Monday, February 11, 2008

Noir City takes on the Emerald City

Stephen McNally roughs up Ida Lupino in
Woman in Hiding

Noir City at SIFF
SIFF Cinema, Seattle, WA

Once again, the Film Noir Foundation ( ) is bringing a week of crime, mad love, death and despair to the citizens of Seattle, this time as part of the SIFF Winter 2008 program. Scarecrow Video is co-sponsoring Noir City with the FNF. The proceeds will benefit the FNF and their mission to preserve and restore film noirs for theatrical presentation. Tickets and program information are available at Eddie Muller, author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, and the president and founder of the FNF, will host the films, seven double features playing on consecutive nights. The FNF slightly scaled down this version of Noir City from the San Francisco event which was ten days and twenty films. Full program notes from the San Francisco festival are available at ) Films available on DVD have their distributor noted next to their production dates.

The opening 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 its release. 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. He 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), date from this period. The FNF funded the restoration of The Prowler.
Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart clinch in High Sierra
The next double feature consists of High Sierra (1941) (Warner Home Video), and The Hard Way (1943). High Sierra replaced Repeat Performance (1947), which screened in San Francisco, changing the programming focus from actress Joan Leslie to Ida Lupino. In addition, two more Lupino films are playing during the week, Woman in Hiding (1950) and Road House (1948) resulting in a rather nice tribute to this highly talented Hollywood icon. These four films showcase Lupino's diversity; she plays tough but good girls, obsessive ruthless women and women in jeopardy with equal conviction. Hell, she even sings and plays the piano in Roadhouse. This quartet of films allows her to be vulnerable, tough, wise-cracking and smart, sometimes all at the same time. Even when she plays the unsympathetic role in The Hard Way, she manages to connect emotionally with the audience. Although, I like the emphasis on Lupino that results, I was saddened that Seattle audiences will miss the excellent, and rare, Repeat Performance (1947), one of the best films screened at Noir City 6.
Tuesday 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 unwinnable, battle with alcoholism.
The next evening includes a screening of another Ida Lupino film that is unavailable on DVD, Woman in Hiding (1950). It is paired up with the terse, edge of your seat thriller Jeopardy (1953) (WHV) on Monday February 18th, forming an excellent woman in jeopardy double feature. Women in jeopardy films feature a woman in a perilous situation with the dramatic tension lying in whether or not she will survive. Of course, when the women are Barbara Stanwyck and Ida Lupino, it's a little tough to believe that they are in all that much jeopardy; especially, when Miss Stanwyck picks up a tire iron and hides it behind her back.
Another out-of-print Lupino film plays on Wednesday the 20th, Roadhouse (1948). Who can resist a film noir that takes place in a bowling alley with a piano bar? This rarity doubles with Jules Dassin's brilliant ode to desperation and failure, Night and the City (1950) (Criterion Collection) in honor of the actor Richard Widmark. The rarity of the first film and the beauty of the print of the second film more then justify a trip to the theatre. 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)
Charles McGraw, Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl
in Reign of Terror
On Tuesday the 19th, Noir City pays tribute to actor and perpetual heavy Charles McGraw by screening two Anthony Mann films that feature him, Reign of Terror (1949) (Reel Classic Films) and Border Incident (1949) (WHV) Both films stretch the boundaries of the festival, since they bend the traditional definition of film noir to include a period piece and a film with an agricultural setting. Although these films are available on DVD, Reign of Terror alone should be incentive enough to attend the theatrical screening, since the film print is far superior to the one available on DVD.
Humphrey Bogart in Conflict
Closing night features two films, unavailable on DVD, in a murderous husband double feature, Conflict (1945) and The Suspect (1944). Conflict stars Humphrey Bogart as the deadly husband and fellow Maltese Falcon alum, Sydney Greenstreet as his suspicious friend. The Suspect stars an amazingly sympathetic Charles Laughton in a touching performance as a reluctant murderer. Frankly every double this year is worth a trip to the theatre. However, if you only can get to a few, I would recommend the doubles of The Prowler and Gun Crazy; Night and the City and Roadhouse, and Conflict and The Suspect.
For more on the San Francisco Noir City event please see my other articles:

Friday, February 1, 2008

Noir and a Whole Lot More.

