A Killer Festival: Noir City 13 in San Francisco, Weekend 1
January 25, 2015
What a tagline!
Sunday, January 18
Sunday's Douglas Sirk double feature kicked off with Shockproof. The film was originally called the The Lovers, which is a much more suitable title and one that actually pops up visually a few times during the movie. Parolee Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) is released from prison after serving five years for murder. Her sentence was the result of her defending shady boyfriend Harry (John Baragrey), who parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde) warns her to stay away from. Naturally, Jenny doesn't plan on following his orders, and while she and Harry plot a way for her to break free from Griff's grip, he falls for her...and she eventually returns the sentiment. The fact that Jenny is working in Griff's own home as a companion to his blind mother probably helped a bit. Soon, Griff and Jenny find themselves on the run after Jenny commits another murder, but just how long can they keep running before the cops and their conscience catch up with them?
Since Sirk was not known at the time as a noir director, Mueller attributes the noir flare in this film to screenwriter Samuel Fuller, one of the greatest writers, producers, and directors of American independent film, according to Mueller. Fuller's original script was apparently too provocative, so screenwriter Helen Deutsch was brought in to tone it down; with 1944's National Velvet under her belt, Deutsch's comfort zone was far enough away from Fuller's to sufficiently level out the story. If the Helen Deutsch who penned 1967's Valley of the Dolls had co-written the script, we might have been watching "something ultra special" that evening, according to Mueller!
What started as a rather unbelievable premise to me (the fact that Jenny was allowed to live and work in her boss' house, for starters) took a very unexpected turn, story and character wise. For instance, rule-abider Griff turns into ruler-breaker (ala Jenny) after they go on the run, and Jenny, so content in her devious ways in the beginning, actually tries to do the right thing in the end. Though I have issues with Griff and Jenny's relationship and chemistry (fun fact: Patricia Knight and Cornel Wilde were married in real life) and the sudden switch to the outlaw lifestyle, I definitely need to give this film another viewing, because I noticed that my opinion has shifted a bit from where it was at the start of this piece.
Hello, Hazel Brooks as Daphne in Sleep, My Love. Femme fatale, much?
Sleep, My Love (1948)
I'm not usually a fan of Claudette Colbert (I think sometimes her eyebrows annoy me to the point of distraction, particularly in her early 1930s films), but I enjoyed her performance in Sleep, My Love. Colbert plays wealthy Alison Courtland, who wakes up on a train heading to Boston with no recollection of how she got there. Her husband, Richard (Don Ameche), an extremely kind and caring man on the outside, secretly is carrying on an affair with bombshell Daphne (Hazel Brooks). Richard and Daphne have concocted an extremely elaborate set-up, complete with several characters and moving parts, to convince Alison that she's losing her mind with the hope that she'll be driven to suicide. Unfortunately, Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings) drops in to spoil all of Richard and Daphne's plans and starts snooping on his own, eventually revealing the couple's devious plot.
Sleep, My Love shares a story quite similar to Gaslight (1944), but I actually prefer this film, which is decidedly the less noir-y of the two, chiefly through the performance of one character. Though Mueller told the audience he never liked Robert Cummings, "he was great" in this picture, he admitted. Surely, it's Cummings' relatively laid back portrayal of Bruce that brings a significant lightness to the story and Colbert's character. Cummings and Colbert's rapport when they are together stands in stark contrast to Richard and Daphne's nefarious coupling, especially when you consider how the latter duo shadily manipulates the players they've acquired, all in an attempt to drive Alison out of her mind.
I found Colbert's performance to be solid enough, lending the right amount of uncertainly and distress to her portrayal of a woman who's purposely being driven to the edge. As her husband, Don Ameche exudes a quiet despicableness, but I don't believe he can really be capable of that much hatred. However, when I laid eyes on the dark, mysterious beauty that is Hazel Brooks, whose look simply screams femme fatale (is it the hair, or perhaps the outfit she first turns up in, above), I understood where Richard's hatred stemmed from. Operating from a pedestal, physically, Daphne's couldn't-give-a-f*ck attitude towards her minions deliciously transitions into hard ass ultimatums throatily delivered to lover Richard in the cheesiest way ever. Think Robert Ryan in Born to be Bad. Example: "We've got a lot, but we haven't everything. I want what she's got. I want all of it. I want her house, her name, her man, and I want them now. Tonight." Yeah, Richard hasn't a chance against that...
Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) in their natural state in The Thin Man.
Monday, January 19
The Thin Man (1934)
Kudos to the Film Noir Foundation for mixing it up and throwing in two films that represent perhaps the movie's most perfect marriage, The Thin Man and After the Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are visiting Nick's old stomping ground, New York City, during the holidays. Their vacation won't be a quiet one, though, as they quickly find themselves pulled in to an investigation as to the whereabouts of one of Nick's former detective clients, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). Well, technically, it's Nick who is dragged into the case, against his better judgment (after all, he quit the racket when he married Nora to become a gentlemen and oversee his wife's assets). But, alas, Nora wants to see him in action, and with the body count rising, it wouldn't be such a bad idea to get to the bottom of things. Nick's got his work cut out, though. Between Clyde's zany family members and his old ex-con friends, the field is ripe with potential suspects!
