Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Dispatches from Noir City (Days 4-7)

by Rosalie Lewis
The final curtain has fallen on Noir City Chicago 2019 at the Music Box Theatre, and I’m already pining for next year’s festival lineup. I’ve already shared my thoughts on the first three days of the fest -- now let’s dive into the rest of the week’s offerings.

Day 4: A Kiss Before Dying / The Killing

A Kiss Before Dying (directed by Gerd Oswald) is the first film adaptation of an Ira Levin novel. If that name sounds familiar, Levin also wrote The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby; people like Stephen King and Jordan Peele consider him an influence. As Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk observes, “He was the bridge that moved us from a sort of gothic horror that took place outside of society to the horror that took place in the heart of society.” So yes, this is a film noir; but it’s also got some horror elements to it.

Robert Wagner (looking an awful lot like Chris Pine) stars as an ambitious college student who panics when his girlfriend (Joanne Woodward) tells him she’s pregnant. This is not part of his plan to become rich and successful. He agrees to a courthouse wedding, but later concocts a plan to murder the innocent Dorie and make it look like a suicide. A few days later, he believes he’s in the clear; but Dorie’s sister (Virginia Leith) suspects foul play and starts to dig into clues that don’t quite add up.

This movie doesn’t quite feel like your typical film noir. To start, it’s filmed in color; most noir is black and white. The jaunty opening credits and jazzy score set you up for a romantic comedy of the sort Doris Day and Rock Hudson would make. Having such a cheery set up makes the cold blooded murder even more shocking and horrible -- we empathize with Dorie, who thought she had it all but really it was all about to be cut short.

In his introduction to the film, host Alan Rode explained, “Movies were starting to change in 1956. You would see the portrait of a preppy America turned on its head.” That’s certainly true of this film, which lands in the top three first watches of this noir fest for me.

To watch this film yourself, rent it via Amazon. As a side note, there’s also a 1991 version starring Matt Dillon so be sure to double check you have the right one!

For further viewing: Watch Max Ophuls’ Caught, another film about a woman trusting the wrong guy.
The Killing (directed by Stanley Kubrick) is one of my favorite noir pictures, and also one of my favorite Kubrick films. Its influence extends to folks like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Guy Ritchie. It’s a heist picture populated by memorable characters, some charming and some quite unpleasant, with the story told out of sequence using voiceover and flashbacks.

The heist is set to take place at the horse race track, and requires each man to play his part with a precision and a cool head. They don’t all know each other well, but they have to trust each other if this is going to work. They also have to guard their plan with secrecy, no matter whose wife wants to know where he’s going and who he’s with.

The cast of this film includes some all time greats: Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Vince Edwards, Coleen Gray, Timothy Carey -- the list goes on. They don’t all look like movie stars--they look like people who have been worn down by the world and just need one big break to even the score.

A key to any great noir film is in the writing, and Kubrick got a major leg up in teaming with crime novelist Jim Thompson, who also wrote the source material for The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, and The Getaway. The script adapted a book called Clean Break by Lionel White; rumor has it United Artists had planned to option the film as a Frank Sinatra vehicle but Kubrick beat them to it.

You can watch The Killing via Amazon Prime or pick it up on Criterion Blu-ray.

For further viewing: Watch Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, which focuses on a casino heist.

Day 5: Nightfall / The Garment Jungle

Nightfall was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who is best known for Out of the Past and Cat People. This movie may not be as well known, but it showcases Tourneur’s style and provides an acting showcase for stars Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. In fact, according to a 2016 Sight and Sound interview, Quentin Tarantino had Bruce Willis watch Nightfall before filming Pulp Fiction so that Willis could take a few notes on Aldo Ray’s performance. If you listen to Aldo Ray’s laconic, raspy line delivery here, you can definitely hear a bit of Butch coming through.
The film is written by Stirling Silliphant, who would go on to befriend and study under Bruce Lee, and adapted from a David Goodis novel. The story follows a man on the run from the law as well as a couple bank robbers, and through flashbacks we learn that a chance encounter left him framed for his friend’s murder. The real criminals want to catch up with him in hopes of tracking down the bag of loot that got left at the scene of the crime. It’s a classic noir plot, but the cinematography by Burnett Guffey (who also photographed In a Lonely Place) takes it to the next level visually and the dialogue contains many quotable lines.

