Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Noir City Northwest: Okay, America! (1932) / Afraid To Talk (1932)

In the words of our master of ceremonies Eddie Muller, the movies of the 1930s were growing up too fast for some major social institutions. The pressure that these forces brought to bear led to the Motion Picture Production Code. Ironically these moral guidelines allowed film noir to flourish, the imposition of restrictions giving birth to the cinema of suggestion. On Monday night at Noir City, a pair of punchy proto-noirs released by Universal in 1932 illuminated what had come before.

Okay, America! spins the yarn of a yarnspinner, a powerful newspaper columnist and radio personality who has his town wired. The mild-mannered Lew Ayres is miscast but game as the Walter Winchell manqué who targets gangsters, grafters and glitterati alike, making the rich and powerful tremble. The film’s first half is sensational, following Ayres’ Larry Wayne on his rounds of New York nightclubs, taking in risqué shows as he picks up information from a network of cigarette girls and souses. He’s tracking one tale in particular, the disappearance of a power broker’s daughter. But as Wayne finds himself part of the story he’s reporting – becoming the go-between for the kidnappers and even ending up in the Oval Office for a consultation with the Commander in Chief – the pace lags. The closing moments don’t lack for action but don’t make a lick of sense, either. Still, there’s no denying Okay, America!’s early energy.

Actors Louis Calhern and Edward Arnold as well as a distinctive dress from the Universal wardrobe department all turn up again in Afraid to Talk, also known as Merry-Go-Round, the title of the original play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. The resulting film is an astonishingly cynical piece of work that bristles with righteous anger. A young bellboy (Eric Linden) witnesses gangster Arnold bumping off his rival in a hotel room and almost gets ventilated himself. He dutifully reports what he saw to the authorities, who prepare to lower the boom on the killer. Only once the powers that be learn that Arnold now has the goods on them, they’re forced to back off. All they need is a fall guy for the murder Arnold committed – and poor sap Linden is it. Afraid To Talk details a dense web of corruption in a mere 69 minutes, sketching out a system where justice is only done when compromised men are finally pushed too far. It also provides a startling glimpse into America’s mindset at the height of the Great Depression; homeless men grumble about fatcats not missing any meals, while one of the cops who subjects Linden to the third degree pointedly tells crooked assistant D.A. Calhern that no politician or crime boss would be subjected to the punishment Linden receives. Featuring Mayo Methot, other half of the Battling Bogarts, as a dame not to be trifled with, it’s a tough, two-fisted film.

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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Noir City: In Seattle and Your Mailbox

Just a reminder that the Seattle version of the Noir City film festival kicks off Friday, February 24. Here’s the schedule. This year the show moves to the SIFF Uptown, which means these classic films will be unspooling in a real theater, with freshly-made popcorn and everything. Eddie Muller will be on hand to provide erudite introductions, while the lovely Rosemarie and I can be found in the lobby selling Film Noir Foundation memorabilia.

Can’t make it to Seattle? Then kick in a few bucks to the FNF and receive a subscription to Noir City, the magazine. The latest issue was released yesterday, and it’s a doozy. I say that even though I’m sitting this edition out. Ace designer Michael Kronenberg continues to make this the best looking film rag out there, the graphics now including video clips. Truly cutting edge stuff about old-school movies.

For a sneak peek, swing by the FNF website to read a trio of articles from the new issue for free, gratis. Then cough up a few bucks to have the McCoy sent to you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Me Elsewhere: On Virtual Newsstands Now

We interrupt the usual trumpeting of others’ work for a blast of shameless self-promotion.

The debut issue of Continue Magazine, which takes a broad look at games and gaming, is now officially on sale. It includes my article on the noir bona fides of the video game L.A. Noire. So why not buy it now?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Book: Butch Fatale, Dyke Dick – Double D Double Cross, by Christa Faust (2012)

Because what says Valentine’s Day more than a hardboiled detective novel crossed with hardcore lesbian erotica? Nothing, sez I.

Dedicated readers may recall that the latest project by my pal Christa Faust was kinda sorta announced right here in a Q&A late last year. The official release date is today, but true to sharp-elbowed form the book slipped out a few days early and is already lighting up the Kindle charts. Why wouldn’t it, with that title? And as is always the case with Faust, it delivers the goods.

Roberta “Butch” Fatale is an L.A. shamus – “Never been pretty, but I’ve grown into handsome pretty well” – with a crummy office in Echo Park and a Tony Curtis haircut. She’s got a nose for trouble and an eye for the ladies. Those body parts and pretty much every other one get a workout by the time this caper’s over.