In one of the first of their 14 onscreen pairings, Powell and Loy sparkle as the witty, urbane, and borderline alcoholic Nick and Nora Charles. Powell and Loy's chemistry, W. S. Van Dyke's charming yet manic direction, and Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich's brilliant script steer the picture, but the supporting cast shines too, including Maureen O'Sullivan (as Clyde's daughter, Dorothy), Minna Gombell (as Clyde's money hungry ex, Mimi) and Nat Pendleton (as Lieutenant Guild). Between all these birds, it's guaranteed that the mystery, wisecracks and cocktails keep rolling the entire 90 minutes.
I've written about The Thin Man before, so I always feel like I'm repeating myself when I talk about it. Put simply, the film is always a joy to watch. I'd count The Thin Man as one of the movies I've seen the greatest number of times (well over 10), but even so, I discovered a bit of dialogue here and an action there that I had never noticed before. Oh, and watching it with an audience made it even more delightful, if that's even possible!
There was never a truer statement than the one at the top.
After the Thin Man (1936)
After the Thin Man picks up right where The Thin Man left off: on a San Francisco bound train. Nick and Nora arrive home on New Year's Eve, and all they want to do is sleep, but their friends - well, mostly strangers - have hosted a giant homecoming for them...in their own house. Any further hopes of slumber are dashed when Nora's Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) requests Nick and Nora's presence at dinner. There, they find out that Robert (Alan Marshall), the husband of Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi), has gone missing, and Nick's asked to investigate. Turns out Robert's holed up in a dance club and making plans with the club's prima donna Polly (Penny Singleton) to pressure David (James Stewart) into giving Robert money to leave Selma so David can marry her. Of course, a few murders are involved, and Nick must clear Nora's family's name before any more bodies stack up.
Mueller called After the Thin Man the best of the Thin Man movies...after The Thin Man, of course. I actually almost applauded his comment until I heard the pause. Personally, I place After the Thin Man on par with the original in terms of sheer delight. The first half of the film, particularly the Charles' San Francisco homecoming party, the New Year's Eve dinner at Aunt Katherine's, and the festivities at the Lychee Club, makes me laugh just as much - and at some points, more - than the original. And even Asta gets a funnier role in the sequel – he comes home to find Mrs. Asta has cheated on him with an adorable black terrier!
Part of the comedy in the Thin Man series comes from the fact that Nick and Nora hail from completely different worlds. While Nora got to giddily experience Nick's former life, complete with shady characters, in The Thin Man, the sequel throws Nick headfirst into the grasp of Nora's pretentious, old school family. His scenes with Aunt Katharine hilariously say it all - Nora's family has always rejected Nick as a suitable companion. Well, hopefully the fact that Nick cleared the family name will change their tune!
Love this marquee. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
What I missed (and was sad about missing):
Born to Be Bad (1950) - Own it and watched it on the big screen before, BUT when I saw it last spring at Noir City: Hollywood, it was such a great experience, for two reasons. 1: We got to see both endings on the big screen, the second of which I had never seen before. 2. Robert Ryan's insanely ridiculous one-liners ("I love you so much I wish I liked you") provided many laughs.
Caught (1949) - I've seen this on the big screen too, but Robert Ryan goes way way off the deep end here, and the more dangerous he plays, the better! Barbara Bel Geddes' performance is also spectacular. I've never seen her in a film noir (or much of anything, come to think of it), so it was fun to watch her take on this role.
Crime of Passion (1957) - Ambitious Barbara Stanwyck. Adorable Sterling Hayden. Murder. Check.
The Hidden Room (1949) - I wrote about this one a few months ago and would have loved to view it with an audience, because it's so devious and absurd - a husband kidnaps his wife's lover and holds him hostage as he concocts the perfect murder: an acid bath.
The Sleeping Tiger (1954) - The image they used for the Noir City program got me. Alexis Smith looked like a sleepy baby tiger ready to attack a delicious Dirk Bogarde. Rehabilitating a criminal youth never looked so sexy.
The Guilty (1947) - Bonita Granville in a dual role? Only three sets? It's a poverty row Monogram feature, and I'm always intrigued by how much they could get away with on such tiny budgets. Plus, this one doesn't seem to be available elsewhere.
Julie (1956) - Someone may want to kill Doris Day (and it's her husband, Louis Jordan?!) This sounds intriguing...
Les Diaboliques (1955) - I've read about this landmark French noir about two women who plot to kill the husband/lover, particularly how it greatly influenced William Castle's Macabre, but have yet to see it. I'm assuming/hoping it's more terrifying than Macabre - it already sounds like it is!
The Honeymoon Killers (1969) - The copy on the Noir City website boasted that this "might be the most shocking and mordantly funny crime movie ever made." Plus, Truffaut named it his "favorite American film." Hmmm, curiosity.
For my first San Francisco Noir City adventure, I'd say the trip was quite a success. I look forward to Noir City LA in a few months (assuming it will come back around the same time), and I'm already penciling in my return trip to Noir City 14 in 2016!