Temporary Insanity Takes Hold at Noir City

Max Goldberg January 21, 2011

The end of January means lines down Castro Street for two weeks of film noir—pantheon classics and cultish outliers get the same red carpet treatment at the Noir City Film Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival’s popularity has really begun to pay dividends. This year’s installment features freshly struck 35mm restorations of three unsung Warner Bros. films bankrolled by the festival’s nonprofit arm: Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall (1947), Harold Schuster’s Loophole (1953), and Jack Bernhard’s The Hunted (1948). Still a bargain at ten bucks for each double bill, you can take an added degree of pleasure knowing that your green is having such a salutary effect on the black-and-white onscreen.

The theme of this year’s festival is madness, which means a few more gothic titles and a few less with Charles McGraw. More significantly, it provides a fresh context to appreciate noir’s signature motifs. The noir strain is typically traced back to German Expressionism—figuratively for the shadows; literally for the émigré talent working the lights—and of course madness was a central theme of expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). But it meant something else in ’40s and ’50s Hollywood: a conflicted fascination with psychoanalysis; a trouble dramatization of postwar trauma; the sly wink of films that nominally confer authority to police, doctors and lawyers, but insinuate a subterranean logic in their formal excesses. The snappy dialogue, heaven-sent character actors, smart hats and cigar chomping are still here, but Noir City 9’s theme calls closer attention to the unmotivated camera movements, aberrant offscreen space, torrential rains, mirrors, doubled characters, obsessive reference to clocks and convoluted narratives ridden with déjà-vu (the return to the scene of the crime) and conspicuous omissions (the amnesia plot always burns after wartime).

To be sure, the theme will prove extra resonant for those who commit to a full course of Noir City programs, as absorbing these films in fast succession is its own kind of madness. The blurred elements of plotting and casting should seem oddly fitting for these films centering on split personalities and misplaced pasts. Allow me a little story here about one of the few unqualified masterpieces in the series, Angel Face (1952). A couple of years ago, I went to see the film not remembering that I’d seen it years before during my first noir binge. When you initially feel that stir of recognition in the theater, it can be difficult to tell whether you’re experiencing familiarity (i.e. genre confusion) or actual recollection. I only knew it was the latter when the gathering storm played by Jean Simmons sits down to the piano as the car she booby-trapped sends her stepmother and—accidentally—her beloved father (Herbert Marshall, Noir City 9’s superlative cad—also appearing in High Wall and 1947’s Crack Up) spinning over a cliff.

So now I was oriented—but not quite. (I’m obliged to write SPOILERS AHEAD, though really nothing could spoil Angel Face). Because while I remembered the car crashing against the rocks, I didn’t remember that it was to happen again. Put another way, I recalled Preminger’s vision of doom but didn’t get out of its way—a spectatorial experience strangely akin to Robert Mitchum’s (his heavy reluctance an axiom of noir) inability to escape Simmons’ death wish. Preminger’s brilliance in Angel Face is in his patient, analytical unraveling of such forcefully illogical material. There’s hardly any deception that counts in Angel Face—it’s a weirdly desiccated noir in which the characters pretty much recognize each other’s manipulations all the way through, but head for the void all the same. Angel Face may not have the popping guns or fast talk we associate with noir, but its remorseless lack of redemption still has the power to shock.

There’s a touch of Preminger’s first noir, Laura (1944), at the opening of Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror (1946). While the film isn’t so well known as Siodmak’s other film from ’46, The Killers, it’s still an expertly paced psychological thriller that makes clever use of what could easily be a dopey hook: Olivia de Havilland plays two identical twins (64 years later, David Fincher would similarly split Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network). We begin with a roving tracking shot, pausing to register the unseemly hour and then moving on to a doorway through which a lamp lays overturned. A cold outstretched hand is revealed as the camera dollies forward into the suspect room. No matter how affable Thomas Mitchell (great as always) may be as the investigating police lieutenant in the following scenes, the film has a strong counterweight in this probing voyeurism.

Fortunately for our worst instincts, the malicious de Havilland twin knows full well that having an identical double provides a nice cover for murder. Psychiatrist and “twin expert” Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) puts the two sisters under examination and falls in love for innocent Ruth—psychiatrists always seem to be doing this in noirs—which makes him bad twin Terry’s next adversary. The two de Havillands wear identifying neckwear, but we can tell them apart at glance from the actress’s poised expressions: tight grimaces for Terry and a doughy sweetness on Ruth. Diane Arbus would have enjoyed the sight of the two of them on a police lineup, and Siodmak goes for broke scattering mirrors throughout the film.  Any Hollywood plot which so neatly jettisons an aggressive female presence is bound to seem a touch misogynistic, but the fact that de Havilland gets to have it both ways as an actress gives The Dark Mirror an unexpected atmosphere of merriment.

Not so with My Name is Julia Ross (1945), an early success for budget director Joseph H. Lewis, who would later go on to make Gun Crazy (1950), perhaps the defining instance of what Paul Schrader called noir’s “period of psychotic action and suicidal impulse.” In the earlier film, Lewis draws out the captive woman plot (also seen in Noir City’s 1952 Robert Ryan-Ida Lupino potboiler, Beware My Lovely) with resourceful psychological effects. The titular character finds a job as live-in help for old Mrs. Hughes and her sociopathic grown son Ralph—then she wakes up in a country estate miles from London, held prisoner as the son’s wife with visitors led to believe her remonstrations are the result of frail nerves. This is the female equivalent of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” plot, and while Julia’s helplessness becomes grating even at a svelte 65 minutes, Lewis still manages some arresting images of dread: when Julia wakes up and realizes that everything in the room, including her nightgown, is emblazoned with the initials "MH," for Madeline Hughes, for instance; or she first throws open the bedroom’s windows unto Cornwall’s rocky cliffs; or her near tumble down a staircase missing its top steps.

