Friday, July 13, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Scarlet Street (1945)/Wicked Woman (1953)

On the last night of Noir City, bad girls ruled.

I was wowed by Scarlet Street when I first watched it on a lousy public domain DVD. Seeing a pristine print from the Library of Congress brings the full force of its fatalism to bear. Is there a better ensemble in noir? Edward G. Robinson as the middle-aged man making a final bid at living his dream. Joan Bennett as the aptly named Kitty March, the essence of lazy feline entitlement. And Dan Duryea using the insinuating instrument of his voice to great effect. (Disturbing observation: dye Duryea’s blond hair dark and he’s a ringer for Stephen Colbert.) Add an airtight script by Dudley Nichols and direction by Fritz Lang, and the result is hellish perfection.

And then – oh, then – we have Wicked Woman.

Amazon Beverly Michaels rolls into town, lands a job as a waitress, and proceeds to lay waste to the place. She’s a proto-Nomi Malone from Showgirls, drifting from city to city, getting into trouble, and flying into spontaneous rages.

Michaels is something, blonde and six feet tall. She can’t act, but she doesn’t have to. She’s a six foot blonde. Director Russell Rouse loves her even if the camera doesn’t. He’s happy to show her shaving her endless legs, slapping around in her dirty bare feet, and tying her robe on. Three times. In seventy-seven minutes.

Michaels has her fans, though. I think we were sitting behind one. An older gent, reeking of cigarettes and Brylcreem, who began singing “Theme from Wicked Woman” as soon as it started. Clearly he’s been carrying a torch for some time. I’m happy they were briefly reunited.

The movie goes beyond awful, achieving a kind of Zen purity. The bad acting suddenly becomes naturalistic, as if you’re watching a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall documentary on when good girls stray. It’s trash. Sleazy trash. Sleazy, utterly transporting trash. (Update: Behold the trailer in all its glory!)

Michaels eventually quit acting and married her director, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Pillow Talk. Thus providing one of noir’s rare happy endings.

And that brought down the curtain on the debut outing of Noir City Seattle. I’m fairly sure I contracted emphysema from watching so many people smoke. My thanks to Eddie Muller for programming this extraordinary festival, and to SIFF Cinema and curator Anita Monga for hosting it.

Why did so many people hie themselves to the theater in a summer swelter for seven consecutive days to see two movies a night? Perhaps because they appreciate craftsmanship. As Eddie noted after one screening, it’s unlikely that similar numbers will turn out fifty years hence for a revival of movies being made today, when everything is twenty minutes too long and the ability to tell a story efficiently seems to have been lost.

But noir owes its fascination to more than just narrative economy. Here’s a quote from Jules Buck, who worked with the pioneering producer Mark Hellinger. It’s from the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, the newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation. Do yourself a favor and join.

“We didn’t know from noir in those days. Hellinger just wanted to make tough stories, filled with the passion of life vs. death. What people call noir was simply movies that grabbed life vs. death by the throat and hung on no matter what.”

The essential question of existence, stripped to its sinew and answered with dames and wisecracks. Fifty years from now, people will still be looking for that. And these movies will still deliver the goods.