Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"California is wonderful; if you're a grapefruit."

Joan Leslie in Repeat Performance

Noir City 6
The Castro Theatre
San Francisco
January 25th - February 3rd, 2008
Opening Weekend Review

Despite torrential rain, Noir City 6's opening weekend boasted record attendance. Actually watching film noirs in a movie palace like the Castro Theatre in a rain soaked city was quite fitting especially when surrounded by an audience full of guys in raincoats and fedoras and dolls dressed to the nines. Not to mention the stinging taste of the free bourbon served before the show, at the reception for full series pass holders, attended by actress Joan Leslie. The first night's programming was an homage to the actress and featured a live on stage interview with her.

The festival opened with a screening of a 16mm print of Repeat Performance (1947) (unavailable on DVD) since no 35mm is in existence. The print owned by the rights holder was so damaged that it couldn't be run through a projector. Luckily, not one but two Bay area residents had offered the Noir City organizers their own prints as back up. The rarity of the film was not the only thing recommending its inclusion in Noir City 6. This well made film lives up to its intriguing premise. A young actress shots her husband on New Years Eve and gets her desperate wish granted- a chance to relive the year over again in hopes of avoiding the same fate. Excellent acting, writing and direction elevate this thriller to a meditation on the nature of destiny. Try as she may, the heroine cannot alter fate significantly. As Richard Basehart (in his astoundingly good film debut as the mad poet William Williams) comments about destiny at the end of the film, "I don't think she cares about the pattern as long as the result is the same."
In all honesty, by the end of the first day of her relived year, I wanted her to shoot her god awful husband right then and spare herself another year with him. Louis Heyward portrays said husband perfectly. He is not an over the top villain but rather a realistically self-centered alcoholic unfaithful playwright who blames his wife for his own failures. The writer Walter Bullock, the director Alfred L. Werker, and Heyward all work together to imbue Barney, as with all the characters and their actions in the film, with a realism that serves to counterbalance the implausibility of the premise and so makes the film believable and emotionally honest. For example, the scenes between the husband and the wife are quite painful in their depiction of marital strife. All this reshapes the piece from a clever fantasy into a heartfelt drama.
In between the two pictures, Film Noir Foundation president and author Eddie Muller interviewed Joan Leslie on stage. She gave a captivating summary of her life in and out of film. Joan, along with her two sisters, helped support her family during the Great Depression by going on stage with a variety act . She went to Hollywood, at the tender age of nine, under contract with MGM and made one film, Camille (1936)(Warner Home Video) starring Greta Garbo whom the young girl was thrilled to meet. After being dropped by MGM, she went back to New York to rejoin her family. Then her sister Nancy received a contract with Universal and brought Joan back out to Hollywood. Joan tested for Warner Brothers and was put under contract with them. At Warners, she costarred with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino in High Sierra(1941), with Gary Cooper in Sergeant York(1941)(WHV) and with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)(WHV). The parts she was offered, as well as the films that they were in, began to decline in quality and Joan fought with Warner Brothers to break her contract. Eventually, she was dropped by the studio and made several films as an independent. After she met and married Doctor William Caldwell, she retired from the screen to devote herself to her marriage, raise her twin girls and start a second career in fashion design. She did return to acting later taking a few roles in the 80s and 90s on television.
Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie in The Hard Way
The second feature in Joan Leslie's tribute was another rarity not available on DVD, The Hard Way (1943). The great Ida Lupino co-stars as Leslie's older sister who is determined to make her little sister a star at any price. This film is more of melodrama then a traditional noir and belongs to The Mildred Pierce (1945)(WHV) school- films that are curious hybrids of two different genres, the women's picture and the crime thriller. The film does a great job depicting Lupino's character Helen's monomaniacal obsession with her sister Katie's career and with Katie's growing disillusionment with both the actor's life and with her older sister. Dennis Morgan's fairly wooden performance as both sisters' love interest detracted from the film. However, Jack Carson's heartfelt performance, as Katie's sweet natured and ultimately victimized husband, added greatly to the film's representation of Katie's conflicting drives for material success and loyalty to her sister on one hand and personal happiness on the other.
