Noir City returns; program includes French, British, Italian films

Rififi posterIt’s almost time to take one of our favorite trips of the year: A one-way ticket to Noir City at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood!

Starting Friday, the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation will present their 16th annual festival of film noir. Jaded gumshoes, femmes fatale and menacing heavies will reign supreme in gloriously gritty black and white. The fest runs through April 6, with a stand-out celebration on April 5.

We at FNB are especially excited to see the fest expand to include film noir from abroad with evenings devoted to French (“Two Men in Manhattan,” “Rififi,” “Jenny Lamour), British (“It Always Rains on Sunday,” “Brighton Rock”) and Italian (“Ossessione”) noir.

Ossessione posterThe program pays tribute to a trio of talented actresses who died in 2013 with noir nights devoted to Joan Fontaine (“Born to Be Bad”, “Ivy”), Eleanor Parker (“Caged,” “Detective Story”) and Audrey Totter (“Tension,” “Alias Nick Beal”).

Actor Dan Duryea will be honored on opening night, March 21, with this enticing double feature: “Too Late for Tears” (a new 35mm restoration) and “Larceny.” Also to be honored (on other nights): writer David Goodis and director Hugo Fregonese.

Be sure to join FNF co-directors Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode as they host another exciting excursion into the dark recesses of Hollywood’s most lasting artistic movement, film noir.

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The Noir File: Bogie, Bacall shine in quirky ‘Dark Passage’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and  pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICKS OF THE WEEK

“Dark Passage” was the third of four films Bogart and Bacall made together.

Dark Passage” (1947, Delmer Daves). Friday, June 14:  8 p.m. (5 p.m.)

I recently wrote about 1947’s “Lady in the Lake,” a Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe tale, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. Its chief claim to fame is the experimental subjective camera – the story is told entirely from Marlowe’s point of view.

In that review, I noted that “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, also from 1947, uses a subjective camera as well, though just for the first half-hour of the movie. The limited use of the technique in “Dark Passage” pays off much better than the full-on treatment in “Lady.” Though “Dark Passage” wasn’t a huge hit in its day – audiences weren’t crazy about being deprived of Bogart – it’s a film noir treasure that rarely gets its due.

You can read the full FNB review here.

NOIR WRITERS SERIES: DAVID GOODIS
All this month on its Friday Night Spotlight screenings,  TCM is presenting a series of classic film noirs, with each Friday night devoted to movies based on or written by (or both) one of  six top-notch noir authors: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, David Goodis, Jonathan Latimer and Cornell Woolrich.

Tonight the spotlight is on David Goodis, one of the strangest and most poignantly self-destructive of the great film noir novelists. Goodis, a well-educated  Philadelphian, and an outsider for most of his life, came to Hollywood when his best-selling novel, “Dark Passage” was sold to Warner Brothers as a vehicle for the red hot movie team of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “Dark Passage” allowed Bogie and Bacall to shine, and is now considered a classic.

“Dark Passage” uses a subjective camera for the first half-hour of the movie.

But Goodis, who liked to explore the lower depths,  proved too weird even for Movieland, and he soon returned East where he spent the rest of his relatively brief life (1917-1967) writing pulp novels for paperback publishers, which he occasionally sold to the movies. (See below.)

They were cheap, supposedly trashy books, churned out fast. Goodis filled them with a  keen insight into darkness, loneliness and the underworld, a flair for strong perverse characterization and a poetic command of language few writers in his genre could match. “Dark Passage” remains his most famous novel. The most personal and revealing  may be “The Burglar,” directed by his Philly friend Paul Wendkos. It’s a powerful film, but the book is better.

David Goodis was weird, even for Hollywood.

(The “Noir Writers” films, all of which show on Friday evening, June 14, were curated and will be introduced by film noir expert Eddie Muller.)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Dark Passage” (See Above.)

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Nightfall” (1956, Jacques Tourneur). With Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft and Brian Keith. Reviewed on FNB, May 29, 2012.

11:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m.): “The Burglar” (1957, Paul Wendkos). David Goodis’  eerie, haunting novel about a gang of burglars, inlcuding platonic lovers Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield, and how they come apart. The diretcor, Paul Wendkos (“The Mephisto Waltz”) was another Philadelphia guy and a friend of Goodis’, and he did very well by the book, which is one of the great pulp paperback novels of the ’50s. The movie isn’t on that level, but, in its way, it’s a neglected, if melancholy, gem.

Charles Aznavour and Michèle Mercier in François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.”

