by Kelly Vance
Even as film noir has gained popularity with audiences recently, an old complaint about it surfaces from time to time: That it’s more or less a “boys’ club,” the exclusive province of guys whose imagination runs to hard-boiled he-men in trench coats with one hand on a shot of bourbon and the other pawing a sexy doll (often of the backstabbing variety).
That ain’t necessarily so. Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, presenter of Noir City, the film festival devoted to all things noir-ish, begs to differ. For the 13th annual edition of the popular fest at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre (January 16-25, 2015), Muller and his henchpersons have concocted a cinematic series built around the idea that women are and always have been entitled to their place in the shadows. They call it “’Til Death Do Us Part,” a 25-title roundup of noir and noir-istic pics devoted to “the darker side of marriage.”
The marriage-relationship-male-female theme not only lends itself to the essence of what we think of as noir—pipe dreams of happiness vs. the reality of squelched plans, heartbreak, and doom—but opens up one of noir’s hottest subtexts, the one about love and how not to get it. According to the festival’s literature, the situations generally involve three types of characters: “Those who crave a perfect and permanent union, those who’ll stop at nothing to preserve it, and those who will do anything to escape it.”
The scenarios are centered on some of the most iconic female images of the greater noir era (roughly 1946 to 1970): Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe, Ella Raines, Claudette Colbert, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Bel Geddes, Simone Signoret, Audrey Totter, Patricia Knight, Alexis Smith, Bonita Granville, Teresa Wright, Doris Day, Inger Stevens, and Salome Jens, with Shirley Stoler as the wild card. Quite a lineup. As Mickey Spillane might put it, Noir City 13 is where the broads are.
Reached in the midst of attending to his duties as a regular contributor to Turner Classic Movies’ cable TV schedule, “Czar of Noir” Muller sums up what the fest is driving at: “I have never seen noir as suffering from the strictly constrained gender roles many ‘scholars’ have applied to it. And I think it shows in the programming of this year’s festival, and the marriage theme—these films are as much about the existential plight of women as of men. There are plenty of hommes fatales ruining women’s lives. Some of the women in these films are just as sociopathic as their male counterparts. I always say, noir is the one place where women and men are equals, equally tempted, equally compromised, equally guilty. Not too many saints here, but plenty of sinners.”
Stanwyck and Fontaine figure in the lionesses’ share of the action. The former stars in Fritz Lang’s Monterey-based wandering-wife tale Clash By Night , co-billed on January 21 with Gerd Oswald’s Crime of Passion , in which she plays detective Sterling Hayden’s bored-and-dangerous frau. On January 23, Stanwyck suffers some serious slings and arrows in Mitchell Leisen’s No Man of Her Own , a Cornell Woolrich adaptation where she’s a castoff unwed mother posing as a dead woman in an effort to latch onto a better life. Fontaine addicts who revel in her numerous portrayals of sweet, helpless naïfs are in for a surprise with Ivy , Sam Wood’s gaslight-era melodrama that casts her as a sinister femme fatale in buttons and bows (January 17). Ms. Fontaine reverts back to type (at least initially) in director Nicholas Ray’s story of a distaff hustler set loose in San Francisco high society, Born to Be Bad , with Robert Ryan, Joan Leslie, and Zachary Scott among her victims (January 16). Then she gets victimized herself in a pair of classic mellers, also on January 17: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion , with rascally Cary Grant and his bibulous sidekick Nigel Bruce; and The Bigamist , in which Fontaine costars with actress-director Ida Lupino as the two women married to Californicator Edmond O’Brien. Whew. What a handful.
Lupino is not the only female filmmaker on display at NC13. On Saturday, January 24, the fest unwraps a triple bill of stressful entertainments by the husband-wife team of Andrew and Virginia Stone. The Steel Trap (1952) shows what happens when bank teller Joseph Cotten can’t resist lifting the cool sum of $1 million in cash (how times have changed) from his employer, much to the chagrin of wife Teresa Wright. Julie , played by Doris Day, is an airline flight attendant menaced by her jealous husband Louis Jourdan. The most hysterical of the trio is certainly Cry Terror! , a New York City hostage-situation nail-biter that pits James Mason and spouse Inger Stevens against an irresistible band of kooky terrorists: Rod Steiger, Angie Dickinson, Jack Klugman, and drooling sex maniac Neville Brand. All three are written and directed by Andrew Stone, who co-produces with his partner Virginia Stone.
