Monday, August 01, 2016

Movies: Noir City Seattle Returns

So I’m not as good as my word. So you’re getting a post-mortem. What could be better suited to a noir film festival?

After a hiatus of almost two and a half years, Noir City blew back into Seattle – and a new and better home at SIFF’s Egyptian Theater. Happily, the return engagement on Capitol Hill was a success, with solid crowds every night for a week. The theme this go-round was Film Noir from A to B: double-bills that moved chronologically through the 1940s, pairing prestige pictures with shorter, grittier productions to recreate the moviegoing experience of the era. (There was one exception to the structure and it mattered a great deal to me, but we’ll get to that.) Rosemarie and I made it to fifteen of the eighteen films screened, with time out for work and conspiring global domination with the festival’s master of ceremonies Eddie Muller. A recap follows.

New to Me

I saw three of the films for the first time, and as you’d expect, they were the B’s:

Dr. Broadway (1942). What was intended as the launching pad for a new franchise ended up as a series of one film. Still, it did provide noir legend Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, T-Men) with his first directorial assignment. This Runyonesque romp gained an unexpected topicality – the titular Times Square sawbones is named Tim Kane – and had potential, given the doc’s client base of gangsters and glamour gals. J. Carrol Naish makes his usual fine villain as a tailor cutting more than cloth in his bid to claim a crime boss’ fortune. Too bad the film stars the charisma-challenged Macdonald Carey, and his leading lady Jean Phillips triggered brain freeze every time she appeared onscreen; she was better known as Ginger Rogers’ stand-in, and is such a dead ringer for the dancer I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t actually her.

The Guilty (1947). This Film Noir Foundation restoration is based on the Cornell Woolrich story “Two Men in a Furnished Room.” As Eddie said, that also accurately describes the budget. But those bargain basement appointments allow director John Reinhardt to hew closely to Woolrich’s singularly bleak, doom-laden vision. Former Nancy Drew and future Lassie producer Bonita Granville plays identical twins – one helpmeet, one harlot – who take up with a pair of shiftless roomies. When the good girl is murdered, suspicion abounds. The movie is no lost masterpiece but it’s undeniably haunting, the Poverty Row production values giving it the hermetic feel of a nightmare. At least one relationship is genuinely unseemly, and a detective’s description of Granville #1’s demise while star Don Castle, who could be out-acted by a cigar store Indian, gazes down at her off-screen corpse remains authentically disturbing.

Southside 1-1000 (1950). Doubts were raised during the opening of the closing film, a semi-documentary crimebusters saga from Gun Crazy producers the King Brothers. (Summary of John Ireland’s interminable voiceover: counterfeiting is bad.) But once treasury agent Don DeFore – a Noir City favorite thanks to his turn in Too Late for Tears, now available on DVD! – arrives in Los Angeles and starts throwing cash around in a bid to build his bona fides as a Boston hoodlum, all is well. Great location photography in this movie directed by Boris Ingster, who also helmed the opening night B title Stranger on the Third Floor, bringing us all full circle.

Edith Head Night!

All the way from Japan!
Eddie deviated from the A/B set-up for our benefit, scheduling two top-tier titles last Tuesday boasting costumes by Edith Head. (Not to mention also having producer Hal Wallis and stars Burt Lancaster and Wendell Corey in common.) Rosemarie and I were lucky enough to co-host the evening with him, and signed copies of Design for Dying provided by Phinney Books. I can tell you that having Eddie Muller tells a packed house, “Don’t be a chump! Buy the book!” moves a lot of units. Our lovely friend Etsuko Tamazawa, who travels all the way from Japan to attend Noir City fests up and down the West Coast, brought us an astonishing gift: a Design for Dying sake barrel complete with inscribed cups, which were on the table as we signed books.

As for the movies, Desert Fury (1947) remains a delirious Technicolor fantasy, an overheated melodrama with only the vaguest ties to noir. And who cares, when it features a gay subtext that soon becomes text and a Lizabeth Scott sulking montage demanding multiple wardrobe changes that shows Edith Head at the height of her powers? I’m thrilled we introduced many people to Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), a dizzying piece of construction from writer Lucille Fletcher and director Anatole Litvak that is a truly underrated masterpiece of suspense.

The Professor and Mary Ann (aka And The Rest)

I always forget how effective Victor Mature is playing a big city sharpie in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming – and still wish his co-star Laird Cregar had lived long enough to play Nero Wolfe ... Woman on the Run (1950), also now on DVD, gets better every time I see it ... Edith Head’s costumes for Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942) didn’t disappoint, but I tip my hat to the milliners responsible for the essential-to-the-plot hats in Phantom Lady (1944), starring local gal Ella Raines ... Dead Reckoning (1947) always seemed like middling Bogart to me, but it played great this time, while the big screen did no favors for the synthetic The Dark Corner (1946) ... The way Max Ophuls uses the wind in The Reckless Moment (1949) ... Night Editor (1946) is essentially the first Joe Eszterhas movie. And I already can’t wait for next year.