Monday, January 23, 2012

Movies: The Housebound Noir Fest

The tenth annual Noir City film festival is in full swing in San Francisco, kicking off this past weekend with a tribute to special guest Angie Dickinson. Alas, I wasn’t in attendance. A spate of lousy Seattle weather would have wrecked my plans anyway. I should be in the City by the Bay when the curtain comes down, though, and I’ll be loitering with intent during Noir City’s Seattle run next month. To prep for both engagements I held my own mini noir fest, clearing a triple-bill of dark delights off the DVR while waiting for the ice to melt.

The Steel Trap (1952) is from writer/director Andrew L. Stone, who specialized in ruthlessly efficient narrative engines like Cry Terror! Trap is so streamlined there’s not even a villain, simply one frustrated man’s avarice and the standard inconveniences of modern life. Joseph Cotten plays an assistant bank manager who realizes that under certain circumstances he could steal $1 million in cash and have 48 hours to flee the country before the crime is discovered. The thought, once contemplated, proves impossible to put aside.

Cotten keeps his missus Teresa Wright in the dark, passing off the slapdash trip to Rio de Janeiro as a promotion opportunity. (Ignore the fact that Uncle Charlie and his favorite niece from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt are man and wife in this movie. It’s surprisingly easy to do.) Once he commits to the scheme, though, Cotten is beset by everyday hassles, each one tightening the noose around his neck. A delayed babysitter means passports can’t be picked up in time. Bad weather in the Midwest leads to missed connections and the very real prospect of still being in the U.S. when the bank’s vault is opened. The script builds up considerable tension by focusing on this chain of commonplace catastrophes and Cotten’s determination to conceal his true agenda from Wright. Dmitri Tiomkin’s score is occasionally too bombastic for what amounts to an intimate, almost domestic, thriller, but that adds to the fun. Also noteworthy is some rare location shooting in New Orleans.

Dane Clark, a less-charismatic hybrid of John Garfield and Richard Conte, is one of those actors who received a kind of shadow stardom from film noir. In 1948’s Whiplash he’s front and center as painter-turned-pugilist Mike Angelo. (Get it?) Flashbacks give us his rise to contender. Michael Gordon was happy enough creating vaguely homoerotic sand sculptures of KO’d fighters for the local kids in California. But meeting rich girl art fan Alexis Smith puts him down for the emotional count. She disappears and he tracks her to New York – where he discovers that she’s married to crippled ex-boxer Rex Durant (Zachary Scott, heel supreme). Durant thinks Mike has the stuff to land the title shot he never had, and it’s here that Whiplash lurches punch-drunk into Gilda territory, giving us two characters so deeply in love that they come to hate each other and find tortured ways to stay close. Whiplash is overheated, pulpy nonsense but unapologetically so, making the entire enterprise more entertaining than it has any right to be. The boxing scenes rank among the worst in film history, but to make up for it you get Eve Arden in the Eve Arden role.

Both Dane Clark and boxing feature in the last feature, which also happens to be the least of the lot. Backfire was made solely to put some Warner Brothers contract players to work. Shot in 1948, it stayed on the shelf for two years; it’s never a good sign when the director (Vincent Sherman) calls the original script “confused and pointless.” It plays like a Mad magazine parody of film noir, unfolding in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks including one delivered in pidgin English by a dying Chinese houseboy. Putative protagonist Gordon MacRae is the least interesting figure onscreen, a veteran recovering from extensive spinal surgery whose dream of purchasing a ranch with wartime buddy Edmond O’Brien hits a bump when O’Brien vanishes. Upon his release, MacRae sets out to find him. I’d recount the plot, but half the time I couldn’t make heads or tails of it; many noir films are called hard to follow but Backfire genuinely is, mainly because you know it won’t reward your close attention. Plus the twist ending will fool absolutely no one. On the plus side, there is one genuinely shocking death and the excellent eyebrows of Viveca Lindfors.