Thursday, January 22, 2015

NOIR CITY 13—Half-Time Roundtable

Welcome to a gentle back-and-forth about the movies that have played at Noir City 13 (NC13), the Film Noir Foundation's annual film fest, now at its midpoint at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. My thanks for contributions from Meredith Brody, David Robson, and Brian Darr.

Opening Night (January 16, 2015)
Woman on the Run (Dir. Norman Foster, 1950)
Born to be Bad (Dir. Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Meredith Brody writes in her IndieWire preview: "This year's theme, for lucky Noir City 13: the bonds of matrimony, or, as Eddie intoned: 'Engagement ring, wedding ring, suffering.' …Friday night's thrilling, rather over-the-top sold-out opening night in the 1400-seat Castro Theatre. A glorious new 35mm print of the San Francisco-set Woman on the Run (1950), restored by the Film Noir Foundation in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive (largely financed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Charitable Trust), debuted, followed by an archival 35mm print of the also San Francisco-set Born to be Bad (1950).

"The always-exquisitely-produced Noir City evening also featured a quick-cut noir montage by Muller protege Serena Bramble, a delightful video from Reel SF comparing the actual shooting locations for Woman on the Run (gasp! some were shot in Los Angeles!) with how those locations look today, and, after Born to be Bad, a screening of its alternate, rather more sly ending shown outside the United States.

"And, mysteriously, the ever-increasingly theatrical Eddie Muller, clad in what he was quick to point out, earlier, was his own dinner jacket, crawled onstage during the intermission, bound and gagged, presumably by his two glamorous peignoir-clad Miss Noir City colleagues, dark-haired Evie Lovelle and redheaded Audra Wolfmann. I was so flummoxed by the sight that I don't remember the storyline behind the skit."

Brian Darr: "The exuberant laughter filling the theatre during the opening night selections Woman On The Run and Born To Be Bad, both of which I'd previously seen only on home video, put these films in a new light. I realized that Woman On The Run fits snugly into the same category as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon: a mystery anchored by a quintessentially San Francisco protagonist who relies as much on her wit as on her wits. Ann Sheridan's nonchalant readings of lines like "the dog is our only mutual friend" is as intentionally disarming to the detectives grilling her character about her missing husband, as it is to those of us holding onto our seats, waiting to find out what will happen next, and being surprised by her emotional transformation over the course of the picture. And Born To Be Bad, though skillful (and surprisingly relevant) in its noir-ish depiction of the personal dangers created by a society's resistance to class mobility, is best appreciated as a feature-length verbal spar along the lines of All About Eve. One wonders how much better it would be remembered if the airstrip scene in its denouement, obviously tacked on by producer Howard Hughes while director Nicholas Ray was nowhere near the camera, wasn't present to pollute the film's final impressions. This unfortunate scene was even included in the alternate ending digitally presented by the festival (and available on the Warner Archive DVD) after the archival 35mm print finished projecting. If the audience's laughter at this scene had a derisive component, it was well deserved."

Along with his contribution to this round table, Brian Darr has likewise written up Woman on the Run from variant angles, first for his Keyframe preview of the festival for Fandor, and then at his own site Hell on Frisco Bay.

Michael Guillén: I have to agree with Eddie Muller that Serena Bramble's talent for editing and mixing improves with each effort. Her cinematic overture to NC13 tantalizingly mashes up Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage" with Al Green's "Love and Happiness" while snippeting images of unholy matrimony from the festival's slate of 25 films, all to satisfying effect. Muller emphasized that the poor quality of the clips from Woman on the Run in Bramble's overture was due to nothing better being available to Bramble at the time of editing; but now with the newly restored negative and print, the film is back to visual brilliance.

For those who stayed in their seats after Woman on the Run, NC13 offered a Reel SF video by Brian Rollins (aka "Citysleuth") comparing location shots used for the film, then and now. When it was revealed that L.A.'s Bunker Hill was used to stand in for San Francisco, the Castro erupted into a hissing den of snakes. Reel SF's gumshoe work can be studied in detail at his site. (Note to self: you have to interview this guy to find out how he goes about his research.)

Woman on the Run itself was first-rate entertainment and a triumphant 35mm restoration for the Film Noir Foundation. Ann Sheridan's world-weary wisecracking revealed the touch of co-screenwriter Alan Campbell, better known in Hollywood as "Mr. Dorothy Parker." The film's mid-point reveal amped up the suspense for the film's second half, which culminates at a simulated Playland on the Beach where Woman on the Run's tension literally becomes an exhilarating rollercoaster ride. Perhaps the main iconic signifier of Playland is Laughing Sal, who always reminds me of being a young gay boy in the disco era attending opening night at the I-Beam on Haight Street (October 1977) where Laughing Sal was hired for the night to laugh at the dancing throngs crisscrossed by laser lights. She now resides at San Francisco's Musee Mecanique at Fisherman's Wharf, still laughing and by no means retired.

