Noir City Hollywood 19 Shakes Things Up
September 14, 2017
Well, more accurately shook things up, because the noir-tastic fest wrapped its 19th year at the Egyptian Theater in LA over five months ago, at the beginning of April. (What can I say? I've been busy!) This article's tardiness aside, the slate for #19 indeed appeared different, even at first glance, as A-B titles from the same year were scheduled every evening for 10 consecutive nights, starting with 1942 and running through 1953 with a few years absent in between. This method of programming, which co-hosts Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode had wanted to test drive for a while, was a hit, not only providing insight into industry trends but also glimpses into US and world culture during each year. For instance, since the program started with 1942 titles, the first few pictures that screened were inevitably preoccupied with WWII.
This image also adorned cookies sold at the fest. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy biting off Alan Ladd's head.
After 18 go-arounds, the Noir City team admitted they were really digging deep into the vaults for some of these double bills. And of course, fans ate that up. While I call myself a noir enthusiast, I'll readily divulge that a few of the A-titles were new to me; in fact, one or two I hadn't even heard of! In the end, though, the B-sides proved the larger pull for me, and during his intro for the opening night's second programmer, Quiet Please, Murder (1942), Rode remarked that it was these types of rarities that make Noir City so special. Where Muller and Rode used to easily boast that the majority of Noir City's offerings were not available on DVD, Rode confessed that's been getting harder and harder to claim, which, of course, is not exactly a negative for noir fans. That being said, 5 of the 20 titles playing at Noir City Hollywood 19 indeed carried this label.
Despite diving into studio vaults, after 18 years some repeats inevitably sneak into the schedule. But in many cases, when Rode or Muller inquired, a considerable part of the audience hadn't seen the pictures playing that particular evening - even the most well-known titles, like fest opener This Gun for Hire (1942) - which supremely pleased Rode and Muller: this is why it's important to keep cycling through these movies. People who weren't around for Noir City Hollywood #1 (like me, because I was 11) can now appreciate these titles, and both hosts truly get a thrill out of sharing these films with new audiences.
Starting off with an...intriguing photo of Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire to set the overall mood of Noir City 19: outlandish and campy at points, but badass and captivating nonetheless. I won't be covering this movie, but if you haven't seen it, definitely make it a point to do so; it's a ferocious early noir and great noir starter.
So, below are brief rundowns of the new-to-me titles from Noir City 19...resulting in an extended piece covering 12 of the 20 screenings (sorry, but not really). Some of these pictures are rarely screened and rather unknown, but if you've seen any and would like to share your thoughts, feel free to do so in the comments!
Quiet Please, Murder (1942)
First off, this title card may be the #1 greatest title card of all time - at least the wannabe librarian in me claims it as such.
I mean...this is now my favorite.
Second, I really wish this was on DVD, because after a glass or two of wine during cocktail hour and a post-10pm start due to cocktail hour, my dozing eyes missed a scene or two. Rode remarked that they were reaching extremely far down in the Fox vaults to dust off this picture, but from what I saw, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film that elicited a positive reception. George Sanders is suavely vicious, as per usual, referring to himself and others as "walking horror stories" at one point - very on brand for Sanders, who titled his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad. It was also nice seeing Gail Patrick as the female lead, as I'm only familiar with her as the supporting girl you love to hate in the likes of My Man Godfrey (1936) and My Favorite Wife (1940). Her phony book shop operator boasts a decent dark streak, and she stands up well against Sanders.
Fun fact: Patrick was the acting Dean of Women at Howard College upon her graduation, almost obtained her law degree, and later became a producer on The Perry Mason Show.
This tagline now makes (delicious) sense to me...
Address Unknown (1944)
So, double features aren't the easiest for me. Especially 10 straight nights of them after a full day of work. I was actually going to leave after the evening's first selection, Ministry of Fear (1944), but I'm glad I didn't. In his intro, Rode mentioned how "unusual" this William Cameron Menzies-produced and directed picture was, which shared similarities with None Shall Escape, released the same year. In fact, I'd argue that content-wise this picture and None Shall Escape would make a perfect double feature...if one wanted to feel absolutely enraged at the world and emotionally torn to bits, yet oddly satisfied at the end. Address Unknown deals with the story of two families - one Jewish, one not - and what happens to people when they "lose their moral compass," aka become blinded by Nazism, in this case. Despite the visual talents of production designer-turned director Menzies, who created 800 continuity sketches for this picture; Rudolph Maté's atmospheric cinematography; and critical raves, the movie did not fare well at the box office, probably because the bleak war theme was becoming too much of a downer for audiences. Indeed, I found Address Unknown alternatively stirring, maddening, and hugely resonant, but it's a hard film to enjoy. However, there's a twist at the end, and even though I saw it coming, the reveal played out differently than I expected; in fact, it is enormously satisfying, gratifying and appropriately darker.
Film noir, you say? This photo of Deanna Durbin on the set of noir-tinged Lady on a Train surrounded by a bunch of kitties is the antonym: light, cute and cuddly. Watch out kitties, danger ahead!
