After a long and productive day working on my book last Sunday I decided I had earned a reward, so my wife and I attended a double-feature at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, where the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation are unspooling their annual Film Noir festival. This is always an enjoyable experience, as the faithful gather to discover rare goodies from the world of dark shadows and rain-soaked streets, mostly from the 1940s and 50s.
In recent years, Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode, from the Film Noir Foundation, have stretched the definition of film noir to (and some would say past) the breaking point, but I don’t think anybody minds the opportunity to watch—
35mm prints of films that we’d never get to see in any other context.
The previous Sunday we took in a double-bill of B+ movies from Universal-International directed by William Castle, long before his gimmicky days. Undertow (1949) is a pretty good innocent-man-on-the-lam yarn with a dashing Scott Brady as the victim who must prove his innocence, with the help of someone he’s just met, schoolteacher Peggy Dow. It’s notable that even a modest film like this was filmed largely on location; it opens in Reno, Nevada, where Brady meets up with an old buddy, John Russell, who’s managing a casino, and then moves to Chicago, Brady’s home town where he hopes to marry the daughter of a crime kingpin.
Location filming is also the most interesting aspect of Hollywood Story (1951), starring Richard Conte, Julia Adams (who was present at the screening, as youthful and charming as ever), Richard Egan, Henry Hull, Fred Clark, and Jim Backus.This whodunit, very loosely inspired by the William Desmond Taylor murder scandal, opens on a closeup of the street sign at Hollywood and Vine, then takes us to the former Charlie Chaplin studio on La Brea, where a fair amount of the action takes place. There are also scenes taken poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, at Sunset Plaza, and in Malibu. I wish the storytelling in the foreground were as consistently interesting. (A “guest appearance” by real-life silent film stars Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum, and Helen Gibson is just a single scene that doesn’t involve those veteran actors in the story. Too bad.)
—This Sunday we watched two quite different films. Walk a Crooked Mile (1948) documents the FBI investigation of a Communist spy ring. Federal Agent Dennis O’Keefe is aided by the arrival of Louis Hayward, from Scotland Yard. The evening’s host, Alan K. Rode, identified this as part of the “docu-noir” subgenre launched by Louis de Rochemont with such films as The House on 92nd Street, and indeed, this one is also narrated by Reed Hadley. But there is no further similarity between the two pictures: Walk a Crooked Mile plods a bit, despite its two likable leading men, and the presence of Raymond Burr (with a Van Dyke beard) as one of the bad guys.
The brighter half of the double-feature was Drive a Crooked Road (1954), directed by Richard Quine from a story by Blake Edwards. Again, authentic location filming in and around Hollywood (just blocks from the theater where we were sitting) added interest to this modest production, but the real attraction was the performance of its star, Mickey Rooney. Longtime MGM director Clarence Brown once said that Rooney was the most brilliant actor he’d ever worked with, and people tend to forget just how versatile he was. Here, playing a garage mechanic and weekend race-car driver with low self-esteem—and a scar across his forehead—he is subtle, empathetic, and utterly genuine. He makes every line of dialogue sound spontaneous and real; what’s more, he looks convincing when he’s working under the hood of a car. Rooney never thought twice about any of this—he just did it—but that was his gift. Leading lady Dianne Foster is also good as the femme fatale who reels him in, as part of a nasty scheme hatched by her boyfriend Kevin McCarthy. I don’t think she ever looked as alluring as she does in this picture.
Quine, Edwards, and Rooney had a long history together, before and after this picture—and while this was hardly a highpoint for any of them, Drive a Crooked Road is well-made, and shows that all three of them knew what they were doing—the veteran on-screen and the up-and-comers behind the camera.
The film noir festival wraps up this weekend, I’m sorry to say; it always comes at this busy time of year for me, and I wish I could camp out at the Egyptian for every show. If you’re reading this in the Los Angeles area and you haven’t partaken this year, it’s not too late. Here’s the remaining schedule.