Darkness in the Castro: The First Weekend at Noir City

I can’t catch every movie in Noir City, the Castro-based festival of dark movies filled with crime, corruption, and great-looking hats. But I did manage to see all six films screened on Saturday and Sunday.

This year’s theme matches a big- or moderate-budget A picture with a low-budget B picture. The films are being presented chronologically, from 1941 to 1953. According to the producer and founder of Noir City, and self-styled “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, those were the golden years of Noir.

Saturday matinee: This Gun For Hire & Quiet Please, Murder (1942)

Muller introduced the B picture, Quiet Please, Murder with a story of finding this forgotten work in the 20th-Century Fox vaults. He described it as “one of those who-knew moments.” He also commented on the unsung women writing the movies that men win fame for directing.

In the 1990s, me and my then-young son joked about making a Die Hard parody set in a library called Hard Cover! We had no idea that the movie was already made. Quite Please, Murder is exceptionally silly and fun – although I don’t think intentionally so. It’s got forgers, homicidal rare book collectors, Nazi spies, and George Sanders as a masochistic killer.

I give Quite Please, Murder a B. The archival 35mm print was gorgeous.

In his introduction to the A picture, This Gun for Hire, Muller discussed the film’s importance to the development of noir. Here’s a film “where the most likeable character is a cold-blooded murder.”

I’ve seen this one before, some years ago on DVD; it’s much better on the big screen. Alan Ladd became a star playing a professional killer (not really cold-blooded; he has a decent side) who is tricked by the truly evil man who hired him. He falls in with a nightclub singer and magician (Veronica Lake). There’s a very non-noir sequence where she sings and does magic tricks, and Lake clearly did some of the tricks herself. Robert Preston gets second billing after Lake as her boyfriend detective – the nominal hero in a movie that’s really about an anti-hero.

I give this one an A. Another great print.

Saturday night: Shadow of a Doubt & Address Unknown (1943 & 44)

In his introduction to the evening’s A picture, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Muller pointed out that it was “incredibly subversive for its time. For Alfred Hitchcock to make a movie about small-town America that is this malevolent in 1943 is subversive in and of itself.” Co-written by Our Town playwright Thorton Wilder, Shadow is one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites. “He didn’t often make many movies that were character-driven. Here the suspense comes out of the relationship of these two characters.”

I’ve loved Shadow of a Doubt since I first saw it years ago. Teresa Wright plays a small-town girl who begins to suspect that her beloved uncle is a notorious serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming). Then he begins to suspect that she suspects. Cotton’s performance makes the movie; most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed, but he can quickly turn dark.

I give this film an A, as I have for years.

But I had some problems with the audience. People were laughing at times when it wasn’t appropriate. There’s plenty of intended laughs in the movie, but they don’t belong in the more serious and frightening scenes.

The print was acceptable, but also the worst I saw over the weekend. It was a bit washed out, with a soft focus.

The B picture, Address Unknown, was the big surprise of the weekend. I had previously seen two other films directed by William Cameron Menzies (Things to Come and Invaders from Mars), and had found them laughably bad.

And the first scene suggested unintentional laughs, with a backdrop so fake-looking it inspired groans. This was surprising because Menzies, whatever his limits as a director, was a brilliant designer, whose visuals significantly enhanced such movies as The Thief of Bagdad and Gone with the Wind.

But I soon realized that, despite the tight budget, I was watching an exceptional picture. Address Unknown is one of the best anti-Nazi movies made during the war. And yet it’s so thoroughly forgotten that it doesn’t even appear in the index of Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black’s book Hollywood Goes to War.

Set in the 1930s, the film follows two German men, business partners and best friends, one living in Germany (Paul Lukas) and the other, whose Jewish and lives in San Francisco (Morris Carnovsky). As the one in Germany turns toward National Socialism, both his Jewish friend and his own family become horrified.

Yes, the film is cheaply made, and yet it feels almost like an epic. It works surprisingly well, creating a real sense of a country falling into bigotry and authoritarianism. (Muller described it as “timely” in his introduction.)

I give it an A-. The print was beautiful.

Sunday: Destiny  & Flesh and Fantasy (1943 & 44)

Sunday’s double bill was originally intended to be a single movie.

The French director Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko), working in Hollywood, set out to make an omnibus film telling four stories. But Universal decided to remove the first story and flesh it out into a short, B feature called Destiny. Another director, Reginald Le Borg, increased the runtime with flashbacks and a new ending.

Destiny’s overdone story follows an ex-con on the lam (Alan Curtis) who winds up in a cabin in the woods with a young blind woman (Gloria Jean) and her father. They appear to be the kindest and most forgiving people in the world. The woman’s blindness apparently gives her superhuman insight and the ability to commune with nature. At times, the movie feels like a live-action version of Disney’s Snow White.

I give Destiny, in its current form, a D. On the other hand, the archival print was fantastic.

Universal wasn’t content to just ruin Destiny. They also wounded what was left of the omnibus by adding a truly horrible framing device. In what appears to be a private library, Robert Benchley and David Hoffman explain themes from the stories that don’t really need to be explained.

The stories themselves range from acceptable to pretty good. An ugly woman finds love while masked during Mardi Gras. A fortune teller predicts that a client will commit murder. A high wire circus performer dreams of his own death. The all-star cast includes Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Cummings, Thomas Mitchell, May Whitty, and Charles Boyer (who also produced).

I give Flesh and Fantasy a B-. The print was very good.

In his introduction, Muller talked about one day possibly restoring Duvivier’s original, four-story intent. Depending on what has survived, it may or may not be possible.