March 15, 2006
"I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard."
It’s dark and conflicted and hard-boiled and melancholy. The only light comes from neon blinking through a back-alley window. The window never closes and the air never moves. Moral-ambiguity settles like dust. Even the bleakness broods. It’s "film-noir" and it’s delicious.
The male leads can run the gamut from private eyes to gangsters, from cops to crooks, from detectives to cold-blooded killers. They are obsessed and tarnished and sinister — insecure heroes and anti-heroes. They are loners, stumbling along the underbelly of the human condition. They’re adorable.
The "femme-fatales" driving these highly stylized, mood dramas are often as drop-dead gorgeous as they are cunning. Following their "hook up," if the man wasn’t putty previously, he is putty now. With not much more than a raised eyebrow or the crook of her little finger, the seduction is complete. These dames are to-die-for — and someone usually does.
They can meet like a two-car pile-up or in the nuanced embrace of an Argentine tango. Debris from either encounter would be similar. By the second reel, they probably couldn’t tell the difference. Plots thicken at the drop of a fedora or a mink stole. Double-crosses are a dime-a-dozen.
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Near-lifetime immersion in film noir, has loaded the internal hard-drive to the point where they play back almost continuously at will. That happens when the genre grabs hold early on and the "jonesin’" never ends. It’s about image and mood as much as storyline and all it takes is a trigger to operate the projector.
Living these dark tales can take one to various scenes-of-the-crime. The past half-dozen years or so there has been no way of shucking the obsession with John Houston’s directorial debut, "The Maltese Falcon." Annual forays to San Francisco, and visits to the actual sites played-out by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett’s novel, tend to satisfy both cinematic and literary cravings.
Following Mary Astor as the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy around the fog enshrouded city to where she "does in" Spade’s partner Miles Archer precedes the tailing of Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo on his way to the Geary Theater. Keeping tabs on Sidney Greenstreet’s "the fat man" and Elijah Cook, Jr.’s "the gunsel" are pure exercises in deception and fantasy.
Orson Welles’ high-art yet wonderfully slimy B-movie border-town drama "Touch of Evil" features an opening crane shot sequence that might well have been a film in itself. You get Welles as the highly-corrupt cop Quinlan matching wits with Charlton Heston in a somewhat believable role as the Mexican narcotics officer Vargas.
Dripping with noir ambiance, the quite convoluted tale involves betrayal, stupidity, greed and terror, played out on a landscape for the ages. The subtext keeps you chasing the past while being dragged along a present fabricated from backrooms and revenge. The grime is breathtaking.
Scenes between Janet Leigh and Dennis Weaver at a metaphorical motel if there ever was one and a riveting encounter between Welles and a cigar-smoking Marlene Dietrich in a small, yet overpowering, comeback role are just a couple of this film’s many dark glories.
Both the 1946 screen adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel "The Postman always Rings Twice" which starred Lana Turner and John Garfield and the 1981 color remake with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson kept the lower chakras adequately stirred, but there is something about black-and-white footage which refuses to be trumped. Even spilled blood is more absorbing in black and white.
No yarn spinner of the hardboiled persuasion provided better grist for the film-noir mill than Raymond Chandler – not that Hammett’s stories were lesser works. It’s just that Chandler’s language sounded more wry and ironic and dry when it rolled off the tongue.
Phillip Marlowe was Chandler’s wise-crackin’ private eye and got all the best lines. "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts" came from "The Big Sleep," the classic Bogart-Bacall vehicle. When Marlowe first shows up at her mansion, he was "neat, clean, shaved and sober, and didn’t care who knew it."
Early in "Farewell, my Lovely," which became "Murder My Sweet" onscreen, Marlowe describes the huge and strangely clad gentleman standing next to him as being "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food." Another classic Marlowe line from the same film was "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."
"The Third Man" is honored within the genre as an almost flawless film of intrigue and suspense with Joseph Cotton’s character searching Vienna for his long lost friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles.) The score, performed on "zither" by Anton Karras became a huge hit in its day.
"Out of the Past" featuring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer is another classic from the noir period. The tagline, "a man — trying to run away from his past… a woman — trying to escape her future!" is quintessential ’40s studio marketing. One of the best lines came from one of the lesser characters. "All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious."
A couple of the best from this era will be showing as part of The Park City Film Series "Reel Classics" educational series which will screen the third Thursday of each month at the Santy Auditorium. With an aim to attract high school students and others unfamiliar with the film noir art form, the series gets underway tomorrow evening with Otto Preminger’s beautifully rendered "Laura."
Although Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews receive top billing, the over-the-top performances by Clifton Webb as Waldo Lydecker and Vincent Price as Shelby Carpenter are what stick to the noir buff’s ribs. April’s offering will be Alfred Hitchcock’s "Dial M for Murder" with Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Bravo, Park City Film Series!