Cops confront Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

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

Hangover Square (Fox Home Entertainment)
Dangerous Crossing (Fox Home Entertainment)
Reign of Terror (Alpha Video)
Border Incident (Warner Home Video)

Once again the question comes up, what exactly is film noir? It defies easy categorization, unlike other genres, for instance, westerns or horror films. Those genres are readily definable and have existed since the beginning of the film history and continue to be made today. Instead, noir resembles an art movement, a series of artist (writers, directors, cinematographers etc) all working in a similar style and on similar subject matters, sometimes independently, sometimes in collaboration, produce a remarkably uniform end product. Like many art movements, the artist themselves don't come up with the name and parameters of their style, but rather critics identify the movements and their key elements later. In this case, the French authors Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, in their seminal book A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953, identified, named and cataloged the common denominators of film noir. Ever since then, the arguments have raged about what is and what isn't a true film noir.

Most critics and academics agree that the noir period began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ended in 1958 with Touch of Evil. Most agree that the visual style is marked by high contrast black and white photography, an above average amount of unusual camera angles; chiaroscuro lighting; urban locations; enclosed claustrophobic settings; and a preponderance of night shots. Most would agree that the script typically involves a fast moving and complicated plot, first person narration and use of extended flashbacks. Often the storyline features a hero who decides to follow a dangerous course of action to get money and a dame and winds up with neither. The dame is usually a femme fatale, a woman of dangerous sexuality who betrays the man (and several others) for her own purposes. Now, this is where things get tricky, some critics consider the excellent Leave Her to Heaven (1945) film noir, but many would automatically disqualify it, because it was shot in color. What about Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951)? Does the desert setting automatically disqualify it?
When I wrote an article detailing my favorite all time noirs ( I stated, "I have a very definite sense of what film noir is- so no color films on this list or sub-genres like noir western, gangster films, heist films or police procedurals, and nothing past the 50s. For me, noir must have an actual crime, deep-seated emotional conflicts, dangerous desire and take place in a morally ambiguous universe typically located in a rain soaked city where it always seems to be night. Witty sarcastic dialog preferred." I still feel that way. However, I don't necessarily want to spend 10 days watching 20 films with the same setting and storyline. So, I greatly appreciate the Noir City 6 programmers for opening up the festival to some films that clearly challenge the traditional definition of noir. Plus, it's fun to hear the audience argue over whether or not the film was noir enough to be screened. It's heartening to hear the passion they all have for the genre, or is it a style?
Linda Darnell in Hangover Square
Hangover Square (1953) and Dangerous Crossing (1953) played together in celebration of Fox Home Entertainment's DVD Film Noir Collection on Tuesday night. Tellingly, in terms of the controversy over what constitutes noir, Fox themselves did not release Hangover Square as part of their noir collection but rather as part of their Fox Horror Classics Collection. The film is based on an exceedingly noir novel by Patrick Hamilton set in contemporary World War Two London. Fox bought the property, and after the success of star Laird Cregar in The Lodger (1944) (Fox), a Jack the Ripper story, they decided to transpose the novel to the Victorian period and make the protagonist a concert pianist. The setting maybe Victorian, but the story remains pure noir.
Cregar portrays the sympathetic George Harvey Bone, an emotionally high strung composer who suffers from periodic blackouts. He fears, correctly, that he has committed acts of violence during these blank periods. Amnesia is a common motif in film noir, as is the cheap gold digger who uses the protagonist for her own ends and then dumps him. In this case, Linda Darnell, who played an almost identical role the same year in the Otto Preminger's most definitely noir Fallen Angel (Fox), renders the tramp Netta to vixenish perfection. Of course, per usual film noir, the sucker/hero abandons the good girl who loves him and destroys himself in his reckless pursuit of the femme fatale. Murder and a truly spectacularly fiery ending ensue. Clearly the storyline and the characters are typically noir; only the Victorian setting makes the noir label debatable in this case.
Dangerous-Crossing_photo.jpgJeanne Crain and Michael Rennie talk things over
in Dangerous Crossing
