Noir City Hollywood Recap: Underseen Gems and Uncovered Rarities
April 26, 2016
Well, the 18th edition of Noir City passed just as quickly as it stormed through Hollywood! This festival served as sort of a warm-up for TCMFF #7 for me, as it re-tested my marathon film-watching skills, which, I will confess, are still not very strong, particularly for late night double features watched after a full day of work, or a few hours at the beach, or a cocktail...or two.
That being said, I really enjoyed Noir City this year. In fact, it was my favorite of the noir festivals I've attended, and that's probably partially because all the films I watched during the fest, which amounted to roughly 50% of the lineup, were new-to-me movies. Add in the fact that many of them are rarely screened and/or scarcely available, and I was already about 95% pumped for most of the lineup before the projector even warmed up.
Below are my Noir City highlights (which was just about everything I saw), plus some interesting take-aways from Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode's introductions:
Alfredo (Carlos Cores) and Susana (Julia Sandoval) in The Bitter Stems.
The Bitter Stems (1956)
The festival opened to a packed house with this Argentinean noir, the re-discovery of which only occurred over the last few years. Eddie Muller touched upon this story in his introduction when he alluded to the unearthing of Fritz Lang's completed version of Metropolis (1927) in Buenos Aires back in 2008. The man who finally uncovered that film (after a 20 year search) was Fernando Martín Peña, a friend of Muller's who confided in him that Metropolis was just the tip of the iceberg...
Well, Peña and like-minded individuals in Argentina have continued to chip away at said iceberg, which has brought The Bitter Stems back to the surface. The print was found on the estate of one of the producers whose family kept all the original negatives to his movies. (The company that produced the film, Argentina Sono Film, is still around, though they curiously deny any "knowledge" of the film, whatever that exactly means.) Luckily, the print was rescued and restored before it had completely deteriorated. Fun fact: Those attending Noir City Hollywood were among the first to view the movie with English subtitles!
Story-wise, I was thoroughly entertained by this darkly comic noir, despite some weird structural devices. In particular, the third act and finale, packed with ironic moments, were both chock full of tension, apprehension and even a few (painful) laughs, which is a hard combination to execute well. I definitely think the audience that gets to watch The Bitter Stems on opening night at TCMFF will really rave about it!
Yes, who was the last man in Cathy's life?
Take One False Step (1949)
OK, I may be a bit biased because MARSHA HUNT, but this little hybrid noir comedy, as tonally bizarre and uneven (story wise) as it was at times, was pleasurable enough. Muller pointed out that Take One False Step is very rarely seen, and this screening marked the first time any Noir City festival has played it. The last time Muller watched the movie was about 20 years prior, and though he wasn't too impressed with it at the time, he attributes that feeling partly to the fact that he was immersed in research and writing for his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, and William Powell was certainly not a name that riled up noir-ish excitement, because, well, Nick Charles.
The film's title sequence, featuring snapshots of men, women and/or children about to take a questionable step - into a pothole, down the aisle, into a man's home, etc. - supplied a splendidly humorous light bar onto which the rest of the picture could be based. Though my beloved Marsha was given precious little to do (and her character's motives were actually a bit questionable), Powell turned in a solid, reliable performance and Winters, who curiously received equal billing with Powell though she only appeared on screen for about 30 minutes, did a grand job as the drunk seductress. I don't know much about her, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the actress knocked back a few before walking out on set. Or maybe she's just that good.
All My Sons (1948)
This story, which was based off a real life account Arthur Miller's mother read in an Ohio newspaper, was incredible. I had never heard of this Miller play before, but the script and performances were extremely impressive, particularly from Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster. Though the picture definitely felt stagey at times, the plot and acting soared far above any shortcomings.
That's all I'm going to say about this one at the moment. My recommendation: buy it on DVD!
"A weird chain of events to freeze the blood and shock the mind!" Freezing blood, really?!
Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Destiny (1944)
Flesh and Fantasy and Destiny, two closely related films that Muller speculated have never been screened together before, were definitely the highlights of the festival for me. Part of that declaration has to do with the stories themselves, while the other part concerns the production history.
First of all, both movies pulled me in with their supernatural elements, which were adeptly handled and brilliantly placed to give these otherwise commonplace stories a fantastic atmospheric edge. Second, I love films that revolve around seemingly unrelated characters or plots that are somehow linked together, though only the second two of the three tales in Flesh and Fantasy were connected this way - quite seamlessly I may add.
One reason that first segment in Flesh and Fantasy appeared on its own - that is, without flowing into the next one - could be due to the fact that it really wasn't intended to open the picture; actually, a shorter version of Destiny was originally slated as Flesh and Fantasy's first tale, but preview audiences loved it so much that the studio felt it overshadowed the other pieces and took it out, much to director Julien Duvivier's chagrin. After sitting on the shelf for about a year, Destiny was re-visited, padded out to 65 minutes from 39 with additional footage directed by Reginald Le Borg (who received sole credit) and released on its own.
While watching Destiny, which Muller said he wanted to play as closely to Flesh and Fantasy as possible in an attempt to recreate what Duvivier intended (though in that case, Destiny should have screened first?), I kept trying to figure out which scenes were inserted later and how this story was supposed to connect with the first in Flesh and Fantasy. It didn't take me long to realize that the second half of Destiny seemed likely to have been the original, as it represented the main thrust of the picture; indeed, Muller affirmed afterwards that these parts were added under Le Borg's direction, as was the ending. He also pointed out that originally, one of the characters in Destiny was killed...and it was supposed to be that body that washed up at the beginning of the first segment of Flesh and Fantasy. This transition would have been impressive, though a little geographically impossible. But no matter!