Jim (Ray) sits down at the bar next to a beautiful woman (Bancroft). “I’ll take a vodka with a twist,” he tells the bartender.
“Little twist or big twist?”
“You look like a big twist guy to me,” Jim says with a wink. Then he strikes up a conversation with the lady at his side. She asks what he does for a living.

“I’m an artist.”

“Soup cans or sunsets?” she quips. It turns out she’s a model, so that sets the stage for a quick getaway in the midst of a fashion show later in the film.

When a beat up Jim shows up at Marie’s apartment with no place else to go, he remarks, “Nice place, I’ll try not to bleed on anything.” As you can tell, there’s a dry wit to the film that punctures the suspense with ironic humor. The movie’s final showdown, which I won’t reveal, reminded me of a scene from Fargo, and I have to wonder if the Coen brothers watched this film for inspiration.

As of this writing, Nightfall does not appear to be available for rent on the usual streaming sites, but there is a full length version on YouTube so let your conscience be your guide. I caught up with it via Criterion Channel earlier this year but it has since left the platform.

For further viewing: Spend some time with The Big Clock (directed by John Farrow), another film about a man wrongfully accused of murder, who must rely on his fast thinking to outwit the real killer.

The Garment Jungle (directed partially by Robert Aldrich and finished by Vincent Sherman) took its story from the headlines of Reader’s Digest, of all places -- an article series titled “Gangsters in the Dress Business” served as inspiration. Aldrich envisioned a gritty film that pitted mafia forces against organized labor, with a small business owner caught in the middle; Columbia producer Harry Cohn wanted a little more sentiment to attract audiences. About 2/3 through filming, Aldrich got sick and Cohn took the opportunity to replace him as director with Vincent Sherman.

The resulting picture, starring Lee J. Cobb, Robert Loggia, Kerwin Mathews, Gia Scala, and Richard Boone, paints a fascinating picture of the clothing industry’s dealings with mobsters. Still, I can’t help but wonder if it may have had more bite and less melodrama if Aldrich had remained at the helm. A movie that starts with a man being killed by a faulty elevator doesn’t quite sustain that level of intensity til the end.

This movie does not appear to be streaming at the moment, but there’s a DVD available through Amazon if you’d like to see it for yourself.

For further viewing: See Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, another picture starring Lee J. Cobb in a story pitting the mafia against organized labor.

Day 6: Touch of Evil / The Lineup

If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Touch of Evil, what are you waiting for? Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh helm this story about a corrupt American cop (Welles) who has it out for an upstanding Mexican official (Heston) that sees him for who he is.

When the script was offered to Heston, he suggested that Welles be recruited to direct. “The reaction at first was a long silence,” recounts Heston in an interview. “It was as though I’d suggested my mother direct the film.” Nonetheless, Heston got his wish and Welles agreed to direct as long as they would allow him to re-write the script, which he did in a matter of about 12 weeks before shooting.

From the legendary opening shot to the closing frame and Marlene Dietrich’s final line (which I won’t spoil here), this movie is a masterpiece. For another take on the film, check out JB’s piece from 2016.

The movie is available for rent on the usual platforms; or you can pick up a physical copy should it be absent from your personal collection.

For further viewing: See Welles as a villain in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
The Lineup (directed by Don Siegel) follows two of the most sinister sociopaths in film noir history, played by Robert Keith (a dead ringer for John Waters, down to the pencil ‘stache) and Eli Wallach. They’re involved in a heroin smuggling ring, which requires a fair bit of violence. That seems to go over fine with these two creeps. Dancer (Wallach) does the dirty work, with Julian (Keith) mentoring him on the finer points of genteel society and avoiding the law. Julian derives great satisfaction from hearing people’s last words, and keeps a little notebook filled with them. It’s twisted, man.

Stirling Silliphant, who penned Nightfall, also scripted this picture, which is set against the backdrop of San Francisco. The crooks drive around the city, with a climactic moment taking place in Sutro’s Museum (which has since burned to the ground) and along the Embarcadero.

