Tag Archives: film noir

CONFLICT (1945) at Noir City 16

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Noir City 16 comes to a close tonight, and as usual, it was a delightful week packed with great movies and great audiences. The Castro Theatre is unlike any other theater I’ve experienced in its audience enthusiasm and positivity. Watching a movie at the Castro is like having a movie night with 1,400 of your friends. The audience laughs at all the “right spots,” but there are also knowing laughs and claps when someone makes an unintended innuendo, when a character is overly dramatic, or when there is a connection between a line in the movie and present-day life. The Castro is San Francisco’s historically gay district, and it has a long legacy of loyal neighborhood support and camaraderie. When you watch a movie at the Castro, you are welcomed and accepted into a warm and loving community.

Noir City is similar. Passionate noir fans come from all over the country to attend this festival, and many dress up in 1940s attire for the occasion. The atmosphere is one of friendliness and acceptance. Noir fans tend to be an intellectual crowd, with deep knowledge of the genre, its movies, and its stars. They’re fun to be around, and in combination with the venue of the Castro Theatre, the festival is irresistible. This year’s theme was “1941-1953: Classy A’s and Trashy B’s,” each day presenting a double bill featuring one of each.

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Conflict (1945), screened on Monday, has been my favorite movie of the festival thus far. It is reminiscent of The Two Mrs. Carrolls and even Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca in its haunting tone, telling the story of a man (Humphrey Bogart) who has fallen in love with his wife’s much younger sister, and the man plots to kill his wife and cover up the crime. When he thinks his wife is dead, he goes about pursuing the sister. But soon, eerie things begin to happen…and his plan slowly unravels.

It is relatively easy to spot a good noir, and Conflict is a really good noir. There are several features that, when done well, contribute to a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat and glued to what’s happening on the screen. A tightly woven plot where every event and every word forms a chain leading to the ultimate conclusion, with plenty of suspense and cunning, intelligent, meticulous characters. Conflict features all of these. Often, a good noir will have what Hitchcock termed a “MacGuffin,” an external motivator that drives the actions of the main character. MacGuffins are usually used as framing devices, but are not the true focus of the movie (examples are “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, and the falcon in The Maltese Falcon). The MacGuffin in Conflict, I would say, would be Bogart’s desire for the younger sister. It drives him to murder, and then it continues to be relevant throughout the movie, popping up again at a key moment later. But it’s not the focus, though we initially think it’s going to be.

Conflict was actually filmed in 1943 but released in 1945, which perhaps was a detriment to the film’s legacy as the genre was already well established by 1945. Conflict is relatively rare, but its inaccessibility is at odds with how brilliant this movie is. Had it been released in 1943 as originally intended, Conflict may have been considered one of the great noir classics.

In his introduction, “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller noted that despite the quality of the movie, Conflict was one of Bogart’s least favorite movies, due to the fact that it somewhat reflected his real life situation. Much like Katharine Hepburn, Bogart always seems to play Bogart. Whether he’s acting in a comedy or a drama, the Bogart character usually remains the same type–a stoic, crusty type who generally tolerates people. Audiences felt that what they saw on the screen was what Bogart was like in real life. In 1945, Bogart had fallen in love with a much younger woman (Lauren Bacall) and was in the process of divorcing wife Mayo Methot. He was uncomfortable with the idea that the audience might associate him with spousal murder during this rocky time in his life. He needn’t have worried–Bogart and Mayo divorced and he soon married Lauren Bacall, remaining married to her until his death in 1957.

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at their wedding.

Thanks for reading! If Noir City is coming to a town near you, be sure to check it out. Once again, here are the tour dates and cities:

NOIR CITY SF: January 26-February. 4, 2018
NOIR CITY Seattle: February 16-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Denver: March 23-25, 2018
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 13-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Austin: May 18-20, 2018
NOIR CITY Boston: June 8-10, 2018

2018 dates for NOIR CITY Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. TBD

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Noir City 16: DESTINY (1944) and FLESH AND FANTASY (1943)

Dear readers, if you’ve been following my Twitter feed over the past few days, you know that I’ve been attending the 16th annual Noir City festival–a weeklong smorgasbord of film noir favorites and rarities, on the big screen at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s been a fascinating few days thus far, and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen.

