Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Noir City Northwest: Lucky Seven, Part Two

Did you miss part one?

Night Four

An evening of African-American noir brought the undisputed coup of this year’s festival, a restored version of what Eddie Muller calls “an incredibly significant ‘missing’ piece of cinema history”: the 1950 adaptation of Richard Wright’s landmark book Native Son – with Wright himself portraying his own creation, Bigger Thomas. The film’s fascinating history is detailed by Jake Hinkson in the latest issue of Noir City magazine. (Donate to the Film Noir Foundation and the magazine will be delivered to your inbox.) In sum, it’s an English language production made in Argentina by an expatriate French director, influenced heavily by the film noir cycle and the 1941 stage version of Wright’s book co-produced by Orson Welles.

Native Son’s importance as a cultural artifact cannot be overstated, but as a film it has to be regarded as an ambitious failure. Wright, who stepped into the lead role when first choice Canada Lee balked, was not a professional actor, yet he’s onscreen virtually every second. Worse, he’s a good twenty years older than Bigger in the book, an age difference that irrevocably alters the character’s impetuousness and panic. Still, there’s tremendous resourcefulness on display particularly in terms of set design and unauthorized shooting in Chicago locations, and it is never less than astonishing to see a film from the 1950s dealing so explicitly with race relations – and from an African-American perspective.

The bottom half of the double bill underscored the subtext of the evening: if you want to make a work of literature accessible, give it a crime story core. The unsung 1948 William Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust was, for me, the discovery of the festival. Veteran noir hand Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) streamlines Faulkner’s tale of a black farmer’s odd friendship with a white teenager, and how the younger man comes to his aid when he is accused of murder. David Brian is on hand for some moralizing, but a rich supporting cast plus Oxford, Mississippi locations and primal, atmospheric scenes that owe as much to Twain as Faulkner give Intruder a timeless power.

Night Five

Suspense night paired, for the only time this Noir City, two movies we’d already seen. We skipped Blake Edwards’ dark 1962 procedural Experiment in Terror, presented in a brand new 4K digital restoration courtesy of Sony, and Cornell Woolrich’s boy-who-cried-wolf sleeper hit The Window (1949), shown in a 35mm print paid for by the FNF, to have dinner with Eddie and mutual friends. I peeked into the theater after selling noir swag in the lobby, though, and can report both films looked sensational.

Night Six

aka The Night We Were All Waiting For. 3D Noir!

Man in the Dark (1953) was thought of as lost even though its status as a footnote in movie history is assured: it was the first major studio 3D title, rushed into production to beat Warner Brothers’ House of Wax by a matter of days. Thanks to its rediscovery, every bead of perspiration on the brow of Edmond O’Brien, noir’s sweatiest man, stands out like a billiard ball. O’Brien consents to play guinea pig in an experimental surgery that will remove his criminal tendencies – along with any memory of where he stashed $130 grand from a payroll heist. It’s a deeply ludicrous, thoroughly entertaining movie featuring an amusement park climax and Dark City Dame Audrey Totter in three glorious dimensions. A visceral charge ran through the theater at the first glimpse of black-and-white 3D, lovingly restored.

Muller put any challenge to the noir bona fides of 1953’s Inferno to bed with a single observation: it’s The Postman Always Rings Twice told from the point of view of the victim. Here the inconvenient husband is Robert Ryan, an irascible millionaire left to die in the desert by his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover. Only Ryan decides not to go gentle into that scorching afternoon. Inferno succeeds on its own merits as a man-against-nature saga, with Ryan battling his stubbornness as well as the elements to the accompaniment of his stream-of-consciousness voiceover. But in director Roy Ward Baker’s hands the 3D photography is more than a gimmick, turning the landscape itself into another character. Easily the popular favorite of the whole run.

Night Seven

A double dose of Cornell Woolrich would have been enough. But Eddie had to ring down the curtain on Noir City in style and program a triple feature.

1942’s Street of Chance, out of circulation for decades, was the first-ever Woolrich adaptation. A surprisingly dashing Burgess Meredith is clouted on the head while passing a construction site and discovers that for the past year he’s been living as someone else. Another way of phrasing that plot: he gets amnesia twice. That minor coincidence – and the fact that the first bout of memory loss is explained away with a single line of dialogue – tells you all you need to know about this B-movie, redeemed by Meredith and the presence of Claire Trevor. Also, I’m a sucker for Sheldon Leonard, better known as of one of the essential producers of situation comedies, playing tough guys.

Several years ago I watched a shoddy public domain version of The Chase (1946) that was so dark and confusing I thought that scenes were missing. (The trouble with Woolrich is that you can never be sure.) Now that I’ve seen the film in a gorgeous new print partly funded by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, I can state unequivocally that the movie is just batshit crazy. Good luck following the nominal plot, in which ex-serviceman Robert Cummings lands a job as “driver” (more human airbag) for control freak hoodlum Steve Cochran, only to fall for his tres exotique wife. Muller sold The Chase as a forerunner to David Lynch, but I can’t quite go there. The movie is more disjointed than dreamlike, set in a South Florida with a population of about five people, all of whom inexplicably know each other. It does feature its share of jaw-dropping, did-that-just-happen? scenes. Concentrate on Peter Lorre and don’t take your hands off the wheel.

Noir City Northwest began with a film saved from obscurity by the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation. Why not end with one, too? High Tide (1947) has one of the more arresting openings in film noir, with two men trapped in a wrecked car with water rising around them. We then flash back to how they met their fate. Hell-raising newspaper editor Lee Tracy hires journo-turned-shamus Don Castle to watch his back after he’s stirred up gangsters, but Castle has his own sordid past to deal with. Tide is the cinematic equivalent of a Black Mask story: hardboiled, nasty and fast (74 minutes), with an untrustworthy hero. No surprise it’s based on a yarn by Raoul Whitfield (Green Ice). And it closed out this year’s proceedings in fine fashion.

Noir City rolls into Los Angeles in April, with subsequent outings in Chicago and Washington, D.C. But I have it on reasonable authority that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller will be working his dark magic somewhere much closer to home, no matter where you live. Stay tuned.