1:15 a.m. (10:15 p.m.): “Shoot the Piano Player” (1960, François Truffaut). The greatest movie ever made from a David Goodis novel is also the ultimate fusion of film noir with the French New Wave. Noir-lover François Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”) takes one of Goodis’ best novels, “Down There,” resets it in a Paris dive, and comes up with melancholy black-and-white movie magic. Truffaut makes the material his own. He keeps the original  tale of a concert pianist (legendary torch singer Charles Aznavour) who, heartbroken at the loss of his love, goes down there to the depths of show biz – tinkling the keys in a neighborhood bar, until, despite his best efforts, he falls in love again and falls in with criminals. Like most Goodis stories, it’s a bluesy tale touched with terror.  But Truffaut opens it up with innovative filmmaking and breezy, saucy, seemingly off-the-cuff scenes that shoot vibrant life into a very dark subject. [Read more...]

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Extolling virtues of ‘Dark Passage’: Bogie, Bacall and more

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

“Dark Passage” was the third of four films Bogart and Bacall made together.

I recently wrote about 1947’s “Lady in the Lake,” a Raymond Chandler/Philip Marlowe tale, starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. Its chief claim to fame is the experimental subjective camera – the story is told entirely from Marlowe’s point of view.

In that review, I noted that “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, also from 1947, uses a subjective camera as well, though just for the first half-hour of the movie. The limited use of the technique in “Dark Passage” pays off much better than the full-on treatment in “Lady.” Though “Dark Passage” wasn’t a huge hit in its day – audiences weren’t crazy about being deprived of Bogart – it’s a film noir treasure that rarely gets its due.

Admittedly, the plausibility police would have a field day with this one. From the moment we meet Bogart as escaped San Quentin prisoner Vincent Parry and Bacall as Irene Jansen, his mysterious helper/wealthy benefactor, the phrase “never gonna happen” pops into your mind and lingers as the rather bizarre plot unfolds. This is not a realistic movie. So sue director/writer Delmer Daves and novelist David Goodis, who provided the source material.

Bogart has an awful lot to account for in “Dark Passage.”

I don’t think the filmmakers’ aim was to tell a story that’s relatable in a literal sense. The idea was to explore ideas about trust, identity, revenge, isolation and paranoia in the shell of an entertaining thriller that’s also infused with the famous Bogie-Bacall chemistry. At the same time, the sometimes-unwieldy narrative has depth and intelligence – it’s not merely a slapdash concoction of the outlandish and absurd. Goodis was a particularly pessimistic writer and a harsh social critic.

Here Bacall’s Irene is calling the shots, outwitting the cops and doling out shrewd suggestions to Vincent in her singular husky voice. Irene is the only person who believes in Vincent’s innocence –that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Dressed to elegant perfection in every scene, she spurs Vincent to spruce up his wardrobe as well. But Vincent needs more than a fashion overhaul if he is to avoid recapture.

Besides the leads, “Dark Passage” has a tremendous cast – Bruce Bennett shines as Irene’s solid, decent friend and the inimitable Agnes Moorehead sparkles as Madge, the ultimate conniving shrew, with a penchant for animal prints, no less. Houseley Stevenson is unforgettable as the unsavory but highly skilled Dr. Walter Coley. The creepy doctor proves pivotal in Vincent’s quest to remake himself. Even the small parts –a small-time crook, a chatty cabbie and a diner waiter (played by Clifton Young, Tom D’Andrea and Tom Fadden) – are great fun to watch.

The Franz Waxman score, along with San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox, result in a noir rapture – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later. Every detail of this strange little work, though not a great film, feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic.

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‘Dark Passage’ quick hit

Dark Passage/1947/Warner Bros./106 min.

The sometimes-neglected “Dark Passage,” by writer/director Delmer Daves, has ingredients that result in a noir rapture: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall leading a terrific cast (Agnes Moorehead shines as a shrew with a penchant for animal prints), a bizarre story, Franz Waxman’s score, San Francisco locations and slick cinematography by Sid Hickox – including a nightmare sequence that is still unsettling 65 years later.

Every detail of this little film feels intriguing, satisfying and true to its own (slightly warped) logic. A subjective/first-person camera is used for the first half-hour of the movie. Based on a David Goodis novel.

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‘Murder by Contract,’ ‘Nightfall’ and ‘The Prowler’ close LACMA Mid-century California Noir series

Van Heflin

Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said, ‘You will never get the girl at the end.’ So I worked on my acting.” – Van Heflin

I’m glad he did. Heflin, one of my favorite ’40s/’50s actors, had charisma and presence to spare, even if he wasn’t classically handsome. A case in point is 1951’s “The Prowler” by Joseph Losey, which played Saturday night at LACMA, after “Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall,” the last in the Mid-century California Noir series.

