Monday, February 18, 2008

Noir City Northwest: Moonrise (1948)/Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948)

Day three’s films had two common threads, according to our host and programmer Eddie Muller: actress Gail Russell and a sense of otherworldliness. There’s also a third link, namely curses real and imagined.

Moonrise is the work of one of the least likely filmmakers ever to venture into the genre, Frank Borzage. The winner of the first-ever Best Director Oscar (for 1927’s Seventh Heaven), Borzage was an optimist and a desperate romantic. On the face of it, not a promising match for noir. Yet that spirit and a visual style honed in the silent era work wonders.

Dane Clark believes that “bad blood” courses through his veins because the father he never knew was executed for murder. When he accidentally kills his lifelong tormentor, he’s certain this family curse is about to claim another victim.

The movie announces itself as something special with the opening sequence, which captures a childhood’s worth of torture in stark images that feel more like panels from a graphic novel. There’s also a bravura scene of Clark suffering a panic attack on a Ferris wheel that’s worthy of Hitchcock. (No surprise that Moonrise’s cinematographer John L. Russell would later shoot Psycho and many episodes of Hitch’s TV series.) The redemptive ending flies in the face of what some fans may expect from noir. It also completely works. Moonrise deserves to be better known.

I’ve wanted to see Night Has A Thousand Eyes for a thousand reasons. OK, three. Fantastic title, for starters. It boasts a great premise: bogus psychic develops genuine paranormal powers. And you can’t beat those writing credits, with Jonathan Latimer co-adapting a Cornell Woolrich novel. The plot is as rattletrap as can be, but Edward G. Robinson grounds the action as the ex-grifter now exiled from his fellow man.

As for Gail Russell, the object of affection in both movies, well, perhaps she was cursed worst of all.

On top of that, we were treated to a bonus. Eddie screened a print of his new short film The Grand Inquisitor, based on his story in the Busted Flush anthology A Hell of a Woman. Marsha Hunt, the 90-year-old star of noir classics like Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal, plays a woman who finds a young girl (Leah Dashe) on her doorstep bearing a box of books and a disturbing theory about San Francisco’s greatest mystery. It’s a terrific piece of work, lean, suspenseful and beautifully acted. Look for it on the festival circuit soon.