Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 9

The last weekend kicks off with a 5 film Saturday. So with little introduction, here they are.

The early triple-bill was about painters.

THE LODGER (1944): Jack the Ripper story with Laird Cregar as the creepy gentleman pathologist who rents rooms in a house. Instead of prostitutes (production code, those don't exist,) he kills actresses. Instead of a maniac he's portrayed as a tortured soul, avenging his artistic brother (the "painter" element of the film) who was done in by his love for an actress. The story, production, cinematography are great. But it's Laird Cregar's perfect balance of menace, pathos, and erudition that makes this movie.

BLUEBEARD (1944): This is almost the same Jack the Ripper story, just moved to France (Jacques the Ripper?) But Bluebeard is a French folk tale, and here Edgar G. Ulmer gives it the low-budget, B-movie treatment. John Carradine stars Gaston Morrell, a charming puppeteer whose business is slow because nobody wants to be outside, what with the murderous Bluebeard out there. Lucille (Jean Parker) takes a liking to them, and they become friends...and maybe more. She volunteers to help him make costumes for his next show. Meanwhile her sister Francine (Teala Loring) comes to town. Her boyfriend (Nils Asther) is the inspector searching for Bluebeard. Clues are pointing to art dealer Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel)--not as the killer but as someone who knows the killer. The killer might just be a mysterious painter whose work Lamarte has sold before. So a trap is set, and...well, everything ends in a very noir manner. A nice little low-budget flick.

SCARLET STREET (1945): And then Fritz Lang's brilliant adaptation of the French novel "The Bitch" (translated into English as "The Poor Sap.") Joan Bennett plays the bitch of the French title, Kitty March. And Edward G. Robinson is really the poor sap, Christopher Cross. He works as a cashier in a bank, and the film opens with him being honored for 25 years of service. On his way home, he sees a girl being roughed up by a guy. Turns out that's Kitty March, and the guy is her boyfriend pimp (okay, kinda both) Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea, at his oiliest best.) Chris "saves" her, and becomes infatuated with her, despite being old enough to be her father. Oh, and also being married, to Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who, come to think of it, might be the real bitch in the story. Kitty leads Chris on, just to get his money. See, he paints on the side, just for fun, and sort of let her believe he's a famous artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars in Europe (never appreciated in your own country, of course.) And so begins a long affair of Kitty taking advantage of him, and me silently screaming "Dammit! Why are you such a sap!" Oh, it's a great movie, it just made me very uncomfortable and I kept waiting for him to finally grow a spine, see what's going on, and take his revenge. And when he does, I was the first of many in the audience who burst into applause. But that's not the end, that's not noir enough. The ending is even more brilliantly dark than that.

Then there was a break before the evening shows, long enough for me to grab a little dinner and a beer, and still be back to the mezzanine in time for a cocktail. 

And then the evening show was all about Ballet Noir.

THE RED SHOES (1948): Okay, many times this festival we've stretched the definition of noir. In conversations with other patrons, there's kind of a mixed reaction to that. The "art" theme has taken precedence over the genre, and some people have a problem with that. For the record, I don't. Especially when the outside-the-genre selections are this freakin' great. In the opening scenes, a group of students barge into the balcony as soon as the opera doors open. They're excited to see the opera their professor wrote. But shortly in, one student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) quickly recognizes the score as something he wrote himself. Meanwhile the opera owner Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is cajoled into attending a party where he is supposed to meet the hostess' talented dancer daughter Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, who really is a dancer, not an actress playing one.) While Lermontov doesn't like being bothered like this, he does give both Page and Craster a chance for small parts with the opera. Craster coaches the orchestra, Page...well, hangs around with other young, inexperienced dancers waiting to be noticed. And eventually she is, and eventually Craster's musical genius is recognized, and Lermontov assigns him to write the score to the Hans Andersen story of The Red Shoes--magical shoes that keep on dancing even after the wearer is too tired to go on. And the centerpiece performance of the ballet's opening night is sheer brilliance. Not just a great ballet, but one of the most sublime sequences of cinema ever, as movie magic transforms the stagy ballet into the dream world of the performers (and maybe even the audience.) Seriously, I've spent most of the last night just thinking about that ballet scene. Well, from there Craster and Page are rising stars. And, to the displeasure of Lermontov--lovers. And that's when it turns from a glorious story of the rise of great artists into a tragedy. And dare I say...a little noir-ish. I don't care if you categorize this as noir or not. Arguments over definitions are the purview of small, pointless minds. This is a great movie, and that's all that matters.

