Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Movies: It Always Rains on Noir City Seattle

A scant two weeks after the big top folded in San Francisco, the Noir City carnival rolled into Seattle. Much of the Bay Area’s company of players reassembled: ringmaster Eddie Muller, the redoubtable Daryl Sparks working her usual magic behind the scenes and at the swag table, Tokyo’s stylish noir aficionado supreme Etsuko Tamazawa, the missus and yours truly. Also on hand was this year’s program, a cherce complement of films from around the world attesting to the fact that film noir, even in the middle of the last century, was a truly global phenomenon.

Amidst the filmgoing, there were copious amounts of socializing and strategizing. The latter has heaped quite a bit more on my plate, so herewith are truncated highlights. There is a twist ending, though, because it just ain’t noir without a sting in the tail.

Death is a Caress (Norway, 1949). The first half of what is surely the most perverse Valentine’s Day double bill ever programmed. A Scandinavian riff on James M. Cain (note the note on the homme fatale’s doorbell to “ring twice”), directed by a woman (Edith Carlmar) and made in a country with no production code and a more tolerant attitude toward infidelity. Aimless young man takes up with sexually aggressive, wealthy older married woman. Murder is never plotted, yet doom hangs in the air. A bracing lesson in gender politics. It took a while to recover from the shock of seeing characters in a 1940s film speak openly about abortion.

Death of a Cyclist (Spain, 1955). Think working for the studios in the heyday of the Hays Office was a tricky proposition? Try making societal critiques under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Part two of the Nobody’s Getting Laid This Valentine’s Day line-up, this film from director/co-writer Juan Antonio Bardem (uncle of Javier) is a scathing critique of bourgeois privilege. Returning from a tryst, a married woman and her ex-fiancé are involved in a hit and run accident. An oily hanger-on in their circle (the spectacular Carlos Casaravilla – think a sinister Oscar Levant) insinuates that he knows all. The film eventually gets bogged down in philosophizing en route to an ending at once predictable and brazen, but its opening forty-five minutes is supple, modern, and brimming with both style and righteous anger.

Hardly a Criminal (Argentina, 1949). Bank clerk José (Jorge Salcedo), addicted to gambling, isn’t above dipping into the till to cover his losses. When he realizes Argentine law means he’ll serve the same six-year sentence no matter how much he steals, he goes for broke and deliberately gets caught, planning to do his time then live high. What he doesn’t figure on is how his actions will affect his family – and how his fellow inmates will cotton to his clever crime. A blast of pure, straight-ahead noir that you could easily see being made Stateside. Little wonder the chops on display here brought director Hugo Fregonese to Hollywood.

The Murderers Are Among Us (Germany, 1946). A day of films shot from 1946 to 1948 as war clouds were dissipating began with a landmark, the first movie made in Germany after Berlin fell. (As Eddie said when introducing Japan’s Drunken Angel, contemplate what noir means in the countries that lost World War II.) A concentration camp prisoner (Hildegard Knef) returns to her ruined flat to find an alcoholic doctor squatting there. Even as her presence awakens something in him, it also leads to the discovery that his brutal former commanding officer is prospering as Germany starts to rebuild. An astonishing artifact filmed guerilla-style in the rubble, it’s only slightly compromised by its compelling history. (Production had to be backed by one of the city’s occupying powers. Only the Soviets stepped up, but they insisted on changes in the script. Later the Americans arrested lead actor Wilhelm Borchert for falsifying information on his papers, jeopardizing imposed reshoots.)

It Always Rains on Sunday (England, 1947). A movie I’d missed in repertory screenings for years, finally viewed on a Sunday – when it was raining! Kismet! The revelation of the festival, Sunday captures a day of supposed rest in London’s East End as the city copes with war’s aftermath. The script by director Robert Hamer, Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail and Henry Cornelius weaves together a mosaic of stories all anchored by the tale of an escaped convict seeking temporary sanctuary at the home of his now-married former flame played by a magnificent Googie Withers. A powerhouse of a film.

I promised a twist, didn’t I? Turns out master of ceremonies Muller would not be available to present the President’s Day roster of French noir. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, he asked Rosemarie and me to stand in for him. A tall order, considering he was just named a host on Turner Classic Movies, but who could deny the man who’s done so much to preserve film noir? We suited up – I put on a tie, people, I got my shoes shined – and set about our task in earnest.

What made it easier than expected was the quartet of movies we were fortunate enough to introduce. Pépé Le Moko (1937), with Jean Gabin incarnating the essence of la belle France as the gangster who yearns for home from his aerie in the Casbah of Algiers. Rififi (1955), perhaps the definitive heist film. Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach, aka Riptide, 1949) the wild card of the bunch, a bleak, elliptical story of a mysterious young man who haunts an off-season resort village with a memorable lead performance by Gérard Philipe, France’s James Dean. And finally, one of my personal favorites, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfévres or Jenny Lamour, a saucy tour of the demimonde of Paris music halls. This movie has everything: sex, love, suspense, humor, and an inspired ending. It was the perfect way to ring down the curtain. To have some small part in bringing this peerless gem to a new audience was an honor. But honestly, I don’t understand how Muller does this night in and night out. Rosemarie and I were exhausted at the end of our tour of duty, and we were sharing the workload. Still, we’d do it again.

Austin, you’re up next. Get ready.