On Saturday night, the festival sold out the Castro Theatre which has 1300 seats making it the most successful night in Noir City's history. Good news for noir fans everywhere as festival revenues make up the bulk of the money that supports the Film Noir Foundation and their mission to preserve and restore film noirs. Saturday night's program featured a double feature of The Prowler and Gun Crazy in tribute to blacklisted writer Donald Trumbo and was hosted by crime writer, and all around noir guy, James Ellroy who gave a profane and cynical introduction to the first film. He described the basic theme of film noir in two words, "You're f#$%ed." Nestled in between the two features was the world premier of the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller's (author and the president of the FNF), short film The Grand Inquisitor (2008)based on his own short story.
Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes in The Prowler
The Prowler (1951) (unavailable on DVD) starred Van Heflin as a disgruntled policeman who starts an affair with the married and lonely Evelyn Keyes. Complications ensue as unbeknownst to her; he hatches a plan to eliminate her husband. In an interesting reversal of film noir conventions, this film features a homme fatale who lures a bourgeois married woman into his web of intrigue. The film also distinguishes itself with its performances. Heflin strikes just the right balance of bravado and desperation as a man dissatisfied with his life but unable to accept that his actions brought him there. Keyes plays to perfection a conflicted character who tries to fool herself into thinking Heflin is a better man than he is. The print was newly restored by the FNF and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
The Grand Inquisitor
Next in the evening's line up was the world premier of The Grand Inquisitor (2008)(unavailable on DVD) which hailed Eddie Muller's directorial debut and the return of ninety year old actress Marsha Hunt to the big screen. Hunt gives a terrific performance as a woman, who may or may not be the widow of the notorious and uncaught Zodiac killer, who is confronted by a young woman obsessed with knowing the truth and somehow personally connected to a Zodiac victim. The story, while giving the audience some good twists and turns, also maintains an emotional honesty that gives the short thriller some real depth. The film was based on Muller's own short story available in the noir inspired short story collection, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir(2007)(Busted Flush Press), edited by writer Megan Abbott who introduced the film at the festival.
Peggy Cummins proves that she's as mad as a bag of ferrets in Gun Crazy
Gun Crazy (1950) (WHV) finished off the night in spectacular style. The film successfully combines two distinct film styles- a documentary realism and an intensely romantic lyricism- to spin the tale of two gun obsessed soul mates and their inevitable violence strewn path to self-destruction. This combination of opposite styles has had a lasting impact on filmmakers from Truffaut to Tarantino. The realistic depiction of the crimes, for instance the use of hand held cameras and long takes instead of quickly edited shots, puts the audience directly into the action. The director, Joseph H Lewis, makes the audience feel like they are right in the middle of the robbery. Besides stimulating the audience emotionally, this technique also makes the audience empathize with the robbers.
Lewis and the un-credited screen-writer Trumbo, at the same time, depict a passionate and over the top relationship between the two leads You just know when they meet for the first time, and challenge each other to light matches off each others heads by shooting at them with handguns, that they're right for each other and irrevocably doomed. The film successfully walks a fine line between high emotional drama and black comedy that borders on campiness. Somehow screen writer Donald Trumbo and director Joseph H Lewis made lines like; "We go together like guns and ammunition." and "Two people had to die so we could live without working." come off seriously. This balance between reality and lyricism continues to the end of the film. The ending sequence is one of the most gorgeously eerie I've seen, but even as they are shrouded in ghostly fog the criminals on the run are dirty and disheveled- no beautiful neat death for this pair.
So, the opening weekend of Noir City 6 was successful for both the organizers and the audience. The organizers benefited from all time record sales. The audience benefited from the thoughtful programming of films which were both rare and of high quality; interviews and introductions by fascinating and entertaining guests and best of all the opportunity to see these great little gems in the right setting- in a movie place, projected on a big screen, in the company of fellow film lovers. If the rest of the programming is as good as the first two days then noir lovers are in for a hell of a week.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