The inclusion of the second film of the evening, Dangerous Crossing (1953), in Fox's Film Noir Collection raised more than a few eyebrows. Sometimes, it seems as if it's a crime thriller and it's in black and white, Fox is pretty much game to include it in their series. Dangerous Crossing, while not noir, is a good thriller with a clever twist ending. The film features a couple of noir traits. For one, a relentless sense of paranoia and danger engulfs the heroine constantly, making her world both hostile and dreamlike. Secondly, the setting of the enclosed space of the ship gives the story an intense feeling of claustrophobia.
Director Anthony Mann Enjoying a Stogie
The next night, in a tribute to noir stalwart Charles McGraw, the programmers included two more borderline noirs, Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (1949) and Border Incident (1949). Both were directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton who had previously collaborated on three noir classics, T-Men (1947) , Raw Deal (1948) , and He Walked by Night (1948). The noir style clearly influences Reign of Terror. In fact, I would qualify this film as noir despite its historical setting and relatively happy, but still violent, ending. Visually this film displays the noir style- high contrast black and white photography, many high and low angled shots as well as extreme close ups, and the chiaroscuro lighting. At one point Venetian blinds cast their familiar shadow on the wall- in Revolutionary France!
The narrative of the film also displays most of the major noir traits. The opening sequence features a narrator who introduces the political situation, and its major players, to the audience in the newsreel style reminiscent of noirs like The Naked City (1948). The hero functions as a detective and his storyline belongs to the noir detective film. He goes undercover to undermine a group of ruthless killers (the Revolutionary government) and topple a king pin (Robespierre). The king pin is ruthless, slightly neurotic and powerful. Our hero only has twenty four hours to recover an object, the black book, which will bring about the destruction of the group. While trying to recover the book, he encounters a beautiful old flame that he's not sure he can trust. The dialog rings with the cynicism endemic to noir. When his ex-lover invites him to meet her at a tavern later, he replies, "Seems I remember an appointment we had four years ago. Only one of us showed up. The stupid one. Your Charles has grown up to be a smart boy, now." She counters with "I'll be waiting.' He responds with, "I wouldn't count the minutes." This exchange, as well as the style, plot and characters of the film, belong to a noir, not an eighteenth century adventure story.
Characters actors up to no good in Border Incident
Border Incident, if you consider the crime documentary as part of the noir cycle, would also qualify as noir, despite its rural setting. The crime documentary or police procedural, usurped noir's dominance of the crime genre in the fifties. Many film writers consider the crime documentary as a sub-genre of noir. Others argue they are two distinct genres. Both types of stories center on crime but with a major difference- traditional noir tells the story from the point of view of the criminals, whereas the crime documentary tells the story from the point of view of the investigators. In traditional noir, if the story centers on a police officer, he is usually in the middle of a moral crisis, as in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). This narrative shift is indicative of a deeper shift, from a cynical world view where everyone is of questionable morality to a simpler one where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad.
Border Incident tells the story of two undercover immigration agents, one Mexican, Pablo and one American, Jack. The film details their investigation of an illegal immigrant smuggling ring. Pablo pretends to be a bracero, an agricultural worker, and Jack pretends to be a dealer in stolen immigration papers. Together they infiltrate the racket from both the criminal and the victim sides. The film's narrative structure belongs to the criminal documentary, but the tone is decidedly noirish. Alton's cinematography, the preponderance of night shots and the way in which each member of the racket constantly tries to double cross the other members contribute to create the unstable and dangerous universe typical of noir. Most importantly, the intense and brutal violence visited upon the innocent braceros, and even onto the undercover agents, nullifies the opening and closing narrations attempt to reassure the audience that good has triumphed over evil.
With the screenings of Hangover Square, Dangerous Crossing, Reign of Terror and Border Incident, Noir City 6 has pushed its programming borders beyond traditional noir creating a more varied and exciting festival. These boundaries will be pushed even further in the future. Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, presenters of the San Francisco International Film Festival announced that SFFS would be joining forces with the Film Noir Foundation to present an International Film Noir event. This event promises to open up even more discussion on what noir is and isn't and especially what noir means beyond the world of American cinema.
For more discussion of Noir City 6 go to: