Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Noir City: Boston - Murder, My Sweet, Strangers in the Night, The Killers, So Dark the Night, Force of Evil, The Guilty, Try and Get Me!, and Shakedown

I've been flirting with the idea of going to the main "Noir City" festival in San Francisco for a few years, even before I got to experience the Castro at the silent film festival, and maybe I'll do it some year - it sure looks like it would be nicer weather than Boston that week. I kept putting that off, though, and that seemed okay when they made the announcement late last year that it would be coming for me, settling in for a weekend at the Brattle Theatre, which seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

Unfortunately for me, it ran into my Red Sox 10-game package, so I missed Friday night, which I was kind of okay with - I've seen The Glass Key a few times - but still left me plenty of noir to see, with two double features per weekend day. The double-feature format was one of the neat things about this particular series, in that they were pairing "A" and "B" movies and doing it as single-admission double features, with Ned mentioning that the idea was rare enough that they occasionally get calls at the Brattle asking if you have to watch both ("yes, at the beginning of the first movie, seat belts automatically fasten and don't let you out until after the second").

Ned wasn't the main host, though, as the FIlm Noir Foundation's "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller was there to introduce each one. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with him because my cable package doesn't include Turner Classic Movies (Comcast bundles it with five college sports channels I will never watch, and I've got good rep theaters nearby), so I never see his "Noir Alley" presentations. He's got a lot of fun anecdotes, although I'm kind of a "get to the movie" guy, myself.

He did deliver one bit of information that I felt like I should have known, that being what these movies were called at the time. "Film noir" didn't enter the lexicon until a decade or so later, when French critics and filmmakers started examining them and incorporating their influence directly. American studios called these films "murder dramas" and "crime thrillers", the former tending to feature amateurs and being marketed to women, the latter about career criminals and marketed to men. The Killers, he noted, was successful and seminal because it functioned as both.

Me, I'm now just looking for a reason to use "murder drama" in its proper context.

Murder, My Sweet

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

This is the less celebrated of the two Philip Marlowe movies released in 1944, and for good reason, but it's still a good piece of crime cinema with an enjoyably likable Dick Powell as Marlowe and a lot of good bits around him. I was pretty darn enthusiastic the last time I saw it (at the HFA's "Five O'Clock Shadow" program in 2015) and not quite so enamored this time around, but it's still pretty terrific.

At times, it's a little too ambitious in trying to replicate Chandler's prose or create a filmic equivalent, but that's better to try than homogenize it. Still, for my money, this movie is all about poor Moose, a hulking brute who I suspect wasn't quite the fool Marlowe meets before he became a crook (I'm retroactively saying he's got CTE) and is now a sad, lovelorn loose cannon after doing his time. He's the tragic result of Chandler's predilection for ending chapters by knocking someone unconscious, and you have to hope that any woman Marlowe meets will be the one who helps him escape that fate.

Full review on EFC, from 2015

Strangers in the Night

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

This thing is utterly bonkers, an amateurish-seeming B movie that would likely collapse even further if it ran more than its 56 minutes, but it's a (sometimes literal!) trainwreck you can't look away from. The plot is daffy but kind of compelling, and it's got a bunch of people both in front of and behind the camera doing their level best even when the star is wooden and the story sloppy.

And it is a complete mess, taking bits from other, better stories and cobbling them together into something with a soldier (William Terry) who meets a nice lady doctor (Virginia Grey) on his way to meet the girl he corresponded with during the war, only to find she's not around but her mother (Helene Thimig) practically worships at the girl's portrait like it's an altar. What's going on is obvious enough that characters seem like they have to be really oblivious to miss it, there are a lot of things that don't even play natural by Gothic standards, but there are some surprisingly good bits buried inside the accelerated, often abrupt story, and the filmmakers fully embrace how nutty thing are by the end, which is the only way to go.

And make no mistake, that finale is something. It goes from a scene that deserves heckling to laying out just how silly its events are without shame. There's a moment during the finale explanation when the filmmakers cut to a genuinely hilarious "uh... what?" blank look on the characters' faces, just before a delightfully over-the-top coup de grace. It sends you out amused, if nothing else.

The Killers

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

An all-time classic noir, described in the introduction as the intersection between "murder dramas" and "crime thrillers", and as such featuring something for everyone, even before considering how downright genteel criminals apparently were then - no worries about being seen or eliminating witnesses. It's awful clever in how it sneaks the love story you don't expect in under the one you do.

This time around, I'm really stuck by what the filmmakers did with shadows. They're deep and eye-catching toward the start, quietly receding as the investigation yields greater clarity. The use of flashbacks is more clever than I remembered, too, using narration to keep the big heist less suspenseful because it turns out to be less important than everything else, but even in that sequence never failing to draw the audience in.