If you haven’t seen this movie, you’re missing out. Remedy that by picking up a physical copy as part of the Noir Archive Volume 3: 1956-1960 collection, which comes out on September 17.

For further viewing: See Robert Keith in another San Francisco-set noir, the excellent Woman on the Run directed by Norman Foster.

Day 7: Odds Against Tomorrow / Cry Tough

The last night of Noir City brought with it two films I had never seen, both released at the end of the 1950s as the movies and the world were changing. Topics like race were on the minds of many Americans, and these issues seeped into the entertainment industry. Both of these movies tackled aspects of that subject.
Odds Against Tomorrow (directed by Robert Wise) stars Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley in a story adapted from a William McGivern book. The screenplay, by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, reflected the grim realities of race relations in a way the book did not. In the movie, Robert Ryan’s character Earl resents doing a bank job with Harry Belafonte’s Johnny -- all because of Johnny’s race. In the book, the two become friends, but as Belafonte (who also produced the film) told an interviewer in 2009, “We didn’t think that story was workable. We needed to talk about America as it was being revealed.”

In addition to its insights on the racial divide, the movie also deals with gender and class. Earl ultimately decides to join the heist so he can stop relying on his wife’s income -- he doesn’t feel like he’s a real man if he’s depending on a woman for money. Johnny plays a nightclub performer with a gambling problem who is trying to provide for his ex-wife and daughter. He comes across as a good father with good intentions but bad debts.

The movie also features a memorable couple of scenes with Gloria Grahame, whose first line is, “What’s going on in there -- an orgy?” when a shirtless Robert Ryan opens his door. She’s not on screen for long but she makes quite the impression.

Other notable aspects of the film include its melancholy jazz score by John Lewis and the presence of a very adorable German Shepherd in several scenes (no harm comes to the dog, in case you’re worried). At one point, Earl asks his partner, “What are you doing with such a big dog in New York City?” “I never had a wife!” replies Begley.

See this film on Blu-ray, since it doesn’t appear to be streaming right now.

For further viewing: See Sydney Poitier take on the bigotry of Richard Widmark in No Way Out, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz.

I had been looking forward to Cry Tough (directed by Paul Stanley) all week, mainly due to my insatiable crush on star John Saxon. He plays a young Puerto Rican gangster fresh out of jail, trying to go straight for the sake of his family. But of course it’s easier said than done, and soon he finds himself being pulled back into the underworld to save his beautiful new love (Linda Cristal) from deportation. Cristal’s character is a sex-positive, independent woman who does not want to get married -- she wants to be free. Saxon would rather keep her all to himself.

Despite his character’s retrograde gender ideas, I still enjoyed Saxon’s smoldering performance and wished he had broken out as a leading man. Still, I’ll settle for his supporting roles in action and martial arts movies that would come later. The movie itself is difficult to track down, so you may not find it online or in physical form. The print that played at Noir City was a Film Noir Foundation restoration, and they had to go to Italy and find a private collector to get the negative. If you do get a chance to watch this, you’ll no doubt understand why my appreciation for Saxon continues apace.

For further viewing: See a film noir directed by and starring actual Latinx people: Los Tallos Amargos aka The Bitter Stems, an Argentine film directed by Fernando Ayala.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and so has Noir City. But seeing 18 noir films in seven days has just stoked the fires of my noir love, so I intend to dive into my personal collection on DVD to hold me over til next year.


  1. Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed! Did you watch any Noir From Afar last week? :)

    2. not any from your festival list, but i got Bob Le Flambeur and Le Doulos on bluray last week and watched them with a friend

    3. Nice! I need to see Le Doulos still. Would you recommend?

    4. Absolutely, it's a great noir caper movie. When you watch it, you'll understand how it might have influence the modern caper movie

  2. The version of Touch of Evil that is available on streaming platforms (like Amazon Prime) is usually the 93-minute cut that the studio first put out. I would strongly recommend the 1998 version edited by the legendary Walter Murch, based on the lengthy memo Welles wrote after he first saw what Universal had done to the movie.

    1. Great tip, Steve! I appreciate the heads up on that.

    2. That's true, the so-called director's cut is the version to see. It's available on blu-ray