Noir City DC 2019

I am going to begin again where I ended last. Seems appropriate.

Yeah, I made it down to DC for two weekends of the Noir City Film Festival. The one in DC is THE noir festival on the East Coast. Unless something like Bouchercon is keeping me from it—as well as house hunting in CT—as happened in 2017, not much is going to stop me from seeing a film subgenre that intrigues me no end. 

For the record, my favorite noirs deal with temptation and the evil that weakness, the giving in to that temptation, wreaks. The next favorite is the best-laid criminal plans always go awry. 

For the first weekend, I was staying with friends who had no idea what film noir was and had never seen it. They’ve never THE MALTESE FALCON. So, I intended to take my friend to see the opening shows—LAURA and MURDER MY SWEET. (It’s their 75th anniversary—both came out in 1944.) Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see LAURA because it was sold old. (That was one they should’ve put in the AFI Silver 1 because they should’ve known that was going to be a big draw.) I was so disappointed. I love LAURA. It’s so clever, and so well acted. All was not lost. We did get to see MURDER MY SWEET.

I’ve seen this movie twice before, but never on the big screen. Size matters. Unfortunately, I gave me friend no warning about it—that it is a framed story—but she hung tough. Foster Hirsch’s introduction was good. He knows his stuff; he’s not as flamboyant as Eddie, but super nice. He says that the “original noir city is the first five minutes” of MURDER MY SWEET. And it is an evocative scene setting, a definitive noir cityscape. He pointed out the elements of both realism (that cityscape) and German-style Expressionism (Marlowe’s experience on psychotropic drugs). 

After seeing and hearing some explanation, my friend’s up for seeing it again. To see if she can follow it this time. I don't worry about that any more.

Did MURDER MY SWEET set the mold for the PI movie? I’m not sure. Sure, it’s loaded with wonderful, snappy dialogue and atmosphere, as well as plenty of corruption and menace. But so is THE MALTESE FALCON. In fact, I think there is a higher slime and creepy factor in FALCON. I also think Hammett was better source material than Chandler.

That’s right, sports fans. I dislike Raymond Chandler. But I agree with him that Dick Powell made the best Marlow. Foster Hirsch called Powell “wonderfully curdled”. Imogen Smith made a really thought-provoking comment—What would’ve happened if Robert Mitchum—in our estimation the unarguable king of Noir—had played Philip Marlow when he was the right age to do it? God, that’ve been wonderful.

In addition to DIck Powell, the other hotshot was Claire Trevor as the femme fatale. Boy, was she fatal, and boy, could she dish it out. Nothing subservient or passive about her character, and she played it to the hilt. The leg movement when first seen says it all about her character. 

I made a point for this trip not to see stuff I had seen before. I normally try to do this, but this year I was generally trying to be cheap. (I didn’t figure out the all-access pass until the next week when it wouldn’t’ve done me any good. Next year, I promise I’ll do better. ) 

Of course, there are some films I won’t see again—TOUCH OF EVIL. I know I took Imogen Smith aback when I was so emphatic about it, but really it’s offensive. First, the studio gutted it, destroying Orson Wells’ vision. Two, I care about plot, so the meandering plot (due to the studio’s gutting?) drives me batty. Three, and this is really the offensive part, Charlton Heston is made up like a Mexican!! This is the Hispanic equivalent of blackface. And there were good Mexican actors to hire. Ricardo Montalban, anybody? Four, Orson Wells as the corrupt sheriff is a caricature of the crazed Bubba sheriff. He’s both too perverse and not evil enough. I get very tired of Wells’ bloviating.

So, what did I seen that I hadn’t seen? THE TURNING POINT. Not that one about ballerinas. This one starred Edmond O’Brien as a crusading District Attorney who is deflated by revelations concerning his father, who is a crooked cop. William Holden plays his best friend Jerry, a cynical journalist, who discovers the old man’s corruption and who steals the girl. Foster Hirsch called this an uneven film—agreed—and said that the idealist has to be tarnished and the cynic has to shake it off—also agreed. It had a dry documentary feel because it had no score. Also, the leading actress was miscast and didn’t have much to work with in terms of screen time and dialogue. It may be a crime syndicate film with noir touches, but it still works pretty damned well and that is almost entirely due to William Holden. God, could that man act! Don’t get me wrong—Edmond O’Brien is no slouch, but he is not in Holden’s league. (Edit in 2022: it works better on rewatch.)

