Noir City Hollywood 20 Review: The Good
October 26, 2018
For Noir City Hollywood’s 20th anniversary, the team—Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque's Gwen Deglise—thought it appropriate to program all LA-set films as a nod to where Noir City started… and because Muller said he knows audiences love seeing mid-century LA on screen. (He was right; I mean, where else would people applaud at the sight of City Hall? Yes, that happened on the first night.)
Muller mentioned that a big part of Noir City has been “excavating lost material,” and he acknowledged all the studios, archives, and everyone else involved in bringing so many of these titles back to life. The Czar of Noir joked that the studios probably found him to be a pain during the fest’s early years, wondering why he would want to show films buried deep in the vaults, but now sometimes they even strike new prints just for the festival!
Out of the 20 screenings this year, I was able to attend 11, which is a healthy 55%. As with festival #19, I’m splitting up my recap into the good and the bizarre. First up: the good—and only 6 months late!
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
I wasn’t sure I’d seen The Blue Dahlia before, but when Alan Ladd unexpectedly walks in on his wife’s party after returning from war service, I realized I had. My regular noir buddy was out of town for this screening, so I instead attended with two friends who had taken a film noir class in college and took an interest in it. As people who don’t watch classics nearly as regularly as I do, I was glad to hear how much they enjoyed the movie, especially the writing and acting. I too was surprised at how sharp the dialogue was, how unique the characters were painted, and how solid the performances were, especially William Bendix as an injured vet suffering from PTSD.
Fun fact: This was Raymond Chandler’s only original screenplay… and perhaps that was the case because his writing kept getting in the way of his drinking, which made it a little hard for him to finish the script; director George Marshall was “so adept” that he caught up to Chandler’s pages too quickly! (Chandler even requested that they send a limo to transport each page back to the Paramount lot as he completed the story.) Eddie Muller warned us not to blame the writer for the ending, as it was actually ordered by the US government. Since I hadn’t watched the film in a while, I actually forgot who the killer was. I assume Bendix’s character was the original intent, as the picture strongly builds towards that conclusion, but I can see why the government wouldn’t want a movie to portray a military vet—one injured during the war—as a murderer.
Dark City (1950)
Dark City’s plot is rather convoluted, but here’s the overall facts: Charlton Heston (Danny) gives Lizabeth Scott (Fran) the brush off THE ENTIRE TIME—and then they end up together. I mean, even though I didn’t care much for Fran in this picture, honestly, it’s still Lizabeth Scott!
A film that sits more comfortably in the mystery genre than noir, Dark City was actually Heston’s screen debut, and though I wasn’t on board with his character at first, as we get to know him, I began to feel for him. He’s coarse and impassive on the outside but vulnerable on the inside—not to mention he has the murder of his best friend hanging over him. Despite my lack of love for the two main characters, I enjoyed Dark City and found that it handled the changes in tone from apprehensive to lively quite well, especially the turn it took with Danny’s storyline once he meets the widow of a man whose death he had a hand in, which imbued him with a spark of humanity. The tension was also skillfully dealt with, and it was certainly fun watching the bad guys sweat a little. Plus, the mid-century views of Union Station, Griffith Park, North Hollywood, and the Valley Vista Motel made Dark City’s suburban deviousness all the more realistic.
I also love mysteries that give you a clue to look out for, and in this case it was a ring, the only identifying item on the murderer. From that moment on, I was eagle-eyed, searching the frame for that piece of jewelry on everyone who entered the picture. Yes, this was obviously a well thought out plot device, but I adore moves that keep you on your toes.
Down Three Dark Streets (1954)
Down Three Dark Streets, which centered around three FBI cases an agent, John (Broderick Crawford), takes on to uncover his partner’s murderer, absolutely impressed me. Two threads in particular stood out: 1. I found the blind woman, Julie (Marisa Pavan), who identifies an attacker and assists her terrified husband in breaking the case, very badass, and 2. As single mother Kate, who has a slew of creepy men in her life with varying degrees of suspicion (like the uncle who walks in her room when she’s in lingerie), Ruth Roman balanced her vulnerability, fortitude, and gusto expertly. While I’m piling on the platitudes, there’s also Crawford, who retained his stereotypical tough guy act but also displayed a very touching side in a strong role. Though I found the performances entertaining, I did have a substantial issue with the plot: Why did the murderer have to kill the first woman, the incident that kicked off this whole case, to begin with? That explanation was a little muddied, but once I suspended any disbelief I may have had for that springboard story, which didn’t play a big role in the picture, I was fine.
Director Arnold Laven capably kept the tension high across all three stories. The scene I found most distressing was Roman’s midnight stroll through a graveyard to meet a blackmailer, which had me on the edge of my seat, because it was shot to only show part of her in the frame. So much space! So many places for the bad guy to hide! And it’s midnight in a graveyard! That’s the epitome of freaky, to me. Interestingly, the script was written by former FBI agent Gordon Gordon and his wife Mildred, and it upset none other than J. Edgar Hoover, because he wasn’t granted script approval. Apparently, in featuring sequences that showed how the FBI tracked suspects, Hoover felt the movie “might be giving something away to the criminals.” OK…
As for Noir City’s LA theme, Alan K. Rode touted that Down Three Dark Streets contained shots of the Hollywood sign in ways we've never seen—and what views they were! Staging the finale atop that hill so close to what I now know as an off-limits area made the action all the more gripping.
