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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Noir City' tackles still-relevant issues in black...

Screen Grabs: ‘Noir City’ tackles still-relevant issues in black and white

Racial strife to potential pandemic, the fest's 19th edition resonates. Plus: Seven Samurai, The Batwoman, Stunt Rock, more

Postponed from its original January dates due to a COVID surge, Noir City’s 19th edition is finally here, albeit in new surroundings—the Castro Theater being out of commission for the time being, this year’s event takes place Thu/24-Sun/27 at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. Opening night begins with Robert Rossen’s excellent 1949 All the King’s Men, the Best Picture Oscar-winning first film version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel. (Don’t get us started on the abysmal 2006 version, which despite being more faithful to the book falls utterly, mysteriously flat.) Stretching the definition of “noir” a bit, it’s a barbed indictment of deep political corruption in the Deep South.

It’s followed by the prior year’s contrastingly under-radar, low-budget The Argyle Secrets, in which a reporter (William Gargan) follows the trail of corpses generated by a secret list of war profiteers and traitors. As the requisite femme fatale, future “Make Room for Daddy” sitcom star Marjorie Lord brandishes her own kind of authenticity: “You think I’m utterly rotten, don’t you Harry?,” she says, then confirms “I am.” At a slim 64 minutes, this politicized Poverty Row Maltese Falcon from director Cy Endfield is an interesting if talky curio that will be shown in a 35mm restoration co-sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation itself.

Subtitled “They Tried to Warn Us!,” the 2022 festival offers a dozen vintage features with particular emphasis on still-relevant political and social issues. Among the more famous ones are 1947’s Crossfire, which daringly addressed anti-Semitism (even if it substituted that issue for the source novel’s indictment of homophobia), and peak John Garfield vehicle Force of Evil, whose director Abraham Polonsky (like several talents represented this year) would soon get blacklisted by Hollywood’s “Red scare.”

There are also two among the major studios’ few 1950s efforts to foreground African-American issues and actors: Programmed before Sidney Poitier’s death at age 94 in January, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 No Way Out provided him his first significant screen role as a resident intern at a county hospital. When one of two convict brothers dies after being brought there, the virulently racist surviving one (Richard Widmark) blames guess-who. Released just weeks before the director’s fabled All About Eve, but little-remembered by comparison, it’s an effective suspense drama that’s also one of the best treatments of race relations of its era, not preachy or pandering.

A climatic “race riot” rumble in “N****rtown” anticipates West Side Story, whose first film version would be directed by Robert Wise right after 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which stars Poitier’s longtime friend and fellow artist-activist Harry Belafonte. Written by Polonsky, it has the singer-actor as a reluctant recruit to a bank robbery in which he’ll have to work alongside a racist ex-con (Robert Ryan, playing a variation on his role in Crossfire). It’s a more uneven film, with datedly stylized hipster dialogue, but with points of interest that include Bronx location shooting, a score by jazz pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and small parts for future stars like Cicely Tyson.

There are some straight but solid potboilers, like Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 The Sniper, an SF-shot, docudrama-style hunt for a homicidal misogynist; Joseph Losey’s 1951 The Prowler, with Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes on the lam; and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground from the same year, with Ida Lupino (who took over the direction for a few uncredited days) and Ryan again as another fleeing duo. An especially intriguing rediscovery at the moment is 1950’s The Killer That Stalked New York, in which Keyes—usually consigned to glam ingenue roles—gets a juicy dramatic opportunity as a woman betrayed by the hunk husband she’s smuggled diamonds from Cuba for. Avoiding the cops, she doesn’t realize she’s being frantically sought for another reason entirely: She’s infecting the whole town with deadly smallpox. Ultimately Earl McEvoy’s gritty film is less a thriller than a highly effective pro-vaccination PSA.

Program, schedule and ticket info for edition of Noir City (which will tour to other cities later in coming months) can be found at www.noircity.com.

It’s a good week for old movies in general, with a number of other eccentric and seldom-revived titles on local screens. The Balboa is showing two gonzo genre cult classics: Italian horror specialist Dario Argento’s blood-soaked 1975 giallo Deep Red (Tues/22 ), and Ngai Choi Lam’s ultraviolent, prison-set 1991 Hong Kong action wigout Story of Ricky (which is billed on Thurs/24 with Stephen Chow’s later martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle.

You will also be boggled, for better or worse, by the Alamo Drafthouse revival on Wed/23 of the 1978 Stunt Rock, an attempt to make stars of stunt man Grant Page and gimmicky LA rock band Sorcery (whose stage act culminated in a pyrotechnic duel between Merlin and Satan). Sinking into obscurity when its distributor went bankrupt, called “basically plotless” even by director Brian Trenchard-Smith (of guilty pleasure faves like Dead End Drive In, BMX Bandits and Turkey Shoot), it was advertised as “Super-human! Super music! Super-magic! And super-amazing!” It is, at least, super-odd.

There is also campy fun to be had from the Roxie excavation this Fri/25-Sat/26 of La Mujer Murcielago aka The Batwoman, a 1968 Mexican mix of Santo-style luchador antics, low-end 007 imitation, and homage to the US comic-book TV series that was just ending as this colorful has got released. Italian starlet Maura Monti plays the title feature, a “a wonderful and very rich lady” who “uses her vast fortune to fight the forces of evil.” Alerted to the mysterious deaths of Acapulco wrestlers, she dons her bat-bikini to find the mad scientist responsible, ending up tussling with a Creature From the Black Lagoon-style “gill man” he’s created. The movie is from Rene Cardona, the director of such class joints as Night of the Bloody Apes, Zindy the Swamp Boy, and 1959’s mindbending family favorite Santa Claus (whose villain is The Devil), so you know you’re in good hands.