Lady on a Train (1945)
Actually, maybe Lady on a Train would make a better double bill with Address Unknown...because as 100% complete opposites, Lady on a Train would certainly provide a palate cleanser - and a raucous one at that. I wasn't super eager for this picture (though noir favorite Dan Duryea lurking around is always a selling point), I'm not too keen on musicals, nor had I ever seen a Deanna Durbin picture, but WOW, Lady on a Train turned out to be the most pleasant revelation of Noir City Hollywood for me. Brisk and fun but firmly rooted in noir, Lady on a Train skillfully juggles comedy, noir and music in an incredibly seamless manner. Jack Benny radio show scribes Edmund Beloin and Robert O'Brien supplied snappy lines; Leslie Charteris, who penned the original story, undoubtedly helped with the noir angle, as he created "The Saint"; and Durbin, who just transitioned from teen roles, commands with her extraordinarily strong voice - and also tackles her comedic lines like a pro. I was also genuinely pleased to see two usually typecast actors - not saying who, but it wouldn't be hard to guess - cheekily add to the movie's big twist.
Fun fact: Durbin married Lady on a Train producer Felix Jackson following filming, divorced him a few years later, and then got hitched to the film's director, Charles David.
There's a lot going on here.
Any picture labeled "long lost" = automatic excitement. Despite a solid cast (Alan Ladd, William Bendix and Gail Russell), the "Paramount sheen," and a box office gross of over $2.8 million, Calcutta - shot in 1945 but released in 1947 - was relatively unknown and hard to see until recently. Boasting shades of another foreign set ensemble piece, Casablanca (1942), Calcutta thrills with its exotic location, (mostly) understandable plot twists and turns, and top-notch performances. Ladd, Bendix and Russell satisfy, but I found myself drawn in by two unfamiliar faces: June Duprez, a singer in love with Ladd's character, and the hilarious Edith King, a shady monkey-toting cigar-puffing Calcutta shop owner. Oh, and some of the dialogue just killed me. An example:
Virginia (Russell): You said you were crazy about me.
Neale (Ladd): (Pause)...Not that much.
Fun fact: Ladd and Bendix were best friends in real life - curiously, they bonded after one of Bendix's punches in The Glass Key (1942) accidentally connected with Ladd. However, the friendship was on hold while making this picture, as the duo had a falling out while Ladd was in the service during WWII. They didn't patch things up until Ladd extended an olive branch following 1953's Shane - almost a full decade later.
More like Whiplash. This is a solid B...or maybe even C, if that's a thing. The Fox B-unit was built to keep budgets low and schedules maintained, which resulted in fast-paced pictures with twists-a-plenty to keep the audience engaged. Yup, sounds like Backlash. There's a lot of talking on the phone, tons of characters (I couldn't keep them all straight), quite a few betrayals (cheating upon cheating upon cheating), and barely any decent explanation to make sense of it all. For example, one lady ardently attempts to poison her husband, who appears pretty cool with that (???), and then the whole ordeal is explained away in 5 seconds at the end. Yeah, cause plotting a murder is usually super easy to justify. Totally B-C level noir here.
I'd be slightly spooked by Wendell Corey too, Loretta Young. (From The Accused).
The Accused (1948)
This Loretta Young-Robert Cummings title plants one solid foot in melodrama, with Young killing an amorous/creepy student in self-defense and covering it up. (Naturally, the police unravel the crime and figure out she's guilty, that's a no-brainer.) Recently restored by the Library of Congress, The Accused is a moderately entertaining title, but the melodramatics started to wear on me by the third act. I did have to chuckle at the pairing of Young and Cummings, especially since Cummings is introduced as the guardian of the boy Young kills. By the end, when lawyer Cummings defends his now-lover Young, I totally forgot that he was defending the murderer of his guardian! A bit odd, no? I mean, the film makes it clear a few times that Cummings did not know the boy well, but still...awkward.
The Hunted (1948)
This 88-minute B-picture (yes, you read that right) features one of the "curios of film noir," Belita, a British import who journeyed to Hollywood as a "skater in waiting" to star Sonja Henie. I didn't know "skater in waiting" was a thing, but this was the late 1940s, so I guess that explains it. Following The Accused, which ran 100 minutes, I wasn't sure I'd stay for a 90 minute noir, but upon reading pal Laura's enthusiasm for this movie, I changed my mind. (Plus, just by titles alone, you have to admit that The Accused and The Hunted work well as a double feature.) Belita's acting ability actually impressed me, and co-star Preston Foster's turn is first-rate, too. The story stretches a little long for my liking, but as Rode promised, it is gripping, especially Foster's dilemma: "Does she love me, or is she going to kill me?" I mean, that's noir in a nutshell.
Spoiler alert: These two stars never appear on screen together, so this publicized romanticism - not a thing.
