Monday, January 31, 2011

NOIR CITY rundown

The wrap-up of the annual Noir City festival leaves this writer with mixed emotions. The festival's customary gaudy, self-aggrandizing showmanship continued unabated, which may be an inducement to a number of the festival's loyal, diehard fans, but has always left me cold. I have no interest in winning prizes, in the stale jokes surrounding this (or any) year's Miss Noir City, or in the tired, TIRED wisecracks of the hosts. As dire as a more po-faced presentation would be, I can't help but feel that the irreverence with which Eddie Muller and co. continue to approach the films they purport to love so much only diminishes them, and stokes the unfortunate tendency of the Castro Theatre audience to regard the films in a campier light than necessary (though it seems I'm not alone in feeling so - one patron, during a screening of SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... made my day by yelling in response to the titters that were steadily streaming through the audience, as did the woman who meekly offered: "I concur.")

That said, my consternation with the Film Noir Foundation's self-congratulation (and the same they cultivate in their audience) doesn't blind me to the nobility of their mission, or the quality of the films they present. There is a thrill that comes with these particular films unrolling during the usually cold month of January (among other things, it's nice to see Anita Monga, ousted years ago from her position as the Castro's programmer, bringing her curatorial intelligence back to its screen). The festival's balancing of classic noir (such as Otto Preminger's ANGEL FACE) with recently restored classics (like festival-closer THE HUNTED, starring actor/ice skater Belita) is as knowing and strong as ever, and the chance to catch up with favorite films and take in new films to the canon is, indeed, precious.

What I saw, briefly:

GASLIGHT - less a noir film than a murky period drama, the film of Patrick Hamilton's play benefits from solid characterizations, including one of my favorite performances from Joseph Cotten, believably smitten and, unlike Holly Martins, able to do right by the film's embattled heroine. I'm probably alone in wanting to see James Wan remake it.

STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT - cheap but credible Republic Gothic, with a returning WWII soldier tracking down his lady pen pal only to become enmeshed in the increasingly insane schemes of her mother (a gloriously unhinged Helen Thimig). Beautifully paced and packed into 56 suspenseful minutes by director Anthony Mann, but where similar stories would end with a house on fire, the danger of this one culminates with a painting falling on somebody. Beautiful.

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS - For reasons I don't understand, Muller apologized for this one in advance. But Humphrey Bogart is completely believable as a conflicted, artist-blocked painter, as is Barbara Stanwyck as his increasingly concerned and endangered spouse. The reveal of the portrait is a truly unsettling show-stopper - I wonder what became of the actual painting.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS - made the name of director Joseph H. Lewis, and it's easy to see why. If it's too similar to GASLIGHT (the setting of the "madness" theme for the festival resulted in a few cases of deja vu), its inversion of the amnesia storyline makes for some powerful suspense.

SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... - sorry to hear of the backstage conflicts between Fritz Lang and his creative team. If it's less visually ambitious than even the weirdest of his Hollywood films, it remains an assured and creepy take on the Bluebeard myth, with a lovely, dreamy Joan Bennett confronting the inner demons of perfect stranger Michael Redgrave. This one ends in flames. Muller and crew's insistence that the film is "incomprehensible" demeans it and them - the psychological throughline is completely credible, and its mirror to actual events in architectural history is fascinating (and I hope D., my fellow fancier of fetish and film, will sound off on these elements in the comments).

BLIND ALLEY - a very intriguing early Hollywood foray into the Freudian realm, with hostage psychologist Ralph Bellamy probing the psyche of desperate gangster Chester Morris.

ANGEL FACE - attractive but innocent fall guy: Robert Mitchum. Alluring but deadly femme fatale: Jean Simmons. Obsessed and overbearing filmmaker: Otto Preminger. Feeling that Mitchum is just utterly, completely fucked: Check. In some ways a by-the-numbers noir, but each of the tropes is so beautifully, even realistically realized that it just carries you down its spiral. The unhappy ending so often promised by Muller finally, gloriously manifests here.

THE HUNTED - there's something charming about how, in Monogram's grab for respectability after its rebirth as Allied Artists, the studio put so much faith in ice skater Belita as an A-lister. She's paired here with Preston Foster as the tough but smitten cop who sent her to prison. Though I couldn't really buy Foster in this role (he's fine as a cop, but too old and too grizzled to carry a torch for anyone for quite that long), there's something about Belita's not-quite-A-list looks, something real about her charms that carried me along. And the obligatory ice-skating sequence is just charming.

On balance, I'm pleased that Noir City continues, and I'm glad I got to see a third of the festival's total offerings. And yet for the first time we saw signs that the future is catching up to the venerable fest. The night he introduced THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS Muller mused that in addition to being the first time many of the audience had seen the film theatrically, it will more than likely be their last. Whatever my issues with Mr. Muller, I happily acknowledge that he's closer to aspect of the film exhibition game than I, and to hear such an enthusiastic proponent of film preservation and exhibition so tentative about the future of the festival in particular and exhibition in general does give one pause.

But hey, as long as the Film Noir Foundation continues to fight the good fight in keeping these films in the public eye and up on screen, I'll happily go see them.


  1. "Ripped from the headlines" is so right!

    I've never understood ANYONE'S fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright, but here's a finely crafted cinematic nod to America's Favorite Architect.

    I was much more fascinated with the film's technical accuracy of Freudian psychoanalysis and the allegorical figuration of those subterranean murderous interiors, but couldn't help appreciate the minor facts lifted from Architectural real-life drama:

    Frank Lloyd Wright left his first wife and first estate behind in the city (Oak Park, Chicago, IL) to pursue a full time love affair with the wife of a prominent client out in idyllic Spring Green, WI. She was (along with her son and six staff members) axed to death while the Taliesin estate was set on fire by the chief of staff in (alleged) extreme protest over the affair.

    It's not a direct lift, but add the creepy Ms. Robey character, who seemingly resided in Lamphere's home studio, and it begins to bridge the stories.

    "Robie" was the surname of Wright's most famous client and Wright's Tour de Force, The Robie House: quintessential Prairie House, aka the "House of the Century". The home was the last of his Prairie style homes, a typology associated with the nuclear family and hearth. After the Taliesin murders and fire (and Robie's divorce and bankruptcy), Wright's career suffered for nearly eight years, but his oeuvre proved more lasting than his personal notoriety.

    If you press me, I could write an entire entry on the Noir tropes in FLW work, but suffice it to say that the locations selected for BLADE RUNNER and BLACK DAHLIA are no accident.

    Noir City: Good clean fun. See ya next year. Thanks for the tricks.

  2. Amen on your opening paragraph. It's the (wholly encouraged) inappropriate guffawing that really gets to me. Going to the Castro to see a movie is the closest I come to church-going, so when certain large portions of the Noir City audience laugh exaggeratedly at every little thing, obscuring the dialogue and interfering with my spiritual communion with the film, I get infuriated. And don't even get me started on the Castro's unusually noisy popcorn bags, the nasty talkers who think they're in their living room watching the movie on DVD, and the projectionists' (ahem, and thanks to a friend for confirming this) creative aspect ratio determinations for the noirs of the 1950s.

    Anyway, thanks for your intelligent commentary here. See you at the movies!

  3. ML69 - Thanks for the details! An entry from you on the noir tropes in FLW's work would be a fun and enlightening read, I suspect.

    Lucy - Thanks so much for reading, and commenting. The Castro _is_ church, 'sfar as I'm concerned.

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