I’ve been asked several times over the course of this festival, including by my various Lyft drivers and friendly employees at Hot Cookie (San Francisco’s greatest cookie establishment, right next door to the Castro), for an explanation of what exactly film noir is. It’s a bit hard to pin down. Noir is a genre of film that rose up around the time of America’s entrance into World War II, involving dark, shadowy stories that often tease the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code. It has several key elements–noir films deal with crime, shady figures, powerful and seductive women, and the creative use of light and shadow. Frequently, voiceover narration is employed, as in the cases of the classic noirs Gilda (1946) and Double Indemnity (1944).

There is some debate as to whether Hitchcock movies count as noir. Hitchcock somewhat defies categorization, but the storylines, characterizations, and uses of lighting that have become signatures of Hitchcock’s work are also typical of the noir genre. Noir City takes a liberal definition of the genre, and on Saturday night festivalgoers were treated to a showing of Hitchcock’s fantastic Shadow of a Doubt.

The festival is hosted by Eddie Muller, known as the “Czar of Noir” among film fans, and before each screening Muller gives an intro that whets the viewer’s appetite for what’s to come. I was excited to see a Barbara Stanwyck movie on the program this year, as I have a particular fondness for Stanwyck and I know Eddie Muller does, too. I’ve seen nearly all her movies–but this one, Flesh and Fantasy, was one I hadn’t seen. I decided to attend the movie beforehand as well, and I’m glad I did.

Jean and Curtis in Destiny

The movie that came before Flesh and Fantasy, an hour long story about an accomplice to a bank robbery and his journey of escape entitled Destiny, was originally intended as the first vignette of Flesh and Fantasy, but instead it was cut off the final version and released as a movie of its own the following year. Destiny has some very interesting elements to it, including treatment of a blind character that, in some ways, was quite modern. The ending was important to understanding the beginning of Flesh and Fantasy, and had I not seen Destiny and heard Eddie Muller’s intro, the first part of Flesh and Fantasy wouldn’t have made much sense.

Flesh and Fantasy is comprised of a series of vignettes that explore the human mind and its relationship to fate and destiny. The movie features a stellar cast, and the stories are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone in their eerie twists on reality.  Providing a bit of comic relief and introductions to the vignettes are two friends, played by the delightful Robert Benchley, a humorist and one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, and David Hoffman, in one of his first film roles (he would go on to have a more prolific career in television). The first vignette introduced by Benchley and Hoffman tells the story of a woman who finds herself unattractive, and she interacts with the world with bitterness and scorn. Putting on a mask of a beautiful woman, she goes to a dance and falls in love with a man who assures her that he would love her no matter what she looks like under the mask. The final scene is comprised of several twists and turns that made the audience gasp with surprise and delight.

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The second vignette involves a man (played by Edward G. Robinson) who is told by a palm reader that he is destined to commit a murder. He can’t get his mind off it…and plots a murder to try to outwit his fate. This story reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Illustrated Man,” in the way that the body is used to show an unavoidable future.

The third vignette is where Barbara Stanwyck comes in, acting alongside Charles Boyer. Boyer plays a trapeze artist who dreams that he falls off the trapeze and onto a woman (Stanwyck) wearing very distinctive earrings, shaped like lyres. The dream affects him so much that it throws him off his act that evening, and he wonders if he can ever recover. When the circus sails for a foreign show, Boyer meets a woman on the boat…the same woman he saw in his dream. They fall in love…and she wants to come watch him perform.

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Each story was very compelling, and the concept was amazingly forward-thinking for 1943. Directing was the great French director Julien Duvivier, known as one of the role models for French New Wave filmmaker Jean Renoir. Duvivier was clearly ahead of his time, not only with his explorations of dreams and fate, but also in bookending the vignettes–one leading directly into the next. This, perhaps, contributed to the fact that the movie isn’t better known. No one had anything to compare it to–now we have The Twilight Zone and a whole generation of similar TV shows and movies that make Flesh and Fantasy a truly fascinating piece.

