Coen ‘n’ Noir

With Joel Coen and Frances McDormand at the BAMPFA, and Noir City at the Grand Lake, the East Bay was popping with cinephilia. I couldn’t have seen everything. Here’s what I caught.

Friday night: Noir City Opening Night

Does any other film festival open with a double feature? But then, Noir City may be the only festival that gives you two movies for one ticket. This year the festival started with two films considered masterpieces: Key Largo and The Lady From Shanghai.

Every year this festival has a theme. This year’s theme: movies from 1948. If you check the math, you’ll discover that every film shown is having it’s 75th anniversary.

The festival opened when Eddie Muller, the head of this event, took the stage for Noir City’s 20th run. He talked about 1948 – the year in which all the films screening first opened. Muller also talked about how Key Largo was the perfect film to open this year. It’s about people trapped together who don’t always like each other. Also, there’s a huge amount of water falling from the sky.

In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? I give it an A.

Key Largo

The last time I saw Key Largo was on TV. It was great…for TV. At the Grand Lake, you feel it when a large window breaks as the waves splash in. And the audience screamed and applauded at the right places.

I slipped out before The Lady From Shanghai. I never cared for this one. Besides, I’ve gotten too old to start watching a movie after 9:00pm – especially when it’s in a theater.

Saturday Afternoon: Larceny in different ways

I failed to get a ticket for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans at the BAMPFA. I know this late silent very well, but I didn’t get to hear Judith Rosenberg’s piano accompaniment. Even worse, I missed Joel Coen’s comments on this masterpiece.

Instead, I went to the Grand Lake for the Saturday matinee at Noir City. Here I saw two cheap flicks I’d never seen before:


Larceny  is very talky and not an exceptional movie. A gang of grifters go after a rich widow. John Payne plays the handsome guy who uses his looks to get into rich dames’ pockets. But things get too hot. Shelley Winters does a great bit as a scorned woman. Not exceptional. I give it a C+.

But things got better with the second flick: The Spiritualist (also known as The Amazing Mr. X). A cheap but very well-made and entertaining movie. A very rich widow (another one of them) wants very much to connect to her dead husband. Naturally, a spiritualist – obviously a fake – gets his claws into her. Soon, her younger sister falls for him too. Wonderfully shot by John Alton. One problem: The four male characters all know that the whole thing is a fraud, although the two female characters fall for the grift. I give it a B+.

The Spiritualist

Saturday night: The Coens and Shakespeare

I got the very last ticket for the screening of The Tragedy of Macbeth at the BAMPFA. This is not the Orson Welles version. Nor the Roman Polanski version. Instead, it’s the Joel Coen version – and it’s the best I’ve seen.


This is a stripped-down version, with simple yet evocative sets shot indoors. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the unhappy couple brilliantly (McDormand also produced). Washington and McDormand at first seem too old for the unhappy couple, but Washington and McDormand seem to be grabbing their last chance for the power that never came to them. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel created black-and-white images that look like a nitrate print film. I give it an A.

After the screening, Coen, McDormand, and film critic Eileen Jones discussed the film. McDormand did most of the talking, and she talked very well. She told us that she first played Lady Macbeth at the age of 14, and that’s when she fell in love with acting. She played the part again a few years ago at Berkeley Rep (my wife and I saw it there). And now, her performance is saved for prosperity.

Left to right: Coen, Macbeth Jones, McDormand

McDormand told us that the great thing about Shakespeare’s punctuation is that “You can fuck with it.” She also said that the Macbeths “are the only good marriage in Shakespeare.”

Sunday Matinee: Another two flicks at the Grand Lake

Here are two movies that are worth seeing twice. I know that because this was my second time seeing them both.

Naked City has a gimmick: This police procedural was shot entirely in Manhattan locations—or at least, that’s what the opening narration says. Some scenes were clearly done elsewhere. Barry Fitzgerald, usually typecast as a charming Irish priest, stars as a charming Irish detective as he leads a team of detectives doing the hard work of running down a murderer. This tightly-wound picture shows police detectives at work, with moments of their regular lives. And the New York scenery keeps the realism.

When I first saw Naked City at home on TV, I only gave it a B. But now, having seen it properly, I’m giving it a B+.

Cry of the City

In Cry of the City, a cop and a criminal – childhood friends from the tough side of town – face off on different sides of the law. Richard Conte plays the crook as a charismatic tough guy always looking out for himself. Victor Mature, in a rare good performance, plays the police detective who’s out to get his old chum. Some fine, small performances by Shelley Winters, Debra Paget, and Fred Clark. I give it a B+.

I’m skipping Noir City on the weekdays. But I’ll be back for the weekend.