Opening night at Noir City also ignites my continuing appreciation for the "extraneous" performers in these oft-overlooked films. As they say, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't look at the menu and—as an aging gentleman who was quite a tomcat on the tiles in my youth—my only misbehavior these days lies in catching the eye of minor supporting actors celebrated in noir vehicles. Ross Elliott—who plays Sheridan's husband-on-the-lam—would be one of those. I've known Elliott from TV work, westerns, some sci-fi. Not the most handsome of actors, Elliot nonetheless looks good in Woman on the Run. Then again, a snap-brim fedora and a light-colored trench coat might make any guy look his best. At Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith pays a snappy tribute to the actor.

As for Nicholas Ray's Born To be Bad, it was the first of a quartet of films at NC13 celebrating the career of Joan Fontaine. In the Ray vehicle she's more naughty than bad, as characterized by how effortlessly she can lift an eyebrow with the most insouciant of smiles; deliciously malicious but not—in my book, at least—dangerous. According to wordsmith Phil Cousineau "mischievous" comes from the same root as "achieve" and rose in popularity in the 14th century "to describe a malicious deed or a selfish accomplishment." You can't blame Fontaine's character Christabel Caine for using her wiles to manipulate men. The pleasure in watching this film is in knowing she's not as clever as she thinks she is and wondering how and when she'll get her comeuppance. It was lots of fun to view the film's original ending, which had been rejected by the Production Code office and only released in foreign markets. Pleasurable because it revealed that even comeuppance doesn't necessarily thwart incorrigibility.

Also appreciated Robert Ryan's brusque confidence in this film. Admired when he's wooing Christabel (Fontaine) and she compliments the view from the balcony, to which he quickly responds, "It's better with me in it."

Saturday (January 17, 2015)
Suspicion (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)
The Bigamist (Dir. Ida Lupino, 1953)
Ivy (Dir. Sam Wood, 1947)
The Suspect (Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944)

I've already offered Frako Loden's capsule on The Bigamist, but David Robson notes as well: "The first piece I've seen at Noir City that felt like an ensemble theatre piece, with everyone seeming equally engaged in a full-bore analysis of the topic at hand. All of the performances are carefully considered, firmly committing to each character's choices without veering even once toward melodrama. Beautiful emphasis at climax on how the choices made will reverberate for the rest of the characters' lives, underscored by the ambiguous and devastating final freeze-frame. Naturally, the Noir City audiences laughed like it was a comedy. (Sidenote: Lupino's job at a Chinese restaurant induced strong visions of her in a full-color but no less gaudy Canton, shot by Christopher Doyle. Maybe in the next life.)"

Meredith Brody: "Sam Wood's Ivy, though beautifully mounted, was something of a disappointment—especially after seeing Joan Fontaine's considerably more witty and nuanced performance of a less-murderous femme fatale in Born to be Bad."

Michael Guillén: Shifting from mischievous to a murderous overachiever in Sam Wood's Ivy, Fontaine once again set her sights on dismantling her goody two-shoes persona with her characterization of the cool, calculating Ivy Lexton who poisons one man who loves her, while framing the next, all in pursuit of the wealth and prestige she prefers. Billed as an "Edwardian noir", Ivy was ripe with mannered details underscoring the pitfalls of social decorum and the challenges of social mobility. I have to concur with Meredith that—by aiming to be cold—Fontaine ends up flat by comparison to her role in Born to be Bad. Still, there was that one wry moment when she begins shopping for her funeral hat. One must look good even when they've been very very bad.

Similar manners set the stage for Robert Siodmak's The Suspect where Charles Laughton excels as a lonely tobacconist whose shrewish wife (Rosalind Ivin, also in Ivy) pushes him to the brink. Everyone I spoke to expected the plot to reveal an affair between Laughton's son and his young protégé Mary Gray (Ella Raines), but we were all surprised by a much deeper (and sadder) story of guilt and conscience. We expect criminals to be punished for their crimes; but, Laughton's performance in The Suspect harkens to Oscar Wilde's sage assertion that no good deed goes unpunished either. Laughton is the master of the reaction shot, even as Stanley C. Ridges as Inspector Huxley was a little too smug and know-it-all for my taste, anticipating plot developments through deductive announcements.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Shockproof (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1949)
Sleep, My Love (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1948)

Meredith Brody: "Sunday offered two screenings each of Douglas Sirk's Shockproof (screenplay by Sam Fuller), starring the then-married-in-real-life Cornel Wilde and Patricia Knight, and his Sleep, My Love (independently produced by Mary Pickford), with Claudette Colbert tormented by Don Ameche (understandably distracted by the sexy Hazel Brooks), and rescued by Robert Cummings—a fabulous double bill."