After it was over, the audience was tittering with excitement over what they had just seen. I was left with the feeling of how sad it is that the movie is not more accessible–and how lucky we are that festivals like Noir City exist to expose us to such rarely seen gems as this one.

Noir City is traveling this year–here are the dates when the festival may be in a town close by:

NOIR CITY SF: January 26-February. 4, 2018
NOIR CITY Seattle: February 16-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Denver: March 23-25, 2018
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 13-22, 2018
NOIR CITY Austin: May 18-20, 2018
NOIR CITY Boston: June 8-10, 2018

2018 dates for NOIR CITY Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. TBD

And keep your eye out for Flesh and Fantasy. You won’t regret it.

I’ll be back with more updates from Noir City later on this week. Thanks for reading!

Noir City 14: THE DARK CORNER and THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS

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The 14th annual Noir City festival, the spectacular tribute to film noir that has become a must-see San Francisco tradition, took place last week at the Castro Theatre. The festival is one big noir extravaganza, with the theater packed to the gills every day and every night for ten days straight. It was truly an event to experience, and one that I was thrilled to have been able to attend.

While the programming at Noir City is always top-notch, programmed by the man who has come to be known as the “czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, this year had some truly unusual and unique offerings for the noir aficionados and for the uninitiated alike. Paired with noir classics like The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Rear Window were creatively programmed films like The Red Shoes that rose above the traditional definitions of noir to give the audience an entirely new vision of the genre.

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One of the films that most fascinated me in the Noir City program this year was a 1946 detective/murder mystery called The Dark Corner, starring Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens. By 1946, film noir had reached its zenith, the genre having been molded and firmly established during the years of World War II. Dark alleyways, shadowed angles, cigarettes and hard drinking characterized a noir film, as did the appearance of a savvy and smart femme fatale who often drives the plot.

Earlier in 1946, Lucille Ball had walked out on her contract at MGM. She was having problems at the studio and problems at home, her marriage to Desi Arnaz on the brink of collapse. At the studio, she was being cast almost exclusively in glamorous roles, ones that she knew didn’t fit her well and where she was being cast aside for the more established MGM stars like Judy Garland. In search of something different to propel her career forward and to take her mind off her home troubles, she left MGM and freelanced for several years. The Dark Corner, filmed at 20th Century Fox, was one of the first movies she did following the termination of her contract at MGM, and if Lucy had wanted to depart from MGM-type glamor roles in taking this role, she succeeded.

Playing a secretary in love with her boss who has a sinister past, Lucille Ball’s role is that of the smart, savvy version of the femme fatale. It suits her well, and the audience’s eyes are rarely off her when she is onscreen. As for the movie itself, as a murder mystery and detective story in one, The Dark Corner is so noir that it almost parodies itself. Audiences at the Castro Theatre are unusually well-educated in their cinema, and never was that more clear than when the audience laughed in delight at those scenes where Mark Stevens lights a match on his shoe at breakfast, or drinks several glasses of gin in one sitting. San Francisco knows its noir, and a self-aware movie like The Dark Corner was a fun choice for this audience.

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The Two Mrs. Carrolls is an old favorite of mine. The only film to pair cinematic legends Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, it tells the story of a mentally unstable painter who endeavors to kill all the women he loves after painting their portraits. It, too, is a prototypical noir, even taking hints from earlier dark movies and weaving them into the plot in similar ways. A clear example of this is the idea of the painter poisoning his wives with milk, one of the main themes of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, from 6 years earlier.

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Humphrey Bogart brings Barbara Stanwyck a glass of poisoned milk in The Two Mrs. Carrolls.

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Cary Grant brings Joan Fontaine a glass of milk in Suspicion.

