The second day of Noir City featured four wildly different films, each in service to noir in its own way. The matinee double feature, a tribute to director Robert Siodmak, combined two of the more unusual noirs I’ve seen; the night duo, both by screenwriter William Bowers and director Robert Parrish, continued this year’s penchant for merging dark action with sharp, funny dialogue. None of the films are currently on DVD.
Matinee #1: A Doctor, a Dame, and The Kitchen Sink
1942’s Fly-By-Night is an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink brew of romantic comedy, espionage, Keystone Kop-style shenanigans, screwball dialogue, medical mystery and Hitchcock’s favorite theme of the wrongly accused man. Even the Noir City program notes are hard pressed to truly classify this as noir, but at least it has a tough talking dame and a man with a gun. The latter is Richard Carlson, star of Creature from the Black Lagoon; the former is Nancy Kelly, Oscar nominee for whipping Patty McCormack’s ass at the end of The Bad Seed. The words are by four screenwriters, including Oscar winner turned smut scribe Sidney Sheldon. Unlike most Hollywood fare written by multiple people, this one stays stitched together no matter how crazy its plot becomes, a testament to Siodmak’s direction.
Fly-By-Night begins as a prison break movie and ends as a romantic comedy. A seemingly deranged man escapes on a rainy night from a sanitarium. He carjacks Dr. Burton (Carlson) and forces him to drive him to a safe hotel room. The escapee, Teisler, explains to Burton that he is sane, that he is the assistant to a famous biochemist, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy that found him unjustly institutionalized. Teisler shows Burton the bullet hole in his hat, along with a baggage claim check that holds the secret to “G32.” Of course, before Teisler can spill the beans on G32, he’s murdered while Burton is distracted. Since apparently only he and Burton were in the hotel suite, and Teisler was killed with one of Burton’s scalpels, the cops think Burton is the who in whodunit. Burton escapes onto the ledge after a hilarious misstep by the cops, and climbs into a neighboring apartment occupied by a nightgown-clad Pat Lindsey (Nancy Kelly).
At gunpoint, Burton demands Lindsey hide him. After directing him to her bathroom, Lindsey immediately rats him out to the police. Noticing he has escaped out the bathroom window, the police leave her place. Unfortunately for Pat Lindsey, Burton didn’t actually leave the building. He returns, still holding that gun, but now looking for a hostage in addition to an escape route. Burton’s opening line upon his return is the stuff Meet Cutes are made of: “Thanks for the haircut, Delilah.”
Against her will, and minus a dress, Lindsey is dragged along with Burton on his quest to prove his innocence and figure out what G32 is before the cops catch up with him. Burton’s fear has him doing some incredible things I’m sure he didn’t learn at Johns Hopkins. After outwitting the cops and stealing a car from a moving delivery truck, Lindsey notes “for an innocent man you’re surprisingly good at felony.” Lindsey remains suspicious of Burton until a botched visit to Teisler’s biochemist’s house reveals how much danger Burton is facing. The biochemist turns out to be a fake—the real one’s holed up against his will in the loony bin—and our heroes have to figure a way to get to him to clear Burton’s name.
Burton gets cleared, but not before he winds up unintentionally married and intentionally institutionalized. No matter how loopy the clever plot gets, Siodmak and his actors are on pace with it, racing through shoot-outs and shopping sprees and cold showers administered by a sexy blonde woman in a nurse outfit (Carlson’s reaction to her appearance in the film is priceless). Along the way, we learn that:
a) cops have parents who run one-stop shopping wedding chapels;
b) one of the war efforts to raise cash in the US was selling “Patriotic Panties,” undergarments with V’s embroidered on them (“V for victory,” says our perky sales lady, “fine silk for Uncle Sam!”);
c) in 1942, a movie could get away with burning a woman on the ass with a cigarette;
d) blind people cannot fire guns accurately;
e) a sanitarium will put you away if you have a jewelry fetish;
f) hot and cold showers administered by a sexy candy striper is one way to cure insanity;
g) Steven Soderbergh must have seen this movie before he made Out of Sight, because he cribs his trapped-in-a-trunk scene from here.
Fly-by-Night climaxes with the big reveal of what G32 is, and it’s enough to fry your brain, or at the very least, your optic nerves.