Last year’s Noir City made a point of going international, with a well-chosen slate of lurid thrillers from overseas. That impulse continues on January 22 with a twin bill of movies made in England by two Hollywood refugees, blacklisted during the post-WWII red scare. Edward Dmytryk’s The Hidden Room showcases actor Robert “Long John Silver” Newton as a disturbed London psychologist. When he catches his wife (Sally Gray) conversing in their living room with another man (American actor Phil Brown), the demented shrink kidnaps the poor fellow and stashes him in an underground vault, intending to dunk him in a bath of acid. The Sleeping Tiger , directed by Joseph Losey under the pseudonym Victor Hanbury, stars Losey regular-to-be Dirk Bogarde as an ex-con who overstays his welcome in the home of well-meaning psychologist Alexander Knox and his delectable wife, Alexis Smith. Full Losey-esque mind games abound.
Some film fest aficionados make a point of zeroing in on favorite “underappreciated” directors. For them, the names Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Luchino Visconti, and Robert Wise are enough in themselves to seal the deal, especially when their names are attached to stories of a pretty ex-offender who can’t get over her slimy ex-boyfriend; an amnesiac who wakes up on a train and can’t recall how that gun got in her purse; a romance-smitten admin-assist who marries a millionaire only to discover he’s actually a psychopath; a woman trying to dispose of the body of her murdered husband; a drifter helping a wife get rid of her hubby; and the worried wife of a fall-guy prizefighter.
It’s only fitting that such a female-centric series should devote a January 18 double feature to Sirk, king of the thinking person’s “women’s picture.” Sirk’s Shockproof (1948) stars blond beauty Patricia Knight as the naughty parolee; in Sleep, My Love (1949) it’s forgetful Claudette Colbert against the world. Meanwhile, on January 20, European émigré Ophüls (credited as “Max Opuls”) torments poor Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught , and Wise directs one of the all-time best boxing flicks, The Set-Up . The gals’ opponent in both films is none other than noir’s light-heavyweight champion of malicious shpilkes, Robert Ryan. Clouzot’s 1955 Les Diaboliques and Visconti’s banned-by-Mussolini-and-the-Vatican Ossessione (1943) are naturals for Noir City’s ongoing “wide world of noir” tilt—marital skullduggery raised to high art. In many ways, Europe sets the standard for that bitter flavor that die-hard noir fanatics can’t do without.
Purists are forever debating the relative merits and parameters of noir, neo-noir, noiristic, noir-ish, etc. Truth to tell, almost half of this year’s Noir City entries do not strictly qualify as noir, but that’s understandable—the past is finite, and after watching hundreds of flicks featuring guns, backstabbing babes, and private dicks, almost any film in which a crime is committed begins to look noir. That, and you can’t keep showing Out of the Past forever. Both the movies showing January 25 push the outside limits of the production-date question, but there’s little doubt they live up to this iron-clad noir dictum: There’s no way out, you’re screwed no matter which way you turn.
John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) borrows a leaf from Dark Passage in the story of businessman Antiochus Wilson (played by Rock Hudson), who opts to change his face and assume a new identity in an effort to set things straight. Never worked for Bogey. And then there’s The Honeymoon Killers , the 1969 cult item that introduced Shirley Stoler to an unsuspecting world. Writer-director Leonard Kastle’s narrative chronicle of real-life “lonely hearts” serial killers—with Stoler in the impossible-to-forget role of vengeful romantic Martha Beck, opposite Tony Lo Bianco as Beck’s loosey-goosey accomplice Ray Fernandez—reportedly thrilled everyone from John Waters to Michelangelo Antonioni to Martin Scorsese, the intended director, who was fired from the production midstream.
Way back in 2003, Muller and company showed Norman Foster’s Woman on the Run (1950) as part of a tribute to set-in-San-Francisco films at the first SF-based Noir City fest. Not long after that, the only American print of the film burned up in a warehouse fire, and was considered lost until original film elements were discovered at the British Film Institute. Those pieces formed the basis of a complete restoration of Woman on the Run by the Film Noir Foundation.
And now Foster’s superbly atmospheric murder mystery, starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe and sporting a whirlwind tour of thoroughly San Francisco locations, returns to the scene as NC13’s opening night feature, Friday, January 16, at 7:30 p.m. Also, let’s not overlook John Reinhardt’s The Guilty (1947), with Bonita Granville playing twins in yet another Cornell Woolrich adaptation, showing January 23. That film as well was restored by the Film Noir Foundation, which uses the proceeds from its various ventures—including ticket sales from the festivals—to fund the rescue and restoration of movies that might otherwise disappear.
For up-to-date show times and festival info, including enough film noir facts and trivia to satisfy every moll and torpedo who ever felt weak in the knees or tight in the boxers while gazing at Lana Turner, go to: FilmNoirFoundation.org or NoirCity.com.
Kelly Vance fell in love with flickers the day he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth at El Rancho Theater in Culver, Indiana, and he’s been trying to catch up with the world’s cinematic output ever since. When he’s not at a screening or a film festival he writes for the East Bay Express (where he is the chief film reviewer) and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.