THE FILE ON THELMA JORDON (1949) is rarely seen and is not well known. Ya think? It is not a good movie. Barbara Stanwyck, the undisputed queen of Noir, can only do so much with this vehicle. It is a restrained performance in a movie with a long set up for a fairly clever end (however bogus legally). The problem is Wendell Corey. He can’t carry off his character, who is fed up to back teeth with his life, particularly his daddy’s girl wife. But Corey isn’t a good enough actor to carry off a character who’s at this low point and who then gets a serious jolt of lust. William Holden could’ve pulled this one off, as could have Ray Milland. Just not Wendall Corey. And there is more than a touch of trying to remake DOUBLE INDEMNITY. That part didn’t work, either. 

Speaking of the other star of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Fred MacMurray plays an embittered detective in THE PUSHOVER who decides to throw in with the moll and rip off the crook. Make no mistake, it’s a good movie, and you know from the second that he succumbs to his lust for her—and the money—it’s going to end badly. And it does.

The moll is played by Kim Novak. She does have presence and was a genuine movie star, but like a lot of the 50s bombshells, there is a fragility to her. Although beautiful, with a great sultry voice, there’s a vulnerability to her, as if she needed to be protected. This is a common failing of the 50s actresses, but that’s what Hollyweird wanted. Women in their place—the home. Kim Novak and her sisters, like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe, are the absolute opposites of Barbara Stanwyck, who appeared to stand up against all comers—even when she was reduced to Victoria Barkley. What was funny about this was that Foster Hirsch and his buddies, when they were teens, didn’t think much of Kim Novak. They weren’t impressed. He apologized profusely for that mistake. 

There is considerably seediness to THE PUSHOVER. Much of the plot revolves around cops watching and following Kim Novak’s character so they can nab her crooked boyfriend. The subtext to this movie is surveillance, being watched, paranoia, a lack of privacy—all high concerns in the 50s. Added to the general unpleasantness of spying on people is the way Kim Novak is shot, mostly through windows. She is reduced to a commodity (or a target) for the male gaze. Also, Fred MacMurray brings a seediness to his character that was lacking in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Foster Hirsch said that the 10 years between the two movies had been hard on MacMurray (His first wife had died in 1953 from cancer.) 

And I saw THE WELL. Now, this one doesn’t have much to recommend it, except that is has a huge and effective African American cast. Also, Harry Morgan (Dragnet and MASH) is in it. Beyond that, it is a sermon on racism and the power (enormous if erroneous) of gossip. When a day-dreaming Black child falls into an abandoned well, it is assumed that she has been kidnapped. When a White male stranger was seen with her, the assumptions go from bad to worse. Harry Morgan is the luckless white guy who just happens to be the nephew of the local big shot. People run their mouths, and before you know it, the town’s on the verge of a race riot. Once, however, a little kid discovers she’s in the well, things snap back and everyone works their asses off to get her out of the well. Everything is hunky-dorey, and the little girl is saved. Nope, sorry, that’s not how it works.

Even from the pulpit, I like my sermons less of preachy. At the same time, I couldn’t help  but think about Jessica McClure who was a toddler when she fell into an abandoned well in her own backyard in Midland, Texas. Thank God for her that the oil industry was in a downturn, and plenty of men and equipment were available to dig her out. It took days, on a 24/7 schedule. And knowing that made THE WELL much more sentimental and unworkable. No, it was not noir, even though there were touches, and it’s not often seen. It’s not a good movie, even tho’ there are good performances.

And that, movie fans, was weekend one of the Noir City Festival in DC.

Copyright KG Whitehurst