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Gothic thriller concludes Noir Festival in Hollywood

 

by Alex Deleon

The 13th annual Film Noir festival concluded its edgy three week run at the hallowed Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on April 20, with the stomach churning identity theft thriller, "My Name is Julia Ross", (Columbia, 1945) starring Nina Foch in a memorable role as a kidnapped-for-murder blonde in an eerie Gothic mansion on the cliffs over the sea in Cornwall, U.K. While this is really more of a Gothic murder mystery than a pure noir, contract director Joseph H. Lewis, was a trusty hand at the Noir game with such titles as "Gun Crazy" and "The Big Combo" to his credit, and gives the pot a good boil here, with the aid of a sturdy supporting cast including the imperious Dame May Whitty and a most repulsively threatening George Macready with an ominous scar across his entire face.   

The title comes from the fact that the heroine's real name is Julia Ross but her kidnappers insist that she is Marion Hughes, wife of psychotic son (Macready) who murdered his real wife, but now needs a body to bury in order to claim her fortune -- while Julia, constantly being drugged, continues to proclaim that her real name is Julia Ross, to anyone who will listen -- but in these strange surroundings near a woebegone English village, nobody will.  Even the kind-hearted maid believes Julia is "balmy" and is merely inventing a different identity. The fear and frustration constantly build as all her efforts to escape her luxurious confinement and impending certain death are thwarted one after another --including the interception of a letter she has managed to smuggle out to her boyfriend in London.  In the end, with a staged jump from the cliff to the rocks below, Julia will be rescued and the evil son shot dead by a policeman's bullet in the rising surf, but just barely. The smartness of the film lies in fact that anyone with half a brain should be able to see through the sham, but madness prevails because people who should know better prefer to accept a glib explanation rather than make waves.  Foch, one of the queens of the 'B's, was also a very adept actress and makes us share her terrifying frustration every step of the way. While the plot is painfully obvious the execution is such as to force it into a noir framework even though the setting is way out in the rural hinterland.  A film it shares a certain affinity with is Hitchcock's English country-noir, "Suspicion" (1941), starring a murderously intentioned Cary Grant and a gullible Joan Fontaine, also with Dame May Whitty lurking in the background.

 

The reservoir of True Noir films, the ones with the shadowy back streets of American cities at night, sleazy hotel rooms, devious blonde dames and poor suckers -- mostly B-list actors and actresses of the time, is not bottomless, so that after a dozen years of scraping the barrel Noir City is being forced to investigate the not-so-murky suburban regions of Noir -- films made by bigger studios with guaranteed box-office stars, which some purists might argue are not as noir as they should be.  Whether one is a purist or not, such films still conjure up nostalgia for the good old B/W Hollywood days and have lost none of their entertainment appeal.

 

The second week of the festival was studded with a number of such oldies but ever goodies -- (even when not-so-good): 
"The Two Mrs. Carrolls" (1947) features a most improbable Humphrey Bogart as a talented but mentally disturbed painter (!)--who makes a practice of painting portraits of his wives, then killing them -- in England, no less. With Bogie delivering his lines in unadulterated "Casablancanese", even in this genteel English environment, it looks like he's playing in a different flick than the rest of the cast, but who cares, when the lady he wants to murder is Barabara Stanwyck, as the surviving Mrs. Carroll! Far from a classic, but one for the books as perhaps the least known of all Bogart flicks --and rightfully so.  You'll never see it on TCM, but Humphrey does chew up the scenerey when he starts freaking out...(No one ever pulls one over on J. C. Dobbs).  One of the delights of this film is the alluring A-list actress Alexis Smith, who tends to steal the show in the scenes where she appears and openly puts the make on Bogie in front of her high society mother and flustered wife Stanwyck.  

"The Bribe" (MGM, 1949) aptly described in the film notes as "less of a coherent drama than a fever dream of 40s film noir", stars an aging but still handsome Robert Taylor opposite then newly rising spectacular sexpot Ava Gardner on a tropical Latino island somewhere below the border.  Taylor is an undercover federal cop investigating a high stakes WW II smuggling ring led secretly by a marvelously sinister Vincent Price. Ava is a steamy cafe dancer (shades of Gilda) stuck in a dead-end marriage to opelessly alcoholic John Hodiak, while an extremely seedy and apparently homeless Charles Laughton works as an unstable shill for the smugglers. Much of the action takes place off shore on fishing boats and the rest in sweaty hotels, so that calling this a noir is really pushing the envelope, but the plot is trashy enough, the chemistry between Gardner and Taylor is surpringly convincing, and the cast is top drawer primo, so, call it a bit of a coast between darker entries.

