Masks and Voices at Noir City 6

Saturday at Noir City showcased what the program describes as “Noir Head Trips” … and they were right. Both movies played with your mind; one played with your heart.

Both also stretched the chronological boundaries many purists insist upon: The 3rd Voice, the first feature, dated from 1960, and the second film, Face Behind the Mask, from 1941 (same year as The Maltese Falcon).

And this reminds me … if you ever get a chance to attend Noir City (San Francisco, Castro Theater) … try next year, 7 is a lucky number … you should go to the evening shows whenever possible, because the Czar of Noir (Eddie Muller) always has a scintillating story or two up his sleeve, and often brings remarkable people to the microphone.

At 7:30, before the evening showing of The 3rd Voice, he brought Foster Hirsch. This seminal and perceptive film critic and professor was charming and enthusiastic in discussing the director of the feature, the very talented Hubert Cornfield, a contemporary of Stanley Kubrick.

The late Mr. Cornfield felt unappreciated by audiences, unappreciated by critics, unappreciated by actors, unappreciated by everyone, really, except other people’s wives … a tidbit shared by Eddie that had emerged during a Cornfield on-stage discussion at L.A.’s lite version of Noir City. Even at an advanced age, and with the ravages of throat cancer, Hubert had been, in Eddie’s words, “the horniest man I’d ever met.”

This is what you miss when you go for the matinée.

So what about The 3rd Voice? Well, it offers noir stalwart Edmond O’Brien in a brash and hammy performance, Julie London (who should have insisted on separate billing for her cleavage), and a deliciously dark and complex turn by none other than good girl Laraine Day as the femme fatale. Laraine, in my mind, stole the show. Playing a long-time mistress and business partner spurned for a younger woman, she delivers a knock-out line early on: “If you can replace me … I can replace you.”

Let that — and the fact that O’Brien’s real-life wife, Olga San Juan (called the “Puerto Rican Pepper Pot”) plays a prostitute — be your enticements (along with Julie London or O’Brien’s naked feet, depending on your preferences.)

The next film in tonight’s mix was one of the best in Noir City 6, and, to me, even out-bleaks Night and the City for the most gut-wrenchingly depressing noir of all. It was directed by Robert Florey, who also gave us The Crooked Way (1949).

Face Behind the Mask stars Peter Lorre (always a stylized actor, but never better than here) as an optimistic, innocent immigrant from Eastern Europe, a watchmaker who wants nothing more than a chance to work.

Things go down hill from there. After suffering third degree burns in a hotel fire (because some schmuck was cooking in his room), his face is disfigured. “Good” society spurns him. No matter how skilled his hands, no one will give him a job. Until, at the point of suicide, he meets Dinky, a small-time crook more opportunistic than crooked, and the only person to see the man behind the mask of melted skin.

To survive, Lorre’s watchmaker drifts into criminal activities. He meets a beautiful blind girl (the radiant and superb Evelyn Keyes) who also “sees” the real man. And yes … things go down hill from there.

I missed Eddie’s remarks for this movie (not following my own advice), but recognized the socio-cultural and political agenda. This is a film that scathingly indicts the “American Dream” in as unforgettable a fashion as The Prowler or Force of Evil, but because it lacks the formalism of the latter films — and because of Lorre’s sympathetic and poignant portrayal — it reads as a devastatingly sad and bitter movie. The screenplay was written by the blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, the man who would later give us Salt of the Earth.

This is a real rarity, not available on DVD, but if you can ever catch it … get out a hanky and watch. I wasn’t the only one in the theater with watery eyes.

Next up: Noir City ends with a bang — that would be the inimitable Ida Lupino — in Roadhouse, and Richard Widmark’s best role … Harry Fabian in Night and the City.