A Marathon Send Off for Noir City Hollywood 17: Part 1
May 27, 2015
"Proto Noir" was the title of the closing evening program of Noir City Hollywood 17. I only know that because I tore hundreds of tickets labeled as such that day as a volunteer at the American Cinematheque. A little over an hour of ticket taking duty in exchange for six free hours worth of movie-watching that night? Totally worth it.
An appropriately epic sendoff for the festival, the closing night featured not one, not two, not three, but FOUR films screened in a row. As did several of the selections that year, while some of these movies bordered on film noir, others were simply darker suspense tales or dramas leaning heavily on the melodramatic side. I mean, after screening film noirs for 17 years (and that's just in LA), how many more noirs are out there that haven't been shown three times already?!
Though the four proto noir titles screened on the final day of Noir City Hollywood, the closing party actually took place the night before. This is a drawing in the Egyptian Theater courtyard advertising the party, noir style. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
The films playing were The Ninth Guest (1934), Let Us Live (1939), Heat Lightning (1934) and Safe in Hell (1931). I had seen the third and fourth selections, but I particularly wanted to watch Safe in Hell on the big screen, so I vowed to stay for the entire bill; all were under 73 minutes, which was insanely helpful. A quick run for a slice of pizza across the street between the first and second films, plus a jolt of energy in the form of popcorn during the third picture, and I was (surprisingly) good to go.
The audience that night was treated to appearances by Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation and Ann Dvorak biographer Christina Rice, who helped introduce Heat Lightning. Of the four selections that evening, Muller and Rode said really only one picture, Let Us Live, could semi-fit into the category of film noir. Though I agree with his statement, each movie was dark and/or bleak in its own way, and though the films ranged widely in theme and story, they actually worked quite well together. Why? Well, to me, each of pictures featured at least one WTF moment/plot/everything that formed a common denominator. And let's be serious, those inclusions make viewing much more entertaining. (Another fun fact: all the films were screened in 35mm!)
Since I'll be talking about all four movies, this post will be split into two: one this Wednesday and the second next Wednesday.
What a weird tag line.
The Ninth Guest (1934)
Eight men and women receive shady, anonymous telegrams inviting them to a luxurious penthouse for an evening they won't forget.
Well, most won't live long enough to forget.
Converged in this fancy abode are a socialite, a political boss, a radical, a Hollywood starlet, and several more personalities. After dinner, one by one, members of the group start dropping dead. On the hour. Oh, and there's also a creepy voice coming from the radio, predicting each one's demise and alerting them to the poison on the table and the electric wires that run along the gate. Those two items assist in at least three of the deaths, most of which are actually brought on by the victims themselves after their devastating secrets have been exposed.
As the film marches on and the group dwindles down, the backgrounds and skeletons each guest holds all slowly spill out, and it's revealed that several of the characters have ties to each other and the culprit. In the end, it turns out revenge is what the radio voice owner, who is one of the guests, was after. But does he/she succeed in their evil plot?
I don’t know about you, but if there was no signature on that telegram, there's no way in hell I'd show up at that apartment. But alas, if the characters had common sense, there would be no movie.
Guess who's the next one to go??
A film Muller only saw recently, he included it in the closing night lineup simply because he enjoyed it. The picture personally reminded me of The Unholy Night (1929) because, put plainly, a lot of people get together in a house and then a bunch of them die. Of course, there’s a reveal at the end of both, but in this picture, there was the added horror of a futuristic talking radio (that seemed to interact with the guests), one guest dying per hour, lots of secrets (some die by their own hand when outed), and a crazy terrifying electric door that claims at least two lives.
As usual, the ending, well…is eventful, to say the least. It’s nothing you could really see coming until the final few minutes, and let’s be serious, I didn't really care about the logistics of this entire thing – it’s pretty farfetched from the very beginning. Especially that TMZ-like voice of God radio. You really have to leave whatever sense of reality and substance you're expecting at the theater door and settle in for an hour of some juicy, dramatic, upper crust backstabbing, twists, and turns. Oh, and the bodies. Lots of them.
