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.

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