This is the kind of Hollywood backstory that I am always completely taken by and, honestly, obsessed with. I would love to delve more into the production history of these two movies and check out any of their production files, if I could.
Great composition in this Side Street poster.
Side Street (1949)
So I lied above. It seems that I have watched one of these movies, which would be Side Street; I came to that realization moments into the film when the narration began.
Side Street played with director Anthony Mann's first movie, Dr. Broadway (1942), a Mann ‘A’ and ‘B’ picture on the same bill, just as Muller said they intended to program Noir City. I've actually always thought of Side Street as a 'B' film, probably because it doesn't boast the star power of many other famous noir entries, though with its stellar cast, famed noir director, and brilliant MGM house cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, all the qualities of an 'A' picture are definitely present.
Side Street kept me on the edge of my seat despite the fact that I had seen it before, which says something! The tight directing, striking performances, and strong chemistry between Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell certainly deserves recognition. Indeed, Muller admitted that he wished this picture would have a better reputation as one of the "top tier" in the noir world.
Meet Danny Wilson (1951)
To be honest, I'm not very knowledgeable about Frank Sinatra (other than the fact that my grandmother loved him and had a bunch of his cassette tapes in her car), nor do I know a lot about Shelley Winters (though this is the second film I watched her in this year at Noir City). Apparently, as Alan K. Rode noted in his intro, "to say that Frank and Shelley did not get along would be an understatement." He didn't go into specifics, other than adding that both were strong-willed, and Frank was also going through a rough divorce, had many visitors on set (such as lawyers and priests) and found himself falling in love with Ava Gardner.
All that being said, I think Sinatra and Winters shared a lovely chemistry on-screen, especially during their one musical number together, which is a testament to how talented they both were. Though the picture fell in the comedy/drama/musical realm, the "noir-stained" angle came busting in in the form of Raymond Burr, who turned in a sinfully humorous, cold as ice performance. In my opinion, his remarkable restraint stole the show and made for some wickedly amusing moments.
Dead Reckoning (1947)
A fierce and sarcastic Humphrey Bogart, a deadly and devilish Lizabeth Scott…what more could you ask from a film noir, really? In my opinion, the movie dragged on a bit near the end, but Bogart’s performance, Scott’s wardrobe (want: below), and the twists and turns in Scott’s loyalty kept me hooked.
I would pay...some amount of money for this Lizabeth Scott outfit.
Key Witness (1947)
Of all the screenings I attended this year at Noir City, Key Witness was, without a doubt, the most enjoyable to watch with an audience. Why? Well, this bottom of the barrel ‘B’ was so incredibly outlandish that it quickly turned into a riot. The plot centered around a rather boring man: 1. whose wife berates him constantly (but don’t worry, they’re cool and she loves him, and he her, for some reason), 2. is wrongly accused of murder, 3. takes off and assumes the identity of a dead man he finds on some train tracks, 4. re-connects with the dead man’s wealthy father who had walked out on his family, 5. starts to sell the kooky inventions his wife always made fun of him for….and then obviously, 6. the past catches up.
But fear not, everything turned out pretty peachy in the end.
The situations – notably, the father of the dead man forgiving the imposter when he finds out the truth and (SPOILER) everyone becoming one happy family – were so far-fetched but performed so casually that it was all too unbelievable to even try to make sense of. The acting, characters, and plot all featured so many laughable moments of disbelief (and a bit of confusion) that some people in the audience even directed their thoughts/commentary/exasperation to the screen itself! Though I think everyone in attendance would agree that Key Witness could never be called a good movie, we were all sufficiently entertained by it.
That tagline doesn't seem fitting, for some reason.
The Captive City (1952)
Though the basic storyline sounds rather common - the uncovering of a network of organized crime in an otherwise ordinary town by a newpaperman - this picture actually intrigued me more than I thought it would. I credit this to Alvin M. Josephy Jr.'s screenplay, inspired by his time working as a journalist in Santa Monica; Robert Wise's taut direction, which heightened the apprehension and danger considerably - far higher than I anticipated going in to this movie; and Lee Garmes' cinematography, which employed the new Hoge lens that allowed for crisp deep focus that added a hefty dose of realism to the tale.
Buy Me That Town (1941)
Buy Me That Town: Simply take the idea of a network of criminals running an innocent city behind the scenes from The Captive City and turn all the noir-ish/crime/dramatic parts into comedy. Voila.
Like Key Witness, the 'B' pictures in this year's lineup seemed to employ the craziest schemes, and Buy Me That Town was certainly no different. I mean, the fact that a gang of criminals bought a bankrupt town and then rented out jail cells to their cronies (fixed up, of course) and installed a safe-cracker as the police chief, an arsonist as the fire chief, etc. is pretty zany. The story alone provided an amusing finale to Noir City, and I particularly enjoyed the ladies' performances: Constance Moore as the sweet, no-nonsense judge's daughter Virginia who's got a firm hold on lead gangster Rickey (Lloyd Nolan) and Barbara Jo Allen as Henriette, proprietress of a local boarding house who also happens to be a huge criminal groupie.
If you attended any screenings at Noir City, please feel free to share your highlights!