Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Noir City Northwest: A Double Life (1947)/Among the Living (1941)

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Monday night’s Noir City twin bill managed to demonstrate how flexible the term noir is, while dishing out the strongest dose of crazy yet.

George Cukor isn’t commonly associated with film noir. Neither are urbane husband and wife screenwriters and frequent Cukor collaborators Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike). Yet the mood and form of the genre were so prevalent in late 1940s Hollywood that they used the genre’s trappings to tell a gripping story of the theater in A Double Life. Successful stage actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is given the opportunity to direct and star in his cherished production of Othello on Broadway. But over the course of the show’s run, with his ex-wife Signe Hasso as his Desdemona, the line between actor and role becomes dangerously blurred. It’s about a performer driven deep within himself to realize his greatest artistic challenge at the risk of his psyche. Or as Rosemarie put it, “It’s the original Black Swan.”

The Kanin/Gordon script is a sophisticated marvel, making cunning use of Shakespeare while finding room to give sharp dialogue to even the most minor characters. Cukor matches their efforts, allowing the sound design to convey much of Anthony John’s descent into madness. His attention to the mechanics of stagecraft is also a joy. All of these efforts support Ronald Colman’s spectacularly nuanced, Oscar-winning performance, full of so many details of life as both a working actor and a celebrity. Where A Double Life falls in the noir pantheon is an open question, but there’s no denying that it’s a magnificent film.

From the sublime we leap past the ridiculous to land squarely in the WTF territory summed up by one of the finest phrases in the English language: evil twin.

Eddie Muller described the genuine curio Among the Living, which has never been on home video in any format, as “proto-noir.” I’d push it even further back. It represents the primordial ooze from which noir dragged itself before sizing up the talent and ordering a drink. It’s Southern Gothic horror with a few nods in noir’s direction. New York businessman Albert Dekker, who looks like Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter put together, returns home for his father’s funeral and discovers that his “dead” brother has been living in the basement of the family’s ramshackle homestead for decades.

Dekker insists on using Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion voice for the sinister sibling, but the effects of the boys together hold up. The movie starts out bad, thanks largely to Harry Carey’s performance as a lousy doctor who’s an even worse philanthropist. Then it turns good, with director Stuart Heisler bringing solid craftsmanship to Dekker’s clip joint collapse and his stalking of his next victim. Then it veers into so-bad-its-good with a climax involving the most dubious legal proceeding ever. The work of former Jean Renoir cinematographer Theodore Sparkuhl is an asset throughout, and a young Susan Hayward makes an impression as a firecracker. At the very least, Among the Living proves that the definition of noir can be stretched to the point that it snaps, and someone loses an eye.