Noir City Hollywood 20 Review: The Bizarre
November 7, 2018
Welcome to part 2 of my Noir City Hollywood 20 recap! Two weeks ago I covered the movies I thought were fine and dandy. Now comes the ultra-fun part: This week I’m re-visiting the inexplicable/weird/wacky selections. And they didn’t disappoint.
I Love Trouble (1948)
I Love Trouble was a little rough after a glass of wine at Noir City 20’s opening night cocktail party, and I certainly don’t think the plot helped—a man engages a detective to probe his wife’s past… and a lot comes tumbling out. First of all, I got incredibly confused by all the ladies in this picture, and if you look at the credits on IMDb, you’ll see why—Imposters! Look-alikes! I guess I should have known when the film started by dropping us into the middle of a scene that it would not be an easy go of it. For a moment or two, I actually questioned whether the projectionist accidentally skipped the first reel!
B-pictures like I Love Trouble usually clock in at 65-75 minutes, but this one broke the 90-minute mark, which only provided more space to jam pack the crazy. Despite my grievances, there were a lot of great zippy lines and unique shots that popped up, including a kaleidoscope coming-to moment featuring star Franchot Tone, whose no-nonsense role would probably have been played by Dick Powell in an A-production. I was also glad to see Glenda Farrell in typical snark mode as one of the women I definitely recognized. She wasn’t given much to do in the beginning, but to my delight, she came through at the end.
In his introduction, Alan K. Rode shared a fun connection between The Blue Dahlia (1946), which opened the fest, and this picture. In 1943, screenwriter Roy Huggins wrote a novel called The Double Take, upon which he based this screenplay. When Huggins’ book was published to great acclaim, a number of authors accused him of copying Raymond Chandler’s style. To Huggins’ nervous surprise, Chandler reached out—to tell Huggins he was flattered. Chandler felt that aspiring writers should find someone whose work they admire and emulate it, which is just what Huggins did.
City of Fear (1959)
City of Fear was more like A Few People Are Terrified. With a title like the former, I was expecting at least one epic freak out, but we weren’t treated to any; in fact, the reveal to the public was just about as ineffective as the film itself.
That reveal, by the way, which happens early on, is that murderer Vince (Vince Edwards) broke out of prison not with heroin but rather deadly radioactive material that can spread like wildfire if opened… and even contaminate those around it, even if it’s shut tight. So, as the privileged folks who know about this try to track him down, Vince spends the whole movie trying in vain to open the canister while slowly dying. Yes, that is the plot.
City of Fear was one of the more outrageous, anticlimactic offerings at Noir City Hollywood 20. Once Vince got sick, you knew it was just a matter of time, but it was a slow burn and a tiny fizzle at the end—the dude curls up and dies, right after a radio announcement ironically warns how big of a threat he is. In fact, the situation seems so diffused by the finale that when the authorities reach the hazardous material, police use detectors without hazmat suits, which is odd considering this stuff can prove lethal just by being near it. The one moment that really killed the audience was one of the final shots in which police place a blanket over Vince’s body and slap down a sign that warns “Caution high radiation area.” Um, that might be futile at this point.
Just in case you didn't believe me, re: "Caution high radiation area" signage.
Director Irving Lerner’s documentary beginnings are very visceral in the low budget City of Fear. Alan K. Rode mentioned that only a few takes were filmed for each scene, and in the end, they had to pad the movie to 81 minutes for distribution. (It could have been a smooth 70, in my opinion.) Rode also pointed out that City of Fear fit perfectly with this year’s theme: Vine Street, Sunset Blvd., Santa Monica Blvd.—this film has Hollywood all over it. The one thing I got excited about was a building I recognized during the finale when Vince runs through an alley: He was zipping south down Gardner towards Sunset, a sidewalk I’ve strolled down dozens of times, next to a building that looks exactly the same today!
The Scarlet Hour (1956)
Two words: Elaine Stritch. Stritch’s Eve Arden-esque character, the snappy, sardonic Phyllis, was the best thing about The Scarlet Hour, hands down. (Astonishingly, this picture was her film debut!)
The Scarlet Hour gave me Wicked Woman (1953) vibes, which I fully embraced. Like this title, I also discovered the sordid Wicked Woman at Noir City Hollywood. Unlike Wicked Woman, I found The Scarlet Hour just a tad convoluted. Star Carol Ohmart, who resembled a young Meryl Streep, confused me; her character, Pauline, uses her wiles to seduce Marsh (Tom Tyron) into robbing a set of robbers… and of course that doesn’t go so well. Was she good, bad, or a little bit of both? I’m leaning towards bad, but the official judgement is still out. Aside from confusing character impulses and a major logistical fallacy or two (how did Pauline remember the robbery plan without writing anything down?), I found The Scarlet Hour entertaining in a sleazy B-movie way, mostly due to its high level of duplicity and deceit, especially involving a twist at the end…
Alan K. Rode, who helped marshal this film out of the Paramount vault, quipped that he didn’t think The Scarlet Hour had been screened since “I Like Ike!” was a slogan. The studio and 70-year-old director Michael Curtiz tried to leverage Curtiz’s legendary status as a star maker by giving him three unknowns to turn into household names: Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon and Jody Lawrance. Well, you can tell he wasn’t exactly successful in that quest. The supporting cast, on the other hand, including E.G. Marshall and Stritch, went on to legendary careers.
