I was startled when Eddie Muller reminded a packed audience at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre that the annual Noir City Festival was marking its 19th year. My wife and I have attended at least a handful of shows every one of those years, and it was heartwarming to see a packed house for opening night on Friday. Eddie, the Czar of Noir who runs the Film Noir Foundation (and hosts Noir Alley every Sunday morning on Turner Classic Movies), his partner-in-crime Alan K. Rode, and the American Cinemathèque’s Gwen Deglise started out by showing 35mm prints of classic, must-see movies in this ever-popular genre (Double Indemnity, Detour, Out of the Past). Then they went after unseen films and rarities even if their connection to noir was a bit tenuous; a rain-slicked street at night doesn’t necessarily define a movie.
In recent years they have struck a happy medium, revisiting old favorites and unearthing oddities that are worth at least one showing. Warner Bros., Columbia (Sony), Universal, and 20th Century Fox have been willing to loan and in some cases strike new 35mm prints for the occasion. In a growing handful of cases, the Film Noir Foundation has helped fund its own restorations with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Stanford Theatre Foundation, resulting in new life for such titles as The Prowler, Too Late for Tears, Cry Danger, and Woman on the Run.
This year’s opening double-feature was emblematic. This Gun For Hire (1942) made a star of Alan Ladd, in tandem with Veronica Lake, was based on a story by Graham Greene, directed by Frank Tuttle, and adapted by Albert Maltz and the incredibly prolific W.R. Burnett (who wrote Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle). I hadn’t seen it in many years and it was enjoyable to revisit on the giant Egyptian screen.. Robert Preston is billed above the title with his leading lady but the film is clearly set up to make Ladd (as the deadly killer Raven) a star…and that’s exactly what happened. If you don’t blink you can also spot another future star, Yvonne De Carlo, in one shot as a chorus girl.
I didn’t remember that Lake introduces two songs, by Frank Loesser and Jacques Press, written to order. She plays a nightclub magician, and the staff songwriters dutifully concocted two cute numbers, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t” and “I’ve Got You.” She is dubbed by the prolific voice-double Martha Mears.
Director Tuttle is little remembered today, but he came from the New York literati scene of the 1920s, became a top comedy director in silent films and did some imaginative work in early talkies like The Big Broadcast. The blacklist sent him overseas, but he resumed his career after naming names and the first star to hire him, in 1955, was…Alan Ladd. The manuscript of his unpublished autobiography was finally put into print in recent years by BearManor Media.
Quiet Please Murder (1942) is a wonderful vehicle for George Sanders as a larcenous book thief and forger who enjoys the thrill and anticipation of pain and punishment! No film with a “hero” like that can be all dull, but I wish it were better overall. Still, it was one of those must-see-once movies Noir City specializes in and the print from 20th Century Fox was almost as flawless as leading lady Gail Patrick.
There is much more to come in the days ahead, so check the Egyptian calendar HERE for details.
The previous weekend my family and I enjoyed visiting the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, where we saw two excellent documentaries: Derek Wayne Johnson’s John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, a worthy tribute to the man who directed Rocky and The Karate Kid, and Matt Schrader’s Score: A Film Music Documentary, which in addition to a wide array of interviews allows us to sit in on orchestral scoring sessions, which are rarely photographed. (Full disclosure: I turn up as a “talking head” in both of these films but I hadn’t had a chance to see them before. I introduced Score by chatting with orchestrator Brad Dechter and musician/conductor Michael Nowak about their work in this field, which was most enjoyable for me—and, I hope, the audience. Festival founder Mary Harris also surprised me with an award, and a beautiful speech. Having been in SLO when Mary started the festival it was a special moment for me, and greatly appreciated.
I must also mention a compelling and superbly edited short subject I saw that day called Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano, in which Gloria Cheng commissions original compositions from six masters of movie music: John Williams, Bruce Broughton, Don Davis, Alexander Desplat, Michael Giacchino, and Randy Newman. (Randy dedicates his composition to his four uncles, who were pillars of the film music world a generation ago.) I hope more people have an opportunity to see this unusual and exceptional film.
Jeff Bridges was on hand to present the festival’s career award to Josh Brolin, a proud home-town boy who engaged in a lively and entertaining conversation with Ben Mankiewicz.
San Luis Obispo’s festival is modest in size but its audience is loyal and enthusiastic and that’s all one really needs for a successful event of this kind. It also takes place in a beautiful spot on California’s Central Coast and that doesn’t hurt a bit.