Nancy Kelly, an actress whom I’ve never been able to warm to, is great here. Her line readings are ripe with precise comic timing and she and Carlson have enough chemistry to convince you that she’d stick around with the man who kidnapped her. She’s also quite fetching here, shot with admiration by Siodmak’s camera. Carlson has a trickier role; he has to convince us he’s a tough guy, but also have the comic ability to pull off the addicted-to-women’s-jewelry scene that gets him thrown into the sanitarium. Most of the film’s inspired lunacy comes from Kelly’s dialogue and Carlson’s physical comedy, both of which merge during the climax when Carlson slugs Kelly on the jaw over something she said.
Siodmak keeps the film on track, showcasing both the comedic and the suspenseful side of the picture with two well-done camera reveals: He generates tension with a pan down to the second appearance of Teisler’s bullet-holed hat, and gets Airplane-style humor out of a pan that reveals what Pat Lindsey does for a living. His work is efficient and tight: He manages to squeeze four movies into 74 minutes, and it works. It’s not a masterpiece; it’s one of those movies you watch for the sheer enjoyment of being dragged around by a wild plot that holds together just when it seems poised to disintegrate. I liked it so much, I watched it twice.
Matinee #2: Film Noir Meets Travelogue
After the success of Fly-by-Night, Siodmak became a sought-after director in Hollywood. One of his last studio productions, 1950’s Deported, has him shooting on location in Italy. Deported has an A-movie sheen to its B-movie pedigree, provided by Oscar winning cin-togger William Daniels. According to the Noir City program, this is a “thinly veiled tale of mobster Lucky Luciano’s enforced return to his roots.” Any excuse to get to Italy will do, and once there, Siodmak takes full advantage of the scenery. At times, Deported looks like a travelogue for Italy, and at others, with scenes of Italian youth degrading themselves for money, it looks like Suddenly, Last Summer minus the cannibalism.
Jeff Chandler plays Vic Smith, an Italian citizen deported back to Italy after his numerous crimes in America. The deportation has a positive side for him, as it allows for him to launder the $100,000 he has stolen. When his accomplice follows him to Italy to get his cut, Vic plays dumb. He tells his partner he has no idea where the money is. Vic is protected by the village because his influential uncle thinks Vic is some kind of American government worker, not an organized crime boss. The village, enamored with all things American, immediately falls in love with Vic.
To get the stolen loot, Vic decides to run a scam on an unsuspecting Countess (Marta Toren), a rich woman who has been widowed for 5 years. In the small Italian town both she and Vic inhabit, people are being fed with funds from American aid. Vic teams up with the countess, seducing her and pretending to be concerned about her humanitarian efforts. He’ll pony up the $100,000 to get a lot of food, then have the food stolen and sold on the black market so he can get 5 times his money back. Vic teams up with a local mobster to hatch his plan.
Things don’t work out as planned because Vic is a dunce when it comes to hot Italian women. One of the film’s running jokes is that Vic is repeatedly tricked by Gina (Marina Berti), a woman who uses her alluring looks to put Vic in contact with his double-crossed partner. Every time she disappears behind a door at her house or a hotel and Vic thinks he’s going to get some coochiechino, Gina returns with the last guy on Earth Vic wants to see. It happens more than once. Vic also does something completely dumb in the noir world—he gets hooked on the Countess.
Cinematographer Daniels does well with the outdoor scenes, but his real talent is displayed during a well-crafted shootout scene in a dark warehouse. The shootout is the highlight of Deported and provides a much needed jolt after we’ve been lulled into a minor stupor for a while with all the Countess and Vic scenes; those don’t really work. After keeping all those balls in the air during Fly-By-Night, it was something of a letdown to see Siodmak toss up fewer balls and drop them. Deported is an odd film, more a curiosity piece than a good movie. It’s also the hardest to find of Siodmak’s American work.
Main Event Feature #1: Film Noir at the Trailer Park
All proceeds from the Noir City Film Festival go to the Film Noir Foundation, a non-profit that specializes in the restoration of noir films. The fruit of the UCLA Film Archives’s labors, a restoration of 1951’s Cry Danger, was paid for by last year’s festival box office take. The restored print made its debut as the top half of Saturday night’s double bill. Co-star and perennial on-screen wiseass Richard Erdman accompanied the print, cracking wise and sharing stories with festival host Eddie Muller.
Like the opening night film, Pitfall, Cry Danger stars Dick Powell spouting screenwriter William Bowers’ dialogue. Once again, a wrongly accused man and $100,000 Is involved (is this noir’s going rate for souls?). Powell plays Rocky, an ex-con out after spending 5 years up the river for a crime he didn’t commit. Rocky got life in prison, but a Marine named Delong (Richard Erdman) provides Rocky with an alibi, albeit five years late, and Rocky is released. The trouble is, Rocky has never seen this Marine before. The Marine has an ulterior motive: He thinks Rocky knows where the stolen one hundred thou is, and he wants a cut.