In George Cukor’s noir stained backstage melodrama, A Double Life (1947), madness is an occupational hazard for the stage actor. Unlike de Havilland in The Dark Mirror or Albert Dekker in Among the Living (1941), Ronald Coleman (in an Oscar-winning performance) plays two parts with only one body: Broadway star Anthony John and his ambitious channeling of Othello. Actor becomes character in the proper Stanislavski style, but soon Othello’s jealousy poisons John’s own thoughts; Cukor effectively suggests the crack-up with aural hallucinations and by filming the onstage performances from radically close angles. Released the year before Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours (1948), A Double Life shares that pitch-black comedy’s vision of an unstable self distorted by suspicion. The noirish elements of Cukor’s film—a waitress’s seedy apartment, newsmen clamoring for salacious copy, a brilliant montage maneuver that takes John from imagining the Othello part to being its prisoner—are crucial to dissolving the boundaries of his professional life.

Next up on Noir City’s program, Barbara Stanwyck turns her back on polite society for a different stage: Las Vegas casinos. After a surprisingly brutal opening, The Lady Gambles gives us the story of her gambling addiction from her husband’s perspective. Alas, the standby Double Indemnity flashback frame doesn’t work so nearly so well when narrated from a stable outside position. The Lady Gambles never rises above its moralizing “lost weekend” plot and suffers for its mismanagement of screen time; we’d happily give up a spinster sister if it meant seeing more of Stanwyck running the tables. The actress’s command over the expressions of shame and excitement result in some fine compressed scenes, however, like when she arranges to withdraw money from her and hubby’s expense account (they’re in Vegas on magazine assignments). Another bonus: the husband’s odyssey through the casinos unfolds a rare look at the Vegas Strip as it stood in 1949. Since the madness theme means that this Noir City tends towards studio-bound twisters rather than the proletarian realism of films like Thieves’ Highway or They Live By Night (both also from 1949), The Lady Gambles should please those who enjoy punchy location work.

High Wall might as well be called High Water for all the rain that comes down during its final act—this coming on top of a plot humming with blackmail, legal loopholes, and war-torn memory loss. High Wall doesn’t graze noir; it’s the real article. You’ll know you’re in Noir City from the opening five minutes. The camera sweeps across a swanky bar to Willard Whitcombe (Marshall again), sitting alone looking guilty at the otherwise lively club. He empties his glass, and in the next shot enters a chiaroscuro office lobby. Whitcombe is swimming upstream—all the other hats are leaving. We watch his shadow go up the lift, one of High Wall’s many expressionist touches. In the darkened office, Whitcombe asks for his secretary; the receptionist explains she’s out with her husband who’s just returned after two years abroad. Cut to said husband, Steven (a roguish Robert Taylor), blasting down the highway with his wife’s corpse slumped over his shoulder. He whips the car off the road into a tumble, but it’s no good: he wakes up in the precinct.

The sequence is echt noir both in terms of visual style and its nervous jag of plot information; we’re overloaded with fatalism before we even understand the how or why. Taylor’s amnesia and cozy relationship with his psychiatrist (Audrey Totter) owe plenty to Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), but Bernhardt’s depiction of the psych ward and Taylor’s escape are so vivid that one easily forgives the familiar 40s babbling over hypnosis and truth serums.

As always, this year’s Noir City is packed with rarities—over half of the films being screened are currently unavailable on DVD domestically. One that should be of great interest to cinephiles is Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947), widely regarded as the best film of the director’s unhappy American period even if RKO demanded the film be cut after a single test screening (only five years after the same studio mangled The Magnificent Ambersons under the same cover). If the idea of the master French realist directing Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett and Charles Bickford in a torrid love triangle sounds like a dream, that’s not too far off from the feeling one has watching The Woman on the Beach.

The film actually does begin with Robert Ryan’s shell-shocked lieutenant dreaming of flames and whirlpools, though these night visions don’t seem so much more fantastic than the fog-shrouded beach where—now ostensibly awake—Scott rides his horse and comes upon beautiful Peggy gathering firewood by an old shipwreck. She takes him back to her isolated sea shanty, where she lives with her husband Tod, a cunning beast who was a great painter until he went blind.  Their rotting marriage makes everyone desperate—Tod to hold on to Peggy, Peggy to escape Tod, and Scott to find a future in rescuing Peggy. A shot in which Ryan’s hand extends to light Peggy’s cigarette in front of Tod’s unseeing, but knowing visage is a little poem of fatal attractions. Desire and hate course through the trio in equal measure, but Renoir’s underlying concern for the characters, his inability to have straightforward heroes and villains, remains clear even in the studio’s version. It seems typical of Renoir’s sense of tragedy, for instance, that just before Scott comes to take Tod on a fishing trip—a cover for his murder—Tod and Peggy share an unexpected moment of affectionate intimacy, reminiscing about the champagne evenings they spent in love. The suggestion is that the painter’s enshrinement of the past and the lieutenant’s urge to forget his are equally destructive impulses—a rather more nuanced understanding of memory than the typical noir flashback allows, and just one of many surprises you’ll find at Noir City 9.

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