A Killer Double Feature

This weekend, I was faced with preparing for BookExpo America, for which I am traveling to Los Angeles this week (I’ll be signing and giving away advanced reading copies of my book at the Mystery Writers of America booth). But I also had some fun on Saturday: I traveled to the East Bay, to see a double feature of The Killers (one of the all-time great noirs) and Eddie Muller’s neo-noir short classic, The Grand Inquisitor.

To make the package even more irresistible, the movies were screened at a fantastic theater: the Cerrito, a restored 1937 deco masterpiece in downtown El Cerrito. Saved from the greedy, amoral hands of developers by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, a grass-roots non-profit, and later purchased by the city itself, the Cerrito is a Speakeasy Theater … and as anyone who knows me can attest, I can’t resist anything calling itself a speakeasy.

What it means in this context is that film-goers have the option of lounging in comfortable couches and armchairs, snuggling and eating delicious pizza or salad or nachos with a big bowl of buttered popcorn. You can even get a bottle or glass of wine or beer, and make it date night–in fact, one of the best packages is “The Cheap Date,” a $35 deal which includes two admissions, a medium pizza with three toppings (home-tossed and delicious!) a big bowl of popcorn and a bottle of wine or two large beers. As they say in Kansas (or should, anyway) — that ain’t hay.

The Cerrito is a model of what can be done to make historic theaters viable business venues, whether for time-worn classics or today’s (mostly forgettable) fare. Of course, it depends on the spirit of the community, and I take my hat off to the can-do citizens of El Cerrito.

Now, I reviewed The Grand Inquisitor back in January, the day after its debut at Noir City. And as great as it was on first showing, the film, like fine wine, only improves with another sip.

Eddie Muller is the most modest genius I know. And I don’t use the word lightly. The man has just finished a run with the Thrillpeddlers’ production of a lost Noel Coward play (also reviewed in Writing in the Dark), writes brilliant fiction (The Distance, Shadow Boxer), classic non-fiction (Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) and knows more about film noir than anyone, with the possible exception of Bertrand Tavernier, though I’d still bet on Eddie for the Jeopardy championship.

In fact, Eddie has just returned from a trip to Paris, where he was feted by the French and where he screened The Grand Inquisitor (the audience included Tavernier). The Distance was recently published in France as Mister Boxe, and Lire magazine called it the Thriller of the Year. His film was also shown three times as part of the prestigious San Francisco International Film Festival. So yeah — I don’t speak lightly. Eddie is not just the Czar of Noir (founder and President of the Film Noir Foundation) … he’s its Leonardo da Vinci.

If you get a chance to see The Grand Inquisitor, don’t miss it. Just to take one element of the twenty-minute film (other than the outstanding acting by screen goddess Marsha Hunt and newcomer Leah Dashe): the mise-en-scene and art direction (please forgive the lack of accents) is amazing. On my first viewing, I was so awestruck by Marsha’s incredible performance (and Eddie’s pacing and framing), that I hadn’t realized subtle clues adding to the film’s mystery and claustrophobic atmosphere … notice the pill bottles here and there in the opening shot’s of Lulu’s bedroom. Notice the dense, smoke-filled, shut-in feeling of the house. Notice the stacks of newspapers, unread, that fill the space behind Marsha as she sits in her chair.

Small things can add up to greatness, and The Grand Inquisitor is one great movie. To make matters even more chilling, Eddie’s short story (published in the sublime anthology A Hell of a Woman, edited by Megan Abbott) upon which the film is based, is, in turn, based on some actual non-fiction discoveries he made while prowling through bookstores. Names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty.

What would you do if you think you may have found the Zodiac killer’s notebooks? See The Grand Inquisitor for a possible answer.

The second half of the evening was filled with magnificent views of a young Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), beautifully directed by Robert Siodmak. The flash back structure of this film makes it a detective story within a noir tale of greed and lust and amour fou.

Siodmak’s camera lingers lovingly on the drop-dead beauty of his stars (and neither ever looked better) … in a memorable shot from the first meeting of Lancaster (The Swede) and Gardner (Kitty) , a burning lamp filament juts phallically between them, glowing violently … and it is the raw, animal charisma of these two that drives the film forward. It’s almost like watching a nature show.

The casting of pudgy, middle-aged Albert Dekker (Big Jim) as Ava’s other love interest makes their relationship feel physically and morally wrong, as if it’s a crime against biology. Other careful casting enriches the minor roles:William Conrad and noir favorite Charles McGraw play the eponymous hired hitmen, Jack Lambert enlivens Dum-Dum, Vince Barnett portrays Charleston, the star-gazing thief, and Queenie Smith gives a touching, memorable turn as the maid. Sam Levene, so memorable in Brute Force, another Lancaster noir classic, and as the victim in Crossfire, makes a likable, believable cop. Virginia Christine, whom you may remember as Maxwell House’s Mrs. Olsen, is the good girl. Even Edmund O’Brien, who often overacts, delivers the goods as the insurance investigator.

This is a film to be savored–like 70-year old Scotch. If you get a chance to see it on the big screen, do … and Eddie reported the good news that the film has been restored by the studio, which bodes well for a future release.

Walking out of the theater–and the movies played to a full house–I overheard a group of people talk excitedly about how wonderful The Killers was.

So move over, Indiana. We love you, too, but when cinema can compel new generations of movie-goers to laugh, cry, bite their fingernails or applaud after sixty years, that’s a real box-office winner.

Next: I’ll be at BEA next weekend, and will attempt to blog if I don’t get lost in all the hullabaloo!