The 8th Noir City Festival opened Friday in San Francisco, and by sheer good luck and careful client planning, I am in the City by the Bay to bear witness. The weather has been awful, with downpours laying waste to California with a vengeance to rival The Great Flood. The rain may be inappropriate for Southern California, but it’s perfect for the opening night of a festival showcasing the darkest material Hollywood had to offer in its heyday. For the next 9 days, I will be amongst the raucous crowd at the Castro Theatre, satiating my jones for all things noir. Several of the features are not on DVD, and despite listing film noir as my favorite genre of film, I’ve never even heard of half the films in this year’s program.
So while some of my colleagues freeze their asses off dealing with amoral people at Sundance, I will be basking in the glory of amoral people from the safe, warm confines of a glowing screen. Occasionally, I’ll chime in with reports from the festival whose celebration of Lust and Larceny exists only in its cinematic content.
For those unfamiliar with Noir City, its programmers run double bills every day, and matinees and night programs on the weekend. The fest kicked off with a fantastic montage of noir scenes patched together on a Mac by a 20-year-old California woman whom the MPAA is probably hunting right now. We were then treated to a brief history lesson by the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. Muller pointed out that this year’s fest focused on two of the things that have led many a person, real and fictitious, to their doom. The packed house was more than enthusiastic, and as the lights went down, I settled into my role as one of “those wonderful people out there in the dark.”
Opening night provided the perfect double feature to highlight this year’s double-L themes with 1948’s Pitfall providing the Lust and that same year’s Larceny providing its titular crime. Neither is on DVD and both had previously been unseen by me. Pitfall, directed by House of Wax’s André De Toth, is the darker of the two but is not without its humorous moments. Larceny is a little lighter and chock full of intentionally hilarious one-liners and insults. Both were penned by noir screenwriter William Bowers, whose ear for sharp, witty and rapid-fire dialogue kept some of the shakier plot points from derailing his pictures.
Pitfall stars Dick Powell, former crooner and director of the movie whose location killed a lot of its cast—John Wayne’s hilarious mess, The Conquerer. Powell, like Bowers, is represented at Noir City as one of the craftsmen of noir. Powell once tried out for Double Indemnity in an attempt to shake his nice-guy singer image (he worked with Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street), and though that fell through, he was cast as Philip Marlowe by Edward Dmytryk. This kickstarted his career as an agent of film noir, and his appearance onscreen on Opening Night will not be his last at the festival.
De Toth guides Powell through a tale of an insurance salesman drawn into a one-night stand with a blonde woman. This leads him to be hounded by an investigator while he tries to hide his crime of adultery. The Double Indemnity similarities end there, as Powell is actually a decent guy, the femme fatale isn’t vindictive and the investigator is the heavy in the piece. Lizabeth Scott plays our hero’s object d’amour and his nemesis is assayed in a surprisingly sinister turn by a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Burr throws every ounce of his massive weight around, commanding the screen whenever he is on. He plans to manipulate his way into Scott’s bed by any means necessary, including but not limited to beating the hell out of our hero and inciting murder.
At home, Powell has a nice family led by feisty and funny wife Jane Wyatt and a slightly annoying son played by Jimmy Hunt four years prior to his turn in Invaders from Mars. Wyatt is so engaging that Powell’s decision to bone Scott must be purely driven by lust. She’s a fashion model and not too difficult on the eyes. Her checkered history with bad men led Powell to her in the first place—he is there to repossess items of hers bought with stolen insurance money by her now jailed fiancé. With Burr constantly stalking her after her transgression, and her man about to be released from jail, Scott has far bigger problems than Powell hounding her for poontang.
For its time, Pitfall is oddly mature about its adultery, even if some scenes are the ones we’re familiar with vis-à-vis this topic. Scott accidentally finds out Powell is married, and late in the film Powell has no choice but to come clean to Wyatt about the affair. Pitfall is also surprisingly amoral and vague about its final outcome. It leaves two of the main characters’ fates unknown, and one character suffers far more than the other partner in crime. The “hooray for family values” turn Pitfall takes near film’s end feels forced by the studio, but Harry Wild’s cin-tog, the acting by all parties, and the aforementioned Mr. Bowers’ pen more than make up for it. If nothing else, I’ve never been more excited to see someone reach into a drawer for something in a movie. You’ll know what I mean when you see this picture.
With the more serious lust out of the way, Noir City turned its attention to larceny, embodied on opening night by George Sherman’s Larceny. The film is appropriately titled because its femme fatale literally steals the picture from her (at the time) more well known co-stars. Singer and Miracle on 34th Street star John Payne (why did so many singing actors turn to noir?) plays a confidence man working for Dan Duryea. Payne is smoother than a baby’s ass and more slippery than an eel under the Exxon Valdez, using words to earn people’s trust while absconding with their wallets. His latest mark is Joan Caulfield, a rich war widow whom Duryea wants Payne to swindle out of funds. Caulfield works with a youth organization and more blood pumps through her big, giving heart than her sometimes empty head. Payne’s seduction becomes far less compelling once we realize Caulfield has the word “SUCKER” tattoed on her forehead, but Larceny’s final scene proves that she had a profound effect on at least one character.
Duryea is paranoid about his girlfriend being around the all-male members of his gang, and well he should: His woman is messing around with his right hand man. Duryea’s chick is named Tori, she gets the film’s best lines, and she’s personified by a smoking hot Shelley Winters in her first major role. Even though her screen time is limited, Winters leaves a lasting impression as the rock-hard and cold beauty who takes no guff from anyone. Whether participating in a slap-fight with Payne or firing off one-liners made from barbed wire, Winters owns this picture. She’s sexy, funny, dangerous, and adept at running her own game.
Caulfield’s performance isn’t bad at all, but her character is so jaw-droppingly stupid it’s hard to root for her. There’s a sort of payoff-slash-punchline to Caulfield’s naivete, and I suppose one over-the-top femme fatale is all a slightly comedic film noir can handle, but she really tried my patience. Payne, on the other hand, is clearly relishing the mean things he does onscreen, and it’s infectious. Watch how he pleads for his life near the film’s end, hatching one more scam to save his skin. Then remember that this is the same man who believed in Santa Claus the year before.
Saturday brings four not-on-dvd features to Noir City, including more Powell and a film written by Sidney Sheldon. Sunday brings a new print of the Charles Brackett-minus-Billy Wilder scripted Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe. Check back here for more updates, and check here for all the films unfolding at the festival. For those of you in San Francisco, look for your friendly neighborhood Odienator at screenings. It’s easy to find me: I still look like the star of Boat Trip.
The Odienator is still retired from blogging, though the next six weeks in the blogosphere will sorely test that retirement.