David Robson: "And where the hell did that title come from? Cornel Wilde tears into the role of a crusading but lovelorn parole officer like a straighter, more pro-active Farley Granger, but in the end he's so swept up in his feelings for parolee Patricia Knight that he becomes weirdly disengaged—the look in his eyes in the third act is that of a man who's watching it all happen to himself, not believing he could have flown so far astray. There's the feeling of Sam Fuller's original sledgehammer script throughout, and even if the climax is watered down by re-writer Helen Deutsch, the final joke seals it all beautifully. Bonus: lovely Bradbury Building interiors."

And on Sleep, My Love, Robson notes: "If the repeated emphases on hypnotism and amnesia don't seal this movie's status as a horror noir, then look out the Courtlands' window at that bridge that appears to end somewhere inside their house. It looks and feels like a portal to some nightmare world, with Don Ameche a smooth but sinister troll living at its mouth. Very much Gaslight+, with Claudette Colbert straining to see through the veil toward some kind of truth, aided by handsome and kindly stranger Robert Cummings. A lengthy stop at a Chinese wedding introduces bridegroom Keye Luke, given a bit more virility and resourcefulness than he ever had as Number One Son—an ongoing franchise in which brothers Cummings and Luke continue to solve crimes could easily have been kicked off by this one."

Brian Darr: "I've been struck by audience reactions to the Noir City films I've attended this year. As many before me have commented, over the years fest-goers have built up a not-undeserved reputation for deflating moments of gravitas by letting out streams of collective laughter at lines of dialogue that may seem particularly dated, or delivered in an overwrought manner. It seems especially to occur for films following female characters, as many of this year's selections do. These reactions can be quite a shock for those who are far more used to watching 1940s and 50s films on DVD or on Turner Classic Movies than in the cinema spaces where they were originally designed to be showcased. Everyone has their own memory of a moment when an inexorable tragedy playing out on the Castro screen is jarringly accompanied by merry delight, sometimes to the point of seriously distracting from the mood its makers were trying to summon forth. However, the audience for this year's double-bill of Shockproof and Sleep, My Love was in fact the quietest I've ever experienced at a screening of Douglas Sirk films. From where I was seated (toward the rear of the orchestra) I heard no giggling, no running commentaries; this was a rapt theatre, silently thrilled to be taking in the next plot twist or striking angle of Patricia Knight or Claudette Colbert in the company of fellow fans."

Monday, January 19, 2015
The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)
After The Thin Man (Dir. W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke)

Meredith Brody: "Monday, Martin Luther King Day, offered two screenings each of The Thin Man and After the Thin Man, neither really noirs, but, as the excellent Noir City 13 program book allowed: 'In honor of this year's festival theme, NOIR CITY steps from its sinister shadows to pay tribute to the most marvelous (fictional) marriage in the history of the movies, the blithe and boozy union of Nick and Nora Charles.' (And here's where I part company with the fanatical 35mm print fanatics: both of these copies were worn and well-used, especially The Thin Man, which often jumped out of frame and was missing a bit of dialogue at a changeover or two. I would have preferred a glossy projected DVD.)"

David Robson: "Offered by Noir City as a palliative to the dark side of marriage explored throughout the series, the first two Thin Man movies spotlight Nick and Nora Charles, per Noir City 'the most marvelous marriage in the movies.' Like all successful married couples, Nick and Nora have both clearly married the coolest person they know, and it is a goddamn joy watching them banter and drink through high society, solving mysteries merrily as they go. The Film Noir Foundation are often at their best when booking 'not quite noir', and these two movies are so blithe and endearing, so engrossing and funny that I doubt anyone was splitting hairs over whether they truly qualified as noir."

