Film Noir: Mildred Pierce…And More

When I was a kid, the first sign of spring was the arrival of the Good Humor truck in my neighborhood, bringing my favorite ice-cream pops (like the unforgettable Chocolate Éclair). Nowadays, I know it’s spring when the Noir City: Hollywood Festival arrives at the Egyptian Theater, under the auspices of the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation. For this 13th annual event, Eddie Muller (the Czar of Noir), Alan K. Rode and their cohorts have cooked up another interesting schedule, introducing rare and unusual titles from the 1940s and 50s, many of which are not available on DVD.

There is something irresistible about these dark, hard-boiled melodramas, which are especially fun to see on the gigantic screen at the Egyptian. In fact, I will confess that I’m something of a sucker for them, almost as much a patsy as the hapless heroes who are ensnared by femmes fatales.

I missed the first few programs but caught up with Sunday night’s double-bill of Whiplash and The Hunted. Whiplash (1948) is a Warner Bros. B-plus movie, strictly—

—formulaic yet entertaining because everyone goes through their paces so smoothly, from leading man Dane Clark (as a painter who also boxes under the name “Mike Angelo”) and leading lady Alexis Smith to sneering bad-guy Zachary Scott, wisecracking neighbor Eve Arden, good friend and barkeep S.Z. Sakall, Irish-brogued boxing trainer Alan Hale, and long-suffering Jeffrey Lynn as Smith’s benighted brother. The movie was co-written not by a veteran but rather, a newcomer to the screenwriting ranks, Harriet Frank, Jr., who went on to enjoy a long career in tandem with her husband Irving Ravetch, penning Hud, Hombre, The Reivers, and Norma Rae, among others.

The fun, for me, in watching a film like this is noticing the details—like an unbilled Jimmie Dodd, years before he led the Mickey Mouse Club, as an entertainer in Sakall’s bar who wheels up Dooley Wilson’s piano from Casablanca to serenade Clark and Smith. Or the way veteran director Lew Seiler uses rear-projection and other cost-cutting devices to stage a climactic boxing match between Clark and stuntman Harvey Parry. Or the quick shot of some men watching the contest on an early television set—something Jack L. Warner wouldn’t have permitted in one of his films just a year or two later, when the quaint novelty became an audience-stealing sensation.

Another oddity: in a nightclub scene three women warble a cute uptempo tune called “The Man with the Spanish Drawl.” The number isn’t relegated to the background, but given a featured spot—yet neither the song nor the singers receive any credit! (I’m still trying to learn who those women were. The Latin tune was given American lyrics by the prolific Mack David, who went on to write theme songs for many Warner Bros. TV shows.) Following this performance, Alexis Smith introduces a dreary ballad, “Just for Now,” which didn’t merit screen credit for its composer-lyricist, Dick Redmond, but did yield release of movie tie-in sheet music.

Sidenote: seeing Zachary Scott put me in mind of the original Mildred Pierce, which has just been remade by director Todd Haynes for HBO with Kate Winslet, in the role made famous by Joan Crawford, and Guy Pearce filling Scott’s shoes from the 1945 movie. If you’d like to see lovely Ann Blyth talking about her experience playing Veda Pierce in the original film, San Francisco entrepreneur Marc Huestis has posted a lengthy YouTube video of the actress interviewed onstage at the Castro Theater by Eddie Muller following a 2006 screening of the classic. Watch it HERE.

The second feature on Sunday was The Hunted (1948), written by pulp veteran Steve Fisher and directed by Jack Bernhard. Eddie Muller emphasized its rarity and told us that the Film Noir Foundation paid for UCLA Film and Television Archive to strike a brand-new 35mm print from materials deposited with them by Warner Bros. (which now owns most of the Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists library).

There is a truism every old-movie buff should know by now: the better the print, the worse the movie (not always true, but surprisingly often the case). If the negative for The Hunted could yield such a great print, it’s because no one ever went back to strike additional prints after audiences first saw it.

Still, it’s important to have access to these lesser films, to be able to examine them in the larger context of the noir period. I just couldn’t buy Preston Foster (then pushing 50) as a hard-nosed cop in love with the stone-faced Belita (in her early 20s), or that she would respond to him after he sent her away for four years for a crime she didn’t commit!

The adjective that best describes this movie is “cheap,” although the film is wildly inconsistent. Scenes at a big-city police station are bereft of activity—or extras—while another sequence at a seaside midway is packed with people. Genteel Russell Hicks is ridiculously miscast as Foster’s boss. And Monogram —excuse me, Allied Artists (they were trying to spruce up their image at this time)—sprang for music rights to Meredith Willson’s song “You and I,” then got their money’s worth by having composer Edward Kay use it repeatedly on the soundtrack.

I can’t deny the novelty value of watching any of the Monogram/Allied films noir starring British-born Belita because they always include an ice-skating sequence! The professional skater never became much of an actress, although it’s probably unfair to judge her based on the scripts and directors she worked with.

Even at 88 minutes, The Hunted seems longer than it ought to be, given the meager plotline. But being the sucker I am, I’m still glad I got to see it—once.

If you’d like to get in on the fun of the Noir City festival, check out the schedule, which spans the next two weeks, HERE.

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