Friday, March 01, 2013

Noir City Northwest: Lucky Seven, Part One

Amazingly, 2013 marks the seventh Seattle installment of the Noir City Film Festival. I haven’t missed one yet. Every year when Eddie Muller, maestro of the Film Noir Foundation, brings his dark carnival into town it consumes my life for a week. My involvement with Noir City now has multiple components.

1. The films. A double bill – and sometimes more – a night for seven straight nights. Eddie goes out of his way to bring curios and obscurities with him, titles unlikely to appear anywhere else.

2. Volunteering. For the last several years, Rosemarie and I have worked the FNF table in the theater lobby, selling great noir swag – including the newly released Noir City Annual #5, featuring several articles by yours truly – answering questions about the Foundation’s mission, and signing people up for membership. We want to do our bit for the organization. Also, Rosemarie likes to dress up.

3. Socializing. Somebody’s got to take Muller out for a cocktail afterward so he can wind down.

On top of those commitments I was also battling multiple deadlines. Something had to give, and sadly it was my traditional daily festival recaps. But fear not. Uncle Vince hasn’t forsaken you. Herewith, a whirlwind summary of this year’s madness in (probably) two parts.

Night One

The best way to kick off a Noir City festival is by showcasing the FNF’s efforts. We began with Try and Get Me! (1951), aka The Sound of Fury, a neglected nightmare gloriously restored with help from the Foundation. Based on a Jo Pagano novel inspired by a shocking true crime, the film is essentially three stories. One recounts how a working stiff desperate to support his family is gulled into becoming a getaway driver for a slick stick-up man – who then dreams up a disastrous kidnapping scheme. Frank Lovejoy plays the regular Joe, and I would like to retroactively cast him as Richard Nixon in a film about Tricky Dick’s bitter Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Lloyd Bridges is sensational as Lovejoy’s partner in crime, and there’s a remarkable supporting performance by Katherine Locke as the creepily lovelorn Miss Weatherwax. Then there’s the depiction of mob violence, unsparing in its savagery. These two elements are linked by an indictment of yellow journalism that is undermined by the presence of one of the most irritating characters in film noir, Renzo Cesana as know-it-all Professor Simone. It’s a flawed film, but one replete with moments of great power and a fitting kick-off for the series.

Scranton-born director Cy Endfield was blacklisted after Try and Get Me! and moved to England, where he continued working. One of his follow-up efforts, 1957’s Hell Drivers, was next on the bill. Ex-con Stanley Baker hires on at a mercenary trucking company and tangles with his bosses, his co-workers and the comely Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy). Drivers should have won an award for its casting director, who rounded up early work from soon-to-be-stars David McCallum, Patrick McGoohan and Sean Connery. But these powerhouse players and Endfield’s muscular direction can’t compensate for a heavy-handed and formulaic script. Still worth watching for the pre-007 Connery and some bad-ass leather coats.

Night Two

Showbiz Noir! There’s not much I can add to the volumes already in existence about Billy Wilder’s undisputed masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950). So I’ll say only that it was a thrill to see this film on the big screen at last – the hair stood up on the back of my neck when Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond acknowledged “those wonderful people out there in the dark” – and that the magnificent 4K digital restoration provided by Paramount Pictures reveals nuances of William Holden’s turn as doomed scribe Joe Gillis that had escaped my attention in the past.

1947’s Repeat Performance is one of the most requested titles in Noir City history. It’s easy to understand why given the premise: stage star Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) guns down philandering husband Louis Hayward on New Year’s Eve and fervently wishes for the opportunity to live the past twelve months over again. Somehow, that wish is granted. Will she be able to change her fate? Fittingly, the film screened at this year’s Noir City with a new 35mm print partially funded by the FNF. Eddie calls it noir’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d say it’s Groundhog Day meets Final Destination. Performance is more “woman’s picture” than film noir, but it’s a fun ride the entire time thanks to a sophisticated cast including the always-welcome Tom Conway and a mesmerizing Richard Basehart in his debut.

Night Three

I did something I’ve never done before. I skipped the Academy Awards – OK, technically I recorded them and zipped through them later, but it’s the principle of the thing, people – to work the merch table and watch a pair of rare proto-noirs, films from the early 1930s that dealt with mature material in a manner unimpeded by the strictures of the Production Code. Both were produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., overshadowed by his studio chieftain father and in Eddie’s words ripe for a reappraisal.

The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) is about a successful Viennese criminal attorney (Frank Morgan, not in Kansas or Oz anymore) defending a friend who murdered his unfaithful wife – and who begins to suspect his own spouse of infidelity. A successful verdict may clear the way for Morgan to take the law into his hands himself. This one is a genuine oddity, a talky and unsatisfying tale that ignores its most intriguing character (Jean Dixon as Morgan’s mysterious associate) and was filmed by director James Whale on the same sets where he shot Frankenstein, leading to some unusually atmospheric Austrian jails.

It was only appropriate to watch an early effort by William Wyler on Oscar Night, considering that he directed more actors to nominations than any other filmmaker. He worked his magic again in 1931’s A House Divided. Widowed fisherman Walter Huston has a mail-order bride sent to his remote Pacific Northwest town, but when his future missus arrives she instead falls for his son (Douglass Montgomery, very modern in his appearance). It’s a fleet, rock-solid melodrama anchored by an amazing Huston performance, never more demonstrative than when his character is incapacitated. A then-24-year-old John Huston wrote his old man’s dialogue.

Here’s the thrilling conclusion of my Noir City recap! In 3D!