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.

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