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Noir City # 4 Forces of Nature and Acts of God

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Noir City # 4: Forces of Nature and Acts of God

Unfortunately, I had to make my escape from Noir City after Friday’s showing of Slattery’s Hurricane, so I missed the final two days of the festival. However, I did write about one of the features I missed, Odds Against Tomorrow, right here at the House Next Door, so that wrong has been righted. One other wrong, for which I must do penance in true noir fashion, is to acknowledge the short film I mentioned in my first noir piece. The Endless Night: A Valentine To Film Noir is a wonderful short film by 20-year old Serena Bramble who, using just her Mac, created not only a fine distillation of noir, but also a corrective to the fiction that the current generation has an aversion to black-and-white films. Stop what you are doing right now and go watch it.

Tuesday: Odie and Garfield, Together Again

John Garfield was the subject of Tuesday night’s Noir City Double Feature. A Jewish guy from New York, Garfield made waves and plenty of box office by bedding down, in Eddie Muller’s words, “the biggest shiksa onscreen,” Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. The adaptation of James M. Cain’s seedy novel of sex and violence at a Greek diner took years to write; the source material was just too much for the Production Code to withstand. What wound up onscreen is far less explicit than the laughable Bob Rafelson’s 1981 Nicholson-Lange remake, but manages to be sexier. Garfield and Turner didn’t need to roll around on a kitchen table like rabbits on Ecstacy to make the point; all Cora (Lana Turner) has to do is drop her lipstick and let director Tay Garnett follow the rolling tube back to its origin’s legs. Sure it’s a ripoff of Double Indemnity’s anklet, but who am I to turn down a hot pair of stems on a dame?

Like so many hotties in noir, Cora is married to an older man who got the longer end of the stick. Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway, jettisoning the novel’s Greek last name for his character) runs a rundown diner on a California stretch of road. Coming down that road, looking for work is Frank Chambers (Garfield), a man with itchy feet who never stays in one place for long. At least that’s his life’s mission until Cora drops that lipstick while appearing in the doorway in her white short set and matching headwear. Chambers is hooked, but Cora resists his attempts at immediate seduction. (Aside: I wish I’d lived in these times—all you had to do is walk in, grab a woman and plant one on her and she’d be yours.) She wants to stay with Nick and make something of the diner they own.

Nick has other ideas. He decides that the diner needs to be sold so he and Cora can move in with his invalid sister. Instead of slinging hash, Cora will now care for Nick’s sister. It’s all too much for Cora. She was willing to live in a sexless marriage so long as it had the benefit of a business to run, but she’s nobody’s nurse. By this time, Chambers and Cora are involved, and Cora hatches a plan to drown Nick in the bathtub, then make it look accidental. Thanks to some morbid humor involving the one cat who doesn’t land on its feet when it falls from great heights (it’s been electrocuted), Nick winds up merely injured.

The district attorney, Sackett (Leon Ames), first seen driving Chambers to the diner, comes by to investigate the accident. Chambers and Cora play dumb and stick to their story, but Sackett’s on to them. When Nick does die after a car accident that goes slightly awry, the district attorney thinks he has a case. He decides to play Chambers and Cora against each other, but Cora has a secret weapon in the guise of her own lawyer, Arthur Keats. Keats is played in an Oscar worthy turn by Hume Cronyn. Keats is clever, devious and more slippery and sinister than our murderous duo. I got as big a kick out of Cronyn’s performance as I did looking at Johnny Stompanato’s last girlfriend.

Double crosses abound, and Postman’s ending is a master class in double jeopardy as ironic plot twist. James M. Cain hated the film’s ending, the legend goes, and he hated even more the fact that Hollywood chose to dirty up the one novel he tried to be restrained with, Mildred Pierce. Now that’s irony, Alanis.

He Ran All the WayThe second feature in my reunion with Garfield pairs him with Shelley Winters as a naïve young woman who, in a faux pas worthy of a Lifetime movie, brings home the wrong man. Directed by John Barry and written by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, 1951’s He Ran All the Way precedes similar family-in-peril hostage movies like Bogie’s The Desperate Hours. Garfield’s Nick Robey is on the run after a payroll robbery leaves his partner dead and him with a murder rap for shooting a cop. While hiding in a public pool, he meets Peggy Dobbs (Winters) who invites him home to meet her family. Unfortunately for the Dobbs, Robey takes them hostage to hide out from the cops until the heat’s off.

