Noir City #6

The Locket (1944): Normally, I frown upon the flashback structure. Unless you have a solid justification for it (like Memento), it comes across as gimmicky. There’s no reason to move backwards, particularly when the flashback does nothing to resolve the problems set up in a film’s early moments. But The Locket is a different kettle altogether. Not only does it have a flashback-within-a-flashback, but it has a flashback-within-a-flashback-wthin-a-flashback. Indeed, there were so many flashbacks in this movie that I feared writer Sheridan Gibney and director John Brahm would lead me to the moment in which sperm fertilized egg and Laraine Day’s character was born. Fortunately, the flashbacks stopped when the Day character was nine.

But the flashbacks in The Locket work. Because they tell how Laraine Day’s psychosis came to be. They also echo the perspectives of the characters surrounding Day. The film’s methodology runs something like this: A flashback is initiated when a previously screwed over s.o. of Day tells the story to an about-to-be-screwed over s.o. of Day. And we begin to see common patterns of how Day is in denial about her condition. We also learn how the men are foolish enough to play into her sympathies. Even as they tell their stories to the next guy, there is still a part of them that believes that Day is benign.

And if that weren’t enough, we get a silly middle-aged, upper-class Englishwoman singing and dancing a really terrible jig, to the unjustified pleasure of her audience. (“The Germans couldn’t stop her from dancing during the blitz,” we’re informed.) We get crude psychoanalysis with overgeneralized theories. We get Robert Mitchum cast as a cocky painter (and since this is a young Mitchum, it’s fascinating to watch the Mitchum stare in early development). We get the most ridiculous pretext for Day and psychiatrist Brian Aherne hooking up. (One bicycle, moving slower than a treadmill at its lowest setting, runs into the other and both fall down. Either people cycled slower in those days or the filmmakers were on crystal meth and failed to compensate.)

Plenty of the films programmed had better dialogue, better visuals and better performances, but this was one of my favorite films of the festival. I think it had something to do with the dancing Englishwoman.

Decoy (1946): The phrase “consummate trash” comes to mind. Nedrick Young’s script is implausible, the sets are more wobbly than an episode of Doctor Who, the production design is flat and uninspired (to the point where even walls and tables are largely unadorned). This movie looks and feels like the cheapest B-movie possible.

But nobody seems to have informed director Jack Bernhard that he’s propping up pulp. Benhard approaches this movie as if he’s David Lean. He dollies the camera across sparse prison sets that look as if they were put together under a WPA project. He goes for the arty shot, despite the fact that it will reveal the set’s limitations. He adorns the audio with an overbearing symphony, almost as if he expected the audience to rise from their seats and stand for the Queen. Bernhard’s remarkable tenacity reminded me of Don Edmonds’ work on the Ilsa films, whereby Edmonds raised the worst material possible to something oddly endearing.

The film has extremely baffling moments, such as the guy in the morgue who flips through the dictionary and howls with laughter over what the words mean. (And on top of that, he pronounces dichotomy “DI-SHAW-TA-ME.”) Or the philanthropic doctor in the skids somehow convinced to abandon his practice on the flimsiest of reasons.

And then there’s Jean Gillie, who gives Faye Dunaway a run for her money on sheer camp alone. Gillie’s idea of commitment is running over her partners and grabbing hold of a suitcase, shouting, “Mine! All mine!” It’s safe to say that Gillie wouldn’t last long in a job interview.

My only real quibble with the film was that I wasn’t tipsy when I saw it. If ever a movie was made to befuddle humanity, it’s Decoy. And I say this with the best of intentions.

Noir City #5

Noir attrition has kicked in. And it’s not just me. I had to assure a fellow film buff that Sydney Greenstreet did indeed appear in Casablanca. And neither of us could remember Leon Ames’ name a mere 24 hours after viewing his fantastic performance in The Velvet Touch. We only knew that he was also in Postman. Even Eddie Muller was susceptible on Monday night, going crazy about The Velvet Touch right before Crime of Passion. The hard lesson is that the more films you watch, the more you realize that nobody’s perfect.

