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Noir City 10




Michael T. Toole delivers a list of highlights from the tenth Noir City festival, San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, January 20-29, 2012.

For ten straight days, Noir City entertained and informed us to just how fun, disturbing and enthralling the noir genre can be, and boy was it! Stylish and sexy, with a chiaroscuro flair all its own, noir czar Eddie Muller’s carefully groomed event goes beyond the fans of the genre, and can attract many a film and literature enthusiast, for it’s all in the story. The strength of good storytelling emphasizes one of Muller’s several key appeals at the festival, that even on a minor budget, ‘B’ noir can still deliver quite an existential wallop, complete with visual élan and caustic wit.

Take our list of highlights at Noir City with a generous pinch of understanding. While stalwarts of the genre such as Gilda, Laura, and The Maltese Falcon had every reason to be on the schedule, we’d like to offer a seductive lip service on some hard to find items that were anchored by sharply etched characters, smart dialogue with just enough red herrings for the mystery aficionado to willingly fall into the enigmas. You’ve got some good ammo for such criteria just below:

 

THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Directed by Stuart Heisler

Cast: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, William Bendix, Bonita Granville, Moroni Olsen

Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer; Novel: Dashiell Hammett

85 minutes

The Story:

During his campaign for reelection, politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) decides to go on the level, ignoring his past shady connections and aligning himself with a noted reformist, Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). Things take a dark turn when Ralph’s spoiled son, Taylor (Richard Denning), who was having an affair with Paul’s sister Opal (Bonita Granville), is murdered and it’s up to Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Paul’s loyal friend and henchman, to find out what really happened. And yes, there is a love interest for both Paul and Ed in the way of Henry’s daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake).

The Skinny:

Although previously made in 1935 by Frank Tuttle with George Raft and Claire Dodd in the leads, you’re better off with Stuart Heisler’s grand, action-packed offering with two dynamic stars, Ladd and Lake, near their best. Sure, they have low-key, stoic deliveries, but it’s a manner that only enhances their enigmas, as if they don’t need demonstrative actions to communicate, theirs is a special telepathy, creating sultry chemistry with every look – truly one of the screen’s great pairings. Elsewhere, there are enough herrings and wicked plot turns to captivate any fan of noir, with well-mounted suspense sequences (Beaumont’s phenomenal escape from a burning apartment room with a high mounted camera dovetailing his daring theatrics is just one highlight), and some charismatic villains – including the ever dependable Joseph Calleia as Madvig’s main rival and William Bendix in an unsettling performance as a thug who relishes his beatings of Beaumont with vicious glee (‘He’s a tough baby, he likes this.’) to make a solid thriller just that much more memorable and riveting.

 

THIEVES’ HIGHWAY (1949)

Directed by Jules Dassin

Cast: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Oakie, Morris Carnovsky

Screenplay and Novel: A.I. Bezzerides

94 minutes

The Story:

WWII vet Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home, only to discover to his horror that his father, Yankos (Morris Carnovsky), has been confined to a wheelchair, a tragedy that may have been initiated intentionally by crooked produce broker Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick decided to hit the road with a load of apples and confront Mike, but things get sticky when the stunning Rica (Valentina Cortese), enters the picture.

The Skinny:

If it’s from the assured hands of master noir stylist Jules Dassin (Brute Force, Naked City, Night and the City), then you’ll get something that delivers – mightily. This a daunting, lean gem that has a tough hero (played with working class grit, not pity, by Conte) who might be a little surly, but he has reason to be, and his character’s strong motivations for both redemption of his father’s honor and confronting corrupt big business in the form of Mike Figlia makes you root for him from the first frame to the last. Notable too as Valentina Cortese’s finest American film. She is ravishing and believable as the fallen woman who comes to Nick’s aid. As with all of Dassin’s film, you can never get enough of atmospheric local color. Shot in San Francisco’s Embarcadero produce district that was thriving in the post war years, from the crowded alleyways teaming with truckers, to the tattered upholstery of a diner where Nick and Rica make small talk, every element is in place for rich storytelling. And while Dassin purists can rightfully balk that the final scene (the conflict resolution between Nick and Figlia does feel a bit pedestrian) was not approved by him (he was involved in the Congress-sponsored ‘red’ witch hunt and left for London quickly after wrapping this film), it’s not enough to betray all the good that was achieved before it – quite simply, this a splendid slice of noir.

 

THREE STRANGERS (1946)

Directed by: Jean Negulesco

Cast: Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Original Screenplay: John Huston, Howard Koch

92 minutes

The Story:

On a London night on Chinese New Year, Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is in possession of Kwan Yin – the Chinese goddess of fortune. If Crystal can gather two strangers on this night and make a common wish with them, Kwan Yin will bestow riches to all. Crystal finds such willing participants in lawyer Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) and Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Placing their luck on a horserace ticket in possession of West, they find their lives intertwined, all to a less than fortunate ending for all.

The Skinny:

This one is fantastic and supernatural to say the least (think Rod Serling attempting noir and you’re getting there). What prevents this story from being too gimmicky for its own sake and makes it deliver as a truly slick piece of entertainment are the vivid characterizations and the performances that match. Fitzgerald offers a smartly modulated performance as a woman whose cocky self-assurance soon dissolves into haunted desperation when she regrets her involvement with the supernatural. Greenstreet is every bit the oily and darkly treacherous antagonist you’d come to expect, but would you have him any other way? It is Lorre though who offers the most compelling turn. Playing a romantic lead, he is surprisingly wry and subdued, making his fate all the more plausible for his desires. Negulesco’s taut, keenly paced direction, preventing the material from going over the top is a clear asset.

 

CITY STREETS (1931)

Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian

Cast: Gary Cooper, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Lukas, Guy Kibee

Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett, Max Marsin; Story: Dashiell Hammett

83 minutes

The Story:

The ‘Kid’ (Gary Cooper, that’s his character’s name) is a talented sharpshooter whose love for Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney) leads him to a nefarious turn when her father, Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee) gets her railroaded into a crime she didn’t commit and convinces the Kid to join ranks with his gang to set her free. Once out, Nan tries to get the Kid out of his new taste for a criminal lifestyle, but she may have trouble as he gets in too deep.

The Skinny:

So you can gather by some of the character’s names (‘Kid’, ‘Pop’, ‘Big Fella’) that the story is a bit pat and formulaic, but Dashiell Hammett kept the dialogue sharp and sweet to keep the interplay lively enough, and really, the true star of this one is director, Rouben Mamoulian. Along with acclaimed cinematographer, Lee Garmes, they created an evocative, ultra-stylish bit of early noir that still maintains its strength and individualism. Moments such as Sidney’s inner monologue while she awaits her fate in prison, the propulsive editing in the final car chase scene (bolstered by bracing sounds of screeching tires), the lyrical lighting emphasizing on almost expressionistic subtlety (framing the romantic leads’ close-ups in an unforgettable way) proved that Mamoulain had the chops that can still entertain an audience 80 years after the effort. And could any piece of noir be complete without an incisively nasty villain? Probably not, and Lukas gives one suavely detestable performance as the head honcho who gets his due.

Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. He is also the author of a Las Vegas travel guide, Las Vegas on the Dime (Johnston Associates International, 2001).

Interview with ‘noir czar’ Eddie Muller.

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