A different kind of excess is offered the by eye-popping color psychedelia of Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics’ 1981 Son of the White Mare, which is playing at the Roxie through Wed/23. We previously reviewed that recently-restored, visually dazzling folk tale here.

The Roxie also has B&W classics on tap, the first being a 16mm screening of 1927’s The Unknown, a late silent that was one of the many collaborations between Freaks director Tod Browning and “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney. The latter plays “armless wonder” Alonzo, an attraction at “Zanzi’s Gypsy Circus” in “old Madrid.” But he is, in fact, a fake—he keeps his intact arms bound under a corset, partly to worm his way into the affections of Nanon (Joan Crawford), whose complex is summed up in the intertitles “All my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me, to paw me….Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them!” With the resident strongman (Norman Kerry) a less duplicitous rival for her affections, this bizarre love triangle goes in increasingly macabre directions. It’s being shown on Wed/23 as a birthday tribute to the late Crawford, who arguably was never better than in these early, flapper-ish pantomime roles.

Only 50 minutes long in surviving form, that film could fit four times over into the sprawl of Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai, which begins playing the Roxie Sat/25. The director and his favored star Toshiro Mifune had suddenly thrust Japanese cinema into the international spotlight with 1950’s Rashomon. That great success enabled this period piece to be shot over nearly a year’s course, at a cost that was then the highest ever for the local industry. Its story has 16th-century farming villagers, beset by “Land tax, forced labor, war, drought… and now bandits!,” hiring samurai to protect them from the marauders they know will steal their crops and leave them to starve.

Despite its great length (though that was cut down by nearly an hour for foreign release), Seven Samurai is never dull, and it provided a model for future action movies in many ways—from its “assembling the team of fighters” narrative stretch to the proto-Peckinpah use of slow-motion in brutal action sequences. The Roxie is showing the full 207-minute original in 35mm.

Also of interest to dedicated cinephiles are a couple archival titles now out in home formats. The Criterion Collection has just released the 1975 Adoption by Marta Meszaros. Though Communist bloc countries officially pushed greater workplace gender equality, in reality their film industries were not far ahead of the rest of the world. Trained in Russia, after which she moved back to her native Hungary, Meszaros became that nation’s first woman to direct a feature with 1968’s The Girl. At the time she was married to Miklos Jansco, the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the ’60s and ’70s. But while his movies with their extraordinarily long, choreographed shots have sometimes been accused of being “all style and no substance,” hers are almost the inverse. Intimate and unadorned in technical terms, mostly drawn in telling close-ups, they are largely about individual psychology, making any deeper statements about society and/or gender roles only in tacit terms.

In Adoption, Kata (Katalin Berek) is a 43-year-old factory worker who wants a child. Her longtime married lover, who refuses to leave his wife, is appalled by the idea. But she does not particularly want his involvement, let alone need his permission; she is fine taking on the responsibility herself. Meanwhile she takes on a kind of maternal role for Anna (Gyongyver Vigh), a teen abandoned by her fed-up parents to a local orphanage, and who wants to use Kata’s place to rendezvous with her boyfriend. These relationships are all messy, but Meszaros respects their participants’ independence even when their decisions don’t work out. Adoption, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin, is one of several films by this director that explore themes from her own history—she’d been left orphaned when her mother died giving birth and her father was killed amidst Stalinist purges. The documentaries she began her career with make their influence felt in this feature’s fly-on-the-wall realism observing ordinary yet stubbornly individual lives.

A more troublesome rediscovery is The Great Moment, which Kino Lorber has just released on Blu-ray and DVD. It was shot in 1942, when writer-director Preston Sturges was in the middle of one of Hollywood’s all-time great runs. He had just finished The Palm Beach Story, and would next make The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek—two prime candidates for Best Movie Comedy Ever. Yet despite those and other proven box office and critical hits, he often locked horns with Paramount executives, one of whom in particular seemed bent on stifling his creative freedom. That clash ultimately sent Sturges packing; he’d already left the studio by the time Moment was finally released in 1944. It failed, unsurprisingly: Not only was it a considerable break from the screwball farces audiences expected from him, but it was misleadingly marketed as more-of-the-same, and greatly tampered with in ways that destroyed his original intent.

As a result, we’ll never really know what The Great Moment could have been—even its latterday defenders admit the version we’re stuck with is “mutilated” and a “mess.” The script’s complex flashback structure was jettisoned for a simpler but unsatisfying edit that made the serious-minded story feel underdeveloped, and awkwardly tipped towards comedy. Thematically it was already a gamble: A biopic of Dr. William Thomas Green Morton (played by Joel McCrea), the 19th-century Boston dentist who claimed to have discovered the use of ether as surgical anesthesia, but whose credit for that great advance became dogged in disputes and controversy.

You might boil the film’s caustic point down to “No good deed goes unpunished.” But despite all efforts of the director’s usual acting “stock company,” the result reels between slapstick and cornball inspiration, with added syrup from Betty Field as the doc’s protesting ninny of a spouse. Its belated release made The Great Moment Sturges’ first flop, and unfortunately (despite a couple fine movies among later commercial misfires) as such proved the beginning of a swift, grim slide. Nonetheless, anything from the maker of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels is worth a look, and the extras here (which include input from Peter Bogdanovich and Sturges’ son) provide insight into an ill-fated enterprise that remains watchable, and fascinating for what might have been.

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