A Transformative Decade – Noir City 17 leads a cinematic tour through the 1950’s

Rarely does one have the opportunity to see an entire decade flash before you in the span of ten days. But San Francisco’s Noir City 17 did precisely that. Following the model of last year’s festival which focused on the 1940’s, the Film Noir Foundation screened a film from each year of the 1950’s, ending in 1961. It wasn’t until this festival did I grasp how effective it is to show these films both chronologically and back-to-back; I saw the full arc of the decade through the medium of cinema. There was a distinct contrast in the films at either end of the decade – the whole ethos, aesthetic and creativity of these films had completely shifted and proved to me that the 1950s was truly a transformative decade. At this time, the studio system was just beginning to crumble, and in its place, independent and experimental filmmakers thrived and manifested their creativity free from the grasp of oppressive studios. What resulted were riskier, edgier films that confronted social issues head-on in a style that was less refined and more direct – even fearless.

Also fearless was the written welcome to the festival by our beloved host, Eddie Muller, in the introductory pages of the program. In his normal Sam Spade-style voice of a cynic, Eddie is weary from another year on the front lines fighting to preserve a world that is quickly dying. I can tell he is still getting used to his new TV stardom – it’s the mental shift that happens when someone who fights so long for attention finally has it.

Naming names, Eddie points to John Stankey (how apt…), and the larger corporate behemoth behind him, as the reason for the demise of FilmStruck; an online streaming service that was cancelled late last year when AT&T merged with Time Warner Inc. Now that he’s seated at the table, Mr. Muller has been reassured that the people who don’t care about the movies are in control of their fate. This is of course his written call-to-action to his public to support the Foundation with dollars, but it also reveals that Eddie is in a position now to peer inside the machine, and clearly does not like what he sees.

Now! Back to the movies….

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TRAPPED (1949) was the chosen restoration for this year’s festival, premiering on the first night. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it is a strange combination of documentary and drama – quite literally. The film begins quizzically – a male voice narrates an extensive introduction of news footage describing how the Feds are cracking down on the crisis of counterfeit cash flowing through the Treasury. This goes on for quite a while, and I began to wonder if this is in fact a full-blown documentary. But then we are introduced to Lloyd Bridges, our anti-hero, as he’s serving time in jail. He’s a hard-headed, wise-cracking thug with a look in his eye of having a perilous trick up his sleeve. Sure enough, when the cops approach him to help bust a new counterfeit ring, he agrees, then jumps the accompanying officer the night he’s let out. He quickly meets up with his moll, played well by Barbara Payton, and uses her to get back in to this new criminal ring, hoping for another big payout. But the Feds are on to both of them, and are never far behind.

It is undeniably a “B” favorite, since it contains most of the tropes that have since defined the Noir genre, so you have to take the cringeworthy with the good. The print looked beautiful, and even when a film doesn’t grab me as others do, I am always captivated by the clarity and vibrancy of images that were captured 70 years earlier – highlighting the significance of film restoration.

PickUpOnSouthStreet

 

Noir fans will be frustrated to hear that this was my first time seeing PICK-UP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), a staple of the genre that is easily in the top charts of best Noir films ever made. It’s directed by Samuel Fuller and, in my opinion, a near-perfect movie. It has terrific dialogue and characters that have an ideal balance of sweetness and sourness. Thelma Ritter is always worth watching, but this was next level – even for her. This performance would give her her fourth out of six Oscar nominations throughout her career, with, tragically, not a single win.

Jean Peters smolders as Candy, an unlucky (and clumsy) apprentice to a criminal blackmailer, and had some of the best lines in the script. She played her SO well – using her whole body to portray this character. She is totally restless – I don’t think she stops moving for a single moment; fussing, twitching and rushing from one assignment to the next all while chewing a fat wad of gum. But man, was she sexy! Her 22″ midriff and dark, pouty lips were hard to look away from. Shortly after this film was released, Jean Peters, frustrated by only being cast in these bombshell roles, actively pushed back on the studios, which never fully capitulated to her demands, and her career suffered irreparably.

At some point I’d like to post separately about Samuel Fuller – he has created so many icons, I would really like to know more about him as a filmmaker.

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The biggest surprise of the festival was a small little film that packed the biggest punch. THE WELL (1953) was unknown to me and most others, but by mid-way through the film, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre – everyone was completely captivated. It is based on a true story of a little girl who falls into a well and goes missing for several days, becoming a sensational story in the national news. The screenwriters, Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, decided to turn the young character into an African-American, and the resulting story describes how a small town erupts into violent race riots when a white man is accused of killing her.

