into English for its wide American release. But for this week, the California and Embarcadero are showing the original Japanese version–with English subtitles–for the last screening of the day.

That’s well worth catching.

Set in the early 1960s, From Up on Poppy Hill can best be described as whimsical. A dramatic comedy about first love, it focuses on a teenage girl falling on love for the first time, against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse.

This is a warm, sweet, nostalgic, and mild movie without villains or real disasters. Frightening things have happened in the past, and the scars of war–although no longer on the buildings–are still in everyone’s hearts and family histories.

Of course first love never runs smooth. This young couple run into obstacles, one of them serious enough to derail a romance.

imageThis is the rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings.

Which brings up an interesting question: Why bother with animation? Why not tell the story with live action?

Two reasons:

First, because hand-drawn, 2D animation is with Studio Ghibli does, and does better than anyone else these days.

And second, because they can do so much with it. With astonishingly simple brushstrokes, the Ghibli artists can evoke a place, a community, and a human face’s emotion. It’s a joy to watch.

Catch this picture–preferably in the subtitled version.

Unfortunately, the California is screening From Up on Poppy Hill on one of their upstairs theaters–once part of this aging palace’s balcony. The screen is small, and the sightlines off. Worse, when something loud happens in the big downstairs auditorium, you hear it upstairs.

Other than these problems–which existed when the theater screened film–I had no complaints about the digital projection.

Saturday at Noir City

Yesterday (Saturday) was a beautiful day, so I spent most of it at the Castro, enjoying two dark double bills–all part of the ongoing Noir City festival.

Out of these four feature films, I watched two ex-cons re-entering society, four violent crimes turn out really bad for the perpetrators, two people jump to their deaths, multiple car and truck chases, and I’m not  sure how many murders.

Oddly enough, I didn’t see a single femme fatale, despite the presence of Gun Crazy’s Peggy Cummins in the first two films.

But a more important talent snaked through these four pictures: Cy Endfield. He wrote or co-wrote the first two films screened, and directed the third (and best).

First Double Bill: Peggy Cummins Tribute

Both of these films were released in 1957, after Cummins abandoned Hollywood for her native Britain. In other words, they were English, rather than American, noir.

Curse of the Demon
To my mind, this supernatural thriller doesn’t really qualify as noir, since the evil comes from something other than human weakness. But that doesn’t disqualify such a thriller as entertainment. Dana Andrews stars as an American scientist who comes to England to debunk a Satanic cult. And if you think he’ll be proven right, you haven’t seen enough movies.

For the most part, it’s a likeable and thoughtful thrill ride, with a great villain and some truly scary moments. But two major problems, both added in post production, make it a worse movie than it should have been. First, the producers replaced the scary, unseen demon originally planned with a laughably bad monster special effect. Second, composer Clifton Parker overdid the musical "fright" stingers  until they became funny, then annoying, then funny again.

One problem can’t be blamed on post production: Andrews’ hero comes off as kind of a dick.

Hell Drivers
Now this one was more like it! An ex-con looking for honest work (Stanley Baker) gets a job driving a truck. Sounds good, except that the company he’s working for insists on dangerously fast driving, encourages the drivers to compete with each other, and takes no responsibility for the results. Loud and suspenseful, Hell Drivers examines machismo and the way it can be used to exploit working-class men.

In addition to Baker and Cummins, Hell Drivers contains a number of future stars, including three of what would be the biggest names is the ’60s spy craze: Patrick McGoohan, David McCallum, and the biggest of all, Sean Connery (in a very minor part).

One complaint: Hell Drivers contains a character of the sort that I call dead meat–someone who is sympathetic but will obviously not survive for the fade-out. I call such characters "dead meat" after a parody of this type in Hot Shots. Always a nice guy, dead meat characters inevitably befriend the hero, and have their fates clearly telegraphed to the audience beforehand.

One technical note: Hell Drivers was the first black and white VistaVision film I’ve ever seen. But despite the extra-large negative, it looked no better than any other black and white movie from 1957–and worse than many. According to Martin Hart’s invaluable American WideScreen Museum, "the infrequent black & white VistaVision films didn’t seem to gain much by the use of a large format negative."

Second double bill: Nancy Mysel Tribute

The Film Noir Foundation doesn’t only honor movie stars. Film preservationist and restoration expert Nancy Mysel died last year of cancer, and last night the festival honored her with two films she had helped restore.

