Native Son (1951)
Intruder in the Dust (1949)
It's a real good picture, actually, and very much worth seeing.
Native Son (1951)
Say, isn't supposed to be the 30s?
Very interesting evening at Noir City last night. We had the rare opportunity to see Richard Wright (then 43) acting in the role of Bigger Thomas (age 25) in the film version of Wright's 1940 novel Native Son. Wright took the part because Canada Lee (Lifeboat), who played Bigger on Broadway, declined the role, saying he was too old (he was 44). Apparently, no studio in the United States thought the movie would make any money outside of the larger metropolitan areas and sure as hell wouldn't play in the South, so it was shot in Buenos Aires (standing in for Chicago) and directed by Pierre Chenal. And I'm sorry to say that the backstory was the best part of the film; there wasn't one decent actor in the bunch. Made me want to see the Matt Dillon/Elizabeth McGovern version all over again.
Intruder in the Dust (1949)
After hearing how hard it was going to be to show Native Son in the U.S., I was a little surprised to learn that the adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust was shot entirely in Oxford, Mississippi by MGM, no less. Claude Jarman, Jr. himself introduced the film, saying Louis B. Mayer did not want to shoot it, but director Clarence Brown, who had seen a lynching as a young boy, convinced Mayer to make the picture. Jarman told us that many of the townspeople who appear in the film as extras were on hand for the poor optics arounds the integration of Ole Miss two years after this film was shot and that the star, Juano Hernandez, couldn't (of course) stay at the same hotel as the rest of the cast.
40 feet high and 60 years younger
The story is of a black man arrested for the murder of a noted local racist, who was found shot in the back, said black man found near him with a pistol that had recently been shot. Young Chick (Jarman) has formed an unusual friendship over the years with the accused, Lucas Beauchamp (Hernandez) and happens to be the nephew of the local lawyer, an annoying jackass who doesn't listen to ANYONE, but is presumably the voice of White Reason in this film and who agrees to defend the man. A gorgeous alliance of Chick, his black buddy Aleck, and the elderly white lady Miss Eunice (played by the excellent Elizabeth Patterson) help vindicate Lucas. The town is all excited by a prospective lynching and make a carnival of it. When said lynching is not forthcoming, they all wander off, kicking the dust, going "Aw, gee." All is tentatively OK by the end, with the local black population feeling safe enough to go back into town and Chick and Uncle Smugly comment on the condition of mankind.
It's a real good picture, actually, and very much worth seeing.
Like church, really.
My favorite kind of flight is generally the kind where no one speaks to me. At all. So I was delighted when I slipped past the nicely-dressed man in the aisle seat who clearly wanted to sleep and set up my social barrier by the window. It wasn't until we began to touch down in San Francisco that he made light chit-chat and I mentioned I was here for Noir City 11, the annual film noir festival.
Turns out this fellow had caught an old movie on TCM just the other day and saw something so amazing that he grabbed his phone and took a video (of his television), because it was so cool. Then he showed me (on his phone) a portion of the fabulous duet at the "West Indies Club" scene from Another Thin Man (1939), below:
I took it as a good omen for this year's program. My first night (the fourth of the festival) was very early nearly-noir; borderline horror and psycho-drama, billed as a:
Pre-Code Proto-Noir Triple Feature
No more Mr. Nice Guy, Dodsworth?
First up was A House Divided (1931), a crazy melodrama directed by William Wyler, set in a fishing town straight out of Popeye — the scary Max Fleischer Popeye — where everyone is singing shantys, mending nets, and every other person has a wooden leg. Walter Huston plays a sociopathic brute who, on the day of his wife's funeral, tries to get his namby-pamby son (Douglass Montgomery, a.k.a. Kent Douglass) drunk and laid at the local bar...to cheer him up. And that's just the first three minutes.
Enter pretty teenage Helen Chandler (I forget how or why), who Huston declares he's going to marry even though he's a pig and she's half his age. Namby-Pamby goes along at first, thinking at least if his father has someone, the kid can finally leave that stinkin' town and have a life, but realizes how very yick that would be (for her) and intercedes by getting in a fist fight with his father on the wedding night. During the course of this very brutal fight, Huston goes crashing through the upstairs bannister and winds up paralyzed and even more hateful (while Chandler remains in tact, as it were). There are some very creepy scenes of Huston dragging himself around, useless legs trailing behind, menacing the two young people who have, of course, by now fallen in love.
