Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Elliot Lavine, former programming director for the Roxie Film Center, helped set new standards for art house cinemas with his film noir festivals, classic revivals and popular premieres. In conjunction with the anticipated publication of TV Noir: I Wake Up Dreaming, Lavine returns to the Roxie with "two weeks of darkly demented, baffling B budget curios of the American style—most not available on DVD and many not seen in theaters for decades." Under the aegis of "I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir", come May 15 through May 28 noir aficionados will be treated to Lavine's unique curatorial dexterity. Not only that, but—perhaps in preparation for the Roxie's 100th birthday (check out Cinema Treasures historical purview)—seats from the recently-demolished Coronet have been installed for greater viewing comfort.

The entire line-up for "I Wake Up Dreaming: The Haunted World of the B Film Noir" can be found at the Roxie's official website where—as indicated—"From 1990 until 2003, San Francisco's Roxie Theater enjoyed a reputation as being the foremost venue in the entire Bay Area for the absolute best in quality, esoteric film noir." What, one might question, distinguishes Lavine's noir festival from Eddie Muller's highly successful and popular Noir City venued at the Castro? "The focus of this series," the Roxie's website asserts, "is the shadowy and gritty world of the B noir. These are not the glitzy and glamorous classics most filmgoers are familiar with. Rather, they are the doomed and forgotten, rough and ready step-children of Hollywood's lower depths; poverty row gems that, in many ways, capture the true, brutal essence of noir far better than many of their upper-crust cousins." That, in itself, isn't much of a distinction from Noir City whose programs in recent years have included several of the titles appearing in the Roxie line-up. Clearly, then, the distinction must be the Roxie itself and Lavine's program ends up being something of a devoted noir valentine to the venue. To paraphrase, the Roxie captures the true, brutal essence of noir in contrast to its upper crust cousin the Castro Theatre. I'm being facetious of course. By way of Noir City at the Castro, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, noir, pulp and grindhouse have gained a heightened profile on the San Franciscan cinematic landscape. It's almost as if one film noir festival is too many while two is simply not enough.

At a press screening announcing the series, I caught Felix Feist's 1947 The Devil Thumbs A Ride. Crisply-paced (one reviewer claims "relentlessly") at 62 minutes, this cautionary tale warns against allowing a sociopathic murderer to insinuate himself into your vehicle—no matter how handsome and charming he is—and is reminiscent of Ida Lupino's The Hitch-hiker (1953) and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945). Lavine considers The Devil Thumbs A Ride to be "one of the most blatantly nasty (and under-appreciated) B noirs of all time, with a singularly fierce central performance from its legendary dark star, Lawrence Tierney." In complete agreement is Barry Gifford who appropriated the film's title for his book on "unforgettable" noirs, claiming that—on the basis of Tierney's "vicious and amoral" performance alone—The Devil Thumbs A Ride "must be ranked in the upper echelon of indelibly American noirs."

Goatdog's Movies does a fine job of synopsizing the film's convoluted plot for those who like to know their stories beforehand and adds: "There's an art in making a good genre film, one that's happy to inhabit its genre without going all postmodern. The film has to satisfy the expectations of fans of the genres, and it should distinguish itself by doing a handful of things especially well or slightly differently. This programmer from RKO has most of the things you'd expect from a low-budget noir, and just enough innovation to please the casual fan."

At All Movie Guide, Hal Erickson admits that The Devil Thumbs A Ride is not a "great" film by any means but concedes that it "nonetheless has an indefinable audience allure that sucks the viewer into its labyrinthine storyline and doesn't let go until the fade-out." Craig Butler likewise observes that the film exerts an "undeniable attraction" and that "it succeeds in spite of itself."

Not every reviewer has been enthusiastic, of course.
Dennis Schwartz claims that "Feist fills both the police car and the hitcher's car with noir characters, but it ends up as a ride to nowhere."

Myself, I track with Lavine, Gifford and Butler in recognizing that it's Tierney's engaging performance as the ruthless Steve Morgan that carries this film. "He fascinates from his first moment on the screen," Butler writes, "and the audience finds itself totally drawn in by him." Noir of the Week adds that Tierney's performance "straddles the precarious line between big-talking charmer and desperate psycho-on-the-lam" and that "[a]s the titular Devil, Tierney pretty much knocks it out of the park—consistently displaying both a welcome restraint, and a knack for sudden persona changes." As pointed out by Nate at Real Political Face Talk, Lawrence Tierney is probably best recognized today as the lug of a boss that puts together the "Reservoir Dogs" in Quentin Tarantino's film of the same name (a stroke of deferential casting on Tarantino's part) but Tierney had a longstanding reputation throughout the 1940s and '50s playing tough, mean hoods, even though rumor has it he chafed against the typecasting. Largely unfamiliar with Tierney's work—other than his brief role in Val Lewton's Ghost Ship where he's crushed to death by the anchor chain—Tierney's rugged good looks and sinister charisma have caught my attention and I look forward to exploring some of his other noirs, such as his breakout performance in Dillinger (1945) and Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947), co-starring Claire Trevor.

Butler insightfully notates that—in most films where audiences become engaged with a sociopathic killer—the "hero" is usually not far behind the villain in engaging audience support; but, this isn't necessarily the case in The Devil Thumbs A Ride. Instead, it's "bad girl" Agnes (Betty Lawford) who comes in second in terms of audience interest. Blowsy, boozey, brassy, and questionably blonde, Lawford (Peter's cousin)—in her last role—embodies the noir stereotype fully. She behaves deplorably, appreciates the meat in the man, earns our disdain, and yet we enjoy her for it. The "good" couple—the "affably inebriated" Fergie (Ted North) and naïve wanna-be actress Carol (Nan Leslie)—"barely register," Butler writes, "and when they do it's only because viewers know that they're supposed to be on their side and feel obligated to give them some support."

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1 comment:

Michael Hawley said...

I'm really hoping to catch some of these (and luxuriate in those new Roxie seats!)