Nice try, tagline.
Prior to the movie starting, Rode shared a humorous tale involving Stritch. While researching for his book on Curtiz, he called the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, where Stritch was staying while performing, and asked the operator to put him through to her suite. To his astonishment, they did! Stritch answered, and when Rode questioned her about The Scarlet Hour, she retorted: “Do you know how long ago that was? I wore a bathing suit in that movie!” Can’t you just hear her delivering that line?!
Due to a sound issue with the evening’s first film, Pitfall (1948), Jealousy’s intro turned particularly gripping, as Eddie Muller explained that the projectionist didn’t know if it was a print or projector problem. “What would Noir City be without some suspense, right?” he joked. In his opinion, Jealousy was one “exceptionally weird” movie; that descriptor and the evening’s built-in anticipation had me psyched to appreciate this “B film beyond B”—if it worked, of course.
Spoiler alert: It did. And what a film. Jealousy kicked off with an askew shot of a store and double exposed shots while Janet (Jane Randolph) drives people around the city to support her and her alcoholic husband Peter (Nils Asther) as voiceover memories flood her head. Right off the bat, I knew this trippy, avant-garde fare would be different than anything I’ve seen at Noir City—we’re talking stop signs operating on multiple levels and random meetings with people, including one man, David (John Loder), who befriends Janet and is then accused of helping her murder Peter. Jealousy also contained some pretty disorienting scenes, one of which included what appeared to be a handheld camera that cuts between a murder and a calm tea gathering, taking us right along with the action; you know the perpetrator was one of the two ladies enjoying tea, but who?
Muller detailed the eclectic band of talents assembled for Jealousy, from future blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to progressive activist Karen Morley. However, the element that truly stands out is Czech director Gustav Machatý, who worked as an apprentice for D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim in the 1910s before returning to Europe and making a name for himself with Erotikon (1929) and Ecstasy (1933). Muller warned that “this guy can’t direct a dialogue scene to save his life”; rather, it was obvious that Machatý was a master at using the camera as a tool to deliberately disorient and emotionally manipulate how the audience perceives the action, a method not often used at this time. Muller termed the quiet passages where Machatý worked magic with the camera, especially montages, “David Lynch circa 1948,” and guaranteed that nothing else like this was produced at Republic. Even with my limited experience with Republic's pictures, I’d agree with that proclamation. (And as works perfectly for this movie, Jealousy is missing the title and credits and it ends, as we were warned, very abruptly. How fitting.)
The Prowler (1951)
The Prowler was the first movie the Film Noir Foundation restored, a decision Eddie Muller called a “no-brainer,” as there was only one print in existence, and he was the one wearing it out because he screened it so much. Muller asserted that it’s impossible to talk about film noir without mentioning the Blacklist, which had a huge impact on the paranoia, deceit, and betrayal that fills noir pictures. That said, he contended that the festival’s closing night triple Joseph Losey bill could basically be a tribute to the Blacklist, since Losey made all three films between 1950-1951 as he was facing the possibility of testifying before HUAC and leaving the country, which he eventually did.
As for The Prowler, well, I’m slightly terrified of Van Helfin (Webb) now, who is aggressive and downright chilling in this movie, which Evelyn Keyes (Susan) slowly starts to understand when it’s too late to bolt. I mean, this relationship was star-crossed from the moment Webb was called to the married Susan’s home to investigate a prowler… and then the illicit romance, murder, and pregnancy spiraled from there.
In an interview later in her life, Keyes stated that she was very proud of The Prowler, and it's evident that she gave it her all; in fact, she appeared makeup-less, dreary and exhausted for part of the picture, very much like she did as the sickly Sheila in The Killer That Stalked New York (1950). Between that and Heflin’s unnerving turn, I’d say the level of commitment from both main players was A+. Story wise, the pregnancy plotline (Susan states she was 4 months pregnant on her wedding night to Webb—how did that slide, Production Code peeps?!) is one of the most explosive I’ve witnessed, and like Webb, I didn't fully grasp the fiery implications that unborn child throws in the mix. For those who haven’t seen it, basically the baby couldn't be Susan's dead husband’s because he couldn’t have kids, and they couldn't admit it was Webb’s because Susan swore she didn't know him at that time on the witness stand, and obviously she got pregnant before her husband died, so... Mind: blown. Seriously, what a perfectly plotted hole to tumble down. Once that realization is made, you know there’s absolutely no way this could end remotely well and, spoiler alert, it sure as hell doesn’t.
Thank you for reading my coverage of Noir City Hollywood 20. Fest #21 will be here in less than 5 months, which means my preview will be live in about 4 months. Perhaps next year it won’t take me 6 months to share my thoughts… we’ll see!