SPECTER OF THE ROSE (1946): And then for those who want real noir, and real weirdness, this was a pallet cleanser to the Technicolor brilliance of THE RED SHOES. Good ol' black-and-white is back, and Ben Hecht wrote and directed. But the struggle to make (and finance) great art is still there. Michael Chekhov is Max Polikoff, an opera producer who owes money all over town. Along with Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson) they will put on the titular opera. A story of a woman who falls asleep with a rose, and dreams that it turns into her lover. All they need is a great dancer, Andre Sanine (Ivan Kirov.) Too bad he's suspected of murdering his wife. Sure, she died of a heart attack...on stage...while performing with him. But in his psychotic delusions he believes he's responsible, and when you can't stop yelling about how you killed her, the police get curious. Eh, it's all just in his head, and young dancer Haidi (Viola Essen) helps him snap out of it...kinda. He's still psychotic, but more often than not he's fine. So the opera will be an artistic triumph...or it might lead to a little bit of death. But one things for certain, Lionel Gans (Lionel Stander) will look like a tough guy but wax floridly poetic through the whole thing. He's awesome. This film is awesome. 

Total Running Time: 482 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,368

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 8

Last Friday was dedicated to Hollywood's take on Hollywood

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952): Kirk Douglas is Jonathon Shields, Hollywood producer, head of his own studio. In the opening scenes we don't see him, we see his old collaborators--director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan,) actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner,) and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell.) Shields is on the phone, trying to talk them into making a new picture. Only Bartlow will even answer the phone, and that's just to tell him to go to hell. Seems he has a past with all of them. A past that involves friendship turning sour as he double-crosses each of them in turn. All in the cause of inflating his name...and in making great pictures. And that's the key, he got his start making low-budget pictures for Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who now works for him. The framing device for the story is a meeting in Pebbel's office. And we learn that while Shields is an arrogant, credit-stealing, back-stabbing, cheating swindler...we also learn that he made great pictures in the past, and made each and every one of them into a star. Their careers were good working with Shields, and have been great since. So what's the big problem about working with him again? This is Hollywood's perverted love letter to itself, admitting it's personal faults while also pointing out that quite often those faults lead to some really great pictures.

THE BIG KNIFE (1955): And then this one is all about Hollywood's faults. Based on a stage play by Clifford Odets, who was not shy about his hatred for Hollywood. Jack Palance plays movie star Charlie Castle, a man living with the tragedy of having a dream, compromising on it, but still holding on to it. He's a big Hollywood star, but his life is managed by the studio, and ultimately the studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger.) His personal life is falling apart, as he's separated from his wife (Ida Lupino, providing some small measure of sanity) and son. And there's a bit of a hidden scandal in his past that makes him susceptible to pressure from all sides. There's not a heroic character in the entire cast (a mark of true noir) and the ending is depressing and perfect. The point couldn't have been clearer if it was 90 minutes of Odets' middle finger with his voice screaming "This is for you, Hollywood!" And I love it.

Total Running Time: 227 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,886

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 7

Thursday has become the traditional night of weirdness at Noir City, and last Thursday brought it to a new level, with nightclub act noir.

SCREAMING MIMI (1958): Based on a Frederic Brown novel, this story is insane. We start with a young woman, Virgina Wilson (Anita Ekberg) narrowly escaping an attack by an escaped mental patient. That puts her in the mental asylum herself, where after much treatment, she is released into the demanding, obsessive care of her doctor/lover/controller. She goes back to work as an exotic dancer at a nightclub called (I'm not kidding) El Madhouse, run by Joan 'Gypsy' Masters (Gypsy Rose Lee.) And her dance is...something else. And then there's a plot about a statuette she owns of a screaming woman (actually, based on her screaming at the beginning of the film) and the fact that a similar nightclub dancer was murdered while in possession of an identical statuette. And the killer seems to be after her. Yeah, this is a strange, strange film.

MICKEY ONE (1965): And then the really strange, strange film of the night. Starring a very young Warren Beatty, and directed by Arthur Penn (they would next team up to make a little film called BONNIE AND CLYDE.) The story is film noir, the cinematography is French New Wave, and the style is surrealism. Beatty plays the titular character, a nightclub comic who somehow crosses the boss and is in trouble for his life. It's unclear whether he owes money from the craps table, or if he put the moves on the wrong girl, or if it's just that he's a lousy comedian. In any case, he goes from living the high life in Detroit to riding the rails as a bum to living on the streets in Chicago to actually becoming a nightclub comic again and perhaps drawing a little bit too much attention to himself. As some big shots from Detroit want to see him perform in a special private audition. Beatty is great as the mixture of fear, drunkenness, and wisecracking. And the style...well, don't try too hard to follow it. Let it wash over you. I have to admit, for the first half I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Then it got to be a bit exhausting. I think I love this movie. I think I'm obsessed with this movie. I need to watch it again when I'm better rested to make sure my love and obsession are not misplaced.