What I thought when I saw it in 2012

So Dark the Night

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

Well, at least that didn't turn out to be the solid hour and a half of franglais I was initially fearing, even if it often seemed headed in that campy direction early on, with the filmmakers occasionally seeming unsure whether the accents and production design was enough. So there's that.

Instead, it seemed like someone trying to do Hitchcock without his incredible talent - director Joseph H. Lewis and his collaborators have just enough ambition to set up some memorable shots and they make the same blunt attempts to craft a monster out of deviant psychology, but the characterization and storytelling panache that disguises how little is actually happening as the filmmakers try to make things simmer just isn't present. It's like the people making the movie gets so excited by the possibility of its twist ending that they can't help but blurt it out early.

Force of Evil

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

Sometimes a dry story about how the numbers racket worked, sometimes a flick that has more genuine style and personality than 90% of its competition. I ultimately liked its potential more than the thing itself. I some way, that's to be expected because this seems to be far more a passion project than most noirs, with the director not just credited with the script, but co-writing it with the writer whose research inspired the story. It a world of competent programmers, this is the work of someone with something to say and a strong desire to make an impression.

I'm also kind of impressed with just how thoroughly and flagrantly predatory its antihero was to the sweet love interest, though. I'm not sure whether it was meant to be a further illustration of how John Garfield's Joe Morse is an amoral man in a scuzzy business or if it was 1948 and this was supposed to come across as flirtatious, but it worked as the former 70 years on.

The Guilty

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

Efficient bit of film noir that could probably get more use out of having its two female leads be twins, especially since the main femme never seems quite so fatale as she's meant to be; this could have been a really terrific double performance for Bonita Granville, although having the focus be so solidly on "bad girl" Estelle may give her the chance to make her a bit more nuanced than a movie where the contrast between the twins is the focus. It makes me a bit curious to see what Cornell Woolrich's original story ("He Looked LIke Murder") was like - did it spend as much unnecessary time on whodunit material that isn't really important, or less? The film never seems to find what it means to focus on.

It's a bit hindered in other ways - the budget and necessary restraint where violence is concerned makes the audience take more on faith than they should, and some of the acting is kind of rough. There are enough good performances and run-down ambiance (the introduction focused on how miserable Woolrich's world could be) for an ambitious B, though.

Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

Try and Get Me! is more than a trifle heavy-handed (to put it mildly), especially once a thoughtful professor starts putting the moral lesson of the film into so many words. Director Cy Endfield and writer Jo Pagano (adapting his own novel) are foregrounding social concerns that will probably always be relevant, and even when Jiminy Cricket in the form of an Italian physicist (Renzo Cesana) who knows reporter Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) from the war isn't talking about the need for the press to show restraint, they're making progressive points. It's why the movie sometimes seems to struggle a bit; the stories of Stanton and factory worker turned getaway driver Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) are linked, but neither seems like much as they're advancing individually

Still, it's tough to deny the effectiveness of the final riot that comes when the two collide; it's a big scene with a bunch of extras that feels like it belongs in a Technicolor epic rather than a a B&W crime movie, although it's not entirely unexpected, given how well the early crime hits are executed. Much of the cast is businesslike, but Lloyd Bridges is kind of a hoot as the reckless crook who pulls Howard into a life of crime. The most wonderfully black-comic moment belongs to Adele Jergens as the Bridges character's girlfriend, dressed to the nines and enjoying the camera when the press starts to cover the arrest and trial.

It inevitably winds up three or four movies stitched together, but does do most of them well.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (Noir City: Boston, 35mm)

Pure pulp, this film is, introducing an unscrupulous lead and then not choosing to complicate him at all. Photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) is a bastard from the start, but a talented enough one to make the audience buy his rise and identity with his ambition, and the filmmakers find just the right way of building him from maybe being inexperienced and desperate to enjoyably ruthless to downright villainous. Duff's not quite charismatic enough in the role to become a great anti-hero, but he's good enough, especially as the filmmakers show every female head turning, one of the more overt uses of male sex appeal in the genre - how often is the good-looking guy a woman's potential downfall?

The film doubles down on that, diving into the muck with the same sort of recklessness as its protagonist, making the danger of it a bit of fun. There's a lot of fun had with the gangsters, who are in their way more honest than the photographer who sees a way to extort them, but not so much that a viewer can't enjoy Early getting one over on them. It's not quite so much fun to watch him try and do the same with the two women who catch his eye. Both Peggy Dow and Anne Vernon are sexy as heck and their characters more so for being witty, capable, and not entirely ready to fall for Jack.

It ends just as abruptly and madly as it started, with double-crosses, violence, and a capper that is only wonderfully nuts than the one in Strangers in the Night because there's a scene where the characters acknowledge the irony rather than a quick "The End". It's just ridiculous enough at that point to be unambiguously fun pulp, but a little excess winking doesn't hurt it too much.

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