Of course, this means nothing for those who are attending Noir City in piecemeal. But for the truly devoted film freaks, for the people who are either going every night or most nights, it’s fascinating to watch people who were once so lucid degenerate into atavistic carnivores whose only duty is to wander in for more. I blame Muller for this. The guy programmed four extra nights this year. And he knew that we film freaks would keep coming. Even with our day jobs and other obligations.

But no matter. With two nights left, I’ve already wistful about my nightly dose of noir soon coming at an end.

Crime of Passion (1957): If Crime of Passion demonstrates anything, it’s that a fifty year old Barbara Stanwyck could probably have Gwyneth Paltrow’s kidney for a midnight snack and still remain hungry. Stanwyck plays an advice columnist who falls for and marries a cop played by (who else?) Sterling Hayden. Hayden, perhaps the actor to play by-the-book characters, is extremely sensitive to Stanwyck’s needs — that is, when he’s not demanding ham and eggs (though not the Desert Fury variety), working long hours, growing stubble, and roughing other cops up shortly after spitting out a freshly lit cigarette. Shortly before marrying Hayden, Stanwyck quits her job and finds herself not only bored, but a tad febrile about her husband getting ahead. To the point where she’s even willing to do the horizontal tango with Raymond Burr, among other things.

The implausibility of this setup is helped in large part by the solid acting. Stanwyck delivers lines like a firecracker, with just the right amount of innuendo. Hayden is every bit her match. And their scenes together display solid chemistry (what Hayden does with his hands and Stanwyck with her eyes is nothing less than amazing), particularly when juxtaposed against drab parties of husbands hanging with husbands drinking beer and wives hanging with wives getting excited about social developments. There’s a dark undercurrent in this film that attracted me, but left me ultimately unfulfilled. I’m all for pre-Friedan examination of the housewife’s predicament, but why should the problem that has no name have its filmmakers intimidated? The ending, which cried out for a Lina Wurtmuller-like explosion, was too neat and anticlimactic. But it’s passable fare, though more Ladies’ Home Journal than noir.

The Velvet Touch (1948): Imagine The Sweet Smell of Success crossed with a good murder mystery and you have The Velvet Touch, an overlooked little gem bristling with wit and heartache. Whether it’s contemplating the secret meanings of chess or directly invoking Oscar Wilde, the dialogue is so crisp that I was astonished to learn that this was Walter Reilly’s only film script (the IMDB listed his only other writing credit as an episode of Climax!). Rosalind Russell propels this noir with class, playing an aristocratic actress locked up with a sleazy producer played marvelously by Leon Ames (think a low-rent William Holden type oozing with sleaze). Russell inadvertently kills Ames in the opening moment and, as is the custom of noir, we flashback to learn how it all happened. She’s wooed by an Englishman (Leo Genn) who orders her meals for her. And she’s trying to break out of her typecasting in painfully unfunny farces by appearing in Hedda Gabler. But then there’s the murder and the efforts to cover up.

The film is guided more by its dialogue and performances, than its predictable story arcs. Velvet features a spectacular theatre (that Mueller reports was constructed entirely on an RKO soundstage) and, if the lovely friction between Russell and Ames wasn’t enough, it throws in Sydney Greenstreet — this time, as a good guy, a detective that’s a cross between Columbo and Nero Wolfe.

More films seen and to be seen, all to cover later.

Noir City #4

Thursday and Friday’s screenings made ten movies in five days. This was drastic media input by all reasonable standards, particularly given the four hours of sleep I was getting, the writing I was trying to get in, and the day job. By the end of Friday, I actually believed John Garfield and Liz Scott were inviting me to dinner to discuss a few double-cross angles over poisoned cabarnet — in today’s world, their schemings would probably be articulated in a marketing plan. Fortunately, a few friends stepped in at the right moment, delineating the differences between film and reality. They threatened never to speak to me again if I kept spending so much time at the Castro Theatre, whether solo or with other folks. Every obsession has its price. I learned this from film noir.

