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….
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.
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.
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.