The 8th Annual Festival of Film Noir jumped off at the Egyptian Theatre last Thursday night. Although the American Cinematheque is the sponsor of this enterprise, there are some new wrinkles in the dark shading of this year’s festival:
1. The Film Noir Foundation is the festival co-sponsor with the Cinematheque.
2. My colleague and friend, Eddie Muller, is performing the hosting duties along with yours truly who wrangled most of the screening guests this time around. Eddie and I programmed this festival along with Chris D. at the Cinematheque. Thematically, this year’s fest is a series of noir double bills featuring L.A. vs. N.Y.
3. The Egyptian Theatre is sharing the noir keylight with their sister theatre, the Aero, over in Santa Monica. The Aero will be a concurrent program called ‘Noir at the Beach’.
A quick recap of opening weekend:
Thursday’s opener was Act of Violence and Force of Evil.
The former film is a gritty post WWII vengenance tour through the bowels of downtown L.A. with prison camp squealer Van Heflin trying to stay ahead of revenge-laden Robert Ryan who is hot pursuit. As Heflin is distracted by a troupe of noir grotesques led by Mary Astor (as a shopworn hooker!), Taylor Holmes and Berry Kroeger, gorgeous wife Janet Leigh frets back home in Big Bear. A great solo noir entry by director Fred Zinneman. Force of Evil is writer-director Abe Polonsky’s classic moral lesson on the interlocking relationships between business, crime and immorality played out in a urban setting between two brothers John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. In particular, Gomez soars in this film. Add in a pounding David Raksin score and Marie Windsor in a negligee and one doesn’t need anything more.
Opening night was preceded by a booksigning reception for the hard-boiled anthology, L.A. Noir that was hosted by the book’s editor-writer Denise Hamilton. I had the pleasure of meeting Denise, a former L.A. Times beat reporter, a woman who has truly grabbed life by the throat and is definite femme fatale material. The best selling Demon Dog of noir literature James Ellroy was also on hand to offer his typically uproarious and expletive-laden take on film noir during a raucous screening introduction with Eddie Muller. Don’t let the profane bluster put you off though. James is an extremely nice fellow who is exceedingly generous and considerate.
Friday night kicked off with a beautiful WB print of Armored Car Robbery (1950), one of my favorite films. After delivering what a friend of mine dubbed a ‘Charles McGraw-centric’ introduction, I zipped out of the theatre and into to West Hollywood to pick up the screening guest for Odds against Tomorrow (1959), Kim Hamilton. She played Harry Belafonte’s wife and appeared in many other memorable films including To Kill A Mockingbird and The Leech Woman along with innumerable television programs. Poised and striking, Kim was extremely gracious during the QA that proceeded Odds, reflecting on her luck in playing Harry Belafonte’s wife, her impressions of co-stars Shelley Winters, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley and Gloria Grahame. She also noted that blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky was laboring by his lonesome in a room on the set while the interiors were being filmed in the Bronx.
Saturday was a Clifford Odets D/F. The Big Knife is Odets’ examination of movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance with a 20 inch waist) crumbling under the pressures of stardom, an imploding marriage and blackmail. This overripe, talky movie has an all-star cast highlighted by a scenery-chomping performance by Rod Steiger doing his best impression of what everyone thought Harry Cohn was like; not very nice. The second feature was a classic that is near and dear to my heart. The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The back stories about this film are legion – I recommend Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair’s The Bad The Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties – and I won’t repeat them here. Watching this beautifully restored print (in large measure due to the yeoman work of restoration expert and friend Mike Hyatt) on the big Ssreen with James Wong Howe’s supple camera work while savoring Cliff Odets lyrical dialogue: “I love this dirty town”, “You’re dead son, go get yourself buried” and “Sidney, C’mere, I want to chastise you.” was a pure delight. The QA between Eddie Muller and Susan Harrison (Lancaster’s sister in Sweet Smell) was a pleasurable event set the table for an epic screening.
Sunday night opened with The Port of New York (1949) a rarely seen Eagle-Lion film starring Yul Brynner, Scott Brady and Lynne Carter. I was eagerly looking forward to seeing this rarity and felt a bit disappointed. There are sequences that crackled with action (helped by a young Neville Brand applying the muscle) but overall the script and even the high quality 16mm print ( an archival copy belonging to Yul Brynner’s daughter maintained by the Motion Picture Academy) didn’t meet expectations that were set for me by em>T-Men, Reign of Terror and Raw Deal. Any let down was more than mitigated by the time I spent with Lynne Carter during the weekend. I located Miss Carter living in Scottsdale, Arizona back in February and invited her out for the screening. Lynne was a lovely guest and was voluble about her career in the movies and on stage with Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and other luminaries during an extended conversation after the screening. Lynne was also married to William Talman of film noir and Perry Mason fame and it was fascinating to get some personal insights into an actor who has always interested me. Also gratifying was the surprise appearance of the late actor Scott Brady’s sons during the screening. It was a treat to repair into the Green Room afterwards to hear a few choice tidbits about Dad Scott and “Uncle Larry” – bad-boy actor Lawrence Tierney.
I initially watched The Breaking Point (1950) at Noir City in San Francisco last year. I watched it again last night. This film just gets better. Hands down, this is John Garfield’s best performance, arguably Patricia Neal’s top three and is among director Michael Curtiz’ finest pictures. Just a beautifully written, acted and shot film: the definitive version of ‘To Have and To Have Not’ with an ending that leaves you with the sensation of a kicked solar plexus. Sherry Jackson was only eight years old when she played Garfield’s daughter but recalled the charismatic star along with a plethora of memories from an incredible career in films and television that has spanned 52 years. The still-beautiful Jackson touched on such disparate subjects as Michael Curtiz, John Wayne, Star Trek and prodded by Eddie Muller, her legendary Playboy layout that stirred legions of adolescent American boys in the mid 1960’s.