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.