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.