Back In Black: 2015 Noir City film festival
The 13th Annual Noir City film fest has come and gone, and as usual it was a celebration of audience-participation in fedoras and fox furs, with free booze samples in the Castro Theater mezzanine between the double-bills.
The glorious week and a half of movies, co-curated by Noir City founder Eddie Mueller and local rep movie queen Anita Monga (she also programs the Silent Film Festival), featured bleakness, backstabbing, angst, and deceit, with some programming surprises to leaven the usual shadowy mid-century filmic fare. I made it out to a fair percentage of the shows, and although I didn’t dig out my peplum jackets or pumps, I did catch several great movies along the way.
The festival’s theme was the subject of marriage and the films all dealt with (un) holy matrimony in one way or another. First up on the docket were a pair of movies set in Edwardian England that were all about killing your spouse. Ivy is a fun black widow film featuring Joan Fontaine as the conniving title character. Although set a bit earlier in history than the classic mid-twentieth-century noir, the film’s gorgeous camerawork by Touch of Evil cinematographer Russell Metty oozed with classic noir imagery including shadowed faces, silhouettes, forced perspective, and similarly expressionistic lighting and camera techniques. The movie’s fancy art direction included gorgeous peplums, ribbons, and frills defining the Edwardian look, with lead actress Fontaine in particular tricked out in period wear, but the storyline, about a married women who wants to bump off both her husband and her lover, is classic noir.
The second film in the double bill, The Suspect, is a much more nuanced look at spousacide, giving its protagonist a layered representation that adds a complexity to his possibly murderous motivations. Whereas in Ivy the doomed spouse is a cheerful and likeable chap, the wife in The Suspect is nothing but misery and her demise is a blessing, not a crime, which makes her suspected killer a sympathetic character rather than a heel. This perception is hugely aided by Charles Laughton’s subtle performance as the cuckolded husband wanting desperately to escape his unhappy marriage. Laughton acts with his entire body and his facial expressions and body language tell the tale beautifully. Ella Raines as the love interest is also pretty good, though her English accent slips in and out. Director Robert Siodmak creates an excellent and suspenseful narrative structure worthy of Hitchcock that never fully reveals the guilt or innocence of the main character–did he or didn’t he?
The festival also included a trifecta of Barbara Stanwyck films. Stanwyck was always good at playing intelligent women chafing again societal restrictions and her roles in the three films at Noir City this year were no exception. Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night, an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Broadway play, is a bit stagey but it includes great performances by Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan (who I’ve always found a bit creepy due to his wrinkly forehead and intense eyebrows) as the three points of a love triangle set amidst the Monterey fishing canneries. A young Marilyn Monroe is also good as a spunky cannery worker involved with an abusive boyfriend, demonstrating the acting chops that were sometimes obscured in her later, glitzier films.
Even more pointedly critiquing the strictures of the oppressed housewife ground to dust by society’s expectations is Crime of Passion. Though possessing a less stellar pedigree than Clash By Night, the movie nonetheless makes an airtight argument for the case that restricting women to confining gender roles leads to murder and madness. Stanwyck plays a hotshot newswoman who falls for a manly cop (Sterling Hayden) who then gives up her career to become the little woman. Seeing Hayden as a romantic lead is a bit weird for me, since I’m mostly familiar with his later career as a dissolute character actor. But Hayden began his career as a male model and was considered a babe when he was younger, though by the time this movie was filmed he’d already started to get a bit jowly around the edges. At any rate, his extra-large build is a worthy lure for Stanwyck’s feisty female news reporter and it feels plausible that an independent gal might abandon her career for the likes of such a hypermasculine specimen.
Rounding off the mini-set of Stanwyck was the classic noir weepy, No Man of Her Own. Stanwyck plays a pregnant woman abandoned by her no-good boyfriend who, through a set of implausible circumstances, poses as the wife of a man killed in a train accident. She and her newborn son are taken in by her “husband’s” family and the film mostly centers on the psychological strain of deceiving her new in-laws and fending off their warm and fuzzy affections. Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, the film focuses on Stanwyck’s reformed outsider attempting to maintain her newfound place among a family of white Christian pillars of society. Stanwyck is as usual magnificent in all three films, using her face, her posture, and the subtle inflection of her dialog to convey the psychic crises of her characters as each struggles with devastating interior conflicts.
Noir City also included a couple films from the famous Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which focus on rich people who got the sweet end of the lollipop, and the A-list MGM production provided an interesting contrast to the grittier fare in the rest of the festival. After watching one-percenters Nick and Nora Charles sashay through the two films in top hats, satin smoking jackets, and feathery dressing gowns it was easy to discern the much different thematic and stylistic concerns found in film noir, which usually focuses on the losers in life. Similarly, the Claudette Colbert-Robert Cummings vehicle, Sleep, My Love (dir. Douglas Sirk) strictly speaking wasn’t noir either, as the wealthy heiress and her playboy suitor were entirely too optimistic and guileless to be true noir protagonists. If it had been a textbook noir film the lead character would’ve been the slinky photographer’s model Daphne, who snarls the classic lines, “I want her house, I want her life, and I want her man.”
An interesting side aspect that caught my eye: Chinese people and/or culture made appearances or were referenced in three of the films that I saw in the series. Yet as per usual for Hollywood at the time, only one of those representations, in Sirk’s Sleep, My Love, was thoughtful and not insulting. In that movie Keye Luke has a supporting role as Robert Cumming’s pal-friday, first appearing in an extended scene at his own wedding. Said Chinese wedding is only mildly orientalized, at first as a punchline to the Cummings comment that he’s invited to wedding of his “brother” (who turns out to be with his Chinese business partner, played by Luke). Later, the Chinese male gets to have a healthy and normal sex drive as he avidly makes out with his new wife in anticipation of their wedding night, and a running joke centers on the couple’s eager impatience to get to the honeymoon suite. Luke speaks unaccented English and is Cumming’s partner and friend, not subordinate or servant, which for the 1940s is pretty progressive. Props to Sirk for a balanced and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese culture in general and a Chinese man in particular.
The other appearances of Chinese culture in Noir City films this year consisted of standard stereotypes and reflect the casual racism that’s always been business as usual in Hollywood’s representation of Asians. In the otherwise respectable Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Clash By Night Robert Ryan’s cynical loner character Earl inexplicably does his “Chinese impersonation,”a ching-chong imitation of Chinese speech complete with the corners of his eyes pulled up. In After The Thin Man, the film depicts San Francisco’s local color in part by setting several scenes in a Chinese nightclub. Lum Kee, the nightclub owner and one of the many murder suspects in the film, speaks mostly unaccented English for the bulk of the film but his closing line of dialog is for some reason delivered in a broken ching-chong accent. Side note: before breaking out as a big-time star in the Thin Man series Myrna Loy was known for playing a series of yellowface roles.
Coming up in March will be the International Film Noir series at the Roxie Theater, organized by Don Malcolm, who put together the French Noir festival there last November, and Elliot Lavine, the programmer of I Wake Up Dreaming, the Roxie’s annual noir festival. More noir is always better, so I’m looking forward to ingesting more dark visions of crime, duplicitousness, and paranoia.
Entry filed under: film noir, movies. Tags: barbara stanwyck, charles laughton, clifford odets, douglas sirk, film festival, film noir, joan fontaine, marilyn monroe, robert ryan, robert siodmak, the thin man.