Rocky has no idea where the money is, but he knows who committed the crime. He seeks out the crime boss responsible for the robbery, a man named after both the convertible furniture and Noir City’s home theater. Castro (William Conrad, way before Cannon) thinks Rocky’s request for $50,000 (”$10 grand for every year served, calculates Rocky) is fair but he’s not willing to give up the money just yet. Castro gives Rocky $500 to bet on a longshot horse “whose first place picture was taken well before the race was run.” Rocky wins the money, but his payoff is not what he expected. The cop, Gus Cobb (Regis Toomey), who has been tailing Rocky in hopes of catching him going after the stolen loot informs him that his winnings are counterfeit.
While trying to get back the money he feels Castro owes him, Rocky decides to visit the girlfriend of a guy with whom he spent jail time. The guy was also framed in the robbery, so Rocky feels he owes him a way out of the pen. He and Delong rent a trailer in a trailer park, one as decrepit as the apartment in Coming to America, and scope out Nancy Morgan (Rhonda Fleming). She and Rocky had a past, but Rocky intends to keep it all business. Delong tags along for comedy relief, making time with trailer park pickpocket slash hottie Darlene LaVonne (an amusing Jean Porter), whom he calls Fingers. Delong also never stops drinking; in one scene he goes through the trouble to make a sandwich and a glass of milk only to dump it in favor of a jolt of booze. “Bowers was a drunk,” Erdman informed us after the feature. “I was playing him [in Cry Danger].” Bowers must have also been very charming—Delong gets his writer’s best lines.
Speaking of charm, Rhonda Fleming’s is on full display. She looks at Powell with hopes of rekindling the past, and he looks at her with similar, though more cautious feelings. Something’s not quite on the level with her, and Rocky’s suspicions get deeper after Delong and Darlene take machine gun fire meant for him and Nancy.
Cry Danger ends with a rather cold line about the not-so-innocent Nancy (“go pick her up”). Before it does, it serves up Powell in some ice cold scenes of violence and threat, the most tense involving a scene of Russian Roulette with the latter half of Jake and the Fatman. Fred MacMurray’s line in Double Indemnity about not getting the money or the woman applies here, as it does to many a noir.
Main Even Feature #2: Willie Stark Goes Undercover
Before making his directorial debut with Cry Danger, Robert Parrish was an Oscar winning editor (for 1947’s Body and Soul). He is fondly remembered as one of the crafters of noir, helping shape its style and flow. There is an economy to his work—it’s terse and nothing seems wasted or extraneous. Like William Bowers, his partner in crime in this double feature, he relishes getting straight to the point and is not ashamed to toss in a little humor, gallows or otherwise.
Cry Danger is full of on-location shots of Los Angeles, but Parrish’s next feature, 1951’s The Mob, takes place on the docks of New York City and in its bars. Broderick Crawford, whose Oscar winning turn in All The King’s Men Parrish chopped into pieces of film, plays a cop who witnesses what he thinks is a justifiable shooting by another cop. But the cop, despite his realistic badge, is not a real cop at all. Crawford’s Joe D’Amico must save face by going undercover as New Orleans-based tough guy Tim Flynn in order to solve the crime. Crawford leaves behind his nurse fiancée Mary (Betty Buehler) and travels to New Orleans to set the plot In motion.
Like William Conrad, Ernie Borgnine shows up as a villain named Castro. But Flynn/D’Amico is really looking for a gangster named Blackie Clay. Nobody seems to know who he is, not even the bartender who knows way too much, and the film twists and turns as D’Amico gets more entangled in the plot. Assisting Crawford in his tangled web are Neville Brand, Jean Alexander, Charles Bronson (blink and you’ll miss him) and Richard Kiley, who plays a guy named Tom Clancy.
Bowers’ script, adapted from a novel by Ferguson Findley, allows Crawford to merge the comedic chops on display in Born Yesterday with his dramatic acting from All The King’s Men. He’s well cast as a brute, and Bowers gives him plenty of grouchy things to say. Parrish handles the twists and turns well, though when you find out who Blackie Clay is, it’s almost as cheesy as finding out G32 is a chemical-based war tool whose brightness causes permanent blindness. Just another day in the underbelly of the Naked City.
Next time: Marilyn Monroe in Technicolor and the Tonya Harding Of Film Noir
The Odienator is still retired from blogging, though the next six weeks in the blogosphere will sorely test that retirement.