The treatment of Barbara Stanwyck as the naive, sweet second wife who is haunted by the first, The Two Mrs. Carrolls also echoes a second Hitchcock film, Rebecca, in which the innocent, sweet Second Mrs. De Winter is tortured by the memory of the ever-present first wife. In Rebecca, the first wife’s memory is poison in itself, leaving in its wake fear, destruction and death. In The Two Mrs. Carrolls, the first wife is the saving grace of the second, with hints about her demise leading the second wife to figure out what her husband is plotting. Where in Rebecca the first wife’s memory may be characterized as the villain, in The Two Mrs. Carrolls she may be characterized as the hero.

Thank you to Noir City for another great year, and I look forward to next year’s programming!

Opening Night of Noir City 13: WOMAN ON THE RUN (1950), BORN TO BE BAD (1950)

The 1407 seat Castro Theatre was packed solid last night for the opening night of what has become a veritable San Francisco tradition, the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City film festival.

For the past 13 years, film aficionados passionate about the dark side of classic cinema have flocked to San Francisco to experience this distinctly American genre on the big screen, with films spanning several decades introduced by none other than “the czar of Noir” himself, Eddie Muller. Muller, the head of the Film Noir Foundation and a legend in the cinematic world, is a native San Franciscan and the Film Noir Foundation itself is a San Francisco organization, fitting tokens for a city already deeply steeped in the noir tradition.

But what is film noir? It remains a genre difficult to describe in words, but for cinephiles, it is unique and unmistakable. Usually in black and white (with a few exceptions, Gene Tierney’s beautiful Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven is the obvious one), a noir film deals in the dark underbelly of society, riddled with crime, murder, and mystery. Often a beautiful and evil woman takes center stage, a woman who has become known as the famous “femme fatale,” manipulating the men around her and driving them to madness.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

 

Noir films are character-driven, born out of the gangster genre of the 1930s and developing into maturity alongside the United States’ involvement in World War II. The Production Code was solidly in place by the time film noir developed into a genre, and the plotlines often skate smoothly along the rules against sexuality on film, sometimes coming dangerously close to breaking them. Take a look at this scene from Double Indemnity (1944).

The coy and subtle games that the noir genre plays with the Production Code are integral to its makeup, and I question whether the genre could have developed, as we know it, without the implementation of the Production Code. But that’s another post all its own.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Unholy Matrimony,” and all films screened will have something to do with married life…noir style. Last night we were treated to two films set in San Francisco, a world premiere restoration of Woman on the Run, a 1950 Ann Sheridan film, and Born to be Bad, starring my beloved Joan Fontaine in an atypically nasty role. Woman on the Run was the opening film, and Eddie Muller prefaced the screening with a story about its unusual background. The original negative was lost in a fire at Universal many years ago, and the film was presumed lost. Then another copy was found, quite unexpectedly, but in dismal condition. It was restored by the Film Noir Foundation with a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and this was the print we saw last night.

The story is one of intrigue and mistaken identity–a man witnesses a murder and then runs from the police to avoid going to protective custody and having to identify the killer, thereby risking his own life. To find him, the police go to his wife, who seems intent on helping her husband avoid them. In her effort to protect him, she befriends a man who she thinks will help her husband…who turns out to be the last person who would be helping him.

It is quite a suspenseful and well made movie, and I was pleasantly surprised with how entertaining it was to watch. I was struck by the beauty of Ann Sheridan who, as she aged, looked quite a lot like Rita Hayworth. In her heyday, she was known as “the Oomph Girl,” but never achieved the superstardom of some of her contemporaries, which is unfortunate, and her career declined prematurely. She has a pleasingly deep voice, and much of her acting is done with her eyes, the mark of a true artist.

The second film was Born to be Bad, a movie I’ve seen several times due to my connection with Joan Fontaine. In it, Joan plays Christabel Caine, a man-stealing usurper who destroys the engagement of a couple, then goes on to have affairs with several more men. It is a very unusual role for Joan Fontaine, who is known for playing doe-eyed, naive, well-behaved ladies. She never truly rises to the occasion of this character of the man-hungry snake and it’s not her greatest role, though she’s never looked more beautiful and she radiates charm. It’s a fun movie to watch and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen.

Also, the poster is one of my all-time favorites.

I will be attending Noir City screenings all this week. Stay tuned for further coverage!