Movie blurred into movie. It was getting more difficult to judge each film on its own merits or lack thereof. Titles, directors, and actors were thrown into a mental cistern and memory required careful auditing. But now with sleep and time away from the screen, it is, at last, possible to dwell upon what I saw.

The Accused (1949): I’m not quite sure how much Jonathan Kaplan’s 1988 movie, an overrated piece of tripe that seemed to revel in its depiction of rape, had to do with this forerunner. The Kaplan version doesn’t have a source. What I do know is that both movies involve a woman who gets raped, an attorney who attempts to defend them, and some Hester Prynne-like stigma felt internally by the victims. Despite its intentions, beneath the surface, the Kaplan film went with Jodie Foster as the blue-collar pottymouth type who had it coming, “sexing up” the rape through an unnecessary flashback masquerading under the imprimatur of docudrama. But the 1949 version turned out to be smarter and more fascinating, even if it culminated in a disappointing finale that betrayed its intentions.

Loretta Young plays a psychology professor (in a 1949 film, no less!) who gets a ride from a student hoping to get into her pants. The student, fond of suggestively chomping down on pencils in the classroom, takes her on an extended ride, strips down to swimming trunks, and then tries to assault Young over a cliff face. Young beats him to death in self-defense and spends most of the movie dodging the scientific-minded detectives (who also toss around rough gender role generalizations) looking into the case, while rearranging her appearance when necessary.

The film’s first hour is its most fascinating. We see Young trying to convince an exchange student that college is a waste of money if a lady goes there solely to snag a husband. There’s the suggestion in this moment, which isn’t particularly didactic, that the film will be about the crumbling of a woman’s image. There’s a running undercurrent in the film’s dialogue and visuals on how people are judged by their looks. There’s a shot of Young looking into a compact as a man who may be able to identify her can be seen in the reflection. It’s a canny bon mot which implies that Young may also a victim of how society judges men and women in the smallest of ways. This is also reflected by the smoking gun pinning the case to Young: a blown-up display of a slide sample in a dark room.

Unfortunately, the film abandons this angle and turns Young into yet another hopeless spinster who needs a man. She swoons over Robert “We’ll win this war if the cows come home” Cummings, and apologizes for “a spinster’s kiss.”

It should be noted that The Accused was written by a woman, Ketti Frings. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Frings had to settle for the sickening transition into “woe is me” histrionics (or, for that matter, Young’s lame first-person voiceover, reinforcing the fearful woman racket) to get the early points across. I was very disappointed by the end. But for a 1949 film, it still managed to sneak in a few interesting assaults on gender relations.

The Reckless Moment (1949): The film, one of only two movies that the great Max Ophuls made in Hollywood, is based on the same source material as 2001’s The Deep End. I’d seen that film, which was propelled more by Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary performance than its passable script. But I didn’t realize how much directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel had appropriated Ophuls’ imagery. The 1949 version has the great Joan Bennett in the role of the mother doing whatever it takes to keep a murder on the q.t. Bennett has an altogether different desperation than Swinton. Where Swinton is the independent type, Bennett covers up the crime with a good deal of help from servants. While both ladies are competent protectors and not to be messed with, Bennett comes across better as the indomitable commander. But that’s largely because The Reckless Moment‘s script is better.

Other than this, the narrative distinctions between the two films stop. James Mason attempts an Irish dialect, but, alas, his is the voice of James Mason. Before you can say Humbert Humbert or Bigger than Life, he’s simpering on all fours in the way he does so well.

If I had to pick one movie or the other, I’d base my choice on one simple criterion. The Reckless Moment is 82 minutes long. The Deep End is 101 minutes. The Reckless Moment wins by way of its breeziness.

