Saturday, February 20, 2010

Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Larceny (1948)

A capacity crowd was on hand for the opening night of the fourth Noir City Northwest. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller gave the new converts the full spiel on the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, dedicated to “preserving America’s noir heritage” and rescuing films from the “poor stewardship” of the conglomerates that own them.

This year’s theme is Lust & Larceny, and the kick-off double bill summed it up nicely. The first four films are also a mini-tribute to screenwriter William Bowers, a longtime VKDC favorite whom Eddie described as the Robert Towne of his day, brought in regularly to punch up scripts.

Bowers’ work isn’t credited on Pitfall, but his fingerprints are all over it. Crackling dialogue, sharply-etched supporting players, tight plotting. Married insurance executive Dick Powell is no longer settled with being settled, chafing at his perfect life. A claim brings him in contact with Lizabeth Scott, a good-hearted girl who’s a magnet for men of poor character. Like shady shamus Raymond Burr, who found her for Powell and wants to make his connection with her permanent.

I first saw Pitfall at Noir City several years ago and had a reservation or two about it. That’s because I went in with certain expectations. Revisiting it, I could appreciate Pitfall for the gem that it is. Burr’s character is a stalker plain and simple, played with a modern edge. Lizabeth Scott’s Mona, who does the right thing at every opportunity to no avail, breaks your heart. And Jane Wyatt as Powell’s pragmatic wife may be the hardest nut of them all.

The more light-hearted Larceny is the movie Rosemarie was most interested in because it pairs up two of her favorite actors, John Payne and Dan Duryea. The twosome are part of a ring of con men who set out to fleece grieving war widow Joan Caulfield. There are only two problems: inside man Payne starts falling for Caulfield, and Duryea’s girl, who carries a torch for Payne, arrives to gum up the works. She’s played by Shelley Winters at her brassy best, delivering one Bowers zinger after another. Throw in noir favorite Percy Helton and a slew of lookers pining after Payne, and a good time is had by all.

All that plus the FNF’s beautifully produced 2009 memorial reel and Serena Bramble’s extraordinary The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir. For an amazing price of ten bucks, people. How can you go wrong?

Rosemarie and I are selling FNF merch in the lobby before each show. (She’s the eye candy, I’m the numbers man.) We did land-office business yesterday. Our most popular item is the second edition of the Noir City Sentinel Annual, collecting the best of the pieces that appeared in the FNF’s subscriber newsletter. Eddie’s in there, as is Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott and other luminaries – plus several pieces by yours truly.

Last night, I was asked to sign a copy of the book. That is a personal first that I won’t soon forget.