Noir City Wrap Up

Those who know me know I take film noir very seriously. I was honored to find our friends at The Rap Sheet give a nod to WID and my Noir City reporting in late January. And then … and then …

What happened? Did I drop off a log? Did my fedora fall over my eyes? Did I (gasp) not go to the festival?

None of the above. What happened was … well … there’s no other way to explain it. GOOD NEWS. And–as any noirhead knows–good news–particularly the kind of toe-squirming, technicolor, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and Busby Berkeley musical dream-come-true good news–is not conducive to the dark and usually wet streets of Noirville.

Here’s what happened. Right before the last weekend of the festival, I accepted a two-book deal with Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Minotaur for my 1940 San Francisco PI noir, RICE BOWL. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve been feeling a little, well, musical-ish ever since. More like Maria in The Sound of Music than Mildred in Mildred Pierce. More like the first book’s Harry Potter than the fifth’s. I am thrilled beyond belief, and wake up telling myself that it’s real and it’s fabulous, and that it’s not all a flashback from an unreliable narrator.

So naturally, I had to let some time pass before I could stop seeing rainbows and properly tackle my normal habitat. I write noir, after all. And RICE BOWL is both of the noir world and upends it. But more on it–lots more on it–later. We’ve got time, and this post is for the smash-bang closeout of the greatest film festival in the world.

Now keep in mind that I’m still a working girl, and I unfortunately can’t see everything. I squeezed in Thursday to see The Big Clock (1948) on the big screen, and a treat it was. Based on the terrific novel by Kenneth Fearing (I bought a tattered first edition last year)–the movie was shot beautifully by the underrated John Farrow (Mia’s dad–he married Maureen O’Sullivan, a co-star in the film, during the shooting).

Ray Milland was charming, debonair and reassuringly confident in the midst of tension (the script sported several light-hearted touches), Charles Laughton was delightfully controlling and villanous, femme fatale Rita Johnson (They Won’t Believe Me) more appealing than the rather pallid Maureen, George Macready (the creepy Nazi Ballin in Gilda) appropriately smarmy, and Elsa Lanchester stole every scene she was in with a comic role as an artiste. Rounding out the cast was Henry Morgan as a murderous masseur/thug (and if you’ve only thought of him as Sherman Potter, prepare yourself) and Louis van Rooten as a radio actor (which he was in real life).

For me, the real star of the movie was the set design by Hans Dreier, which was truly a marvel to behold. Sort of prefigures the Bond sets in terms of size equalling threat, yet with a Deco panache that was quite beautiful. All in all, a classic, and not to be missed.

Perhaps even more enjoyable (and like The Big Clock, this was not my first viewing of the film) was the Claude Rains’ vehicle The Unsuspected (1947), which aired the next evening.

Why Michael Curtiz has never been accorded auteur status is due to the fact that he was brilliant in every genre. Here, his Expressionist background in light and dark gradually draw us into a gothically forbidding world of dread and suspense. Rains has never been better or more charming. The plot concerns a radio show host (think of “Suspense” or “Escape” or “The Whistler” if you know classic radio) whose secretary is found hanging above his desk. But we know it’s not suicide from a brilliant opening sequence that makes full use of the audio and visual to create a panoply of noir beauty and thrills.

Audrey Totter steals every scene she’s in … sashaying around and calling everyone “lover” but her husband. Constance Bennett proves wonderful and an equal scene-stealer in an Eve Arden like role. The movie is so well-directed and acted by these three–and the always enjoyable noir heavy Jack Lambert–that you overlook the woodenness of Michael North, who apparently retired from acting after making it. Hurd Hatfield (title role in The Picture of Dorian Gray) chews the bar in half as the debauched painter husband of Audrey. And Joan Caulfield is charming, if not particularly memorable, as Rain’s niece. But it really works … and it’s not on DVD but occasionally is shown on TCM, so watch for it!

Second billing that night was Desperate (1947), which I’ve also seen (this is what comes of watching noir all the time), albeit not on a big screen. An early Anthony Mann effort, the cinematography and shot set ups prefigure his greatest work, and the film is worth seeing if only for one spectacular “interrogation” scene by gangster Raymond Burr. Steve Brodie plays a truck driver gulled into participating in a heist. After a threat to his wife (the appealing Audrey Long), he’s determined to get her somewhere safe before going to the cops (even if it means stealing cars along the way). His character makes the words “trust me” a bit comical, but the film is great entertainment, with a lot of interesting touches (a Czech wedding!).

Finally, my last foray into Noir City was the Fritz Lang thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Again, this was the second time I’d watched the film, and on the big screen–and with a second viewing–my appreciation and admiration for it grew enormously … just as Foster Hirsh, who introduced the film along with Noir Czar Eddie Muller, said it would. Joan Fontaine is the independent love interest of a writer (and I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed the lines about deadlines and writing and publishing) played by the always noirish Dana Andrews. Her father–his soon-to-be father-in-law–is a newspaper man vehemently opposed to capital punishment (Sidney Blackmer). Dad’s got a great idea–how about if someone innocent frames himself for murder, gets convicted, is sentenced to death, and then produces evidence of innocence … wouldn’t that prove the folly of relying on circumstantial evidence and make people hesitate before sending convicts to the chair? Sure it would, Dad-in-law … sure it would.

The film has been remade for release later this year, with Michael Douglas and the young Amber Tamblyn, who has the excellent taste to name The Asphalt Jungle as one of her favorite movies. Director/writer Peter Hyams also helmed the Gene Hackman/Anne Archer remake of The Narrow Margin. So see the original before you see the remake.

And watch it more than once … it’s really terrific, though filmed on an incredibly cheap budget. As a bonus, the delightful Barbara Nichols–real life former model and burlesque queen, always memorable and a scene-stealer in The Sweet Smell of Success–plays the role of (you guessed it) a stripper. She steals these scenes, too.

The festival closed with The latter film–maybe Burt Lancaster’s greatest performance–and a new print of The Killers … but alas, it was a Sunday, and I was wrapped up in work and good news.

I’ll be back with more films noir–and more of everything–later. In the meatime, keep your cigarettes dry and your bourbon wet, and if someone asks you to frame yourself … think twice!