Thursday, February 02, 2012

Noir City X: San Francisco, Day 3

It wouldn’t be a festival without one controversial title. 1949’s The Great Gatsby, out of circulation for decades, split the audience down the middle. Alas, I come down squarely on the negative side. This noir-inflected adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel plays like it was made by people who once had the book described to them during a drunken luncheon.

Things get off to a graceless start with a clumsy “Remember the Jazz Age?” montage. Alan Ladd plays the title role and is the best thing about the film. In a sense that’s faint praise, because it’s badly cast; Betty Field brings nothing to the almost unplayable role of Daisy, and we’re saddled with Macdonald Carey, who stubbornly resisted rising into the Hollywood firmament despite having Paramount’s promotional muscle behind him, as Nick Carraway. Reliable noir faces Barry Sullivan (Tom Buchanan) and Howard Da Silva (Wilson) fare better. Ladd flaunts his physique poolside and bristles enough to set the chip on his shoulder trembling. He has some strong moments in his up-and-comer flashbacks, like when he tells his mentor Dan Cody that he plans to succeed through hard work only to have Cody cackle and say such platitudes are meant to keep the suckers in line while the wise men sweep the chips off the table. (Every film this year seemed like political commentary to me.) Ultimately, though, this Gatsby lacks both the poetry and the edge of Fitzgerald’s story. Ladd’s son David, interviewed onstage after the screening by my friend Alan K. Rode, had it right when he called the film a “simplistic take” on the novel that offered a fine part for his father.

I discovered Three Strangers (1946) in 2010 and welcomed the prospect of seeing it on the big screen. This second viewing confirmed my belief that it’s one of the best films of the 1940s. A haunting fable with an extraordinary script by John Huston and Howard Koch, it tells the interlocked stories of a trio of desperate people hoping a bizarre pact brings them fortune. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet play characters, not the caricatures they’re largely known for, and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s quicksilver presence pushes the proceedings toward the unpredictable. Director Jean Negulesco’s flair for melodrama makes every leap into the unknown believable.

Nightly Cocktail Report: A dandy Manhattan variation called the Ellis Island at Poesia. Made with bourbon, Carpano vermouth and Strega.

All this was preamble for Everybody Comes To Eddie’s: The Noir City Nightclub. The Film Noir Foundation took over a hall and turned it into the nocturnal hot spot of cinematic dreams. The place was packed, partly because of the open bar but mainly due to the tremendous roster of talent Eddie Muller assembled. Dig this bill –

Mr. Lucky and the Cocktail Party, keeping the joint jumping;

The sublime Evie Lovelle, a demure beauty whose classical approach to burlesque damn near set the town ablaze;

Laura Ellis, a silver screen chanteuse performing a repertoire of noir nocturnes;

The Latenight Callers, the pride of Kansas City, closing out the night with a killer set. Here’s their video.

The high point had to be when Muller himself took to the mic to belt out the title song from Fear Over Frisco, his recent Grand Guignol show at the Hypnodrome Theater. I described his vocal stylings as Tom Waits meets Steve Lawrence, and he seemed inordinately pleased.

At one point during the evening, it dawned on me that I felt like I’d actually stepped into a swank joint from one of the movies we’d been watching. Gorgeous dames in their finery, a hot band and a cool vibe. The party underscored the fact that Noir City isn’t simply about preserving classic films. It’s about keeping alive the social aspect of moviegoing, getting together with strangers in the dark.

One day left to go. As in all good noirs, expect a twist ending.

On The Web: Ah, Treachery!

Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus reads every novel by one of my all-time favorites, Ross Thomas. Sharp analysis and long quotations from the master. Check it out.