Attaining the American Dream isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s impossible. The Dark Side of the Dream, a four-day film festival at the Roxie, screens six double bills that dramatize the ways our system doesn’t work.
The films date from 1933 to 1964. Most of them could be reasonably categorized as noir. The festival runs March 23 through 26.
I’ve seen nine of the 12 features; seven of which I’ve seen recently enough to discuss them. Here’s what I’ve thought of them, in order from best to worst.
A M (1951 remake), Saturday, 3:45 (full double bill starts at 2:00)
I didn’t think a remake of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece could be as good as the original. And yet, Joseph Losey’s version just might be an improvement. The killer seems more like a normal person rather than Peter Lorre, which of course makes him scarier. Losey spends more time on the grieving parents, creating greater urgency. And at least some of the organized criminals who search for the killer are well fleshed-out – especially the alcoholic lawyer. The camerawork and sound effects make Los Angeles look like a very sick place. On a double bill with another Joseph Losey film, The Lawless.
A Try and Get Me! (1951), Friday, 7:00
Howard (Frank Lovejoy) has a son and a pregnant wife to support, but not a job. He also has a drinking problem. Then he meets Jerry (Lloyd Bridges in a brilliantly over-the-top performance), who brings him down the path of crime from robbing gas stations to kidnapping to a very unpleasant destiny. This little-known gem is loosely based on the same 1933 San Jose lynching that inspired Fritz Lang’s Fury. One truly excellent noir. On a double bill with Black Legion (see below).
B+ A Face In the Crowd (1957), Sunday, March 25, 6:00
Andy Griffith gives an over-the-top but powerful performance as a down and out country singer turned television personality, then demagogue, in this surprisingly prescient drama about the effects of celebrity. If you know Griffith only from his TV work, you’ll be surprised that he had this in him. The cast includes an excellent Patricia Neal, a not-yet-famous Walter Matthau, and a very young Lee Remick. The film’s occasionally preachy, as if writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan needed to be sure that everyone would got the message. On a double bill with Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, which I saw long ago and didn’t care for.
B+ Body and Soul (1947), Monday, March 26, 7:00
John Garfield commands this boxing noir as a kid from the slums who fights his way up to the top (Garfield produced as well as starred in the film). But once the boxer reaches the big time, he must deal with the mob. Entertaining and occasionally realistic, Body and Soul stands out as an example of left-leaning Hollywood commercial filmmaking just before the blacklist clamped down on certain values (and ruined Garfield’s career). On a double bill with We Were Strangers.
B Heroes For Sale (1933), Sunday, March 25, 1:30
The Warner Brothers released this earnest message movie just as the Great Depression hit rock bottom. Richard Barthelmess plays a soldier who, after the war, becomes a drug addict, an executive, an assumed labor agitator, a convict, a philanthropist, and a homeless tramp. As you might guess, the story meanders quite a bit. Neither screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner nor director William Wellman pull punches as they show us that for the unlucky, America can be a real mess. On a double bill with They Won’t Forget.
B Black Legion (1937), Friday, 9:00 (full double bill starts at 7:00)
Warner Brothers (the same studio that made Heroes For Sale) indirectly took on the Klan with this message movie. Humphrey Bogart, in his first starting role, plays a blue-collar worker who joins an organization where men wear black robes and masks when attacking those not considered sufficiently American. At times powerful, often preachy, but with its heart firmly in the right place. It seems strange to see Bogart, before his screen persona solidified, playing a regular guy with a wife and kid. One a double bill with Try and Get Me! (above).
B The Naked Kiss (1964), Saturday, March 24, 7:00
The film starts with a powerful punch. A bald woman viciously beats up a man, and you know instantly that he deserves it. But writer/director Samuel Fuller never was subtle. The woman with the strong right hook (an excellent Constance Towers) moves to a small town and discovers how difficult it is to become respectable when your previous vocation was prostitute. Even working in a hospital for disabled children, and successfully romancing the richest guy in town, doesn’t convince the very hypocritical police detective. But there’s more darkness in the town than meets the eye. On a double bill with Marked Woman, which I mildly liked when I saw it ages ago.