Desert Fury (1947): Desert Fury was one of two Technicolor noirs Mueller programmed. And, oh, what wonderful subtext in the Robert Rossen script.

The film stars Liz Scott, who, not long ago, I confessed my relentless devotion to (and, apparently, I’m not alone). Desert Fury is worth it just to see the lovely Ms. Scott filmed in beautiful Technicolor. I found myself blushing throughout the film. My able viewership was helped by the art department. If I had to offer a conservative estimate on the number of costume changes for Ms. Scott, it would stand somewhere around 204.

I confess these details not to run a film freak’s Vespa into a brick wall, but because, in light of the subtext, it’s necessary to point out that Liz Scott is nothing less than stunning, beautiful, sharp, a young lady who declares early on that she has no problem “playing with matches,” a woman who any man would go to jail over. And not the way you’re thinking.

Now the subtext: John Hodiak plays a gangster who has arrived at a Nevada desert town with his, uh, special male companion Wendell Corey. Corey has apparently been everywhere with Hodiak for quite some time. As Hodiak himself confesses, Corey bought him “ham and eggs” when they first met. And we all know what that means.

Hodiak is in a bit of denial about his, uh, relationship with Corey. He hopes to go off with Scott. But he tried the same thing earlier with Scott’s mother (played with snap and grace by Mary Astor). And Corey came along to the picnic then.

Now, as established above, any man would run off with Scott in a minute. And this is where Scott’s casting is crucial. She encourages Hodiak to run off with her. And he still can’t shake Corey. To the point where Hodiak’s conflicted through the film and snaps with a cruel act towards a local (and much more after) in a diner.

And then there’s Burt Lancaster, the deputy whose tousled hair looks gayer than Hodiak and Corey combnied. He has his eyes on Scott too. But Scott isn’t quite convinced he’s the rugged man who will take her away.

It is to the immense credit of Rossen and director Lewis Allen that they got away with so much mangled manhood at the time that this was made. Where The Accused abandoned its subtext early on, Rossen is a gifted enough writer to stay with it until the bitter end. I came down a bit hard on Rossen with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, but where the dialogue of that film appeared dictated by a writer’s efforts to prove he was one with the atmosphere dammit and that he’s lived, Rossen is able to pull off a stylized Nevada vernacular here that, along with the subtext, makes Desert Fury a juicy, overlooked gem.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Like the 1948 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, I was underwhelmed by this purpoted classic. Perhaps I was distracted by Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde’s preternaturally perfect eyebrows. Or maybe I was hoping for more motivation into Tierney’s character. Or maybe I was just damned annoyed by director John M. Stahl’s stilted framings, the blocking of which resembled a really bad community theatre production. Or maybe I was vexed by the dimebag courtroom finale with the over-the-top prosecutor and the endless yeses. Or maybe I simply wanted to slap Wilde around because he had all the thespic range of a Mylar board.

With the exception of nice perspective shots during one murder sequence, I just couldn’t believe in this movie. But this was, after all, Number 10.

Noir City #3

Last night, Eddie Mueller paired two movies based on W. Somerset Maugham material. Maugham, who was the highest paid author in the world during the 1930s, had a good deal of his material produced for the screen — primarily because he was the kind prolific and popular writer to have four new plays running on the London West End at the same time. My own two-volume set of Somerset Maugham’s short stories alone runs several thousand pages. Often the long stories set in the tropics blur into each other, with Maugham recycling plots and characters without apology.

But that’s not to suggest that we should discount Maugham’s gift as a storyteller. He was a plot-heavy writer, who read every story of Guy de Maupassant in French at an early age. He worked the literary angle with Of Human Bondage but kept it real with his Ashenden tales. The Ashenden stories are considered by many to be the prototype for the modern spy story. Drawn from Maugham’s own experience in espionage, they were to prove so successful that Hitchcock used two of the stories as the basis for his film The Secret Agent. Fleming and Le Carre could not have existed without Maugham, much as Doyle could not have existed without Poe.