Anyway, there's a big storm with thunder and raging seas and the girl out on a boat having to be rescued and crippled Walter Huston dragging himself into a dinghy and disappearing. The end.
I don't have much to say about the second feature, The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), except that it started out well, then drifted into quasi-psycho drama with much shouting and crazed eyeballs and all from the usually affable Frank Morgan.
It's the story of a lawyer who is called to defend a man (Paul Lukas) who has just shot his wife (Gloria Stuart) in a jealous rage after finding her naked in the apartment of a Greer-Garson-less Walter Pidgeon. While crafting the defense, Morgan comes to learn that his own wife (Nancy Carroll) is cheating on him! Will he kill her? Will he not? Will he get the other guy acquitted by reason of insanity? Meh.
The film was directed by James Whale, who must have been directing it on the weekends and evenings around the time he was working on The Invisible Man, a much better picture.
Not *that* Jean Dixon
For all the scenery chewing from those around her, it was very good to see Jean Dixon in the role of Hilda, Lady Lawyer. Dixon is one of my favorite wise-cracking sophisticates. Watch her playing off Edward Everett Horton in Holiday and you'll agree.
I couldn't stay awake for the third of the triple features, sadly. I'd been up for 21 hours at that point and not even something called Laughter in Hell could give me strength.
Wait a second, cantcha, I got sumpin in my shoe.
Wait while I look up who did the singing* for Gloria Grahame on the excellent and terrifying number, "Ace in the Hole," in Naked Alibi, because it was so not her. She certainly did her own her "dancing."
It was a packed house at the Castro Theatre last night for the "Bad Girls" Noir City X double feature, Naked Alibi (1954) and Pickup (1951) and worth every yawn and creaking joint this morning. What a wacky picture Naked Alibi is. Everyone was slapping somebody or shootin' 'em or stabbin' 'em or kissin' 'em...hard. Sterling Hayden plays a seemingly-psycho cop who is convinced that the seemingly-innocent Gene Barry, local baker and family man, has murdered a few cops (one of whom was the ubiquitous Max Showalter) and becomes obsessed with proving it even after he is dismissed from the police force for brutality. Then for some reason they all go to Mexico.
Once over the border, we learn that Gene Barry has a hot cookie on the side in the form of Gloria Grahame and that Sterling Hayden has virtually no police instincts, as he is lured into a dark alley, stabbed and robbed within an hour of arriving. Billy Chapin, shoeshine boy, becomes the catalyst for Hayden meeting Grahame so they can begin their doomed romance. Eventually everyone (except Billy Chapin) goes back over the border and Gene Barry is revealed to be the murderous heel Sterling Hayden always knew he was. Gloria Grahame doesn't make it, sad to say, and I'm sorry, but Sterling Hayden is still psycho.
Gloria Grahame to Sterling Hayden: "I don't understand you, you don't understand me. We have a lot in common."
* The singing was done by Jo Ann Greer, says the excellent site "Movie Dubbers" and the angel who posted the song on YouTube (it starts about a minute in).
Whadder YOU lookin' at?
Beverly Michaels is my new best inappropriate girlfriend who my parents think is a bad influence and forbid me to hang arround with. I can't express how much I enjoyed her performance in Pickup, a surprisingly funny, moderately suspenseful glimpse into the life of bored bad girl in a small town.
Hugo Haas starred in, wrote, and directed this picture. Apparently, this was the first in a series of films Haas made throughout the 1950s on exactly the same topic — hot, mean girl takes shlubby middle-aged man for all he's worth (this from Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir, who gives a short lecture before each movie. Muller, bless him, is kind of a toolbag, but he really knows a lot, so it's worth sitting through the smarm). I'll be trolling for more of Haas's pictures, so stay tuned.