Alan K. Rode affirmed that they couldn’t program an LA-themed film noir festival without including Dragnet. Despite the fact that the movie adaptation is more set-bound, the TV show is iconic LA, with an iconic LA story, to boot: By 1954, Dragnet creator and star Jack Webb had gone from bit actor status to the cover of Time. Given a budget of $800,000 for this adaptation, the very first film based on a TV program, Webb astonishingly made the picture for a total of $500,000... and delivered it three days early.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen the series, but knowing that the original inspired so many modern-day procedurals, I caught on rather quickly. Rode confirmed that the formula followed the show, presenting Webb and his partner working on a mystery that is solved and revealed at the end. Webb's aim was to highlight the daily inner workings of the police force and the effort that went into cases, which he took from LAPD intelligence files; as such, there’s less suspense in Dragnet. I also suspect the adaptation closely aligned with the show in other ways: deadpan reactions, tons of close-up shots, and fast-talking characters with some great one line digs. What I honestly wasn’t expecting: color—I always assume film noir will be black and white, even though this movie leans more towards crime—and a guy getting shot with a sawed-off rifle within the first minute.
I generally don’t watch police procedurals, but I truly enjoyed the focus on the minute details that go into catching the culprits. Dragnet also made me respect police work even more—boy, it seemed like they were working around the clock! What really intrigued me about this screening was not only the presence of Ann Robinson for a Q&A, but also her character: a policewoman. Though integral to the plot, I do wish she had been utilized more (and not just as a pretty undercover agent), because I was particularly interested in seeing a female in action in that kind of career in the 1950s.
Loophole was a title I never heard of, and thus, I was extremely intrigued by it. It’s a rather straightforward story: A bank clerk, Mike (Barry Sullivan), is wrongly accused of embezzling money from his job and tries to clear his name all while being fiercely pursued/basically stalked by aggressive insurance investigator Gus (Charles McGraw). The slandering of Mike’s name and how fiendishly Gus hunted him reminded me very much of our modern-day society and how today someone’s life can be publicly ruined by things said and posted online. Though the societal pressure was by no means as intense here, Mike’s punishment is still absolutely atrocious, and Gus’ actions are horrifically inexcusable—I mean, he gets Mike fired and lies to all his new employers to ensure he can’t hold down a job! (Fun fact: Loophole was released during the height of the McCarthy era, which made McGraw’s character and the atmospheric overtones all the more devastating.) All in all, I found the film compelling, and I enjoyed retracing the story and tracking down the perpetrators with the characters. My only grievances were that I felt the movie was a little drawn out—yes, even at 80 minutes—and I’m still not exactly sure how Mike proved himself innocent in the end…
Rode spoke to producer Lindsley Parsons Sr.’s son, Lindsley Jr., about Loophole when he was writing his book on Charles McGraw. Junior affirmed that his father was a master of producing on low budgets, generally relying upon actors on their way up or way down, and in the 1950s, there was a large pool to choose from, especially considering the introduction of television and the shuttering of the studio system. As for McGraw, who was close to retiring at this point, Rode shared that he was professional and pleasant, completely different than his tough guy persona. That comment really made me appreciate McGraw's talents even more, because he played an utterly horrendous human being in this picture—and boy, was he believable!
Spanish poster for The Turning Point.
The Turning Point (1952)
A film noir ripped from the headlines, The Turning Point dives headfirst into political corruption and crime syndicates. Indeed, it was based upon the infamous Kefauver Committee’s probe into organized crime, referred to by Rode as a “traveling road show” of Senate investigations, starring Edmond O’Brien as a prosecutor, Ed Begley as the crime boss, William Holden as an inquisitive journalist, and Alexis Smith as the woman caught in between it all on so many levels. The story’s root in reality, which must have been obvious to 1950s audiences, served the atmosphere well, bringing a distinctive harder edge to the proceedings and an air of higher stakes. In fact, Rode confirmed that Begley’s crime syndicate was patterned closely after Frank Costello, dubbed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” by the media; this was a man who got his lawyer to work it so that only his hands and raspy voice would be shown and heard during the hearings… and Begley certainly took a full page from that spectacle.
I was impressed at how distinctive the characters felt in The Turning Point, especially as they were oftentimes based on real people, and I thought all the performances were outstanding. For a movie from 1952, I admittedly found myself a tad astonished at the level of violence the criminals displayed—in one scene, a building housing innocent people is fire bombed, and the aftermath was filmed in a tragic, heartbreaking way that serves to play up the atrocities of these criminals. There’s also a twist that’s revealed early on that keeps the intrigue level up throughout the picture, which I savored. As for the LA theme, though O’Brien refers to the town in the film as a Midwestern city, The Turning Point quite clearly roams its way through countless iconic Los Angeles locations, including Bunker Hill, Olympic Auditorium, and Angels Flight.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Noir City Hollywood 20 recap within the next week or two, in which I'll cover the more eccentric titles from this year's celebration!