Noir City DC 2019 Part II

I don’t go to church. I go to Noir Alley. I watched THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944) with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet yesterday. It’s a delightfully arch film, and watching Lorre and Greenstreet work is pleasure indeed. It reminded me of two things—Eddie Muller is an awesome Czar of Noir, a font of endless noir knowledge, and the noir films of the 40s were very different from the noir films of the 50s.

THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS is based on an Eric Ambler novel. It deals in international intrigue and criminal behavior. It cashes in on exotic locales. Its dialogue is loaded. And it’s full of dark, shadowy shots of deserted, dangerous streets and rickety looking buildings. And there’s an old world feel that pretty much got blown up in World War II. It’s very much a 40s flick.

The 50s noir films have a different look, a different feel, and a different agenda. If the 40s were about temptation and weakness, that there was no easy walk to Easy Street, then the cops weren’t always corrupt and the women weren’t always vapid, emotionally fragile things to be manhandled and forced into subservience. (A problem for 50s films in general.) 50s noir has a brighter look, but it was all about the corruption. It was all about surveillance, and the women tended to be beautiful but fragile. Kim Novak and Jayne Mansfield, not Barbara Stanwyck or Jane Greer. 

Most of the films I saw in the second week of the festival were from the 50s. That lighter, more open look to them came from the influence of TV, according to Muller. On early TV, those 40s films were terribly dark. Nobody could see anything in the murk. Those films didn’t do so well on broadcast TV; just try to watch PHANTOM LADY (1944) on a small screen. The studios requested a lighter approach, so more outdoors shots, more broad daylight.

Case in point—NIGHTFALL(1956) starring Aldo Ray as artist Jim Vanning who gets caught up with a gangster who’s just robbed a bank. The gangster, played by Brian Keith, sets Jim up to take the rap for killing his doctor buddy. It doesn’t hurt that he and his buddy’s wife suffered from a little too much sexual tension. Jim goes on the lam, develops a new life, and meets a nice girl, played by Anne Bancroft. The cops still want him, the gangster still wants him, and the insurance investigator, played by James Gregory, wants him. The cops for murder, the gangster for the money that disappeared, and the investigator for the money and the truth. It’s based on a David Goodis novel, so there are bizarre coincidences all around, but it works—largely because Aldo Ray and James Gregory are solid and believable while Brian Keith so villainous. All the outdoor shots are real. It may not have been Wyoming, but the California mountains were more than good enough.

David Goodis has a better reputation in France than he does in the US, despite Eddie Muller having got Philippe Garnier’s biography published in the US. The French regarded David Goodis as the voice of the demimonde. He certainly was known for convoluted plots. And they got the full treatment from Jacques Tourneur who did OUT OF THE PAST. 

Although there are similar elements and themes here, these films are substantially different films. Together, they typify the differences between the 40s and 50s. Anne Bancroft was a great actress, but her role in NIGHTFALL is that of a good girl who ultimately supports her man. In OUT OF THE PAST, Jane Greer’s Kathy is a total femme fatale. And where NIGHTFALL ends on a hopeful note, OUT OF THE PAST is a tragedy of the characters own making.

It wasn’t as if the 50s noir didn’t have its bad films, too. PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954) and THE SCARLET HOUR (1956) were terrible, but in very different ways.

A rare film, PRIVATE HELL 36 involves a cop who goes crooked and convinces his partner to join. The cause? A woman with expensive tastes with whom he’s fallen in love—Lili Harlow played by Ida Lupino. This film is not lacking in irony. Lili ends up demanding that her guy, played by Steve Cochran, not get himself killed in very much the way his partner’s wife does. They are sisters under the skin. It does no good, of course, and the bad cops are rooted out. 

Why is it a rare film? Not many copies have survived. The one shown in DC came from the British Film Institute. 

Now, I saw this trite little flick because of, well, Ida Lupino. She was a good actress, she was a good director and producer, and she had no problem being one of the boys, even to the point of drinking them under the table. She was an important woman in Hollyweird. She and her husband at the time, Collier Young, created The Filmmakers, an independent production company. They wrote this tawdry little tale of a cop going off the rails for a woman. Don Siegel directed. This film is not one I would see again, even if it were available. 