But Maugham was also concerned with intimacy, keen on domineeering figures in a family (he considered his happiest days to be his early ones with his mother). And it was two selections along these lines that Mueller presented last night.

Christmas Holiday (1944): Despite the presence of the great Herman J. Mankiewicz, this adaptation is bogged down by a flashback-within-flashback structure. It takes forever to get to the crux of the story. The camera ogles endlessly over Deanna Durbin — here, in her first adult role, cast against type as a browbeaten nightclub singer. After breaking down at Xmas mass, Durbin tells her story to army officer Dean Harens (the Matt Damon of his time, thankfully without the star status) and it is here that we are eventually introduced to her husband, Gene Kelly, who has just murdered an associate. Unfortunately, it takes so long to get to the film’s real goodies, best epitomized in a split-diopter shot of Kelly and Durbin hunkered over a piano while Kelly’s controlling mother (played by Gale Sondergaard) rocks in the background. It’s a pity, because there’s some nice lighting by Woody Bredell, and some magnificent shots of a concert hall. And the Durbin-described “pathological” relationship between Kelly and his mother, with the Durbin dynamic, is something special to behold.

But the problem with this movie is that it’s too much of a blatant vehicle for Durbin. At the time this movie was made, Durbin was desperate to break out of her wholesome teen singer image. It was she who read Maugham’s novel and she who convinced Universal to make the film. And while she does a commendable yeoman’s job, the camera cannot stop shoving itself up Durbin’s nostrils, a one-two punch with soft-light, as if to hammer home the point that we are seeing a wholly different Durbin.

The results are an underwhelming film directed by an underrated director (Robert Sidomak, the man behind The Killers and Criss Cross), with a few sparks. But it could have been much better.

The Letter (1940): Over the past few years, a friend and I have had an on-again, off-again dialogue over William Wyler. He claims that Wyler is overrated — the worst director of the studio system. I claim he’s hit-or-miss, but that you can’t discount The Ox-Bow Incident, Roman Holiday, Jezebel, or Ben-Hur. Whatever Wyler’s problems, I maintain, he’s still great with actors and knows how to deliver when he has a script in his hand. No, my friend says, Wyler couldn’t come up with a decent visual to save his overinflated pecs. Watch your back, he says. I’ll stab it in the morning. Sometimes.

The subject is so heated among film geeks that even a documentary was made in 1986 called Directed by William Wyler in an attempt to put Wyler alongside directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Up until now, I’ve had to agree with my friend’s stance on visuals. Wyler always struck me as a guy who was riding on Gregg Toland’s coattails, leaving Toland to frame that magnificent supermarket shot in The Best Years of Our Lives or make Bette Davis look nothing less than sensational in The Little Foxes.

But The Letter not only predates The Maltese Falcon as a potential missing link between German Expressionism and film noir by one year, but it may very well be a visual example I can use in the Wyler debate. This film is pure eye candy. It is a film I must see again. From the opening tracking shot, in which a murder is committed in a tropical wilderness, the photography offers endless semiotics to sift through, at one point even aping the movement of Bette Davis as she’s describing how she shoots a man to death. There’s one sequence that takes place wholly in a living room, in which three characters are sitting. Wyler and Toland frame them high to low. The man who has committed a highly unethical act is visually tainted in a gray suit. The pure character who had no idea of this act is in white. And the person who caused all this is dressed in black, seated on a striped soda that suggests a jail cell.

The blocking in this picture is exquisite. Characters arch their backs over to match the Venetian blind shadows on the wall. I’m almost certain that Bertolucci had The Letter in mind when he went off to make The Conformist.

Unfortunately, The Letter is hard to track down. Ironic, given that it might be the solitary film to restore Wyler’s status.