However, I will give this B-horror film credit for creating a tense atmosphere of suspense; like clock-work, as the hand approached each new hour, I slid forward on my seat a bit, anxious to see which guest would be driven crazy or mysteriously bumped off next, and how! Though director Roy William Neill's resume dates well back into the silent era, I would definitely count The Ninth Guest as training for the series Neill would become best-known for: Sherlock Holmes.
Tag line status: better than The Ninth Guest.
Let Us Live (1939)
Hard working taxi driver Brick Tennant (Henry Fonda) is saving up to buy a new cab and tie the knot with his girlfriend, Mary (Maureen O'Sullivan). After both a car show and a bank are robbed by three men who took off in a cab, Brick and his friend Joe (Alan Baxter) are booked on suspicion of murder and positively identified by witnesses.
The court won't believe Brick's alibi because he was with Mary, so Mary sets out to prove the duo's innocence as they await trial and are eventually sentenced to death. Though she finds it hard at first to garner the help of the authorities, after she uncovers (by complete chance) a bullet from a matching gun discharged during a new holdup the trio committed, she secures the support of Lieutenant Everett (Ralph Bellamy). Racing against the clock, Everett and Mary enlist the help of anyone they can find to acquire evidence that would expose the real culprits before Brick and Joe are put to death.
As Muller commented in the introduction, Let Us Live was the one film screening that evening that most closely resembled a film noir. Though most sources point to 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor as the beginning of American film noir (and Muller even admitted that he's been prone to shoehorn the era in the past), characteristics of the genre obviously stretched back before 1940. Let Us Live is one such example, as the film exhibits some of noir’s trademark qualities in terms of story and cinematography.
A dramatic Danish poster for the film.
Let Us Live was originally conceived as an A film but the studio came under pressure from the state of Massachusetts, where the trial the film is based on occurred, to quash the adaptation. Though all references to location were deleted, the strain from Massachusetts was still so great that eventually the studio bulked, putting fewer resources and less money into the picture. Consequently, though the talent and quality is there, the film morphed into a B production.
Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan turn in excellent performances as your average citizens fighting an unjust system. Of course, it’s more the fault of the witnesses really, but there are certainly scenes with the DA and other police employees that bleakly show what happens when people with power fail to care or protect the very citizens they are supposed to help. As O'Sullivan's Mary pleaded with the authorities, lives were literally hanging in the balance - that's a pretty heavy and extremely emotional situation that thoroughly infuriated me. Indeed, this was one film that elicited very strong emotions: sadness, anger, and everything in between.
Now, I'm curious as to how much of this film is true (guessing very little), because the straw that moves Everett to assist Mary - the bullet Mary finds lodged IN AN APPLE by chance after another robbery is committed by the guilty men nearby - is so out there. Oh, and add in Everett's 180 turn when Mary presents her apple evidence (seriously, I'm surprised that was what made him listen) and the fact that he eventually gives in his badge because this case makes him so disillusioned with the way things are run. Seriously. What Everett's dedication does show, though, is how broken the system is. Sometimes, all it takes is one person who cares, like Everett, and that can make all the difference in the world.
Mary (Maureen O'Sullivan) and Everett (Ralph Bellamy) taking the law into their own hands.
The most tragic part for me was the ending. The steady degradation of Brick's spirit and his complete disillusionment foreshadowed what a long road he had ahead of him, heartbreakingly showing how one mistake (that can be 100% out of your hands) can completely wreck a life. Even worse, one of the final lines delivered by a judge was: “I convicted two innocent men. Now I've got to try to convict three guilty ones. Probably be a whole lot tougher.” I was at once depressed and incensed by that comment because of the injustice that existed back then...and all the unfairness that is still alive and well now!
How to get riled up with Maureen O'Sullivan in Let Us Live:
Unfortunately, The Ninth Guest is not available for home viewing, but Let Us Live is. The film can be purchased from Amazon.com on DVD or rented from their streaming service. Beware: Emotions will be stirred.
Next up on the bill was Heat Lightning, followed by Safe in Hell. Stay tuned for my thoughts on both next Wednesday!