A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Sunday, March 13, 2005


The Northwest Film Center has begun a new festival of classic film noir called "Noir City." It began on Friday night and runs for the next couple of weeks. It's made up almost entirely of movies I haven't seen before, and they're movies that are not currently available commercially, so needless to say I have my schedule pretty well planned out for this. I used to enjoy going to the festivals at Cinema 21, when they'd run the films daily, not just on the weekend, numbing my butt into the shape of the seat and taking in as much black-and-white crime as I could stand.

The first film on Friday night was Angel Face, a 1953 RKO release, directed by Otto Preminger and opening with a massive "Produced by Howard Hughes" title card. It stars Robert Mitchum as a driver with dreams of owning his own garage, and Jean Simmons as the spoiled rich girl who sucks him into her world of evil stepmothers, lies, and dangerous derangements. The dark-haired beauty immediately destroys Mitchum's relationship with the wholesome fair-haired girl who sees the twisted debutante for what she is, but when Simmons brings Mitchum to her house, hiring him on as the chauffer, she has brought him too close: he, too, starts to see that things aren't right behind the mansion doors, and everything begins to unravel. The film is a bit stiff at times, but there is some genuinely great hard-boiled dialogue (when asked what he thinks of a horse featured in the seventh race, Mitchum replies, "I think she'll still be running in the eighth"), as well as a palpable sense of paranoia and foreboding. The genuinely bleak ending puts it a cut above the other B-grade noirs (does a B-grade B-movie equal a C-movie?), but not necessarily a stunning picture to start a festival with.

The Sniper, Saturday's outing (and both of these films are shone again this evening), is actually a better starting point. The 1952 release was directed by Edward Dmytryk, also known for Murder, My Sweet and The End of the Affair. Dmytryk really has to struggle against some heavy-handed material here. The film stops dead twice as the police psychologist explains his theories about sexual predators and the proper course of treatment, but even as these monologues grate on modern ears, you have to appreciate the progressiveness in even approaching the subject. The titular sniper is a disturbed young man who has developed an obsessive hatred of women, and he is compelled to climb the rooftops of San Francisco and shoot ones he feels have done him wrong. Arthur Franz plays the killer as a lost soul who just wants to belong somewhere, only to find himself barred from the social situations he finds himself in. He goes from placid happiness to rage to self-loathing and guilt all in the course of single scenes, the smallest slight setting him off. It all has an unexplained connection to baseball, stemming from his first violent outburst as a child, and it comes to the fore at a carnival where an obnoxious woman in a dunking tank game taunts customers. Franz buys nine balls, sinking the woman five times in a row before really losing his cool and hurtling the rest of the balls at the tank itself. It's explosive, and makes perfect sense for a character overcome by irrational anger.

The movie truly shines, though, when we focus on the cops (including the amusingly named Lt. Frank Kafka), who approach the crime scenes with a gallows humor and a dogged determination they never quite let show. The best scene, though, is when a parade of sex perverts is led through an open interrogation where they are more ridiculed than questioned, the sort of snarky bad-cop interrogation that has become a staple of police stories. Dmytryk's fantastic location shooting is another high point, adding a realistic touch to the film. The steep San Francisco streets seem to personify the sniper's internal struggle: he can never walk normally on even ground.

So far, the only downside to Noir City has been the audience, and it may prove to be a struggle for the whole festival. I have experienced this before when going to see other films doing the revival circuit. They seem to attract people who like to come and snicker at the movies for being old and quaint, basking in the disgusting afterglow of camp. I don't know if this is the same everywhere, or if it's a particularly revolting manifestation of Portland's Napoleonic Complex (never as cultured as it would like to be), but I really don't get why these people get off on going to see a melodramatic crime picture and laughing at it like it's a comedy, not just at the intended humor, but at everything. Does it really make you that enlightened? Are you so much more clever than everyone in 1952? I'm not sure you've revealed yourselves as such. At The Sniper in particular, I witnessed shameful behavior. During a scene where the killer's female boss gives him a hard time, a much older man next to me turned to his wife and loudly declared, "He needs to shoot her ass." This kind of reaction was repeated in a later scene with the same character, when a man in front of me, also old enough to know better, made pistol gestures at the screen. I'd hate to hear their quips and witness the pantomime with these men at a movie about rape. How jaded would our eyes be, then?

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[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich

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