My favorite was “The Prowler,” recently restored by UCLA and the Film Noir Foundation. Here, Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a sleazy cop who’s called to a posh, Spanish-style Los Angeles home by lovely and lonely Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) after she has a vague suspicion that an intruder is lurking in the garden. Turns out, there’s no one there, but Webb and Susan hit it off and soon begin an affair. Susan’s nights are often free because her DJ husband, John, is at the radio station broadcasting his show.

Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell and Van Heflin in "The Prowler."

It’s a love triangle in the vein of “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” though here it’s Webb, not the femme fatale, who seizes the opportunity to do away with the wealthy husband and snag some money. Webb shoots John, apparently in the line of duty, leaving him free to marry Susan, ditch police work and move to Vegas.

When Susan announces she’s preggers, it crimps the plan rather a lot because the birth will reveal the true timing of their relationship. (This is actually a shocking plot turn because it reveals beyond a doubt that their relationship was sexual – other noirs hint at this, of course, but I can’t think of another example where it is so explicitly established. Not sure how they got that past the censors.) The two take off for a remote mountain town so she can secretly bear the child with no witnesses around. Once there, however, Webb reveals his knavish, venal nature and Susan takes action of her own.

Heflin perfectly inhabits this deeply flawed character, lending him charm and complexity, even making you sort of like him at times. He could play a snake so memorably – he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a gangster’s pal in “Johnny Eager” and he was excellent in both “Possessed” with Joan Crawford and “Act of Violence,” where he played an Army traitor. Another noir highlight was playing Philip Marlowe on NBC radio in the late 1940s.

Heflin was just as adept at playing average Joes and good guys, most notably in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (a film noir with Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas), “Shane” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

Keyes’ Susan is no vampy seductress. Instead, she plays the character as written – bland, bored and slightly feckless. Perhaps a fish out of water in the big city; she and Webb bond because they both hail from Terra Haute, Ind., albeit from different sides of the tracks. Keyes conveys that Susan is more than just bored – she yearns for children and perhaps something more than she finds in her cushy but unhappy marriage. And to her credit Keyes completely abandons her glamorous exterior when she’s sweating it out in the mountains.

Dalton Trumbo relaxes in Cannes, 1971.

Blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler produced the script based on a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm. Trumbo provided the voice for Susan’s DJ husband; he is completely uncredited on the film.

It’s a movie that grabs you quickly and doesn’t let go – a testament to Losey’s marvelous direction. Cahiers du cinema pointed to “The Prowler” as the moment Losey became a true auteur. And Losey, who suffered professionally because of his supposed ties to the Communist Party, put it this way: “‘The Prowler’ to me is, and always has been, a film about false values. About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. $100,000 bucks, a Cadillac and a blonde were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn’t matter how you got them.”

For me, “The Prowler” was the hit of the LACMA triple-bill, though “Murder by Contract” (1958, Irving Lerner) and “Nightfall” (1957, Jacques Tourneur) also made compelling viewing. In “Murder,” written by Ben Maddow and Ben Simcoe, luscious Vince Edwards gives a thoroughly haunting performance as a smart, precise, driven hitman; slick cinematography by the brilliant Lucien Ballard and original guitar music by Perry Botkin add to the mood of tension and doom. The film was a key influence on Martin Scorsese and “Taxi Driver.”

Evocative visuals and location shooting in LA and Wyoming, courtesy of Tourneur and first-rate cinematographer Burnett Guffey, make “Nightfall” easy on the eyes. Given that the movie is based on a David Goodis novel (Stirling Siliphant wrote the script), I was disappointed that I found myself drifting in and out of the slightly thin story. Perhaps a dynamic lead actor, like Van Heflin, could have injected more drama, but Aldo Ray as an innocent man on the run just didn’t do it for me. His one-note realization lacked depth and nuance.

That said, I liked Brian Keith as his bad-guy nemesis (Keith probably could have played Ray’s part quite well) and Anne Bancroft as Ray’s romantic interest, a model and sometime bar-fly. Chris Fujiwara, author of “The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur,” calls her “one of Tourneur’s most distinctive heroines.”

And any film noir that features a sumptuous fashion show at the Beverly Hills Hilton is more than all right by me.

“Murder by Contract” and “Nightfall” are available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in the Film Noir Classics series; “The Prowler” from VCI Entertainment.

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