Made on a small budget in Yuba City, CA, the production used non-professional actors for many of the roles, which gave it a very real, “in your backyard” feeling, which added even more power to the already charged narrative. It could be a town anywhere in America – your neighbors, your children and your problem. The film holds up extremely well, unfortunately, due to its highly relevant racial disparities that manifest in violence and baseless hatred.

I really don’t want to give too much away, but, the lengthy rescue scene was tense and suspenseful and handled with care and precision. Though directed by Leo C. Popkin, I have the sense it was a collaborative effort between writers and director. It was quite decidedly my favorite of the festival and many others I talked to days after the screening found it hard to forget. Surprisingly, I discovered that it was in fact nominated for two Academy Awards – for Best Screenplay and for Editing. The circumstances of the person currently holding the license to this film prevents it from being re-released to the public, but at least it will be forever recorded in the Academy archives and not be completely forgotten…

To conclude, I was delighted to hear that this festival broke box office records, both in ticket sales and in the number of Passport holders (which grants, up front, access to all 24 films). I’m not sure why – perhaps the 1950s is a more approachable decade? Whereas the 1940s seems like ancient history? Or perhaps this installment contained more recognizable titles like BREATHLESS (1960) and PSYCHO (1960) which they showed back-to-back, selling-out the entire 1,400 seat theatre, understandably. Or maybe it’s just what G. Allen Johnson from the SF Chronicle says in his review, that the 1950’s were an “ambitious decade” – a time when filmmakers could spread their wings and make real art that still resonates with people today.

Who knows. But what is true is that though Muller anguishes about the future of these captured moments of history, he’s crafted a cinematic experience that leaves you wanting more – something that corporate behemoths like AT&T and Turner cannot resist.

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NOIR CITY 2019 Lineup Announced!

On this New Year’s Day, I’m excited to report on the newly released lineup of the Noir City 17 Film Festival, screening January 25 – February 3, which makes it the longest running Noir-specific film festival in the world. As a teaser for this momentous event, the Film Noir Foundation sponsors an additional screening event at the holidays called Noir City Xmas, in which the host, Eddie Muller, formally unveils the full lineup and poster for for the following month’s extravaganza.

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They teased us with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) – the first and only film directed by renowned British actor Charles Laughton. This film is a true masterpiece – one that fuses noir with a Hans Christian Andersen-esque fairytale story arc. It was not a great success in 1955 and, with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that it was completely ahead of its time and therefore misunderstood in its day. What Laughton had created was a beautiful interpretation of German Expressionism, where the audience spirals into the nightmare unfolding within a magical world of exaggerated reality. Definitely an “essential” film to see.

*As a sidebar – the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley is currently holding a retrospective on Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist films. It runs through February 23, 2019. Check out that lineup here!

Back to Noir City…

This year’s program is going to be a continuation of last year’s format of showing two films each night that work their way chronologically through the 1950’s, into the 1960’s. Like last year, they are programming the “A” pictures to premier first, and the “B” films showing second, with the idea that the A films are the “classier” of the two, with the B’s being “trashier”. However, I really don’t see that dynamic as clearly as I did with the films chosen in the 1940’s. The early 50’s films on the “B” slate are still big studio pieces — DETECTIVE STORY (1951) was directed by William Wyler and ANGEL FACE (1953) by Otto Preminger, joined by ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW from 1959 directed by Robert Wise –all of which can hardly be considered “trashy” films!

While of course there are many in line that I’ve seen before, there are a few I’m excited to see for the first time: THE WELL (1951) deals with the racial dynamics of contemporary black and white America, PRIVATE HELL (1954) was a screenplay co-written and produced by Ida Lupino (within her own production company), KILLER’S KISS (1955) was the first widely-distributed film by a young Stanley Kubrick, and THE SCARLET HOUR (1956) was a later film directed by Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame). Also excited to see Kim Novak in PUSHOVER (1956), Marie Windsor in THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953) and Alexis Smith in THE TURNING POINT (1952) – I could gaze at her face all day!

I am also looking forward to seeing BREATHLESS (1960) again on the big screen. The first time I saw this Godard film, I really didn’t take to it. I can certainly appreciate its contribution to the history of film, as it solidified the French New Wave into global consciousness, but I really didn’t like it too much when I first saw it. I’m hoping this second screening will change my mind! Not to sound too arrogant, but I am much more a fan of Truffaut’s work – a contemporary of Godard and also apart of the New Wave during the 60s. THE 400 BLOWS (1959) and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968) are two favorites of mine. It also helps that Truffaut was also an enormous Hitchcock fan, and I’ve poured over the transcripts of his interviews with the director from the 1970s.

Ironically, I’ve discovered that the original treatment of BREATHLESS was written by Truffaut from a newspaper article he read in 1952. So, clearly I’m missing something!

Below please find the full lineup of the festival and join me as I make my way through 24 films in 10 days!