 "The Dark Mirror" (Universal, 1948) has Olivia de Haviland in a double role as a set of twins, one naive and lovable, the other a natural born killer, with an unrecognizable Lew Ayres (TVs Dr. Kildare) as her sympathetic psychiatrist in pencil moustache -- totally forgettable pulp, but fun while you're there. 

"Loophole", (Allied Artists, 1954) has Noir regular lantern-jawed Charles McGraw as an unrelenting private investigator dead set on bringing framed bank teller Barry Sullivan to "justice" --even if he's innocent, and he is. This is a straight B-level potboiler, but redeemed from the slagheap by sharp casting and performances all around --Sullivan, usually an evil noir schemer is here a vulnerable straight husband to a beauteous Dorothy Malone (often the lead in A-list movies) and Mary Beth Hughes is a  heartless peroxide blonde femme-fatale preying like a mantis on the hapless older man who actually committed the Bank embezzlement around which the story revolves.  The mid-fifties cars and LA streets sizzle in the bright noir sunlight.

And finally, "This Woman is Dangerous", has Joan Crawford playing a tough female gang boss who is going blind -- in her self decared "worst film" ever.

This was Crawford's last film before bailing out of her detestable contract with Warner Brothers and she claims to have hated it while just going through the motions, but she was such a charismatic screen presence that even her "worst performance" is still memorable. Handsome Dennis Morgan was her romantic interest as the eye surgeon who is trying to save her sight, but the film is more or less ruined by wooden heavy David Brian in the crucial "bad guy" role -- Someone with a little more talent, like George Macready, might have helped. Altogether a piece of junk, although the final sequence, with the insanely jealous Brian falling through the glass skylight of the operating theater, is a smashing closer and Crawford is in top form despite her disclaimers

Crawford was also seen in one of her better A-movies, "Female on the Beach" opposite beefcake legend Jeff Chandler, directed by Joseph Pevney in 1955.

Other big star vehicles in the series were "Beware My Lovely" (1952) with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino and James Cagney's swan song gangster pic, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" (1952) with blonde bombshell Barbara Peyton, who was such a femme fatale (and nympho-maniac about town) off-screen as well as on, that she killed off a promising career after only a handfull of pictures. 

The main event of week three was a Glenn Ford double bill homage with his surviving son, Peter Ford, in attendance to sign copies of his new book about his father's career, and to entertain the audience with personal anecdotes between screenings.  Glenn Ford was Columbia's answer to Paramount's William Holden and every bit as good an actor, but because of a career-long commitment to Columbia  Pictures he never got to work with the very top directors such as Wilder or Preminger -- more's the loss to film history. He did appear opposite many top starts stars such as Brando in "Teahouse of the August Moon" and Rita Hayworth in five pictures including the noirish blockbuster "Gilda" (1946) which launched him as a major star. Despite a highly diversified career including many westerns and big banners some of Ford's most interesting work was actually in lower budget classic noirs such as the two presented on the tribute evening, "Framed", 1947, opposite iconic Noir star Janis Carter (with Barry Sullivan at his evil best) and "Mr. Soft Touch", 1949, with another familiar noir lady, Evelyn Keyes.  In films like this Ford played a sympathetic fall guy with unflagging star charisma. The thing that made Glenn Ford such a popular actor was that while possessing the good looks of any major leading man  there was something so down-to-earth about him that the average Joe could relate to and identify with.

 

 

 

Altogether this year's Noir City edition screened fresh prints of thirty titles as double features --two flicks for the price of a sngle admission -- before highly appreciative audiences, of the kind that would applaud the entrances of favored players or let out whoops of joy at particularly crisp (or corny) lines of dialogue. Some of the films were of nearly lost restorations saved from oblivion by the UCLA film archive, and a number have never come out on DVD, so this was a unique opportunity for true noir fans to catch up and fill in. And so the American Cinemateque balcony is closed until next year which will surely bring new discoveries from out of Hollywoods darker past.  

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Chatelin Bruno
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