 

THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON: Film Noir and the Villains in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

When I heard that my fellow bloggers over at Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy were getting ready to host The Great Villain Blogathon a few days ago, I knew that an opportunity to celebrate my favorite movie villains with other film fans was just too good to pass up. I signed up immediately, and the minute I saw the banner…I knew my topic.

Many of my readers know that I have a great fondness for all things Barbara Stanwyck. And as my recent article about Baby Face and pre-Code Hollywood has proven to be a rather popular one, I have decided to write today about another significant era of Hollywood and two prominent villains to come out of it–Phyllis Dietrichson, the alluring wife of an ill-fated husband, and her partner-in-crime, Walter Neff, villains of that noir-est of all film noirs, Double Indemnity (1944). The film was deftly directed by Billy Wilder, and co-written by Wilder and author Raymond Chandler.

Born out of the German Expressionist movement and honed in the years leading up to U.S. involvement in World War II, film noir is a rich and complex genre. Primarily taking the form of crime drama and most often told with narrative voice-over, it breaks many of the social norms that were in place under the Code, and often takes a view of women little seen since before the Code was in place. In movies under the Code, women were seen as sweethearts, submissive, and existing only for the pleasure of man. In noir films, the woman is often the villain of the story, and through her sex, wiles, and manipulation, she brings about the man’s downfall. It is out of the noir genre that we get the term femme fatale–“deadly woman.”

Never was a femme fatale more deadly, in every sense of the word, than in Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and released at the height of World War II in 1944. In this story of a woman who partners with an insurance salesman to kill her husband and collect on his insurance money, Barbara Stanwyck is at her best and most evil. Her performance earned her a third Academy Award nomination, and remains one of the most outstanding performances in her career.

In keeping with the genre standard of telling a story with narrative voice-over, Double Indemnity begins with Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaking into a Dictaphone, confessing to the crime of killing Phyllis Dietrichson’s husband. We see the story unfold through flashback, expounded upon by Neff’s voice-over. Taken by Phyllis’ charm and raw sex appeal and upset at Phyllis’ claims that her husband treated her badly, Neff allowed himself to be talked into hatching an elaborate scheme to murder Mr. Dietrichson, making it look like an accident to take advantage of a loophole in insurance laws allowing for the “double indemnity” clause to be invoked in the case of an accident resulting in death. Though Neff was initially reluctant to go through with the scheme, his lust and desire for Phyllis Dietrichson, and his sympathy for her as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, caused him to take leave of his senses. Phyllis, for her part, played hard to get. This scene’s magnificent dialogue, written by screenwriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, demonstrates perfectly the initial relationship between Neff and Phyllis.

As the story progressed, Neff’s lust for Phyllis increased as the consequences of their crime built. The sexual tension in the film is so thick it is almost palpable, and it is clear that the two are in love not only with each other, but with the thrill of their lawlessness. Though it seems at first that their plan is foolproof, the authorities catch on to them and knowing what will happen to Phyllis when they are caught, Neff kills Phyllis, in essence giving credence to the saying that man kills the thing he loves most. Neff then turns himself in, and the film ends.

Though film noir always skirted at the very edge of what was acceptable under the Code, it still had to abide by the rules set forth by the Hays Office. Owing to the section of the Code that stated that an audience member “must feel that evil is wrong and good is right,” those characters that committed evil crimes must be punished accordingly–and for all the wrong that Phyllis Dietrichson committed, there is no alternative ending for Phyllis in a film made under the Production Code.

This is the great dichotomy in the genre, and what separates the femme fatales of classic film noir from the women of pre-Code Hollywood. In Hollywood before the Code, women were celebrated for their power over men. They were the protagonists, and were praised for ridding themselves of the controlling men in their lives. They were liberated women, while for all their power over men, the women in film noir could never be seen as upstanding or correct in their actions. It is interesting to imagine Double Indemnity as a pre-Code, and to think how Phyllis would have been portrayed if the movie had been made ten years earlier.

Thank you to Shadows and Satin, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy for hosting this great blogathon!