Monday, February 27, 2012

Noir City Northwest: The Story So Far

The fifth Seattle Noir City film festival opened last Friday in its new home at the SIFF Uptown, a renovated 85-year-old theater where some of these movies played during their initial release. It’s the perfect place to reintroduce them to an entirely new audience the way they’re meant to be seen.

The opening night twin bill was near and dear to the heart of Film Noir Foundation honcho and master of ceremonies Eddie Muller. Both movies feature authentic San Francisco locations and Muller’s first cinematic crush, actress Valentina Cortese. I’ve seen Thieves’ Highway on the big screen several times, most recently last month at Noir City X. I wasn’t planning to watch it again, but Muller’s introduction made me keep my seat and focus on Cortese’s sensual, feline turn as a prostitute paid to waylay weary long-haul trucker Richard Conte only to feel for him. She’s unlike any actress of the period, her performance still uncommonly fresh. (Brief political aside: I’m repeating myself but I’d like this movie, a brutal X-ray of how markets actually function as opposed to what you’ll find in an economics textbook, to be mandatory viewing for all candidates. As well as for any voters who are fooling themselves.)

Cortese is front and center in The House on Telegraph Hill, a story that in some ways echoes her own war refugee past. Cortese’s Victoria survives a Nazi concentration camp by assuming the identity of a fallen friend who smuggled her young son to California before the war. Victoria eventually arrives in San Francisco to become mother to a child she doesn’t know, and paramour to the boy’s shady guardian (Richard Basehart). The familiarity of Telegraph Hill’s Gothic elements doom it to second-tier status, but it’s redeemed by Robert Wise’s direction, deft location shooting, and the undimmed power of Cortese’s raw, haunted performance; for Victoria, the nightmare of the war is always close at hand. Catch the film on DVD to hear Eddie’s commentary track, a mash note to the actress and his hometown.

Saturday was Ladies’ Night, bringing 35mm prints of two films I’ve seen repeatedly but never in the theater. I’ve written about Gilda at length – particularly in a piece collected in Noir City Annual #2 and another slated for the upcoming Annual #4 – so I can’t add much more other than to say on the big screen, Rita Hayworth is even more gorgeous and her wardrobe literally dazzling. And Clifton Webb’s dialogue in Laura is meant to ring out in a crowded house.

Because I’d seen Sunday’s double feature of 1949’s The Great Gatsby and Three Strangers (1946) at the Castro last month, I sat those films out in favor of watching the Academy Awards. I did run down to the theater to stand at my post selling FNF merchandise. Alan Ladd’s performance as Jay Gatsby won over many of those in attendance, and I was thrilled to hear that the singularly odd Strangers, a personal favorite, played well with the crowd. Any film in which, as Eddie observed, Peter Lorre plays the romantic lead can’t be bad.

Things get interesting in the next few days, with several movies that are new to me. More to come.