Friday, Jan 25

TRAPPED  (1949)
THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON  (1950)

Saturday, Jan 26, Matinée

THE WELL  (1951)
DETECTIVE STORY  (1951)

Saturday, Jan 26, Evening

THE TURNING POINT  (1952)
ANGEL FACE  (1953)

Sunday, Jan 27

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET
CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS

Monday, Jan 28

PUSHOVER
PRIVATE HELL 36

Tuesday, Jan 29

KISS ME DEADLY
KILLER’S KISS

Wednesday, Jan 30

THE SCARLET HOUR
A KISS BEFORE DYING

Thursday, January 31

NIGHTFALL
THE BURGLAR

Friday, Feb 1

TOUCH OF EVIL
MURDER BY CONTRACT

Saturday, Feb 2, Matinée

THE CRIMSON KIMONO
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW

Saturday, Feb 2, Evening

BREATHLESS/À BOUT DE SOUFFLE
PSYCHO

Sunday, Feb 3

UNDERWORLD USA
BLAST OF SILENCE

Louis Armstrong museum to open in Queens

With the start of a new year approaching, I am naturally finding ways to reinvent important parts of my life. Particularly this blog, which I am constantly thinking about and trying to find time in my life to focus on. One way I might do this is simply use this platform as a dumping ground for things I find in the world that are interesting. I won’t pressure myself to write an essay about it – if I do, as has happened in the past, the item goes unacknowledged and is quickly forgotten. If I use this as a way to capture things, this could turn out to be quite interactive. I read the news, listen to the radio – and I frequently find things that make me stop and listen. I’d like to bottle up those moments by listing them here.

First up, I am catching up on some New Yorker articles and the Dec. 3 issue featured a great Talk of the Town piece explaining a new Louis Armstrong museum that is set to open at his long-time home in Queens. SO COOL! I’m an enormous fan of his (as we all are, I know), and I am just thrilled to hear that his life and legacy will be captured within the next year. Read more below!

The Louis Armstrong House, the City’s Most Intimate Museum

The Style Essentials – 1970’s Fashion & Film

Last weekend I attended the second-to-last chapter of the lecture series, THE STYLE ESSENTIALS: HISTORY OF FASHION AND FILM given by historian Kimberly Truhler at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. This installment covered the 1970s and was followed by a screening of ANNIE HALL (1977). The series began in January with the 1920s and proceeds through the century by diving deep into the creation of costumes for key films released during the decade. The 90-min lecture explains the interaction of fashion onscreen with style trends off screen and how each was influenced by global events in society at large. The films are chosen to highlight their lasting impact on the world of design or the cause of a shift in style, resulting in the creation of an iconic look or star.

For the 1970’s, Truhler discussed SHAMPOO (1975), NETWORK (1976), ANNIE HALL (1977), LOVE STORY (1970), and The GREAT GATSBY (1974) to highlight each film’s unique impact on the world of fashion in 1970s America, and beyond. I was amazed to see that staple closet items like pea coats, brown suits and tie-neck blouses were pieces that had not really existed until these films made them acceptable as part of every day style and filled the closets of the new population of working women.

What I found most interesting was Truhler’s description of the life and career of the costume designers and their experiences working at a particular studio. She told behind-the-scenes stories of the making of certain films – both the struggles and successes of collaboration with other designers or apprentices. For example, Ralph Lauren was an up-and-coming designer at the time he started working on THE GREAT GATSBY with the film’s head costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge. The film won the Oscar that year for best costume design and the suits worn by Robert Redford and were particularly praised. Both Aldredge and Lauren have claimed credit for the creation of these suits, Aldredge claiming that she was the designer, Lauren the executor. Lauren himself has always claimed ownership of those designs, and once he became a great designer in his own right, his signature men’s suits mirror those that Redford wears throughout GATSBY.  I came away learning that the journey to creating particular pieces for the screen is often complex and the credit given for creating these looks is often not accurate or clear. The murkiness of history prevails!

I hadn’t seen ANNIE HALL since I was a kid, so it really was a completely new experience seeing it as an adult, and on the big screen! The entire film went completely over my head as a 13-year-old; I missed some of the BEST one-liners, and the dead-pan sex jokes were just perfect and completely hysterical. I have a mixed attitude towards Woody Allen’s humor, but perhaps I was simply exposed at too early an age. Despite Allen’s problematic past, I’m definitely planning to revisit some of his films.

I was sad to have missed the lecture on the 1940’s in which Truhler details the impact that World War II had on the fashion of the day. Wartime rationing made the availability of textiles and other materials almost impossible, which forced designers to work with less and create styles that were more practical and approachable to everyday women. In addition, travel was restricted between Europe and America, which prevented talented designers and couturiers from working in America and in film studios.

