Saturday at Noir City

Saturday is always the biggest day at Noir City, with two double bills. Yesterday, each double bill had one relatively expensive A picture, and one very cheap B picture. Money talks; in each case, the A was better than the B. All these movies came out in 1950.

Matinee: The Underworld Story & Southside 1-1000

Noir City head Eddie Muller introduced the A picture, The Underworld Story, as “something of a neglected classic.” He discussed director Cyril Endfield, who was later blacklisted and worked in Europe. “Endfield is a really interesting case because he was a sort-of protégée of Orson Welles…he was an incredible slight-of-hand magician.” Muller also discussed the plot similarities to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which came out the following year.

A big city newspaper reporter (Dan Duryea) loses his job and destroys his career. So he uses mob money to buy partial control of a very small paper in a very small town. He soon finds himself covering a murder case. The actual murderer, the victim’s husband, successfully frames the killing on an African-American maid.

The reporter starts out cynical; he doesn’t really care who the murderer is or who gets hanged, as long as he can sell newspapers. But slowly, and believably, he finds his conscience and becomes a hero.

This isn’t your typical Hollywood small town. It’s filled with very wealthy New England bluebloods. Someone jokes that no one is really accepted unless their ancestors burned witches.

The Underworld Story has one big, horrible problem, which Muller described in his introduction as “a thumb in your eye.” The black maid accused of the crime is played by Mary Anderson, a white actress. At least the blackface isn’t at Al Jolson levels; she looked more like a tanned Caucasian.

Despite the race issues, I give this one a B+. I might have given it a better grade had a black woman played the black woman.

The new 35mm preservation print, courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive, looked very good.

Muller didn’t introduce the B picture, Southside 1-1000, before the 5:00 screening. A friend told me that he did introduce the film before an earlier screening.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that started so bad and ended so good. The first 15 minutes or so contained nothing but stock footage while an exceptionally annoying narrator talked about the importance of winning in Korea and the even bigger importance of money.

But as the movie went on, the narration became rarer and the story about a secret service agent going after counterfeiters took hold. The climax was excellent. For some weird reason, the closing credits music seemed to have been stolen from a very bad comedy.

I give this one a B.

The movie was screened off a new 35mm preservation print created by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and funded by the Film Noir Foundation. It looked pretty good.

Evening show: The Man Who Cheated Himself & Roadblock

Muller started the evening by bringing up Fred Lyon, the “photo laureate of San Francisco,” to the stage, while his photos appeared on the screen. “He’s 93 years old and he’s having a renaissance right now.”

Then he discussed why The Man Who Cheated Himself needed to be preserved. There were only two existing prints, and one “suffered from vinegar syndrome, which is essentially a sexually-transmitted disease that happens to movies.” (You can read a more detailed description.)

A rich wife (Jane Wyatt – the future mother of Father Knows Best) kills her no-good husband in self-defense. Her police detective lover (Lee J. Cobb in a rare leading role) helps her hide the evidence. But Cobb’s rookie detective brother (John Dall) is on the case, and Cobb soon realizes he’s in trouble.

Of course, the plot is ridiculous. It’s a clear case of self-defense. Cobb should have told his girlfriend to call a big lawyer, then call the police, and she’d be off in no time. But that would have made a very short movie.

If you can get over that big, honking plot hole, it’s a damn good thriller. Bit by bit, Dall realizes that his brother is to blame, and Cobb knows it, too.

The movie is set, and partially shot, in San Francisco.

I give it a B.

This was screened off yet another 35mm print from the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive. But this time, it wasn’t a preservation but a full restoration. It looked great.

Before introducing Roadblock, Muller talked about the late Nancy Mysel and the $5,000 grant that the Film Noir Foundation awards to a student working on film preservation. He announced this year’s recipient, but I was not able to catch the name. He spoke to us from his home in New York. [Note: I’ve altered this paragraph since putting it up.]

Muller had little to say about the upcoming B movie.

Roadblock starts with a fun sequence that plays on star Charles McGraw’s reputation as a villain. This time, he starts out as the hero, playing an insurance detective who falls in love with a bad woman (Joan Dixon). Wanting to keep her to minks and diamonds, he goes, way too quickly, from exceptionally honest crime fighter to criminal. But just as he turns bad, she turns good. Neither of these changes feel believable. Motivations, in this movie, exist only to keep the plot running.

I give Roadblock a D+.

On the other hand, the print looked very good.