A Killer Festival: Noir City 13 in San Francisco, Weekend One

January 25, 2015

Somehow, I only found out about Noir City last year. Film noir is one of my absolute favorite genres, so I have no idea how the greatness of this festival, now in its 13th year in San Francisco, eluded me for so many years. Le sigh.

 

Though I missed the San Francisco event at the beginning of last year, I was able to catch its LA counterpart at the Egyptian Theater in March and April 2014.  There, I had the chance to watch some films I had never seen before (such as Joseph Losey’s severely underrated 1951 LA remake of Fritz Lang’s M and 1947’s Jenny Lamour from France) and indulge in some old favorites (like 1949’s Too Late for Tears, because Lizabeth Scott is everything). 

 

The 16th annual festival in LA also paid tribute to a trio of talented actresses who had recently passed away: Audrey Totter, Eleanor Parker, and one of my favorites, Joan Fontaine. I missed Totter’s evening, but I was fortunate enough to watch films programmed for the two other tributes, including Fontaine's dangerous period dame in Ivy (1947), a film so rarely screened that I assumed I never would see it.

 

Still stunned over seeing Ivy in LA, you'd imagine my surprise when I had the chance to watch the film a second time on the big screen at Noir City this year. The theme for this year’s festival was Unholy Matrimony, which suits film noir to a ‘T’. After racing through the schedule for the first time (of many), I was in absolute awe – I wanted to attend the entire 10 days! Sadly though, since I live a few hundred miles away, I only allowed myself to choose one weekend (the first one, which was a holiday weekend). This mere fact eliminated several selections I would have loved to watch on the big screen with an audience, including a Robert Ryan double feature, a Barbara Stanwyck trio (including 1957's Crime of Passion), and an excellent evening highlighting American exiles in England with two fantastic movies, The Hidden Room (1949, which I recently discovered and wrote about here) and 1954’s The Sleeping Tiger

Eddie Mueller presenting a film at the Castro Theater. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

After a long, early morning haul from LA on Saturday, January 17, I arrived in San Francisco in time for the afternoon matinee. I was extremely impressed with how packed the theater was; I overheard later that there were over 800 people in attendance, which blows my mind. I work and attend several film festivals in LA, and none of them, save for AFI Fest (which is free) and TCM Classic Film Festival, see as many packed houses as this. Plus, the enthusiasm for the speakers and the films was through the roof, which made every screening a pure delight (even if the movie didn't stack up).

 

Now, onto the films! 

Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Suspicion.

Saturday, January 17

 

Suspicion (1941) 

This is one of the first classic movies I remember seeing, and it was also the first time I watched Joan Fontaine, one of my favorites, perform. Fontaine stars as rich wallflower Lina, who is whisked into a whirlwind romance and marriage by dashing playboy Johnny (Cary Grant). Slowly, Lina uncovers increasingly unsettling news on the state of Johnny's financial affairs. Between that fact, the mysterious death of Johnny's friend, Beaky (Nigel Bruce), and Johnny's brain picking sessions with murder mystery writer Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), Lina begins to suspect that Johnny is plotting to murder her.

 

Famously, the ending on the screen was not the original intended finale. Though Eddie Mueller said in his introduction that many audiences have come to accept the conclusion, two other endings were also proposed. The first of these, in which Johnny makes good of himself and joins the RAF, was actually shot but later scrapped. Good call on that. The second one falls squarely into Hitchcock's wheelhouse: Lina drinks the milk Johnny gives her, knowing its poisonous content, and asks her husband to mail a letter for her...which outs him as her murderer!  Though RKO felt that audiences would not have accepted Grant in such a dark role (one employee even cut all the instances in which Grant was uncomplimentary, reducing the run time to under an hour), to me, Johnny unknowingly sealing his fate stands as the most appropriate way to end the picture. (Clearly, I am not one of those people who accepts the current ending).  

 

Though Fontaine turns in a solid performance and stands as the only actor to win an Oscar in a Hitchcock film for her role in Suspicion, I definitely don't rate this among her best; in my opinion, she excelled in more melodramatic roles such as The Constant Nymph (1943) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). To me, Cary Grant supplies the stronger performance as Fontaine's devilishly charming husband who may or may not have an evil streak lurking inside him. 

Screenwriter Collier Young should have been in the middle here...

The Bigamist (1953) 

This title could have held a particularly ironic significance to this film if screenwriter Collier Young hadn't divorced wife Ida Lupino, director and star of The Bigamist, to marry co-star Joan Fontaine. But...the real life situation didn't unfold that way and everything was legal, so it's all good. 

 

The Bigamist centers around Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien), a traveling salesman who runs his own company. Harry and his wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine), who works alongside her husband from their home in San Francisco, are trying to adopt a baby. However, their plans are soon unraveled by Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), the head of an adoption agency who uncovers Harry's secret life in LA, which includes 2nd wife Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino) and their baby.

 

The movie was produced by The Filmmakers, the production company founded by Lupino and then-husband Young, and was made for a measly $175,000. I'm guessing that everyone must have gotten along, or at least really wanted to be there (or wanted to make their husband happy. Looking at you, Fontaine), because Mueller claimed that this picture holds the distinction of being the least expensive film to involve three Oscar winners (Fontaine, Gwenn, and Jane Darwell). In fact, all the actors deferred their salaries and hoped instead to take a slice of the profits, but unfortunately, the film was neither a critical nor a financial success, and it quickly disappeared.