Contrary to what the posters would have you think, Pickup, isn't especially hardboiled. Each character is believeable and flawed; their choices stupid and human. Yes, it's a B noir, but the story is ultimately about loneliness, companionship, and forgiveness — even "Betty" (Beverly Michaels) isn't completely rotten. I'm not going to elaborate, because you really should see it if you can.
Not the Best Line, but a Good One
Betty stepping out of Hunky's jalopy once she sees the railroad "shack" he lives in: "When's the floor show start?"
Somebody tell this guy I'm not Sean Young
Just under three weeks until the 10th Annual Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco. I saw the preview last week while waiting for Singin' in the Rain to start (second on the program with On the Town) and wished they'd cut it about 40 seconds shorter. Alas, they did something unfortunate typographically with the "X" that signifies "10" and the "Y" in "City" and decided to go soft porn in the promo, which is both a misinterpretation of noir and a lame design treatment. Very 1982.
Happily, The program itself looks good. I'll miss Angie Dickinson and a bunch of great San Francisco-based films, but I will get there just in time for Gilda and The Money Trap and won't have to leave until right after The Great Gatsby (with Ruth Hussey!!) and Three Strangers.
Stay tuned for pre-program preparatory and in-program notes. Meanwhile: Happy New Year!
In honor of the heat and what's going on (or not going on) over the river in D.C., I'm having some friends over to watch a few films about political intrigue, power-mongering, and sensationalism. Updates to follow.
I've already done the Birthday of the Week, but today is Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's birthday and the guy was great. What can I say? Sure, the scandal was hideous and dreadful for all concerned — lurid and career-ruining — plus the woman died and everything.
Anyway, anyway... I used not to care much for slapstick at all and especially avoided the kind where the big joke was about being fat or drunk, so I didn't come around to Arbuckle until my early 20s — and then only just, because he hung around with my girlfriend, Mabel Normand.
Then last July I saw him in "The Cook" at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with Buster Keaton and became a true fan, as I hope you will too if you aren't already. Remember, all the stunts are done by the actors and the dog. The whole thing's a ballet.
Enjoy. But don't try any of this at home.
The Cook (1918)
The other day I ran across the program to a private film festival my friend Monica and I held at her place on Shotwell Street in San Francisco some time in 1994. It was called "Nearly the 100th Anniversary of Going to the Movies" and we screened 15 movies in one day, with a half hour break in the middle to bestow Agnes Moorehead with the first (and only) Lifetime Achievement Award for Hollywood's Scandalously Neglected. The award was to have been forever after known as "The Aggie" and we never did it again, which in itself is scandalous.
It is time to set things right. I am hereby resurrecting the Aggie Awards, since it is Oscar Season and they've stopped parading the Hollywood Elders Miraculously Still Alive on the actual show. Date and details to follow once I've had a chance to gin up interest.
Meanwhile, I'll start the ball rolling with two lists of contenders for Scandalously Neglected Actor and Scandalously Neglected Actress — and a chance for you to throw a name in the ring.
Now the boys...
Nearly the 100th Anniversary of Going to the Movies Program (1994)
Here is the program that started it all. Looking back, I'm pretty impressed with how many studios and eras we covered. It was a 12-hour extravaganza with two rooms going at once: one for features (the first seven pictures in the slideshow) and one for diversions. There may have been some drinking.
Beware My Lovely (RKO, 1952)
I've always liked and respected Ida Lupino, but watching her in Beware My Lovely propelled her to new heights in my estimation. The movie — produced by her production company — had me right at the very spooky opening sequence, when Robert Ryan discovers the body of his employer in a broom closet and flees across a rail yard. Soon he comes to the home of a war widow (Lupino) and begins doing odd jobs around the house. When his character, Howard, asks to hang his coat in a cleaner closet, it hit me: this was the same story as "To Find Help," another Agnes Moorehead tour de force from Suspense I had heard years ago on The Big Broadcast (WAMU 88.5) while driving home from Brooklyn one dark and stormy night. It was so good that I sat in the car outside the house (after a 5 hour drive, mind you) just to find out who played the creepy young man. It was Frank Sinatra.
