Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Noir City Northwest: Chicago Deadline (1949)/Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

Believe me, I am well aware of how odd it is to turn my life upside down for a solid week to watch movies made decades before I was born, then stay up to ... what time is it?!? ... so I can post about them. I do it because there is no other way I’d prefer to spend my time. And because Noir City offers the chance to feel like I’m participating in something special.

Consider, if you will, Chicago Deadline. Number of prints in the world: one, on loan from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. I’m now one of the few people who’s had a chance to see this movie, and I want to get the word out about it. Because it’s a gem, the first true find of the festival, and it deserves a wider audience.

Reporter Alan Ladd discovers a young woman dead in a hotel room. As he goes through her address book, piecing together the sordid saga of her life, he begins to fall in love with her. Yes, it does sound a little like Laura, but the movie has a verve all its own, certainly a different ending, and a potent message about the many forms of loneliness in big cities.

I’ve never been an Alan Ladd fan but he’s at his best here as a man eager to shed his armor of cynicism. He’s aided by an able supporting cast that includes June Havoc and Arthur Kennedy. One of the benefits of the Noir City format is the chance to see familiar faces in different roles. Shepperd Strudwick, billed as John Shepperd in yesterday’s dud Strange Triangle, is effective here as a hoodlum in love. And Donna Reed, who was the voice of reason in the opening night feature Scandal Sheet, is heartbreaking as the fallen angel who becomes Ladd’s obsession.

Johnny Stool Pigeon is a hell of a title, isn’t it? It was going to be called Cocaine before the Production Code folks weighed in. There’s a sad story behind this one, too. We watched a brand-new print struck from the negative because the existing copies were lost in the 2008 Universal Studios fire. It’s worth keeping in circulation, a stalwart example of the B-movie directed by William Castle, who made many of the Whistler films. Narcotics agent Howard Duff and inmate Dan Duryea team up to infiltrate a drug ring. Shelley Winters is the party girl that each man in his own way is trying to save from an unpleasant fate. And an impossibly young Tony Curtis, still being billed as Anthony, turns up as a wordless triggerman.

The evening wrapped up with an encore screening of The Grand Inquisitor, a short film by our host Eddie Muller starring actress Marsha Hunt. I’ve raved about the movie before. It’s still a startling, suspenseful piece of work. And guess what? You can watch it right now.

Two nights remain in the festival. The four movies being shown are currently unavailable on video. These screenings could be your only chance to see them. If you’re in the Seattle area, come on out and join the party. And if you’re not, why not donate a few dollars to the Film Noir Foundation? With enough support, maybe someday Noir City will come to you.