Saturday, February 12, 2011

Noir City Northwest: High Wall (1947)/Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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Noir City kicked off its fifth Seattle edition last night to a packed house. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller began by commenting on the importance of preserving movies in their original form. “Scratch ten feet of a film and you can still show it. Scratch a DVD and you can toss it out.” Or as we learned later, in a short documentary about the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration work, “Digital lies. Film doesn’t.”

High Wall proves a perfect case study. The movie is available from the Warner Archive, but only through the efforts of the FNF is there a preservation print that can be screened publicly. The movie warrants such a print for historical reasons but also for entertainment value. It impresses me more each time I see it.

Robert Taylor, in his best performance, plays a wounded WWII veteran accused of murdering his wife during a memory blackout. He’s sent to a mental hospital, where he initially resists treatment to avoid going to trial. But the efforts of comely headshrinker Audrey Totter convince him otherwise. The movie is a shrewd blend of crime drama – the machinations of the real killer Herbert Marshall are so well thought out you almost root for him – and social issue picture, with some affecting scenes inside the asylum. Having the stolid Taylor battle for his sanity instead of one of the usual noir suspects adds to the film’s impact. Frank Jenks scores as Pinky, the drunk roped into Taylor’s desperate bid for justice. Bonus points for having one of Audrey’s fellow psychiatrists live with his mother.

If it’s historical value you want, you’ll find it in the evening’s second feature. Stranger on the Third Floor is widely regarded as the first film noir. It’s a standard B movie (usual disclaimer that “B movie” is not an indicator of quality but running time), but one with startling eruptions of German expressionism. After his testimony condemns a man – and not just any man, but Elisha Cook, Jr. – to the electric chair, reporter John McGuire works himself into a guilt-induced frenzy spurred by the appearance of the titular alien (Peter Lorre). McGuire tries and convicts himself of the murder of an obnoxious neighbor in a bizarre but compelling dream sequence, then awakes to discover the neighbor really has been killed. It’s up to McGuire’s gal, the strikingly modern Margaret Tallichet, to track Lorre down. The clash of naturalistic acting and director Boris Ingster’s baroque visuals renders the entire enterprise cheerfully nuts. Which is appropriate, considering that this year’s theme is Who’s Crazy Now?