It is clear to me that the concept of fashion and film is bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. What came first? Does onscreen costuming simply follow the current of what women are buying at department stores? Or does a film ignite an entirely new trend that endures for decades? Both are largely true, and the dynamic shifts from era to era. What is not debatable is that the design and creation costumes for movies and the larger fashion industry are two worlds intrinsically linked; one cannot exist without impacting the other, resulting in the creation of a unique and complex history that still reverberates today.

SFJFF 38: BUDAPEST NOIR at the Castro

For the past week, San Francisco has been enjoying the SF Jewish Film Festival – the largest Jewish Film Festival in the world, featuring 17 days of screenings, four cities and over 150 films. And what a following they have! Standing in line, I could see that the audience was at least 80% Jewish. I’ve never seen anything like it – I’ve attended plenty of ethnic-centered film festivals, but I have never seen their target demographic turn out in these numbers. Amazing!

Of course, I found myself back at the Castro Theatre – a place that is increasingly becoming a home away from home. Its an obvious choice for any film festival, as there is nowhere that could celebrate the medium more. Festival organizations share box office staff, so I get to see the same friendly faces every time I visit. Last night was the closing film of the festival in San Francisco, but it continues for another week in Oakland and San Rafael.

The first film I saw was obviously something I couldn’t miss. BUDAPEST NOIR screened to a packed house and featured an on-stage interview of the director Eva Gardos by Eddie Muller – San Francisco’s very own ‘Czar of Noir’. As the title suggests, the film was a complete and unmistakable homage to the genre of American Noir in its purest form. Set in Hungary in the late 1930s, it tells the story of a frustrated and disheveled crime reporter whose investigation into murder of a young girl in Budapest reveals an intricate web of political corruption and sexual exploitation during the rise of the Third Reich.

It was certainly thrilling, and a cinematic experience that would satisfy any Noir traditionalist. The cinematography was what really must be applauded, having leaned in hard all of the atmospheric symbols that define the genre of Noir: shadowy corners, wet, glossy streets, golden light streaming from lampposts. The color, particularly, was fantastic – somehow everything on screen seemed to appear behind a silvery-blue filter, giving it a quality of dream-like tension. The script, too, was heavily influenced by the noir greats – in fact, this one could have been a Raymond Chandler draft that was found hidden under floorboards. Instead it was based on a novel written by Vilmos Kondor of the same name, a writer who’s works are exclusively crime dramas of the mid-century.

The leading man was interesting, but not captivating, so I thought there was too much of him. I wanted more from the characters that they introduced in rapid succession, but then just as quickly dropped. There were at least three other characters that I wanted to see of more than simple plot drivers. The final scene reminded me of that – the parents of the murdered girl finally discover what happened, and their resulting performance of grief, horror and retaliation was amazing. I wish I had experienced their anguish and tumult as more of a thread throughout the film.

On stage, the director was charming and generous with details. She described working with many of the actors & crew previously on her last film, American Rhapsody, and how she worked with the screenwriter and writer on crafting her story. Luckily, Kondor was largely supportive, but not entirely. Some plot points that were changed, he said, were so simplistic. I would have to agree – even though I haven’t read the book! It just seems accurate.

Overall, a very stirring and visually impressive film that will entertain and excite the Noir fan lurking in us all.

Geraldine Fitzgerald

Just wanted to write a quick post acknowledging the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald who I just heard on an episode of one of my favorite old-time crime radio podcasts, Stars on Suspense. She appeared in the podcast’s most recent episode called “A Friend to Alexander” starring Robert Young  You can listen to it here.

Geraldine Fitzgerald has been a favorite of mine for years, but one who has been largely forgotten by the Hollywood history books. To be fair, most of career was spent on Broadway, and later television, but she played supporting characters in some of the most famous films of the early 1940’s, including DARK VICTORY (1939), WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) and WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943).

Always in supporting roles, Geraldine usually played the loving, shy, supportive friend who makes the leading lady shine all the more brighter because of her plainer, softer and refined temperament. But these are the very characteristics that make me pay attention even more. Geraldine had an inner light that burned through on-screen and filled her with strength and passion – she gave something a little different in every performance, which deserves profound praise and recognition.

7 DAYS OF VERTIGO: Day 2

Here I am channeling the character of ‘Midge’ played by the incredible Barbara Bel Geddes. I have this sweater that matches hers PERFECTLY so of course I couldn’t resist 😉 Midge actually wears the same exact sweater throughout the film, just in different colors. She begins the film in soft, pastels such as pale yellow and sky blue. But in this scene, the red represents her anger and jealousy since learning the full story of Madeleine Elster and Scottie’s obsession with her. Midge is a fascinating character and, to me, is an ‘every woman’ and represents all of us…