Saturday, July 07, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Thieves’ Highway (1949)/Deadline At Dawn (1946)

Eddie Muller kicked off the Northwest debut of his Noir City film festival with an observation. He’d stopped in for a drink at a nearby watering hole and noted:

A. One (1) sexy bartender
B. One (1) gorgeous woman drinking alone
C. Two (2) guys in jeans and tennis shoes deep in conversation about computer peripherals.

Seattle, he decided, needs some film noir.

Rosemarie and I did our bit. We had drinks before the show, too. I even had a cocktail named after Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. But that’s not going to be enough. Not in the ugly footwear capital of the world. Arguments continue to rage about the definition of noir, but whatever your camp on this we can all agree: no sandals. Nobody ever saw Robert Mitchum’s toes.

The festival began with a dead-of-night double feature. The action in both movies basically unfolds between midnight and 5 A.M., when decent folk should be a-bed.

Thieves’ Highway, directed by Jules Dassin with a script by A.I. Bezzerides from his novel, is more than a terrific noir film. It’s a great working class story about the human cost of getting ahead and making a buck. Richard Conte musters out of the service and sets himself up as an independent trucker mainly to seek vengeance on the middleman who crippled his father. Lee J. Cobb plays the heavy in a relaxed but forceful performance, and Valentina Cortese dazzles as the fallen woman falling for Conte. It’s tough stuff, made with a tabloid gusto that the years haven’t dimmed.

Deadline at Dawn, on the other hand, is simply unhinged. That’s to be expected when Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theater, collaborates with playwright Clifford Odets on a Cornell Woolrich adaptation. You’ve got your standard Woolrich premise: guy comes to after a blackout and thinks he may have killed someone. In this case, the guy is the dumbest sailor in the Navy. He’s so dumb he thinks he’s in the Army. He’s aided by a taxi dancer (the fetching Susan Hayward) and a cabdriver who waxes philosophic at the drop of a hat. Because in New York City at three in the morning, everybody’s happy to help a rube solve a murder he may have committed. Odets’ dialogue is nicely ripe; now I know what Barton Fink might have accomplished if he’d only licked that Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Deadline at Dawn is weird, posturing nonsense. And I loved every minute of it.