No Happy Endings

Noir City 6 Preview
January 25th- February 3rd, 2008
Castro Theatre, San Francisco

SIFF Cinema, Seattle
February 15- 21st, 2008

San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre once again morphs into Noir City from January 25th to February 3rd. Noir City, now in its sixth year, is an annual film festival devoted to showcasing film noirs- the taut, existential and usually low budget crime thrillers of the 40s and 50s. (For a further discussion of the film noir genre please see Wikipedia's extensive article, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir or my highly opinionated article http://www.siffblog.com/reviews/the_greatest_film_noirs_003776.html) The Film Noir Foundation produces the festival which serves to highlight their mission not just to preserve and restore film noir prints but also to make them available for theatrical screenings. This year's event boasts an eclectic variety of films many of which are not available on DVD, an array of special guests and even a world premiere. (The films that are available on DVD have their releasing company noted next to their titles.)

Joan Leslie and Ida Lupino in The Hard Way
The opening night of the festival features a tribute to actress Joan Leslie who will be interviewed live on stage in between screenings of Repeat Performance (1947) and The Hard Way (1943). Joan Leslie started her career as a child actress and went on to have a long career as a studio player at Warner Brothers. She is probably most famous for her turn as Velma the maddeningly ungrateful "good girl" in High Sierra (1941). Neither of the films being screened at her tribute is available on DVD. There are no existing 35mm prints of Repeat Performance; Films Around the World will be providing the festival with a 16mm print for the screening. Similarly Wade Williams will provide a 16mm print of D.O.A (1950)(Image Entertainment) on Thursday night. This film will be doubled with a brand new 35mm print of The Story of Molly X (1949) another rarely seen film noir.
Original Movie Poster for The Prowler
The second night of the festival honors screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who wrote the legendary anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun as well as the screenplays of A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)(Warner Home Video) and Tender Comrades (1943). The third film brought him personal disaster several years after the film was made. The House Committee on Un-American Activities cited it as an example of the communist propaganda allegedly being interjected into Hollywood films by left wingers. After being blacklisted in Hollywood, Trumbo moved to Mexico and continued to write screenplays for which he was paid but did not receive screen credit. Both films in his tribute The Prowler (1951) and Gun Crazy (1950)(WHV) are from this period. The print for the The Prowler is is a newly restored 35mm print. The 7:00 pm screening will be introduced by prominent crime writer James Ellroy. The world premier of The Grand Inquisitor (2008) a new short film written and directed by Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller, and starring 90 year old formerly blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt, precedes the evening screening of Gun Crazy.
Gail Russell and Dane Clark in Moonrise
The next evening commemorates actress Gail Russell with a screening of an archival print of Frank Borzage's Moonrise (1948) courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive as well as a new 35 mm print of Night Has 1000 Eyes (1948) which was struck by Universal Pictures exclusively for Noir City. Neither film is available on DVD. Gail Russell is probably best known for her role as John Wayne's love interest in Angel and the Badman(1947)(Delta). Her career was cut short due to a tragic and ultimately unwon battle with alcoholism. Other films screening at the festival which are not available on DVD are Woman In Hiding (1950) doubled with Jeopardy (1953)(WHV) on Monday the 28th; Conflict (1945) paired with fellow rarity The Suspect (1944) on Friday the 1st, The 3rd Voice (1960) partnered with the equally unavailable The Face Behind the Mask (1941) on Saturday, and finally, on the closing night of the festival, Roadhouse (1948). This last rarity is teamed up with Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950)(Criterion Collection) in honor of the actor Richard Widmark. The festival's program notes described the print as "stunning". This double feature demonstrates the range of Widmark's acting and proves that there is more to him then his iconic turn as the giggling psychopath who ties an old lady to her wheelchair and proceeds to shove her and the chair down a staircase in Kiss of Death (1947)(20th Century Fox)
A Fed about to meet a nasty end in Borderline
Two nights of the festival are devoted to films available on DVD but still well worth seeing in the theater. On Wednesday the 30th there will be a tribute to actor and perpetual heavy Charles McGraw. Alan Rode the author of Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy will be signing his book prior to the screening of two Anthony Mann films that feature McGraw, Reign of Terror (1949)(Reel Classic Films) and Border Incident (1949)(WHV). The screening the prior night, Tuesday the 29th, salutes 20th Century Fox's commitment to releasing film noirs for the home market. Both Hangover Square (1945) and Dangerous Crossing (1953) have been released on DVD as part of Fox's film noir collection. This evening also illustrates the FNF's stated mission to serve "as a conduit between film companies and repertory cinemas still eager to screen these films in 35mm. Revenues generated by ticket sales encourage studios film archives to strike new prints of films that are at risk of disappearing from public view, either through neglect or scarcity." (http://filmnoirfoundation.com)
Bogie admires Ida Lupino's grit in High Sierra
For a complete list of screenings, guests, and book signings at the festival, as well as ticket information, go to http://www.noircity.com/noircity.html A more compact version of Noir City will invade Rain City's SIFFCinema February 15th-21st and will be co-presented by Scarecrow Video and the FNF. Eddie Muller will be on hand to host the event which will benefit FNF. For program and ticket information go to http://www.seattlefilm.org/events/detail.aspx?FID=91 Most of the films are one's playing at the San Francisco event, however, you lucky dogs in Seattle get a screening of the Raoul Walsh classic High Sierra (1941)(Warner Home Video) which helped propel Humphrey Bogart into stardom.