These were both 35mm, photochemical, analog restorations rather than digital ones. I talked to Noir City’s head honcho, Eddie Muller, about digital vs. analog restorations after the movies. He’s not against digital (several of this year’s films will be screened off DCPs), but these two were in good enough condition to allow them to use less expensive analog processing.

Try and Get Me (aka: The Sound of Fury)
Easily the best of the four films I saw yesterday, Try and Get Me (originally titled The Sound of Fury) easily sits among the best noirs ever made. Based very loosely on the same 1933 San Jose lynching that inspired Fritz Lang’s Fury and the recently disappointing Valley of the Heart’s Delight, it follows a decent but flawed man as he sinks into crime and then faces a murderous mob.

Howard (Frank Lovejoy) has a son and a pregnant wife to support, but not a job. He also has a drinking problem. In other words, he’s a deeply sympathetic protagonist, but not someone you’d want to depend on.

Then he meets Jerry (Lloyd Bridges in a brilliantly over-the-top performance), who seems to have plenty of cash. Soon they’re robbing cash stations and liquor stores. Then Jerry leads him into deeper waters, with a kidnapping that turns into a particularly grisly murder (or at least as grisly has was allowed in a 1950 Hollywood film). Step by step, their capture becomes inevitable.

But a local journalist has been whipping up hatred for these two "animals," and the large crowd that gathers around the police department isn’t willing to wait for a trial. The horrible crimes committed by two unhinged men become the nucleus of another crime–this one committed by almost everyone.

Director Cy Endfield fills the story with remarkable performances. Not just Lovejoy and Bridges, but in minor characters, as well. Katherine Locke gives a particularly touching performance as a lonely spinster. The crowd and lynching scenes have a remarkable immediacy.

My one complaint: There’s a minor character who clearly exists to express the film’s themes. He’s annoying and unnecessary. Fortunately, he’s seldom seen.

The Hoodlum
Noir is often quick, violent, and cheap. Those three words best describe the last film of the evening. Three other words also describe The Hoodlum: a guilty pleasure.

Lawrence Tierney plays the title character–a young man and hardened criminal who gets out of prison with no intention to go straight. He asks for a receives no sympathy from the people around him or from the audience, and badmouths the suckers willing to work for a living. Reluctantly working in the family gas station, he plans and organizes a daring armored car robbery. You know that’s not going to go well.

In the film’s short 61 minutes, he pretty much ruins the lives of everyone near him. That makes for an enjoyable time.

Noir City continues through February 3.

Images courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation.

Kansas City Confidential

One man conceives of the perfect crime, then brings three hardened criminals in on it. Everything goes smoothly, with an innocent bystander taking the wrap. But when that bystander is released for lack of evidence, he has business to attend to.

I just watched Kansas City Confidential, at home, on Blu-ray. I found it to be a tight, taut, well-made film noir. It was made in 1952, as the genre was reaching its pre-self-awareness peak.

Great name for a noir, isn’t it: Kansas City Confidential? The problem is that only the first act is set in Kansas City. The bulk of the story takes place in a reasonably nice resort in Borados. That’s a strangely pleasant setting for any noir, let alone one called Kansas City Confidential.

Despite the problems with the localation and name, it’s worth catching. You’ve probably never heard of director Phil Karlson or any of the screenwriters, but they knew their business. The plot starts simple, becomes complex, and resolves well.

The picture contains some well-crafted suspense moments–especially one where a thug has to decide whether he’ll use a gun or throw it away. Editor Buddy Small increases the tension by holding several shots longer than normal. Story construction helps, too. Sure, if the thug doesn’t throw away the gun, his partner will be killed. But how much does this thug care about his partner’s life.

As in all good noirs, the moral issues aren’t always clear. A criminal can be a loving father who wants the best for his daughter. The hero can be a man with record going after stolen loot.

In one sense, the movie is surprisingly ahead of its time. The ingenue, played by Coleen Gray, is in law school, and no one seems to object to her professional ambitions.

As befits a 60-year-old low-budget B noir, the cast lacks star wattage. But the thugs include Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, two of the best bad guy character actors of the era.

I guess I can’t talk about this movie without referencing Reservoir Dogs. Let me just say that it’s clear that Tarantino knows Kansas City Confidential.

Watch it if you get a chance.

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