Total Running Time: 172 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,659

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 6

I skipped day 5 (Tuesday) because...well, I was cheating on Noir City with a different film festival. It was the Cinequest media launch, and I just had to be there. By the way, check out the Cinequest trailer.

But on Wednesday I was back for a double bill of Doris Day.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955): The Ruth Etting story, as a musical melodrama, in bright colors. I don't care if that doesn't sound entirely noir, it's a great picture and Doris Day is great in it. She plays Ruth Etting, who stars as a dance-hall girl and works her way up to be the biggest recording star of the 20s. James Cagney stars opposite her as Martin "Gimpy" Snyder, a gangster with a limp who runs the laundry racket in all the Chicago nightclubs. And who takes an interest in her and uses his muscle to put her on stage. And it turns out she's good. Really good. Like good enough that you can manage her legitimately and let her become a star based on talent. But that's not Gimpy's way. It becomes a story of him suddenly not being the great man who calls all the shots, and he doesn't like it one bit. Great (true) story, great acting, great soundtrack, everything is just great.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950): This is practically the jazz variant of HUMORESQUE from the other night. But instead of John Garfield we get Kirk Douglas. And instead of a violin with get a trumpet. And instead of a classical music we get jazz. And while there is a love triangle with him, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall (who is pretty clearly bisexual) his ultimate love is always his music. Music his way, without compromises. Which makes it really hard for him to keep a job in a dance band, much less keep a relationship with a human. Well, except maybe his buddy and pianist Smoky (Hoagy Carmichael.)  Fantastic.

Total Running Time: 234 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,487

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 4

Last Monday was Humphrey Bogart night. Excellent!

IN A LONELY PLACE (1950): Bogart is Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter. He's also got a bit of a drinking problem, and a bigger anger problem. He's given a book to try to adapt, and he brings a coat-check girl home from the club to tell him the story (he overhears that she has read it.) It's all innocent, and she leaves relatively early. But the next morning there's a problem--she's been killed, shoved out of a car down a canyon. And Dixon is the prime suspect. Gloria Grahame as his neighbor Laurel Gray comes to his rescue as his alibi. And then as his friend, lover, muse, fiance... But the cops keep putting the screws on him, and the strain gets to be too much. She sees a bit of his temper, and starts wondering if maybe he does have it in himself to kill... Excellent acting, a well crafted story and character study of the near-psychotic man.

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947): Hey, I've seen this one Noir City. Let's take a look at what I said back then:

Bogart plays Geoff Carroll, an American painter in England. He falls for his sketch model Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck) while on a trip to Scotland. Only problem is he's married. But his wife dies, even though he took such great care of her, bringing her milk and everything. The new Mrs Carroll works out fine, until he starts acting weird. Maybe it's just exhaustion from his latest masterpiece, or maybe it's their new neighbor Alexis Smith (Cecily Latham), who flirts with him pretty hard. Bogart always bring something interesting to his roles, and dances across the line from calculating and insane fairly nicely (love the ending). In fact, all the acting is great, especially his creepily mature young daughter Bea (Ann Carter). It is more than a little daffy--it got many big laughs, not all of which were intentional. And it sometimes falls into self-parody, like when Bogart meets his wife's ex-boyfriend and announces "This looks like the start of a beautiful hatred." Fun for a laugh, but the uneven tone takes away from the greatness this story and this cast could've created.

Yup, that still sounds about right. Especially the creepily mature daughter part. What fun.

Total Running Time: 193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,253

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 3

Two movies last Sunday, as the art theme of the day was classical music.

DECEPTION (1946): Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) and Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) are old lovers and musicians. She thought he had died in the war, but it turns out he's alive. And that's wonderful...and complicated. Because see, while Karel was away and thought dead, she had hooked up with famous composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains, who is the true star of the picture. Oh yeah, and with Henreid and Rains, it's a mini CASABLANCA reunion.) And Karel...he's the jealous type. But he has nothing but admiration for Hollenius' work, and knows he's the only cellist talented enough to play his new composition. And so Hollenius has some power over them both, and a power he wields with delicious wickedness, twisting them in the wind, knowing just how to destroy them in the best possible way.