Noir City #2

Last night was Round 2 of Joan Crawford vs. Barbara Stanwyck. I wasn’t there for Round 1, largely because I had seen both films (Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity) dozens of times. But what was curious about this bout was that the two leading ladies weren’t nearly as prominent as their top on-screen billing suggested. So it was difficult for any reasonable person to judge which lady was more noir.

Flamingo Road (1949): Flamingo Road was a last-minute swap for Possessed. Eddie Mueller informed the audience that the print had been pulled at the last minute. Sadly, the negative is in bad shape. Flamingo Road wasn’t really a noir picture, more of a passable political drama. The film was weakened by Ted McCord’s photography, which drew needless attention to itself with deliberately arty angles, but it may very well have been director Michael Curtiz’s odd, quasi-Expressionist positioning of actors.

Joan Crawford plays a carny dancer who comes to a small town and falls in love with aw-shucks deputy Zachary Scott, who wears a preposterous hat and is more wholesome than the collective insides of an apple pie truck. Scott is an actor who looks like something you might get if you threw Joel McCrea and Tony Curtis into a blender, punched in both eyes while playing lacrosse with the cheekbones, and forced the ectoplasmic concoction to drink about a half gallon of bourbon in one sitting — in other words, the perfect rolled over hicktown look.

Enter Sydney Greenstreet as the sheriff who controls the town’s political workings. Greenstreet, as you might expect, remains sedentary throughout most of the film. When he does move, it’s with all the effort of an overloaded locomotive trundling up the hill. He is a painful and imposing sight, and yet Greenstreet makes for a fascinating heavy. He wants Scott in the State Senate. So he frames Crawford and gets Scott coupled up with a superficial rich gal. Crawford gets out, and meets up with politico David Brian. Brian, whose face, believe it or not, is more hickory-cut than John Kerry’s, is suave as fuck — so suave that he kisses Crawford and then asks her what her last name is.

The film’s best moments are the scenes between Crawford and Greenstreet, an antipodal smackdown that is nothing less than brilliant. Crawford’s hard face and harsh words versus Greenstreet’s corpulence and highfalutin mumblings. But the unfortunate thing about Flamingo Road is that too much time is devoted to the corrupt yet chipper Brian and the sad-sack Scott. The real interest lies not with the unfettered angles, the smoky political backrooms or the dimebag caricatures, but with Crawford and Greenstreet.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): About half the audience bolted after Flamingo Road. Whether it was out of disappointment over Possessed being nixed or a need for a nightcap, I cannot say. It may very well have been the 16mm print. But whatever the case, they missed a good one. You’ll probably be able to find Strange Love easily, given that it’s in the public domain.

A number of talented people are involved on this. A young Robert Aldrich assistant directed. Kirk Douglas appears in his first film role. And if that weren’t enough, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck, the goregous Lizabeth Scott, the underrated Van Heflin, and a script by Robert Rossen. Rossen wrote this shortly after helming All the King’s Men. The story is well-plotted, balancing its characters with a chess master’s assurance, weighing childhood against adulthood. The story concerns the truth of the streets, a theme Rossen would later pursue again with The Hustler. There are fascinating undercurrents involving trust, the true nature of people, and the sum of our actions and convictions. But the script also bears the mark of a young writer going out of his way to prove his streetcred. The dialogue, with its clipped poetics, is aggravating for its actors. Stanwyck, for one, has difficulty with it. Kirk Douglas disguises the awkward pauses by delivering slow cadences, but he offers a hell of a debut. But it is Van Heflin who makes the dialogue stick, spinning fluidity and poise with each line. Even when Rossen demands banter along the lines of “You spend a lot of time reading Gideons in hotels.”

The film is solid, offering a great melodramatic ending. But there is a larger concern.

