Monday, January 29, 2007

Why Is Everyone So Sarcastic?

Noir City 5: Days Two and Three
Cry Danger (1951, Dir. Robert Parish
Special Guest: Richard Earlman
Abandoned (1949, Dir. Joseph M. Newman)
Hell's Half Acre (1954, Dir. John Auer)
99 River Street (1953, Dir. Phil Karlson)

Hell's Half Acre

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:

More Noir City 5 Articles:

Day Two of the San Francisco Film Noir Festival featured a double bill of films written by Bill Bowers. Bowers' plots may have been run of the mill, but his dialog was some of the best in noir. In the first film, Cry Danger (available on VHS from Republic) the terminally sarcastic Dick Powell stars as Rocky. A phony alibi has recently sprung him form the pen where he was serving a life sentence for a murder and robbery. When he gets out he immediately sets out to expose Castro, a ruthless thug who he thinks actually committed the robbery. He also wants the $50, 0000 he feels Castro owes him for time he did in jail for Castro's crime.

Supposedly Rocky wound up in jail because he was framed; I think it was his complete inability to answer any question without making a smart ass rejoinder, regardless of the gravitas of the situation, that actually landed him in jail. When Castro asks him, after an initial payoff of $4,000, "What do you plan to do with all the dough?" Rocky responds "I plan to get an operation, so I can play the violin again." His semi-alcoholic sidekick, portrayed by the great character actor Richard Erdman who attended the noir festival, is equally as witty. When cutie blonde trailer trash, Darlene sees him take a morning shot of bourbon she asks, "You drinkin' that stuff so early?" He replies, "Listen, doll girl, when you drink as much as I do, you gotta start early."
The second half of the double feature was Abandoned (not available on VHS or DVD) which Bowman script doctored adding much need wit to a fairly turgid story of a woman, Paula, who comes to the big city to find her missing sister. She finds out her sister was killed by some very nasty racketeers running an illegal adoption ring. Along with a charming local reporter, an unwed mother and the D.A. she busts up the racket. The real standout in the film was Raymond Burr as the corrupt private investigator who plays both sides against the middle. The scene where the racketeers torture him with a pack of matches is discreetly shot but incredibly brutal.
On day three, the festival screened two Evelyn Keys films, neither on VHS or DVD, Hell's Half Acre and 99 River Street. Keyes left me unimpressed as an actress, but the two films were great. In Hell's Half Acre, Keyes plays Donna Williams. Donna travels to Honolulu and searches the sleazy tenement district, Hell's Half Acre, for Chet Chester an ex-racketeer hunting down the killer of his girlfriend. Donna believes Chet may be her husband reported missing in action twelve years earlier during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
What makes this film great is not the leads or the plot but a triumvirate of character actors giving completely unrestrained performances as the heavies. First, there's Phillip Ahn, a great actor, whose career followed the path of most Asian American actors of the classic period: Charlie Chan film, Japanese baddie, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Korean soldier, servants/small shop owners, tong leader and finally one of David Carradine's mentors on Kung Fu. In Hell's Half Acre, he portrays the lead bad guy with great gusto. In this pot boiler, he betrays the lead, murders two people with his bare hands and carries on a torrid affair with a married white woman played by Marie Windsor. Marie steals the show as Ahn's mistress. She's delightfully trashy and has a great drunk scene. Jessie White plays her slovenly husband. Better known for comedy, he strikes just the right balance between pathetic loser and menacing sleaze ball. He's quite effective in a scene where he drunkenly attempts to assault Keyes.
By the way, if you think I'm kidding about Love is A Many-Splendored Thing, then check out the scene where the heroine introduces William Holden to her Chinese family- it's a who's who of 1950s Asian American actors.
In 99 River Street, other more compelling characters overwhelm Keyes. It's really John Payne's film. Like Dick Powell, he transitioned from light musical comedy to film noir after the war. He gives a surprisingly complex performance as an embittered ex-boxer who simmers with barely controlled rage. He drives a cab, dreams of owning a gas station and argues a lot with his beautiful but shrewish wife, Pauline who married him when he was poised to become the champ. Unbeknownst to him, she has plans to move on. She's tied up in a jewel theft and with the handsome thief, Victor Rollins. When Payne goes to pick her up at the florist shop he sees her in the arms of Rollins. After a series of dizzying plot twists, Payne finds himself hunted by the police for Pauline's murder and in turn playing the hunter. He has to find Rollins so he can clear himself before Rollins leaves the country or his cohorts in crime gun him down. Keyes' plays the struggling actress eager to help him and fearful for his precarious situation. When she points out the danger he's in he replies, "It's dangerous to cross the street. Or to park your cab in front of a florist shop." Words to live by.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Descent into Darkness

