The L.A. Film Noir Festival really gained traction this week with some superb screenings and great attendance for the hypercompetitive Tinseltown movie market.
Thursday’s double bill at the Egyptian was Cry of the City (1948) and City of Fear (1959). The former picture is one of the classic Fox noirs that has yet to be issued in DVD format – an omission that noir aficionados find baffling.
Darryl F. Zanuck returned to 20th Century Fox in 1944 – as Otto Preminger put it sarcastically, the mogul was, “off filming the war” – realizing that prewar Hollywood fare such as Andy Hardy and the traditional gangster pictures wouldn’t cut it anymore.
The documentary style of filmmaking was first popularized at Fox by Louis De Rochemont with The House of 92nd Street had melded with the overt post WWII noir realism popularized by Mark Hellinger at U-I with The Killers and Brute Force. Movie producers became locked in mortal combat with the Production Code dictates as overseen by prelate censor, Joseph I. Breen, as they struggled to bring reality to drama on screen.
Zanuck saw Cry of the City as the final piece of a trifecta of urban realism along with Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and Kazan’s Boomerang!
The Fox mogul tapped Robert Siodmak as director for Cry of the City. Siodmak is one of the seminal if unheralded film noir directors who came from Europe with Wilder, Preminger, and Lang and brought the German Expressionistic style first to Universal beginning with horror (Son of Dracula) reeling off a string of exquisitely crafted dark films: Phantom Lady, The Suspect, Christmas Holiday and culminating with The Killers, for which he was nominated for best director.
Where Zanuck wanted was street realism while Siodmak excelled at the craftsmanship of studio filming. For Cry of the City – it was a combination of the best of both worlds. The majority of the film was shot on the Fox lot with some second unit filming accomplished in the Big Apple to underscore the urban setting of the piece. The screenplay adapted from Henry Edward Helseth’s novel The Chair for Martin Rome about two boyhood Italian friends who grow up to be opposing cop and crook went through iterative drafts by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer until it was picked up by Richard Murphy who penned Boomerang! and Panic in the Streets.
The cast is film noir’s version of the 1927 Yankees. The underrated Victor Mature is the cop, Richard ‘Nick” Conte is the crook. There is also a youthfully misguided Shelley Winters and a gallery of noir character players including Fred Clark, Betty Garde, the always-slimy Berry Kroeger and film noir’s feminine edition of The Giant Behemoth, the great Hope Emerson in a terrific part as a massuese-jewel thief that precedes her Oscar nominated turn in Caged. Emerson had some great lines and scences – including one of the most memorable camera shots in noir when she passes through several doorways, turning on lights, as filmed through the front door walk-up window from Richard Conte’s perspective. The Egyptian audience loved Hope and reacted to her presence more than any other actor in the film.
Cry of the City includes the screen debut of Debra Paget and a striking performance by an eighteen year old actor who plays Richard Conte’s brother, who began his film career in the Adventures of Red Ryder, and who was the screening guest, Tommy Cook.
Tommy was great. He reminisced about the film including his terrific respect for Robert Siodmak (“great skill and taste at the level of a Hitchcock and Wyler…”) and also recalled knocking on Victor Mature’s dressing room trailer door when the star was being called to the set and observing the entire trailer bouncing up and down. The dressing room rock was halted when a sweaty Mature answered the door and said, “I’ll be out in a minute, kid”. According Tommy, there was a bevy of beautiful girls parading in and out of the beefcake star’s trailer during the filming. I cracked that a better punchline to this story would have been Mature opening the door for Tommy and Hope Emerson exiting, but this wasn’t a horror flick! Actually, Tommy Cook’s most insightful comment was visual. We watched the film together and at the finale when he stands over his dead brother, ‘Nick’ Conte and there is a long tracking shot of Tommy walking back down to a wounded Mature, getting into a cab with him and bawling. I stole a look at Tommy next to me and the tears were streaming down his cheeks. Cry of the City holds up, especially for Tommy Cook.
The second feature, City of Fear (1959) was a real hoot.
Vince Edwards is unbound as a escaped con with a vessel of cobalt 60 that he thinks is dope. All of L.A. is under threat as Edwards is slowly dying from radiation poisoning, but oblivious to it all. An interesting plot and some crackling dialogue end up being compromised by a budget that would buy dinner for three at Pink’s Hot Dog Stand and some really amateurish looking sequences and editing; the film was reputedly shot in seven days. The notion of three men in a bare office with a map of L.A. on the wall making life and death determinations for the entire L.A. metro area became intermittently amusing. That aspect got trumped by a boffo finale when Edwards dies clutching the radioactive sphere as a blanket is draped over him with a “Danger- Radiation” sign placed on his back!