The family is your standard ’50s family, a young son named Tommy (Bobby Hyatt), a seamstress mother (Selena Royale) and the patriarch who will fight for his family (Wallace Ford). The fact the father is named Fred Dobbs is not lost on this lover of old movies. Robey has issues with trust, mostly due to being raised by Mrs. Robey. As portrayed by the great noir character actress Gladys George, Mrs Robey is never seen without a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a bad word for her boy. “If you weren’t my Mama, I’d kick yer teeth out,” yells Robey at the beginning of the film. It wouldn’t be a fair fight; Ma would kick his ass without spilling her beer.

The biggest change Robey brings to the house during his stay is an awakening in Peggy. He opens her eyes to just how corrupt, evil and seductive the world can be, and in true noir fashion, her education comes at the giving end of a gun. As Robey lays in the gutter, the symbol of his mistrust appears in the frame. As he realizes that, had he trusted his hostage, he might have made it out of this thing in one piece, Garfield plays the scene as if it were his last. Sadly, it was. He Ran All the Way is Garfield’s last film. Like its screenwriter, its star was a victim of the Blacklist and, refusing to name names that included his wife, Garfield took the fall. He died in 1954 after doing what his noir anti-heroes rarely did: He stuck to his principles.

Wednesday: Toot Toot! Hey! Beep Beep!

One Girl's ConfessionThe main reason I bought my Noir City passport was to bear witness to Bad Girls Night. The double feature of Chicks in Chains movies both feature Cleo Moore, a sexy blonde who, in the first film, One Girl’s Confession, comes off as a Jayne Mansfield knock-off, complete with inner narrative. Moore is fun here, playing a waitress who robs her corrupt boss of $25,000, hiding it in the woods before confessing to the crime and being sent to the pokey. This is one of the nicest prisons I’ve ever seen. Moore comes off like Martha Stewart, showing the girls how to cook properly and other things. For good behavior, she’s paroled after 3 years of serving time.

Returning to the scene of the crime, Moore gets a waitress job at another dive, this one run by a compulsive gambler. The boss likes her toughness (she slaps the shit out of him during her interview), and treats her well. It seems like a good place to hide out until she can go dig up her money. Plus, there’s a nice, hunky fisherman who shows interest in her. Despite him being on a fishing boat straight out of a Popeye cartoon, Moore never once lets on that her man, though sexy, must stink real bad. She does, during their courtship, utter one of the best lines ever to describe men: “Men are all alike, their faces are just different so you can tell them apart.”

Every so often, Cleo’s inner monologue alerts us to her plans for the money. First, she considers helping her fisherman with a new boat, but when her boss comes to her whimpering about how he’s lost his entire fortune in a backroom gambling deal gone awry, she tells him where the money is buried. He comes back, screaming that he can’t find it. She freaks out, thinking the money has been stolen, and sinks into a deep depression.

Later, Cleo notices that her boss is now living the high-life. That rat! He lied to her, took the money and is now partying his keister off with his girlfriend (Ellen Stansbury, whose way with a sharp line is hilarious). Cleo seeks revenge, bopping him over the head with a champagne bottle and killing him. Stansbury then tells her that he was living large thanks to winning his money back. Cleo goes to her hiding spot and finds out, to her horror, that the boss’ moll was right. OOPS!

What happens next, and how this manages to end happily, I’ll leave you to discover. One Girl’s Confession is part of Columbia’s Bad Girls Box Set, so it’s available for rental.

Women's PrisonAlso on the box set is Women’s Prison, and as a guy who spent his early teenage years devouring every early ’80s chicks-in-chains flick from Chained Heat to Reform School Girls, THIS was the movie I came to see. How can you go wrong when the great Ida Lupino is the sadistic warden of the women’s prison?! Women’s Prison is extremely cheesy, but hits every single note found in the more exploitative ’70s and ’80s-based children of the genre. There’s the newbie (Phyllis Thaxter) who freaks out; the repeat offender (Jan Sterling) who shows her the ropes and tries to help; the married, motherly figure Joan (Audrey Totter); the wise Black woman (Juanita Moore, shockingly different than in Imitation of Life; the tough but fair prison guard (Gertrude Michael); the kind authority figure (here a doctor played by Howard Duff); and the aforementioned sadistic warden, played with gusto and more than a hint of butch lesbian by the actress who scared the shit out of me on a regular basis as a kid.