Double D Double Cross – seriously, is that a title or what? – succeeds gloriously as both pulp and smut. It’s a fast, well-plotted crime novel that culminates in a wild, over-the-top climax that Christa’s inspiration Richard S. Prather of Shell Scott fame would have loved. Then every few pages you get a different kind of action, no-holds-barred sex scenes that don’t bother to close the door for privacy. And all of it’s funny as hell, too. It’s the kind of book e-publishing was made for. So go to Amazon and get in on the fun.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Movie: Coriolanus (2011)

In the year-end glut of movies seeking awards, one or two titles always get lost. The latest victim: the modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Upfront, I confess that the movie represents my first serious exposure to the play. This Slate piece explores the unique place Coriolanus holds in the Shakespeare canon, including T. S. Eliot’s claim that it is “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.” Caius Martius is Rome’s most feared general, a man who does battle with soldiers he respects to protect a citizenry he holds in contempt. A particularly bloody victory over the Volscian army following the siege of Corioles gives Martius the new name of Coriolanus and entrée into the world of politics. But he refuses to curry favor with the masses, intending to govern the same way he marshaled his forces. Other politicians, fearing Coriolanus’ rise, stir up opposition to his appointment. The general goes into exile, then wreaks vengeance against the nation that banished him.

It’s a breathtakingly complex piece of writing, bereft of heroes and villains. Coriolanus is both admirable and monstrous, often simultaneously. Menenius, Coriolanus’ political mentor and the play’s most overtly calculating figure, has the Republic’s interests at heart, while the self-serving populist tribunes raise valid objections to granting Coriolanus power.

There are astonishing performances galore. Brian Cox’s beautifully modulated Menenius, James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson as the scheming tribunes, and an absolutely staggering Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the mother who made Coriolanus the man he is. Ralph Fiennes does impressive work in front of the camera in the lead role and behind it as director. The film is propulsive, taking full advantage of the Serbian locations to present a landscape steeped in ancient simmering hatreds. Speeches are captured on cell phone cameras, critical dialogue is put into the mouths of commentators on the Roman equivalent of Fox News. It’s a fleet and furious adaptation of the Bard. Here’s the trailer.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Noir City X: San Francisco, Day 4

How do you know it’s been a good party? Your host discharges the next day’s duties in the previous night’s tuxedo. That’s how Master of Ceremonies Eddie Muller brought down the curtain on the tenth Noir City Film Festival.

How do you end a noir film festival in San Francisco? By paying homage to the man who put the city’s darkest streets on the map. The final line-up featured six films based on the work of Dashiell Hammett. Many hardy souls stayed for the full half-dozen. I opted to forego the movies I’d already seen – The Glass Key (1942) and the 1931 and ’41 versions of The Maltese Falcon – in favor of the curiosities. A sound plan, because as it happened I would have other pilgrimages to make.

Roadhouse Nights (1930). This pre-Code rarity, shot at the Paramount studio in my old neighborhood of Astoria, New York, is allegedly based on Hammett’s brutal Red Harvest, but it would take a copyright lawyer armed with an electron microscope to find any trace of it. I don’t recall that bloody book having many musical numbers. A Chicago reporter digging into the bootlegging background of a Michigan club owner gets ventilated for his trouble, and his perpetually soused colleague (Charlie Ruggles) picks up the trail. Jimmy Durante contributes a few cherce bits. It lurches along for most of its 68 minute running time, but the great screenwriter Ben Hecht concocts an ingenious and wholly satisfying wrap-up.

City Streets (1931). In the year since Roadhouse Nights, cinematic storytelling had vaulted forward. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian and shot by Lee Garmes from Hammett’s only original screen story, City Streets proved to be the big discovery of the festival. Sylvia Sidney is the gunsel’s daughter trying to walk the straight and narrow with her carny sharpshooter boyfriend Gary Cooper. In order to save his girl, Coop is soon pulling triggers for the local beer mob. The first American movie to use the noir staple of voiceover, Streets also seems to be inventing other key bits of cinematic grammar. Mamoulian’s striking compositions, Garmes’ photography and some still-impressive editing tell much of the tale. It’s a film that spans eras – the early extended Cooper/Sidney courtship owes something to Murnau’s Sunrise, while the later scenes prefigure the gangster dramas that would follow in the 1930s – and deserves to be far better known.

Mr. Dynamite (1935). They can’t all be winners. This one was, as the French critics who coined the term noir say, a steaming pile of crap. The backstory, relayed by Hammett historian Vince Emery, was far more interesting than the onscreen saga of shamus T. N. Thompson. Hammett had been asked to create a Falcon follow-up about a Sam Spade-style private eye who turns bad. Rejected by the studio, it was dusted off and revised by other hands in the wake of The Thin Man’s overwhelming success. The result is an ungainly hybrid of the two styles Hammett made look so effortless. The kind of movie where you see the stellar cast of nobodies and assume the names were plucked at random from the phone book.

Nightly Cocktail Report: One of the most-storied bars in America, literally and figuratively, is Smuggler’s Cove. It specializes in “traditional drinks of the Caribbean islands, classic libations of Prohibition-era Havana, exotic cocktails from legendary tiki bars.” Having just read Wayne Curtis’ And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails along with Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s eminently wise A Gentleman’s Companion, I knew a stop would be in order.

My first drink, the El Presidente – white rum, French vermouth, orange Curaçao and fresh grenadine – was a marvel. But it was a mere precursor to what followed. Baker rhapsodized about the Hotel Nacional Special, born of Cuba, made with golden rum, lime juice, apricot brandy and pineapple juice. Presumably he did not have chunks of fresh pineapple blended into a gossamer froth before his eyes. Easily one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. I would have gone deeper into the Cove’s extensive menu, but as it happened I had places to be.