HUMORESQUE (1946): John Garfield stars as Paul Boray, a kid from the slums, son of a shop owner who has a talent for classical music. Joan Crawford co-stars as Helen Wright, a socialite born with a silver flask in her mouth, who takes a liking to Paul and helps him become a star. But the whole show is stolen by Oscar Levant as Sid Jeffers, a wise-cracking pianist (that "silver flask" line is his) and Paul's oldest friend. There's a love triangle, with Paul going for the completely unstable Helen Wright over the nice Gina (Joan Chandler) who is his friend from the music institute. And the acting is all top-notch, but I didn't care. I just cracked up any time Sid Jeffers spoke, and wanted more of that. Maybe there's not much of a story if there's nothing but a wise-cracking pianist making jokes. But it was all I could think about afterwards.

Total Running Time: 240 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,060

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 2

Four more movies on Saturday, including an amazing double bill of foreign noir. But first, a double bill about art collectors

THE DARK CORNER (1946): We started the day with this unsubtle near-parody of noir. Mark Stevens is Bradford Galt, a private eye who set up shop in New York after some unpleasant business back in San Francisco. His secretary/love interest is Kathleen Stewart, played by none other than Lucille Ball (who went on to say that making this movie was the worst time in her life, mostly due to the bullying of director Henry Hathaway.) William Bendix plays the ruffian, and Clifton Webb is the villain, gallery owner and jealous husband Hardy Cathcart. His wife has fallen into the arms of another man, and in true Hollywood style he (the other man, not Cathcart) happens to be the source of the trouble Bradford had back in San Francisco. So an elaborate plot is sprung to frame Bradford for murder. And in a convoluted plot he--with the help of Kathleen--has to stay alive, prove his innocence, and catch the bad guy. Oh, and make fun of high society art snobs while they're at it.

CRACK-UP (1946): At night, a man breaks into an art gallery, raving mad, and starts wrecking the place. Turns out that man is George Steele (Pat O'brien) who is an art expert who lectures at that very gallery. To keep the scandal out of the paper, they don't press charges. But his story makes no sense. It starts with surviving a train crash...only the records for all the train companies show no crashes that night--none for months, in fact. He seems to be losing his mind. Which is awful convenient, considering the board was already considering firing him for his shocking lectures that have led to riots in the gallery (yeah, there was a time and a place when people cared that much about art.) But there's more going on, a complicated international plot of theft and forgeries, and Steele has to get to the bottom of it, even if everyone else thinks he's dangerously deranged. Well, that was a lot of fun.

Then a long break, where I had time to get a little food and a little drink, and back for some international noir.

LOS TALLOS AMARGOS (THE BITTER STEMS) (1956): From Argentina, this uncovered gem made it's North American debut at the Castro last night, only 60 years after it was made. Brilliantly shot, it has the noir-est of noir plots--absolutely no heroes. A small time newspaperman has a crisis of confidence, thinking he has done nothing worthwhile with his life. When a European barman befriends him, they hatch a plot to make a ton of money with a shady correspondence course on journalism (actually, the course may well be above-board, except for the promises of a lucrative, exciting, powerful journalism career--he knows full well being a reporter is a shitty job.) And the scam works, pretty soon the checks are rolling in. And he has a sense of purpose--not in the scam itself, but in the fact that he's helping his friend raise the money to bring his family to Argentina. Especially his son Jarvis. But friends make him consider whether or not he's actually being played. Is there a family at all? Or is his "friend" playing him, planning to steal their fortune and leave him holding the bag? Well he has to find out...and he does. He overhears a conversation that convinces him his friend is scamming him. And so he takes steps to...get rid of the problem. And then Jarvis shows up. Okay, I could see the twist from some ways away, but it doesn't make it any less thrilling, and the photography, acting, story, and ending are all top-notch noir.

FLICKA OCH HYACINTER (GIRL WITH HYACINTHS) (1950): And we ended the night in Sweden, with this movie that Ingmar Bergman called perfection, and who am I to argue? We start with a small party, people laughing, drinking, playing music. And Dagmar Brink (Eva Henning,) a lovely blond lady, goes home and promptly kills herself. She leaves behind no family, no close friends, and all her possessions are left to the writer who lives across the hall, even though he and his wife hardly knew her. But they go on a search to figure out who was Dagmar Brink, and why did she kill herself. And they meet many acquaintances--a lover, a husband, a father (maybe,) and a musician in stories that eventually tie together. Although the clues mean different things to the husband and the wife. And I can't say anymore, I would spoil it. I'll just say that while I guessed at the twist of the ending, it was still immensely satisfying.

Total Running Time: 371 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,819