Friday, February 20, 2009

Noir City Northwest: Alias Nick Beal (1949)/Night Editor (1946)

As is often the case at Noir City, our host and programmer Eddie Muller saved the best for last. But so did I, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll have you know I wore a suit tonight. Aside from weddings, I haven’t done that since my confirmation.

And that religious note was appropriate, considering the evening’s A feature. Alias Nick Beal is a noir-inflected retelling of the Faust legend. It reunites director John Farrow, writer Jonathan Latimer and star Ray Milland from Monday’s The Big Clock. Milland plays Old Scratch, wheeling and dealing for the soul of politically ambitious D.A. Thomas Mitchell, last seen serving up thick slices of ham in While the City Sleeps. Audrey Totter, that “frosty Scandinavian parfait” to use Eddie’s phrase, melts beguilingly as the fallen woman who becomes Milland’s cat’s paw.

The lapsed Irish Catholic in me was willing to forgive a few sluggish story patches – and George Macready as a man of the cloth – and embrace the sheer artistry on display. Milland has somehow figured out how to wear his hat at a demonic angle. His entrances are inventively staged and cued with a flourish by composer Franz Waxman. But no camera trickery is as spellbinding as the scene in which Milland, rehearsing Totter for an encounter with Mitchell, plays both roles. When Mitchell then delivers every line on cue, Totter’s reactions are astonishing. Watching a brand-new print didn’t hurt, either. Milland’s first appearance, materializing out of the fog, elicited gasps from a packed house.

What better way to follow the ethereal Nick Beal than with “one of the raunchiest B-movies of the 1940s?”

Night Editor was meant to bring the long-running radio drama to the big screen. It ended up being a series of one movie. The hokey framing device barely qualifies it for this year’s newspaper noir theme, as pinochle-playing pressmen pulling the overnight do a “remember when?”. Their first and only tale of woe is about a married cop played by the Brian Doyle-Murrayesque William Gargan. He’s got it bad for society dame Janis Carter. They’re parked at Lovers’ Lane when they witness a murder. Which Gargan, naturally, has to investigate without admitting he saw the entire thing.

Carter, all legs and cheekbones and wildly darting eyes, is nobody’s idea of a good actress. That said, I adore her, and she’s almost great here as a deeply twisted woman who only comes alive when she’s being treated badly. The charisma-free killer is a roadshow version of David Strathairn’s Pierce Patchett in L.A. Confidential. The closing scene between Gargan and Carter is one of the weirdest goddamn things I’ve ever seen. And to my amazement, the wraparound gimmick not only paid off but almost brought a tear to my eye. Bear in mind I said almost. Night Editor is trash through and through, and a perfect way to end a great festival.

My thanks to Eddie Muller, a peerless raconteur and a tireless worker on behalf of film noir and film preservation in general. Also to The Film Noir Foundation – send ‘em a few bucks, you’ll be glad you did – and to SIFF Cinema. A special shoutout to the lovely Darcy, who glammed up the lobby in her vintage threads every night while selling compendiums of Noir City Sentinel articles to benefit the FNF.

It’s always tough when Noir City comes to a close. I’m going to miss going to the theater to see movies that are adult in the truest sense of the word, about men and women grappling with fear and desire. Withdrawal is always tough. Then again, the festival does roll into Los Angeles in April, and I do have reason to be in that part of the world ...

Let’s end this recap right. The old newspaper way.