Tuesday, July 08, 2008

After the darkness comes the dawn

Officially, my "Shadows over the Shambles" noir series ended on Sunday. (Unofficially, due to a combination of scheduling conflict and my cranky mood, there are two movies left to see, but I don't feel like going into that now.) My assessment? Everyone should plan their own noir series, or at least a week's worth of thematically-linked films. Every day I looked forward to that evening's show, and all but one evening I was rewarded with a terrific viewing experience; even the one ho-hum viewing experience wasn't that bad.

On Monday we watched The Petrified Forest with Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis. Bogart and Howard recreated their roles from the hit Broadway play of the same name, and the production maintained a stagy feel that, surprisingly, didn't bother me too much. When I think of noir, I tend to think of dark alleys and menacing, rain-slicked city streets; Forest is set entirely in the Arizona desert, and I loved the bright light and occasional shot of a wide-open vista. Leslie Howard's character, a sophisticated tramp, is mannered and pretentious and a bit fey -- potentially a lethal combination, but I found him to be quite funny if opaque in his intentions. Bogart does a lot of grunting and speaking in monosyllables in his first major film role as a gangster on the run, but his charisma is already evident. His nipped-in vest reveals what a small, thin man he was in his youth. Bette Davis is at her prettiest, which is to say not pretty at all, and a bit over the top as an uneducated and idealistic dreamer who longs for a different life in France. The three meet in a desert diner, with life-changing consequences for all. The Petrified Forest was made in 1936, a few years before the "official" beginnings of film noir, and is often referred to as "proto-noir." Somewhere last week, when I was reading up on the movie, I came across the idea that Leslie Howard's character, and Howard himself, represents the dying breed of sophisticated, noble movie heroes so popular in the 1930s, and that Bogart and his character personify the darker and more nuanced heroes (and anti-heroes) that were to come in the 1940s. I like that notion.

Tuesday's movie was House on Telegraph Hill. It has a brilliant trailer, but the movie, sadly, does not live up to that breathlessly-cut advertisement. I did enjoy the runaway car sequence, although perhaps not quite as much as Norman did -- he laughed loudly at the climax of that scene and delightedly backed the DVD up for a second viewing.

On Wednesday and Thursday the Shambles went even darker as we opted for activities other than noir-viewing. But on Friday we returned to our scheduled program with Scarlet Street, must viewing for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the waters of film noir. Edward G. Robinson stars as Chris Cross, a quiet cashier for a large company, a fellow with a fondness for painting in his off hours, who rescues a woman (Joan Bennett) being beaten by a man (Dan Duryea in a typically abusive role) on a street corner. Chris is instantly smitten, which is too bad for him: Bennett's Kitty is a hooker and Duryea is her pimp, and both of them are looking for a free ride and find one in poor Chris Cross. ("I love their lifestyle," sighed Norman.) I don't want to reveal too much of the plot because you should see this movie, whether you're a noir fan or not; it's just a great film. The first part of Scarlet Street pushes against the constraints of the Hays Code with its depictions of crime and sexuality, although the ending at least pays lip service to justice. Despite its imperfect conclusion, this is a movie I'd recommend to just about any movie buff.

Lucy joined us on Saturday for Leave Her to Heaven because her mother had told her that Gene Tierney plays the meanest, most awful woman in film history, and Lucy just couldn't miss that. This noir is in color, which is highly unusual, and set in beautiful locations in New Mexico and New England. Stand-out scenes include the one in which Tierney scatters her dead father's ashes (which produced howls of disbelief from Norman, Lucy and me and warranted another rewind) and a famous one about halfway through the movie in which Tierney goes for a swim with her new husband's younger brother; we had to take an intermission after that one. On Saturday we also discovered the world's best movie concession treat, which we ate directly from the tub with spoons.

Noir week concluded with The Stranger, an Orson Welles-directed vehicle that I couldn't find much information on: most of the references to it that I came across described it as "workmanlike" or "workaday," which makes it sound mediocre -- and it isn't at all. (I guess, as Curtis pointed out, a "workmanlike" Welles effort is far better than your average Hollywood movie.) Edward G. Robinson again stars, this time as an agent tracking down escaped Nazis. A tip leads him to a small town in Connecticut, where Orson Welles, the popular new prep school teacher, is about to marry Loretta Young. The target whom Robinson has been following disappears and he is left to figure out on his own if Welles is indeed the criminal he was being led to. It was interesting to see a movie that dealt with, if somewhat obliquely, war atrocities so soon after WWII. The ending is abrupt and Robinson's last scene is downright silly, but The Stranger proved to be an unexpectedly satisfying little flick to end noir week.

Norman is now planning a week of westerns.

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