 

Lupino was known for her socially conscious films, and The Bigamist is one of her most underrated gems. I was particularly struck with the roles Harry and Eve play in their marriage, which are decidedly opposite of regular, accepted 1950s gender roles. For instance, Harry is the one who feverishly proclaims that their marriage is the most important thing to him, and while he's desperately trying to forget about Phyllis and commit himself to Eve, he informs Eve that he wants to hire someone to do the traveling so he stay closer to home - and her. While most wives would be happy to hear this, Eve's actually surprised because she thought he liked traveling (and she seems to enjoy her freedom). After that last ditch effort to secure his future with Eve failed, it seemed that Harry also lost interest in the business, and who was there to swoop in and manage everything for him? Eve, of course. She rules a dinner party with prospective clients by easily explaining the attributes of one of their machines, and her charm seals the deal. When she invites the gentlemen and her husband to partake in a poker game, Harry simply sits there in a daze. You can tell his mind is hundreds of miles away.  

SO UTTERLY EVIL!

Ivy (1947) 

A skull entangled in ivy and a shady looking black cat grace the screen within the first minute or two of Ivy, and a fortune teller confirms Ivy (Joan Fontaine)'s fate: she needs to end her relationship - with her husband, she asks? - no, the other man. Oh boy. The woman then informs Ivy that another gentleman will enter her life - one with money too (this turns out to be Miles Rushworth, played by Herbert Marshall). The fortune teller sees tragedy as well, but she keeps that from Ivy. Well, the predictions turn out to be true, and Ivy's future is filled with more evil, though in the form of Ivy herself. She steals poison from her lover, Roger (Patric Knowles), to kill her husband, Jervis (Richard Ney), and when Roger faces execution for a crime that Ivy committed, she refuses to admit her guilt. Instead, Ivy finds herself hunted by the authorities in a race to uncover the true guilty party in time.

 

The sole movie of its kind in director Sam Wood's portfolio (he's most well-known for Marx Brothers programmers like 1935's A Night at the Opera), Mueller attributed the picture's success as a film noir to two people: producer William Cameron Menzies, a well-known art director and production designer who must have had a heavy hand in the film's deliberate, eerie sets and staging, and cinematographer Russell Metty, who captured the picture's tension through sharp camera angles and beautifully crafted medium shots that serve to keep the audience in a perpetual state of darkness.  

 

Last year at Noir City in LA, this film screened as a companion piece to 1950's Born to be Bad. Despite that title, I'd have to say Fontaine is definitely deadlier in this role - like, legit deadly as opposed to deadly in a devilishly sexy way. Beneath Ivy's Victorian layers hides one devious, ballsy lady. Case in point: Early on, Ivy attends a dance accompanied by both her husband and her lover. How audacious, Miss Ivy! As for her husband, well, she evilly fakes a teensy bit of concern for him when he's sick. Ironically, he's in that state because she's been poisoning him, and her first two attempts didn't quite work. Luckily for Ivy, it seems like the third time's a charm: she so desperately wants her husband's pain to subside quickly, and clearly the only way she can do that is to make sure he gets enough venom in his blood to really do him in.

 

It's particularly fun to see Fontaine revel in a rare femme fatale character, but aside from her performance and the beautiful cinematography, the rest of the movie was nothing to write home about. Ney and Knowles felt like they put minimal effort into their roles, and I expected Herbert Marshall's character to play a bigger part in the story (and I was sad when this was not the case). Despite my grievances, it was still an enjoyable picture, if not for Ivy's outrageous actions and the incredibly random and spectacular way she meets her fate, which got a huge reaction from the crowd!

Ella Raines, Charles Laughton, and director Robert Siodmak filming The Suspect

The Suspect (1944) 

The Suspect was directed by noir master Robert Siodmak, who Mueller called the best director of film noir in Hollywood. In turn, Siodmak regarded The Suspect as the best movie he made in Hollywood. With these two accolades, it was safe to say that I was incredibly excited to watch this movie, especially since it was one of only two that I hadn't seen before.

 

The plot is similar to Ivy, but the resemblance really goes as far as the main character's actions. Tobacconist Philip (Charles Laughton), stuck in a loveless marriage with the perennially annoying and truly nasty Cora (Rosalind Ivan, who played Ivy's maid in the night's first film) meets young, innocent Mary (Ella Raines), who he soon hires as a secretary. Philip hides his marriage from Mary, but when Cora finds out and threatens to expose the whole innocent affair, Philip takes matters into his own hands and kills her. Though Philip isn't originally tied to his wife's death, his neighbor, drunk and abusive Mr. Simmons (Henry Daniell), discovers the truth and blackmails him, prompting Philip to commit his second - and final - murder of the film. When an innocent man is charged with the second killing, Philip must decide his fate.

 

In strict contrast to Ivy, Laughton's character here is not inherently evil; he's a good, simple man pushed to the brink, which sadly results in tragic consequences. This trait is quite clear in the fact that he gives himself up at the end so an innocent man won't take the blame for his actions. As usual, Laughton turns in an excellent performance (Mueller called it his most understated), expertly balancing the love and joy he experiences with Mary with the humiliation, defeat, and desperation of his life with Cora. Incredibly, though Philip is very clearly a murderer (twice in fact!), he remains completely sympathetic, which is a huge nod to Laughton's incredibly touching and human turn in the role. For me, his performance was so strong that it blew everyone else out of the water, including the gorgeous Ella Raines as his young lover. Raines, a personal favorite of Mueller's, had a strong contemporary look that was impossible to hide under Edwardian clothing. That factor alone made her stick out immensely, though she did a fine job with the role. 

 

Even though the screening was prefaced by glowing accolades, and I've read some fantastic reviews of the movie since the screening, I wasn't the biggest fan of The Suspect as a whole. I enjoyed Laughton's performance, but near the end I found myself wondering when the film would reach its conclusion; the run time wasn't too long, but the story started to lag. However, this was the last movie I watched in a long day of screenings AND a day that began very early with a six hour drive, so I think I owe it to the film to give it another viewing. 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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