Noir City 5: Day One
Raw Deal (1948, Dir. Anthony Mann)
Kid Glove Killer (1942, Dir. Fred Zinneman)
Special Guest: Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt torn between naughty Lee Bowman and nice Van Heflin

The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday, January 26th-Sunday, February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:

More Noir City 5 Articles:

Noir City 5 opened with two films, Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) (available on DVD from Roan Archival Group) and Fred Zinneman's Kid Glove Killer (1942) (never available on home video). The two films were probably doubled up because of their star, Marsh Hunt who appeared at the festival and commented on both films and her career. However, the pairing of these two films served another purpose; they illuminate the deepening and darkening of film noir over the course of its cycle, the shifting of the emphasis in film noir from the external to the internal.

Kid Glove Killer opens with the election of a new mayor who promises to clean up the city and smash the protection rackets bleeding the small business owners. What he doesn't know is that his right hand man, Gerald I. Ladimer, is in bed with the racketeers using his position with the mayor to shield the head of the racket in return for money and a promising political career. Ladimer arranges for the murder of the D.A. to prevent the exposure of the big boss, Matty. Later Ladimer kills the mayor with a homemade bomb. The film follows two forensics experts, Gordon McKay and his beautiful assistant Jane Mitchell (Marsha Hunt) as they investigate both murders. Here the audience is asked to identify with the investigators on their quest for justice. The audience identifies with the good guys and waits for the forces of right and reason to expose the criminal for the benefit of the little guy, represented by restaurant owner, Eddie Wright.
Six years later, audience identification shifts radically in Raw Deal from the investigators to the criminal and his accomplices. Here the film focuses on Joe who escapes from the penitentiary aided by the willing Pat and the seemingly unwilling Ann. The man hunting him down, Police Captain Fields has only a few scenes and absolutely no character development. The characters who concern us are not the protectors of law and order but the ones who threaten it. Both films feature a love triangle; in Kid Glove Killer Jane is torn between the secretly criminal Ladimer and the upright McKay and in Raw Deal Joe is torn between "bad girl" Pat and "good girl" Ann.
These two love triangles illustrate profoundly the shift in film noir from external concerns to internal concerns and in doing so the how the genre moved from light tales of the forces of good triumphing over evil to complex stories dealing with people who struggle with the good and evil within themselves and even the question of what is right and what is wrong. In Kid Glove Killer, the triangle remains strictly surface, there's no real suspense in the question of who Jane will wind up with, once Ladimer is exposed, the audience knows she'll wind up in the arms of McKay. The focus here is on his exposure as the bad guy. On the other hand, in Raw Deal, Ann knows that Joe is a criminal but she sees the good in him, the heart of gold. Here the suspense centers around who will Joe pick the good girl or the bad girl and more importantly what way of life will he choose?
This is where things get complicated. In Kid Glove Killer Jane secretly wants to marry her boss, but agrees to marry Ladimer since he is ambitious and actually expresses interest in her. Later when she comes back to the lab after Ladimer's exposure as the criminal and the racket's been busted up; McKay breaks down and proposes to her. Her mission is accomplished; she is married and can give up the career she hates for the career she wants: Wife. In Raw Deal the criminal Joe actually starts to buy into the same suburban dream. Oddly when he chooses "bad girl" Pat he is choosing to be a husband and father (granted as an escaped criminal living in Panama). Pat is at first overjoyed by his decision, but guilt and more importantly, an understanding that she wins him only by default, drives her to tell him the truth that Ann is being held by his psychotic boss in an effort to force Joe out of hiding and be killed.
So here the externally "bad girl", Pat a gangsters moll from the wrong side of the tracks, is actually the "good girl". She is lovingly devoted to Joe and if he chooses to go with her to Panama, Joe can live out life as a husband and father leaving behind his life of crime. She is a fresh start, hope and ultimately more of a Madonna figure than Ann. Ann, externally the "good girl", a woman who struggled along, playing by the rules, to build a humble but morally upright life for herself, ultimately becomes the "bad girl". Her love for Joe and his for her is sexually charged in a way that it isn't with Pat. When he chooses to act on his love for her he ultimately chooses self destruction. He dies in her arms. His decision is an immediate impulse as opposed to the lengthy rationalization he employees to talk himself into staying with Pat. His passionate love for the "good girl" has destroyed him as surely as if he's fallen for a femme fatale. Both women are left heartbroken. Pat must face both the death of her loved one and the realization that he preferred to die in another woman's arms then to live in hers. Ann loses her lover, has to live with being the one who drove him to his destruction and has to live knowing that she was not the girl she thought she was. This is a far cry from Jane's game of musical fiancees.
Ultimately, the pairing of Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal illustrates clearly how film noir moved away from a simple world view to a highly complex one. The move from the American Dream of a stable society, where the bad guy is exposed, the hero wins the heroine and they live happily ever after to a shadowy underworld, where the whole notion of good and bad is questioned and there is no happily ever after, just existential angst or death.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Welcome to Noir City