I am now madly in love with Liz Scott. Whatever her thespic limitations, whatever the silly motivations of her character, I don’t care. Liz Scott now haunts my dreams and distracts me from my writing. All Liz Scott need do is turn her head and I will happily swoon. If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent Liz Scott. Liz Scott is still alive. I will happily give blood for her. I will take a bullet for her. It is time for a cold shower. Film noir is dangerous.

Noir City #1

Book news is going to be slight the next week. Or not. Or somewhere in between. I mention this for people who come to this site for this reason.

For all those stomping their boots on the shag, you can thank Eddie Mueller for this. Mueller’s the man behind Noir City, a local film festival dedicated to the greatest cinematic genre that humanity may have produced: film noir.

A few words on noir, and why I love it, and why I am devoting a sizable chunk of my spare time covering it: noir takes no prisoners. It profiles people who are down on their luck, people who I’ve always been able to relate to better than those flawless paragons of virtue we’ve become so accustomed to in film. You won’t find Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez here, no sir. We’re talking gravel-voiced thugs like Lawrence Tierney or endearing sycophants like Elisha Cook, Jr. or ladies who have what it takes like Barbara Stanwyck. These people are ugly and they will screw you over in a New York minute. Some of them are overweight, or ugly, or downright frightening like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death or Ann Savage in Detour. Noir has guts, whatever its trappings (and they can get quite melodramatic indeed). Only in noir will you have Widmark push a handicapped person ruthlessly down the stairs and think nothing of it. Only in noir will people make significant life choices based off of lust, or the big score, or some problematic decision that sensible people avoid, or not. Only in noir will you have ordinary people fuck up and face the consequences of their actions in a timely way. People with more problems than you could ever hope to accumulate in a single day.

And this is why it is all compelling. Film noir has more twists and turns than your typical Hollywood movie. It relies upon action, yes, but also character. It profiles working people or characters trying to operate under desperate conditions, or people hoping to escape something they can’t avoid. Often, the photography and the acting is fantastic. Since the budgets for many of these films were so miniscule, the filmmakers behind these magnificent films were forced to find creative solutions. And so we get Joseph Losey’s remarkable Gun Crazy, in which a man is trumped by a woman who can shoot better than he can, and the competitive battle between the sexes is waived by ability. The common misconception about noir is that women are either scheming femme fatales or plain Janes who go along for the ride. As if to combat this, Mueller has programmed a festival in which women are more prominent — specifically, dwelling upon female characters who are extraordinary in their own right.

Because of other commitments, I missed out on the first three days of the festival. And, besides, Mueller was showing films I had seen dozens of times. But, today, I got around to seeing two. As the festival continues, I hope to chronicle the little-seen gems that have been laid down and offer my thoughts as time carries on.

Tomorrow is Another Day (1951): The arc of this film is Steve Cochran. Film snobs might know Cochran as the man who wandered around Italy in Il Grido, who holed up at a gas station for a while, but who ultimately succombed to the standard Antonioni malaise. Here, Cochran plays a guy right out of prison. The reasons behind his imprisonment are abstract, but the gist is that he ended up in the joint at thirteen. Eighteen years later, he’s out. And the warden is lecturing him about the hopeless life he’s doomed to live. But Cochran will have none of this. As he says to the warden, “You’re on my time now.”

Since Cochran has spent most of his formative years in prison, he’s playing catchup. And this is where the film (and Cochran’s performance) succeeds. Cochran conveys this with incredible desperation. You can see it in his eyes. Cochran’s so good that we see the remnants of 13-year-old Cochran at every turn. And Felix E. Feist is a skillful enough director to permit Cochran to act solely with his back during one later scene in the film. But early on, Cochran’s hoping he can get laid, or at least adapt to this newfound life. He’s lonely. He’s perplexed by the features of the convertible. And he’s so relieved to be out of the tombs that he orders three different slices of pie, befudding the denizens of a local diner.