The title is a slight misnomer, as there are two prisons in one building, one male and one female. Occasionally, a man sneaks over to the female side, and according to stripper turned movie actress impersonator in prison, Vivian Marshall, “when that happens…WHOOOO!” One such man is Joan’s husband, Glen (Warren Stevens). He sneaks over, and their reunion is WHOOOO! Joan gets, like, totally PG, and the pressure is on the warden of the male prison to find out how men are sneaking over to the women’s prison. Not just because of the sexual aspect, but because it’s easy for a man to escape the prison if he’s gotten as far as the chick pen. Explaining a pregnant woman in an all women’s prison is career suicide for any warden.

Lupino plays her role to the hilt. Man, she’s a vicious bitch and I wanted her to hurt me so badly! The dialogue says she “can’t relate to men and is a borderline psychopath,” but we know the real reason why men don’t make her go WHOOOO! After Lupino dispenses an incredibly brutal (for 1955) beating on the pregnant Joan, killing her, the women revolt. The highlight of the revolt is vocal mimic Marshall, who, after kidnapping Warden Ida, answers her phone and does a dead-on Ida Lupino imitation to confuse the other warden. What’s so funny is the look on Lupino’s face as Marshall does her voice. The audience applauded, but not as loudly as they did when a helpless Lupino gets thrown into a crowd of the female prisoners she’s been abusing the entire film. In the room with them is Joan’s husband Glen…and he’s got a gun. Noir justice ensues!

Though not as titillating as the movies that peppered my adolescence, I got my money’s worth visiting this Women’s Prison. It too is on the Columbia Bad Girls Box set.

Thursday: I Left My Noir in San Francisco

Red LightThe busiest night of Noir City is always San Francisco Noir Night. There’s something about seeing the city you’re in on film, especially if it’s an old film. The double feature was two of the weirder noirs I’ve seen, one of which is best described as a “bibilical noir.” Who knew that de Lawd was a fan of film noir? He is a fan of smiting people, as we’ll see shortly.

1949’s Red Light is a rare RKO noir featuring coin-flipper George Raft as a businessman who, at the film’s opening, is waiting for the arrival of his priest brother from the military. Raft idolizes his brother, and the feeling is mutual. Raft buys a $20,000 stained glass window for his brother’s church, and the brother is about to take over a new parish out of town. While the brotherly reunion is occurring, Raft’s former employee, Raymond Burr, is getting out of jail. Raft put Burr there after Burr robbed the office. Now, Burr is out for revenge. He sends Harry Morgan (of M*A*S*H fame, making his third appearance in this festival with this film) to kill the one person that Raft holds dear. As the good Padre dies, he tells Raft that the answer to who killed him is “in the Bible.”

When Raft can’t find the answer in his brother’s Bible, he realizes that his brother meant the Gideon Bible in the hotel room. Unfortunately, someone has swiped the Bible from the room. Raft gets the list of people who had the room and tries to find out who took it. He gets assistance from the first person who had the room, Carla (Virginia Mayo of White Heat fame). Meanwhile, Burr starts slinking around Raft’s office, trying to get his job back. When he hears about the Bible, he starts looking too. Morgan tells Burr that, before he shot Raft’s brother, he mentioned Burr’s name. That might be the name written in the Bible by the dying man. Burr thanks Morgan by pushing him off a moving train.

Religious symbolism runs rampant in Red Light. I’ve never seen a noir where the hero goes to church, lights a candle, and looks to de Lawd for answers. There’s also a blind man who is saved by Jesus H. Christ in his moment of despair, and his story figures prominently in the film’s resolution. When we find out what the good Padre meant by “in the Bible,” it’s anti-climactic. However, the filmmakers look to divine intervention, and the raising of the apparently dead to punish the wicked. When Burr gets what’s coming to him, the results are, shall we say, shocking.