Noir City 5


The San Francisco Film Noir Festival
Friday January 26th-Sunday February 4th, 2007
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco, CA
For a complete listing of the screenings go to:
More Noir City 5 Articles:

So what if you have to double cross your war buddy and take all the dough from the heist you've planned with him for months? Or embezzle a small fortune from your boss? Or maybe knock off your unwanted spouse and collect the insurance money? Won't it be worth it to sit at the historic Castro Theatre for ten glorious days and watch twenty films about people like you, people that had the guts to grab for what they want? Of course, you might want to remind yourself that most of them wound up dead. But won't it be worth it? After all she might be there waiting for you.

Yeah, she will be there, Marsha Hunt, star of RAW DEAL and KID GLOVE KILLER. Wouldn't you like to meet her at the reception? Watch those two classic films with her? Hear all those great stories about the making of the films, about her career and about those days in Hollywood? A dame who had to struggle against black listing in the fifties could probably teach a punk like you a thing or two about life. Richard Erdman will be at the festival too. He'll be grilled on stage about his role in CRY DANGER.
We're not talking about any twenty film noirs. Go ahead watch the same old movies in your cramped little apartment while the rain beats monotonously against the windows till you snap. Miss more then twelve films that have never been released on VHS or DVD. No one thought I WALK ALONE would see the light of day again. But there it will be on the big screen. A 35mm archival print of it surfaced sort of like that body you thought you buried so long ago. Then there's the new 35mm print of I LOVE TROUBLE struck especially for Noir City Five. Do you have any idea what programmer Anita Monga had to go through to get that print? To get restored 35mm prints of THE BIG COMBO and THE SPIRTUALIST? All so you could see them in their full black and white glory on the big screen. Don't you think you owe her something?
If all this won't convince you then there's just this. Wouldn't it be great to watch these films, even the ones you've seen before, on the big screen with a bunch of other movie lovers and listen to Eddie Muller, founder and president of The Film Noir Foundation and author of DARK CITY, tell you a thing or two about them. You may have caught him at SIFF last year when he brought us Seattleites two great and rare film noirs, THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF and THE WINDOW. He also taught us a lesson. Film noir boils down to this, "people who know they're doing the wrong thing and do it anyway." So do what it takes, and get your self down to San Francisco and spend ten days watching other people destroy their lives.