There’s no way around it—THE SCARLET HOUR is a mess. Eddie Muller said this movie baffles him. it misses most of its marks, all of which really come from the 1940s. There is the younger wife of an older man who’s taken hubby’s junior partner as her lover. She’s demanding and selfish and utterly willing to get what she wants. Sounds like a role for Barbara Stanwyck. Unfortunately, Carol Ohmart got the role—and she doesn’t have Barbara Stanwyck’s acting chops. Tom Tryon, who plays the good-looking, mostly honest lover, is rather like John Gavin—a man who made films that prove he’s not an actor. He really does look like he doesn’t know what’s going on, but nobody does. Three people in this film knew what they were doing—Elaine Stritch, James Gregory, and David Lewis. There’s also the good girl love interest, whom the mostly honest guy should’ve gone with, and does actually choose in the end. 

Elaine Stritch stole the movie. Why? Because this movie, I think, is actually supposed to be a comedy, albeit a black one. The unhappy wife hates her husband, but loves his wealth and won’t give it up. One evening the lovers are necking, and they overhear the plans to rip off an empty house. Unhappy wife convinces her lover to hijack the theft. He agrees, but things go awry when the angry husband stumbles into the heist and gets himself killed with his own gun. Needless to say, the lovers lie to the police. It gets weirder when the mastermind of the original heist finds the unhappy wife and demands his loot—not because it’s genuine loot, but because it’s fake loot. The mastermind, played to deadpan perfection by David Lewis, has been selling his wife’s jewels for years, replacing them with paste. To defraud the insurance company, he organized the heist. Now, he wants his fake loot back or else. The pressure causes the lover to crack, and he calls the police. E. G. Marshall comes into clean up what was really a badly directed, low budget picture by Michael Curtiz of UNSUSPECTED (1947) fame. 

The two other films I saw that qualify as noir were A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956) with its lurid title sequence of black and white and gigantic red lips and THE BURGLAR (1957). The former starred Robert Wagner as a sociopathic cad, an Army veteran who will achieve the American dream come Hell, high water, or murder. Wagner was only 21 when he did this movie. On the other end of the spectrum, THE BURGLAR marks Dan Duryea’s swan song. This movie wasn’t released on the strength of Duryea, but rather Jayne Mansfield who plays a raw, innocent ingenue to Duryea’s aging thief who is her protector and father-figure. 

A KISS BEFORE DYING proves that noir can be in glorious Technicolor, tho’ I should’ve thought that was settled with LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945). A KISS BEFORE DYING is creepy and weirdly class conscious. I found Joanne Woodward unbelievably naive in her role of Dorrie; at times, Dorrie is so clingy one has to ask why Bud slept with her in the first place. But it turns creepy when he turns to Ellen, Dorrie’s sister, and sweeps her off her feet. The characterizations aren’t deep, and the psychology is shallow, but it’s got good tension and a satisfying ending.

THE BURGLAR was depressing. It was the end of the road for Jake, a master thief, and his crew, which includes his “niece”. Things start going haywire immediately when the guys in crew start trying to molest the niece. They pull the heist. The sexual tension makes the waiting game unbearable, and to get away from it all, the niece flees to Atlantic City. The crew follows and is followed by a crooked cop. (There’s that theme again.) Eventually, the crooked cop chats up the niece, seduces her, making her think he’s her boyfriend—all to lure out Jake. Needless to say, it ends badly for Jake and the cop. 

No matter Jayne Mansfield, who was very young and very sexy, which gives THE BURGLAR its creepy vibes—Dan Duryea was fabulous and the real star of this movie. His Jake may be a tired, worn-out criminal, but he’s always trying to do the ‘right’ thing.

And then there was PYSCHO (1960), which to quote Eddie Muller, “is a noir until it isn’t”. I didn’t like the movie, but it had some interesting points. Cheaply shot with a TV crew, which gives it a TV feel, the one who succumbs to temptation is a woman, Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. She works in a real estate office, and she absconds with a large packet of money so she and her boyfriend, Sam Loomis played by John Gavin, can elope. Due to weather, she ends up at a small motel, where she meets Norman Bates. She has a change of heart about stealing the money, but never gets to carry through on it because things skid sideways into horror. I won’t spoil the rest, but I can honestly say I wasn’t wild about it. I like Hitch’s earlier films better—NOTORIOUS, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

And that, movie fans, concludes the review of this year’s Noir City DC.

Copyright KG Whitehurst