Burr shows up again in the second feature, 1948’s Walk a Crooked Mile, this time sporting a Lenin beard as an evil Commie. This is less a noir and more an anti-Communist piece masquerading as an F.B.I./police procedural. An English Scotland Yard cop teams up with an American agent to find out how the Commies are getting nuclear secrets that are supposed to be under wraps. Turns out there’s a traitor in the midst amongst the scientists working on the plans. The plans are being smuggled in paintings (!) by an obviously talented painter who can disguise them in the pictures. But who’s smuggling the secrets to the painter? Is it the female doctor who sounds like Natasha Fatale, and would the film be THAT obvious? The American and Brit agents do surveillance, interviews, and investigation to find out. Along the way, we meet an Eastern European woman who nobly dies for her adopted country after a patriotic speech, and some mustache twirling (or in Burr’s case, beard-pointing) enemies of capitalism. People die, the traitor is revealed, and while the means of smuggling the secrets is clever, the movie is not. It is best viewed as a propaganda filled time capsule. As in Red Light, San Francisco looks great.

Friday: Richard Widmark and Herman Wouk

Slattery's HurricaneI could only see one feature on Friday, as I had a red eye flight to catch, but I caught the more obscure of the two features. Pickup on South Street, the second feature, is one this Thelma Ritter lover has seen many times before. The new experience for me was Slattery’s Hurricane, a 1949 André de Toth movie from Fox. Hurricane was written by Caine Mutiny and Winds of War scribe Herman Wouk, and is the pairing of Richard Widmark and Linda Darnell that preceded the classic Mankiewicz noir, No Way Out the next year. According to Eddie Muller’s piece in The Noir Sentinel, Hurricane ran afoul of the censors many times, and some work on the part of the audience is required to figure out exactly what the movie is subversively presenting. Muller also mentions that de Toth made the movie as sort of a warning to his wife, Veronica Lake (who appears here sans her trademark hairstyle). Lastly, he mentions that the ending de Toth originally shot for Slattery’s Hurricane was removed by David Zanuck. We would be seeing the changed ending as the original ending was gone.

Widmark plays Slattery, a former Air Force pilot whose Top Gun-like lack of respect for authority pissed off the brass. Now he’s flying private flights from Miami to a Caribbean island for a shady pair of candy makers who are obviously gay lovers (at least to our more enlightened eyes—it slips past the censor though it’s quite blatant). The film opens with Slattery stealing a plane and flying a kamikaze mission into a hurricane. The story is told in flashback as Slattery flies into the storm to get readings. De Toth, a pilot, shoots some excellent aerial footage and keeps the mechanics of 1940s meteorology from becoming too confusing.

We learn that Slattery has been carrying on an affair with his friend’s wife, played by Linda Darnell. They had a past that came to an end when she married his buddy. The censor objected to a military man having an affair (remember, this is before From Here to Eternity), but in the film it remained. Lake plays the abused assistant of Slattery’s boss, a fragile woman with a thing for Slattery but an even bigger jones for her employer’s candy, which turns out to be, if you look quickly, cocaine or heroin. When Lake collapses late in the film, the censor wouldn’t allow de Toth to explicitly state that she’s overdosed. (He gets around it, however.) Lake herself was, at this time, a drug addict and an alcoholic, and de Toth cast his wife as a not so subtle hint that she needed help.

Lake, like Darnell, is very good here, but the film belongs to Widmark. A favorite of mine, and one of those men my Mom inexplicably had a thing for in her youth, Widmark gives Slattery many aspects, from a toughness in the early scenes to a comic vulnerability in a drunk scene that is the closest Widmark has ever come to slapstick. The original ending made sense: Slattery saves Miami from the hurricane by revealing its coordinates and allowing the weather bureau to evacuate the area, but he dies en route. Zanuck said this was a downer, so we get a kind of Jaws the Revenge-style re-ending (if you’ve seen the version where Mario van Peebles survives rather than dies, you’ll understand what I mean here). The new ending robs the film of some poignancy, but considering how much trouble the film got in with the censors, I’m surprised there was anything left of Slattery’s Hurricane to blow us away.

Time for me to blow this joint. See you next year at Noir City 9.

The Odienator is still retired from blogging, though the next six weeks in the blogosphere will sorely test that retirement.