On screen last night, all things started to play out just as I remembered in the radio play with one or two modifications to great effect (I kept a wary eye on the dog, for instance). It's a terrific, terrifying, and extremely well-acted film and I recommend it highly.
Listen Now: "To Find Help," Suspense, January 18, 1945
Coincidentally, seeing this movie only confirmed my feelings about "Sorry, Wrong Number" the radio play versus Sorry, Wrong Number the film, which I watched on YouTube yesterday just to make sure. I can see why people who haven't heard the Suspense broadcast would give the movie high marks — it's scary, gorgeously shot, and well acted; however, as an adaption it comes across (to me) overwrought with unecessary exposition and introducing sympathies that distort the dramatic effect of the original. It is a good movie — just not a good adaptation.
Beware My Lovely is both. Please see it.
The Woman on the Beach (RKO, 1947)
I'm going to go ahead and say it...the movie's no good!
Really, don't bother.
Olivia de Havilland does a slightly mean kind of crazy. I'm not talking about how she plays interesting crazy, like the twin we're supposed to dislike, Terry, in The Dark Mirror, but the way she portrays the nice girl being driven crazy, twin Ruth. I get the sense that as Ruth, de Havilland was thinking of her real-life sister, Joan Fontaine, whom she famously disliked; a more professional version of how siblings make fun of each other "I'm Joan and I'm so pretty and everybody loves me, ladidadida..." De Havilland makes the good girl that much less attractive for being easily driven crazy and I like her for that.
I also, less famously, dislike Joan Fontaine. She's a wispy, feckless thing on screen whose posture is atrocious. My sister, incidentally, does a great imitation of Joan Fontaine as Peggy, the ingenue you want to smack, in The Women. Maybe I'll record her doing it and post it some day.
DeHavilland's Terry — much like the character she played two years later in the excellent Snake Pit, Virginia Cunningham — is a person with actual psychological problems caused or exacerbated by some very real conditions like depression, trauma, or plain old mental illness. Terry's anger and contempt are spectacular, while her easily-driven-crazy twin's bewilderment is just annoying.
As a rule, watching a girl being driven mad is kind of a boor. I mean, really, if you hear a music box playing somewhere in the house, chances are your twin sister left it on in a drawer someplace and you're not really hallucinating. And if she tries to convince you some morning that you woke up screaming in the middle of the night confessing guilt for murdering someone, she's probably just messing with you. Seriously — Occam's Razor.
I've seen this movie a number of times, though never on a big screen until last night at Noir City 9, and I never remember that Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life, Scarlett's father in Gone With the Wind, and Dizz from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington among 50 million other pictures) is in it as the police lieutenant and that he's great. Just great. A couple of his best lines:
** "He's a pretty smart guy for a college man."
** "Even a nut will figure out that it's easier to kill a rival than than to knock off her boyfriends for the rest of her life." (or something like that. I was very tired.)
Please do see it if you can. It's not on DVD, but you could probably find it on a dusty old VHS someplace.
Let me count the ways.
But I gotta make it quick today, so I'll just list some good lines from the Stanwyck Two-fer from last night at Noir City 9.
The Lady Gambles (Universal, 1949)
In case you can't read them, here are the quotes highlighted on the movie poster:
** "Where have I failed you as a husband?"
** "You're not even a woman anymore...just another dame with the 'fever'!"
** "I picked her up in an alley...with a pair of loaded dice in her hand!"
Some pretty dire pronouncements, don't you think? And poor Robert Preston — so strapping a guy for such a tiny mustache.
And a couple choice bits tweeted by anniebacon (a person I've never met, but who, noir-like, I now follow):
** Better than gambling: "Spitting half a mile...and a two-inch steak."
** "I'll take a lush any day. At least a lush passes out sometimes."
Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948)
Listen, I'm still on the fence about this movie on account of Agnes Moorehead scaring the pants off me when I first heard the broadcast in my Middle School AV Room. The woman who wrote the original "Suspense" play, Lucille Fletcher, also wrote the screenplay, which you think would help, but I'm just too in love with the original.
Still, Barbara's hair is much better in this picture than in The Lady Gambles. That Jane Wyman cut is the least flattering hairdo ever; it works on no one.