At his site Hell on Frisco Bay, Brian Darr has particular fun contextualizing The Thin Man series from its Redbook origins to its tinseltown adaptations. "The Thin Man," he writes, "is one of those classic Hollywood movies that has little to no formal notability, but that stands out from the sea of studio-system potboilers by dint of character and tone." No one would argue that either The Thin Man or After The Thin Man are noir films, but Darr gives some very convincing reasons why they've most likely been selected for NC13's program.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Caught (Dir. Max Ophüls)
The Set-Up (Dir. Robert Wise)

David Robson on Caught: "God, just watch Max Ophüls move. His camera glides effortlessly through the scenes in this movie, not to show off his high style (Birdman this isn't) but to serve the story, to give the characters space to breathe, and grow. Strong drama of a romantic triangle, mining incredible power from the climactic meetup of all three; no punches are thrown, but Ophüls mines exquisite and suspenseful conflict just from his artful triangulation of the bodies of bel Geddes, Ryan, and Mason. Excellent detailing of secondary characters, too, with Curt Bois strong as another well-paid hanger-on of Ryan's (plucked, perhaps non-consensually, from a working class life—his relationship with Ryan could be another movie unto itself) and Frank Ferguson genial as a kindly, sorta wacky obstetrician going halfsies on a medical office with Mason. (And what a gorgeous scene as the camera pans back and forth across bel Geddes' empty desk, capturing a nuanced, respectful rapport between Mason and Ferguson; collegial, not too intimate, but with just the right hint of familiarity, even fondness.) Manages a weird feat of making its audience actively root for the death of an unborn child, which may be as black as noir gets."

Michael Guillén: I concur completely with David Robson as to the compelling choreography of Max Ophüls social mise en scène, particularly noted in the scene where Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) dances with Larry Quinada (James Mason). Not only is Mason admittedly not a very good dancer, but they are jostled about and bumped into by an enthusiastic crowd on the dance floor, which serves to heighten the privacy of their growing intimacy. The contrast of this romantic privacy within a public space rhymes with the visual loneliness rendered in scenes where Leonora is figured diminutively in the vast interiors of the Ohlrig mansion. Along with Woman on the Run, Caught surfaces as a major discovery at FN13 and I look forward to the opportunity to watch it again, though when I'll be able to see it in 35mm on a giant screen with such a rapt, appreciative audience will be anyone's guess.

As the second half of the evening's tribute to Robert Ryan, The Set-Up could be thought of as an early example of what has come to be known as "elevated genre." I'm not a big fan of boxing movies, but—as Eddie Muller offered—The Set-Up is like a boxing movie written by Albert Camus (though written by Art Cohn). It is relentlessly existential and the boxing ring and its environs stands in for a social temperament and a historical moment. Here, again, the film's rogues gallery of characters—the blind man "watching" the game, the fat man eating endless concessions, the wife who scares her husband with her rising blood thirst, the husband who excites his wife with his over-reactive mimicry—accentuate the value of minor characters to populate and flesh out a script.

The locker room was, likewise, filled with coruscating if brief performances. One can't help but wonder what the film might have been like if James Edwards—originally meant to play Stoker Thompson per Joseph Moncure March's poem (March became infuriated when his black character was replaced by a white actor)—had been given more rein than as the supporting character Luther Hawkins. Further, Darryl Hickman as Shanley never looked sleeker.

As for a project ostensibly shot in real time, The Set-Up kept reminding me of television's 24 and its digital timepiece to accentuate the conceit of the passage of real time. In Wise's film, he relied on an old-fashioned clock face to count down the minutes.

Brian Darr: During Tuesday's double-bill of Max Ophüls's Caught and Robert Wise's The Set-Up, I felt I actually observed the audience getting wiser. Though people again seemed for the most part rapt watching Barbara Bel Geddes's roller coaster of a ride into wealth and poverty and back again, they gave Robert Ryan such a resounding round of applause at his first screen appearance as the Hughes-inspired industrialist Smith Ohlrig, that the next line or so of dialogue was muffled inaudibly. When he first appeared as an apparently exhausted prizefighter in The Set-Up however, almost everyone kept their hands apart, as if they realized they'd might miss something if they succumbed to the urge to clap. Ryan's ovation wasn't enough to put a dent in a tremendous second viewing of Ophüls's greatest Hollywood film (according to Jean-Luc Godard), which frequently demonstrated how the German Jewish émigré's fascination with complicated camera movements encouraged a more naturalistic treatment of dialogue than that of his peers. More than once actors would stumble over a line of dialogue in a way that felt very much in line with their characters' state of mind; one imagines another director insisting on a new take, but for Ophüls each take is more of an undertaking. As James Mason, the third star of Caught, would later explain in verse:

I think I know the reason why
Producers tend to make him cry.
Inevitably they demand
Some stationary set-ups, and
A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again."

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