The apartment that Dashiell Hammett lived in while he wrote Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, which also served as a model for Sam Spade’s own quarters, is at 891 Post Street. The current owner has taken pains to restore the apartment to 1920s condition, down to the can of coffee in the kitchen. Muller has a key, as evidenced by this San Francisco Chronicle article. He had arranged to show the renovations to Hammett’s granddaughter Julie Rivett and scholar Richard Layman. And somehow, Rosemarie and I were invited to tag along. I’m still not sure how that happened.

So that was how my San Francisco Noir City experience ended. While 1400 people sat in the Castro Theatre watching Spade and the Fat Man haggle over the Black Bird, I was in the room where the book was written with one of the author’s descendants, hearing about how the stories for the films I’d watched that day were being collected for publication for the first time. There aren’t any ghosts in the apartment, but the sense of what inspired Hammett about the city is very much in evidence.

A reminder: the Seattle version of Noir City, with a largely different series of films, begins three weeks from today. The missus and I will be there selling Film Noir Foundation merch in the lobby. Come on by.

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.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Noir City X: San Francisco, Days 1 & 2

Rosemarie and I were not about to miss the tenth anniversary Noir City film festival at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. We couldn’t stay for the duration of its ten-day run, which meant choosing between opening weekend (featuring an in-person tribute to Angie Dickinson) and closing weekend (highlighted by Everybody Comes To Eddie’s: The Noir City Nightclub). Knowing the Angie interview would eventually be on the Film Noir Foundation’s website, we opted for the party. Always opt for the party.

Thursday was Bad Girls Night. Leading off: 1954’s Naked Alibi. Sterling Hayden plays a detective kicked off the force for hounding hair trigger family man Gene Barry, whom Hayden believes to be a cop killer. Barry skips town to clear his head and we learn that Hayden has his number; Barry’s a hoodlum leading a double life in the company of cantina chanteuse Gloria Grahame. Alibi is a minor effort, evidenced by the fact that its border city is called Border City. Barry’s character makes absolutely no sense. Grahame is the entire show here, but what a show it is. Her Marianna is a bad girl who deep down still believes in love and in doing the right thing, a combination that doesn’t promise a happy ending. Plus her one number, a sullen rendition of “Ace in the Hole” with voice work by Jo Ann Greer, is one for the books.

Hugo Haas was a respected Czech actor who found himself typecast in America. He moved into independent filmmaking, where he cranked out Blue Angel knockoffs (older man ruined by younger woman) to diminishing returns. In his early effort Pickup (1951), he had the good sense to cast Beverly Michaels, whom I’ve loved since seeing her in Wicked Woman, as the cause of his undoing. Haas knows exactly what he’s doing, introducing Beverly with repeated shots of her endless legs as she bobs up and down on a merry-go-round horse. Pickup is surprisingly effective, with Haas making canny use of sound.

Nightly Cocktail Report: Before the show we stopped in at Harvey’s, where I had an Old Fashioned made with Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur. Honey and whiskey, together in one bottle. If anyone other than Gloria Grahame had starred in the night’s first movie I’d never have left my barstool.

Friday was blue collar noir night. Thieves’ Highway (1949) has deservedly become a fest favorite for its tough-minded tabloid sensibility. Returning vet Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) takes over his father’s trucking business and tangles with Lee J. Cobb, the crooked broker who crippled his old man. I’ve seen this film repeatedly and always find something new to appreciate; this go-round it was the strong dramatic performance of Jack Oakie as another trucker desperate to make a buck. The movie revolves around a wildcat shipment of Golden Delicious apples, and host Eddie Muller had the brilliant idea of having gorgeous dames in period costume hand out the Biblical fruit to filmgoers. Only Eddie could get away with giving an audience produce and not having any of it hurled at him.

We saw The Breaking Point (1950) on our Paris trip last year, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to revisit the adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not so soon. It’s that intense and that heartbreaking. John Garfield is brilliant as the fishing boat captain struggling to stay afloat in every sense. Patricia Neal is the vixen who doesn’t tempt him so much as remind him that other ways of life are possible, and Phyllis Thaxter gives one of the great overlooked performances as his loyal wife. Eddie called this double-bill the best in the ten year history of Noir City. The one-two punch of these movies was particularly potent during campaign season. After listening to politicians extol the free market for months it was a bracing corrective to get a crash course in how the system actually works.

Nightly Cocktail Report: While I enjoyed a whiskey sour livened up with rhubarb bitters at Catch, the real experimentation was being done at the just-opened Ice Cream Bar at 815 Cole Street. It’s an old-school soda fountain complete with jerks (that’s a title, not an opinion) in either paper hats or straw boaters, serving up non-alcoholic confections from a menu devised by noted mixologist Russell Davis of Rickhouse. Rosemarie raved about her float with rich house-made root beer. Shakedown glitches delayed my Too Good To Be True, with ingredients including rye-based butterscotch and blackstrap molasses, but as a reward for my patience I got a free dish of their astonishing honey buttermilk ice cream. And the drink, when it arrived, proved more than worth the wait.