He gets into a scuffle with a journalist, who capitalizes upon Cochran’s recent release, and, to avoid the effects of subsequent opportunism, he ends up in New York, where he meets Ruth Roman at a dime-dancing hall. Basically, the way a dime-dancing hall works is this: you buy a series of tickets and each ticket gets you a minute dancing with a lady. After a minute, a loud buzzing sound emanates. And the lonely male is then forced to either tear off another ticket to dance for another minute, or buy another one. This is, to say the least, a disturbing concept, but apparently a legitimate one in the fifties. Anyway, Cochran is so fixated upon Roman that he follows her home and somehow convinces her to show him New York. But the two of them end up getting involved in a manslaughter self-defense deal, in which Cochran doesn’t really know the facts because he’s so disturbed by holding a gun in his hand again after so long. There’s a spectacular scene involving the unlikely duo sneaking into one of those trucks that carries multiple cars.

The two escape this predicament. And the film deals with the blossoming relationship between Cochran and Roman, which is carried out within a Grapes of Wrath aesthetic. But Cochran is a bit paranoid, given the earlier rumble. And Roman is doing her best to convince Cochran that all is okay. But she’s not your standard nuturer stereotype. Because she’s willing to tell Cochran that his paranoia is getting in the way of his rehabilitation. Indeed, we eventually learn that she’s willing to do anything necessary to keep Cochran in check. The two of them work well with each other.

But I’ll say no more, except that this film really had me floored. I was fascinated with the photography, with its low angles and daring panoramas through windows in the migrant trailer park. I was completely entranced by the characters. While the film felt the need to compensate with some over-the-top narrative components towards the end, Tomorrow‘s success was steeped in its ambitious explorations into rehabilitation, and how humanity at large takes for granted the efforts of recently released prisoners to commingle the real world with the imprisoned one.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): I’ll confess right now that, dated notions of gender roles or no, James M. Cain’s novel is one of the finest examples of to-the-point prose I know. I’ve read the novel four times. I’ll also admit that, despite having seen nearly every other Cain film adaptation (including Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Wife, Husband and Friend and the disappointing Serenade), the 1946 Tay Garnett version eluded me. I had seen the Mamet-Rafelson version of 1981 and was, quite frankly, disappointed. Mamet had taken great care to captue the spirit of the novel. But I’d like to think that what worked in the novel was meant to be confined to the novel. For whatever reason, Cain’s prose couldn’t quite make the cut. And certainly, in 1946, the subject matter was verboten, given the cinematic limitations involving primal lust.

Needless to say, aside from Hume Cronyn’s amusing portrayal of attorney Arthur Keats (“I can handle it”), I was disappointed. John Garfield, for one, was too clean-cut and all-American to be that scuzzy guy from the streets so glorified in Cain’s novel. It was as if Tom Hanks was called upon to be the guy who had hopped around on trains. You couldn’t believe him. Instinctively, I could not trust him. It didn’t help that Garfield’s facial expressions were limited to a slight facial tic on his right side and an otherwise blank expression (with endless cutaways during a courtroom scene). Of Lana Turner, little can be said, except that drag queens have plenty of deliberate artifices to pilfer from. Turner was so unconvincing as Cora (not Greek at all here; Papadakis has been diluted to Smith), that I couldn’t imagine any heterosexual male finding anything worthwhile to be attracted to. Her Cora has been dumbed down from the Cora we know in the book. It doesn’t help that anytime Turner and Garfield kiss, the orchestra rises. And we’re left an auditory clue signaling indecent couplings.

The highway dive looks and feels like a soundstage. There wasn’t a whit of dirt or grime, and you couldn’t see dirty dishes. I have to say that, for all of its flaws, I prefer the 1981 version. But even that is not enough. Cain, it would seem, works best on the page. Garnett would go on to direct episodes of Wagon Train and Rawhide. Screenwriter Niven Busch would write the silly Jennifer Jones vehicle Duel in the Sun. Really, you’re better off with Double Indemnity. But then Wilder and Chandler were smart enough to understand what made Cain stick on the screen.