Chicago Deadline (1949)
Apologies to anyone who may have attended this screening due to my prediction/affirmation that Chicago Deadline contains a rare Donna Reed bad-girl role. (Maybe there's one person out there who bought a ticket for that reason. Maybe.) The American Cinematheque summary reads: the "sad history of a good girl (Donna Reed) gone wrong," but in reality it was more like "got in bad." And with that, I'll admit I have many mixed feelings and issues with this picture. Though the story is a bit bloated, I happily accompanied Alan Ladd's journalist on his bumpy ride as he pieces together the puzzle of Reed's death. In the end, however, I was underwhelmed, or perhaps my hopes were too high, as I am a Reed fan. As described by acquaintances, Reed's character comes across as too much of a chameleon for one woman: she is described alternatively as a dame, a saint, a sister who never forgets birthdays and a gangster's girl. No one in her little black book claims to know her at first...so what hideous secret was she hiding? Why do at least three men die as a result of her death? Her story should be explosive, right? Yeah...no. Though Reed handled the slight shades in her character well, the script doesn't allow her to stretch those bad-girl muscles. In the end, she is just a sweet girl who gets mixed up with bad men, and the over-the-top reaction to her death is mainly a reflection of others associated with her and their actions. At one point, someone asks Ladd why he cares about this woman's story so much - and that's exactly the question the studio should have posed regarding the character whose murder is responsible for the whole thing. Some semi-realistic backbone to her demise would have been appreciated, at the very least. Doesn't it suck when highly anticipated films let you down?
I Was a Shoplifter (1950)
Obvious censorship alert! This picture was actually banned in Atlanta because the censors argued the tale taught a clear-cut course in shoplifting, and let's be serious, the title is basically begging for controversy. I was totally down with the performances of Scott Brady as the undercover cop and especially Andrea King as the icy cool shoplifting queen, but I kept waiting for a twist at the end that never came. For some reason I began to think that Brady was the bad guy...or maybe that was my noir sense in overdrive making up for what I thought the film is missing.
That's a tough headline to hide from, Evelyn Keyes. (In The Killer That Stalked New York).
The Killer That Stalked New York (1950)
Now I get it - spoiler alert - the killer is smallpox! The police are looking for a woman who smuggled in stones from Cuba and the person who is spreading smallpox all over New York...and of course they are one and the same: Evelyn Keyes. The story, the acting, the finished product - everything is borderline outrageous, yet still entertaining enough to follow - even more so when you learn that the picture was partly based on a true smallpox outbreak that occurred in NYC around 1945-46. Apparently, Columbia head honcho Harry Cohn was incredibly perturbed by the fact that Keyes looks so horrible in the picture (cause, you know, she's playing a pretty sick woman), but Keyes simply relished the opportunity; in fact, no one seemed to recognize her on location in NYC because she looked so unwell.
Fun fact: Muller shared a humorous anecdote from the inaugural Noir City Hollywood festival, which brought dark city dames Keyes, Ann Savage, Audrey Totter, Jane Greer, and Coleen Gray together for a discussion. Keyes was a "total bitch," he recollected, attesting that the first words out of her mouth ran along the lines of: "I just want everyone in the audience to know, I never made a B-movie." To that end, Detour (1945) star Savage confessed she would have punched Keyes in the mouth if she had been sitting next to her! One can only describe this kind of behavior from 70-80 year old women as noir-appropriate, right? So in honor of Keyes, Muller celebrated the fact that Noir City 19 was screening not one but two Keyes-starring B-features. (Devilish laugh.)
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
This picture is your run-of-the mill corrupt cop noir with Lee J. Cobb covering up for murderous Jane Wyatt (yes, you read that right). The near climax filmed at Fort Point right next to the Golden Gate Bridge is striking; in particular, there are some superb shots of John Dall walking down a long corridor of empty rooms, and the sound design - so devoid of noise save for his shoes - is hair-raising. As usual, I found Dall rather vanilla and Cobb impressive, but the highlight for me was observing Wyatt try to savor a rare femme fatale role. For what it's worth, the future Father Knows Best star did a satisfactory job.
Beverly Michaels' legs are no lie. A French poster for Wicked Woman.
Wicked Woman (1953)
It's a tough call, but behind Lady on a Train, I'd declare Wicked Woman my 2nd favorite discovery of the festival - and boy, how different those two pictures are! This pulpy B-flick radiates steamy shade, perfectly embodied by the haggard good looks of star Beverly Michaels. On a simply visual level, Michaels' platinum blonde hair hints at a Marilyn Monroe-type figure, but we're on a much, much lower level here. The main cast is compact, and between Michaels, married lover Richard Egan, his wife Evelyn Scott and nosy/aggressive neighbor Percy Helton, the lowlife deviousness runs quite strong throughout. Wicked Woman was my first encounter with Michaels, but her blasé detachment, understated devilish resolve, and pent-up lust absolutely transfixed me. She plays the game well, but in the end the game always seems to play her, as she ends up right where she began - the bus station - and by the looks of it she's been down this road before and will be again. In addition to her character, Michaels' relationships with both Egan and Helton add a racy angle to the proceedings that elevates - or demotes, depending on your opinion - Wicked Woman to "camp noir" territory. What an appropriately saucy way to close out the festival, if you ask me.
I'm already looking forward to Noir City 20 next year! For those of you who attended this year's celebration, what were some of your favorite films?